If one stood at the base of a section of El Capitan, known as the Dawn Wall, in Yosemite National Park and looked up, one would come face-to-face with almost 3,000 feet of sheer granite cliffs. For most people any thought of climbing it would be swallowed up by fear as they stared at an unforgiving cliff face which offered few handholds to the untrained eye. The Dawn Wall was believed to be an impossible free-climb.
But this didn’t stop Tommy Caldwell.
Tommy is considered to be one of the best all-around climbers in the world. For seven years he studied the Dawn Wall and searched for a route which would allow him and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, to accomplish the impossible. After nineteen days of climbing, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top earlier this year in January.
In August I heard Tommy Caldwell speak at TEDxKC. Briefly, he shared with us his world and life as we got a glimpse of what he experienced through his video and stories of the grueling ordeal.
Tommy is routinely asked how he does it. How does he climb routes and often make what would be difficult for almost anyone else look easy? He attributes his success in part to how he was raised by his dad. Tommy said, “You must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children.” Tommy’s dad started his son climbing at age three and always encouraged him to face whatever challenges the climb brought.
You must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children.
Tommy’s words stuck with me.
I began to ponder how often I practice the opposite in youth ministry. How often do I prepare the path for the youth who walk through the church doors on Sundays and Wednesdays instead of preparing youth to walk with God through life? Do I attend to both the paths of joy and success and the darker murkier paths of adversity, pain and suffering?
Tommy’s words coalesced with a book I had read recently by New York Times Op-Ed writer and author David Brooks. The book is entitled The Road To Character. It’s one of those books I keep in a short stack on my desk to reread on a regular basis. It’s quality work.
David Brooks wrestles in his book with our society’s emphasis on personal fulfillment in place of character development. He writes, “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” As Brooks notes throughout the book, the path to character development is often the opposite of what is encouraged in society. Success for its own sake is not the ultimate goal if one hopes to develop a moral character.
Struggle and adversity are important teachers for both David and Tommy. Character takes time to develop. It requires a willingness to focus and wrestle with one’s weaknesses rather than rely on one’s strengths. Spiritual formation—being formed into the image of Christ—requires the same basic necessities.
We “prepare the path for our youth” when we focus on giving our youth personal spiritual fulfillment without encouraging them to see the long arc of discipleship. This is a tempting option, but ultimately fails to develop character in our youth.
Preparing the path for our youth is easy—so long as we are in control of the path. Youth ministry which “prepares our youth for the path,” however, involves much more risk.
Instead of aiming to entertain, we risk seeing fun as a subversive ministry activity to deconstruct stereotypes and testify to the image of God each of us is made in.
Instead of claiming “spiritual growth” is an activity which can be jammed into one or two hours each week, we risk redefining spiritual growth as a lifetime practice. To cultivate a love for God and others, our neighbors, takes time. I don’t know of any other way to learn how to love well. It can’t be developed over night. Tommy spent seven years studying the Dawn Wall before he found the necessary path to succeed.
Instead of offering theologically unsound ideas about God, we risk challenging popular conceptions of God. How often (in the hope of making Jesus attractive) is Jesus advertised as a God who will bring me personal fulfillment, success, and help me change the world? I believe the inverse is true. Instead of asking how Jesus can help me change the world, I need to ask how I can help Jesus change the world. The answer may shock me in its lack of spectacle, its ordinariness, and everyday mundaneness.
Instead of asking how Jesus can help me change the world, I need to ask how I can help Jesus change the world.
Trust is crucial if we are going to create youth ministries which help prepare our youth for the path with God. It’s through trust youth are willing to slow down, to let go of seeking God out of a desire to be personally satisfied, and open up to a God who invites us to so much more.
In the early years of my vocational calling to youth ministry, I used to panic and begin to sweat inside when a parent came into my office and shared with me their child wasn’t always having fun at youth group. Now I see it as an opportunity to teach. To hopefully engage parents and youth alike into a deeper relationship with Jesus. And if this relationship is to grow, it requires the all too often neglected ingredients of sacrifice, struggle, engagement with our weaknesses, and an eagerness to fail as much as we succeed.
Rev. Seth M. Vopat is a writer and American Baptist ordained member of the clergy who currently works as an associate pastor in the Kansas City area. He is an M.Div. graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and has a certificate in Youth & Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.