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Getting Out of God’s Way

Getting Out of God’s Way
 

Editor’s Note: In the month of May, we’re focusing on the idea of cultivating spiritual formation in the lives of our students – inviting them to meet God by introducing them to spiritual disciplines. Last week, we talked about the very helpful practice of “unplugging” as a way of starting this series. Today, we invite you to consider your role in the process of introducing them to new spiritual disciplines.

Youth Ministry Moments that Make You Feel Nervous

It was a Sunday night in early spring and as a youth pastor, I was feeling nervous. My high school growth group was getting ready to go through our church’s Lenten season Labyrinth – not the fantasy movie starring David Bowie and a host of Muppets but rather an intentional prayer experience that would walk them through Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

For several years now, the artists of our church community spent countless hours creating an amazing environment in which the scriptures engaged participants’ senses in amazing ways and invited them to meet with God in prayer. It was a remarkable opportunity for Christ-followers to engage in silence, meditation on scripture, and self-guided reflection. And as a youth pastor, this made me nervous.

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Our plan was to send students through the labyrinth individually and invite them to prayerfully reflect on the gospel in their lives. Our plan was to send them through without a timetable or a chaperone. We wanted this to be a deeply personal opportunity for them to engage with God. But to be honest, I had anxious visions of students knocking over walls with spontaneous MMA sparring, pubescent couples sneaking into dark corners to “pray together”, and bored teenagers caring their initials into the foot of the cross.

In particular, I was nervous about a kid we’ll call Dave.

Dave, was a rambunctious, awkward, acting-out-because-I’m-shy tenth grader. He was always difficult to settle down and keep focused. His attention span varied from millisecond to microsecond depending on how many energy drinks he had consumed before showing up that day, and where to place him on a spiritual continuum was always a real question mark for my volunteers and me.

To be honest, I felt conflicted and scared, because I knew I wouldn’t be in control (or even have the illusion of control). I felt convinced that God was prompting me to offer my students this opportunity, but I had no idea how it would go. Especially for Dave.

Spiritual Formation, Youth Pastors, and the Struggle for Control

I share this story because I think it’s true for any youth pastor who has attempted to lead students through a spiritual formation experience. There is a healthy degree of fear and trepidation involved because the experience necessarily requires that God show up and move in the lives of students.

It is far more hands-off for us as leaders than the typical “announcements, worship, large group teaching, small group discussion, closing prayer” format that we can pull-off with our eyes closed. It demands we put our money where our mouth is when we say things like, “God is truly the one doing the work in a student’s life. I just show up and try to be faithful to what God’s asking us to do.”

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Inviting your students into the spiritual disciplines demands that you start removing yourself from the center of their spiritual equation. It requires that we as leaders take a step (or leap) of faith and trust that God really is doing something in them whether we’re actively involved in the process or not.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a role for youth leaders in their students’ experience of Spiritual Formation. It isn’t simply a “Let Go and Let God” moment for your youth ministry. Instead, I believe, God invites us as leaders to provide some essential elements that foster a student’s encounter with God.

Here are three that stand out in my mind from that experience with the Labyrinth:

1. Students need the right kind of space.

It’s important to remember that for pretty much anyone growing up in 21st century America, this kind of experience is counter-cultural. We live in a fast-paced, multitasking, distraction-filled society where beeps, buzzes, and notifications are so prevalent we can hardly imagine life without them. Therefore, sending students into an environment that is slow-paced, single-tasked, and distraction-free can be jarring at first. It’s a good idea to invite students to begin practicing the slowing and silence before they even enter the room. And it’s always a great idea to make such experiences a tech-free zone. Have them leave the cellphones behind as they walk into the experience.

2. Students need the right kind of guide.

Tossing students into a spiritual formation experience without some kind of focusing guide can be like throwing a toddler into the deep end of the pool. It’s a lot to ask of someone unfamiliar with the practice, to enter into a discipline with little direction or guidance. Providing some prompting questions or a booklet is another essential for this kind of experience. This resource could include key passages or quotations to reflect on in additional to helpful instructions or reminders for students.

3. Students need the opportunity to process with a mentor.

It’s not enough to send them off to have an intentional experience and hope that it all works out for the best. Often times, an experience like this unearths questions, fears, concerns that teenagers are still not fully equipped to process on their own. It’s essential that a youth ministry provides opportunity for processing and debriefing after the experience. This allows a mature mentor to provide discernment, wisdom, and biblical direction to what a student is reflecting on. You can think of this as the “Did God really just call me to go to the moon?” check.

In other words, a mentor can help clarify, confirm, or correct what a student thinks they experienced through the discipline. This kind of debrief shouldn’t just be tagged on as a five minute wrap up, but rather, should be incorporated as an essential part of the programming. Click here for a helpful list of debrief questions.

What God Taught Me about Ministry through Dave

Back to that spring night and the Labyrinth experiment.

We took some time with students before sending them in to set the scene and explain what their prayer walk through the labyrinth should look like. We laid out a few basic rules for them – don’t rush it, don’t distract others, do be honest with God – and then invited them to enter one-by-one as they felt ready. I hung around the exit to greet students as they finished up and direct them to where they could meet with their small group leaders to debrief.

After about 30-45 minutes the first students made their way out, after an hour, most had wrapped up, but there was no sign of Dave. I started pacing the hallway nervously, envisioning him fast asleep in the simulated burial cave or throwing stones into a decorative water fountain. Another fifteen minutes went by and then another.

Finally I got to a point where I couldn’t take it, so I peaked in from the entrance. No sign of Dave. I walked a few steps further in, past the first station and then the second. Still no Dave. Finally, as I rounded the corner and entered a room that featured a large painting of Jesus hanging on the cross, there I found him on the floor, hunkered down on hands and knees, journaling page after page, pouring his heart out to God perhaps for the first time ever in such a significant way. Humbled, focused, fully transparent, Dave was communing with his Savior.

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In that moment, watching Dave, God pierced my heart. All my worries and anxieties, all the personal fears and pride that underlay them, immediately became clear and I felt crushed. Here God, who had known Dave from eternity past and loved him far more deeply than I ever could, was ministering to His child. God didn’t need me, my youth ministry, or our amazing strategic plans for discipleship. In that moment God was inviting me to realize that He was far more capable of impacting and transforming these students, and that He was always willing to do so, if I was willing to get out of the way and point students toward Him. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

It was a grateful lesson that God taught me early in ministry and a lesson that I pray I don’t forget. May God continue to remind each of us that He is at work in the lives of our students and that sometimes we are simply called to get out of the way.

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.