Playing and Praying Together: What Are We Inviting Kids To?
I sat in an empty condo filled with boxes just weeks after my wedding, thousands of miles from friends and family, thousands of miles from the kids with whom I had worked and loved. My husband Nathaniel and I had accepted positions as directors of a unique outreach ministry in Summit County, Colorado called Summit County Youth. SCY was an umbrella ministry of a small church in Breckenridge that, when we arrived in the fall of 1998, had only one youth. SCY was to be a church ministry to unchurched kids that plugged them back into the church. And we started with one teen.
You can imagine my anxiety over this new adventure in this new land. Feeling unprepared, unqualified, and inadequate, my husband, Nathaniel, and I lifted our eyes to the 14,000 ft. mountains outside our door and asked God for help. We prayed the prayer of Jabez, “oh, Lord that you would bless us and enlarge our territory!” (1 Chronicles 4:10). And we asked all our friends and family to pray this same prayer for SCY.
Nathaniel and I once had tried a snowboard ministry at a large church in California during an intensive yearlong internship. We failed. We failed in this ministry because no one lives all her life on the mountain. Everyone comes down to live the majority of their lives at home. We couldn't effectively minister to kids if we weren't meeting them in their day-to-day, sometimes boring, often painful lives. This was the most important information we took with us to Colorado and our new work with SCY. Here are some more lessons we've learned as we've watched this ministry grow over the past two and a half years.
I once heard Mother Theresa speak, and she said that to do ministry is to pray and play with people. This is what Nathaniel and I have tried to do at SCY, whether on a short-term mission trip, the ski slopes, vacation, or just everyday life in Summit County. Have you ever been to a church that is singing about the love of Jesus, but the people seem to have forgotten to notify their faces about what's going on in their hearts? I always ask myself, “people are inviting others to this?”
The church we work at has some understanding of the abundant life that Jesus was speaking about in John 10:10. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Life is meant to be full and abundant, whether it's in the richness of relationships, the connectedness of community, or the wonder of experiencing the Lord during worship. For us this works best through activities like community dinners, trips to water parks, sled days, and ski days. SCY students and their families are invited to be a part of a congregation that plays and prays together.
Go Get Them
When adults receive an invitation to an event, it usually comes by way of a formal invitation in the mail or a personal message directly from the host. How do we as youth workers usually invite kids to our ministry events? Sometimes we use other kids to do the inviting, and other times we send out an impersonal flyer to every address in our books. I've found it useful to personally invite each student to every event. I had a professor in college who said, “You have not because you call not.”
Kids have many commitments, so sometimes we try to minimize our youth ministry schedule. Instead of having students schedule their lives to ours, we schedule based on their commitments. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), he didn't say, stop and wait for them to come to you. We go to hockey games and the skate park, coach sports, ski and snowboard, volunteer at school, have Bible studies on campus during lunch, and offer students rides home. We've met many new students this way, and the kids see us as an anchor in their stormy world.
Learn with Them
We pray with students every time we meet. We invite God into our time, our space, and our lives. The Episcopal church in Breckenridge was part of Mark Yaconelli's Spirituality Program, and because the students at that church had joined SCY, we took part in the training as well. Besides becoming familiar with such great men as Thomas Merton and Ignatius, we learned to give students time to experience God in every program. Instead of just telling kids about God and telling them our experiences, we began releasing them to God and allowing God to teach. What we have found is that non-churched, non-Christian students come and continue coming because they have the opportunity to “get with God” every time we meet without being pressured. Whether at a dance or a trip to an amusement park, students will have five to ten minutes of silence, meditation, contemplation, or some other exercise that will give them a chance to experience God.
One new believer in our program comes from a split home with an alcoholic mother and a cocaine-addicted father. She's had to seek safe places for her own survival. What she's learned at SCY is that she can “get with God” anytime and anywhere. She daily retreats to her bathtub, lights a candle, and runs to God.
We sometimes give our lives to God by surrendering areas of our lives with physical touch. We touch our eyes and say, “Lord, be in my eyes and in my seeing,” our mouth “Lord, be in my words and in my speaking,” our hearts “Lord, be in my heart and in my loving.” This combination of the physical gesture with the verbal yielding to God has been so helpful to one young man that he does this exercise every morning.
Talk with Them
Christian clichés and doctrinal words have no meaning to non-churched kids. We've had to relearn the language we use to introduce kids to Jesus. Words like sin, savior, salvation, and redemption mean nothing until defined. We don't dilute the message; we've become intentional in how we present it.
It's important to invest in kids for the long-haul. Many non-believing parents in Summit County are sensitive to buzz words from their hell-and-damnation upbringings, so we try to avoid commonly misused words. By being sensitive to non-churched parents, we ensure that their kids are able to continue in our ministry. And some of these parents actually support and recruit other kids to the ministry.
Evangelize with Them
When I was in high school, I had such a strong ownership in my youth-group that I didn't want anyone else to come. I'd gone to the same church since birth; my dad ran the college ministry; my mom ran the pre-school. And I thought I ran the high school. I was territorial. I didn't want anyone invading my safe place. My heart has changed since then. Now I have a passion for evangelism. When I was in college working as an intern at that same church, I brought many unchurched kids to events. The response from the church's kids was negative; they glared at the “pagans” I'd brought because they looked different, they smelled different, and they talked different. They were a threat to their safe place.
One way we have tried to overcome this Christian pride is by teaching evangelism at a young age. We oversee an outreach program for K-5th graders that serves as a funnel to the middle school program. Students are challenged to bring their friends because they'll hear the best news in the world. A few weeks ago a third grader became a Christian and the other third graders threw a birthday party to celebrate the new member in God's family. Not only do Nathaniel and I seek out unchurched kids, we've also become partners with our Christian kids in this endeavor.
Like Paul's ministry to Timothy, we teach and then invite students to come along and minister with us. We play and pray with kids, by entering their world, speaking a familiar language and offering them space to experience God.
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.