WALLED LAKE, Mich.
— It’s no secret that today’s young people value hands-on ministry: feeding the hungry, painting houses for the elderly, providing coats for the homeless.
Youths go on international mission trips and seek to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus.
But do they devote themselves to in-depth study of the Bible?
At the Walled Lake Church of Christ, they do — and the Great Lakes Bible Bowl is a major reason why.
“Bible Bowl is the most intense study our youth receive,” said Gregory Campbell, longtime youth and family minister at the 150-member church, 25 miles northwest of Detroit.
For three months each year, young people at Walled Lake prepare to match their Bible knowledge against that of their Michigan peers.
“It’s a lot of pizza and Scripture,” joked Kimber Kelley, who with her husband, David, coaches a junior team dubbed the Walled Lake Miracles.
The Miracles — including the Kelleys’ daughter, Mikaela, 13 — study the assigned text during Sunday school.
Team members meet again Wednesday night for a meal and practice before regular Bible class. That class focuses on real-life applications, such as the meaning of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Moreover, minister Roger Woods ties his Sunday sermons to the Bible Bowl text.
“It teaches the kids that God needs to be a priority in their lives,” Kimber Kelley said. “We’ve had conversations about how all these kids are on … football, baseball and volleyball teams. This is God’s team, and … they need to know it’s important.”
Besides the spiritual benefits, the Great Lakes Bible Bowl brings together young people from black and white, urban and suburban congregations.
“If you want to see a flavor of what heaven looks like, come look at the Great Lakes Bible Bowl,” said Patrick Medlock, minister of the Northwest Church of Christ in Detroit.
Northwest’s senior division team, including Feliesha Thomas, 16, took home first-place trophies in two of the monthly Bible Bowls.
“It’s just fun to come and compete and meet new people and just enjoy the experience,” Thomas said. “We even have a sleepover the day before a Bible Bowl so we can all study and then fellowship with each other.”
BIBLE BOWLS ON THE DECLINE?
Restoration Movement church members — known historically as “people of the Word” — appeal to the Bible alone as their authority in faith and practice.
Naturally, they have valued youth programs that foster Scriptural literacy, said Mark Allen Hahlen, a Dallas Christian College scholar.
The high degree of congregational autonomy makes it difficult to trace the origins and development of Bible quizzing programs within the a cappella fellowship, Hahlen wrote in the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia.
However, the Sunset Bible Bowl in Lubbock, Texas, started as early as 1969. Participation in Bible Bowls increased in the 1970s and ’80s as congregations and Christian universities began to host area, state and regional competitions.
Seen by critics as too focused on trivia and competition, Bible quizzing programs have lost favor in some quarters.
“On the one hand, it does get students into the Word, and it provides motivation for those who need it,” said Paul Smith, a former Bible Bowl coach who serves as minister of the Aztec Church of Christ in New Mexico.
“The fellowship during the competitions is wonderful,” Smith said. “However, in my later years, I have had some serious misgivings. … The focus on medals, trophies and awards is completely opposite of the biblical teaching to consider others above yourself. Also, the focus on the tiniest little bits of Bible trivia is misdirected.”
Meanwhile, any number of non-church endeavors compete for teens’ attention: academics, sports, jobs.
“There are far fewer Bible Bowls than there used to be,” said Paul Hendrickson, preaching minister of the Hawley Church of Christ, north of Abilene, Texas.
Hendrickson helped launch the Texas Bible Bowl in Marble Falls last year after another longtime annual Bible Bowl was discontinued. “We were sad when it was canceled,” he said, “but we are excited about making the Texas Bible Bowl a new tradition.”
A number of congregations still host regular Bible Bowls, leaders said, from the Southside Church of Christ in Seattle to the Sycamore Church of Christ in Cookeville, Tenn., to the Wetzel Road Church of Christ in Liverpool, N.Y.
Across the nation, Lads to Leaders and Leadership Training for Christ events also feature Bible Bowl components.
In Meridian, Idaho, the Linder Road Church of Christ organizes an annual Bible Bowl each April.
“The Northwest isn’t the strongest area for the church, but we get a great response,” minister Clint Davison said.
At the recent 25th annual Summit-Miami Valley Bible Bowl at the Summit Church of Christ in Cold Spring, Ky., 27 teams with 132 players answered 100 multiple-choice questions on Saturday.
Teams then competed head-to-head using buzzer panels on Sunday.
“Are Bible Bowls as popular as they once were? Probably not,” Summit elder Bruce Adams said. “It would be a shame if Bible Bowls fade away simply because it’s hard work or other choices become more important than the study of God’s Word.”
Adams said he always tries to make the Bible Bowl fun with plenty of fellowship and singing.
“I know of many, many kids that have put the Lord on in baptism as a direct or indirect result of participating,” he said.
‘EVERYBODY’S A WINNER’
Don’t let the doughnuts on the table fool you.
For the Walled Lake Miracles — wearing team T-shirts and sporting medals from past triumphs — the Great Lakes Bible Bowl is serious business.
Hours before the start of the state finals, these sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders arrive for a final practice session, intent on mastering every detail in John.
“You get a lot out of it,” said Mikaela Kelley, who knows that Thomas was also called Didymus, that Jesus told the blind man to go wash in the pool of Siloam and that the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear instead of breaking his legs.
In the Michigan event, teams of four sit behind long, rectangular-shaped plywood boxes. Team members use levers to slide the answer panels — A, B or C.
This year, close to 50 teams from 16 churches competed in monthly Bible Bowls hosted by the Gateway Church of Christ in Southgate, Mich., and the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, Mich. The top three teams in each division advanced to the state finals at Walled Lake.
“I stick with it because I love it. It’s enjoyable, and there’s no better way to learn God’s Word,” said Nick Ciaramitaro, 14, a member of the Ypsilanti Church of Christ, between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It gets pretty intense when you think about it,” Ciaramitaro added. “But you’ve just got to remember that everybody’s a winner when you study God’s Word.”
Known as “Mr. Bible Bowl” because of his 26-year association with the Great Lakes event, Walled Lake youth minister Campbell echoed that sentiment.
“It’s not about medals. It’s not about trophies,” said Campbell, the event’s chairman. “It’s about learning God’s Word.”