Rite of Passage

[I get lots of questions about leading rites of passage experiences for young people. This is an article I wrote for the Journal of Student Ministries (now Immerse Journal) about a rite of passage I helped facilitate along with Nancy Wiens , who is the Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality

“Mark, are you awake?  It’s time.”

Unzipping the door to my tent, I looked out across the pre-dawn sky at the dark shoulders of the Mendocino Mountains.  I quickly dressed and joined Nancy and Lori by the truck bed where we kept our food. Nancypulled the coffee kettle off the camp stove and poured me a cup. The three of us looked quietly across the moonless sky.  Somewhere out within the early morning darkness, seven high school students were each loading their packs, preparing to begin their trek back to the base camp.  Three days earlier they had left as kids, but this morning they would return as men and women.

It started with an injustice.  One night at a December youth group gathering a group of ten seniors from our high school ministry announced they couldn’t commit to our summer mission trip.  These kids were at the heart of our ministry and we were crestfallen to hear they were going to miss our annual trip.  After a little investigation we discovered the story behind their decision.

At the end of each school year a local travel agency would meet with the junior class to propose ideas for a celebratory “graduation” trip the following summer.  The agency offered a package deal that included chartered airfare, lodging, and meals at a Mexican resort.  In the agency’s presentation, they mentioned there would be no adult chaperones and emphasized that the alcohol policy in Mexico would be very lenient.  For the past ten years each junior class had voted to do the package trip.  It was now considered a tradition among high school students.

The agency collected a non-refundable $300 deposit from each student a whole year in advance of their graduation.  What was particularly galling was that the dates for the trip were unknown to the students until eight to three weeks before the trip.  The agency told families that in order to get the best price they needed to be flexible with dates.  The result was that summer plans for seniors and their families were held in limbo.

When our ministry team learned of this money-making scheme (now common among West coast high schools), we became upset and concerned.  How could the school and parents condone such a trip?  How could the kids in our youth group consider participating in such a debauched outing?  (We learned that previous trips were mostly focused on binge drinking, drugs, and sex).  We prayed and listened, trying to discern how we should respond as a ministry team.  After weeks of discernment we met with the students and shared our concerns.  The students agreed that the activities of the trip were risky and hedonistic, but they also felt that to miss the trip would be to miss a chance to celebrate with their classmates and that it was a tradition in the community that marked the beginning of adulthood.  This last response surprised us.  Could the trip to Mexico actually represent a rite of passage to our high school students?

The following week we asked the students to give us their definitions of adulthood.  “Adults do what they want.”  “Adults can drink alcohol.”  “Adults have freedom.”  “Adults make money.” “No one tells an adult what to do.”  Later that evening our ministry team met and discussed what we’d heard.  We recognized that for the young people being an adult meant unrestrained freedom.  The more we talked the more we realized that there was no consensus of what it meant to be an adult, certainly little understanding of what it meant to be an adult Christian.  We recognized that the party trip to Mexicohad become a make-shift rite of passage for our community.  Kids left home, traveled to another country, abused their bodies with drink and sex and then came home feeling like adult members of the culture.

We continued to explore these issues  with kids. We asked them to expand their understanding of adulthood based on the adults in their lives.  What were their impressions of adulthood from observing their parents, neighbors, and teachers?  The results of one evening’s conversation were shocking.  One student summed it up as follows: “Adults have no friends, adults have no passions and adults are stressed out.”

A number of questions emerged for our ministry team.  How could our kids grow toward a mature, adult form of faith if their images of adulthood were so vague and negative?  Didn’t we as a church need to help them develop a faith that could accompany them into adulthood?  Was it possible that many young people dropped their faith after high school because they didn’t know how to bring it into adulthood?  What does it mean to be an adult?  When do you become an adult in a culture where everyone wants to look and act like teenagers?

After a month of intense prayer and discernment we decided to hold an all-church retreat on the subject of adult faith.  In small groups we asked people to tell their faith stories, disclosing the experiences that marked their passage into adulthood.  Some people shared that they didn’t feel like an adult until they were married, others until they had a good paying job.  Some felt they became an adult when their parents died, some as old as forty-five felt that they still had never thought of themselves as adults.  We then asked people to journal and share the experiences, songs, sermons, lessons, and mentors that helped them maintain their faith into adulthood.

Over that weekend an idea emerged.  As a church we recognized that we were doing a poor job preparing our youth for adulthood.  We needed to give the young people a set of experiences and teachings that would accompany them into a mature faith.  Finally, we recognized that we needed a clear rite of passage—a ritual that publicly marked the transition into adulthood with a sense of God’s love and calling.

We relied on a number of sources as we created our curriculum, reflecting on Jewish rites of passage, Jesus’ baptism and time in the wilderness, and the collection of faith experiences shared from our all-church retreat.  In addition, we called upon the wisdom of two people within our church, Nancy Wiens and Michael St. John, who were experienced in wilderness retreats and rites of passage.  With leadership from Nancy and Michael, we proposed to the congregation a ritual for seniors within our church that would involve two months of formation including Bible study, various prayer disciplines, wilderness safety training, journaling and discussion with the intention of helping them seek their identity and calling as adult followers of Jesus.  At the end of the training we would take the students up into the Mendocino wilderness where they would each spend three days in solitude, prayer, and fasting, seeking to let go of their adolescent selves and listen for God’s calling into adult faith.

Seven of our ten senior students signed up to do the rite of passage.  We began in a Sunday morning worship.  After a reflection on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, each student stood in front of the congregation and shared his/her desire for going into the wilderness, what they hoped to leave behind, as well as their hope to hear God’s calling in their lives.  After each student spoke they sat on the floor with their backs to the congregation,  facing the cross.  A member from the congregation had hand-carved seven crosses for the pilgrims to wear during their time away.  As he placed these over the heads of each student, an elder from the church had each student give the following vows:

Elder:  As a young member of this Christian community, are you declaring yourself ready and willing to seek God’s call into adulthood? 

Pilgrim:  I am ready and willing.

Elder:  Are you willing to seek God with all your mind, with all your heart, and with all your strength?

Pilgrim:  I am willing.

Elder:  Will you trust that God loves you and has a vision for your life and that Jesus is your constant companion?

Pilgrim:  With Jesus as my companion, I will trust God.

Elder:  What is your intention in this pilgrimage?

Pilgrim:  [Each young person stated their reasons for embarking on the journey.]

Elder:  On behalf of this faith community let me share this encouragement from Jesus: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.  May the peace of Christ go with you on your journey.

At the end of the service we had all the children come forward and encircle the seven senior high students.  These pilgrims stood and held hands with the children while the rest of the adults encircled them.  We then prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to protect, guide and inspire our young people.  After the prayer the teens let go of the children’s hands, broke through the surrounding adults and walked out of the worship service into a waiting van.  It took us most of the night to travel and an additional day to set up camp and orient the youth to the mountains.  Each student spent an afternoon hiking and praying, until they found a place where they felt drawn to spend the three days of prayer and solitude.  We marked these places on a map and went over our safety procedures (students had safety whistles, water, emergency food packs and a system in which they left symbols out each morning signaling they were safe).

The night before the first day of the fast we had singing, prayers, and a reflection on Jesus’ identity as the beloved of God.  Again, students shared the desires they were bringing to God and the younger selves they were letting go of.

We awoke at four a.m., before sunrise.  We gathered the young people  in a circle.  Again we prayed and sang and read scripture over them. “Be alone so that you may know how to be with others, pray in silence so that you may discover the power of speech; fast so that you might experience gratitude for the gifts of life that God gives us each day. Go and find your identity in God, Go and seek God as the source of your life.”  Each student placed a rock in front of them, forming a small circle, signaling they were ready to begin their journey.  Then as the sun rose, three of us from the ministry team sang and watched the seven students leave in silence towards the waiting mountains.

For the next three days Nancy, Lori, and I prayed and waited.  Back at our home church the parents of the seven students met at the church each night to pray and talk about the new ways in which they would relate to their children after they returned home.

On the fourth morning, as harbingers of sunlight came creeping over the mountains we stood ready to receive the pilgrims.  Nancy, Lori, and I stood with milk and honey—symbols of God’s promise to the people ofIsrael, symbols that represented God’s faithfulness to the young people who were entering adulthood.  We stood around the circle of rocks that represented each student, praying and singing them home.  As each young man came down from the mountains I waited alone within the circle.  When they approached, they lifted their rock and placed it in the center of the circle.  I then embraced them and blessed them as men of God.  As each young woman came down from the hills, Lori and Nancy waited, embraced them and blessed them as women of God.  When all had returned we placed honey on their mouths and talked about the sweetness of God; then milk representing God’s continuing nurturance; and finally bread and grape juice representing the promise and companionship Jesus.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and the next day helping the young people recover from their fasting and share stories of their experience.  Students read from journals, talked about their struggles in prayer, and shared the insights they felt were received from God.  We drove back late the next day and spent Saturday night in the church.  On Sunday morning the service was packed with church members and extended family from each of the seven students.  During the opening hymn the students processed into the sanctuary.  Then one by one they shared the insights God had given them while they fasted in the wilderness.  They shared the inspirations they received concerning their own lives as well as words they felt they were given to express to the congregation.  They spoke like desert Abbas and Ammas.  The words they shared were challenging and prophetic.  They told the congregation to spend more time with their families, take time to enjoy God’s creation, worry less about money, take more naps, let go of busyness, and make time to sit in solitude and silent prayer.  The congregation of overworked, upwardly- mobile adults fell into tears.

At the close of the service we again had the children come forward with the adults encircling them.  The seven students ritualized their new adult status by joining the surrounding adults.  They spoke to the children, telling them that one day, they too would be sent out from childhood into the circle of adults.  They too would be invited to pray and listen for the women and men God was calling them to become.

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