Rites of Passage

Growing up is hard.

It is much harder when you feel like you are doing it alone. As infants, there is an adult to care for all your needs. When you reach elementary school your parents are still very involved and you are starting to make friends who walk the journey of life with you. But when you reach Middle School there is a fierce independent streak that comes out in all of us. “I can do it, Mom.” “I don’t need your help, Dad.” “I’m not a little kid anymore; I know what I’m doing.” The tension is that middle schoolers may be more grown up than they were, but they still have a lot of growing to do. The truth is that their brains aren’t fully developed; but they are developed enough to make them think that all the growing has finished. This is why being a teenager is difficult. The part of the brain still developing is the decision making part. This is the part of the brain that sorts through emotion and reason to find the best solutions.

Teenagers need to take risks in order to form this part of their brain. Many cultures around the world and throughout history have taken notice of this transition from childhood to adulthood and celebrated with healthy risks. These risks are called rites of passage, and they are events or activities that mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. The Jewish culture marks this transition by allowing youth to read scripture aloud in front of the community and then throwing a big party called a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Native American tribes would send their youth on vision quests where they would spend a few days alone in the forest connecting with nature and their spirits.

Rites of passage are an important part of teenagers navigating adolescence successfully. This last weekend Student Ministries went on their annual Middle School Retreat. For the students, this retreat is a rite of passage, marking the beginning of that transition into adulthood. Some of the students had never been away from their parents overnight. Many of them experienced community in a different way than they ever had before, and all of them took healthy risks.

The students worshipped together, ate together, and played together. They were given the opportunity to make their own choices. This year the students learned how to throw a tomahawk. This is the best kind of risk because it feels dangerous, but it took place on a specialized range with an instructor and was very safe. Trying new things and taking risks is natural teenage behavior, so offering healthy opportunities to exercise those skills gives confidence to students and helps them form good decision making habits.

One of the things Pastor Mack and I always do on these retreats is split the students into teams and then give them the opportunity to name their teams. While calling yourselves The Avocado Penguins or The Squirrels with Attitude may not seem very significant, two things have happened during this exercise. One, the students have been able to take a healthy risk by naming themselves something silly, and two, they have formed an identity within the community. After this moment the students have a role in the community and this is important in forming connection and belonging to the group.

Taking risks and growing up is hard enough without having to do it alone. Finding belonging is another significant part of adolescence. While on retreat the students spend the majority of their time with one another. Without their familiar routines and technology to distract them, they are provided an opportunity to learn how relationships work and to test their patience for one another.

During the sessions Pastor Mack spoke about being in Christ, doing like Christ, and going with Christ on mission. These are the foundations of what it means to be a Nazarene. They are important lessons for middle schoolers to learn while they are exploring what Christian community means. More than any eloquent lesson Pastor Mack or I could teach from a podium, taking risks together, spending time together, and worshipping together are the best teachers for young adolescents and are the lessons about community that will stick with them into adulthood.

As a youth pastor one of the best experiences in ministry so far happened at the retreat. I had been talking with some of the high schoolers one Wednesday night about the upcoming retreat for middle schoolers and Rochelle, one of the 11th grade students, said, “That sounds fun, I’d like to go.” While I thought she was just being facetious and didn’t actually want to hang out with middle school students for a whole weekend, on a whim I told her I could make that happen and proceeded to ask her if she would be willing to come on the retreat to lead worship. It was a “Holy Spirit” moment because the next thing I knew, she agreed and spent the next couple of weeks planning and practicing what songs she would play. Rochelle came with us up the mountain, she led worship for us, and she led a team of students in the competitions. But she also talked with the kids, hung out with them during free time, and made sure they all felt included. It was such a blessing to see God working through her to impact the lives of the younger students, and the most unlikely part was that she enjoyed it!

“I had the best time singing and leading worship, but also in engaging with miniature versions of myself! I found that I really love connecting with the unfamiliar students in my youth group. I was nervous going into this weekend; but after those 36 hours, they’re like family. I cannot wait to go again.”
– Rochelle DeVries

The camp where the retreat was held happened to be the same one Rochelle had attended as a middle school student herself four years earlier. At the time, the retreat marked the beginning of her passage into adulthood. Now as she finishes up her junior year of high school and looks forward to planning her future, she has grown from being a scared, unsure middle school student into a mature and gifted Kingdom worker. When I talk about rites of passage as stepping stones leading to adulthood, High School students coming on Middle School retreats is not what I normally think of but, after this last weekend, I should.

To watch students who you have journeyed with since their own middle school years grow and blossom into wonderful women and men of God is an incredible blessing. I cannot claim credit for who Rochelle has become but, as a witness of the work of Christ in her life, I can say that God is good and I am privileged to partner with God in ministry. This year’s middle school retreat will be remembered not just for the things that went wrong or the things that worked out, but because of who God is and how he always does incredible things in the lives of people, even teenagers.

– Pastor Heather Handley

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