A Week in the Woods: Reflections on Youth Week at Kanuga and the future of youth ministry

I spent the last week in the mountains of Western North Carolina at the Kanuga Conference Center as a staff member for Senior Young People (SYP). SYP is a weeklong conference for high school students from across the country that, along with Junior Young People (JYP) and Adults Who Work With Youth (AWWWY), makes up the annual Youth Week at Kanuga.

Kanuga is a special place in my life for two big reasons. First, I was a participant at Youth Week and the winter equivalent, Winterlight, as a young person. Some of my earliest moments of self-discovery and growth took place in the meeting spaces and large group venues at Kanuga. It is a major signpost on my journey towards the priesthood. Second, and most importantly, my wife and I were married at Kanuga in the Chapel of the Transfiguration.

I look forward to making the trek back to Kanuga once or twice a year to work on staff at these youth conferences and reconnect with fellow staff members and friends from all over the country. Despite everything I just wrote, this is not a sappy post about how much I love Kanuga. Neither is this an advertisement for Youth Week or any of the programs hosted at Kanuga.

This post is about the future of youth ministry inspired by my experience at SYP.

The theme of this year’s program was “Making a Way By Walking”. The focus was the journeys that led us to Kanuga and the continually unfolding journey in front of us once we left. This got me thinking about the event-driven model of youth ministry. Too often, youth events and camps are seen as “mountain top” experiences that help sustain our faith until we can get back to the mountaintop for the next event.

I have heard numerous people refer to youth events as the “mountain top” and their daily lives as the “valley” or “the real world”.

This presents two clear problems:

First, Jesus is quite clear that the spiritual life cannot exist on the mountain top. In Matthew and Luke, he is transfigured in the presence of his closest friends on the mountain top, but then quickly returns to the work of ministry on the ground. The mountain top is an incubator for spiritual experience, sure, but it is no place for that experience to fully develop and mature.

It is easy to coordinate a weekend retreat or weeklong conference to culminate in an emotional crescendo (Ex: any healing service at a summer camp or retreat weekend). The close quarters, change in sleep schedule, and new environments make retreats and camps minefields of emotion.

This isn’t inherently bad, but it does create unsustainable expectations for newly minted faith and spirituality. Which brings me to the second issue:

By propping up the false dichotomy between the mountain top and the “real world” we fail to equip young people with the tools that they will need to take their faith into their daily lives.

Christianity is hard.

For too long we have tried to dumb the faith down and make it as user-friendly as possible, but the truth is that faith in Jesus Christ in the 21st century requires everything you have. It requires changing, growing, and being molded into the person God has called you to be. It requires speaking up against injustice in all its insidious forms. It requires putting others before self. It requires a dramatic reordering of personal priorities.

The Early Church showed that admitting Jesus was Lord meant denouncing all of the other voices that try to assert Lordship. We no longer have a Caeser that claims to be a god, but we do have systemic racism, consumerism, phobias of all sorts (homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, etc.), and nationalism that are trying to put their idols on the throne to be worshipped.

We’ve had a few decades of “I’m okay, you’re okay” Christianity and it has only given us more room in our pews on Sunday morning.

Like Peter, too often we ask “Where can we pitch our tents?” but the missional conversation reminds us that the better questions is “Where has God already set up camp?”

Instead of setting up camp twice a year on the mountain top, our mission is to walk the streets of our communities and join God’s camping trip already in progress.

The future of youth ministry is less event based and more missional. It will take youth out into their communities, out from behind the “safe” walls of their faith communities and into the messy world. There will be fewer “Facebook profile picture mission trips” and more local service.

It will mean helping youth develop a language for their faith and how their faith impacts their day-to-day lives. It will mean less entertainment and more discipleship. In the world of Netflix and iPhones, youth do not need any more entertainment – what they need is deep formation and meaning.

The last day of SYP was spent talking about the journey ahead and what the experiences at Kanuga mean for the days and weeks to come. 150 people hiked around the lake with our arms held above our heads to illustrate how hard it is to walk in the Christian way. The only relief on the hike came when we stood in a big circle, everyone’s arms resting on the people next to them.

This is the image of the future of youth ministry. Like hiking three miles with hands up, it is not easy, but it is doable. We should be teaching youth that the Christian life is not always sunshine and rainbows, but that all things are possible through Christ and the fellowship of the Church. That the world can be a dark place, but that we are to proclaim the Light.

I left Kanuga refreshed and ready to head to Salt Lake City for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. My hope is that the General Convention is a moment of rest, when we can stand together and rest our arms as we sing a new church into being.

I hope that we are not looking to build more mountain tops, but are prepared to take our tents down and go out into the world.

I am optimistic about the future of youth ministry and the future of the Episcopal Church because of the young people that crowded into Kanuga for a week. I saw them transformed and sent out to spread the Good News that God is already working in the “real world” and it is our moment to join in.

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