It is the summer of your senior year, and you will spend it at the beach with your youth group.
Around you, the sky will turn to dusk as you play Ultimate Frisbee, eat a hot dog straight from the grill, jump into the cold, wild deep.
You will go on one last missions trip, maybe. Maybe Mexico or Costa Rica or just downtown to help at a shelter. You will eat simple foods and disconnect from electronics and meet people so different, so beautiful that your heart will ache with it.
You will vow to live differently. You will want to change the world for God.
In that foreign place, you will feel the deep threads of connection. Your youth group will become a kind of extended family as you work together to build a house or a well or to serve food to the hungry. You’ll pick up a soccer ball and begin to play, and you feel so child-like and so grown-up all at once, all of you together in that other world.
At church on Sunday mornings, you’ll all sit in one row, listening and passing notes, so aware of who is next to you. So aware of God around you.
And this is your last youth group summer. Enjoy it. Play every stupid group game. Stay out late, drinking gas-station cappuccino, driving nowhere in particular. Lie side-by-side on the hood of your car, counting the stars and wondering about God. On those last warm beach nights, dive all the way in.
It won’t really be like this again.
You need to know that. And you need to know that it’s okay.
I want to tell you that faith is easy when you are well-loved. When you are circling to pray, hand-in-hand, holding on tight to each other.
At fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you are infinite and invincible and on the verge of Everything. It’s a kind of liquid oxygen – these feelings, this love – and when you add the spark of new faith, it’s so easy to find yourself on fire, to glow bright, to light the world.
But you turn the tassel on your graduation cap, and you turn into your new life. You go to college or to work. You move out. You move away.
Maybe you’ll love the Christian group on your campus. But maybe it won’t feel right, won’t feelthe same, and so you’ll stop going after three weeks and never go back.
If you go to Christian College, you might find yourself at the other end of those side-eyes that make you feel less-than, because this is how it goes: you are all new here. All of you are looking for your footing and your family. You will, consciously or unconsciously, size each other up. You will judge and be judged and it will hurt like mad, all of it.
If you grew up in one church most of your life, it will feel really different to go somewhere new. Without the youth group to take you in, there’s a chance you’ll feel unmoored. You’ll sit alone in the sanctuary maybe, and in the sea of smiling church people in the lobby, you’ll feel adrift and lonely.
It will be easy to find fault with every church you go to. It won’t feel right, and you’ll be tempted to pin-point what’s wrong. To blame the preaching or the music or the people. Really, the truth is that it’s just not home. And it’s okay if that feels hard; it’s okay to stop going for a while or to find other ways of doing church, of being Church in your normal life.
One by one, your friends will break those vows you all made to each other and to God. The ones spoken at banquets and on missions trips and late-night under the stars. The disillusionment will creep in, stark and cold, and the reality of the world you live in will feel big and sharp. For a while, everything will feel in flux.
Maybe your closest youth group friends will give up on God altogether, and if they trust you enough to tell you this, don’t quote Bible verses or launch into memorized apologetics. Just listen. Just be there.
Reach across the table and hold her hand. Give him a hug and then be there. Because faith is easier when you are well-loved exactly as you are…and it feels nearly impossible when you’re not.
What I’m trying to say is that it gets more complex from here on out.
It’s tempting to want to recreate those youth group days, to try to replicate it in your grown-up life, but I’ll tell you right now that it doesn’t work. You are older now, and once you move on, you can’t go back. Community will look different at 20 and at 30 and at 40, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful, any less important, any less at all.
It’s tempting, too, to write off these early years as less real, as less important, as too simple.Maybe you’ll read an article about how 20-somethings have a hard time connecting in church because they are used to being entertained, because they’re used to being catered to by youth group leaders everywhere. And you’ll think, Yes! That’s it! That’s why it’s hard! Maybe you’ll be tempted to point fingers, then, to blame the past for how it feels now.
But really, that’s not the whole truth, is it?
The whole truth includes evenings at the edge of the water with your friends. It includes handwritten notes from your youth pastor and that church family who let you all stay in their lake house that one weekend for a summer retreat.
It’s late-night coffee and old, ripped up couches and it’s true – you won’t always feel it. Faith is a journey and a landscape. It’s mad seasons and cold seasons and those first warm dayswhen you feel God’s great love again. All of it is hard and beautiful, and every bit of it matters.
And if you find yourself well-loved by Church People in this, your last youth group summer, be grateful.
Dive in and swim deep. And when you towel yourself off and put on your shoes, notice the way you feel right now: waterlogged and happy. Sunburned and invincible and beloved.
Carry it with you. And walk on.