I got caught in a downpour on my way home; one of those summer afternoon storms that soaks everything it touches. I’ve lived in Tennessee for fourteen years and I’m still amazed at how the thunder echoes across the mountains. Walking in the house, surrendered to the fact I couldn’t avoid getting wet, I found myself thinking, “This is camp rain.”
I cannot tell you how many summer afternoons we spent at youth camp with the same warm, soaking rain falling out of the skies. Sometimes we played in it, dancing around, maybe even getting a little muddy. Other times I can recall sitting in a cabin, eating smuggled snacks, talking (usually about boys) with the best girls I knew. There are so many great memories I have of being at camp. Actually, so many good memories of being in my youth group.
I had an incredible, crazy-cool, youth group experience. I’m not saying there weren’t rough patches or that everyone got along or that we liked all the changes or programs introduced along the way. But I am saying, I was a very blessed girl to be along for the ride.
Growing up, I was a fairly studious, pretty quiet kid. I had a few close friends but I lived in a world of books. I was comfortable there. I could easily entertain myself for hours. And I did, past my bedtime and wound up being grounded from reading. Yeah, I was that kid. So, when my family moved right before I started seventh grade, I was not happy about it. I did not have a good attitude. It wasn’t so much that we were moving as it was I would have to make new friends- and I was not very good at that. I hadn’t had a lot of practice. I was in the same school with the same kids from first through sixth grade. I never had to meet new kids at church for most of that time. When you are one of the pastor’s kids, everyone gets introduced to you. You are the one who knows the drill and helps the new kid meet everyone else. Plus, I’ve always been what people could consider shy (and I consider taking-my-time-wanting-to-know-if-these-are-people-I want-to-know-my-life-story) around new people.
So, there I was, in a new town, terrified I wouldn’t have any friends. I cried about it a lot. But school started and slowly I met people. Some of them I liked a lot and hoped we could be friends. Time after time, when these new people told me where they went to church they said the same name. My family started church shopping. It wasn’t an easy thing for my parents to find a place that they liked that was also a good fit for their kids ages: 13, 11, 9, and 5. After months of searching, we finally ended up walking into the doors of the place that most of my school friends claimed as their own. During the week after my first visit, an amazing lady and a couple of the students showed up at our house to welcome me and tell me more about the programs for students. I wasn’t home at the time, but their visit made me excited and I think it helped my parents know this would be a good place for me. God knew I needed this youth group.
I’m sure for some it was a social thing. But even if you came just to hang out with your friends, I think you left with a head full of questions. The speaking was not watered down for young minds. In fact, the people we called our youth pastors went on to write a book, teach at mega-churches, are church planters in cities, and have been invited to speak at big events. I don’t think we knew at the time the depth our sermons had to them. I just knew that every week I felt challenged to draw closer to God, to dream bigger, live bolder, and love more. Our, “To ignite and urgency in young people to love God passionately and love people selflessly,” was no empty mission.
I needed to be inspired by older kids. I remember being that awkward thirteen-year-old and looking up to these upperclassmen with a sort of awe. I mean when one of them knew your name it was a BIG deal. The really cool thing for me was that most of these older teenagers didn’t think they were a big deal. When I started high school, a couple of the new senior girls took me along with their little sisters to tour the building. They taught us how to find our classes, that there was not a pool on the roof, we should not buy an elevator pass, and under no circumstances should we be around the circle during break- which was good because some of the freshmen that did had horror stories to tell. I’m so grateful I got to watch what it meant to be a teenager who cared about more than just themselves. And as the years have gone by and I hear or see what they are doing with their lives, how they are loving their families, and serving their communities, I’m still feeling a bit of that awe.
I needed to learn how to serve. On Saturday mornings we had a program called Synergy where we could join different teams that served in our communities. There was a Random Act of Kindness team that went around doing just that: cleaning store windows, pushing grocery carts, doing lawn work, helping people to their cars with umbrellas when it was raining etc. I spent some time at a local shelter preparing lunches and talking to a wonderful group of women and later helped out with a backyard Bible club in an underprivileged neighborhood. We had a summer event called Ignite where we spent several days doing service projects. I learned to see people with different eyes. I learned that you cannot judge what you haven’t walked. I saw that I was more blessed than I realized. I did something with my two hands that helped someone else. I saw just how much it really isn’t about me.
I needed to interact with adults who really loved teenagers. And they really, really loved us. They spent time with us, they talked with us, they opened their homes to us. They taught us lessons from the curriculum but more importantly they taught us lessons from their lives. We learned by example. I knew if I needed someone to be there for me, one of them would show up no questions asked. But they also knew how to have fun with us. I think that was just as key as anything else. They were good for girl-talk, slumber parties, crazy games, dodgeball tournaments, and laughing until we cried. A grownup that can be equally wise and silly and love you with their life is a beautiful to experience. I would love to be able to thank each one of these wonderful staff members and leaders that gave up their time and energy to love on me and my peers by name, but I know I would forget someone. So, thank you, each and everyone of you. Your efforts weren’t in vain. I know it was no small thing you did and I, for one, am wholeheartedly grateful.
I needed a place to belong. I really, really needed this and I know I am very fortunate to have found it. I know not everyone who walked through those doors or any doors of a church for that matter has ever found that. But I did and I made the greatest girlfriends. I am honored to have called them friends. They were the real kind of friends that grow with you and love you in your ugliest moments. We did the typical teenage girl things but we also talked about God and what our place in this world might be one day. We prayed together and cried together. And we loved each other fiercely. Whether I keep up with them in person or via social media, I still find myself happy for their successes and proud to call them friends.
I was also surrounded by solid guys. I got to be around boys who thought about more than just their car, their job, sports, video games, and hooking-up. This impacted my life in a very real way. These guys taught me what a good guy looks like. They took care of us. They carried our bags at camps (which were always over-packed and quite heavy), opened our doors, tried to cheer us up on bad days, and protected us in unique ways. I remember joking with some gals about how it would be funny to watch a guy try to mess with us when these guys were around. It was like having a lot of protective brothers who loved God with reckless abandon. And yes, that being said, they were still stupid boys we wanted to throw rocks at, that now and then broke our hearts. The difference with these guys is they were worth being brokenhearted over. To this day, they remain some of the finest guys I know.
And these girl, these guys, along with those adults made this place feel like home. I knew when I walked in those doors I was in a safe place. I knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt. And this feeling carried over when I saw some of these same faces at school. There was no real segregation between these areas. Which would confuse some of our classmates. We were an odd mix of personalities and social groups. Being unlikely friends made what we had even better. I found I could, for the most part, just be me. And when I could just be me, I could grow. These people believed in me. Honestly, I am great at believing in other people. I know a good egg when I see one. I can see untapped potential just waiting to be called up and like calling it out. That being said, I find I am not always good at believing in myself. But these people loved and believed in me so much that I started to think maybe they knew something I didn’t. So, when I was invited to be in leadership positions, I was floored, but I accepted. I learned how to lead small groups and gave input and worked events. I didn’t always do it well, but I had room to make errors and there was always grace to spare. Because I was given this opportunity, I stepped up my game. I had to because I quickly learned that like it or not, earned or not, there were eyes watching me much like I used to watch those upperclassmen I had somehow now become.
Under my bed, there’s this box- actually there’s a few boxes- but this one is filled with encourograms (encouraging notes from camp) and letters from leaders, peers, and students. Sometimes, usually when I’m trying to organize my stuff, I flip through them. I smile at old inside jokes I may or may not remember and laugh at how some of them are written. But usually I wind up with a heart brimming with gratitude. I carry these people in my heart and always will. They have shaped who I’ve become in so many ways, more than they or even I will ever know. Our stories overlapped in this unique season of life and for that I will always be eternally grateful.
There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot: “Kids these days __________.” I’ll admit there’s a few things I’d to put in that blank. Kids these days should have to experience dial-up internet where the most basic pages took ages to load and just when you found what you needed your connection dropped. Kids these days should know what it’s like to have to call the person they like’s home phone and ask their parent to talk to them. Too often though, I find myself cringing as people rant about teenagers and their ungratefulness, lewdness, and whateverness. Because I think the real truth is kids these days need to be invited into a better story. Teenagers are possibly one of the world’s best and most under valued resource for good. The teenagers in my youth group were told they could make a difference and that they could be different. We believed that and tried to live it out. When you’re living a better story, there’s not a lot of room or time for what grownups these days find appalling.
I’ve had the privilege to work with teenagers as a student ministry intern and as a volunteer. I love it. I’m not saying it’s always easy, and sometimes I fail to help them, love them right, and/or give them what they really need, but I wouldn’t trade a single second of the time I’ve spent with them. I know I was supposed to be teaching them, but they always ended up teaching me. There’s nothing quite like witnessing unsure, awkward fourteen-year-old girls be stretched by life, people, hardships, joys, triumphs, love, and God grow into confident, beautiful young women headed off to new adventures. It’s a gift this witnessing. I’d challenge you grownups out there who have the smallest inkling that, “I could maybe do that. I could love some teenagers. I could tell them about what walking life with Jesus is like (so much harder than you ever dreamed and yet breathtakingly beautiful and worth it at the same time). I could invite them into my life. I could be an adult who will be there when they need someone to be there. I could try to be wise and silly,” to give it a try. The world needs more adults who believe the next generation really could change the world and invest in their belief. Because maybe, just maybe, if we really loved them and believed in them and led them to Jesus, maybe they really could.