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Thurday Nights at BFA

Thursday nights are a whirlwind of activity and fun at the Dow house. Thursday night is Chrysalis night - the BFA equivalent of a typically energetic middle school youth group, but with a few special twists. With Sophie’s permission, we want to share something of her experience at Chrysalis as a way of giving you a window into the heart of BFA's student culture - relationship-driven discipleship. (But first, a little context....)

Recently, BFA conducted the largest survey of alumni in its history.* The survey was multi-faceted, but one of the key areas it explored was the spiritual influence BFA has had (or not had) on its students. To put our survey in context, we looked at verified trends in North American religious life.

According to a major 2019 Lifeway Study on Protestants who were regular church attenders before the age of 18:

  • by their early 20s, only 33% were still regularly attending church. While the picture improves somewhat as people get older,

  • by the time they are 30, still only 55% of the original group were meaningfully engaged in a Christian community.

Two significant Pew Research studies in 2007 and 2014 tell largely the same story. The American church appears to be following the path well-worn by the rest of the “West” towards a post-Christian future. In our highly connected digital world, we assumed that BFA students would not be immune from the same trends. To see if this was the case, we asked our alumni to describe their faith both during their time and BFA and currently. Here is what they said:

While some BFA alumni have walked away from the faith they had in high school, by and large we found that our former students are not following the general trends but are, instead, remaining engaged in their faith. Why?

There are likely many reasons for this, some of which will have little connection to BFA. However, when we asked the last decade of graduates what factors had the greatest influence on their spiritual lives while they were at BFA, the top four responses were all relationship-centered. Despite being a boarding school, of the approximately twenty options given, the ongoing influence of their parents ranked fourth highest.** BFA teachers ranked third and the influence of friends at BFA ranked second. But at the very top of this list was their involvement in the school’s small group program.

What is it about small groups - and BFA’s small group program in particular - that God has used to produce this sort of long-term spiritual influence?

To begin with, small groups are voluntary. If you don’t want to go, you don’t go. While every good parent will tell you that some things need to be non-optional, it is clear that as students get older the need for balancing the mandatory and the voluntary grows. At BFA all small groups (and several other key activities) are completely voluntary and yet over 95% of our high school students opt-in.

By design, there is also a great deal of consistency in BFA small groups and this matters. Groups do not start afresh each year. Instead, virtually every group has a consistent core that lasts throughout high school, building relational depth and spiritual momentum as the students and their leader walk through the ups and downs of these trajectory-defining years together. For many, the spiritually-infused relationships built in BFA small groups will last a lifetime.

The intentional patterns that shape the high school small group experience at BFA start in middle school. In many ways, the Chrysalis program that Sophie is a part of looks like many other middle school youth groups. Forty-five minutes of sweat-filled and frantic fun, followed by 15 minutes of biblical teaching, and then 30 minutes of small group discussions in the same group each week. What is different is the multi-generational component.

Each Spring, students from the incoming Senior class are given the chance to apply to be Chrysalis small group leaders. Despite the fact that this means, at minimum, a weekly two-hour commitment for the entire school year, the chaplain’s team regularly gets more applicants than they need. Once they have been accepted as a Chrysalis leader, the Seniors are then trained by the chaplain's team for a month before the program begins and continue to receive regular discipleship training and mentoring throughout the year. What this means is that many seniors at BFA are not only seeking out discipleship (by their own small group leader and by the chaplain’s team through Chrysalis training) but are actively discipling the next generation themselves. And, as any teacher or group leader will tell you, there is no better way to grow than to have to teach - and then live out what you are teaching.

So, Thursday nights are a time eagerly anticipated by Sophie and her middle school friends, and it's not just for the crazy games they can expect. Significantly, Sophie’s Chrysalis small group leaders are three Senior girls whose stories as MKs (Missionary Kids) and TCKs (Third-Culture Kids) she can relate to on a deep level. One is a Cameroonian MK, another is the daughter of a British/Albanian missionary couple, and the third is an American MK. These girls absolutely love Sophie and the three other 8th grade girls in the group, and they have created in Sophie’s mind a clear picture of what she would like to be when she is that age - namely a fun, spiritually-engaged, young woman who wants to influence her world for Christ!

I don’t want to create the impression in this post that BFA is some sort of evangelical Shangri-La - where there are no broken, sinful and wounded people and where every student consistently makes wise and virtuous choices. That is definitely not the case. MKs are kids with their own baggage, their own challenges, and their own doubts. But God is doing something very good in many of their lives and intentional, voluntary, multi-generational, small group discipleship is a big part of that goodness.

* (Due to the number of validated responses, according to survey industry standards, the BFA survey has a confidence level of 95% within a 4.68% margin of error.)

** The ongoing influence of parents in BFA students' spiritual development is actually quite remarkable. Research has consistently shown that as students move into their high school years, and begin to forge an adult identity, seperate from their parents, the previously dominant influence of parents compared to that of peers and other non-parental adults, declines. You would think that this tendency would be exaggerated in a boarding experience, but this doesn't appear to be the case at all.


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