We had our “moving-on” ceremony for the graduating high school seniors in our youth group last night. We dedicated part of the night to honoring them, looking back on their last seven years in student community, and tapping their brains for advice to the younger kids in the program. It was a bittersweet event as “moving-on” events always are.
I have been a student leader at my local church for almost 20 years now. That longevity gives me a great perspective and vantage point on the lives of the kids. Some of the kids who “moved-on” last night I have known to some extent since they were born, others since elementary school, others since jr high. When you are casually involved in the lives of other people’s kids, you get to see changes in bigger bunches. They grow 6 inches taller since last time you saw them, they can now dunk on you playing basketball and for many of them, they grow from immature kids into developing leaders.
Part of the service last night involved inviting each of the three graduating senior groups on stage to share one of their favorite moments from student community over the years, as well as to share some advice for the younger kids.
I remember meeting one of the graduating girls many years ago in jr high. I remember telling her that I do not recognize jr highers as legitimate people until they are freshman in high school. That’s one of my running gags that is partially having fun with the kids and partially serious 🙂
Every few months when I would see her around, she’d say something like, I’m going to be in 7th grade soon. Almost done with 7th grade, I’m going to be an 8th grader – one more year until you have to recognize me. Then, when she finally became a freshman, I was a man of my word and always acknowledged her by name and took time to catch up on what’s new in her life.
There she was, four years later, on stage, as the spokeswoman for her group. She was sharing happy memories and wise counsel on behalf of the group, while pictures of her with her friends and leaders over the last seven years flashed on the screen behind her. She has formed some great friendships and has made a big difference in the lives of so many people over the last seven years as a part of the student community. I am very proud of her, her friends, and her leaders.
One of the two guys groups shared their experiences. At the end of the sharing time, one of their leaders, a guy I have gotten to know well over the last couple years, thanked them for giving him “permission” to lead them. He thanked them for the influence they had in his life over the years, and encouraged them that growing spiritually is a lifelong endeavor – it doesn’t end when you go to college, it is just the beginning.
It’s cool to see the importance and fluidity of the “leader” role. You are an influencer, who should also be open to being influenced. Your role matters, but the relationships the kids develop with each other is more important. The investment you make, probably won’t be fully realized for many years, and probably never fully expressed. It is a difficult role with many ups and downs. Those that are willing and able to stay the course deal with some challenging moments, enjoy some good moments, and make investments for the benefits of others, primarily in the future.
The last group that went was the biggest and most rowdy group. Some of them had been together for the whole seven years of student community. Since this particular group really liked to have fun, the youth director was a little tentative when he gave them the mic and asked them to share their advice to the rest of the students – he even threw in a little insurance disclaimer right before they spoke.
What they shared turned out to be sage advice. They shared two “tips”. The first tip was, “show up”. In order to build relationships, you need to spend time with each other. In order to spend time together, you simply need to show up. Showing up is difficult – especially in the over-programmed western burbs of Chicago. There are plenty of activities that seem more important from academic work, to sports, to music, to just taking a break from the insanity of suburban high school life.
Those that actually make the effort to show up, not only benefit themselves, but the rest of the kids in their group benefit, and, over time, the entire community benefits. Showing up is great advice. It is the easiest and simultaneously the most difficult decision you can make for any long-term, relational activity.
The second tip was to “invite new people in”. Wow. That is some serious wisdom coming from high school senior guys. They remarked that while some of them have been together for many years, they also made it a high priority to invite new people, and to make sure that new people felt included in their group. It’s so easy to allow good friendships to be intimidating to “outsiders”. These guys admonished everyone to make the extra effort to invite AND by inclusive after you invite.
Inviting high school kids to a church group is intimidating enough – but making the effort and the space for them to feel included takes a great deal of intentionality and maturity. These guys knew how to make it work and are great examples to the younger groups in student community of how to invite, and how to include. The circle of this group includes older friendships and newer friendships – and the impact of those friendships is only beginning to be felt.
When I shared with my group of incoming sophomore guys after the senior groups shared on stage, we discussed those two tips in detail. I also added a third tip: “you get out what you put in.” If you do not feel like you are getting a lot out of a group – it is most likely because you are not putting enough into it. Showing up is a critical prerequisite to relationship building, but you must move beyond showing up to being invested and committed if you hope to maximize the relational impact you will have on others and experience yourself.
So, another group of young people have graduated high school and will be entering college over the next several days, and most of them will be spending 4-5 years at college more fully developing and growing into independent adults. It’s an amazing process – and I have been able to see it happen for my own kids, and many, many others. It’s a mixed bag of challenges and awesomeness. Creating time and space for kids to focus on relationships and building a spiritual foundation is well worth the effort. Sometimes it takes a while to see the full effect, and for some of it, maybe much of it, you will never get to see it all – but someone sees it. Someone feels the result of that investment down the road – and for them, it’s always worth it!