Online, school groups flourish
By Katherine Cromer Brock
Knight Ridder News Service
By Katherine Cromer Brock
COLLEYVILLE, Texas — In the dark of a recent Friday dawn, 30 students walked into the silent halls of Colleyville Middle School.
They wandered up the stairs to a small auditorium on the second floor, where Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a morning prayer awaited them.
The students sat on the floor, bowed their heads and prayed for their school, their teachers and other students. They asked one another to pray for everyone to have a safe weekend, and just to get along.
"I just like the people here to know that there are other Christians in their school that they can be accountable with and share their faith with," said eighth-grader Madeline French, president of the school's Students Standing Strong group, a nondenominational Christian organization.
Such religious-based student movements are part of a national trend of "tweens" and teens seeking a religious connection and of faith-based groups trying to provide one.
"With all of the things our world has to offer — you can try this drug, you can try sex, this will be fulfillment, this will satisfy you — at the end, they're still at rock bottom," said Becca Wilson, a senior involved with the youth group at Keller High School. "In the end, they usually just come back to the church."
"Teens are looking for meaning," said Matthew Grossman, executive director of BBYO, a national Jewish youth organization based in Washington, D.C. "With the Internet, they have the whole world at their fingertips. They have access to more information than ever before, and they're trying to make sense of it. That search leads to a curiosity about religion."
A survey commissioned by BBYO last year and released in January found that many youths are trying to forge religious connections.
Of 1,153 students ages 10 to 18 who were surveyed, 68 percent said religion and faith are important.
Among those students:
Grossman said the next step is recognizing that many students want to be reached, and using unconventional methods to do so.
"Teens today, whether they're Jewish or not, they have common thoughts and perspectives," Grossman said. "While many people think teens are turning away from religion, in fact, they're not."
Terry Ann Kelly founded Students Standing Strong in 2004 as her youngest children approached middle school. She wanted them to have "like-minded" friends to help combat peer pressure. The group started with a party for fifth-grade students to make friends with other Christian students. They would encourage one another not to drink, use drugs or have sex and would hold prayer meetings before school.
Now there are Students Standing Strong groups at several high and middle schools in the Colleyville area.
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger of Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas, said the new groups, like groups such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Young Life, can make other students feel excluded.
"Jewish kids, and probably nonevangelical kids, feel somewhat put off by this because it's not their style of religion," Mecklenburger said. "But it's a free country, and they're entitled."
Kelly said Students Standing Strong is not intended to make nonmembers feel inferior or uncomfortable. Invitations to events are mailed to the home of every high school student in the district and students hand out more invitations at their schools.
"This is a good group of kids just trying to survive a tough culture," Kelly said.
Grossman agreed that the goal is the same, regardless of religion. Groups like Students Standing Strong, and Grossman's own www.b-linked.org, a national online community for Jewish teens, all provide an outlet for teens seeking more information, direction and connection to their religion.
"Technology is the language they speak, where they form communities, and we can provide them with opportunities to create communities with other Jewish teens," Grossman said. "They're just looking for new ways to connect."
Grossman said that while some parents and educators have expressed concern about the groups meeting at school, it's important to find teens where they live.
"The notion of going to where the teens are — in the public schools, at the movies — is a very important strategy," Grossman said. "If we sit back and wait for them to come to the classic institutions of religion, that simply isn't working."