Students Break Routine with Unconventional Practice

“We’re going to do something a little different today,” chaplain Trevor Antunya said, starting the chapel period. “There are study sheets outside the chapel. We’re going to grab them and go around the school to spend some time thinking.” The practice is part of the Hillcrest rhythm that is propelling students forward.

Students stood in unison as Trevor started strumming his guitar in the unconventional chapel service. The students lifted their voices, some raising hands, before they ventured out of the chapel to Hillcrest hallways where they sat with a paper that held the Bible Study for their Huddle Group time. It was an active practice that is fighting the newest drug captivating students’ hearts and minds: screen time.

The most threatening thing a teenage girl can engage is her cell phone. Forget drugs, alcohol, and the teenage heartthrob, Dr. Jean Twenge reports that students who spend more than five hours on their cell phone are 71 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide. Twenge found that the content on the phone doesn’t matter. That means teens watching cat videos are at the same risk for screen-induced onsets of suicide as those playing graphic phone games. The reason might have more to do with processing time than the device.

Students are trained to live a life of distraction. In some school settings they receive instant message updates on their phone or laptop while a teacher lectures. In Wednesday’s chapel service the Hillcrest students closed in final song in contemplation device free. They filed out of the chapel to grab a sheet of paper. There weren’t selfies posed with their Bible study sheet as they connected with a few friends. Instead, students pulled up a place to sit on the floor in the hallway, ready to spend time thinking deep thoughts. Deep thoughts change habits, and are unfortunately hard to find in the incessant distraction students are faced with daily.

Dr. Alan Noble thinks this process of focused thinking is novel for many high school students. Kids today face countless distractions thrown at them at nearly all times. Nobel believes constant distraction does three things that are detrimental to students’ ability to process situations, rest in truth, and engage the world. Dr. Nobel says distractions train students to ignore contradictions, devote less time to introspection, and see faith as a superficial identity. These three by products of distraction stunt student growth and can challenge their mental health as they continue to face the challenge of living in a real world that is distracted by pleasure-filled virtual reality. The chapel practice Wednesday broke all three of Nobel’s fears.

Ignoring contradictions is the flavor of the world today. Conservative reports say this is the most pro-life generation that is also the most likely to drive a pregnant friend to an abortion clinic. While some might push the blame on a pervasive post-modern worldview, there are contributing factors to consider. With no time for self-reflection students struggle to handle feelings of guilt. Guilt is an important feeling for students to engage, especially students who follow Jesus. Nobel notes that guilt requires attention in order to grow into reflection. Reflection, especially Biblically-based reflection, leads to repentance. Wednesday’s chapel pushed students to engage guilt, sit in reflection, confess in repentance, and rest in Christ’s restoration.

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Students sat in small groups around Hillcrest with Bibles open to Luke 10. The words “Mary and Martha” were heard from every group as they worked to define godliness. Some admitted to feelings of being Martha. Homework and grade reports can do that to a person. Others craved a heart like Mary. In this setting students processed cognitive dissonance with faith, their heart, and how they’re living. The guilty feelings were spurred on in specific questions that called their attention to the glaring contradictions students found in their life when tested against Scripture.

After a period of Bible reading, answering specific questions that outlined the story of Mary and Martha, students encountered a section on the study guide titled “Reflection”. Pushing their Bibles in front of their feet a little further, some in the groups grabbed the paper to peer into the probing commentary that continued their small group time. “The New Testament word for godliness, in its original meaning, conveys the idea of a personal attitude toward God that results in actions that are pleasing to Him…(this) is what we call devotion.” The paper turned students to take four actions that pushed them into deep reflection.

Nobel notes that deep reflection can be hard for students who are taught to crave distractions. The distractions are temptations to avoid sin and redemption. Nobel says that the gospel is cognitively costly, “the work the gospel does in our lives tasks our mind with unsettling assumptions and habits.” The Hillcrest students, gathered in small pockets throughout the building were engaging in four cognitively costly practices that drove them to more deeply consider the gospel.

“Approach God in prayer and talk to Him about your devotion. Praise Him, Confess to Him. Thank Him. Ask Him for whatever you need.” Bible verses bulleted the final prompt in their study guide. Peace was outlined in Philippians 4:7. God’s grace and gifts were encouraged in Ephesians 3:20. Students found solace in Ezekiel 36:26 as they wrapped up their time in deep reflection.

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The unconventional school day practice closed with prayer in many groups. Students flapped their Bibles closed, unzipped their backpack, folded the study guide, and stuffed the chapel practice into their backpacks. The forty-five minute exercise built muscles of engagement, pushing faith formation to the forefront of their cognitive processing for the day. Nobel notes that when this process of reflection happens it fights the tendency of distraction: to flatten values and practices.

Nobel notes the third effect distraction holds for students is that they see faith formation as another activity exercising “superficial identity formation”. When Hillcrest students pause for reflection in their day they break the routine in the stream of cognitive engagement and build significant identity formation through reflection and Scripture. They’re able to stop, process, reflect, repent, and find redemption and restoration in remembering the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and over the grave.

New cultural practices are being formed for students that break routine and form unconventional practice. Nobel believes that “our cultural practices are also a major part of how we come to believe. The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires.”

Students at Hillcrest broke the convention of culture for distracted engagement, participating in a spiritual discipline that dates back to the first human. Focused concentration on God’s order is an unconventional practice today that is building new routines for stronger faith in the lives of Hillcrest students.

For many students the knee-jerk reaction to guilt is to find a distraction. Rather than deal with guilty feelings the devices in their back pockets offer a hit of dopamine, a distraction, and an ability to ignore the contradiction in their beliefs or actions that is causing guilt. A generation that avoids reflection will avoid guilt, and will have a difficult time finding repentance and restoration.

Wayne StenderComment