Before we go any further, I think I should give you some context. A big part of my week, is this thing called youth group. Whatever your knowledge of youth group is, here is what ours is normally like. Students come in to our building, we as leaders are there to greet them and hang out with them, or they can go downstairs and play in the gym for a while. Then once most people have arrived we all head downstairs for some ridiculous games, last nights for instance was something we invented on the spot called sharknado tag, the night before it was fishing gummy worms out of whip cream with your face. Participation isn't mandatory, and some leaders and students hang out by the food and talk instead. Then we come upstairs, we play more games, or watch a video, or do some kind of art project that segways into the evenings storytelling/discussion/Bible Study. Sometimes we get so caught up in silly games and conversations we never get to that other part. That's ok with us though, because youth group is all about creating space, time and most importantly relationships with the students so that they can be loved, hear that God loves them whether through our actions or words, and be challenged by that love and God's word to love other people. We welcome conversation and debate.We welcome all kids, and many of our students don't share the faith of the leaders or our church, and that is fine with us. We have amazing adults who volunteer their time to hang out with our students, and play ridiculous games or stay up till all hours of the night with them on over nighters. We are very intentional, but also pretty casual, we want kids to feel free to be themselves while they are there. Often there is a lot of laughter, and silliness that happens, too cool for school teens will act like the kids that they still are. Choreographed dance numbers spontaneously happen, dart wars break out, shaving cream ends up all over the building. Our methods aren't perfect, and there are better ways to do this, but this is what we do. It's a mess, but it is a beautiful amazing mess we call youth group.
Youth Group is often lighthearted and encouraging and fun, but sometimes it goes from things like Sharknado tag to suicide very quickly. I work with a great bunch of students who have created a very welcoming environment for their peers, where they can be vulnerable. Some of that is on us as leaders to be the example, to start it, but it's really them taking it and accepting others into "the family" that makes it work. I also work with very brave students, who are willing to open up and say what other are thinking but can't speak. Recently, suicide was not the intended topic, but it came up in the context of it being a choice, possibly even logical option to cope with life changing mistakes and tragedies. Did I mention I have some very brave, thoughtful students?
I know this way of thinking is a reality, you can read some of my blog posts on depression for more about that, but it breaks my heart to know that our kids feel that suicide is an option, that taking one's own life is better in some cases than living it. It is devastating to think that anyone could be so filled with despair, feeling like they might not ever be able to be forgiven for something, or that their value would be lost. That is a lie. A terrible horrible lie. I know the God that says, it's not what we do that matters, it's who we are, and we are his beloved. We are invited to be his friend, and that friendship cannot be broken. The bible book of Romans tells us that there is no condemnation when we put our faith in him, and it also tells us that NOTHING can separate us from his love, nothing. It even tells us that no matter how hard things are and what we are going through, God has our back, and there is hope. I have seen this grace, this love change people's lives. It's not a miracle cure, it's a process of getting to know who God is and how he sees you and coming back to that over and over again. It's hard but it's the best kind of hard. It's life giving, life changing and every kids needs to understand that, whether they understand it as coming from God himself, or they can just see it in the adults in their lives. They so badly need to be reminded that they aren't alone, they will never be alone and they always, always have a place, a people to turn to for help, hope and acceptance.
This is why we play silly games, and spend time hanging out with kids, we don't ever want them to forget that. We want to be extensions of that love. We want to put skin on that hard to understand concept of grace.
So whether you believe in the God that I speak of or not, do me a favor. Love the kids around you, reach out to the ones you don't parent too, let them know you are there for them, that you will help them face their parents, their life challenges, whatever it is they are dealing with. Help them find their "youth group" their safe place.
side note: To all the students over all the years, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to be there with you, as you grew and struggled with life, thanks for inviting me in, for trusting me. Thanks for teaching me about God's love and grace too. To all the volunteers, you guys are heroes in every sense of the word, thanks for coming on this journey, for being there for our kids. To the parents, thanks for allowing us to be part of your team, thanks for letting them go on so many adventures with us.