By SARA CAMPBELL
Reading the entire Bible can be daunting at any age. But if you’re 16 or 17, living in a hyper-competitive North Dallas suburb and under pressure to keep up your grades, apply for college, play sports and have some semblance of a social life—it can seem downright impossible.
That’s why Pilgrimage 2011, a Bible study for youth at Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano, is so incredible. Twenty students have signed on to read the entire Bible together and attend weekly one-hour discussion sessions to share their thoughts about it.
The two-year effort began in 2009 when the “pilgrims” were high school sophomores and juniors. In addition to the Bible study, they spent their last spring break taking a pilgrimage trip through the South, retracing the journeys of civil rights activists in the 1950s and ’60s. Stops included Selma and Birmingham, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark.
Next summer they’ll finish it all with a visit to London, Canterbury and Oxford, England, to see the birthplace of Methodism. To raise money for the trip, the teens are hosting two garage sales and two auctions. They’re also engaging the congregation through an “adopt-a-pilgrim” program in which adult Sunday school classes partner with the teens to provide spiritual, financial and social support.
The goal is to raise enough money so that all of the teens will be able to afford Bibles, curriculum and the cost of the trips.
“Pilgrimage is an effort to help our students encounter the bigger story,” said the Rev. Mike Baughman, an associate minister at Custer Road, “to read the stuff that most gloss over, to ask the hard questions that only come when you see the big picture, and to get a glimpse of the divine that we can see only when we stare into the eyes of God for a long time,”
Baughman said this is the first time the church has done a Pilgrimage Bible study, and he knows of no other area churches doing a similar teen study combined with pilgrimage trips.
Pilgrimage 2011 is partially modeled after a format used in some Episcopal churches, called Journey to Adulthood. Baughman hopes to start Pilgrimage 2013 next year.
The congregation at Custer Road believed it was important to offer such a Bible study for teens for several reasons, Baughman said.
“We live in a world that is so fragmented,” he said. “Most things come in sound bites, short clips, bits and pieces, and youth are longing for more. Unfortunately, the church far too often presents the Bible in sound bites, clips and bits and pieces. It’s hard to get a sense for the bigger story.”
Plano produces some highly intelligent kids who need to be challenged, he said. Pilgrimage takes things further to keep these kids connected at a deeper level.
The goal, however, is more than just insight and knowledge. The church wants the pilgrims to know they are part of a larger mission and have a role to play in the story of God and God’s people.
Faith in action
“The trips are so important,” Baughman said. ”They give the teens an opportunity to see how the word of God was lived out by those who committed themselves to God.”
After reading the book of Exodus, the students went to key sites from the civil rights era to see how people in the 20th century lived out the pursuit of freedom. The group will travel to England after reading the whole Bible to see the place where early Methodists worked “to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land,” and thereby changed the world.
“The Bible is God’s word in two dimensions,” Baughman said. ”The trips give us a sense of what God’s word can look like in three dimensions—when it’s lived out.”
The Rev. Tim Morrison, youth and music minister at Custer Road, said the Pilgrimage teens show noticeable spiritual growth.
“These kids don’t just know the Bible, they have a relationship with it; and a relationship is so much more valuable than knowledge,” Morrison said. He added that all of the pilgrims come to church and to youth group more often than they did before.
The teens are contributing more insight not only to youth group and Sunday school, but also in their English and history classes in school, Baughman said. Several parents have told the pastoral staff that their kids have become much more grounded, confident and positive as they’ve been going through Pilgrimage.
Plano East Senior High School junior Allison Blakley, 16, said the Pilgrimage Bible Study has been life-changing.
Though her parents are believers, Allison had not grown up going to church regularly. She started going to Custer Road with a friend and was accepted into Pilgrimage even though she was a not a member of the church. This year, she felt moved to be baptized and confirmed into the church and now attends regularly.
“I’m so glad I joined Pilgrimage,” she said. “Even though it’s really hard to keep up with all the reading each week, it’s totally worth it to be on this journey with such an amazing group of people. We’ve all grown so close and helped each other understand the Bible and apply it to our lives.”
Baughman said it has been inspiring to watch the teens’ faith mature even though many have undergone faith crises in the midst of Pilgrimage.
“They’ve opened up to each other, trusted one another and been taken care of by one another,” he said.
Sara Campbell is a freelance writer. This article ran in the United Methodist Reporter.