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6/10/97 ‘Platoon’ Bible studies yield new avenue of youth witness

WEST MONROE, La. (BP)–These youth have a mission: “Turn irreligious students into fully devoted followers of Christ.”
To accomplish this goal, they’re breaking into “platoons,” youth-led small group Bible studies which meet in homes one night a week.
Joel Williams, minister to students at New Chapel Hill Baptist Church, West Monroe, La., got the idea while attending a seminar led by John Ruhlman, youth pastor at Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, Calif.
“I felt as if I had tried it all,” Williams, a full-time youth minister for six years, said. “But this idea made sense to me. I felt like this could work in our church.”
Williams took four months to adjust Ruhlman’s materials to fit the needs of his church, develop the program and train leaders.
He had only two requirements for teenagers interested in serving as platoon “captains” — to be growing Christians and actively involved in the church’s youth program.
“I didn’t want to take away from anything we were already doing, especially Sunday school,” Williams explained. “My whole goal for platoons is for it to motivate our kids to do the Great Commission.”
Williams started the program with six platoons, targeting senior high students only. The youth enlisted members themselves, with the goal of breaking enrollees into thirds: a third of youth who are active in church, a third who are nominally active and a third who are unchurched.
Within a few weeks, approximately 80 teens were attending platoons, about 20 more than a typical crowd at a Wednesday night Bible study at the church, Williams said.
Each platoon meeting lasts about an hour and a half and includes five elements: 1) welcome and announcements provided in a packet each week from Williams; 2) “Fresh Bread,” a time for youth to share what God has been doing in their lives; 3) Bible study (a variety of materials is used); 4) Prayer, care and share time; and 5) “Empty Chair.” One chair is left empty to signify a prospect or member who is not at the meeting. Platoon members are encouraged to pray for a person they want to fill that chair the following week.
While the small group meetings are youth-led, each platoon has a “coach,” an adult youth worker at the church approved in advance by the youth minister. Their role is offering support and helping captains answer questions which may arise during the meeting.
Captain Jamie Sikes said 27 different teenagers have visited her platoon.
“I wanted my group to really reach out to people who felt like they didn’t fit in,” the recent high school graduate said. “I’d never met many of these people. One day this guy just drove by the house and stopped. I told him what we were doing. He stayed and he’s ended up coming back every time.”
Jon McCartney, who captains another platoon, sees another benefit of the program.
“People who would never open up in Sunday school are totally opening up and talking in platoons,” he said. “It’s more relaxed, so they feel they can speak up.”
On a Wednesday night in early May, the “empty chair” at each platoon seemed to take on additional meaning. Earlier that morning, four high school seniors from the area were killed in a tragic car accident. The driver had been drinking.
Platoon members took time to talk about the accident, pray and discuss the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
“This really gives our kids a chance to reach out to each other,” Williams said.
“We may not be reaching lots of non-Christians yet, but we are reaching some. And we are reaching many of our kids who were only nominally involved. Plus, our youth leaders are realizing, ‘Hey, God can use me.'”
After a summer break, Williams will restart platoons in the fall. As the program develops, he believes it will eventually bring more people into the other ministries of the church, such as Sunday school, discipleship training and youth choir.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know how this was going to turn out,” Williams admitted. “But I think it’s been a good thing for our kids. I’m excited about next year.”

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  • Chip Alford