Just a few days ago, one of my bright blue eyed students came up to ask a question. I noticed the tops of her hands were covered in scars from self injury. When asked about them, she explained with a dropped head, that some kids at school had called her names, and this is how she handled it. Another shared with me her story in broken tears about the argument she had earlier that day with her best friend. One quick and creative boy whose parents are in the middle of an ugly divorce can solve a Rubix cube in 3 minutes. He brings it every week for others to watch in awe. All of these students have something in common. They all need a sanctuary.
When I hear the word "sanctuary," my mind is harkened back to the old sanctuary I grew up making pilgrimages to each week. It was a large room with arched beams, green and gold stained glass windows, and wooden pews with the pervading scent of lemon polish. No matter what happened that week, the sanctuary didn't change. You knew your "spot". It was safe. It was a constant. It was a place I met God. In that place were people who knew my name and loved me. It was because of those people that it was the safe place I needed. If we are honest it's something we all need.
More than ever, our students are bombarded daily with astounding amounts of messages and slices of informational opinions touted as facts. The expectations on what youth will achieve are less than ever before. Yet, the cost of risk is higher as they navigate the art of making decisions on their own. In an effort not to cramp the individualism of the student, mass numbers of parents are taking a step back from their teenagers allowing them make their own choices, in just about every area of life. The amount of freedom they have to make life choices at younger and younger age results in students less emotionally equipped than ever before to deal with the decisions bombarding them.
So how do we as church leaders create a sanctuary for students that they will choose to come to? The often, frightening and sobering truth is that the choice is left solely up to them. As early as 5th-6th grade, students in my ministry are the ones deciding whether or not they will attend church activities, not their parents. Often it's the parents (churched and non-churched) who are encouraging their children to choose practice over church. Their schedules are more packed with organized activities and team sports than any generation before them. In many of our families organized athletics consume the majority of discretionary time. Soccer for instance, used to only occur for one season of the year. It now dominates all four with travel soccer, indoor soccer, outdoor soccer, private soccer leagues, and the school team. Students are busier than ever before, yet they are drowning in the stress of activity without hope and without joy. How do we create a compelling program that will inspire them to choose church as well as lead them into the sanctuary of God's presence once they get there? We know it is only here they can find hope, healing, and restoration in the only one who can give it, Jesus Christ.
The concept of sanctuary has permeated how I "do" ministry. No longer can we create a slick program and see students respond in droves. We must create a compelling environment that is creating space, eye to eye conversations, and a sense of constancy in an ever changing world. The one distinctive "selling point" we still have over the world is that students are still hungry for relationships. They will do anything to get them, which is precisely where problems are stemming from online and in person.
Creating sanctuary space has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding facets of our ministry. For students who are constantly connected to 4,000 of their closest friends, creating space to hear from God is a totally foreign concept. When we take middle school students on trips away from their daily schedule, we ask them to leave their cell phones at home too. Some go into withdrawal. Can you imagine leaving yours at home for 3 days? Is this causing anxiety in you right now just thinking about it? Then perhaps you need to create that space too! We purposefully build this space into all of our retreats and mission trips. We intentionally begin creating space by leading the students in spending quiet time with Jesus at the beginning of each day. When interviewed later, this is many students' favorite and most impactful time in their trip experience. I never cease to be amazed at the tears that fall as students engage with God in an intimate way, some for the first time. During those times, they change. Students are no longer as anxious, squirrelly, and frenetic. They are calmed, reflective, and even reverent. Sanctuary has come.
Eye to eye conversations is one of the most central ways, we incorporate sanctuary into our midst. The amount of eye to eye face time students receive in their lives is dramatically less than ever before. With the advent of cell phones, texting plans, and online social media networks, middle school students are reducing the amount of verbal conversations they have with peers and adults. Because of these technological "advances," speaking verbally and gaining social visual cues are becoming lost on the next generation. Although they don't have face to face conversations as regularly they still know they need them. We were made for relationships. Creating a sanctuary where eye-to-eye communication occurs on a weekly basis feeds a hunger that students have that is not being met. They will cross all kinds of other barriers to find someone who will listen to their stories while communicating acceptance and unconditional love to them. This is the very reason Youtube and Myspace have grown exponentially, immediate sources of people to hear their stories. In response to this, we have incorporated small groups into the fabric of every part of our ministry. In small groups, students are getting critical framing for situations in life that they are making decisions about right now. Those caring adults who are willing to get eye to eye with them, provide direction and a sense of steadiness, which balances and anchors the boat of reasoning as they think their way through ideas and concepts. These adults create a space where they will hear and be heard. Presence communicated in moments like this cannot be duplicated by a computer screen or text. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus spent time in small groups.
Like the lemon scented pews that remind us of stability, there needs to be places students can come to that will be a constant. With everything changing about them, routine isn't always such a bad thing. With the natural changes of adolescence compounded with marriages crumbling, parents losing jobs, and adults that are at best absently present, students crave more than shifting sand. In youth ministry, we are often striving to race off for the newest, fabulous thing that will captivate the hearts of students. Lately I have been finding the very converse to be true. More than anything else, I am finding that it isn't the new that they are hungry for, it is the old. It is the stories of faithfulness of what has come before that captivates them. The legacies and pictures of what others have lived which they might also hope to live. We must place stories and people in front them who embody lives lived completely surrendered to Christ. How will they know unless we tell them?
So, as we come into our sanctuaries on Sunday morning with squirming teenagers poking each other and half listening, it is easy to forget the moments of sanctuary that have been created and captured in their lives that week. Often times it's even harder to see that these same moments must be built into our lives for us to pass them along to our students. We must be making deeper and fuller space to hear God's voice daily. We must be having real deep and honest eye to eye conversations with others. We must be listening to the stories of faith. It's in those moments of sanctuary where God's presence resides and rests on us. It's in those moments we are transformed by the power of God's grace. It's in those moments we see students for what they truly; are sanctuaries ready to be filled.