The truth is, I've never been an 11-year-old girl.
I have been a Pastor to them, though, and for years I racked my brain trying to figure out how help them see themselves the way I believe God sees them - with purpose, value, worth, love, importance, identity, and significance.
This past Saturday the second BREAKTHROUGH JR.HIGH GIRLS' CONFERENCE took place at Springvale Church in Stouffville, Ontario. And, well, it is simply one of the most incredible events around. I was invited to be a workshop speaker for the event, but spent most of my day walking around with this overwhelming sense of joy and wonder. The best way to describe it would be like watching your toddler put a puzzle together for the first time while you think to yourself, "how did we get here?" It's a mixture of pride and love and joy and nostalgia and being flat-out impressed.
There are a lot of reasons I love this event, here's seven of them.
1. There's something about the idea
September 2014, I remember sitting across the table from the organizer of this event, Marianne Deeks, as she told me about a dream she had. She didn't know what it could be exactly but she wanted to give young girls a chance. She had spent her life talking with older high school girls in crisis; now, she wanted to produce something as a form of preventing the crises. "They are looking for anyone to pay attention to them. What if we can help them learn as Jr.Highers that they are already loved!?"
I started spinning into a speechless kind of shock. I don't know why my mouth opens when I'm amazed at something, maybe it's hoping that words will come out of it to explain what is happening in my brain, but this time my jaw just hung there drying out as I tried to create sentences expressing my excitement. There are no fancy words for it, I got this full-body-and-mind-type-joy filling me up, my eyes widened and all I could think of saying was, "Yes! This is right. Yes, yes, yes. Wow, whoa, whaaaaat???...How can I help?"
I hope we all know that if young girls believe they have great worth, they will work hard and use their gifts in amazing ways as they mature, and the world will radically change for the better. To set aside a whole day for this message and getting a ton of people on board to help is a great dream, but incredibly difficult to pull off well.
Unless you have a wildly dedicated team with you.
2. There's something about the volunteer team
On Saturday they were wearing green (excuse me, TEAL) shirts and purple shirts. I was told by one 16-year-old in a purple shirt that if I broke my leg I could ask her for help, she assured me she wouldn't know what to do but was very capable of calling 9-1-1! (thanks).
My best estimates for the size of the team would be 65 total.
20 wearing purple, 45 in teal.
15 over the age of 25, 10 between 18-25, and 40 under-18. (1 over 70, what a gem.)
Not a single one of them looked lost or confused. Not one of them complained. Most of them showed up every month for planning meetings and the night before the event to pray. They had this look on their faces during the event like they were always trying to find something to do, someone to help. There was a shared sense of purpose and mission like I have never, ever, seen on a team so big with so many teens on it. Volunteers leading volunteers was the norm. Total empowerment and delegation to lead different teams and areas of responsibility. It is something truly special to see a team work like this to create a clean and distraction-free environment for the program to run well.
3. There's something about the speakers
Pardon the bias here as I had the privilege of being a workshop speaker this year, delivering the same talk twice ("What's In Your Hand?: Using What You Have Now to Change the World Today).
They spoke about art, sports, living for Jesus, creating new things, worship, and making a difference. They told their stories of struggle to find significance, of how to be secure even when nothing makes sense, and about finding hope through tragedy. There was a conference-wide challenge to 'believe that you can change your world' now. There was no ego, just ownership of their own position and search for significance themselves. Laura Bronson from Keep It Real even had the girls outside spray-painting during the lunch break, she's so rad.
It felt like all the speakers (and maybe I am just speaking for myself here) had to embrace their insecurities as a JR.Higher which brought us all to a shared place of humility as we entered into this environment; and, though some of them had never spoken in front of a crowd like this, there was a desire to live into the quality of the program as a whole.
4. There's something about the quality
6 years ago I helped run a conference for Jr.high Youth Workers called Underestimated. We had some speakers come in, some workshops planned, and rented a space in a church. One of the most difficult parts of planning such an event was thinking about how to make it run smoothly and look great.
Breakthrough ran like a professionally-run conference. I've been to many, and this one stood out only because of the niche demographic. Everywhere you went in this space, even outside the venue, you felt like you were a part of something designed for Jr.High girls. Fun, creative expression, and bright colour was everywhere.
You would think that an event for Jr.Highers would look messy, be off-schedule, and you would find yourself saying, 'at least they tried' a lot. But this event was clean, like DisneyWorld-where-did-the-garbage-go? kind of clean. It was a packed day, and they moved through it sharply. And I for one was completely immersed in the sessions to the point of tears as I engaged with the stories, songs, and speakers. Well done.
5. There's something about the laughter
When JH girls laugh, it feels like the world is as it should be.
There is so much stress and an emphasis on being like the perfect people on their favorite shows that these girls forget what it's like to be a kid!
I feel like on this day, they were encouraged to express their emotions, to try something new, to dance (if you want to), and yes, to laugh together.
6. There's something about the message
If I watch Disney Channel with my 9 year old for a couple of hours I'll see a bunch of flawless-looking young teens going through ridiculous scenarios and trying to work their way out with well-timed banter and canned laughter for days. Every so often, there will be a clear message about 'you are strong', or 'be amazing', or 'change the world, princess'. But the overwhelmingly consistent message is, 'your life is not nearly as cool as ours and you have a lot of work to do to get here.'
At Breakthrough, the message for the entire day is, "You are SIGNIFICANT in God's story!". There is no way you could leave that day and not have heard that-like really heard it, ingested it. Significance carries with it a sense of purpose, value, worth, love, importance, and identity. Significance says, you have someone you're made to BE, and you have something to DO.
7. There's something about Youth Unlimited
Last month, I was officially hired by Youth Unlimited to be part of an amazing team within the organization - "LAUNCH".
During the day on Saturday, I was mostly in awe that there are organizations that exist like this. They listened to Marianne's idea and said, "YES!" And they did that because they believe transformed Youth will transform the culture.
This event was part of something much bigger going on. Things are changing. There is good news.
Now, after two years of this conference running, all I want to do is get the word out, because I don't know another event like this anywhere, and so many more youth ministries should be part of this, adding it into their schedule for Spring 2017.