This is the second of a two-part exploration of the importance of giving space and encouragement for youth to properly reflect about their spiritual growth experiences. Much like a diver who must undergo decompression after descending to great depth. Read Part 1 here.
MESSY ISN’T AN INTRUSION; IT’S A PATH TO SOMEWHERE BEAUTIFUL
Conversational decompression can be messy. Sometimes students jump in to talk when they should listen instead. Other times they need a little coaching. And there are times they head off on altogether different tangents.
One day my pastor told me something I’ll never forget: There’s almost always a good reason people go off on a tangent during a discussion—they’re wrestling with whatever is at the root of that tangent. Which is more important: Getting through the questions we have on our sheet, or talking about what they’re really wrestling with?
Just a few weeks ago a group of students was talking about the church and its history. Out of nowhere, one girl asks about the Trinity. She was thinking about something that was said weeks ago, and the conversation that night jogged her memory. If we hadn’t stopped to accommodate the “mess” of her tangent, we would never have addressed a profound theological truth that she was wrestling with. Even though “I don’t know” was often the answer to her questions, she felt the freedom to ask what was on her heart. I think she experienced a new facet of her faith—wrestling things out when you don’t have all the answers.
Whenever we give questions to our adult volunteers for our decompression conversations, we make sure they know the questions are suggestions. If they feel the conversation needs to go a different way, they have the freedom to do so.
ADJUSTING THE DECOMPRESSION TO FIT THE “DIVE”
How long do we decompress with our students? It all depends on the pressure of the dive. When a diver goes on a shallow dive that exerts little pressure, the decompression is lighter and shorter. But if that diver descends to the bottom of the ocean, the decompression is much longer. When we look at our events we need to consider how deep we intend to take young people spiritually, then adjust accordingly.
For example, we’ve often taken our kids on a “dive” into World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine. Although it’s not a long event, it can be quite emotionally and spiritually draining. By hour 29, our students have been immersed in world hunger realities while simultaneously experiencing physical hunger pains. This “deep dive” sets the stage for wrestling with meaty spiritual issues in their lives. One year we had two sisters go through the Famine with us who were relative newbies to church activities—this was their first overnighter event. They’d never fasted, never thought much about world hunger, and never read the Scriptures we talked about that weekend. Halfway through our experience we stopped to decompress—we talked about how everyone was feeling (besides feeling hungry). These two sisters had a lot to say, because they had a lot to think about. For these girls, decompression continued over many months and many conversations.
THE BEST DECOMPRESSIONS OFTEN FOLLOW THE WORST EXPERIENCES
On our last mission trip, our decompression conversations brought more students closer to God than any experience we’ve ever had. It was, by far, our best trip, simply because it was our worst trip ever. Our work on the trip depended on our relationship with our hosts, and (it turns out) they didn’t really want us there. Contrary to our expectations, many of our students were siphoned away from the group into tiny working teams—some of them literally worked alone all day for four days. And our students never “gelled” with the workers from other ministries on-site. There were no tearful goodbyes like they’d experienced on past trips. Instead, we had tears because so many of them wondered if the trip even mattered in the grand scheme of things.
On our final day of the trip—our decompression day—we started the conversation in our normal way, telling stories and sharing how we felt about this mission experience. The stories started okay, but then turned somber. Soon we had students really struggling in the conversation. We had to pause. I asked a simple question: “Who had a hard time on this trip?” Every hand but two went up (one adult and one student thought it was okay).
With this new information, I steered our conversation in a different direction. It wasn’t the difficulty of the trip that was the true problem. It was how our kids were translating that difficulty. Can we really feel this bad about serving Jesus? Is serving really supposed to be this hard? What followed was an amazing conversation about what real mission work, not just a week-long trip, is like. If it wasn’t for our decompression conversations on that trip, I don’t know what our students would’ve gleaned from it.
For too long in my ministry, I focused too much on preparing for the dive. I talked about what it means to serve, I led in prayer, and scavenged for pre-trip devotions. Then we’d jump into the ministry ocean, immersing our students in a kind of “holy oasis” that was free from outside distractions. When it was over we’d arrive home, get in our cars, and feel the whiplash of re-entry into everyday life.
Our students headed home, never formally processing what they’d just experienced, or learning how to build bridges from that experience into their lives back home.
I’ll never again rush a student back up to the surface without decompressing first. I want them to take it all in and cement a lasting memory that will change their lives forever. But to do that, I need to slow down, ask tough questions, and set the stage for honest conversations.