by Hank Hilliard and Mary Dell Deweese
My oldest son, Tanner, played baseball last spring in what is called a “modified coach-pitch league,” which is one step up from T-ball. The batter gets seven pitches from the coach (which actually turned into more like 10-12 pitches) to try to get a hit. If he fails to hit the ball, then a tee is placed on home plate and the batter proceeds to hit the ball from the tee.
Being new to all of this Little League stuff, I assumed Tanner would be playing T-ball. After all, the modified coach-pitch league was advertised for five- and six-year-olds, and Tanner was only four. When my wife went to register him, however, the coordinator encouraged her to have Tanner play up a level in order to get more games and better competition. When she hesitated, he assured her, “He’ll be fine.” My wife called me to ask my opinion. I suggested she trust the coordinator and sign him up for the five- and six-year-old league.
When we arrived for the first practice, I was amazed at the size of Tanner’s teammates. I had never in my life seen five-year-olds with muscles. Tanner ran out beside his teammates for the first drill looking like an infant. He barely came up to some of the kids’ chests. He didn’t notice, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have cared. He was playing baseball. After watching countless games on television with me, he got to put on a uniform and be just like the Big Leaguers.
Tanner made it through the pre-season practices, and with the additional work in the backyard, he became a fairly decent hitter. (His fielding was another story.) On our way to the first game of the season, Tanner said “Dad, I hope I don’t have to hit off the tee.” I responded “Why not?” He looked at me very seriously and said, “Because the tee is for little kids. I’m a big kid.”
We arrived at the field about 20 minutes before game time. I threw him a few practice pitches. He missed more than he hit. I tossed him some grounders. He missed more than he caught. Then the game started. Our team was up to bat first. In this league, outs are not recorded. The inning is over only after every player has had a plate appearance.
Tanner was set to bat third. I dug out his helmet and batting gloves from his bag and rushed to get him all dressed and prepared for his first at-bat. He ran into the on-deck circle to take a few practice swings.
When his turn came, Tanner ran into the batter’s box, hoisted the bat into the air and awaited the first pitch. It came. He swung. He missed. The second pitch came. Again, he swung and missed. Third pitch. On the fifth pitch he tapped the ball foul. Finally, pitch number seven came zooming at him. With the same steady, consistent swing, Tanner laid the bat on the ball and managed to hit a slow roller to third base. Tanner began running to first as I screamed for him to “Run, Run, Run!” He arrived safely to first base. His first hit.
Developing Our Young People
Firsts are so important in life: Our first step, our first word, our first date, our first kiss. These are significant markers in our lives. We want to remember them—so we take pictures; we call our friends to tell them about the event; and we write about them in our journals. These “firsts” signify the beginning of a new chapter in life, often meaning the leaving behind of an early phase of living. They show growth and development.
Youth group is a place where we have a huge opportunity to make significant impact in the lives of young people through the offering of first time experiences. The youth ministry is often a place where young people get to experience new things that they would never experience in their family or school setting. Healthy ministries have earned the trust of the parents. Parents also feel like stakeholders and a valuable piece of a healthy youth ministry. This is important in offering “firsts” to youth. Parent needs to feel assured their kids will be safe, will be well taken care of by the adults in charge, and will have a positive “first” experience.
A few days before I left my former church to move to a new city, I had an incredible conversation with Mary Dell Dweese, one of my graduating students. She was a senior and excited to recap our years of youth group experiences. After sharing about our excitement and fears about our futures, Mary Dell brought up all the “firsts” she had experienced during her years in the youth group. She shared how much these experiences meant to her and how they have helped form her into the person she was:
I have experienced so many “firsts” with my youth group, especially outdoorsy things like snow skiing, backpacking, camping, and white water rafting. My family is not very athletic and prefers to vacation at the beach or in a city, so adventurous youth trips have opened my eyes to so many new things!
Singing a solo with the youth choir gave me confidence I didn’t know I had, and shopping in a thrift store was an eye-opening experience that made me very aware of how many people rely on thrift stores for their clothes – not just for costumes like we were looking for.
A mission trip to Costa Rica immersed us in the culture of another country, and showed me that while we have language and culture differences, the people are just like us. I also discovered that language is not a barrier to communicate with someone!
Participating in the 30-Hour Famine was another “first” for me—I’m more concerned now about the struggles of so many people around the world who do not have enough food to survive.
Participating in these challenges and new experiences with my youth group drew us all closer together. We had to lean on each other and lift each other up to get through each new experience.
Transformation in New Experiences
Some youth are eager to jump right into new experiences and challenges. Others may hesitate or even avoid events or programs that include new and different experiences. Either way, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power that lies in a first-time experience. Transformation happens when we break through our fences of comfort and move into unfamiliar and uncomfortable areas.
One of the most memorable trips I have ever led was what I termed the Junior High “I’ve Never” Trip. I designed a three-day excursion filled with activities I thought most, if not all, of the participants had never experienced before. The trip was filled with activities such as crystal mining, riding horses and living on a working horse ranch, and S.C.U.B.A. Diving. The students grew closer to one another and grew in their faith through these new and exciting experiences.
As the leader, there are a few precautions you should take in offering ministry opportunities that include youth having first-time experiences.
Safety is a major concern.
Youth should have the opportunity to have first-time experiences in a safe atmosphere. Nothing can ruin a fun time like an accident, or worse, a tragedy. Do your homework and your research. Participate in the experience yourself first before making it a ministry opportunity. If you are taking a group to Mexico for the first time, visit where you are going first by yourself or with another adult. If you want to take kids skiing, then visit the slopes first to get a lay of the land and a feel for what having 8, 12, or 50 students on the slopes might be like. If you cannot visit a place first, get input and recommendations from people you trust.
Have a support system in place.
Make sure you have an ample supply of mature adults to accompany you. You will need adults who care about the youth, who work to build healthy relationship with the youth and one another, and who you can rely on to pitch in to make the experience a positive one. Remember, some youth will be anxious and hesitant as they are asked to try new things. You need a support system of adults to walk with the youth (or ski with them) through the process.
You don’t want to eliminate all risk from the experience, but you don’t want to put kids in situations that can be dangerous or unhealthy either. For example, when I took the Junior High kids S.C.U.B.A. Diving, we reserved an indoor diving pool with a good reputation and certified instructors (also, there were no sharks in the pool!). The youth got the “first” experience of breathing and exploring underwater, which felt dangerous and risky, but in reality was extremely safe. Think of worse case scenarios before you ever load the van, and think about possible ways to minimize potentially harmful situations.
I hope that the first-time experiences you offer will have the same profound effect on your youth group as they did on Mary Dell. She is a living testimony to the value of stretching beyond your comfort zones. Through these experiences she had to learn to rely on herself and grow in her skills and confidence. More, Mary Dell learned to trust others and, most importantly, to trust and love God. What better lesson can we teach our youth?