Just Wanna Be Kids
I recently spent an awesome week serving at summer camp for my church’s youth, including junior and high school students. I’ve had the opportunity to participate on a couple occasions in the past and each tends to be similar in that the time spent is borderline insanity. The days (and at times, some of the nights) are filled with sports and scripture, eating and equipping, competition and companionship. There are times of fun, there are times of tears. We worship, pray, break down, build up, strip away, and renew. I’ve witnessed the Holy Spirit move with awesome power in the lives of young people.
This week felt a bit different, even from the onset. There was a greater sense of unity amongst and between both leaders and students. Early on, it started to become evident that there were some students who were genuinely ready to move beyond their current status and enter into a deeper relationship with their Savior. That it wasn’t necessarily going to be a week of new professions of faith but was more composed of those who had already claimed Christ taking real steps toward total surrender in ways that were tangible and evident. That the social media posts of “this week was life-changing” really meant what they said in ways that were clear to see.
The students were provided with powerful teaching that was directly applicable to their daily lives. It was founded in the truth of God’s word. It was illustrated in the real life stories and honest transparency of those who taught. It was evidenced in the direct interaction with all who served those kids throughout the week. The focus was intentional, the love was real, and the results were clear; all the effort poured into these young people helped them to better grasp their worth in God through Jesus and inspired them to desire lives lived accordingly.
The impact was not felt exclusively by the students. Virtually all leaders were touched deeply, not only by the intense interaction that took place between them and the kids, but also by the very things that were touching the young people. The messages, devotions, real discussion, worship and genuine love helped us all to break down walls and strive toward a greater walk in our own lives.
For some leaders, it was an eye-opening week. Kids and leaders alike got real – very real. Our students come from all walks of life with all sorts of personal stories. They fight real battles, suffer real pain, feel real emptiness, and desperately need Jesus just to make it from one day to the next. The level of that need for some young people can be shocking and if you hadn’t been exposed to it previously, that new realization can be overwhelming. The enemy is alive and active. He is no joke. The warning of 1 Peter 5:8 is no understatement: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” All around us, kids are dealing with situations that are seeking to devour them. When you are faced with it directly, it’s easy to be taken aback, almost staggered by the enormity of their need and the weight of carrying it with them.
I was not shocked or overwhelmed, as I’ve had a clear view of the types of things faced by our youth for some time now. Both in the days of my youth as well as in the lives of my children, I’ve been afforded a front row seat to some pretty awful things. So it wasn’t necessarily a week of discovery for me. But one of the greater takeaways was actually pretty simple: while the shape may change or the circumstances may manifest differently, whether we’re young or older, all of us are fighting real battles, suffering real pain, and feeling real emptiness. The simple fact is that we all desperately need Jesus just to make it from one day to the next.
As we approached the end of our time together, the agenda arrived at a time of simple fun and enjoyment. Throughout the course of four and a half days, the students received nine messages, had daily opportunities for morning personal study time, participated in nightly devotions with their cabins and were loved in countless ways by each other and their leaders. It was an intense and exhausting week. And it finally reached the time for the bonfire on the last night of camp. The prompting of the Holy Spirit led to a slight deviation from the norm: it was decided to forego the typical song session and brief talk around the campfire in exchange for a time when the students could simply be with each other in whatever way worked best for them.
The atmosphere was equal parts relaxed and jubilant. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there and were enjoying their time together in common fellowship. After a short while, a couple students initiated an impromptu dance competition. One kid would take a turn showing off a couple moves, followed by the next student trying to one up the other. Back and forth, move against move. Once everyone realized what was starting to take place, the energy ramped up and the air became electric. More students joined in. Kids normally perceived to be shy or a bit reclusive participated. Students chanted for leaders to step up to show what they could do. Siblings danced together. Leaders set aside egos and acted silly. As the time continued, everyone was brought into the fun and the mood was one of simple joy.
In the midst of all these festivities, one of our primary youth leaders and I were able to connect. As we stood watching, I could feel two primary emotions emanating from him: his genuine love for these young people and his pure contentment in watching them momentarily forget about their pain, battles and emptiness and simply enjoy life. Even as I sit typing these words, my heart is smiling, because I’ve come to know how deeply our youth leaders truly love those to whom they have been called to serve and minister. Then he stopped and looked directly at me. Once he was certain that he had my attention, he uttered the most profound statement I had heard that entire week: “they just want to be kids.”
This world is an ugly place. It’s corrupt, it’s disingenuous, it’s brutal. It seems that every passing year produces a new level of evil with which young people must contend and an ever-broadening exposure to pressure, temptation and availability. Things that were extreme in the past are now common place. Activities that previously required significant effort to gain access are now readily available. Pressure is exerted in increasingly higher amounts and from virtually every angle. Young people see more, hear more, know more and deal with so much more than you can imagine.
- According to a report published by the Center On Addiction (centeronaddiction.org), 86% of American high school students said that some classmates drink, use drugs and smoke during the school day. Additionally, 44% of high school students knew a student who sold drugs at their school. It also reported that 52% of high school students said that there was a place on school grounds or near school where students can go to use drugs, drink or smoke during the school day, and 36% said it was easy for students to use drugs, drink or smoke during the school day without getting caught. 75% of 12-to-17-year-olds said that seeing pictures of teens partying with alcohol or marijuana on various social networking sites encouraged other teens to want to party like that. 45% of teens have seen pictures on social networking sites of other teens getting drunk, passed out or using drugs, and 47% of teens who have seen these pictures said that it seemed like the teens in the pictures were having a good time.
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005). 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Overweight girls are more likely than normal weight girls to engage in such extreme dieting (Boutelle, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Resnick, 2002; Neumark-Sztainer&Hannan, 2001; Wertheim et al., 2009).
- According to DoSomething.org, over 3.2 million students are victims of bullying each year, while approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying, and 17% of American students report being bullied 2 to 3 times a month or more within a school semester.
- com reports that 9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography online before the age of 18. The first exposure to pornography among boys is 12 years old, on average. 83% of boys and 57% of girls are exposed to group sex online. 69% of boys and 55% of girls are exposed to same-sex intercourse online. 32% of boys and 18% of girls are exposed to bestiality online. 15% of boys and 9% of girls have seen child pornography online. 71% of teens have done something to hide their online activity from their parents. 28% of 16-17-year-olds have unintentionally been exposed to pornography online. 20% of 16-year-olds and 30% of 17-year-olds have received a sext. 39% of boys and 23% of girls have seen sexual bondage online.
“They just want to be kids.”
One evening during devotions, several of the early grade high school boys in my cabin conveyed how critical this annual, singular week of church camp was in their lives. While perhaps I shouldn’t have been, I was genuinely surprised. They look forward in anticipation throughout the entire year to this brief week. It is held in such high status in their lives because it is the only time they truly feel like they are focused upon, receive unconditional love and can escape from the weight of their everyday. I thought I knew, but my eyes were given focus to the broader scope of the issues.
And if we’re really honest, regardless of the stage of life in which we currently find ourselves, we share much in common with those students. With each passing year, we deal with more and more. We feel the increasing weight of our everyday. We long for a respite, a retreat, an opportunity to feel focused upon and receive unconditional love. Just like them, we just want to be kids.
It is my humble assessment that these beautiful young people have a great lesson to teach to us all: look for those opportunities to be close to Jesus. Seek His refuge and relief. Be a child in His presence and through His saving grace.
And so, the challenge for each of us is found in Matthew 19:
13 Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
I’ve been guilty in the past and occasionally still have to check myself – I’ve been irritated by silliness, expected greater maturity and scolded for lack of self-control. Even in the midst of very intentional parenting in an effort to properly equip and guide children within the real world, I have held expectations inconsistent with their ages and development. The week was enlightening, and I pray, it will be life-changing in ways that are clear to see.
Let us all never forget: they just want to be kids.