The Holy Spirit on the Ski Lift: Incarnational… | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
March 2016

The Holy Spirit on the Ski Lift: Incarnational Youth Ministry Moments

By Mike Ratliff

Five or six hundred United Methodist youth workers filled the room. The bishop who was speaking (long-since retired) was telling us that we spent too much time entertaining youth in our churches – and he was right. He went on to say that we needed to cut out the fun stuff and focus on spiritual growth and social justice – he was partly right. Then he mentioned ski trips specifically as an activity that should be banned from United Methodist youth ministry as a waste of time, money, and energy – he could have been right. [For those who are in countries that don’t have winter and snow, skiing is a recreational activity and sport where a participant use a ski to glide on snow.] I waited for someone to respond – no one did. Finally, I stood up, walked to the mic, and addressed the group.

It wasn't eloquent, and it may not have been appropriate, but I knew it had to be said! There is a common misconception that spiritual growth happens when we’re in a sanctuary, a room studying the Bible, or sequestered at a retreat center away from “the world.” I believe that to be true, but I know there's so much more to how youth grow spiritually.

I'm thinking about a time when I spent most of a night with a couple of high school guys who were new to our group, talking about the pot they brought with them; why it happened, what they wanted to do with it, and how it related to being a follower of Jesus. After several hours of conversation and prayer, they asked me to watch them flush it down the toilet, and help them be more Christ-like. I think spiritual growth happened that night.

I remember watching Laurie, a senior, who skied better than any of us, as she stuck with the youth who had a hard time just standing up, and spent as much time climbing out of the woods as they did on their skis. Her perpetual smile, and helping hand (and sometimes ski pole) provided the presence of Christ’s love in the midst of a daunting challenge for the less-than-skillful among us.

Chris, an intern who was about to finish college, spent several ski-lift rides sharing with me his work to discern God’s purpose for his life. There was no blinding light or lightning strike, but that was one important step on his continuing journey of discovery and ministry.

Spiritual growth can happen in youth ministry in any setting, at any time. It is not a static commodity that shows up when the leader is religious enough or the structure is confined to an adapted version of adult ministry models. Spiritual growth can happen in EVERY venue of youth ministry. This is the beauty of incarnational youth ministry. Adults and youth – in every way they interact – communicate their faith by osmosis. Each word they say and even how they handle the times when they fail to live their faith in relationship with each other are spiritual growth opportunities.

I love nothing better than a deep discussion about the spiritual truths we can discover through scripture, and the new awareness of God’s presence and divine leading we can experience in a setting for worship and prayer. What I know is that God breaks into our lives – and the lives of the youth we work with – in a myriad of times and an ever-expanding variety of places.

I was at a memorial service last year for one of my most faithful volunteers in ministry. After the service, his daughter and I were talking and she asked “Mike, do you remember the ski trip where we got stuck on the mountain because of the big snow storm?” I rolled my eyes as I remembered the challenges of dealing with youth who would miss school, leaders who would be a day late getting back to work, finding extra food for the group, trying to get our frozen bus working – oh, I remembered that trip! Then, she said, “I know it was a difficult time for you, but it was also the first time that I knew for certain that the Holy Spirit existed. So I just wanted you to know…”

How intentional are you about spiritual growth being reflected in every aspect of your ministry?

What makes your game/fun nights an opportunity for spiritual growth?

At the end of every youth group, retreat, Bible study, and trip, what is the answer to this question: “Where did I see God?”

Mike leads YPM staff working with all levels of church leadership and the Division on Ministries with Young People members to facilitate all aspects of our work globally.