I made a return to the galaxy of youth ministry last night as I preached the first of four consecutive nights at our youth camp. It was fun. It was a good release of about 9 months of youth pastorness that had been pent up within me since I left youth ministry last year to become a lead pastor.
There’s nothing quite like youth camp. The buzz in the church lobby is palpable as wide-eyed kids and sleeping-bag-toting parents arrive for check-in. As soon as they cross the threshold, excited young teens and pre-teens begin to release some of the anticipatory energy that has been brewing on the car-ride to the church. This energy has been building for weeks, as videos created by interns and shout-inducing announcements by the youth pastor have marked every interaction the students have had at the church facility. It’s “CAMP-TIME!”
Unless you’re pregnant, nine months doesn’t seem like a long time. But I must admit as I
wandered into the church lobby during check-in, it felt like years. There’s a unique smell to youth ministry. That’s not a metaphor. I mean literally, there is a unique smell that
accompanies camp check-in. It’s a mix of junior high boy sweat (not one junior high boy–but dozens), copious amounts of perfume and cologne used by post-junior-high boys and girls, musty sleeping-bags recently emancipated from the garage rafters, and ketchup. I don’t know why, but even if there’s no actual ketchup within a square mile, for some reason the combination of odors produced by scores of teenagers produces a ketchup smell. These are deep spiritual insights that are only accessible to a veteran of the annals of youth ministry.
The main auditorium was equipped with pipe and drape that skillfully transformed the meeting space from 1000 seats to 100. Around 100 teens and youth leaders packed in for the start of the worship gathering around 7:30. After some opening antics from a couple New York accented interns, the band took the stage. Another feature I love about youth ministry. No one minds volumes that immerse you in the experience. The band obliged. As the worship music blasted, awkward teens kept tabs on what level of immersion was socially acceptable to those sitting around them. Remember–it was the first night of camp. Even the strong ones struggle to participate until they have a gauge on just who it is that is flanking them to the left and to the right. They need permission. They don’t just need it from the worship leader or the pastor, those guys get their livelihood from encouraging participation. They need permission from someone else. They need it either from a youth leader sitting with them who has given them privilege of relationship, or from a peer. The front row youth pastor or the back row youth leader don’t do much good at a point like this. They don’t need someone out front or someone in back, they need someone beside them. Someone they could make contact with if they reached out. That is what youth camp is about, building the type of safe and interconnected trusting community that gives young people the context within which they can freely and fully immerse themselves in discipleship.
It snuck up on me. I was in the third row sitting between five 11-year old boys when the
music began to fade and it was my turn to step up and deliver the message for the night. Man I miss it! Over the next 50+ minutes the rules of homiletics and sermon structure were bent and broken in ways that would have given my seminary professor a tummy ache not unlike the 6th grade boy in the third row. The parameters and boundaries that you don’t push in front of 500 adults are a distant memory 5 minutes into a sermon at youth camp. The only constant: the Scriptures are exposited and given preeminence to change
lives. You must remain faithful to the text whether you’re using Chris Farley noises or Charles Spurgeon quotes to illustrate your points. In case you’re wondering, youth camp is Farley territory.
I exposited Proverbs 1:1-7 to a room filled with 4 kinds of people:
(I’ll explain these in another blog)
It was a great experience. One thing I love about youth is that they don’t hesitate when they hear the truth presented in a relevant and engaging way. They aren’t quick to trust, because we’ve formed them that way. But when they see authentic reality and God’s word arrests their hearts–they dive in. That happened last night. At the close of the my message I made an appeal for those who wanted to “get life” at this camp. My big idea was getting life begins with worship of its Creator (Proverbs 1:7). About 85% of the young people in the room responded to this appeal. It was a great moment. It was the beginning of a great week.
They’re out forming community today. They’re out doing the crazy things that you do at youth camp. But make no mistake, it’s all intentional. That community they’re forming will serve as the context within which they experience transformation as they come together and worship tonight. They’re building trust for their leaders, their youth pastor, and each other that will serve as the relational foundation for years to come in their church community. History is changing. Can you smell it?