Seventh grader Amie Shelley felt reassured by the other students encircling her in prayer and resting their hands on her shoulders. Although Amie had prepared for this evening for more than four months, she was grateful for the emotional and spiritual support of her classmates. Her teacher, Chris Davisson, was pleading for the presence of the Holy Spirit, and Amie knew she couldn’t hope to accomplish anything if God wasn’t with her.
It was Amie’s night to preach. She and 10 other seventh and eighth graders from Ruth Murdoch Elementary School in Berrien Springs, Michigan, were leading out in a nine-day series of meetings being held on the campus of Andrews University. The large white tent housing the event—reminiscent of Adventist camp meetings of eras past—offered protection from the cold wind and rain on this early May evening. It also drew curiosity seekers along with those long looking forward to the event.
Normally reticent even to speak up in class, Amie felt her stomach tighten and mouth go dry as she walked up to the oak podium and gazed out at the 200-plus expectant faces. More gray folding chairs than originally planned had been set up for the many who had come eager to hear the “old message” presented in a fresh way by younger-than-usual preachers—and the congregation wouldn’t be disappointed.
Taking a deep breath and speaking in clear, confident tones, the 13-year-old began: “Hi! My name is Amie. Tonight I’m going to preach about having a relationship with God.”
Andrews University Theological Seminary student Ben Martin, who has been assisting at the Ruth Murdoch school, initially hadn’t considered middle-school students giving sermons. Instead, he first envisioned an innovative way of discipling elementary students and helping them to make decisions for Jesus. The “old” way, he says, just wasn’t working.
“We’ve been doing things backwards,” Martin says. “We have a Week of Prayer, call for decisions, and then explain to kids who decide to be baptized what they’ve agreed to. Instead, we should prepare them for a relationship with Christ before we ever ask them about baptism.”
Believing in starting young, Martin developed a student discipleship approach that involved a Bible study program beginning with children in fourth grade—but with a twist. It’s taught by seventh and eighth graders! Meeting twice a week as part of an elective mini-course, the older students first plan and prepare the Bible lessons and then teach them to the younger students. Even though it’s only in its first year, Martin describes the program as “a huge success. The seventh and eighth graders really enjoy it,” he says.
Fourth-grade students are taught in small groups. In fifth grade the students are instructed together as a class. Seminary students and pastors teach sixth graders in small groups.
“Each year we go a little bit more in-depth,” Martin explains. “The small groups allow kids the opportunity to ask questions more freely. The students then come to understand the Bible better and to learn to know their Savior. When the time comes, they’re more fully prepared to make decisions for Jesus. It also helps the older students to internalize their personal beliefs as well.”
Melody Chadwick was involved with the Bible study project last year as an eighth grader and describes it as a “wonderful experience.” She concedes it wasn’t just the younger students who benefited from the program.
“It taught me how to prepare a Bible study and then teach it,” Melody explains. “The fourth graders were excited whenever we came, but sometimes I think I learned almost as much as they did. Bible studies mean a whole lot more to me after giving one.”
“This is an opportunity for our young people to teach the Bible to others even at this early age,” notes Pioneer Memorial church youth pastor Michael Goetz, who assists with the program. “If they later get invited as high school students to give a Bible study, they won’t have the same resistance. It’ll be ‘Hey, I’ve done that before. Sure, I’ll do it.’ I’m absolutely sold on the program. It’s golden.”
Ruth Murdoch principal David L. Waller is also a supporter. He sees the program as a more “natural way” of helping children come to know Jesus and His Word because it teaches them how to make decisions for Christ on an intentional, ongoing basis that is part of the curriculum.
“We want our youth to have the finest education they can get,” Waller says, “but the main purpose of Adventist education is to lead children to Christ. This new discipling program is doing that very effectively.”
Although he wants to see the program continue, Waller acknowledges a financial challenge.
“After Ben Martin graduates and moves on, we’ll need someone to help this continue,” he notes. “We need a children’s pastor, but finances are always the issue. We’re talking about a salary, and that’s difficult to come up with.”
Although the Bible studies were deemed successful, Martin didn’t want to stop there. He longed to do more.
“The thing about discipleship,” he says, “is that it continually pushes you to ask, ‘OK, what’s next in the growth process?’ We got the seventh and eighth graders working with the younger kids, so the next step was to connect with their peers.”
Martin wanted the Ruth Murdoch students to form spiritual ties not only with other youth in their own school but also with the large number of Adventist young people in the local public schools. So the concept of a student-led evangelistic series began forming in his mind. The North American Division Children’s Ministries Department agreed to help financially support such an event, so Martin asked for volunteer student speakers from the upper grades. Beginning last January, 11 seventh and eighth graders began preparing sermons—with a lot of help from Chris Davisson, who teaches junior high math, Bible, and science at the school.
When Ben approached Davisson about assisting the student speakers, Davisson was hesitant. “I wasn’t really sure I knew what I was doing,” he says. “But I work a lot with kids, and decided to tackle it. The kids and I met twice a week all semester and spent lots of time praying.”
Meeting not only at school but also in Davisson’s home, the students chose their own topics and then began writing and later practicing their sermons. Davisson provided biblical and Ellen White resources, and also encouraged them to study their topic using various Bible versions. He emphasized, too, the importance of personal time with God.
“My challenge to them was to commit to spending a thoughtful hour with Jesus each day and to really open their hearts to Him,” Davisson says. “I told them they couldn’t really talk about Jesus without personally knowing Him themselves.”
He adds, “I enjoyed watching them practice their sermons. All these young preachers were standing along the gym walls behind their little podiums, moving their arms and talking about their topics. We did that for weeks.”
Goetz describes the process as a “make-it-up-as-you-go-along experience that was galvanizing” for the students. “They really bought into it,” he says.
When May 9, the opening night of the series, arrived, the kids were ready. Eighth grader Claudia Applewhite spoke first; her presentation was titled “The Empire’s Revolt.” She was followed throughout the next eight days by student speakers C. J. Arthur, Jonathon Woolford-Hunt, Elsie Getahun, Ashley Jankiewicz, Amie Shelley, Jasmine Fraser, Lubasi Ngonda II, Joshua Huslin, Colton Hodge
s, and Chloe Smith. They addressed such topics as the love of God, the Holy Spirit, the plan of redemption, the judgment, and the state of the dead, among others. The presentations, organizers say, were well received.
“I attended every meeting and was blessed by their messages and how the Holy Spirit spoke through them,” says Cyndi Caballero, receptionist/secretary for the elementary school. “I was particularly impressed by the students who always seemed so reserved at school but at the tent meeting spoke clearly, were animated, creative. It was amazing!”
The students themselves recognized positive outcomes. Eighth grader Colton Hodges, who focused on God’s love evidenced through the judgment, found the experience helped him to grow closer to God and to develop a better understanding of his topic. He also acknowledged the team effort involved in preparing the sermons.
“We all helped each other, giving ideas and feedback,” Colton says. “Mr. Davisson was a great help to all of us.”
He adds, “I believe God really wanted this tent meeting to happen, and it went great! I saw God working through this.”
Amie agrees. “I felt God helping me,” she says. “I felt His presence when I was speaking, and it made me feel excited to tell people about Him.”
Amie doesn’t think such programs should stop just at her school, though. “It would be awesome to expand the meetings and have them at more schools around the country. Then we could witness to more people.”
She adds, “God can use everyone. Sometimes kids don’t get to do things like this until they’re in high school, but using younger kids is awesome.”
Goetz believes the student preachers will never be the same after this experience. “They won’t say, ‘I don’t think I can go on that mission trip because I don’t want to speak.’ No, they’ll be ready to speak! They’ll be willing to speak,” he says. “The devil can’t use their comfort zone box to keep them from being evangelistic, because they’ve already done it.”
It takes more than preachers, however, to organize and run such a happening. It also takes musicians, greeters, videographers, photographers, and others. Students held all these responsibilities as well.
Eighth grader Lissa Caballero served as photographer for the event. Lissa took a photography class from Pastor Martin last year, so when he asked for her help, she answered, “Sure.”
“It was cool to be part of a team doing evangelism,” Lissa says. “I felt like people were blessed, because we got lots of thank-yous—and that was amazing!”
“It was the perfect picture to show these kids, that each of them has a role to play in serving God. Each of them has gifts and talents, and working together, what they can accomplish is beyond anyone’s imagination,” Martin says. “What if every church across North America were able to accomplish the things these kids did! This opened my eyes to what God is capable of doing if we truly act like the body of Christ.”
Plans are in place to hold another student-led series of meetings next year, but leaders say they will do some things differently. The most frequently voiced concern involves public school students. Fewer in number attended the meetings than hoped for, and organizers plan to make adjustments to alter that outcome the next time around.
“People from the community—faculty, parents, other students—they showed great support and came night after night to all the meetings, but if our goal is to reach the students’ peers, then we need to develop relationships with the young people in the community,” Martin says.
“We have to be intentional about inviting the public school kids to events such as gym nights, Sabbath school, vespers,” Davisson adds. “To ‘mix up’ our kids in a safe, spiritual, fun setting where they can get to know each other as people. We also need to emphasize befriending people without an agenda. . . . People just need to be shown the love of Jesus.”
Encouraging our children and youth to witness for the Lord doesn’t necessarily have to involve preaching and evangelistic meetings, Martin notes. “Across North America and around the world,” he says, “we have to give our young people part of the church, give them ownership, so they understand that this is their church. Even before leaving elementary school, kids can feel confident that they’re able to preach and give Bible studies. They’re not the church of tomorrow; they’re part of the church today.
“If we truly were to do that, can you imagine what our church would look like in 20 years?” he adds. “Pastors would have to work a lot harder to keep up with a church like that.”