Programming for Mountain Top Experiences

I love mountain climbing.  Living in Colorado for a summer opened my heart up to that love for the first time when I was in college. The entire summer I was surrounded by peaks that pierced the clouds in the sky.  I remember the first day I arrived in Estes Park, CO with my best friend; within the first hour after stepping out of his maroon 1989 Buick Century, we were invited to take a climb by Twin Sisters.

Jay Lookout

We were naïve but adventurous, unaware of the resistance our lungs would give us when we exposed them to the lack of oxygen as the altitude increased.   But, we made it to the summit of the 11,427 foot Twin Sisters, five hours from the time we left the trailhead (which I believe was already 9,000 feet up).

It didn’t take long before we realized the allure to climb 14ers – mountains that are at least 14,000 feet in altitude.  Long’s Peak was in our backyard (or front yard, depending on where you looked); a mountain reaching 14,259 feet, with its flat diamond face staring at us from below, pointing to the place we were to conquer.

Then the morning came, 3am to be exact, when it was time to grab our gear and start the climb, unaware of the challenges ahead.  That climb was one of the most technically difficult, challenging on my body and mind.  Through the miles of hiking a steady incline in the dark, switchback after switchback, reaching the boulder field, hiking through the Keyhole where it drops off thousands of feet on the other side, to hiking the 24” ridges where a slip could be fatal, through steep inclines of loose rocks and steep inclines of smooth slabs of rock, to finally reaching the top.  When I reached the summit, it was a euphoric experience to accomplish such feat.  It was an incredible feeling.

Long's Peak Summit w Greg

It was a mountain top experience for me, one that I will never forget.  One that will always be in my mind as a highlight that satisfies the adventurous spirit within me.  I have climbed many more mountains since that day, but none like Long’s Peak.  It solidified my love for adventure at such heights.

The question I have is, how important are the “mountain top experiences” in our faith, specifically in our walk with Jesus?  I am talking about the kind of experience that can radically change your mind and heart about faith and religion toward a deeper, more passionate love for Jesus.  The kind of experience that you truly sense the presence of God in your life.

Are they important and do you desire for your students to have these experiences?

Or do you think it’s just a manipulation on students’ emotions, and these experiences don’t have long-lasting effects on a student’s faith?

One of the reasons I love camp ministry is because camp is one of the places a student can have this kind of solidifying experience – a mountain top experience.

So why should you put all the effort in during the week to put together an environment for students that leads them to such an experience at various points during the school year?  Why should you spend all the time and energy and not just hang out with them?  Why should it be vital for you to carve out the time on your calendar to bring students to camp?

Because these moments are memorable.  They are a reminder of God being present and working in our lives in a significant way.

MATTHEW 17:1-9
I go to Matthew 17:1-9 for inspiration when I put together plans for the environments we desire to see created at NTS Camp, to lead students to have these “mountain top experiences.”  Please take a moment to read Matthew 17 to (re)familiarize yourself.

This passage is known as the Transfiguration of Jesus.  In it, they climb a mountain.  I like to imagine the disciples climbing a mountain like Long’s Peak, even though that is unlikely, especially in sandals.  Then Jesus transfigured and shone like the sun, his clothes as white as the light.  Pretty unforgettable if you ask me!

The way I see this passage is that Jesus wanted to give Peter, James, and John an experience they would never forget.  Something that would solidify their faith in Him because Jesus may have recognized that these disciples may still be confused of who Jesus really is.  Is He the Messiah?  Is He the Son of God, no, for real?  Does He really love us like He claims? 

And what Jesus does is take this confusion and give them a glimpse of God’s glory, of who Jesus really is, the Messiah, God’s one and only Son.  Pretty sure Peter, James, and John walked away from that experience with a solid idea of who Jesus is and gave them more reason to follow him with their lives.

In programming, here are 4 things that we should desire see happen in the environment we create:

  1. Allow clarification of who Jesus is. (Matthew 17:2 & 5)

Students are also confused about who Jesus is, about faith in God, about salvation, about sin, about the Bible, about being a loved child of God.  Will they leave your youth group with a better understanding of who Jesus is?  Do you intentionally provide clarification in these moments?

  1. Allow a place for God to speak to students (Matthew 17:5)

Sometimes in order for God to be heard, the walls need to be torn down.  Or we need to be removed from our every day environment, removed from the distractions that take up our attention.  I desire to see students get their identity from God by Him speaking into their lives, telling them who they are.  Do you allow a place for this in your programming periodically through the year?

  1. Allow God’s glory to be revealed (Matthew 17:2)

I want God to do what only God can do, by revealing His Glory.  To allow His Holy Spirit to move in a way that draws students toward Him.  To see salvation and transformation happen in the hearts of students.  A program will not do this.  We cannot save students, but we can be intentional in the program we design to invite God’s glory in, so it can be revealed to the students. Do we intentionally create a space for God or do we haphazardly put plans together, hoping something great happens.

  1. Encourage students to live out their faith in the valley (Matthew 17:4 & 9)

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.  If you wish, I will put up three shelters…”  Peter wanted to stay in this experience, but Jesus knew this was not real life.  Real life is lived in the valley.  Jesus knew this “mountain top experience” was not sustaining and wanted to show them how to use this experience to live out their faith in the valley.  We know that the nature of camp is creating this “spiritual high” or “mountain top experience.”  Students are fired up about their faith and reenergized of who God is and about their relationship with Jesus. We embrace this experience.

But, we also hand students tools on how to take this experience and live it out in the valley.  Jesus walked back down the mountain with the disciples.  Jesus didn’t stay on the mountain.  This is why it is so important to integrate small groups into your programming.  In a youth ministry setting, they naturally have someone to walk with them back down in the valley into real life (home, school, friends, temptations) happens.  Do they have someone close to navigate these things?  How are you leveraging small groups to the greatest potential within your programming? Do you program with small groups in mind, or are small groups just an add on to the evening with little thought of how everything connects?
In Timothy Keller’s book, “Prayer,” he writes it this:

“Thomas Goodwin, a seventeenth-century Puritan pastor, wrote that one day he saw a father and son walking along the street.  Suddenly the father swept the son up in to his arms and hugged him and kissed him and told the boy he loved him – and then after a minute he put the boy back down.  Was the little boy more a son in the father’s arms than he was down on the street?  Objectively and legally, there was no difference, but subjectively and experientially, there was all the difference in the world.  In his father’s arms, the boy was experiencing his sonship.” (pg 172)

No, not every week is going to be a mountain top experience in your youth ministry.  Not every year at camp is going to be a mountain top experience.  But I know how important these experiences are because they remind us of how much we are loved by the father.  From time to time, we need to be picked up by the father and be reminded of who we are.  We lead and program toward these experiences.  And when we can bring students into the presence of God, we hope and pray they walk away saying, “my life will never be the same.”

Jayson Brewer
Director of Production & Program Design
Never The Same


© 2016, Never The Same