by Mark Oestreicher, a partner in The Youth Cartel
Here’s some good news: teenagers in the 21st century still respond to Jesus. In some ways, this is truer than ever!
The lives of early and middle adolescents have changed dramatically from when you and I were their age (no, don’t be tempted to say, “It’s really the same”). This shift to more pain, more confusion, more stress, and more isolation makes the Jesus way of living truly revolutionary—something teenagers are hungry for.
Today’s teens are hungry for something to be passionate about. And the message of Christ is wonderfully countercultural.
While their schoolwork often calls for busyness, Jesus calls them to a relationship of trust and slowness. While their sports teams often call them to performance, Jesus calls them to a place where their worth is pre-established. While their parents and peers (and, unfortunately, even their churches), call them to wear a variety of masks to hide the pain in their lives, Jesus calls them to be themselves—the selves He so perfectly loves.
A primary issue among today’s frenzied teenagers is isolation. Teenagers today live in a world completely, or almost completely, isolated from adults. And this experience of isolation goes deeper: teenagers often experience isolation from self, others, and the world around them.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ can penetrate this isolation and still bring about the kind of radical transformation we hope for in all our lives.
In the blur of everyday life, it’s tough for teenagers to experience these passion-worthy truths. But camps and retreats still provide “mini monastic experiences”—opportunities to pull away from the distractions of normal life and practice a slower-paced and spiritually focused daily rhythm.
I Have Decided
In my rush to move away from manipulating teenagers (it’s not hard to get kids to “respond” if you use the kind of manipulative techniques often perpetrated in youth ministry—especially when it comes to “decision night” at camp), I once shied away from calling students to a decision. I was so conscious of not manipulating decisions that I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
But in more recent years, I’ve come to realize a few things about these decisions (especially at camps and retreats).
1. It’s rare to find people who made one—and only one—decision for Christ.
Most of us make a series of decisions. In fact, most of us need to make a “decision for Christ” pretty much every day!
2. Teenagers (and adults) still need to make stake-in-the-ground choices.
- “I’m not going to be a part of this behavior anymore.”
- “I’m going to rearrange my priorities based on this new information.”
- “I’m going to follow Jesus this year.”
These choices—this ongoing series of spiritual choices in our lives—become re-directors guiding our journey toward Christ.
3. Spiritual decisions (especially the “biggies” made at camps and retreats) are Ebenezers.
Remember that great Old Testament word, Ebenezer? Samuel put a big rock up, called it an “Ebenezer,” and said it was to commemorate a spot where God met us (1 Samuel 7:12). An Ebenezer is a spiritual marker.
Significant spiritual decisions—when not manipulated—become spiritual markers for students. When a 15-year-old girl finds, six months later, that she doesn’t “feel” God anymore, I hope she can reflect back on her Ebenezer from summer camp and say to herself, “But I know I felt God then; I know God is real, because I know God was real then.”
Sure, this is a bit simplistic, and even Ebenezers can be forgotten with enough landscape in between. But a series of spiritual markers seems to most accurately reflect the reality of the spiritual life for those of us with a few more years’ perspective. We know (not from scientific proof but from our own life experience) that this God stuff is the real deal, and following Jesus is the only way to really experience the fullness of life.
I want to be a youth worker who never manipulates or coerces teenagers into spiritual decisions. And I refuse to use certain types of programs to manufacture behavior and commitment. Instead, I am an environmental host, creating spaces where teenagers have an increased opportunity to experience Jesus.
That’s why I still love the unique environment of camps and retreats. Let’s help teenagers build some Ebenezers!
Adapted from whyismarko.com, January 5, 2015. Used with permission.
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