When mandates from the coronavirus pandemic started urging churches to move their Sunday services online, it directly affected things like weeknight meetings and Bible studies, too. These orders also caused church youth leaders to scramble to find alternative ways to connect with their teenagers in a way that would keep them engaged as if they were together in one room.
Jake Tobolewski, the youth director at Fairview Presbyterian Church in Erie, PA, quickly turned to video conferencing platform Zoom to stay in touch with his ninth- through 12th-graders. The normally 30-person group that gathers on Monday nights is now connecting daily at 10 a.m. for a Bible study that is bringing in about two-thirds of the normal attendees.
But what eventually blossomed for Jake, a full-time local high school teacher who grew up at Fairview Church, from his daily youth group sessions was a need and an ability to now be able to reach out to college-aged “alumni” of the program.
“It’s allowed me to reconnect with a group of students that I wouldn’t have otherwise been connected to at this time,” Jake said. “It’s been a blessing for me.”
Realizing that this 25-and-under crowd was also now in isolation and available for spiritual connection, Jake has started a twice-a-week “College Night” Bible study on Mondays and Wednesdays that is attracting as many as 20 young adults on a given evening.
“I don’t do a lot of ministry with the college crowd,” Jake said. “They’re off and there’s time restraints. So, adding in that College Night has been pretty popular. It’s open to anybody but it’s mostly alumni of our youth group.
“Our youth group is kind of unique in a sense that most of the kids that join us don’t actually go to our church. We have kids from other Presbyterian churches and other denominations come to youth group. So, it’s open to everybody in our regular situation and now virtually.”
Only about a quarter to a third of those who are attending the College Night are connected to Fairview Church, with the remainder being those outliers. While most of the young adults are now back home living in the Erie area during this time of “social distancing,” there are a few who connect from out of the state from places like Nashville and Chicago.
“We’ve had a couple of friends – kids that I knew who had been in youth group when they were in high school – their college classmates have joined us,” Jake added. “But the vast majority of them grew up in Erie, whether they are here right now or not.”
The coronavirus pandemic has enabled these young adults, which was a close-knit group 2-3 years ago when they were still in high school and traveled to Belize on a mission trip, to reconnect. The goal going forward is to keep this rekindled relationship going in the fall when the students return to their respective campuses.
Both the college and high school Bible studies are following similar outlines. Jake admitted that by using Zoom and being able to project the scriptures and other resources on the screen for everyone to see adds a different element to the gatherings.
“It allows me to teach in such a way that it’s almost classroom style,” Jake said. “I can interact with people and I can highlight bits of scripture on the screen. It’s almost like online learning, but I’ve broadened it to the youth group environment and applied it to scripture.
“The high school group has become more of a community over the last three weeks. We don’t just do Bible study. Everybody talks about their day – what they’re struggling with, what’s good in their day, those things. Building community and being the church, even though we’re not in a physical building, is incredibly important right now.”
The Bible studies, which are available through Fairview Church’s Facebook page, last between 45-60 minutes, and Jake has been pleased with how the discussions have morphed into deeper conversations as the lessons continue.
“They’re thinking about it on a daily basis,” Jake said. “The whole idea was to provide community in whatever way we can and consistent interaction. It’s something the students and I look forward to every day.”
And that’s certainly a good thing considering the Bible studies continue to develop from when they began in mid-March.
“I didn’t know how they would respond to actually doing a Bible study consistently for a couple of weeks,” Jake admitted. “The response has been really, really strong. They’re starting to ask more in-depth questions as the discussion has picked up.”
The programs have been a pleasant by-product of an otherwise disheartening situation that has resulted in illness and the loss of life as well as the closing of schools and non-essential businesses.
“In every situation, God can use us to look at perspective,” Jake said. “It’s caused us to be more innovative, both as a youth group and also as a church as a whole. I see pastors and churches doing things at-large that they didn’t think were possible before. This is spawning a lot of creativity that we can use to spread ministry into the future in ways that people were resistant before.
“We’re learning as we go. There’s a steep learning curve, but the fruits that come out of this hopefully will connect more and more people to it.”