Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience with a ninth grade boys’ small group I was leading. We were studying Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40.
I had hoped the boys would grasp that loving our neighbor was a natural overflow from loving God with our hearts, souls and minds. Boy, was I wrong, as I realized when I heard some of the boys’ comments.
“Poor people are poor because they are lazy and didn’t go to school.” “God helps those who help themselves!” “Honestly, I don’t care about helping them.”
At this point, I was about to blow a gasket. Then I looked at my mostly affluent group, and it dawned on me that in their 14 years of life they had little reason to need God or need help from others. How could I expect them to care about others in need?
We had talked about loving God to death, but I didn’t offer enough tangible opportunities to experience loving God and loving people. So I changed course.
“That’s it!” I said. “Let’s go get in my truck. We’re heading downtown to see what it’s like to be in need.”
I wasn’t sure if this would turn out to be one of my brightest ideas, but it became an ah-ha moment for me and my kids.
Creating Opportunities to Love
Moments later, as one fired-up youth pastor and a pack of wild 14-year-olds headed downtown, I could tell I had their attention.
We stopped to purchase servings of coffee and hot chocolate, and we ended up on a sidewalk where another youth volunteer usually fed some of the homeless people in our city.
We set up shop out of the back of my truck, and my only instruction to the boys was to try and talk to these men and women as they would talk to any of their friends. Before they got to work, I asked them to consider these questions: “Do you think God considers these people our neighbors? If so, what should we do about it?”
From that point on, I sat back and watched as my boys began striking up conversations and drinking hot chocolate with some of God’s most interesting and beloved people.
I heard them talking about the weather, sports, politics, music and faith. The anxiety they had been feeling earlier was nearly gone; my formerly apathetic small group was loving God and His people, but I don’t think they realized it.
As we drove back to the church that night, I brought up Matthew 22:37-40 again. Suddenly, these boys were fired up as the words of Jesus came to life in a fresh, new way. As a youth minister, I got to live out Scripture in front of my group, which was the lesson they obviously needed to experience.
From Borrowing to Owning Faith
No one reaches Christian maturity on his or her own. All of us grow into our faith by borrowing faith from someone else and then eventually transitioning to a faith that is owned, alive and growing.
Any time I’ve heard a teenager share about his or her faith at camp or in front of a congregation, they always mention the loaner. The loaner is grandma, youth workers, teachers or neighbors who live out their faith in such an accessible way that any teenager could grab it.
So how exactly do we help our students along this continuum?
Youth workers not only function as key loaners in the lives of students, but we have a great role in what Mark DeVries calls “Stacking the Stands.” Our first role is to realize that we physically cannot sit in the stands for each student, but we can show countless adults where the stands are.
I want my students to borrow faith, but there has to be a caring someone and something of substance to borrow. This idea of connecting faithful adults to the students in our ministries will demand a shift in our leadership, vision and philosophy.
If seeing students develop a lifelong love for God causes us to get up in the morning, then why not share this excitement with a bigger and broader cross-section of the body of Christ?
Sharing hot beverages and conversation with our downtown neighbors was a catalytic event for my teenage boys. For others, it is the camp experience, the mission trip, the big rally event or some other unique moment that catapulted them from unbelief to belief.
The gospels are full of catalytic moments when Jesus took His friends away from the routine of life to a life-altering experience with the Savior.
These catalytic experiences often occur in what the ancient Celts called “thin places.” These are places and experiences where the distance between heaven and earth feels miniscule.
The presence of God is often palpable for students when there is just enough silence to hear Him, mixed with leaders who speak and live out the gospel in a way that is attractive and real.
Here are two examples of my favorite spiritual catalysts for students:
1. Backpacking Trips
When students are confronted with the beauty and risk of the outdoors mixed with the power of silence and campfire conversations, the ground becomes fertile for an encounter with God. For a good reason, many students connect with the Word of God as I’ve never seen before when we are out on the trail.
2. Mission Trips
I’m not talking about a week of laboring on a construction site. Mission trips should demonstrate the same rhythm of life that we want our students to continue when they return home.
Breaking each day of the mission trip up into thirds allows for being with Him in the morning, doing the work that needs to be done during the day and celebrating through worship services and culturally immersive experiences in the evening. While this rhythm feels a bit monastic, it is this spiritual structure that many adolescents are longing for in their mission to know and love God.
Think about your own journey with Christ. Picture those faces you borrowed your faith from and remember the spaces and places where a catalytic encounter with Jesus happened. Now, identify those faces and places that students in your ministry will experience as they venture from a borrowed to an owned faith in loving a living God.
As for my group of boys, the following week after going downtown they had shared their experience with every person in our church who would listen. They demanded that we hang out with our new friends downtown every other week as we attempted to apply what we were learning.
This new effort became a program we call The Curbside Café. The piece that I was completely unaware of was the number of parents who wanted to volunteer to make this ministry happen because they couldn’t deny the change they had witnessed in the lives of their kids.
God’s love compelled me to take the boys downtown, allowing them to witness faith in action; and their own excitement for ministry became contagious. The greatest part of this story is that other Christian adults, families and other small groups began to serve alongside this small band of boys; and the Curbside Café continues to this day.
Nate Stratman has been in youth ministry for over 12 years and is currently the director of student ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. He also serves as a staff consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and frequently writes at NateStratman.com.