Sunday, October 4, 2009

Youth Group Service

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The church had a tradition that every year one Sunday service is turned over to the teenagers in the youth group to lead. This year, Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell assigned new Associate Pastor Michelle Tellum to supervise this event. At the tender age of twenty-eight, O’Donnell saw Michelle as practically one of the youth herself.

Michelle took to the task with gusto. Unfortunately the teen youth group was a little on the small side. It consisted primarily of Pastor O’Donnell’s fifteen year-old daughter Katie, Katie’s friend Tabitha, Katie’s boyfriend Joe and one twelve year-old named Becky. Becky was really too young to be mixed in with the high schoolers, but she was the only junior high age kid at the church. Besides, Becky was actually the most mature of the group.

Michelle gathered the four members of the youth group a few weeks before their service to make plans. “Our first job should be to divide up the parts of the service,” she said. “Let’s start with the sermon. Who would like to deliver the sermon?”

Becky’s hand shot into the air. Michelle patiently waited for any more volunteers but all the other hands remained firmly in their owners’ laps.

“You really want to give the sermon,” Michelle asked Becky.

“No,” Becky said. “Well yes. What I mean is, why don’t we do a play for the sermon?”

“That’s a good idea,” Michelle said.

“And I’ll write it and direct it,” Becky added.

Michelle could imagine the older kids reactions to Becky bossing them around. “Or…” Michelle said, “maybe you could write it and I’ll direct it. That way you can take a part. What do you think?”

Becky considered the offer. After a few minutes she broke into a big smile and said, “Okay,” much to Michelle’s relief.

They divided up the rest of the tasks – reading scripture, doing the prayer, making announcements and collecting offering – then agreed to meet back in a week to do a read through of Becky’s play.

The play was to be based on the story of the Good Samaritan. Becky crafted an epic filled with dramatic monologues that ran thirty minutes on first reading. Michelle insisted that it must be cut down to ten minutes, and after much weeping and gnashing of teeth from Becky, they achieved that goal.

Katie was to play the story’s robbery victim, Becky did double duty as the priest and the innkeeper, Tabitha played the temple assistant and Joe was assigned the part of the Samaritan. Though the kids were hardly natural actors, Michelle thought the little play quite charming. Becky disagreed. She proposed rehearsing every night of the week to whip the production up to her standards.

In the interest of keeping Becky from being strangled by the other teens, Michelle declined the proposal and instead scheduled a single additional rehearsal the week prior to the service, but urged everyone to memorize their lines before then.

By the end of that next rehearsal even Becky had to agree the play was turning out pretty cool. Michelle beamed with pride as she watched the teens perform. Pastor O’Donnell was going to be very impressed by this year’s youth service, she thought.

When Michelle walked into the sanctuary the morning of the service, however, her optimism began to falter. They had all agreed to meet an hour early for one final run through. When Michelle entered, she saw Katie and Tabitha huddled at the left end of the front pew. Becky sat cross-legged at the other end with a sulky look on her face. Joe was in the far back pew texting on his cell phone. A vague tension filled the room.

“Good morning everyone!” Michelle said as she strode up the center aisle.

The teens all just looked at her. Becky let out a little whimper.

Michelle made her way up to the chancel. She noticed that Katie’s eyes were rimmed red and Tabitha was holding her hand. Something was wrong.

“Tabitha,” Michelle said, trying to keep her voice even. “Come up here a minute.” Michelle thought Tabitha looked the least upset of the three girls.

“What’s going on?” Michelle hissed once Tabitha joined her.

“Well…” Tabitha whispered conspiratorially, “At school on Thursday Julie told Meghan who told Katie that Joe gave Amber a ride home and Katie hates Amber because Amber once made up a mean poem about Katie’s shoes and read it in front of the whole entire English class and besides Katie once went out with a boy Amber likes so Amber always tried to mess with Katie and Joe. So Katie got mad at Joe because he should know better than to give rides to Amber and they broke up. Katie and Joe, I mean.”

“I see,” Michelle said. She looked over at Katie. The poor girl looked crushed. Joe, on the other hand, didn’t look like anything was bothering him at all. Michelle suspected it was an act meant to avoid appearing vulnerable. Teenage boys shunned vulnerability like it was a flesh-eating virus. There was only one thing to do.

Get the rehearsal started.

It’s not that Michelle was unsympathetic to the raging teenage emotions that were at play, but they had a service to perform in exactly fifty-two minutes. The emotions would have to wait.

Michelle called all the kids to join her up front. Joe swaggered up from the back pew striving a little too hard to look bored. When he was seated with the others, Michelle cleared her throat. “Listen up, everyone. I know some of you are not having a very good day. But there’s a saying in show biz that the show must go on. So for the next two hours, let’s forget about everything except doing a great church service, okay?”

The teens all nodded with a marked lack of enthusiasm. But they did nod. Michelle began the rehearsal.

By the start of service, Michelle thought they just might pull this thing off. Katie and Joe were clearly angry at each other but if anything that anger had spurred them to more dynamic performances during the rehearsal.

The first two thirds of the service went gangbusters. Sure, Tabitha read the scripture so fast the congregation could barely understand it, and sure Joe mumbled the prayer so quietly that even with the microphone the congregation could barely hear it, and sure Becky tripped while helping with the offering and had to crawl under several pews to retrieve the scattered donations, but most of the congregation seemed to find the mishaps charming.

Then it came time for the Good Samaritan play.

It all went along pretty smoothly until Joe (as the Samaritan) dropped Katie (as the victim) off at the inn. Joe decided to improvise his lines a little. He instructed Becky’s innkeeper to give Katie a room away from the other guests because Katie tended to blab on incessantly.

Next came the first time in history that the telling of the Good Samaritan story featured the victim thanking the Samaritan by punching him below the belt.

During coffee hour after the service Michelle stood at the back of the social hall feeling completely miserable. Her mood wasn’t improved when she saw Pastor O’Donnell approaching.

“I’m so sorry,” she said before he could launch into any recriminations.

“For what?” O’Donnell asked.

“The service was a disaster,” Michelle said.

“Nonsense,” O’Donnell laughed. “That’s the best youth service we’ve had since I’ve been here. You should have seen the one two years ago. One of the kids threw up in the middle of it. And then again at the end. You did great.”

“Really?” Michelle asked.

“Really,” O’Donnell reassured her. “And I personally liked the part where Katie slugged Joe. I’m actually glad they split up. I never really cared for that little hooligan. But Katie did. She’s sitting on the steps out back and I know from experience that the last person she wants to talk to is her dad. But she might like to talk to you.”

“Okay,” Michelle said.

Michelle went outside and sat down next to Katie. They didn’t talk though. Michelle just put her arm around Katie’s shoulders and let Katie cry.

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