Justin Caton said he already knew God’s hand was in the planning of his church’s Disciple Now weekend in late January. But it was confirmed in a big way when one particular student showed up that Sunday morning.
Caton’s wife is a high school teacher and one of her students chose to turn in all his papers with “Lucifer” written at the top.
“I couldn’t get him out of my mind,” said Caton, associate pastor of families and students at First Baptist Church in Thorsby. This is one of the reasons he chose to break a long-standing FBC youth group tradition, a trip to a winter student conference in the mountains, and hold a local DNow event.
The idea for the change first started when FBC’s Wednesday night student Bible studies doubled in size to around 60 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in the small central Alabama town were looking for somewhere to go, Caton explained. It continued growing from there.
“My budget was still for a 30-person student ministry, so there was no way we could take that many students to the mountains,” he noted.
The church also had only one bus he trusted enough to drive out of the county, and it wouldn’t hold that many students.
Caton began considering other options. He thought about having their own event at FBC, but that seemed daunting for many reasons. But he said the Holy Spirit kept bringing to his mind something he had heard at one of those past winter conferences. His responsibility wasn’t limited to the 60 students he could load up on buses and take to the mountains. It was to get the gospel to all the students in Thorsby, including the student who wrote “Lucifer” at the top of his papers.
So Caton felt confident that this year God was leading them to host a DNow weekend for any local student who wanted to attend. And if he wasn’t already confident enough, he was soon to get more confirmation.
He said God began miraculously providing everything they needed — a band, a sound engineer and someone to help turn the traditional sanctuary into a youth venue for the weekend.
Caton said people in the church were behind the event in every way, from praying for hours for God to move in their town, to offering to pay for giveaways to help get students in the door.
“It took our whole church to pull off,” Caton acknowledged.
And in the end, God gave even more confirmation. The student he had specifically been praying for showed up on Sunday morning.
More than 100 attended Prodigal Weekend, as it was called. Caton led the Bible studies, and 28 students decided to follow Christ for the first time.
On the Sunday after the event 11 were baptized, and as the congregation watched videos of their testimonies one adult in the congregation realized he’d never experienced the kind of change they spoke of — and he made a salvation decision that day.
“It was just unreal — the floodgates opened,” Caton recalled. “Revival is breaking out at our church.”
Scooter Kellum, youth ministry strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said it looks different in different contexts, but what he’s seeing this year at DNow weekends all over the state is pre-COVID participation levels with more intentionality in planning.
“I think our youth pastors have been very good about being intentional with what they’re doing and how they’re doing it this year,” Kellum said, noting Caton was one of those.
When so many events were canceled during the pandemic, it gave youth pastors time and motivation to step back and spend more time thinking about how to leverage these events for the most Kingdom impact, Kellum said.
For churches like First Baptist in Trussville, that meant using DNow as a way to kick off a whole new vision for student ministry.
For Big Hurricane Baptist Church in Brookwood it meant bringing together students from small congregations in the area to encourage and send them out with a new fire to reach their friends.
The former youth pastor, Dominic Kendall, had a “perfect blueprint” for how to run a DNow, said Anderson, now student pastor at FFBC.
Kendall was the weekend’s guest speaker, and a number of FFBC staff and volunteers came together to pull off the weekend, from housing to worship music.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of awesome DNows at Enon, but the way God moved on Saturday night was special,” Anderson related. “A lot of students made a lot of big decisions for Christ, and many others felt the heaviness and weightiness for their lost friends for the first time.”
Taking the lead
Kellum said another thing he’s enjoyed seeing this year is how many youth pastors either led their own Bible studies or invited youth pastors from other churches in the state to lead.
“I think that’s a great testament to the men of God we’ve got in our state,” he said. “It’s really cool to see.”
Larry Hyche, an SBOM associate in global missions focusing on men’s spiritual development, also spoke at a number of DNow events around the state, including Etowah Baptist Association, which gathered for the event for the first time since before the pandemic.
“There was a lot of energy and excitement from both the students and the student pastors,” noted Emily Hamilton, compassion ministry director for the association. “It was a great year for us.”
About 300 students from 11 churches gathered and heard “solid Bible teaching” from Hyche, Hamilton related.
“It was really great to be able to be back together.”