Paddling out into the waves is necessary, hard work. Setting an environment for students to make the most of the momentum they gain at a faith-forming experience is very similar to this. Here are some tips/reminders for your faith-forming experience preparation:
- Be sure to emphasize “life transformation”, not “behavior modification”. A transformation is lasting, where a modification is not always so.
- Use language that communicates that this faith-forming experience is not the end all, but is a “life changing experience” and there will be more life changing experiences. (This is just one of many.)
- Just like parents have a hard time understanding that they are the primary influence in a teen’s life, a lot of church youth leaders think that the guest speaker or the counselor at camp is the one that built the momentum. We all know that the glory is God’s alone, but he is also using you as a key factor in the transformation. Don’t overestimate an event/excursion/experience and don’t underestimate it. It is part of the life journey and is made more effective with your planning for each stage.
- Set up non-attenders for inclusion and growth too. If a student chooses to forego their youth group’s event, consider that it may be part of their calling. Release them from false guilt and bless their ministry wherever they may be during that time. Let them share in youth group when they get back. If you cannot bless where they are going then at least bless what God is doing in their life.In addition to the students who are unable to attend, figure out how to involve the adults, children and the rest of the congregation as well beyond the final trip report.
- Outline your desired outcomes—your expectations and measuring points for the Host Receiver, the Senders and the Goers, etc. and communicate those to parents and prayer partners.
- Plant seeds of the theme or concepts of the event 8-10 weeks before and 4-6 weeks after to aid in the process of progressive life change.
- Never work alone. Jesus sent disciples out two by two even to get a donkey tied to a tree! Ask veterans who’ve planned similar events in the past for suggestions, tips and tricks. Get members of your congregation involved as prayer partners or assisting in other areas of need.
The wave is spiritual momentum for growth and development. It’s important to work toward setting the right environment for this to take place at all stages of the event process from planning to execution to post-trip.
Recognizing some myths youth leaders and/or students believe about faith-forming experiences can be a big help in not hindering the work of God within extended events, and instead keeping the momentum going, or helping students ride the wave.
The following three myths often come to the forefront of faith-forming experiences:
- The big waves matter most: Sometimes we set ourselves, our church, and/or our students up for disappointment because we put so much emphasis on the event. We minimize our week-to-week programming and relationships when that is the very thing that props up the extended event.
- High tide only comes a couple times per year: We think big churches with lots of resources and staff or parachurch ministries that specialize in wave making are the ones that help our students most. This is false. It’s the youth leader who is there day after day in the students’ lives and the church community.
- Ride as much as you like, you’ll end up in the same place: Have you seen your high school Seniors or Juniors abandon an annual event? Sometimes they don’t have an interest in going after they’ve been there 2-3 years, because it feels like nothing new. Some become loyal fans and love it and others despise it. No two events are the same whether they are meant to be similar or not.
In addition to recognizing the myths, you also need to focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Here are a few primary purposes to help build confidence in riding the waves God gives us through extended faith-forming experiences. Most likely, your retreat/camp/conference/trip has one of these as its primary purpose:
- Growth: Similar to farming, growth is a process. You plant seeds, water them, wait, cultivate (remove hindrances), wait some more, eventually harvest and repeat.
- Training: Sports training is also a process. You have to work out, to hurt a little bit, to eat right, and to cross train, and still, no one increases weights by 25 lbs. at a time, but rather 1-2 lbs.
- Leadership development: It seems that Ministry Training and Leadership Development may need a longer, more detailed post-trip plan than spiritual growth. Typically, our ongoing programming is focused on spiritual growth so you can weave the experience into that programming very simply after returning home. Ministry training and leadership development may take a much more intentionally structured post-trip plan.
Therefore, your church relationships and ongoing programming are the key to developing spiritual growth and it’s important to stray away from the myths or pre-conceived notions that might hold you or your students back. It might not be a bad idea to reflect on your own faith-forming experiences. How did they play a positive part in your spiritual growth or development as a student?
To be continued…
There’s nothing quite like the sound of waves. We typically like to think of that sound as soothing, but in some situations, it could send your fight or flight mechanism into chaos.
When you view a big wave from a distance and you are ready for it as it approaches, you can get lost in a sense of awe and appreciation, taking it in with your whole being: seeing, touching, hearing, smelling and tasting, for a truly amazing experience. On the other hand, if a wave catches you off guard, you might remember the tossing, scraping, churning, choking, sand-in-every-crevice feeling for a long time. Waves can be a great blessing or a brutal reminder. With their power and majesty they can cause appreciation or disillusionment.
Similar to that image, a youth event of two or more days can cause a wave of impact that reaches a student emotionally, socially, physically and intellectually. When we send a student home from what they thought was a weekend or one-week event, they may feel like a huge wave has come. It can be full of spiritual adrenalin, but will an environment have been set for them to make the most of that momentum?
Though we realize we cannot create spiritual momentum, we can set an environment for God to stir the hearts of students. We can follow best practices while planning so we don’t hinder the work of God, but we really can’t make it last or keep it going after the immediate situation is over. Once students go back to their day-to-day lives, we cannot keep that ongoing fire for them.
What we can do is plan with excellence. We all realize that it’s possible to have a bad retreat, camp, mission trip, etc., so let’s start with a few questions to ponder:
- If you were the enemy of the Kingdom of God and knew that churches were going to keep sending kids to youth events or faith-forming experiences, how would you attempt to mess it up? What could you want the churches or students to believe that would do more harm than good?
- Do we set students up for difficult transitions back into “real life”? Have you seen students respond both ways (spiritually thriving and crashing and burning) a week or month after going home? Is it possible for even great retreats, camps or mission trips to have a negative effect on students in the long run?
To be continued…