Student Ministry

Lessons from The Young Ones

If you have ever accompanied two dozen middle school students to camp, you know…it’s an experience. An exhausting, highly valuable experience. To laugh, play, learn alongside 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, it’s an honor and a joy. They teach me so much.

Here are some highlights of the lessons they taught me at camp this year:

The space between words said and words heard is a dangerous place. 

In the middle of an intense game, words were being thrown around in a buzz of accomplishing the task at hand. We had to work together and yet, in the pressure to accomplish the task, we were thinking more about the tiny details than the people we were working alongside. When a moment of offering solutions turned to a misunderstood statement of value, a student’s heart was crushed. The intended message was, “We are near the end. Some of us can rest now.”  Instead, what was received was “I am not valuable.”

Without even knowing the details of what we were doing or what exactly was said, I’m sure you can relate. I know I can. How many times have we heard in someone’s ill-timed words, “You don’t matter”? How many times have others interpreted our words to be a measure of their worth?

It’s heartbreaking. It destroys friendships.

I took this student aside and we talked about what her friend might have possibly meant and how it made her feel when she first heard the words. Her friend followed her around until she would allow her to give her a hug and apologize. Both were afraid to step back into the relationship. One wounded and one wondering what happened but feeling guilty nonetheless.

It is difficult to always be aware of our words, but if we can remember just a bit more often than we forget, that the people are more important than the project, then the space between spoken and heard might just shrink.

Bravery is personal and requires community.

The high ropes. Every camp has some form of this torture (or thrill, depending on your point of view). There are always three groups of participants. You have the spider monkeys, who are the first to gear up and scale the wall, the pole, the net. These are also a little bummed that they can’t just hold onto a bar to fly down the zip line. “Aw, man. Do I have to wear the harness?” Then of course you have those who know enough to know they want to sit this one out. Either they have done their fair share of rock walls and it no longer holds a challenge for them or, they have done their fair share of rock walls and they have no desire to relive that feeling of their stomachs blocking their airways for yet another 10 minute build up to forcing myself…ahem…I mean, themselves off the platform into the fall of the zip line.  Then there is the third group. The in-betweeners. They want to try. They want to know the feeling of flying down the line. They want to prove, mostly to themselves, that they can scale that wall. But, they are terrified.

For some, it takes only a nudge and the courage rises up in them. For others, it takes circles of conversation with peers, with leaders, with themselves to work up the nerve to give it a go. We had one sweet girl on this trip who was all geared up and warming the bench. She went back and forth. Leaders and friends encouraged her to give it a shot. We assured her the harness would hold her. After a few, “I wills” and “I can’ts”, she said this, “My goal is to try.”

And let me tell you, this little in-betweener scaled that course like a spider monkey. She was the fastest one! She got to the top and struck a wonder woman pose of victory. And when it came time to throw herself off the platform for the zip line, an older student walked her through it and held her hand until they both went soaring down the line. It was beautiful!

At the end of the day, she dropped this truth bomb, “I was able to go fast because I knew Jesus was with me. He makes me brave.” Well, amen.

Her bravery was dependent on her willingness to take the first step.  Her bravery was dependent on the other students cheering her on and holding her hand. But ultimately, she still recognized that the source of all that allowed her to be brave is Jesus. For you and me too. It is personal. It takes the community. It all depends on Jesus.

No need to worry, we will get to where we are going.

Our drive to camp is about four and a half hours, plus a stop at the world’s greatest gas station/corner store, Buc-ees. If you don’t know about Buc-ees, take a road trip through Texas ASAP. Overall, the trip takes about five hours. Unless of course, one of your crew gets violently ill. Then that five hour trip home might just become a nine hour trip.

As the leaders of the trip, when this sort of thing happens, your mind is suddenly split into a billion alternate universes. You are suddenly the parent of a 5th grader, waiting for your child who was supposed to be home long ago. You are also the friend and nurse of the person whose insides are demanding they get their moment in the sun, if you know what I mean. You worry about what they need; you are searching your history of violent illness to find a cure. You are also selfish and just want to be home, for the sake of all that is good and holy. And you are waiting for that moment, when the students will snap and the deluge of whining will begin.

Only, it never came. Middle school students, at the end of a fun but exhausting week of camp, who had plans to go to the beach or hang out with friends or eat an awesome home cooked meal…they never once complained that they were stuck in a van for four extra hours. I am telling you, the Spirit of The Lord was upon us.

They occasionally, understandably asked about where we were and how far we were from home, but it was always in a sweet, curious tone. And beyond that, they were much more concerned for our sick passenger than they were about getting home. There was even a point (thank you Houston rush hour), where I expressed the smallest amount of irritation and from the students, heard this response, “It’s ok, Erin. We will get there.”

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Sometimes people get ill and you have to slow down to take care of them. Sometimes, what should take 5 hours, gets stretched. Our plans don’t always play out as we hope. Sometimes, you know when you are twelve years old that you are built for student ministry but you don’t get there until you are thirty. Sometimes, you know you are meant to adopt that precious child you have been fostering and the system is just not cooperating. Sometimes, you are confident that God has called you to move to a new city but your house just will not sell. But don’t worry, we are headed toward being home with Jesus, and we will get there, even if things don’t go as planned along the way.

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In scripture, we find many places where the young brought more to the table of wisdom and faith than the seasoned. Don’t forget that while you are teaching, raising, avoiding children, they may be the ones who will teach you. What have you learned from young ones lately?

A*part

Student Ministry. It’s a funny world. Constantly changing. We have just a few years to help students understand The Gospel and help them find their place in the family of God. But in a culture that is getting busier and busier and defining success by fatigue, in a culture that no longer values attending church as a family, how do you help students understand?

In praying and prepping for our Spring teaching series for Wednesday night student services, my heart kept returning to the lack of connection our students have with the whole of the church. Our students show up and press in on Wednesdays, surrounded by peers, but on Sunday mornings, the pews are empty save a handful who come because “that is what my family does”.  Our church notices the absence and everyone has ideas about how to get students there. But often times, we are wanting the old methods to work in today’s context, and that just doesn’t cut it.

I think a big reason we aren’t seeing students in church is because they don’t see the value of the church and they don’t feel valued by the church. We have failed to communicate…and to live in the benefit of the family of God.

Sponsoring a child and adopting a child are two very different things*. I sponsor a little girl in El Salvador. Once a month, some money goes out of my account to provide for some basic needs she has. On occasion, I write her a letter telling her about my family or my job or my favorite color. It’s great. I love that I get to support her in a small way. I hope to meet her one day and hug her neck. But, the “requirement” of our relationship is minimal as is the benefit. Were I to adopt this little one, things would look very different. There would be a language gap we would have to learn to navigate. There would be tears that I would have to wipe away and tantrums I’d have to learn to react to appropriately. She would have to deal with an impatient mama. She would have to wait for me to fix her meals. She would hate me for not being gentle enough when combing out her tangled hair. I would have to discipline and she would hate to be disciplined. But, I would know what it is like to love someone as a mother. I would know the joy of seeing her grow and overcome challenges. I would be able to hold her and comfort her. She would teach me about having the trust of a child. She would make me laugh in ways only a mother does. She would twirl and spin and let me delight in her. These are difficulties and benefits that don’t come with a distant, minimal relationship. I am not void of responsibility for her, but I can only do so much from here. She has a place in my heart but due to the nature of our relationship, she does not always have a place in my awareness.

Some of you may know too, the difficulty of loving a family member who has chosen to live apart from the family. She is still your aunt, sister, cousin. He is still your brother, dad, uncle. But they have cut themselves off from the unit. And in this distance, they miss out on the benefit (along with the challenge) of being a part of the family. And, they are not the only ones missing out. The whole family is now different, less than. That family member brings something to the table that no other cousin, sibling, parent can and in their absence, the family is without the benefit of that relationship.

The Church is the same. We can choose to be a part of the family or apart from the family. Choosing to be a part of Her will be harder. There will be fights and wounds. There will be wars of words. There will be, often unwanted, discipline. But there will also be walking through hard days together. There will be encouragement for the weak times and mutual celebration for the victory days. There will be tears shed with the hurting and laughter in the unexpected ridiculous. And the family needs you to be a part of Her. You bring questions that we need to consider. You bring laughter that will make us better. You bring abilities that no one else does. And if you are apart from us, we will be lacking. You and I, if we are in Christ, will always belong to the family of God. We cannot lose our place at the table. However, we have a choice to make. Be a part of or apart from our family.

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*Child sponsorship is highly valuable and can change lives. If you are interested in sponsoring a child, please check out Compassion International.

Compassion is a holistic child development ministry that focuses on the full development of the child.  Because of that, we release children from poverty, not merely sustain them through it. Many organizations focus on only one aspect of poverty. Compassion also recognizes that the children we serve have unique needs and unique gifts. Therefore, we work at the grassroots level to identify and meet the specific needs of the world’s poorest children through church partnership. In doing so, Compassion addresses the spiritual, economic, social and physical aspects of poverty so that children may become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.

The Beauty and The Fear

Originally posted on The Truths of Becoming: 3/4/14

Houston winters are fickle at best. One day you are traipsing around in sandals and shorts and the next morning you are searching the deep dark corners of the wardrobe for your winter coat, the one you bought for that one trip up north.

Today is of the latter variety. Last night the thunder rolled in. Trees crackled and snapped all night. And I awoke to icicles adorning every branch and poorly placed power line in my backyard. As I drove, ever so cautiously, to work on the outskirts of this fine city, I began to notice the trees. From the highway, being eye to eye with the treetops in the distance, their adornment was stunning. It was as though they were wearing the most beautiful gown, hand-beaded by the most sought after designer. Their leaves and branches shimmered and the weight of the ice enhanced every curve and crevice of their magnificent figures. Beautiful.

But as I exited the highway and turned off onto the road that takes me daily to my work, I had a new perspective. I was no longer standing among the trees as though they were my peers. Rather, I was beneath their branches, and I felt small. Most days, I drive that road in awe. It is easily the best part of my commute. The way the sun streams through the branches…I am transported to a land of magic and fairy tales and legends of heroes defeating evil, or to my own personal Terabithia.  But today, those trees were not the guards ushering in life. Today, those trees were bent, heavy with the burden of slowness. This slowness is seen in the ice that weighs them down. It is only water, the very thing that they need to grow and stand tall. But last night, as temperatures dropped, those molecules of water slowed down and changed. Some trees held the weight well, took the change in stride. But, many others were bent so low that I feared that they might come crashing onto me in a moments notice. Others had already met that fate, limbs were strewn about the ground, evidence of a burden too heavy. And honestly, a drive that usually is marked by warmth and light, was marked today by heaviness and a little fear.

And I see myself in those trees. I see those of us who are shepherding others in those trees. Sometimes, we get into the groove of the normalcy of life, it’s bright and warm and full of the hope of a faraway land. We feel strong, like we could conquer anything in this light and others see it too, this magical strength, this ushering in of life. But then, sometimes overnight, things suddenly slow. The things that have nourished us transform ever so slightly, molecules rearranged, and we bend under the heaviness. And bending is fine, we were made to bend. Our knees bend to absorb the shock of force when we jump or run. But if our knees are not strong enough, if the trees are not strong enough, too much force and weight will break them. And if we, leaders, parents, are not strong enough, too much of this slow burden will break us. Of course, strength doesn’t come from oneself. It never does, not with trees or people. Strength for those trees is developed over years, from the first sprout of the seed-the depth of the reach of roots and the nourishing quality of the soil they are planted in. Many trees can grow tall without ever growing strong. And you and I can as well. We can reach great heights but if our roots never reached great depths, or if we are not nourished by the soil of Truth and Life, we will be broken by the heaviness of the burden. And if that is our state, if we are not standing in a strength of faith having been built up over the years, we are a danger to those beneath us.

But, when we have grown up with the strength of The Lord soaking into our every fiber, when our strength comes from the Source, then everything looks different. We may bend, but when our view is from the heavens downward, the bending of the branches gleams with a beauty of the intricate work of the most glorious Designer, the Strong Creator, Elohim. He sometimes pours His light through our branches and He sometimes adorns them with the slowness of burdens. When He is our strength, the threat of danger is over shadowed by careful work of His detailed and purposeful delight and design.

May we be leaders who soak in the gifts of The Light and the days that warm us so that we might stand when the tiny molecules of our plans are rearranged and become heavy.