Youth groups can be intimidating. Often they enjoy the social times but are bored by the requisite “lessons.” But there are exceptions to this rule.
It was a time for firsts. I was a first-time priest in a first-time parish with its first-time youth group, and I needed some ideas for evangelizing teenagers in the small, rural towns of Berwyn, Grimshaw and Peace River in northern Alberta. I reached into my seminary kit-bag and pulled out Finding a Story to Live By, one of the Dare Booklet series from the Institute of Evangelism. I had seen John Bowen give several of these talks to college and university students. The booklet covered five short chapters on seeing one’s life as part of a bigger story, identifying what is wrong in our world, appreciating how Jesus fits into all of this, learning in the ‘School of Jesus’, and taking the journey with God.
The chapters are rich in Christian imagery to which young people can relate. For instance, to illustrate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, I showed a clip from the movie, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo Dicaprio, which depicts a small-town mother taking her son’s shame onto herself so that he could go free. This culturally-sensitive approach reminded me of a statement by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “What Christians need is not better arguments, but better metaphors.”
Our youth group met monthly and was made up of a variety of fifteen high school students, including academics and athletes, church-goers and non-church-goers. At each gathering we played games, ate, sang, and thought about a new chapter of Finding a Story to Live By. I followed the booklet nearly word-for-word, using my own cue cards. Pictures, diagrams and videos were also aids. I found the best sessions were the ones which involved question-and-answer rather than straight lecture, since high school students seemed to be less accustomed to listening to 20-30 minute talks than are university students. The next time I use this series, I will try to simplify each session even more, as one seminary supervisor instructed me, by focussing on “one thing to know, one thing to feel, and one thing to do.”
Driving back from Peace River to Grimshaw with a van-load of kids after our third fun-filled evening of Finding a Story to Live By, I overheard one teenage boy ask another who had come for the first time, “So what did you think?” Trying to appear nonchalant, the other boy answered, “It was pathetic!” to which the first boy asked, “Are you coming next time?” The second boy quickly replied, “Oh yeah!” And he did. As he faithfully attends all our youth group events, his spiritual growth has been remarkable.