Drivers Ed Car Confessions
“Turn left up here. Now, let’s pull over and try an uphill park. Don’t forget to S.M.O.G. Do you remember what S.M.O.G. means? Yes, Signal, check your Mirrors, look Over your shoulder, and if it’s clear you can Go ahead.”
Now, imagine carrying on like that for 4 hours straight, 5 days a week and for an entire summer — three summers actually! This is the glamorous world of a certified Driving Instructor. I would spend the mornings from 9 a.m. t0 noon with nearly eighty 15-year old students in an auditorium teaching the required 30 hours of classroom instruction to prepare them for their permit test. Then I would jump in the car and provide Behind-the-Wheel lessons all afternoon.
I would drive the same roads, make all the same turns, rattle off the same driving tips and try my best to keep a smile and make small talk with my students for our two hour lessons together. Two hours!
This was no small chore for me. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am no bubbly, outgoing “shoot-the-breeze” small talkin’ type. I love deep theological debates over such things as infralapsarianism vs. supralapsarianism, and the differing views of God’s foreknowledge. I prefer hours by myself in a library surrounded by musty smelling, leather-bound books.
Making small talk with teenagers one-on-one in an enclosed space for four hours straight was maddening. At least substitute teaching usually allowed me the luxury of reading a good book while the class went about their business. It appeared as though this was going to be a long, agony-filled, uneventful summer. That is, until God showed up.
The state requires that students complete six hours of Behind-the-Wheel training in order to get their license. This meant that I had a captive audience with nearly every teenager in the Mound Westonka school district. Six hours of one-on-one conversation! What do you talk about for 6 hours in a car?
Well, you’d be surprised at the variety of topics you can cover between your driving tips and instructions. Before the first 30 minutes is up you’ve already have covered all the basics: Do you play any sports? Do you have siblings? What do your parents do? Any summer vacation plans? How about those Twins?
Eventually other topics would come up. That’s where God began to quietly show his hand, and do a number on my heart. There were a number conversations that had a similar ring to them, and they all began to leave an empty hole hole in my heart.
Almost everyday we would drive past a student’s church in town and they would make a comment like “That’s my church” or “Hey, I used to go to church here” or “This place creeps me out.” I would ask a follow up question like “How do you like your church?” Their answers were what pierced my heart. Every single time the answer was the basically the same: “It’s so boring” or “I don’t get anything out of it” or “It’s just a bunch of old people going through the motions” or “I’m just not into the church thing.”
Often the spiritual conversations arose when the students would inquire why I was still subbing after all these years and didn’t have a full time job yet. I would tell them I was finishing up school. They would ask what I was studying and would tell them the Bible. When they heard the word seminary mentioned they would immediately inquire what I was preparing to do. I would tell them I want to either teach the Bible at a college or possibly be a pastor. This sparked all kinds of awkward reactions and squirmy movement with some kids.
Some of my favorite conversations were with students who I discovered were sincere followers of Jesus from strong Christian families. These conversations were revealing as well. Two things struck me.
First, I recall three students in particular who all had one thing in common: They all belonged to churches that were at least 20 minutes away, clearly outside of the Mound community. Furthermore, their families had all formerly been part of local parishes in town, but got frustrated, bored, or impatient and went looking for healthier, more vibrant churches somewhere else. They had to leave town to find spiritual vitality.
Second, all of these students who I would consider active, Christian leaders among their peers were part of a little Bible study group hosted by a student’s uncle in his home. The uncle attended one of the vibrant Evangelical churches 25 minutes north of town. Sadly, none of these students were actively plugged into any of the local church youth groups.
The point: The most committed young Christians needed to leave the walls of the church and often the town in order to find the kind of Christian community they were looking for.
Having grown up in Mound I also had a pretty good pulse on the spiritual vitality of the various churches in town. I knew who was doing what and who was reaching who. One thing was becoming very clear to me, and it was a ache I could not shake. None of the churches in this relatively small town community were effectively reaching the teenage population.
This realization began to eat away at me. A heavy burden began to press down on my heart — a heart that for so long had only wanted one thing: To be unleashed into the service of God’s Kingdom and be part of an Acts-like ministry adventure that would take the radical faith of Paul and an utter dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit.
I could withstand years of substitute teaching and hundreds of hours behind the wheel, but one thing I found absolutely unendurable is a town full of teenagers who think church is supposed to be “boring” and “dry.” You merely have to spend one episode with the apostle Paul in Acts to realize how ridiculous that claim is.