Sometimes it’s funny what people remember about growing up Adventist. Kristen Heslop, a professional musician who grew up in the ’70s, recalls sitting around a bonfire at Indiana’s Camp Timber Ridge making hand motions and singing: “Waddle eee ah cha, waddle ee ah cha, doodle eee dooo, doodle eee dooo.” (Now, try to get that song out of your head.)
There are other good memories to choose from: The smell of sizzling gluten samples in the camp meeting store. That one time you beat everyone else to the text in a Bible sword drill. Sipping hot chocolate after a cold night of Ingathering. Gathering around the piano on a Sabbath evening singing, “Day Is Dying in the West.”
Many memories involve a little story magazine that has been a part of the Adventist experience for 60 years—Guide. “Guide taught me multitasking,” jokes Loren Seibold. “It taught me how to read the magazine while also pretending to listen to the sermon.” He remembers the issues that had nature stories on the back page that were formatted like comic strips. This was strangely wonderful to Seibold, whose parents forbade the reading of dime store comics. “It was generally more interesting than what our pastor was saying,” he remembers. And Seibold has a license to say that because he is a pastor himself.
Before the 1950s Juniors had much less to read during the sermon. They had only one page dedicated to their age group in the Youth’s Instructor, a more mature weekly magazine that was the forerunner of Insight. But that all changed in October 1953.
Now retired from teaching at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Jane Thayer was attending a small church in Owensville, Missouri, when those early issues of Guide were handed out in her Junior class. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. “We had a small journal that was all ours, and when you opened it, it was full of stories—there weren’t any lectures,” she says. “It always amazed me that the people who were writing the stories knew just what we were interested in.”
Several trends helped Juniors and Earliteens end up with a paper that they could call their own. One was the Baby Boom that filled Sabbath school rooms and Adventist schools to overflowing. In the years after World War II, a church with 100 members would be throwing baby showers almost as often as it observed Communion. The introduction of Guide also owes a lot to the connection Seventh-day Adventists have always made between reading and the spiritual life.
“We have a fundamental reverence for the Word of God,” says Adventist researcher Monte Sahlin. “Ours is a Scripture-based faith, in contrast to the more tradition-based faith in many other churches. Young Adventists learn the faith by reading.” As a child and teenager, Sahlin remembers often hearing the statement “He read himself into the truth.”
Perhaps this is why research consistently shows Seventh-day Adventists are better educated and greater consumers of books and magazines than the general population. This is true around the globe, according to Sahlin.
Now Guide is looking back on 60 years of telling stories to the church’s young people. In the 1950s, many stories reflected life growing up in rural locations. “In those early magazines, many illustrations reflect farm settings. There are milk cans and lost cows,” says Guide editor Randy Fishell. “It was like watching Green Acres.”
Mission stories were more common in the 1950s and 1960s. American missionaries would come back from Africa or Borneo with amazing stories. The adventures of native children would show up regularly. Stories told of escapes from wild elephants or crocodiles.
“One feature that I really got a lot of benefit from was Pen Pals—a list of kids that wanted to write letters,” recalls Thayer. I would go through the list and look for those that were from countries outside the United States. It took forever to get an answer back, but when it came, the letter looked so fancy with all its foreign stamps.” Sadly, the chance for kids to connect with pen pals ended in the early 1990s with the heightened awareness of child predators.
A positive change is that stories now reflect the rainbow of ethnic diversity in the church. “It’s fascinating to see the monochromatic approach to the presentation of most stories in the past,” says Fishell. In the 1950s, 75 to 80 percent of Juniors were of European descent. Today 75 percent of Juniors represent other ethnic groups.
“We recognize that the demographic in the North American Division is very multicultural,” says Guide assistant editor Laura Sámano, who is Hispanic herself. “We ask authors to send us stories that are set in different countries and with heroes of different ethnicities.”
Guide continues to adjust to stay relevant. There are fewer stories about how to get your horse out of quicksand, and more about how to respond to text messages from a depressed friend. But there are aspects of the magazine that don’t change. Today, all the stories in the magazine are true. The first editor, Lawrence Maxwell, held to the same standard. “I didn’t want made-up stories,” he said during a 2003 interview. “I felt that if we’re going to tell the children this is the way Christianity works, it had better be the way Christianity works.”
The stories in Guide continue to affirm what Fishell calls an Adventist worldview. They show how God honors those who keep the Sabbath. They underscore the importance of honesty, compassion, and other Christian virtues. The true stories of children dealing with problems in their lives become an inspiration to the thousands of Juniors and Earliteens who open up their Guide magazines each Sabbath morning. It is these stories that help them map out the unseen spiritual world and their place in it.
“The power of a story is that it will literally change your life for good or bad,” says former Guide editor Penny Estes Wheeler. “A well-written story taps into emotions—what we feel and who we are. It makes us a participant in the story.”
“Kids are always getting in trouble for talking too much. If you listen to what they’re saying, they’re telling stories to each other about what happened this week,” says José Rojas, who got his start as an international youth speaker working with Juniors. “Stories are what drives a person’s life. Guide leads with those stories to the feet of Jesus.”
“I find Guide magazine really inspiring,” says 13-year-old Jackie Recuenco. “It inspires me to take a stand and fight for things I believe in. I remember reading this one story about a girl who was on a public bus, and they were playing a horror movie on the TVs that creeped her out. At first she was afraid to ask anybody if she could turn it off. But then she gathered up the courage to say something, and everybody was like, ‘Yes, please do. It’s about time.’ ”
“I don’t think we can get along without stories,” says Southwestern Union children’s ministries director Margaret Taglavore. “It gives a child something to relate to. They haven’t seen God. But when you tell children a story, they can place themselves in it.” Ultimately, they can share an experience that someone else had with God and learn about Him that way.
That’s not to say that the appeal of the stories is limited to children. “I see adults in our church reading Guide instead of listening to the sermon,” says Taglavore. Some church members are drawn into smuggling operations where they snatch unused Guides from the Sabbath school room and take them to friends in a nursing home.
A good story draws in everyone. The Review and Herald Publishing Association has produced a series of best-selling books simply by collecting the top stories from the 15,000 that have been printed over the history of Guide.*
Where do all these stories come from? Oakwood professor Derek Bowe has provided several notable stories to Guide. “I ask the Lord to give the thoughts and the stories,” he says. “A particular episode will come to mind that I was not thinking about at all. I thank God for helping me every step of the way from conceiving the story to refining it. He’s the one responsible for the whole thing.”
His is a thankless job in some ways. “Kids don’t pay attention to who wrote the story,” says Bowe. “But that doesn’t matter. I write so that kids all over the world will see how great God is and ask Him to be a part of their lives forever.”
Guide is obviously a kind of child evangelism. It touches the lives of kids at an age when research shows that they are likely to make a lifelong decision about whether or not to follow Christ. It may be part of many happy memories that we have from the past, but its real value comes from how it leads children into the future.
* The most recent is 60 Years of Guide: The Anniversary Story Collection.