I recently read a review of a book about the future of youth ministry. In this book the author says that Christian youth groups exist for one thing: joy.
Joy. When I read that word it brought tears to my eyes because I recognised the truth of it. Youth groups, like other Christian communities I have known, have been places where I have known joy. Not all the time, of course, but in ways that are deep and holy and surprising.
The joy of seeing the Spirit at work in others or in myself. The joy of sharing the experience of God’s goodness. The joy of knowing that I am not alone. The joy and gift of recognising new truth in the different perspective of another. The joy of feeling equally children of God with others, without power games. The joy of shared prayer and shared worship and shared service. The joy of trust.
I have known these things in community, in youth groups (both as a teenager and as a leader), sometimes in church, and with some of my friends and even on my own. Joy to me is a sign of God’s presence , the Holy Spirit enabling us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world and in one another.
When I was on retreat a few weeks ago, I tried to do some very rudimentary stitching expressing how I was experiencing God’s presence. God felt both near and far in that beautiful and peaceful place. The joy was huge and filling the sky and right beside me.
That’s not to say that God can’t be in our pain or our loneliness or our struggle. We only need to look at the life of Jesus to know that following in his way is unlikely to mean we avoid those things. But sometimes we might know a very real joy despite them.
Sadly, we probably can’t make joy happen. It’s a consequence of God’s gift and maybe aligning our lives with the Spirit. However, we can easily squash joy. For me, joy is squashed by people asserting power rather than mutual surrender, division instead of openness, selfishness instead of selflessness.
As I walked past the building of what seems like an aging and shrinking church near where we live last week, I had the thought, what if that place was known for its joy? What if joy was bursting out of its windows and doors to its neighbours all around? How would a neighbourhood be transformed by the simple and natural joy of a community loving God and loving each other?
Christian community can teach us to walk in the way of joy and remind us and the world that it is possible. As C S Lewis wrote, ‘All joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still about to be’. Joy is both a memory and a desire, and it’s here. And here.