Connected to the Word and to Jesus

The 2023 Pathfinder Bible Experience makes a deep impact on many Pathfinders.

Kimberly Luste Maran, North American Division News, and Adventist Review
Connected to the Word and to Jesus
On April 22, the North American Division held the Pathfinder Bible Experience finals in Tampa, Florida, United States. [Photo: Pieter Damsteegt]

More than 150 teams participated in the 2023 Pathfinder Bible Experience (PBE) in Tampa Bay, Florida, United States, April 21-22. This was the second year the event is back in person after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event online in 2020 and 2021. This will also mark the second year that teams unable to travel could participate remotely in real time with those gathered in Florida.

Last year, 63 teams gathered in person at the Lane Events Center in Oregon, United States, while 30 teams joined online. Organizers are thrilled about the high number of teams that attended the event held this year at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall. The venue was able to accommodate a large number of spectators in stands high above the testing floor.

“We’re excited that so many teams qualified and made the trip to the finals after studying the book of John — a number that amounts to close to 4,000 people here in the venue,” Armando Miranda Jr., an associate director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the North American Division (NAD) of the Adventist Church, said. “The year the kids [spend] study[ing] the Bible is about memorization — and so much more. It’s a faith-building experience that will last a lifetime.”

He added, “These kids will remember the words of those [chapters]. I can tell you from experience growing up, those Bible verses that I learned in Pathfinders have always come back to my mind, and I’m sure that they also have those moments where they’re faced with a situation, a challenge, and because God’s Word is in their hearts, it will just flow out of them. They can face the circumstances, any challenges, because they have wisdom acquired by reading the Word of God.”

Miranda shared that one of the three teams online included the Agat-Santa Rita Waves PBE team from the Guam-Micronesia Mission.

As the Agat team prepared for the division finals live testing, Pathfinder and team scribe Abigail remarked, “I’m excited to be a part of this and experience something new. I’ll have great memories from this experience.” The time zone differences for the Agat team and others online didn’t dampen their enthusiasm, which was only rivaled by those gathered in person.

Shearna Tolbert, the Agat team coach, said, “I love PBE. It’s so rewarding to work with these young people, see their growth, and witness their excitement about learning the Word.”

All nine Adventist union conferences from North America were represented along with four teams from the British Union Conference. Four teams qualified from Korea, and one was able to make the trip — a first for PBE.

After a Friday evening vespers that set the tone for the weekend, approximately 4,000 people filled the Expo Hall on Sabbath for worship and, of course, the question-and-answer portion of the Bible testing, which got underway at 8:00 a.m. After lunch, Pathfinders and their supporters gathered for a special worship program, followed by the team certificates award ceremony.

“This is one of the most significant events that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church hosts,” NAD president G. Alexander Bryant said. “It is about studying the Word of God, and to get young people inspired and motivated to study the Word of God is powerful, because it helps them in so many different ways.”

Bryant, who donned his Pathfinder uniform at the PBE event, explained: “It helps their intellect. It helps their spirituality. It helps prepare them for every state of life that they will face. … Studying the Word of God goes beyond today — it will stay with them for the rest of their life, not only this life but also for eternity.”

“It took a lot of ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ — especially tears because it’s hard. It took a lot of practice and work and memorization,” Donna Martel, a Pathfinder from the Texico Conference, said. Martel explained that her team started studying around September 2022, and, as time drew near for testing, they met up to three times per week. While it was difficult, Martel said their coach was kind and supportive — and it was all worth it.

“The biggest blessing is that we’re all able to work together to answer these questions, and God has been helping us, being with us, just answering our prayers as we all worked very hard together as a group. It’s really fun once you get the hang of it.”

Martel shared that she learned something special from studying John. “God is always with you. He’s guiding you through everything. He makes sure you’re OK, and He supports you all the day,” she said with a chuckle at the inadvertent rhyme.

“The book of John is like the premier book of being connected to Jesus, and these kids have learned all of that. They’ve memorized it. Some of them know the whole book by memory. I figure that’s going to stay in their minds and in their hearts for the rest of their lives,” Tracy Wood, NAD Youth and Young Adult Ministries director, said.

“The Spirit speaks through the Word at times when we don’t anticipate. All of a sudden, a verse or a word pops in our minds, like, ‘Oh. Wow!’ This is so informative for our young people and their journey in discipleship. It’s just massive for them,” Wood added.

Test Taking and the Test-Takers

The journey to the PBE division level is a four-step process, a process that has been in place since 2012. The teams, comprised of up to six people, are first chosen by their clubs to compete in their local districts after months of Bible study and memorization. Those who score within 90 percent of the highest score advance to the conference level. The same pattern continues through the union level all the way to the division.

A first for this year was the presentation of test questions in four different languages: English, Spanish, French, and Korean.

Another first at this year’s finals was the full digitization of the testing at each table through hardwired Internet, which facilitated a smooth process through the testing portion of PBE.

One hundred fifty-five teams participated in the testing, with 152 in person and three teams online. The teams were asked 90 questions based on the biblical book of John.

The quiet rumblings of excited Pathfinders ten questions to the finish gave way to a loud roar of achievement and joy as the final question was read and answered. Those that scored within 90 percent of the highest score were awarded first place, which was earned by 105 teams. Forty-eight teams received second place finishes; two teams finished in third place. As the teams climbed the stage to receive their certificates then moved to the photo finish area, many cheered excitedly along the way.

“I just love to see the kids really stretch themselves in memorization, but not only that: I love to see them realize that memorization is simply the first step in learning the Scriptures. Then they start learning it and applying it, and [at church] sometimes the kids know their Bible a little better than the pastor does,” Gene Clapp, NAD PBE coordinator, said with a smile.

Clapp is no stranger to club activities. “I have been in Pathfinders for around 35 to 37 years,” he shared. “I have been a club director, a staff member, a TLT [Team Leadership Training] coordinator, conference director … and I have been the Pathfinder Bible Experience coordinator for the past 12 years as the event transitioned from the old Pathfinder Bible Achievement to the PBE. That year, 12 years ago, we had about 25 to 26 teams, and now we have teams participating from all around the world.”

International Teams

“We are so excited to have, for the first time, a team of eight from the Korean Union. They traveled across the Pacific all the way to the East Coast — that’s a long trip — to be here with us. Four Korean teams qualified, but couldn’t make the trip,” Miranda explained.

The team enjoyed several days in Florida, including making friends at Friday vespers held at a local church and attending the program at the fairgrounds on Sabbath. Their experience culminated with the finish of testing and a team photo op.

“We give thanks to God for getting us here safely,” one of the Korean Pathfinder team coaches said, adding that they were glad that the book of John was chosen for the testing. “The book of John is plain, it is easy to understand Jesus Christ, and that makes it [meaningful] to the children.”

In a rebuilding year after the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, according to Kevin Johns, British Union Conference Youth Ministries director, four teams made the trip across the pond from the United Kingdom to the finals in Florida: one from the North England Conference and three from the South England Conference, while a couple more joined online. PBE has been such a blessing that the British Union now hold their own PBE as a major annual event. “It’s impacted our entire division,” Johns said. “The Pathfinder Bible Experience is a phenomenal program that has grown leaps and bounds, and we now have a division-level testing with countries from all across our division involved.”

Johns explained that this year has been particularly meaningful. “We have 234 Pathfinders who have requested baptism, … and we have a whole list of others who want to be more prepared. This all came from the same experience of having studied the book of John,” he said.

French Connection

The impact of studying John seemed to be felt by many of the Pathfinders, including the teams from Canada, some of whom tested in French.

For one team, studying for and traveling to the PBE finals was a family event. Michael Cloutier traveled from Quebec with his wife, Caroline, and their three children, who are part of the Saint-Georges Seventh-day Adventist Church “Lions of Juda” Pathfinder Club. He said that his children have given them a gift with their hard work of memorizing chapters from John and qualifying for the finals for the first time. Proud of their dedication to learning the Bible, he added with a laugh, “We left the cold weather [in] Quebec and we’re happy to sweat in Florida.”

“We’ve participated since 2019, and we had some technical difficulties when we were participating during COVID, so we were never able to get to the finals, but we worked hard and we’re really happy,” said Cloutier’s son Xavier. “It’s really motivating to work with a lot of other Pathfinders that have the same love for the Word of God and studying, and it’s really fun to do this Pathfinder Bible Experience — it’s actually the Bible Experience that got us into Pathfinders.”

“It is just a great experience to do with friends, and it is also fun and enriching to learn and memorize Jesus’ gospels,” said Cloutier’s daughter, Audreanne, through interpreter Naomi Chiorean — another Pathfinder from Quebec. “I enjoy being with my friends, my brother and sister, and being on a team makes it all worthwhile.”

Year After Year

Another key element to the success of this growing event is that Pathfinders who “age out” of the testing come back to volunteer. While many church members and family members support the teams and work as volunteers at the event, the group that makes organizers the most excited are the young adults who serve in a variety of ways, including throughout the year as team coaches and counselors and as event staff in the finals.

Wood explained, “As they stay connected in Pathfinders from grade 9 to grade 12, which is the TLT [Team Leadership Training] level, it carries on when they’re done in Pathfinders and in high school into their young adult life. It carries on in a powerful way because we’re seeing here, in this building, that there’s a whole lot of young adults behind the scenes doing a lot. As I look around — and I’ve always got my eyes on young adults — at the support staff, the judges, the technical staff, and those that are at the tables as coaches, I estimate that there’s a good 200 young adults here … serving in different capacities.

“They’ll grab that old uniform and put it back on, and they just want to be part of this network of leaders. It’s inspiring,” Wood said.

The gift of continued support for this event is one that the NAD hopes will continue. “I think about how the Holy Spirit is going to use all the experiences that the Pathfinders are having preparing for this event and being here in the event— and what’s going to happen later down the road in their spiritual journey,” NAD vice president for ministries Wendy Eberhardt said. “It’s exciting to think about how the Lord’s going to use this time and hopefully make the kids who are here Pathfinder leaders in their local church.”

Miranda added, “This is a community of faith that they belong to. That is a key element for our Pathfinders, our young people, as they keep growing and facing challenges to have a support system [of which] they can say, ‘Hey. You know, we went through this together. You’re going to help me out, and we’re going to keep walking together.’”

The original version of this story was posted on the North American Division news site.

Kimberly Luste Maran, North American Division News, and Adventist Review