By Nicole James
Two main things were different when Josh and Debs Walker started working with TeenStreet (TS) in 1994: There were less than 200 teens at the conference, and Josh had hair.
Actually, a lot has changed over TS’s 25 years of existence—for the event itself and also for the Walker family. “We grew up with TeenStreet,” Debs said. “A lot of who we are is because of our role at TeenStreet. God’s really used it to grow and mature us.”
When TS started, the programme team (including Josh and Debs) did everything—the sports, the seminars, the speaking, the Bible studies, the badges. “We put people to sleep and we woke them up in the morning,” Debs remembered. The only areas they didn’t get involved in were cooking, translation and worship.
Back then, 200 teenagers seemed like a big crowd to the couple, who at the time were used to speaking in front of 40 people at a youth group in Dublin, Ireland. “Nobody knew how big TeenStreet would get,” Debs said. “It was brand new, so no one really understood what it was.”
The Walkers, who married a few months after their first TS, loved it. Josh grew up in a Christian home (his parents are long-term OM missionaries), but Debs got to know Jesus as a teenager. “It was really on my heart that young people needed to understand who God is,” she shared. “I think we were just really passionate about young people in general.”
Twenty-four years and thousands of teenagers later – plus four kids and an international move – they still love it.
As TS grew, and more countries began bringing teens, Josh said, “You learn to value God’s characteristics that come out of different countries…That’s a big joy of that many cultures coming together.”
Another thing they learned, according to Debs was “His bigness. His love is so big that it overwhelms our shortcomings. We don’t have enough to give, but He is able to take the small amount we have to offer, the loaves and the fishes, and He’s able to multiply that into many lives.”
One year, a small group of teens from Siberia (Russia) attended TS. “They made an impact on TeenStreet. They were very passionate for God,” Debs remembered. But they didn’t come back. Several years later, however, the Walkers received an email from one of the Russian girls who had been at TS. She said God had impacted her so much at TS that she started something in Siberia for teens. She invited Josh and Debs to speak at one of their conferences.
“This young person came to TeenStreet; God moved in her heart; and now, because of that, there’s [youth ministry] in Siberia,” Debs summarised.
Of course, she’s not the only one. “There are people who tell us amazing stories of life change or what they’ve gotten involved in because God spoke to them at TeenStreet,” Debs shared.
“We’ve always viewed TeenStreet as a movement of God,” Josh said. “We want to know what God’s doing in the lives of teenagers.”
TS is unique because of the variety of activities it offers. Whether arts, sports, music or dance, “there’s something for everyone,” Debs said. TS is also unique because of its intentionality, she added. “The study element of working through Bible studies together [NET Groups] is so important. TS carries a really good balance of the understanding of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—engaging the teenager in all of who God is.”
Writing the programmes and Bible studies each year for the teens also contributed to the Walkers’ spiritual growth. “Every single theme that we’ve done and written, God makes it very real in our lives,” Debs shared.
For her, “23,” based on Psalm 23, was a special theme. “In that time at my life, I really needed that: to know God’s goodness and mercy would follow me all the days of my life.”
Josh said he especially loved “New Song,” from Psalm 40. “I still love that idea of God putting a new song in our heart,” he said. He also mentioned the year where they looked at the life of Jesus. “We called it REAL. The idea was that we wanted [the teens] to see Jesus fresh, see Him real.”
That year, the programme team created Christmas in July as an illustration. “We had an angel hanging from the ceiling. We were trying to make snow and scarves. That was a fun day,” Josh described. “We used Lego as a theme. What if all of sudden you were a Lego figure? What would it be like to live like that? I enjoyed that process. For us, it was a journey of knowing Jesus better.”
“Serving in this way for this long, has been the greatest honour of our lives. We feel every year newly humbled by the responsibility to hear God’s word for people and share it in a relevant way. To be trusted to write the Bible studies, to hear God and to share it is very humbling,” Debs stated.
“I think that TS has played and will continue to play a key role in Europe of encouraging teenagers that they’re not alone,” she said. “When they go back to their countries, they can feel quite alone. But there are other people all over Europe in the same situation. [Being at TS is] feeling like a family, having a place to belong with all the different cultures together.”