I remember the day when I felt like we were beginning to get it right–what may seem like a typical youth service project turned out to be another catalyst for understanding what it means to lead teenagers to Christ causes regularly.

A group of kids from our middle school ministry had committed to help a little community in Orlando clean up and plant a garden. Part of our assignment for the morning was to remove old concrete from the bottoms of fence posts. In order to do this, we would need some strong guys to safely swing a sledgehammer.

Since none of my middle schoolers weighed over 100 pounds yet we had to take turns swinging. They took 3 or 4 swings each, rotating between each other, working the concrete loose from the posts. When the smallest of the kids stepped up I wondered if he could lift the sledgehammer? He proved that he was stronger and smarter than he looked as he found a groove where he was able to swing (and hit) the concrete off of the post repeatedly. I started recording a video on my phone. I was amazed and then excited to capture his verbal response mid-swing.

Sledge hammer over his head, he yelled, “I FEEL SO ALIVE!!!!!!!”

I realized that he felt alive when what was happening in his heart connected with his hands.

I was seeing the incarnation.

“Christ in him” was coming out of him.

I wanted to see more of that.

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But I felt like we hadn’t done the best job of leveraging the gifts and passions of the kids in the seats. They liked mission trips. But they liked swinging a sledgehammer on a Saturday afternoon just as much.

I wanted our kids to be able to use their personal influence, passions, and gifts in ministry to others. But how do we do it like we mean it?

Plan a mission trip.

Choose a month. June, July, or August

Choose a location and plan the logistics.

Recruit leaders.

Go.

Repeat, every year.

It’s not wrong. And it’s not altogether right.

Spiritual formation is ongoing, it’s a journey inward and a journey outward that happens at the same time. I feel like keeping this in view is the secret to WHOLE youth ministry.

Wholeness is real. Wholeness is radical. Whole is something every youth ministry can be.

We won’t be able to lead teenagers to participating in Christ causes by isolating their spiritual formation experiences to retreats and their opportunities to serve to one week during the summer months. Lifelong habits are formed over time. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be called lifelong, they’d be called something else.

I was learning that if our youth ministry limited activities that deeply formed faith that we would struggle to find activities that formed servanthearted hope that can reach into the future and outlast their proms and graduations.

I had to recover spiritual formation in our ministry to teenagers.

What can you do to make recover spiritual formation in your youth ministry?

1- Look at what you are doing and ask, “Is this event, program, study, thing…fostering practices that builds relationships? If it’s not, then it probably doesn’t need to be done.

Discipleship is always relational. And it’s connected to how we treat others. There’s no better way to learn how to follow Jesus and care about what Jesus cares about than in a small group who cares about you–just as you are. It gives us a place to practice the love that we are discovering as we study about God and get to know God better.

2- Look at your future plans and ask, “Where are we making space for prayer, spiritual direction, and honest question asking?” If you aren’t seeing space, then it may be time to make some.

Making space for prayer (even if it’s wild prayers written on dodgeballs or prayers whispered over balloons released in the yard) is making space for lives to move deeper in communion with Jesus. As that communication deepens so does our capacity and imagination for activism. Just like teenagers who start dressing alike when they become closer friends. Teenagers start caring about things that Jesus cares about when they get closer to God.

3- Have a conversation with your team, friends, church leaders about your desires to ground serving others in spiritually forming activities more often.

Say the stuff that’s important to you–to each other. It won’t make you weird. I promise. It will make you courageous. Talk about how you keep the all nighters, the gross games, and the fun while making room for conversations that fuel faith and wonder while still leaving room for doubt and struggle. Get in a room with small group leaders and imagine the changes you could make to connect teenagers even more with the passion of Christ. Implement something you talk about. Don’t be afraid. You can’t mess this up because you’re on the same journey your kids are on. You’re moving deeper inward and further outward as you serve at the same time and there’s plenty of grace in both places. So, get to it.

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