As I plan for how we will "kick-off" our new youth year in a few weeks, I've been flashing back to my very first fall as a youth minister. All the youth ministry books I had read seemed to scream that a good youth year starts off with a big, splashy event, designed to bring back the "old" group and hook a new bunch of kids. The event should be designed to show that church can be fun and exciting and wacky! So we hosted a beach party on our parking lot, complete with a huge pile of sand dumped by a local construction company. The youth really seemed to enjoy the food, balloon fights, slip-n-slide, and making sand castles, but I'm not sure if they had any idea at all that they were at a church or participating in a Christian ministry. And one little item I had forgotten to plan for was how we were going to get rid of this ton of sand we had dumped on our church parking lot (Final solution: picture me with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Thank goodness I had the back of a 23-year-old in those days!).
I contrast that first experience with what our group did last fall. We started off the youth year with a prayer, a meal, and sharing our summer experiences with each other. Then we moved to the side yard of the church to put our artistic skills to use creating tie-dye shirts and fabric squares. The shirts were for the teens to wear as a way of developing a sense of community identity for our youth ministry program. We had other plans for the squares. Youth were asked to take their tie-dyed squares home, rinse and dry them and bring them to the next meeting. The squares were then used the following Sunday as part of a long worship experience in which each person helped to attach their square to the others to create a group quilt. We then invited the teens to reflect on the symbolism of this multi-colored creation, patched together from unique works of art created by each member of the group. Never let it be said that young people cannot verbalize their understanding of community, grace, forgiveness, peace, love, and the movement of the spirit. The quilt was the perfect catalyst for giving our youth a "voice" to talk about their understanding of Christian community where each person is loved and accepted for their own particular uniqueness. Through the year we continued to add additional squares to the quilt as new students joined the group. The quilt hangs on the wall of our youth room still today as a reminder that we called to be ever-widening the circle of our Christian family.
The contrast between that first "beach party" experience and the "quilt" project I think are significant. One focused on entertainment and distraction while the other focused on creativity, community, worship, and contemplative reflection on what it means to be children of God in relationship with one another.