The trip was doomed from the start, and it was my fault.
Mike and Matt were twins who barely got along. Ryan was an introvert who wanted to play it safe all week. Lena was home-schooled, and this was her first overnighter trip away. Scott, Gayle, Melissa, Todd and Mike were wild extroverts who all wanted to be the “rooster” of the van. My wife just came off of a full week of teaching elementary school, and she was our only other chaperone.
But this was what youth groups do, right? We take whoever we can to do whatever we can, hoping something spiritual sticks however it can. And somehow we’re surprised when the meltdown happens.
Our trip was all about service projects, with no scheduled down time. We wore the students out physically and, in turn, amplified their pre-existing quirks. In retrospect, I realized that our program plans often over-emphasize one experience to the detriment of others. We might put together a weekend that’s heavy on singing and study, but forget that teenagers are also physical and emotional. Or we may keep kids moving so fast that we forget the introverts in the group need interludes of Sabbath.
Jesus said that following Him means engaging our heart, soul, mind, and strength. While the essential takeaway is “all of who you are,” it’s just as valuable to zoom down to the street level and ask, “What does that practically mean, and how do we practically foster it?” I learned from my poorly planned trip that it’s imperative to think wholistically when I’m creating ministry experiences.
- Consider the Heart: We often overlook the necessity of heart preparation for our teenagers—giving them little heart connections before a big event or trip. We’ve planned intentional prayer gatherings and memory-making fun nights where kids can make connections with each other and invest “heart equity.” Getting ready for “something” is “something” in itself. For example, even when we don’t really need a fund-raiser for a particular trip or event, I plan one anyway, because it’s a camaraderie-builder.
- Consider the Soul: Why do so many youth groups insist on having teenagers sing worship songs every week? I’m not suggesting it’s wrong, but consider—we’re shepherding kids into a relationship, not a religion. When we doggedly hold onto established structures and patterns, the gravitational pull of religion is in play. We have other ways to help students engage their souls—inviting them to share their faith story during an event, or planning early-morning/late-night guided “quiet times.” The ideas are endless, if only we’d stretch to foster them.
- Consider the Mind: Knowledge is power, but focusing only on dispensing and receiving information immobilizes everyone. We engage the mind best when we give it something interactive to chew on—this is why Jesus so often taught using parables. Invite your students to analyze and give feedback on the experience they’ve just engaged in. To be honest, it seemed risky to invite my teenagers to critique something I worked so hard to pull off, but I realized that if they never have a chance to debrief their experiences they’ll never have the grit to create their own spiritual experiences.
- Consider the Body: Obviously, the teenage years are full of challenging physical changes (I’ve actually had high school girls take me aside and ask if I’d give the boys a primer on deodorant etiquette). We honor their physical boundaries when we consider how our programming might be embarrassing for them, such as plunging them into a wild game that makes them sweaty and smelly right before they sit close together for a long stretch of teaching. On trips and retreats it’s wise to make sure everyone has access to adequate sleeping space and a shower. Perhaps the most overlooked way to honor the body, though, is to dignify students who aren’t up-front leaders but who serve just as hard behind-the-scenes. Teaching them how they’re wired is an on-ramp for affirming how they’re wired.
My student ministries team and I are planning an upcoming trip not unlike the one I mentioned earlier. This time we’re using a checklist like this one to ensure all of our kids—no matter how they’re wired—are growing in their heart, soul, mind, and body.
So, what’s your checklist when you’re planning events and trips?