I think that this can be a common experience. That information or facts about God can become our religious experience or those facts can be an intimidating obstacle to a real relationship with God. Don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely think that we need to learn about our faith. Knowledge helps us to understand our God and deepen our intimacy with Him, but if we don’t teach how to have a relationship with God and then that knowledge without relationship becomes problematic.
I have seen a lot of this within our youth ministry program. There are a lot of kids that come into our retreats (8th grade or early high school) with an understanding already that they can’t be good enough because they aren’t doing the right things or they don’t know the right things. More often than not that becomes the overarching obstacle to kids coming into a relationship with God.
General studies about the faith in this age group reflect this mentality as well. Students are choosing whether they want to stay in their religion younger and younger. Studies done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that 40% of children of this generation decide in middle school whether they are going to practice their religion or not. Obviously, we can’t apply that percentage directly to our MHT population, but it has to make us aware that middle school students need a real relationship with God to practice their faith and not just facts/information.
Which is why we (MHT Ministry Staff and Teaching Staff) are trying to give this age group more exposure to an encounter with Jesus. Some of our staff referenced our Middle School Encounters in our Christmas Bulletin, but I wanted to talk more about them because it was really a privilege to be apart of. We had three different times for a Holy Spirit Encounter for grades 5-8 for the students in our Religious Education program and students in the Catholic School. We adapted our adult Holy Spirit Encounter nights and provided an opportunity for all of our 5th-8th grade students to attend one.To prepare the kids for these encounters, teachers from both programs taught classes about the Holy Spirit, hearing God’s voice, and God’s desire for a relationship with us. There was a lot of excitement as we talked about adoration and prayer teams with the kids and when we got to the Middle School Encounter it was really fun to watch God work.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” God the Father loves children and gives them an ability to give themselves to him in such a beautiful way. Throughout all the Middle School Encounters that we had, it seemed very obvious that each student had the freedom to let God in the way that they were comfortable with. Whether it was going to a prayer team or sitting in adoration there were some very powerful experiences.
I remember one instance with a student very clearly after I prayed with her. When we were talking about her experience she said, “I knew in my mind that God loved me before, but now I KNOW that he loves me in my heart.”
Another student that described her experience referenced three different times that she’s encountered God in the last year and then articulated how this time was different. She said that this time she just got to sit and be with Jesus the whole time and loved being able to just talk with Him.
Developing this sort of culture where our students can expect God to be real, to love them unconditionally, and to come to them in whatever place they are at is our overall goal. These encounters definitely are laying the groundwork for that culture and I can’t wait until we do more in the spring!