I did something last week that I haven’t done in at least fifteen or twenty years, I spent a week at church camp! My friend, Monty Harlan, graciously offered an opportunity to serve at Camp Otyokwah (www.campotyokwah.org) for their senior high week of camp. Monty, along with his wife Janette, lead the ministries at Otyokwah near Butler, OH as well as Bear Lake Camp (www.bearlakecamp.com) located in Albion, IN. Monty and Janette have been leading the camping ministry at Bear Lake since 1992 and for the past five years at Camp Otyokwah.
I’ll be honest, I came into this week with a fair amount of trepidation. It’s been a long time since my days as a youth pastor. I’m not as young as I used to be – I’m the parent of two teenagers now. I’m not sure I was ever “cool,” but I’m certainly not “cool” now and the thought of speaking to a bunch of high school students in an engaging manner is a little outside my comfort zone. This was certainly a stretching experience for me. I came back to Findlay tired but energized from a week focused upon the theme of Pursuit inspired by Hebrews 12:1-2.
I’ve been reflecting upon the experience for several days. I learned so much and I thought I would share a few of the observations from a week in the trenches at camp.
No Filters The brutal honesty of teenagers is both refreshing and terrifying! They don’t filter much. One young lady shared her honest assessment with me one evening after worship: “Man, you were really putting me to sleep tonight with your talk!” I’m more accustomed to nice little old ladies sharing pleasant platitudes with me after I speak. Despite the painfully honest moments, it was so refreshing to hear young people speak to their fears, doubts and questions with a raw honesty that’s often missing in most church environments. Was it easy to hear? Not necessarily, but their honesty often led to good dialogue that we don’t normally hear when we have our filters up.
Pain and Trauma Our kids are growing up in a world that’s horribly broken and unsafe. Some of our kids have had to endure pain and trauma that no child should have to experience. Their pain is real, and their trauma can’t be ignored. There’s an enormous need for the healing ministry of Jesus in the lives of young people. One of my takeaways from the week was the humble acknowledgement of my own lack of preparedness in offering trauma informed care and my need for training and equipping in that area. I can’t help but think that most of our congregations should also be working to make sure that those serving in ministries to young people be equipped with some level of competence in trauma informed care as well. Too many of our kids have experienced violence and trauma and we ought to be doing our best to be helpful and responsive in ways that foster healing.
Awkward at Times We all know the teen years can be awkward, but I’m thinking more about my interactions and the awkwardness I experienced. When was the last time you ate at a table full of teenagers where no one spoke to you or engaged in conversation? I’m a bit out of the loop. I don’t know anything about TikTok and most youth culture trends are mysteries to me. I was the awkward one. I often didn’t know what to say or how to engage my young friends. Long spans of silence and stares weren’t uncommon. This was a cross cultural experience for me and it was awkward at times.
Presence Matters Despite my awkwardness and ill-preparedness, I was amazed at the interactions that took place throughout the week. Presence matters! At the most surprising times, conversations would happen, or questions would get asked and meaningful engagement and dialogue would take place simply because I was there. Life stories were shared, deep doubts expressed, and questions were offered because I happened to be present long enough to earn a little bit of trust. Again, it’s made me think about my interactions outside of a week at camp. How often to I practice presence with people who are younger than me or different than me?
Questions Perhaps the richest aspect of my week happened when a handful of students would come and sit around the picnic table with the permission to ask any question they’d like about the Bible or life. Twice a day they had the opportunity to come, sit and ask their questions. Sure, ultimate frisbee was a more popular option for that time slot, for sure. The gathering never grew beyond five or six, but the discussions were typically rich. There were questions about the problem of evil and suffering in the world, questions about hell, questions about doubt and faith and a host of other topics. I wonder how often we miss opportunities to create spaces like this for people, particularly young people, to come and ask their questions instead of asking them to sit and listen to whatever we’ve prepared?
All in all, it was a great week. I learned a lot. I was so blessed by my interactions with the high school students who were so gracious and kind to let this old man in their space for a few days. I’ve been reflecting on what I learned and how it applies to the work we’re doing in the church. In the CGGC, we’ve got a little bit of everything: from congregations with full-tilt youth ministry programs to congregations with virtually no one under the age of 30 and a little bit of everything else in-between. While our nation reels once again from the violence carried out by the hands of a troubled young man, I wonder about what we can do to help reach some of the troubled young souls in our communities who are navigating their pain in isolation? What can we do to reach those whom we currently aren’t reaching with our present methods? I’m fairly certain that they’re not looking for an invitation to our latest church program, and they may even be hesitant to open their lives to a gang of geriatrics wanting to change the world. Yet, they might be willing to do the awkward dance if we are present with one another long enough to build adequate trust. Only then can we potentially deal with their pain and questions.
I’m grateful for the good work that’s happening across the CGGC in our camping ministries, but this kind of work needs to be happening in our communities the other fifty-one weeks of the year, too.