What’s a good way to handle some tough topics in your youth group or Sunday School?
You could read an article about grief. Or you could hear from a couple who lost their teenaged son to leukemia.
You could have an abstract, academic discussion about God’s faithfulness in hard times, or a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart could tell your class about the months in the hospital when his odds of survival were slim.
For four years I partnered with two other parishioners to lead a group of about a dozen teens through our church youth group program. During their confirmation year, before COVID hit, we discussed how we might address issues like doubt, grief, death, anger, and prayer. Of course our curriculum had discussion guides and resources, but we decided to try something different. After all, we’d been together four years! We thought a fresh face and perspective might be welcome.
We asked a few church members to share their testimonies with our students. It’s nice to hear from other adults in the church—you know, the ones teens may pass in the sanctuary after the Eucharist every week but never really spoke to. Our first guest speakers addressed the students about grief. Their youngest son was in the same confirmation track that they were when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His class held out hope he could join them for the pilgrimage in England, but by then he was in the hospital. Every place they stopped, they hid a St. Christopher medallion for him. When he was better, they promised, he could retrace their steps and remember they were thinking about him.
He passed away at sixteen before he could make that trip. His parents, years later, did it for him….and they found most of the coins. They spoke honestly about their anger. About taking out her rage on weeds in the garden and being unable to control his tears for months. It was deep and moving and from the heart, and no one in that class will forget that lesson about God walking with them through grief. “This community, this church, they were always there for us. They held our hands, they prayed for us, they showed up.” We looked at each other, recognizing we could be that kind of community.
Our second guest speaker was badly wounded in Vietnam and told the students about his sense of God’s presence, about the people back home who prayed for his recovery. About the long healing process and how he emerged from his trauma with faith. There’s no lesson plan that would recreate the scene of that explosion or bear witness to the face of a man who’s come so close to death.
I’m fairly certain that my students will forget many of our Sunday School discussions, although I hope they remember the feeling of belonging and the biblical truths we addressed. I also very certain they’ll never forget their fellow parishioners sharing those personal stories of faith.
I hope you will copy this idea, and not just because it will spare you from planning a lesson! Your pews are full of people with testimonies to share—of undeserved blessing and miraculous deliverance, of healing and disappointment and working through fear. May our congregation live out Psalm 22:22—”I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”