• U.S.

A Surge Of Teen Spirit

7 minute read
David Van Biema

On April 21, a day after the massacre just one state away, sixth-grader Susan Teran joined her classmates in practicing a new drill called Code Red. First they locked the door to their classroom in Marshall Middle School in Wichita, Kans. Then they placed their chairs on top of the tables and pushed the tables against the wall, out of the windows’ line of sight. Then they crawled beneath the entire pile. At first they were too slow, and although Susan’s teacher didn’t say too slow for what, nobody needed to ask. The second time, Susan reports proudly, “we got it down to 20 seconds.” She adds, “It made me feel more comfortable if something like the Colorado shooting would happen at my school.”

But what makes her feel even more prepared, she says, is her re-energized Christian faith. Since the massacre in Littleton, Susan’s church youth group has prayed regularly for the students at Columbine High School. The calamity, its emotional impact reinforced last week by the shooting in Conyers, Ga., has also transfixed her school’s Campus Life faith group, led by her older brother Devon. As a result, Susan has reached a personal decision, one based on the example of her new hero, a Christian victim of the Colorado massacre named Cassie Bernall. “If there was a shooter in my school,” declares the 12-year-old gravely, “I’d volunteer to sacrifice my life. I’d say, ‘Don’t shoot my friends; shoot me,’ because I know where I’ll go when I die.”

Similar responses can be heard in schools across the U.S., as the Columbine horror galvanizes teenage evangelical Christians. “The Internet and the e-mail have been just huge on this among Christian kids and youth organizers,” says Doug Clark, field director of San Diego’s National Network of Youth Ministries. He reports hundreds of teen gatherings on the tragedy in “dozens” of states. Keith Malcom, the Wichita coordinator for Susan Teran’s school group and several dozen others, describes a surge of youths volunteering to be “missionaries” in their schools. The Rev. Billy Epperhart, who officiated at four funerals in Littleton, has received calls from friends around the U.S. reporting a spread of the religious fervor so obvious among Colorado teens since the shootings. If their stories are correct, he says, America’s evangelical youth are experiencing a genuine “spiritual revival.”

The enthusiasm caps a decade of extraordinary growth for Christian youth groups in middle and high schools. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 upheld a law effectively allowing prayer clubs to meet on public school property, if they did so outside of class hours and without adult supervision. Since then, thousands of Bible and prayer clubs have whooshed into what their members saw as a God-shaped vacuum. The new groups are not refuges for dweebs. Unlike their evangelical parents, who often defined themselves as outsiders, today’s campus Christians, says Barnard College religion professor Randall Balmer, “are willing to engage the culture on its terms. They understand what’s going on and speak the language.” Teen evangelicals have their own rock concert circuit, complete with stage diving; their own clothing lines, like Witness Wear; and in the omnipresent wwjd (“What would Jesus do?”) bracelet, their own breakthrough accessory.

And now their own martyr. Cassie Bernall’s life and death have inspired millions of Americans, but the tribe to which she belonged was that of adolescent evangelicalism. One need attend only one youth gathering to collect an anthology of similar stories: a lost teen dabbles in drugs and witchcraft, finally comes to Jesus and joins a mission to gang members. The difference in Cassie’s case was the remarkable act of Christian witness that followed. Some reports have her simply answering yes when the Columbine gunman asked if she believed in God; others record the reply, “There is a God, and you need to follow along God’s path.” In either case, he murdered her; and in her commitment teens see a vital challenge to their Christian identity. A posting by a Florida girl cyber-named Marrinn on a Christian bulletin board is typical: “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’ve never done drugs. But I haven’t totally pledged all of my being to God. When I heard [Cassie’s] story I realized she gave up everything. She DIED for Him… Would I have done the same?”

Immediately after the Columbine slaughter, teen Christian groups gathered spontaneously on their campuses. Some headed reflexively for school flagpoles, as they had back in September while participating in the massive exercise in evangelical solidarity called See You at the Pole. Rallies planned for other purposes morphed into Littleton remembrances. At a long-planned April 24 jamboree by Teen Mania in Pontiac, Mich., speaker after speaker preached to a throng of 73,000 on Cassie’s life and death (she once attended a Teen Mania meeting), and thousands signed an enormous condolence card. The same thing happened all over the U.S. during observances of the National Day of Prayer on May 6. A videotape made by Bernall’s parents on which her mother states that “Cassie was born for this” spread from group to group like wildfire.

Mainline Protestantism does not make much of martyrdom, but the more emotional evangelical variety honors it, sometimes in connection with murdered missionaries or persecuted Christians in places like China and Sudan, and sometimes to lend strength in the face of indignities suffered at the hands of American secularism. At Cassie’s funeral, her pastor said she was in “the martyrs’ hall of fame.” She has been compared to the early female saints Perpetua and Felicity, and her interrogation by her murderer recalls Christian persecutions throughout history. But for youngsters the most important thing, explained Teen Mania attendee Heather Miller, 18, is that “a lot of martyrs have been older, and you don’t hear about teens.” (An exception, Joan of Arc, drew a nice audience for CBS last week.)

In middle and high schools, the blessing and curse of young Christians is that their faith requires them to buck peer pressure over temptations like drugs, alcohol and sex. By refusing to hide her Christianity, Cassie triumphantly sustained her confession in the face of the ultimate peer pressure–the barrel of a gun. And her story has other messages for believers. A fear of dying outside God’s grace motivates many evangelicals, and Littleton, says Epperhart, “shows the teens that your life can be taken at any moment.” Wendy Zoba, author of the upcoming book Generation 2K: What Parents and Others Need to Know About the Millennials, says many youths appreciate a radical refutation of high school materialism: “Cassie captured in that moment a blind faith in something greater than instantaneous gratification.”

Religious teens also see in Littleton a unique opportunity to evangelize. Lauren Leahy, 14, attends a Christian school in Carrollton, Texas, but goes to a Bible-study group for public school students. She says that after the shooting “we saw a huge increase in people coming to repentance.” Classmate Kevin Bieri, 14, reports excitedly, “My unsaved friends keep asking why Cassie said yes [to the God question]. Sometimes if a lot of them are interested, I will get a Bible and walk them through Scripture to help them understand.”

In the days after the killing, the parents of Rachel Scott, another evangelical slain at Columbine High, did not comment about the details of their daughter’s death. Two weeks ago, however, they broke that silence. Their understanding is that Rachel’s murderer shot her first in the leg and then asked if she believed in God. When, like Cassie, she said yes, he replied, “Then go be with him now!” Such testimony, evangelical youth leaders say, will keep the fires of revival burning bright.

–Reported by Julie Grace/Chicago and Emily Mitchell/New York

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