Preparing for high school may just look like shopping for school supplies and a new backpack, but for Woodcreek Church in Richardson, it means something else.
After finishing eighth grade, the youth group sets out on an adventure to Castle Bluff in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. The trip includes cliff jumping, swimming and exploring caves. It also includes a spiritual purpose to ensure they enter high school with a solid faith. The teens look forward to it throughout middle school and call it “a rite of passage” before they start high school in the fall.
The purpose, according to Braelyn Wehe, is “bonding.”
“It’s really about consistently finding ways to incorporate God into our daily lives,” she said.
One way they work toward this is by attending stations hosted by their leaders where they focus on how they can better worship God through scripture meditation, music, journaling, art, nature and prayer.
“It’s about being out in nature – no distractions,” said Audrey Villanueva. “We can see all the stars. We didn’t even have a [cell phone] signal so all we could do was grow closer.”
Avery Blair pointed out that for the close-knit group of friends, it’s their last experience as middle schoolers.
“You gotta find ‘dem close boys,’” Blair said, clarifying that she means “good friends.”
“It’s about growing closer to God and closer to a Godly community,” Villanueva added.
Sarah McCullough said the trip offers an opportunity to grow in faith but “it’s also an introduction to prepare us for high school.”
The trip includes high school leaders called Stern and adult leaders who volunteer with the middle schoolers throughout the year.
“I think the trip is really valuable at this point in their lives as they are headed into high school,” said youth leader Brian Villanueva. “The direction that they’re headed coming out of middle school affects high school, college and beyond. I think of it like a bowling alley. They say to aim at the arrows on the lane in order to hit the pins. If you aim for the pins, you’ll miss. Middle school is like the arrows and we want them on the right trajectory as they’re headed into high school so they will continue to follow Christ long term. This trip is the opportunity to build momentum if they’re pointed in the right direction or course correct if they’re off. It also helps to strengthen friendships that will be a critical support to them in their high school years.”
The girls said they talked about dating, friendship and living for Christ, and they all enjoyed spending time in the great outdoors.
“It really speaks to God’s beauty and power,” said Ella Smith.
“When you’re around His creation, you feel a step closer to God,” she said.
The girls agreed that spending time away together cemented their friendship.
“It’s important to choose your friends wisely, you know, ones who aren’t toxic, so we can grow closer to God together,” Blair said.
Audrey Villanueva said in addition to talking about good friendships, the teens also explored the idea of who to look for when they start dating.
“Dating is about finding someone so we can put our focus on Christ together,” Wehe said.
The girls said that cliff jumping, worshipping in song, hearing the birds chirping and watching the sun rise and set were their favorite parts of the trip.
“And there were these really dramatic hawks,” Blair said. “They were the cherry on top.”
McCullough noted that it’s important to find like-minded people to support one another through their high school journey.
“Even though we all have different perspectives, who will point you to God?” she said.
The girls all chimed in – sharing that they hold each other accountable, talk about what’s “really going on and don’t judge each other."
“We can be ourselves and know we’re loved,” Audrey Villanueva said.
Andrew McCullough, a high school leader, who joined the group on the trip, emphasized the importance of Woodcreek's leadership team, called Stern.
"I like serving in the church," he said. "When I was in middle school, Stern was important. There were high schoolers to hang out with and look up to. Because of relationships with them I saw the importance of investing in middle schoolers."
McCullough led talks on prayer and community during the trip.
“Prayer is something that’s not talked about much,” he said. “I wanted them to know the importance of both personal and group prayer. Prayer is communicating with God. It’s [also] important to have a group of people to rely on, Christian friends to keep you accountable and go through life with.”