Sunday school tailored for teens

Faith: A youth group's meetings include everything from sleepovers to `The Simpsons.'

March 19, 2004|By Deitrich Curry | Deitrich Curry,SUN STAFF

Mary Lynn Mellinger and her fellow teachers have found a way to sell Sunday school to teen-agers: The Simpsons, sleep- overs and trips to West Virginia to fix up houses for low-income families.

High-schoolers get bored with traditional religious study, said Mellinger, a teacher at Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville, who prefers a relaxed format that lets the teens drive the curriculum.

Each Sunday, her 15 or so students show up in the basement of the church's day care center wearing jeans, sweat pants and sneakers. They lounge on couches, munch on doughnuts, talk about drugs, sex, school or whatever is on their minds - and try to outdo each other with humor.

"I could read them Bible stories all day and night, but I feel at this stage that is not what they need," Mellinger said. "At this point, I am more concerned about them applying their Christian faith to their lives every day."

For teen-agers, everyday life usually involves television - shows such as The Simpsons, Fox's irreverent animated comedy. So Mellinger decided to introduce lessons from The Gospel According to the Simpsons, a book by Mark I. Pinsky that examines faith and morality as reflected through the hit show. She showed them a video of a Simpsons episode and had them analyze its spiritual aspects.

"We got better discussion out of that class than any other lesson I've done," Mellinger said.

"The way to teach teen-agers about religion is not to cram it down their throat. The class needs to be driven by the kids."

The class, which ranges from 15 to 25 students, has grown close through summer mission trips to Appalachian West Virginia and other rural places, where the students fix up houses for low-income families. To raise the $15,000 it normally costs to go, the teen-agers organize fund-raisers such as car washes, yard sales and mulch delivery. The long bus rides give the students time to learn about each other. And when they get there, they enjoy learning about the people whose houses they're helping to fix.

Carrie Mellinger, the teacher's daughter - dressed in blue sweat pants and a T-shirt on a recent Sunday - sometimes wears her pajamas to Sunday school. "We're all just really comfortable around each other," she said.

Several times a year, the teens have sleepovers at the Mellingers' house and enjoy soaking in Mellingers' hot tub.

Jon Scheidt, 18, who attends Mount Hebron High School, considers Sunday school to be "amazingly fun." He is known as one of the jokesters in the class. "It keeps everyone in a good mood," he said. "Church is supposed to be comfortable, not uptight."

The class has expanded as friends recruited more friends. Before the group began to grow, few high school students came to church. Scheidt, a junior, is worried that the tenor will change after the current seniors leave.

"It's not like school where everyone pretends to be someone else," Scheidt said. "You feel free to express yourself and no one criticizes you. It's just love. There's love everywhere. It's like a family," he said.

Andrew Lund, 19, considers the group a second family. Although he is now a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, he often comes back to visit what he calls his first set of real friends.

"Kids don't like to be told what to do," he said. In the class, he says, he can express his ideas without being criticized.

On the first Sunday of each month, the teen-agers attend services in the church sanctuary for 15 minutes to take communion.

On Wednesday nights, they gather for Bible study, a class called "Word Up." Sherrie Rovnan, who co-teaches the class, describes how someone came up with the name.

"We're studying God's word," she said. "And where is he? Up," she said, pointing to the ceiling. Also, his news is uplifting, Rovnan added.

The Bible class is more of a fellowship, starting at 6:30 p.m. with dinner. Students, who attend different schools, catch up on each other's news. One recent evening, they split up into groups of three and read different anti-Christian scenarios, then argued for their faith.

At the end of the class, the students went around the room announcing prayer requests. Katy Lund, a high school senior, asked classmates to pray for the family of a student at her school who had died of cancer. Chris Mak, 17, asked them to pray for him, as he believed he had sprained his ankle.

"They connect with open prayer," Rovnan said of the students. "They are able to talk about their concerns."

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