When I was in high school I was in a big youth group. 300 students grades 7-12. It wasn’t quite a megachurch compared to the ones these days, but at the time it was really big. Megachurch-ish. I learned A LOT of stuff in the three years that I was involved (ages 14-17). In fact, it was one of the most shaping experiences of my life. It was not perfect of course. But I was thinking about this as I am painting my living room because I spent a lot of time in the youth group painting. Here are some of the things I learned that I have time to write while I take a break from painting.
1. Painting and other “mundane” tasks are a really good time to think and relax and talk to God. When I am stressed, I look for something to paint. My youth pastor once asked me while we were building a house in Appalachia what God was saying to me (insert divine or spirit of life here if it works better for you – you know what I mean). I said God didn’t talk to me and my youth pastor said maybe I wasn’t listening and so every since I’ve listened and heard.
2. Youth groups are not about “having fun.” In the time I was in the youth group, my discipleship group (like a covenant group) painted houses indoor and out in the sweltering heat all summer long at “work projects” that were sort of like “summer camp” only a unique version of it, I spent my afterschool time tutoring kids, went on trips to Mexico and Jamaica to do work for a school and an orphanage (and paid for the trips myself which was required), rehabed an entire Brownstone in New York City in six weeks, built houses in Appalachia and spent many Saturdays spraying insulation in disgusting and gross attics to insulate the homes of low-income families. We did “fun” things in between this, but what drew me to the group was that I was doing something for others while at the same time learning so much. It was never like we were doing a great favor to these communities, but rather we were doing what we were called to do as part of humanity and as people of faith, and we were privileged to be able to learn from the communities that we were invited to serve with. I felt honored in a way that my youth group leaders didn’t think all teenagers wanted to do was to be entertained but knew that we could work hard and make a difference in the world. And we did. And we still did “fun” things too, but as a side thing not as our “purpose.” Ah! There is the key term. We had a purpose. And it wasn’t pizza parties.
3. Spiritual life is hard. It is about how we live together in community and in our world, and in relationship to the divine. Maybe I thrive on high expectations, but I guess 300 other kids did too. I liked that it wasn’t all about making ourselves feel good or our own personal pursuit of happiness or finding ourselves, but it was about learning how to connect to something beyond ourselves and live out that promise that we made by becoming Christians. Even though this isn’t how I think of my spirituality anymore, I think that the Unitarian Universalist concept of covenant is equal to this – we are living out a covenant to each other and to the divine. It is a promise. It is a commitment. And it is hard. I am glad that I was prepared for the hard yet rewarding work of spiritual life and covenantal living early on.
4. Don’t be to serious. We do our thing – spiritual, community, worship, service – but we never think that the way we are doing it is perfect or the only way to do it. Maybe it won’t work for everyone and maybe we’ll make stupid mistakes. God has a sense of humor and we are journeying along with the divine in a loving and learning relationship. Learn to laugh at ourselves, our mistakes, even laugh at the cool things about ourselves.
5. Think outside the box. You don’t have to do “church” like everyone else does church or just because it has always been done that way. In fact, you should rethink how it has always been done.
6. Numbers are not the most important thing, but if no one comes to your youth group, that is a problem. Don’t get hung up on growing, but realize that you can’t reach anyone if no one is willing to make time for it. And they can make time if they want. Oh, and that reminds me an overall thing that I learned – we make time for what is important for us. That should include God or a spiritual life. You can do it if you want. Be creative. For instance, see number 1 – talking to god while painting. Or cooking dinner. Or whatever.
7. If you save money for something yourself, you learn lessons and appreciate what you saved the money for. I had to save money for my trips with the youth group by not buying clothes and doing extra chores. I learned I didn’t need so many extra clothes (really, the start of a more simple approach to living life) and really made the trip worth it because it cost my own money.
Oooo, sometimes things get longer than I mean them too. Sorry. But there you go. If you have made it this far….
I hope this doesn’t sound preachy. I really know little about how UU youth groups run and obviously this is not meant to contradict how things in UU youth groups run, I just know that I learned a lot from youth group when I was in high school and wanted to share for those that might be able to learn from my experience.
Back to painting. Elizabeth :)