When I visit the zoo my favorite area is the deep-sea aquarium. The vibrant colors and exotic fish fascinate me—and for thousands of years we had no idea any of this existed, because we had no way of exploring the bottom of the ocean. The biggest hurdle to unlocking this hidden world wasn’t the obvious lack of oxygen, it was something much more subtle: pressure. The pressure exerted on the human body at ocean-floor depths can kill us, literally causing our blood to boil. So to move from the earth’s surface to the sea’s depths we must adapt. On the way down, it’s not so hard—divers simply adjust their air pressure. But coming up from the depths is a different story.
Divers must decompress properly or risk death.
Many youth ministries have never learned the art of decompression (I know, because my own ministry has been one of them). Whenever we take students out of their world and immerse them in the depths of God’s story—whether it’s a Sunday School class or a missions trip—we’re plunging them into a different atmosphere from their everyday lives. We’re changing their air pressure. And if we do it well, we can take them down quickly. But we also risk killing the growth they’ve gained by ignoring a patient, deliberate approach to their decompression.
The Art of Decompression
Decompression is the art of acclimating the body back to the pressure it is accustomed to. This is no easy task, and it can’t be rushed. On the way down to the depths we can move much faster and easier. On the way back up, it’s about patient, deliberate choices.
IT ALL STARTS WITH A CONVERSATION
I believe people see Jesus moving all around them, every single day—but they often have no idea what they’re experiencing is Jesus. And for the few that recognize his fingerprints on the canvas of their day, many still have trouble expressing what they’ve seen and experienced. And that’s why, in our ministry, we now decompress everything we do with conversation.
Every time we meet, we decompress. After a lesson or Bible story on a Sunday night, we break students into groups to move through a set of discussion questions. In the last few moments we spend together at a retreat we discuss what’s happened over the weekend. And we’ve added an entire day to our summer missions trip so we can head somewhere away from the mission field and can talk about the week.
Almost all our conversation focuses around two questions:
- Where did you experience Jesus in this?
- What can you take away from this Jesus experience and bring back to your life back home?
Once we help kids slow down and decompress from an experience, we open up more conversational possibilities: How does it feel to partner with Jesus in his work? How has he prepared you to share his love with others?
As important as it is to spend a week serving others, if my students come home from a mission trip and feel no closer to Jesus and have not grown in their faith, I’m doing them a disservice. Sure, teenagers need to give of themselves in service, as the hands and feet of Jesus. But they also need to recognize when they are being the hands and feet of Jesus—these experiences need to change their lives.