Brittany Wilson, Alex Craig, Nicole Meisenheimer and Kayla Boeser on the YMCA grounds, where the Youthfest was held. Jimi Izrael photo.
Eden Seminary program teaches teens comedy improv to help them tap into God's call.
Chad Phillips, an 18-year-old from O'Fallon (Ill.) UCC, stands in front of the chapel, making ping pong balls disappear. Magic probably isn't his calling. Even though the balls are no longer visible, they still can be seen clearly bulging in his cheeks. Chad's expression is one of many important examples of call—or lack thereof—that the kids see on this retreat.
Chad's demonstration took place during a reflective moment of worship at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary's "Youthfest," held Sept. 27-29 at the YMCA of the Ozarks in Potosi, Mo. The event, entitled "Start Something! God is Calling," drew 33 teens from the UCC's Illinois South Conference. Powered by a $1.2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, "Youthfest" started in the fall of 2000 and hasn't looked back.
One of 62 recipients of this grant to seminaries charged with capturing the imagination of high school-aged Christians, Eden Seminary, in Webster Groves, Mo., is currently on its 16th youth event. It also has hosted 20 adult leadership seminars designed to train laypersons on how to be good youth ministry stewards. By November 2003, Eden will have done 25 youth events in 30 Conferences and 25 leader retreats.
Teens do improv
Eden's Director of Youth Programs Doni L. Driemeier-Showers can be forgiven if, upon first meeting, she seems a little winded—especially on a weekend like this.
"Been busy," she says. Between coordinating comedy improv, imagination and internet workshops—clearly, she's distracted. Wait a second. Improv?
"Yes, the kids do improv here," she says, "but maybe I should back up and explain."
"The young people told us that they were tired of going to youth retreats, because they knew what they were like. I asked what they would come to, and they said a youthfest. And so," says Driemeier-Showers, "here we are. It's a very unapologetically structured, Christian weekend."
But what does improvisational comedy have to do with theology?
"The improv we teach helps get kids out of their shells," says John Meeks, one of the Start Something Players who conducts the workshop. "It makes them know it's OK to take risks."
Aside from the comedy, actors portray such Bible characters as Mary, Peter and Zacchaeus to give biblical lessons a contemporary context. Driemeier-Showers says that the tenets of improv—always rely, never deny, never ask why—are important to notions of call.
"If our first reaction is to say no," she says, "or why—and we don't rely on our community or the other person—we limit the possibilities, one of which is that God could be speaking."
The Rev. Deborah Krause, professor of New Testament at Eden, says that many voices vie for young peoples' attention.
"We just live our everyday lives, and we hear all kinds of competing voices," she says. "It's about sorting out the voice of God amidst all the other voices, and that's a challenge. I mean, well, God, doesn't come to me through a lightning bolt or an angel. I think while we have biblical messages that are really important, young people really need to be connected with the kinds of voices and images of realities in our lives today."
Krause regularly references Marilyn Manson, India.Arie and other pop culture icons as people with important, although sometimes conflicted, messages. "We are caught up in the idea of 'bad culture, good church,'" she says. "We are in the world and not of the world. The more we are not afraid to talk about the way the world is and the way the church lives in it, the better off our kids will be."
The teens have come to this retreat eager to start conversation, any conversation, that will yield answers to hard questions they have.
Musician and composer Ken Medema helps teens find answers with the power of melody. Medema started out as a music therapist 30 years ago. After discovering that his songwriting and performance skills were in high demand, he found himself recording music and establishing his own imprint, Briar Patch Music. Medema is the focal point of all of Eden's Youthfests, as well as countless other religious and motivational events. He performs some 200 days a year. "What I want to do musically is comment on the 'God story' in a way that is relevant for the 21st century," he says.
That seems to be what the teens are looking for: a safe space with a smiling face in which to explore important spiritual questions.
Call is about doing something to help others that you love to do. Adults have a hard time discerning that. Youth, even more so.
"Well, I think I was called," says Victoria Galley, 15, of Friedens Evangelical and Reformed UCC in Marissa., Ill. "I'm looking for somewhere to start looking for my calling."
Like so many teenagers, she says she wants the local church to be a more open and welcoming place to ask questions, a place where youth feel welcomed.
Allison Hall, 16, of St. Johns UCC in Wood River, Ill., also has suggestions.
"They could use more popular kinds of music and more upbeat sermons to relate to kids better," she says.
Called to walk with God
Chad Phillips concurs. Local church leaders need to plan activities and get teens involved in worship, he thinks. A few may wonder if ejecting ping pong balls from one's mouth into the pews is the answer. But Phillips says he wasn't emulating a cable television stunt. His lack of talent as a magician helped delineate the power of knowing when and how one is called to a vocation of any kind or, as in Phillips' case, not.
"I clearly am not called to be a magician, but I feel as if I am called to walk with God," he says.
Everybody has to walk with Christ at some point, says Phillips, who adds that he feels lucky to know where he stands at such a young age. Phillips says he's not so sure he'll become a religious leader in any formal sense, but he knows he wants to start the conversations that will help him answer his questions about his call.
"Kids need to talk to people with really strong relationships with God to see what that's about," he says, "and retreats like this one are helpful."