So here’s where I’m coming from. At New Inn Church (www.newinnchapel.co.uk) we’d been running a youth group for a couple of years, with secondary-school-aged kids coming, mainly from nearby council houses, and almost entirely not Christians.
We’d started with simple talks based on their hardest questions (‘Why does God take good people and leave bad people?’ ‘Did God make dinosaurs?’ and ‘When Jesus comes back, will he be wearing old clothes, modern clothes, or will he be… naked?’ – ok, we didn’t do a whole week on the last question!). Then we began doing some narrative sections in the gospels, but still without directly engaging with the Bible text. Then this last year, we began by looking at the promises made to Adam, Noah and Abraham, all pointing forward to Jesus, and we used the Bible passages for that.
By this point, we had a consistent group of about ten teens, and were gradually piecing together the gospel with them. Ok, so most weeks we still had to send home a couple for bad behaviour, but the routine had been set – half an hour of Bible study, followed by half an hour of dodgeball (always, every week, without fail – their request! My knees have never been the same since…)
So I felt they were about ready for something like the Soul DVD – a nicely repackaged form of the youth Christianity Explored course (buy it from the Good Book Company here). How did it go down?
The DVD has seven episodes, and most clock in at the 15 minute mark. We decided it’d be best to show an episode, then have a time for Q&A afterwards. There is an accompanying study booklet, but that seemed a bit optimistic for our kids on top of the DVD!
The quality of the episodes is really good – it occasionally sails close to Christian cheese, but usually avoids that dreaded territory! I loved the imagery – it’s usually used as background to the voiceover, but sometimes as an illustration. There is one stand out moment where presenter Nate Morgan-Locke (yes, he’s got a double-barrelled surname, but he’s not so posh that the kids didn’t listen at all) retells Jesus’ calming of the storm, shouting it against the drenching rain of a full on studio hurricane, which at the words, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ dissolves into silence and sunshine. It’s powerful.
The gospel is clearly presented throughout, from Marks’ gospel. A lot of passages are read out, with the text always shown onscreen to follow as Nate narrates. This seems a bit odd at times, especially as the stories are often retold immediately following. The text is also never accompanied by music, which seems a bit superstitious – ‘the Spirit can only use the Bible when the text is visible and when there’s no music to manipulate people’s emotions’. I suspect the concern is to be demonstrating the source of authority – the Bible, not human opinion – but it often breaks the flow of an episode. Having said that, there was one point where Jesus’ words about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands to avoid sin were simply read out in silence (Mark 9:42-48), and man, that had an impact!
But what about the ‘youf’? How did they take it?
Well, it was mixed. Most sessions felt too long for their concentration length – we usually had to pause a few times during an episode due to too much heckling the TV. There was an amusing hang up with the kids insisting that I looked like Nate (I don’t see it. What do you think?!). The first episode – explaining why the best way to find out who God is, is to look at Christ – was quite philosophical and over their heads. I don’t think they got some of the irony either. But again, that’s probably another good reason to make the main feature of the episodes the Bible text itself.
There were moments throughout which captured attention – mainly where the visuals tied in closely with the content. The room of TVs, printers and cameras documenting our lives, as an example of how God sees everything in our heart, was strong. The GRACE episode was good, with a clever scene with Nate dropping large cards with writing on into a fire (‘I’ve never been arrested’, ‘I go to church’, ‘I’m nice to puppies’) to demonstrate how works are useless in getting right with God.
So the verdict? It’s a great resource, and for those at the club who were beginning to understand the gospel, it built on what they’d been learning before. But I think it’s still probably a bit too abstract and text-focused for kids for whom school sucks, TV is their teacher and the concrete realities of hanging out with their mates are what get them through the day. Soul will serve a purpose in middle-class youth groups with teens willing to focus, engage and grapple with conceptual questions. But it wasn’t down-to-earth enough for our kids – the visuals were more arty than everyday, perhaps impressive rather than effective. And it lacked a key ingredient which would have connected – humour.
So, Soul – thoroughly recommended as a resource, but it might not be suitable if your youth group has more chaos than calm in it! A lot of my criticisms above would probably apply to any DVD resource used in this context – I’m becoming more convinced that better ways forward in deprived areas are hanging out with your youths, taking them with you for street outreach, being unashamed to bluntly confront their attitudes and assumptions with the gospel, and generally showing them your faith exists beyond the scheduled Friday evening hour.
But what do you think? Have you used Soul at your church? Do you have a formal ‘youth work’ programme, or is there a better integration with the whole church? Drop in a comment below, and let’s get the discussion going!