If your group is like mine you attended a summer camp this year. You might have, like us, gone on a missions trip as well. At both of these events you might have heard a constant call for students to "bring it back home."
You’ve probably heard this cry at every camp and mission site you have ever attended. I agree with it in theory, but as the years have gone by I wonder if the concept itself is one that can lead us to an unnecessary sense of failure. Here is what I mean.
You take a group of students to a camp or missions experience. You’re praying for life change. You see them worship, pray, and become broken before God. You have a sense that this experience is going to be "the one" that changes the game. You pile up the church van and head back to your city with anxious anticipation of the metamorphosis of your student ministry as a result of this event.
But when you get home disappointment sets in.
You get discouraged because you see students slipping back into pre-event habits. They’re not suddenly bringing their lost friends to events. They’re struggling to keep up their commitment to their quiet times. They’re still engaging in gossip. You end up in your next leaders meeting feeling discouraged and lost. They didn’t "bring it home." You ask, "What about that event? I thought it was ‘the one.’ "
I’ve been there many times, but as I grow more seasoned in ministry my perspective is changing. Sure, I’ve seen kids radically changed by camp and mission trips—that’s the very reason I keep doing them. Still, I think that there’s more at play here than we may always realize. I think we put too much emphasis on one-time events to change our kids. Without meaning to, I think we often see these events as potential spiritual "quick fixes."
But I think that mentality sets us up for failure. I think we have to remember to keep our eyes and our hearts on the big picture. I have a student who will be a senior this year. He’s been in attendance on every mission trip and nearly every camp we’ve offered since he was a seventh grader. "Jim" is one of those kids who I spent a lot of time praying over at events like this. I kept waiting for that one event that would forever change his life. As much as I prayed and waited, that event never came. I spent a few sleepless nights wondering if he would ever "get it" and take what he experienced in those one time events and be different. While I was looking for that one time event to change Jim, God was doing something else. I like to think of it as "comprehensive discipleship". In Jim’s life (and many other lives in our student ministry) God didn’t use exclusively use one of these events to change him.
You see, as a senior, Jim has become our leader of student leaders. God has truly done a great work in him. He has grown to become a friend of God whose love and passion for Jesus is evident in him all the time. Jim is the great Christian student leader he is today because of many weeks of camps and many weeks of service with a large doses of small group attendance, retreat weekends and worship opportunities thrown in for good measure. Never at a summer camp or mission trip did Jim have a huge "aha" moment. Instead he had a lot of little “aha” moments compounded through the years that developed him into a fully devoted follower of Christ.
Sure he still messes up and he is far from finished in his spiritual growth, but he has proven himself to be a strong growing Christian with a heart for service and a gift of leading. This is a far cry from the seventh grader I remember him being who was nipping at the heels of the high school kids for attention. His change did not occur as the result of one event. I would venture to say that’s true for most students in our ministries.
It is the years of involvement that lead to change. It is the countless hours we invest in these students that God uses to create disciples, not just one time events that have a lot of appeal. I would just say that rather than beating ourselves up that one time activities don’t seem to radically change our ministries, we need to be patient and watch as the Lord changes our students through comprehensive discipleship.
We can stand amazed as we watch how God’s plan builds a student’s faith, not in one week but over the course of a lifetime of love and investing. Maybe your students haven’t been transformed the way you expected after a summer full of well intentioned activities. My advice is to wait. You might just have a Jim or two in your group who will show you that one week building on the next, will develop a greater metamorphosis than you ever expected.