Lightsabers and Communicating with Junior Highs: An Interview with Bethany Dean Steve Schweitzer

By Josh Harbeck

Photo by Glenn Riegel
Bethany Seminary dean Steve Schweitzer speaks at 2015 National Junior High Conference

When pondering the best tools to use to communicate with junior high youth, lightsabers may not appear on the top of the list. However, according to Bethany Theological Seminary academic dean and professor Steve Schweitzer, they may have their place.

Schweitzer is teaching a new course at Bethany called “Science Fiction and Theology,” and he brought some of the ideas discussed in that class to a workshop at the National Junior High Conference held June 19-21 at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.

Schweitzer showed clips from the Star Wars and Star Trek movie and television franchises, along with clips from various episodes of the BBC television show “Dr. Who.” Each of these clips had to do with faith, humanity, relationships, and concepts of God.

Why bring topics from a college course to a junior high conference? For Schweitzer, the answer is simple. “This is my favorite age group. I love junior high,” he said. “They’re honest, they ask good questions, and they don’t know yet that those aren’t the questions you’re supposed to ask. There’s a blunt honesty about life that makes you smile.”

Junior high is an important time in the life of an adolescent, a time when many changes are happening. One of those changes is independence that manifests itself partly in choices about entertainment. Authority figures must have an idea about what junior high students are consuming.

“We have to be aware about what’s going on culturally and be willing to engage it in productive ways” Schweitzer said. “That doesn’t mean we have to agree with it, but we have to communicate about the truth of the gospel and truth of our faith in ways that make sense.”

Schweitzer brought up the example of Paul and how he tried to minister in the New Testament. “He doesn’t go in and pull out references that no one understands. He talks to them in ways they understand culturally and ways that make sense,” he said. “That’s a huge part of what it means to communicate effectively in our culture.”

Glenn Riegel, a photographer and member of Little Swatara Church of the Brethren in Bethel, Pa., has posted albums from the National Junior High Conference at
www.facebook.com/glenn.riegel/media_set?set=a.10206911494290541.1073741846.1373319087&type=3 .

That means taking an interest in the interests of students. Those who serve as authority figures have to be able to meet the students on their level. “Think about the young adult dystopian phase right now, like the Hunger Games and Divergent [book series and movies], and if your children are into that, for you not to talk about why this is so appealing and what’s the attraction seems to me a big missed opportunity, whether it’s a parent or a teacher or a pastor,” Schweitzer said.

In the end, communication is about honesty. A genuine interest in the interest of the students will bring about real conversations about serious topics. That’s how a discussion of Yoda’s philosophies about the Force in “The Empire Strikes Back” can lead to discussions about faith and the Holy Spirit.

“They want someone who is going to respect them and listen to them and is going to, when they have a question, have a real answer,” Schweitzer said. “Saying, ‘I don’t know’ is fine, but [we also say,] ‘This is how I am able to make sense of some of this.’ That authenticity and respect is huge.”

— Josh Harbeck is a high school English teacher and member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Ill., where he serves as a junior high teacher.