An Experiment in Re-creation: A Journey of Joy

October 7th, 2009


The students in my ministry are sick and tired of having fun. Seriously! They're worn out by constant exposure, numb to the escalating hype, and fatigued from their search for more fun.

I might just be an old coot who can't hack it anymore; my wife reports that my bald spot is getting bigger. So, it could be that I need to stay on the porch and let the big dogs have their run.

But I observe my students' tepid response to events, and I wonder if the days of fun are over. I wonder if I should spend any effort helping my kids have fun. I might be crazy, really, because this whole subject of recreation and fun in youth ministry makes me hear voices.

My Voices

I tell myself that I'm a semi-rational and clinically sane youth worker, but these voices persist. Throughout the week, I hear from parents, students, adults, Grandma, my old youth leader, my uncle, and a few I can't identify; this cacophony of voices fights to express opinions of my ministry.

Parents' voices shout: “Are the students learning something here, or is this just going to be 'fun'?” Parents are frequent guests in my head, particularly when I'm planning events.

Then there are the voices of the students: “This stinks,” “This is the lamest thing Wes has come up with yet,” “I'm outta here—see ya!”

I've had seasons when these voices were a controlling factor in my ministry. The chants “Are they learning something or just having fun?” and “Are the students having fun so they'll come back?” became a mantra in my ongoing self-evaluation. The fun voice is all about attracting and keeping kids. The serious voice is all about appeasing parents, leaders, and my own conscience that something substantive is happening in the ministry.

I felt stuck between these voices, trying to appease parents so they'd stay supportive and the students so they'd stay involved. I wanted out from this dilemma. I wanted the voices to quit.

Another Voice

As time passed the voices didn't go away. They were joined, however, by another voice. The voice began quietly with that nagging sense that I was missing something. It gradually got louder and more insistent, gently accusing me, “You're missing the point.” I sensed an absence in my life, my leadership, and my ministry.

I got a little clarity by listening to Jesus when he stated the purpose of his ministry to his home synagogue:

“'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.' And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 18-21)

Jesus was talking about his ministry's effect on people's lives, how his coming marked a reversal of sin's decay. Those who do ministry in Jesus' name can now participate with God's redemptive work in this world and recreation will flow, giving us times of deep celebration and joy.

And then it hit me; I want that! I minister in Jesus' name and I don't know how to model this in my life, with my adult leaders or with my students.

I'd limited my understanding of recreation to a timid definition of fun. Jesus is ushering in God's kingdom, offering the gift of liberation to his followers. God is a raging fire, ready to invade and possess my students and their families—and I'm offering them a trip to Six Flags.

In Search of True Re-creation

I began to wonder about my methods.

If I'm doing ministry in Jesus' name, shouldn't this kind of re-creative condition be evident in the lives of my teens and my adults and, even more so, in my life? It really isn't an issue of whether we're having fun or learning serious things. It's a question of whether God is renewing and changing lives, and if we're experiencing the joy and celebration that come from this.

Spring recently arrived after a particularly long New Hampshire winter. Our annual dance with Seasonal Affective Disorder was over and my walks in the sun, with senses assaulted by spring, renewed my wonder at the miracle of new life. I felt hungry for Jesus' promise of renewal to become a centerpiece of what I do with my life.

I was unsure of how to proceed, so I asked a group of church friends to journey with me for a one-month experiment to make re-creation more prominent in our lives, our ministry, and our church. One Sunday afternoon while scarfing down several pizzas, our small group of teenagers and adults hammered out our plan. We knew we wanted to understand and experience it, but none of us were sure what we'd discover along the way.

Gimme Some Space

We created structure for this uncharted journey by allowing spaces in our week when we could intentionally engage God's rhythms of re-creation and renewal. Our weekly plan had 3 simple parts and provided a starting point for our diverse group.

First, we tried to create space in our minds, asking the Holy Spirit to remove any unhealthy biases or misunderstandings and replace them with truth. One of the students likened the effect in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” to the process of removing Legos from a structure so it can be rebuilt. We used simple tools for this: first thing in the morning, we asked God to make Luke 4:18-19 a reality in the day, we listened to the song, “You're Everything” by the David Crowder Band, we heard a sermon tape by Tony Campolo, or we read an article on celebration by John Ortberg. We tried to intentionally shape space in our minds where God's Spirit could teach us about renewal and re-creation, and show us where to find it and how to recognize it in our lives.

Then, we actively created space in our lives to experience re-creation. Gathering new information wasn't going to be enough. After all, Laura, one of our adults, voiced the need to go beyond just understanding what God's doing to us. “I've been a lifelong Christian,” she said. “I know God loves me and offers me eternal life. I've said, 'Thank you.' What more can I say?” Our sense was that if we gave God space to work, we could move beyond head knowledge and experience the joy and celebration that accompanies this renewal.

Finally, we wanted to protect our space through accountability and journaling about how God worked. This way we hoped to guard against slacking on our commitments and forgetting what God taught us.

Lab Notes from the Experiment

As the month-long journey unfolded, some interesting themes popped up from our encounters with God.

Theme 1: Life is difficult and painful, and unless God renews us, it's intolerable. 
Our e-mails, phone-calls, and conversations during this time revealed that this experiment had struck a nerve. Dallas Willard wrote, “This world is radically unsuited to the heart of the human person, and the suffering and terror of life will not be removed no matter how 'spiritual' we become.” Kyle, a student, echoed that comment in an email, “The stresses of the outside world are everywhere. Girlfriends, girls in general, parents, jobs, cars…As teenagers we ultimately feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders…All that matters is that God will always be there for us. Because when God gives us joy, the world will be such a brighter place.” There is pain in life that mere amusement doesn't address. There was a hunger from our participants for that which would sustain them and make sense of the difficulties.

Theme 2: Re-creation must be intentional.
We were surprised how often we miss opportunities to join God in the normal day-to-day rhythms of joy and celebration. For instance, Pilar and Kim began planning a once-a-week dinner with God. They chose to spend the time preparing, cooking, and eating dinner as a chance to be renewed by God rather than as a time to distract themselves with TV or to simply be alone. Their example prompted the rest of us to find times in the day that were wasted with distracting ourselves rather than connecting with God.

Theme 3: Re-creation is an act of defiance in our culture, particularly for teens.
The renewing work of the Holy Spirit creates contentment by reducing the power of a marketing machine that thrives by telling teenagers (and adults, for that matter) that they're discontent and in need of the manufactured object of desire, be it shoes, clothes, trips, or experiences. Teens who see each day full of God's gifts are renewed, delighting in God's provision, and, therefore, slightly innoculated from the manipulative system.

Some of the teens in our group had already seen diminishing returns in their searches for the next high. Their newfound contentment was loosening the “anywhere but here, anything but this” chants of teenage culture. Indeed, the cumulative effects of a lifetime of discontent make it almost impossible for our students to experience God's re-creative acts, let alone just have fun.

I've come to believe that fun was birthed as an effective youth ministry strategy in a day when students actually had the capacity to feel the sensations of highs and lows. My students are so over-stimulated and their attention, participation, and buying habits are in such demand that they come to me drained. I wonder if God's calling me, as a youth worker, to oppose the idol of empty amusement so I can offer them the rest Jesus promised.

There's nothing wrong with having fun; it's just that fun has been so redefined and commercialized that it distracts students from God rather than opening doors to a spiritual relationship. In our experience the search for amusement was the primary barrier to God's renewal in our lives and our experience of joy and contentment as Christians. So, if I'm only offering them a variation of the very idol their culture worships, I deprive them of the satisfaction of life promised by Jesus. I can no longer see fun as a way of keeping them long enough to show them Christ. I realized my own flirtation with empty amusement and asked God for the courage as a leader to offer what they didn't know they needed.

It won't surprise me if most teens and adult leaders are initially hostile to this kind of leadership. Parents and students will probably miss the familiar tug of war between fun and serious. After all, when personal gratification is the greatest good, youth workers wrestling with the how of re-creation will seem strange at best.

Theme 4: God's renewing work flows out of our lives into others'.
Since I've always encouraged this behavior, I initially thought the students might be trying to please me with risky stories of reaching out to lost friends and family members. However, personal risk, selfless acts, and life-changing decisions became a theme in everyone's journeys. It seems that an intentional focus on receiving God's joy prompted us to tune our lives to be a truer expression of what God made us to do.

During the month a group member made the final decision to step down from her church staff position in order to serve in another ministry that, although a better fit, would require greater sacrifice and risk. Her search for a ministry that would renew her was a risky decision because it meant losing salary and possibly gaining disapproval from loved ones. However, she made a choice to do the ministry that fit her, and the joy she experienced after the decision confirmed her choice. It became obvious that part of renewal is sacrifice, giving ourselves up for others' needs.

How does re-creation becomes a lifestyle instead of an experiment? Every day we get a little farther from our experience, and when we talk we often realize that we've slipped back into some of the old patterns as we lose the intentionality of our month together. But we've started down a path that will mark our journeys and the stories we tell with the renewal of God's work.

I still hear the voices.

But now, I talk back.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.