Several years ago, I helped lead a youth group on a pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey. It was a part of a process these young people went through, which included biblical preparation, learning about what pilgrimage means, and fundraising. Traveling to Greece for pilgrimage meant that we had to take a cruise ship to visit some of the places we hear about in the Bible, including Patmos, Ephesus, and Rhodes. The cruise ship was modest compared to most, but it still had a party-like vibe, swimming pool, and music. For a group of teenagers, I had fears that this would become a vacation for them because of the cruise ship. Once we completed the cruise, we boarded a bus to explore some of the sites on the mainland. Our first stop was the hanging monasteries of Meteora.
The hotel we stayed at had ample outdoor space in the valley below the monastery. We gather in this space for our evening process time. The youth opened up in this time and began to talk about how much more they enjoyed visiting the monastery and the time to worship and process together. For almost all of them, this was the high point of the pilgrimage. It wasn’t the saltwater pool or shopping in Santorini; it was a monastery and a quiet place to pray and get to know each other better.
We talk a lot about relationship building when we discuss Christian Formation. On pilgrimage, these youth were away from devices and distractions, and the relationships they built in that context allowed them to explore their faith together. It is easy to focus on programming when constructing our formation; however, the real power is in creating a space for our young people to build relationships with each other, God, and those outside their usual network. We have to have patience, persistence, and commitment to make this environment work. Leaders have to be willing to be disappointed when attendance is lower than expected. Parents have to be ready to push their children to participate even if other more fun options are available to them. Working with children can be frustrating as it is hard to know if what we are doing is making a difference in their faith life; however, it is inspiring to see what the Holy Spirit can accomplish when the environment is available.