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Snakes and Whales, Gardens and Beaches by Charles Smith

Student Ministry by Charles Smith

“I have a theological question for the group.”

I scooch my chair a bit closer to the table, wrap my hands around the slowly-cooling mug of caramel-flavored coffee, and wait for the student to ask her question. She glances around at the seven other people sitting at a table in the back room of Hammerhand Coffee, pausing to ensure her question would be given the appropriate level of deference and esteem.

Satisfied, she pulls out a spiral notebook and turns to a page that has several drawings scattered across it. The sketches, doodles really, depict snakes coiled in a multitude of shapes and positions. One shows a snake curled into the shape of a circle. Another shows one arched like an upside-down U with a shoe attached to each end.

After we look at these a moment, exchanging questioning glances, the student says, “In Social Studies today we were talking about the creation story in the Bible and about the punishments each one gets. The man has to work hard, the woman will have painful childbirth, and the snake has to slither on the ground. That’s why snakes slither.”

I nod and say, “Sure,” mentally preparing myself for possible questions about divine judgment or Biblical literalism. “That’s what the story says.”

“Well,” she says, clearly ramping up to her central question, “We were wondering in class, how did the snake get around in the garden before? If it didn’t slither until it was punished, how did it move? Did it walk? Did it roll? We drew pictures of some possibilities, what do you all think?”

Small Groups are an incredibly important part of relational student ministry. They are a chance to come together and talk about the ways our individual perspectives, motivations, and experiences shape us and help us learn who we are and what we believe. They are an opportunity for personal growth and community bonding. And they are also a time for asking questions, any questions, especially questions that students feel like they can’t, or shouldn’t, ask anywhere else.

One of the things I love most about ministering with students is getting the chance to see how their minds work. Our small group leaders do an excellent job of planning effective ways to lead a conversation on a given subject. But they also know that at any point a student might steer the discussion in a new direction, and sometimes this takes the conversation to a whole new level. One of the deepest conversations I’ve experienced in small groups started with the question, “Why do whales sometimes beach themselves?”

The question about snakes walking around in the Garden of Eden didn’t really lead us to a deep, ontological truth or spur us to make a life-altering perspective change. It did get us thinking, though, and helped us ponder in new ways a story we’d all heard many times before. That’s what small groups are about. They’re about snakes and whales, gardens and beaches, social studies and doodles, asking questions with no answers, and understanding ancient stories in new ways.

Posted by Charles Smith at 9:49 AM
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