I’ve long taught this youth ministry principle: Everything in youth ministry needs to have the bottom line goal of creating memories.
This is why I loved what a Bible camp director did at a teen Bible camp I taught at. He ordered 60 cans of shaving cream, put the box of it in the middle of a grassy field, and gave no instructions other than boundaries. What happened next was pure joy. Memorable joy. For a moment these overstressed teens simply played. For a moment, the one teen boy who shared that before he came to camp he did everything he could to disappear once he got off of the bus from school was able to be seen in shaving cream laughing hilariously.
A faith is grown from memory to memory. Think of your own faith memories. When you tell your story, it is these memories that shape your faith today. Even those prodigal memories. (Isn’t it in those prodigal memories that God screams the loudest in your life?)
Giving teens spiritual memories is giving them markers to gauge their faith—especially when life has made faith hard to figure out. (We’ve all been there.)
When the crap of life overwhelms, teens can lean on:
- strong memories of pure fun
- strong memories of peace of mind
- strong memories of being understood
- strong memories of being noticed by adults
- strong memories of being useful to adults
All are tied into God. No matter how much pain they are in at a point in their future lives, teens will never be able to ignore their memories and those memories will shape their faith and life.
I learned this little lesson the embarrassing way early on in my ministry back in the ‘80s. A 12-year old boy was in the hospital with leukemia. As I was visiting with him, the hospital chaplain came in to visit. Phillip eagerly introduced me to the chaplain as the coolest youth pastor ever. My head swelled. The chaplain asked why. I couldn’t wait to hear Phillip’s answer envisioning in my swelled head of all the great teachings I had taught that were done in a cool way, of course. I was remembering Phillip’s many “altar times.” But Phillip exuberantly blurted out, “She plays the coolest games.” Reality slap. Until I realized that those games provided memories to Phillip that he associated to his faith which he held onto even in his death.
I wish spiritual formation memories happened in weekly Bible teachings. I care a lot about biblical literacy and biblical worldview and those are best when they are taught. I think I’m an excellent teacher of such things for teens. But the better use of my time–while also juggling the prioritizing of teens’ overscheduled lives–is to create memories that will serve as spiritual markers in their lives.
When I was the youth pastor for Phillip and others in the 1980s I had a regular supply of shaving cream to create such random memories. But as teens have become more and more overscheduled, and more and more anxious, weekly corny church games don’t have the same value. I have found a better use of church youth group time to be in connection moments instead of games that mostly create someone to be laughed at. I have also found a better use of church youth group time for my teaching to be more “caught” than “taught.” This takes a lot of creative juices out of me. It is worth it. (Another thing I learned: If you do creative memories weekly they become as rote as the weekly teaching.)
Think back to your own young faith. What you remember best and what shaped you are the memories, the good as well as the bad. You may remember attending a weekly youth group but I doubt you remember any of the weekly messages. But you do remember the strong memories. Even when God didn’t answer your prayers as expected and you had a crisis of faith. That memory has shaped your current faith.
I understand full well why I must be a good teacher of Bible to teens while at the same time realizing that they will not remember what I taught. They will remember the memories they have with me.
I have learned that that is enough. Because I want that teen to take his/her faith decision into adulthood believing he/she will change the world. I have learned this also: If teens have no important memories of the faith, of the church, of an experience with God, of worship, or of spiritual feelings, they will find themselves in a faith vacuum as young adults.
Dear Jesus, continue to give me creative juices!