Jim Killam: I know it’s different today than it was 14 years ago when you started in youth ministry. But for the benefit of people who aren’t living this every day, what differences do you see in kids today, spiritually?
Meredith Domanico: Back then, it was very much a rhythm of what to do, versus a presence of being. I don’t think there was a lot of dependence on the Holy Spirit. And there has to be dependence on the Holy Spirit. I think there was this feeling of, “I come and do the things.” Instead of actually engaging, actually thinking about what they were doing.
JK: What were “the things” people were doing?
MD: Years ago, ministry for students was very event-driven. It was, “How can we get the numbers? How can we have the big events? How can we be the shiny church that has the great youth ministry?” And there wasn’t a lot of depth. It was very much, “We’ve gotta get as many students as we can. Outreach, outreach, outreach.” Which is super important. But if your back door is wider than your front door, you’ll get them in, and they’re going to go right back out, and they’re not going to learn a thing. They weren’t being talked to. They weren’t being seen. Students want to be seen. They want to be known. They want to be heard. They want to feel like they’re significant, because they’re fighting with everything else in this world to be significant.
Today, students want to go deeper. They just don’t know how yet. They’re very visual and they’re very story-driven. So if they see a person they know, and they see how that person experiences Christ, how their life has been impacted by Christ, then it changes for them. I can tell them night and day to read their Bible. However, (the bigger impact comes from) hearing not only about how a person is being transformed because of reading the Bible, but also learning through stories that point to where God is present and at work around them.
If they can come to a place that is different, a place where they are known, and they are heard, and they are valued, and they’re not being told, “Get off your phone,” and that they’re lazy — all these labels that the world has given them because of their generation — when they’re in that environment, and they experience these things, that’s change for them.
JK: That’s a big change from what they might be experiencing the rest of the week, right?
MD: I’ve always said to my students, “If Wednesday night does not look different than the hallways at school, we’re doing something very wrong. This has to look different from the hallways at school. This has to look different from the world.
At Summer Camp, we didn’t have the shiniest things, the best things. But in all of my years of going to Summer Camp, this was the best one. By far. Because they engaged with the God of the universe. In Father, Son and Spirit. It wasn’t just “OK, let’s get to the next game.” They experienced it heart, mind and soul.
JK: You’ve mentioned some things, but what are a few more specific ways you would envision the idea of bringing heaven to earth?
MD: Investing in one another. Participating. Saying “yes.” Engaging with what is going on. Looking past ourselves and seeing how I can be a part of this group. Investing time serving the community around us. When they are with their group of people and somebody is on the outskirts, bringing them in, making them a part of it. Knowing each other’s names.
All of those things are what builds community. Solid teaching, of course, but I don’t want students to come to me. I want them to go to Jesus. I always tell my leaders: We are not their savior. It’s great that they come to us for advice or problems that they have in their lives. But I always say to students, take what I said and bring it before the Lord. Because that’s who you need to be going to first. That’s who you need to hear from first. I can help decipher that with you and just kind give different perspectives. But everything that I say, you’ve got to bring before the Father and say, “God, that conversation with Meredith — show me clarity.” What rises to the top, what moments of that conversation have been deeply planted in my heart that I remember more than others?
It’s just like when you hear a message but you don’t always remember it. But if you bring that before the Father and ask, “What did I hear that just stuck with me?” That’s what he wants you to take. And then you come back to me and say, “I feel like this is what God’s saying. What do you think?” OK, now we’re hearing from God. And we continue to process together.
JK: I think back to my high-school days in another millennium, or even to my kids’ high school days, and it was easier to go through life as a Christian but keep your head down. That feels very different now. For today’s students, if they’re going to follow Christ, that’s a much bigger commitment than it might have been a generation ago.
MD: Yeah. And that’s what we talked about at camp. Your life should look different. It just should. And that is a lot harder for them, because there will be forms of persecution — losing friends, maybe even family members. I even shared a story: When I came into a relationship with the Father, my relationship with my brother-in-law got really rocky for a long time. And he is literally like a brother. I talked about how painful that was. I wasn’t being persecuted like what you would picture in a different part of the world. But my heart was being persecuted because that relationship was falling apart because of a decision that I made. Because I was changing.
And so yeah, it is harder for them. A lot of Christians are known for being judgey. You know, throwing Bible verses at people and not walking in love. So it’s teaching students the balance between truth and love. You can hold true to what you believe, wholeheartedly, but you can walk in love, and you can meet people where they’re at. Jesus did it. He balanced truth and love, like a balance beam. He never sacrificed the truth to love people. And he never sacrificed love to tell people the truth. He did it in tandem. It was beautiful. And it was done through relationship.
So it’s teaching them that. Getting to know them and showing them that you’re different. Not because of you claiming to be a Christian, but because of how you live. I said to the students, “How many of you, if people didn’t know you were a Christian, could they tell that you’re a Christian? Would they be able to know that? And if they wouldn’t be able to say you’re a Christian, would they be able to pinpoint that you live differently?”
JK: In a chaotic culture, there’s something very attractive about that.
MD: Of course, because it’s different from this world. Because it’s founded in love. That’s why it’s the greatest commandment. It changes everything.
I’ve been trying to teach them: Know why you believe what you believe, but also have a tolerance for those who don’t. And don’t try to win the argument. Meet them where they’re at. Jesus was willing to walk away. He walked away from the rich young ruler. He didn’t shame or guilt him. He walked away. And that’s on the rich young ruler, right? Jesus was willing to walk away from the woman at the well. He didn’t come with this intention of “I’m just going to beat it into them.”
JK: You’ve seen the statistics about Christian kids falling away as they become adults and face hard questions about their faith for the first time.
MD: I have a discipleship group I meet with every Sunday from 9:30 to 10:30. We talk about how to enter into conversations with others who believe differently from us. Knowing what they believe, how to stand firm in knowing why they believe while still communicating and acting in love.
So it’s just teaching the students some of those things. Like, why wouldn’t you go and hang out with a group of people that aren’t Christians? What is it that scares you? And it’s helping them grow in that area to be true disciples of Jesus — so that when they leave the house, to go into this world, and they are faced with a lot of stuff, they are not the ones that are either shying away from their faith because they’re scared of it all, or they’re just shaming and condemning a bunch of people and doing more harm than good.
So it’s been fun and interesting helping them connect with their stories. I ask every week at youth group, “Where have you seen God present and at work?” Helping students bring the Bible to life through their own story.
JK: What do you wish more parents knew?
I know and have seen some do a really good job at this — which makes me so happy, and it shows through their kids. I wish parents understood that 90 minutes at youth group isn’t going to fix everything and be the only catalyst for helping kids build a deep and lasting foundation of faith. I wish parents knew how deep students are. I wish parents would encourage and join their kids in serving or going on a mission trip. I wish more parents had good faith-building conversations with their kids.
I would love to see parents show their kids how to have faith and extra-curricular activities versus choosing one or the other. Brian Wahl (recent speaker on a Wednesday night) was awesome. He and his family are really into baseball. And he’s like, “Yeah, we have to miss youth group or we have to miss Sundays sometimes. But I teach Jack, how do we bring youth group and Sundays into baseball?’ I think that’s really cool.
JK: That’s a great wish list. Clearly you’ve thought about this a little. Any more?
MD: I wish parents would help and encourage their kids to say “yes” to all the opportunities available to them no matter how nervous or scared for them, or themselves, they might be. I had students who didn’t come to summer camp because parents weren’t ready for them to leave home for a week. Kids trust and love their parents deeply and if parents don’t see them as ready, then neither will they.
I sent my own son to camp for four days when he was going into sixth grade. He was 11. And yeah, it’s scary. But he was in a safe environment. At some point, I had to trust and believe in the people in the place I was sending him.
JK: “Safe environment” would be a key phrase there. There are differing definitions of that, but we are so addicted as a Christian community to safety and comfort. If anything stretches outside of those, we pull back and say, “Ooh, I don’t know if I want to do that.”
MD: Yes. Kids will be homesick when they’ve never been gone before. I get that.
JK: Well, let’s finally get around to the reason we planned this conversation. Tell me about what you’re talking to the students about now, hearing the voice of God.
MD: The question I get most from students is, “How do I hear from God? I don’t know how to hear from the Holy Spirit. I don’t know what that means. I feel like everyone else does and I don’t.”
And I kept thinking, Oh, my word. Because that’s the narrative I bring in. I speak a lot about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, how the Holy Spirit is our guide and our wisdom. And so if we are not in tune with what the Holy Spirit is doing, we will never respond to the promptings right. We’ll never have the opportunity to say “yes.” We’ll never see something and realize that God is in it, whether it be a billboard sign, or a divine appointment or something like that. The role of the Holy Spirit is to help you come alive, to where God is present and at work in your life. To come alive to desire, this deep, intimate relationship with Jesus. The Holy Spirit plays a pivotal role in continuing on in our faith.
That’s the language I use. And the more I used that language, I just kept getting stories like, “I see people standing up here with these God stories. And I just don’t know if I hear from him.” And a lot of them do, they just don’t realize that they are.
JK: How are you helping them see that?
MD: Stories. Stories captivate everybody. Stories are what communicate the presence of Jesus in people’s lives. You see it on a Sunday. Everybody tunes in when Luke or Josh are telling a story. Everybody tunes in when I start telling a story, maybe such a vulnerable story that I may get emotional.
So I’ve been talking with a panel of people up front this summer. Some are people that the students know and see, like Josh and Brandy Pardee or Jessi Uran. But for the most part, it is an amazing group of people who don’t always get the stage. How do they see God present and at work, and what are those rhythms? What is their story?
Every week, I have a different person who comes. They’re all different, but there will be similarities because that’s just how cool God is. The first question I always have for them is, “Tell me a little about how you came into a relationship with Jesus. Did you grow up in the faith? Did you make that decision later?”
That can lead into moments of them telling how they see and experience God. Sometimes I’ll ask, “What are your rhythms? What does it look like for you every day?” And I love it, because some of them say it’s not always the same. Nathan MacDonald said, every morning he spends time in the Word, “but then I just talk to God.” Brian Wahl said, “I may spend time in the Word I may not. My big thing is I talk to God throughout the day. And I ask for him to give me eyes to see where he’s at.” He said, “Our family does not do anything without inviting God into it. If we have a decision to make, God is brought into it. If we want to plan a vacation, God is brought into it. That’s our rhythm.”
What I love with the panel is that every person has been different so far. The students have eaten it up. They’ve loved it, because they love stories.
And the beautiful thing is, this is what always happens: Students start to say, “I think I want to share my testimony.” Because stories inspire people. I always tell them, “There’s power in your story. Some of you who feel like you’ve grown up in the faith and you haven’t had anything happen to you, there’s power in that. You live in a world that’s countercultural to what you’re living. For you to be able to continue to walk in your faith as long as you have among all the things that are going on, that’s important. It doesn’t mean that you’ve never struggled with doubt, or, sadness or fear or shame. Just because you’ve grown up in the faith doesn’t mean that you stop feeling emotion.”
JK: And like you said, the more people who tell their stories, the more people want to.
MD: I will always have a platform for that. I will always make time for stories to be told. There have been times where all we’ve done is share God moments. Those nights have been some of the most powerful and impactful.