It was 5 a.m. on a glaciated volcano in the Northwest. I had crampons strapped on my boots, each pointed tip digging for all its worth into the icy, steep slope notoriously called the Roman Wall. A few hundred feet below was a crevasse as deep as a football field.
My backpack was feeling considerably heavier than its actual 35 pounds. Suddenly I fell and began to slide down the mountain. I slammed my ice ax into the snow and at the same time prayed the youth group guys on my rope team would remember what we had taught them in snow school the day before. What they did or didn’t do in that moment mattered—community that morning was a life and death issue, not a discussion topic.
You don’t have to climb volcanoes with teenagers to do effective ministry, but you do have to expose them to situations that really matter. Young people need to know they’re needed—that we, or others, are counting on them. In a virtual world, with video games that give them an infinite number of lives and a constant do-over mentality, it’s easy for them to start believing it doesn’t make much of a difference what they do or don’t do.
When it matters, adolescents listen, learn, grow, and commit. When I was 19 years old, I’d already worked two summers as a camp counselor. At the last minute my boss told me he needed me to be the director of a program of 120 6- to 8-year-old kids and 12 high school and college staff. That summer I took some major steps in learning how to lead and care for others. Discipleship requires that we put young people in situations that carry some weight. In fact, discipleship is always experiential. I look back with tremendous fondness and respect on a leader who believed in me and repeatedly put me in situations that mattered.
On mission trips kids feel the weight of their affluence when contrasted with the poverty of the world. Or they see the kind look of an elderly lady bringing them lemonade during a break from cleaning up her yard. It’s in these moments we can almost hear our teenagers growing. Make sure you’re putting your kids in places where what they do or don’t do makes a difference.
We made it to the summit of that Northwest mountain later that morning. As I stood alongside those teenagers, there was a feeling of closeness and accomplishment that’s hard to describe. Sure it was risky, but anything that matters is.
Steve is a longtime contributor to group and a counselor whose practice focuses on teenagers. He lives in Washington state.