2016-06-30
c. 2000 Religion News Service

For the most part, students feel safe at Luther East High School, a small school in Lansing, Ill.

But, like 3,000 other schools, churches and Christian groups, the school recently ordered "Bulletproof?," a video package aiming to help students prepare for and prevent violence. The student body watched and discussed it during several of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod school's chapel sessions in February.

Next week, when the nation marks the first anniversary of the April 20 tragedy at Columbine High School, Luther East's Principal Glenn Rollins will participate in a dramatic skit to show students how easily a moment of anger can escalate.

"We do it, number one, so that students are aware that we're vigilant about it, that we're concerned about it, that even in a small Lutheran high school, we're not just putting our heads in the sand and saying it could never happen here," said Rollins. "We're not stepping away from the fact that this is an increasingly violent society."

Rollins is not alone among Christian youth workers who have sought to find tangible ways to address violence in a post-Columbine age. In the coming weeks and months, crowds are expected to gather on Washington's National Mall for events triggered by the Columbine violence, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed by two other students who committed suicide.

Youth ministries across the nation have worked harder to build relationships between youth and adults and to reduce isolation that sometimes leads to student violence, their leaders say.

The Rev. Ron Luce, president of Teen Mania, an evangelical Christian ministry that serves teens, said the Columbine tragedy in Littleton, Colo., continues to resonate with America's youth, especially Christian young people.

"I'll tell you this: Every time we speak of it, there's this incredible hush in the crowd," he said. "It's almost like ... you're doing open-heart surgery on their generation when you talk about it."

Even as experts see an increase in efforts by local groups to protect youth from harm, some also are reporting decreasing instances of teen violence nationwide.

"We continue to see a decline in numbers of kids who carry guns to school," said Shepherd Smith, president of the Sterling, Va.-based Institute for Youth Development. "That trend is pre-Columbine and is continuing. We continue to see fewer shootings in schools even though the ones that occur are highly publicized."

But the publicity of the shootings that have occurred is driving ministries to find constructive ways to work toward reducing violence even further.

During "Acquire the Fire" conferences held on weekends across the country during the academic year, Teen Mania has been encouraging young people to take proactive steps to prevent Columbine-like tragedies. It recommends praying for their fellow students, being bold about their faith by wearing Christian T-shirts and carrying Bibles to school, and evangelizing.

"We're asking every Christian young person in America to once a week share their faith -- and this is a kicker -- with somebody in their school who's down and out, who's been ridiculed, who's been mocked," said Luce. "These shooters have all been people like that."

The weekend youth conferences usually attract 5,000 to 10,000 students, but this weekend (April 14-15) the ministry hopes to draw 60,000 to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., to an event called "Stand Up: The National Gathering of the Unashamed" at which the Columbine tragedy will be commemorated.

Other events propelled by the tragedy are also expected to attract large crowds. They include "Take a Stand" and "The Call," scheduled for May 19-21 and Sept. 2, respectively, on the National Mall.

"The Call" is aimed at youth and their parents and is sponsored by church leaders from a variety of denominations and ethnic groups.

Linda Furr, coordinator of "Take a Stand," said she hopes more than 50,000 will turn out in May to urge more prayer in schools.

"Columbine just was the wake-up call," she said. "It ... just truly to me signaled how far we had digressed morally. We're in pitiful shape as a nation. We've got to put prayer back into schools because that's when we got off track as a school, as an institution and as a country. If you don't go back to correct where you made a mistake, it will just continue to go on."

Rick Lawrence, editor of Group magazine, an interdenominational resource for Christian youth leaders, said he believes in prayer, but he criticizes recent efforts to put prayer or the Ten Commandments in schools as "American adult desperation."

"If we put the Ten Commandments up in the classroom, that will cause an isolated, angry young person who has been bullied ... to stop and think, `Hmm, maybe I won't kill somebody today'?" said Lawrence. "That's crazy. It's adults thinking, `What quick thing can we do that's simple and can fix this problem?"

Lawrence, whose offices are in Loveland, Colo., about an hour's drive from Littleton, said solutions are far from formulaic. Rather, he thinks adults -- parents and youth group leaders -- need to do more to connect with the young people in their lives.

"The answer is repentance on behalf of the adults to re-enter into the life of kids with time and commitment to them," he said. "It doesn't mean it's going to solve all the problems, but boy, what a disconnected generation they are."

Lawrence said he's seeing attempts at better relations: Youth ministers across the country are starting community-based coffeehouse ministries aimed especially at giving youth something to do on Friday and Saturday evenings and during that after-school period when parents often aren't home.

Youth leaders also are being encouraged to make sure their youth groups aren't a church-related carbon-copy of school groups where kids are bullied or ostracized, and they're being urged to become more actively involved with the parents of those young people.

"If you're not ministering to parents and helping them to reconnect to kids, then you're not doing your job," Lawrence said.

Youth ministry leaders of some mainline Protestant denominations say the post-Columbine challenge for them is to increase youth involvement with churches.

"I think we have alienated our young people," said Linda Bales, director of the Shared Mission Focus on Young People, an initiative of the United Methodist Church. "They're on the outside. They're certainly not on the inside of our churches."

While 50 percent of the world's population is younger than 30, she said only 6 percent of the United Methodist Church's membership is between the ages of 12 and 30.

The Rev. Kelly Chatman, director for youth ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said his denomination is exploring ways to involve youth more in leadership roles and has started creating online anti-violence resources.

"It's much easier post-Columbine for us to say we need something positive to draw us together," said Chatman. "What youth have been saying kind of silently for a long time is that they have passion and they need places to channel that passion."

Another effort to redirect youthful passions in a positive direction has been the distribution of "Bulletproof?," the two-video package presented at Luther East High School and distributed by Neighbors Who Care, the victim assistance arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries based in

Reston, Va. The package, available for a $50 donation, includes a 30-minute documentary looking at the effects of school violence in Paducah, Ky., and in inner-city settings, a 45-minute drama about a teen who sinks into violence, and discussion guides for adults and students.

Lisa Lampman, president of Neighbors Who Care, said she believes Columbine "changed our culture" but she hopes there can be a cultural emphasis on "change of heart" to reduce violence.

"You can have metal detectors. You can have crisis plans. You can attempt to identify people who are going to go ballistic," she said. "But still you can never fully protect yourself. But what you can be about is not identifying the folks who are potentially going to commit a crime and isolate them, but love them, reach out to them, care about one another and involve one another."

more from beliefnet and our partners