For the third year in a row I banned cell phones from 80 teenagers, for 8 days straight. And do you know what? No one would have had it any other way: when you invite teenagers to a private island to have the best week of their life, at least you're coming to the table with something to bargain with.
I have directed a youth camp on Ponui Island since 2013, yet a couple of years ago one of my leaders came to me and said, 'Matt we have a whole, private island to explore, so why are we having another church service in the hall? Why don't we do something different?'
He was right.
We gathered up our fairy lights, mattresses and musical instruments and led everyone up a hill to have a worship session under the stars; it was magical. The next morning we stole everyone's crockery and cutlery and forced them to run up a hill where we were waiting for them with a cooked breakfast—and so was a 360 degree, panoramic view across the harbour.
That was two years ago and we continue to look at how we can do things differently—and sometimes it's no wonder that young people say that it's the best week they've ever had.
But at the end of the week the young people don't write long notes to the sunset because it smiled at them and gave them encouragement. They don't swap numbers with a kayak in the ocean because it helped them to break down their walls and pray with them. They had these life-changing experiences with people, and all the other exploits and activities aren't icing on the cake—they're purely the catalysts for the moments of significance.
Breaking down the walls
This year, on day three we had a young person share how he had been in a car crash while his mum was driving; his mum didn't make it out alive and he suffered some minor brain injuries. Understandably he's never been the same since and his friends have given up waiting for him to be the same person he used to be. He shared this courageously in front of his peers, when he could have easily kept it buried deep inside.
The following day we had three teenagers share about the death of someone significant in their lives—all taken too young. The rest of the camp listened intently—while slowly but surely having the walls in their life come crashing down too. All of a sudden people opened up to the person next to them, tearfully sharing their own pain and praying in-depth for one another long into the night.
Over the next few days came friendships, connections, laughter and more sharing. People had been real, open, honest and vulnerable—and that allowed others to belong, be accepted and contribute as themselves.
This is the stuff that is truly life-changing and transformative—not the chance to run around in the bush and play with glow sticks at night.
So why did we ban cell phones?
Too often our technology and devices can distract us from truly connecting with the people and environments around us. They help to create pseudo communities where people put on masks and play a game of comparisons. When these become our only worlds, we forget to see the backgrounds which everyone else truly comes from.
What young people are yearning for is to know that they are not alone in their pain and that there is a God who understands and longs to connect with the places they've buried deep inside. Adults, too, are the same; pain, doubt, struggles and expectations can often be suppressed below the surface by resorting to vices like cell phones and technology.
One year, as we were heading back from the island to the mainland, one of the campers said with a sigh, 'Oh well, back we go to the real world'. The Camp Mum overheard this comment and said, 'I think we've just witnessed the "real" world, a place where people are honest, vulnerable and supported. I think we're going back to the fake world.'
Make fake real
Every year I share that story and every year it resonates with young people. Not only our teenagers, but all of us, need a community where we can be real, honest and heard. We all need a community that will support us, listen to us, and pray for us.
Too often we find ourselves back in church with the same old routine—stuck in a hall singing songs and avoiding small talk. What if church this year could look different? What would it look like to make the most of every occasion and be intentional with what we do? What is the person next to you yearning for and how can we as communities break out of our moulds to ensure that people don't head into each week with hurts still suppressed?
The world with masks and walls is the world that we all live in, but avoiding it or denying its reality doesn't cause transformation: we have to tackle it head on. You don't need a private island or kayaks on the ocean, because the catalyst lies within you: it is no longer you who lives—but it is Christ who lives in you.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html