Reflections on “The Way, Way Back” and why I believe in youth ministry

This week I had the chance to catch the new movie The Way, Way Back. In the film, the gangly and awkward teenage protagonist Duncan is having difficulty finding his place. His adolescent growing pains have only been compounded by his mother’s new boyfriend Trent, played by Steve Carrell, who is doing his best to patch up the two broken families. Trent’s hope is that a joint vacation to his beach house will help bring them together.

For Duncan, the beach vacation only makes things worse. He struggles to get along with his mother’s new beau and even more to get along with his daughter. He sees his mother changing to appease Trent. He sees less and less of the family he knew and loved with his mother. And in the midst of change and turmoil, Duncan finds an unexpected safe haven — in the local water park, the Water Wizz — and an even more unexpected friend, Owen, the charming and lethargic manager of  the facility.

At the Water Wizz and in his friendship with Owen, Duncan truly shines. He finds community and acceptance. He learns more about himself and by that he is able to see his life, his family, and his conflict with Trent with absolute clarity.

And as the trouble in his family boils over, Duncan races off once more. The sun rises over the slides of the Water Wizz as Duncan pours his heart out to Owen about everything — about his fights with Trent, about his desire for self-acceptance, and for his relationship with his mother to be restored.

Owen stands there to hear it all as Duncan shares what’s really been weighing on his heart:

“He [Trent] asked me to rate myself…on a scale of 1 to 10. He said he thinks I’m a 3.”

And, through tears, he adds: “Who does that? No one should ever have to answer that.”

On the outside looking in, the Water Wizz is just a silly water park, a tourist attraction for summer home vacationers. But for Duncan, it is much, much more. It is the place where he doesn’t feel like a 3. In fact at the Water Wizz, it doesn’t even seem like the scale exists. It’s where unlikely friends like Owen help you discover that your oddities are not a burden or a defect, they are your uniqueness, your particularly glory to the world. It’s where no one ever has to answer the question, “How do you rate on the 10-scale?”

I share this scene because, for me, it is a great insight for why I believe in youth ministry. Over the course of this summer I had the great privilege of serving as camp pastor for Passport Camps. Passport is a youth camp which focuses on Christ-centered discipleship and service. It brings middle and high school aged teenagers from all across the country together on college campuses for Bible study, community service, and worship and reflection. In this role, I was able to preach nightly, lead in prayers and communion, and help teenagers come to a better understanding of who they are and who God is calling them to be in the world.

And I had the chance to listen to a lot of stories.

Beautiful stories of teenagers stepping out and doing incredible things: working with volunteer agencies, supporting each other, starting their own non-profits, singing and playing beautiful music, greening the earth, eating with homeless people, shucking corn to raise money for CBF Field Personnel, and discovering God’s calling on their lives and living it out fearlessly and boldly in Jesus’ name.

Terrible stories of teenagers who are already over burdened and trying to carry the weight of the world: struggles with broken friendships and relationships, families being torn apart, moves to new places, situations of abuse and neglect, depression, addiction, and anxiety over living a fulfilling and meaningful life. I carry with me the story of one girl who struggled with the anxiety of a break up and how it changed the nature of her friendship circle at school; how it made her think they might just be better off without her. And I carry with me the story of a boy whose entire family was struggling through depression,  a condition which he was also beginning to experience himself; how being there for his family was one of the few things keeping him going. I carry numerous stories like these from the hundreds of teens I encountered every week.

The beautiful stories remind me that God has made us for so much more than we know, if we are only given the right place and people who can help us hear God’s call.

The terrible stories remind me that we live in a world where there are things that hold us back. There are burdens and people and pressures and cultural narratives telling us our place on the scale and telling us to stay put there.

And stories like these are why I believe in youth ministry. I believe in the people who are journeying with young people every step of the way – the ones who are there into the late hours of the night or just before sunrise when teenagers come to terms with the gripping questions of their lives. I believe in the ones who stand there and listen to every word as teenagers bear it all and tell it all – the ones who are waiting to say, “You are not odd, you are not uncool, you are not unwanted. You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves and a God who will work with you to transform you and the world around you.”

And I believe God says to each and every one of us:

You are not a 3. You are not a number.

You are not your age or your ACT score or your parents’ income.

You are not the number of mistakes you’ve made or bridges you’ve burned.

You are not a statistic.

You are not the rate of teens who will become depressed or live in poverty all your life.

You are here to share your particular glory with the world and you are beautifully made in my image.

I believe in the people who speak those same words into the hearts of young people as they grow and struggle and change.

And to be honest, if I shared some of the other parts of my job – how I sang silly songs about gators, how played in the mud until I wreak or danced to One Direction until our feet hurt, or re-enacted SNL skills and bought Duncan yo yos – I’m sure it would sound like I spent a summer at the Water Wizz.

That’s ok. I thank God for the Water Wizz — it changed my life.

Chris Hughes

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About the Author
Chris Hughes is a graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and is an aspiring writer, preacher and minister. He currently serves as Interim Director of Youth at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, NC.

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