Sometimes people ask me what I think about youth ministry, and I fear they regret asking the question after they receive a wikipedia's worth of ramblings that culminate in principles which raise a defiant fist to conventional practice and offer them little solace. . .
And occasionally I get someone who is even more specific and asks me what I think about middle school ministry. . .that answer is a lot shorter:
"I don't believe in it." (awkward pause)
Then I laugh and tell them I'm kidding. . .which I am. . .barely.
Maybe it's just all the scars speaking. . .
It was a hot, humid, and sandy summer in the lowcountry of South Carolina. . .which may be the most redundant sentence I've ever typed.
I was invited to speak at a middle school summer camp on a murky body of water they called a lake. It sounded so good on paper: bring the family, stay next to the lake for a week, only speak in the evenings, etc.
In reality, the heat all week felt like we were wearing black sweat pants as we sat in the Devil's locker room. . .the humidity was so thick butterflies were wearing headbands. There were bugs everywhere, beetles scurrying into our concrete apartment, dragonflies the size of vultures dive-bombing your head as you tried to avoid the clinging black-grey gritty dirt and the sand spurs (which is like trying to avoid political conversations on Facebook in October).
The concrete apartment we stayed in reminded me of a prison cell, which is appropriate, because the food also reminded me of prison. I bet their head cafeteria worker had a poster of a food pyramid on the wall with hot dogs as the base and carbohydrates you can serve with an ice cream scoop making up the rest of it. My memory is a little hazy but I think the only flavors the soft serve ice cream machine had were Pickle and Foot Stew. . .
My first night speaking to a room of 200 middle schoolers was also a wonderfully unique experience. The standard Youth Worship Service at these camps, if at full capacity, looks something like this:
Loud Intro Music the Youth Pastor Still Thinks His Students Listen To
(Host Pastor Grabs Band and Speaker so we can "Pray Real Quick")
Opening Video/Announcements Promising Next Big Thing To Be Awesome
Barely Practiced Skit OR Game Found on the Internet or Re-Heated From Youth Events Past
Awkward Transition to Worship Band
17 Member Youth Band Takes Five Minutes Situating Themselves
Lead Singer Prays to Regain "Focus" Lost During Last Five Minutes
3 or 12 Songs Sung By the Band and First Half of Auditorium
Speaker Delivers Paradigm Shifting Prophetic Word of Truth
Songs of Reflection/Commitment/Weird Staring at Band
Closing Comments and/or Re-Preach by Host Pastor
But my Host Pastor had a bit of a wrinkle. . .we just started the singing right away, which I was very encouraged by. . .but then he decided the Game would go next and then me. . .
As the Youth Band finished up a pretty solid set with a blistering combo of Tomlin and Hillsong, the GameMaster got up as he his crew set up the Game. . .which I will now describe to you and give you my usual disclaimer when Truth is about to arrive: I am not making this up.
They brought out 2 toilets, yes, 2 porcelain toilets, that I assume were purchased new and never used. The bottoms of the toilets had been sealed shut and were able to hold liquid, which was fortunate, because they began to fill the toilets up with Mountain Dew. . .Mountain Dew they said represented the other brightly colored liquid usually occupying toilet bowls.
The next part of set up was the volunteers individually unwrapping bags of mini Baby Ruth candy bars and plopping them into the pseudo-urine filled pots. These Baby Ruths represented the deposits typically made at the First Bank of Porcelain but can also be found in the diapers of toddlers and in places where insensitive dog owners walk their dogs. . .
The Game itself would require the participants to get on their hands and knees and bob by sticking their heads in the toilets and using only their mouths to remove the Lil Surprises from their soup. The winner would be the person who could create the biggest pile of sugar turds. And Katniss thought her Hunger Games were cruel. . .
I forget who won and what the tally ended up being-- I was too busy dry-heaving over my sermon notes. The Game crew came out at the end of the game and removed the toilets and Baby Ruth bombs as the Host Pastor came up for my introduction. . .
"We're really excited to have for our preacher this week, Matt Orth. . ."
No one was listening to him or looking at me as I came up; they were too busy watching the laughing helpers mop up the carbonated pee behind me. . .
To this day, it's probably my best introduction ever.
So what did I do next?
I prayed. Then I taught and proclaimed the Gospel.
Years later I don't remember what message it was or what the response was. . .but I do remember this one thing:
The Gospel was preached right where it always has been and where it always belongs: in the muck and messiness of real people's lives. (just sometimes the metaphor is a tad more literal)