On a mission to fill empty pulpits
DENVER — Low pay and benefits. Overly demanding leaders. Unrealistic expectations.…
BANDERA, Texas — A crowd packed into Bandina Christian Youth Camp’s Onstead Center on a recent Saturday morning with an unusual objective.
Children, teenagers and adults came to take a six-part, 250-question exam testing knowledge of the New Testament book of Matthew.
The exam marked the finish line for more than 200 test takers — from third-graders to grownup — who spent six months preparing for the annual Texas Bible Bowl. Their coaches, who represented more than 10 Churches of Christ across the state, hoped the countless hours of studying subversively accomplished a goal beyond just a high score.
Sacred Calling: Read all the stories in the series
“From the beginning, we’ve said it’s about making God’s word important,” said Paul Hendrickson, one of the Texas Bible Bowl founders. “If you take that much time and energy and effort, you’re saying this thing is important.”
For older teenagers, the exam could also provide future financial assistance.
Top student testers in 10th, 11th and 12th grades are eligible for $9,000 in scholarships to Harding University in Searcy, Ark.; Lubbock Christian University in Texas; and Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. An additional $4,500 in scholarships from the Texas Bible Bowl organization can be applied toward any university.
Leo Johnson, a 16-year-old student from the League City Church of Christ in Texas, said it would be nice to earn a scholarship, but that isn’t the reason he attends each year.
“I get to talk to people, and there’s always an emphasis on the singing,” Johnson said. “It’s generally just a good thing.”
Several former students have used the scholarships to pursue degrees in ministry.
Matthew Kearney, a freshman at Oklahoma Christian double-majoring in mechanical engineering and vocational ministry, earned $4,500 in scholarships through the organization.
He first attended the Texas Bible Bowl in fourth grade and returned this year as an adult chaperone with the McDermott Road Church of Christ in Plano, Texas.
“This was my sport, I guess you could say,” Kearney said. “Bible Bowl lets me focus interest into Scripture. It’s kind of like how there are people that know everything about Star Wars or Star Trek or something like that.”
Kearney isn’t the only former student to return as an adult.
Caleb Kirkwood, a former member of McDermott Road who worships with the Edmond Church of Christ in Oklahoma, flew to Texas to spend the weekend volunteering with the organization that helped him earn a Bible degree from Lubbock Christian.
The event had 75 test takers when he first attended in 2011.
The organization settled at the Bandina camp after outgrowing two prior locations. Board members are once again searching for a new place to meet as the event continues to grow by multiple congregations each year, said Hendrickson, who attends the League City church.
The growth at Texas Bible Bowl reflects a trend in Generation Z teenagers. A recent study published by the Barna Group noted that 77 percent of teenagers in the U.S. are at least “somewhat motivated” to learn more about Jesus.
While the percentage of teenagers who want to learn more about Jesus rose significantly among committed Christians — defined as those who self-identify as Christian and say they have made a personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ — more than 50 percent of non-Christian teenagers reported at least being somewhat interested in learning more.
Yet that number decreases drastically in early adulthood, leaving limited time for ministries to educate younger generations.
Kirkwood believes events like the Texas Bible Bowl can positively fulfill that curiosity and transform lives. Teenagers at the event are changed by the months of preparation studying the Bible, he said.
“You can see that Scripture has baptized their imagination,” Kirkwood explained. “And once that’s been consumed, everything else in their life, which may take a lot longer, often leads in that direction.
“Everyone is welcome to be transformed,” he added. “And it starts with having that mindset of, ‘It’s engaging and it is fun to learn these stories,’ and knowing that it’s OK to ask really hard questions.”
“You can see that Scripture has baptized their imagination. And once that’s been consumed, everything else in their life, which may take a lot longer, often leads in that direction.”
With the number of Protestant Christians in the U.S. decreasing by 10 percent in the last 10 years and a growing trend of religious “nones” among younger generations reported by the Pew Research Center, there is a growing concern among older Christians about which Protestant groups will survive — and who will lead future believers.
While interest in vocational ministry seems to be decreasing, students like Kearney are studying the Bible with the intention of carrying God’s word into the secular workplace.
It all starts with positive encouragement and opportunities to serve around other Christians, Kearney said.
“Let young people channel their natural wants into the Scripture,” Kearney said. “I’m a naturally geeky, nerdy person, and my parents and Bible Bowl just told me to channel that toward Scripture. People that are naturally loud, maybe push them toward leadership, or people that are busy, push them toward service. Get people involved in serving in some way.”
Yet concerns of shrinking congregations are less worrying to Kirkwood, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree in theology and teach biblical studies to future ministers.
Instead, he relies on the promises of the Scriptures he spent years studying through the Texas Bible Bowl.
“I sincerely hope that the denomination that is called the Churches of Christ will continue into not only 100 years, but 200 years from now, if not longer,” Kirkwood said. “But I’m also very much aware of the fact that human institutions, by and large, are the most fickle of the bunch.”
Placing third among the adult test takers this year — a decade after he originally studied the content of Matthew — Kirkwood demonstrated the longevity of the Texas Bible Bowl biblical studies.
“The true immortality of reality is in God’s word,” he explained. “And, rather, God himself through the Holy Spirit that breathes life into everything.”
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.