What I learned about youth ministry from the Backwater Gamblers Waterskiing Show

Jen Bradbury
Aug 13 · 5 min read

During our recent mission trip to the Quad Cities, our group attended the Backwater Gamblers waterskiing show. It was everything a small town show should be: Free, community-orientated, fun, and quirky.

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My husband was enamored because some of his favorite childhood memories happened on waterskis or in a boat. This show reminded him of those.

I, however, was enamored because of what this show taught me about youth ministry.

That's right. This small town waterskiing show taught me much about youth ministry and faith. Here's what:

1. Sometimes the best things actually are free. In addition to the Backwater Gamblers show, I've been to exactly one other waterskiing show – the well-known (and expensive) Tommy Bartlett show in the Wisconsin dells. In my opinion, there was no comparing the two. The Backwater Gamblers was better in every aspect – better tricks, better skiers, more energy, and far more fun. Unlike the Tommy Bartlett show, it was free, and so it felt a little too good to be true. In that respect, it reminded me of another thing that feels too good to be true: Grace.

2. Failure isn't bad. Throughout our night at the Backwater Gamblers show, we saw lots of failures. People fell, face-planted, and wiped out in extraordinary ways. And you know what? It wasn't the end of the world or even the show. They received raucous applause when they surfaced. Then they got up, dried off, and got ready for their next act. A failure on one trick didn't disqualify them from being in other acts. The same is (or should be) true in youth ministry. Failure isn't bad. It doesn't have to paralyze us. One failure shouldn't necessarily disqualify teens from trying other things. Instead, as youth workers, we need to encourage teens to take risk knowing that sometimes, they'll wipe-out but other times, they'll soar.

3. Modeling works. As we watched the Backwater Gamblers show, I kept hearing students say, “Who dreams of being in a show like this?” The answer seemed pretty obvious to me. You dream of being in a show like this when it's what your grandparents, parents, and older siblings have done for years. The same is true of faith. Faith is learned. As youth workers, parents, and leaders, our words and actions teach others – especially those younger than us – about our faith. As the National Study of Youth and Religion reminds us, we get what we are. As it turns out, loving something – whether it's waterskiing or Jesus – is contagious.

4. Intergenerational is best. The Backwater Gamblers show featured people between the ages of 6 and 66. As the performers got out of the water, walked by us, and headed to the dock, what struck me was the obvious community they had with one another. They laughed. They smiled. They talked. In short, they were a family. So it is with the church. The church includes people of every age between birth and death. We're at our best when we live, not in isolated parts of the church building, but in interconnected ways that allow us to rub shoulders with and learn from one another.

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5. Participation engages and retains people. While most of the Backwater Gamblers show featured elaborate pyramids and waterskiing tricks, there was one act that differed. It featured three very young boys simply skiing across the lake. Rather than be told, “You're too young to do this,” or “You can't do anything cool so you can't be in the show,” these boys were not only allowed, but encouraged, to use their gifts for the good of their community. Having been taught they matter, my hunch is these same 6-year-olds will still be skiing in this show when they're 66. If that's true of a waterskiing show, then isn't it also true of the church? If we stop benching children and teens until they're old enough to do it right, how much more vibrant would our congregations be? Teaching our 6-year-olds that their gifts matter to the body might also communicate that they're gifts will still matter when they're 26, 46, 66, and 86 years old. In the kingdom, no one is ever too young or too old to participate.