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The days when a teenager had to be home to talk on the phone with a friend are long gone, replaced by a constant barrage of instant messaging, tweets, posts, texts, likes, and swipes. With so many ways to stay in touch, one might think this tech-savvy generation is very connected to their peers – when in fact, loneliness is on the rise. In a new study reported by USA Today, researchers found that the number of teens revealing feelings of isolation outpaces the elderly. Even students who mix their social media with personal interactions feel increasingly alone.

True connection, it seems, requires more than social media and texting – and yet if you observe most school campuses today, all you see is the back of students’ heads as they walk alone, bent over their smartphones.

But there is something different, something special, happening on the leafy, welcoming campus of Evangelical Christian School. Every Monday and Friday morning, students are in groups. Even more astonishing, heads are up, phones are away, and – can it be? – they are talking to each other and to their teachers.

“Kids can easily get lost in a school, regardless of the size,” says Head of School and Upper School Principal Braxton Brady. “We wanted to create a different culture at ECS, one in which every student is known, nurtured, and loved.”

With that goal, Braxton developed the idea of small discipleship groups, meeting twice a week with a teacher to have open, honest discussions of the many challenges teenagers face and to develop gospel-centered responses to those challenges. Students are encouraged to share their thoughts and opinions in a healthy way and in a safe environment.

The curriculum developed by Braxton has five components:

  • Cast vision: teaching a clear definition of Godly men and women
  • Communicate truth: applying Biblical truth to real-life issues
  • Champion service: providing community service both on and off campus
  • Committed to discipleship: teaching important life skills and character traits
  • Chief memory makers: marking the moments that make life fun

Braxton checks in with students. He says he’s gotten uniformly positive feedback from them on the discipleship groups – they love the close bond they develop.

Each month, groups have a topic to discuss. Suggested questions are given to facilitate the discussion, but Braxton says he’ll hear back that a group never got past question one – and that is completely fine. The goal is not to complete a set of questions, but to grow as a group towards a comfort level with each other and their teacher, as well as strengthen a positive Christian worldview.

“We are seeing students connect to each other, to teachers, and to Scripture in deeper ways,” says math teacher Lori Beckham. “Our topics springboard into meaningful discussions of the things that are happening at school and in their lives.”

Memphis Private School — ECS

Math teacher Lori Beckham listens as her female students share their thoughts on the topic of the month: community. This week, they discuss conflict as an obstacle to community, going over keys to handling conflict, including Bible verses and sharing personal experiences. In upcoming weeks, they’ll talk about gossip and online abuse.

Memphis Private School — ECS

A discipleship group takes advantage of the beautiful weather to meet outside. Groups, which are typically made up of six to eight students, assemble by gender and grade. Students are allowed to list the names of two friends they’d like to be with, and at least one friend is guaranteed, but the goal is to have a mix of people. “That’s a true community,” explains Braxton.

As with every aspect of the discipleship groups, the decision to meet on Mondays and Fridays was intentional. “We wanted to start the week off together,” Braxton says. “And we want to reinforce good decision making before they head into Friday night!”

Having the bi-weekly interaction is a vital element of getting to know each other, says Bible teacher Kathryn Naifeh. “Just as a seed planted takes much time and nurturing to produce fruit, we know that these relationships take time and intentionality. My biggest desire for the young women in my group is for them to know Christ’s love by loving them well. This includes frank conversations where there may be differing opinions laced with some laughter and fun!”

Memphis Private School — ECS

Bible teacher Kathryn Naifeh enjoys the candid responses of her group. “They teach me and challenge me as well,” she says.

The groups began meeting last year at the high school, and at the middle school this year. The plan is for groups to stay together for the three years of middle school and four years of high school, with the same teacher/mentor, to foster meaningful, long-lasting relationships. “The groups are designed with the end in sight, not the beginning,” says Robert Jones, Bible teacher, senior advisor, and assistant girls’ soccer coach. “Discipleship, at its core, is about learning the skill, the lifestyle of knowing, enjoying, and walking with Christ on a daily basis. This takes time.”

Robert and his group are meeting for the second year, building an atmosphere of trust and honesty that certainly did not happen overnight! “Guys are usually a little more reluctant to jump right in to opening up about what they are thinking and feeling,” he says. But time and a safe space allow them to open up and share their thoughts.

“The feedback I get from them and their parents [is that] they are really enjoying the experience. We are having a great time, and are able to talk about real issues and tackle some tough subjects,” he says.

Memphis Private School — ECS

Bible teacher Robert Jones cherishes the breakthrough moments of sincere honesty, insight, and growth in his discipleship group.

Though candid talk on sensitive, real-world issues is encouraged, the groups are fun as well, adds Braxton. He does not want students to equate “gospel-centered” with “boring.” The groups do activities together outside of school, like meeting for breakfast or going rock climbing – whatever the group decides to do – both to have more contact and just for fun.

“With anxiety and depression on the rise in teens, why would you not want to make certain that every student is known and connected on a true level?” Braxton asks. “Every school, including ECS, has plans for academic excellence – but we seek excellence in character development and spiritual growth, too.”

Robert sums it up very well, so we’ll let him have the concluding words: “Perhaps the greatest longing of the human heart is to be known and loved. Not just known and not just loved, but both. So our greatest fear is to be left alone, or on a deeper level, to be known and rejected. I see our discipleship groups aiming for students to be seen, valued, cared for, challenged – and loved. We will not be perfect at it, but we will try with every ounce of energy God gives us to work toward this noble end for our students’ good and for God’s glory.”

Evangelical Christian School is located at 7600 Macon Rd, Cordova, TN 38018. To learn more, visit ecseagles.com.

This article is sponsored by Evangelical Christian School.