A while back, our student ministry team met to plan out our winter retreat. I was a little hesitant to share what was really on my heart. Truth be told, I had been mulling over some different thematic approaches to teaching students some basic spiritual disciplines. I told the staff my thoughts and held my breath. After all . . . it isn’t exactly a concept the average teenager gets excited about.
I braced myself for the inevitable, “Yeah, right.” But to my delight, our staff was all over it. I explained that I had the idea of positioning the spiritual disciplines discussion as an alternative to how busy teens are-and not just how busy, but how noisy their lives are. If they have any free time, it’s full of mobile phones, laptops, iPods, video games, movies, and so on. Too often, in an environment of over-commitment and noise, their relationship with God takes a backseat.
I told our staff that I wanted to teach teenagers how to “hit pause” in their busy lives in order to begin to intentionally cultivate a relationship with Christ. As a foundation for the weekend, I focused on the many times Christ went off alone to communicate with the Father in solitude. For the purposes of the weekend, I defined this idea of “the pause” as “Time spent cultivating a relationship with God, by communicating with Him through prayer and getting to know Him through His Word, in an atmosphere of silence and solitude.”
Now here’s the catch: We planned not only to teach them what to do in the pause, but allow them time in silence and solitude to seek God in prayer and through Scripture reading.
When the weekend arrived, I taught two sessions Friday night, then a few different sessions on Saturday before wrapping up Sunday morning. The students arrived, the praise band did their thing, and we jumped right in. I did the second Friday night talk on prayer, using the Lord’s Prayer as a model. Then, on Saturday morning, after worship, we sent 400 kids with their small group leaders to find a place throughout the church facilities where they could get alone with God.
That’s when I got nervous. I wondered how these teens would respond. Would they take it seriously? Would they sleep? Would they text the whole time? I had really challenged them during my talk to view the weekend as an amazing opportunity to nurture and cultivate their relationship with the Lord. But who knew if they would?
The hour ended and teens gathered back with their small groups. We turned them loose for lunch and I quickly began to seek out small group leaders. I wanted to find out the teenagers’ responses to such a dedicated and intentional time in prayer. After all, even though many of our students are pretty devoted Christ-followers, most of them simply do not engage in the type of spiritual discipline we were teaching. I was curious to know how they reacted.
What I heard from our small group leaders overwhelmed me.
In nearly all of the groups, the students took the time seriously. We had printed prayer guides to help lead them through the different themes of the Lord’s Prayer. Our small group leaders said their students worked through the sheets, praying in solitude to God, praising Him, listening to Him, and seeking His guidance.
I found out that not all students prayed for the hour. But what I heard was encouraging. Some of the teenagers in attendance had never prayed for more than five minutes without falling asleep. For these students, a 10-minute prayer time was double the amount of time they had ever prayed! Still, other teenagers told their small group leaders they were so engaged in conversation with God that the hour seemed to fly by.
Now, I’m certainly aware that not every student took it seriously. But I was overwhelmed at the number of teenagers who, when given an opportunity, chose to spend meaningful time cultivating their relationship with Christ. I had students throughout the weekend coming up to me saying how much fun they had praying and listening.
We did a similar thing Saturday afternoon with Scripture reading. And you know what was the coolest thing? We had the same results. Most students took the time seriously, practicing a mix of some guided Scripture meditation and some in-depth study based on a study guides I had created for them. All in all, it was a great event, a time of spiritual recharging for students and teachers alike.
And, here’s the best part: I learned a few things from the weekend. (Imagine that!) The main thing I learned is that the Holy Spirit is capable of moving in the lives of all believers, even the most non-committed, spiritually distracted teenager. The key is that the Holy Spirit must be given room to move! That was the point of our weekend, to provide intentional room for an encounter. We made the time and the Holy Spirit came through. I watched life-change happen before my eyes.
The second thing I learned is that even though I talk the good talk about guiding teenagers deeper into their relationship with God, I had some significant-if-secret hesitations about how a weekend that centered on “disciplines” would go over. Well, our students proved me wrong at every turn. And let me tell you . . . this is one case where I was glad to be proven wrong.
Andy Blanks is the Director of Resource Development for Student Life. Andy lives in Birmingham, AL with his wife and three daughters. His passion is writing and speaking to youth and college groups. Drop him a note on his blog, www.andyblanks.com.