The Unexpected Places Where Students Encounter the Church

It was a hot and sunny day in the octagon. The energy was palpable as matches completed and quickly restarted. There were a plethora of interesting characters, all present to test their metal: The Flash, Captain America, Beanie Boy, and Squishy Muffins to name a few. The crowds swelled to cheer on their favorite competitors. Victors were crowned. Losers wallowed in defeat.

No, I am not describing MMA Fight Night. The scene I am describing is “Gaga Ball,” also known as “Octoball.” If you have been around youth ministry, even for a few moments, then I am sure you have encountered this enigmatic yet addicting phenomenon. The premise is straight-forward: slabs of wood form an octagon, this constitutes “the pit.” People then gather into the pit, slap a ball around, and if it hits you below the knee then you are eliminated. The last person standing wins. Sounds pretty simple, but as I am sure many of you have seen, kids risk hand and foot for victory.

I mention Gaga Ball because it is one example of an unexpected avenue where my students discovered the beauty of the universal Church.

Several weeks ago, I and several students had the privilege of traveling to Laguna Beach, Florida for Reformed Youth Ministries (RYM) Summer Conference. It was an incredible week where we heard the gospel preached, gleaned wisdom to navigate culture, exalted the name of Jesus through song, and played A LOT of Gaga Ball. And it was at the octagon that something special happened: my students met other students from another church and became friends. The friendships forged over that week, beginning with a game, opened the horizon for my students (and in many ways myself) to see the vast beauty of Christ’s Church, one that was far bigger than the walls of our church back home.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, likens the church to the human body. Our bodies are whole but fashioned together with different parts like arms, legs, hands, feet, and a head. Similar to the human body, says Paul, the church has many members. And all the members of the body, though many, are one body; so it is with Christ (2 Cor 12:12). The body of Christ is meticulously composed with different parts, not for division, but that it would be unified! The different parts are joined together under Christ our head so that we can care for one another, suffer together, and rejoice together. As the Church, our hope belongs to our call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:5).

In today’s divided world, the sweetness of the Church can be missed. Our students live in broken, fractured societies where division is often lauded over unity. In today’s world unity is hard to come by as it requires a spirit of humility where we lay aside what is less important and come together under what is most important. Our time in Florida was special because for five days denominations and less important differences did not matter. Instead, we came together under the banner of “sinners saved by grace,” acknowledging that our only hope in life and death is that we belong to God through the victorious work of Christ our King. For a week we were unified as we listened to God’s word preached, wrestled with its implications, and had a lot of fun with people from all paths of life.

Retreats, camps, and conferences have a unique way of showing us that Christ’s Church is bigger than our ministries. These spaces have the potential to infuse energy as they strategically break up the monotony of the weekly schedule. Consider ways to introduce your students to the broader Church. Maybe that means taking your students on a mission trip where they can see Christ at work in and through people of a different culture. Maybe that means attending a summer camp or conference where different denominations are present. Perhaps it looks like collaborating with another church in your city where you and their youth group plan a joint activity. Be creative. Think out of the box. Show your students that the Church is bigger than the walls of your youth space.

As we left Florida, my students were in disbelief that people they had known for only three days could suddenly feel like family – and if I am honest, I was just as surprised. I admit that our divided world has left me with scars of cynicism. However, to my surprise, I too left with newfound friendships! In fact, it was as the Gaga pit where I met other leaders and watched as they lovingly pointed their students to Jesus. The Lord used their patience, kindness, joy, and love towards their students to sharpen me into a better minister of the gospel. What a joy it was to share with my students that these new friends are family, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ! My students gleamed as they began to realize the beauty and gift of the body of Christ.

You have likely heard the saying, “It can be easy to miss the beauty of the forest when you are so focused on the trees.” The adage rings true here, where it is easy to become hyper-focused on important trees like leading a ministry, meeting with students, providing counsel to parents, and writing Sunday School lessons. I’m afraid, however, that when we become so focused on the daily, necessary tasks of leading a ministry we forget that we are participating in something much bigger than ourselves. We must remember that the ministry the Lord has given us is only a thread in the finely sewn tapestry that is Christ’s Church. Therefore, I encourage you to show your students the forest, for the Church is beautiful and compelling and sometimes encountered in the most unexpected places.

Connor serves as the Youth Minister at Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, AL, where he lives with his wife, Shelley, and two sons. He is passionate about seeing students grow to know, love, and follow Jesus in the local church. He holds an M.Div from Beeson Divinity School. In his free time, you can find him enjoying a good book or baking a fresh loaf of bread.

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