Thomas Nankervis arrived early to Bible study and snagged a comfy seat in the teen room near a handwritten sign that read "Jesus Rocks."
He waited patiently, yet excitedly, as the lights dimmed and the Star Wars movie popped on the big-screen TV. He and other teens watched several scenes that showed good guy Luke Skywalker and listened as other characters described bad boy Darth Vader.
The showing of Star Wars was much more than a movie for this group of about a dozen high school students. The popular Star Wars series will be the focus of the weekly Wednesday Bible study group at St. Andrew's United Methodist Church.
The group's curriculum over the next several months will focus on the six Star Wars movies and a book, The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope, and the Force by John C. McDowell.
"The whole idea is to get deep," said Dan Segale, the youth minister at St. Andrew's UMC. "Get beyond the words. Get down to thoughts."
Linking pop culture with Bible study keeps today's teens interested in their faith, Segale said.
"What teenager wants to be spoon-fed Scripture after Scripture?" he said. "Not this multimedia generation. If you're not ahead of the curve, you're miles behind."
Segale and parent Wendy Soto co-teach the Bible study class. Soto, a Valrico mother of three, suggested the Star Wars curriculum. She said Segale didn't hesitate.
"Dan is always trying to do new, exciting things," Soto said.
After a 15-minute movie clip, Segale, Soto, and the teens got deep. The curriculum had them reading Bible verses aloud, picking apart pieces of the movie, and drawing upon personal experience.
In one discussion, the students were told that one of the R2 units has a bad motivator. The students were then asked to talk about whom or what motivated them. Some said music. Another said success. One teen said his father.
Later, the teens were asked why they thought C-3PO said: "Thank the maker." What did they think that meant?
Almost all of them responded: "God."
The curriculum, Segale said, doesn't paint Luke Skywalker as God or Darth Vader as the devil but instead focuses on how they and other characters act.
"It uses their actions to personify evil against good," he said.
A Star Wars novice, Olivia Thomas, 14, of Brandon, said she will be back to see more and learn more. She enjoyed the movie clip and the discussion.
"I thought it was really cool," said Thomas, a student at Tampa's Blake High School. "I didn't realize how much it connected to the Scripture."
Nankervis, 17, of Riverview, is a huge Star Wars fan and is thrilled to learn about the connections between the movies and Scripture. He also appreciates that Segale and Soto want to make Bible study relevant and fun.
"We never do the same thing twice," said Nankervis, a student at Riverview High School. "It definitely makes it more appealing."
Pastors recognize they need to do more to reach young people. Simply reading passages from the Bible, even served with pizza, just wouldn't work.
"They are going to say I'm going to take a nap," Segale said.
But they will stay and participate if the material is interesting and relatable, such as Star Wars, Segale said.
Linking Bible studies with mainstream culture is nothing new at St. Andrew's. The middle school Bible study group just finished The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker, by Connie Neal.
"Our pastors love cutting edge," Segale said. "They love cutting-edge curriculum that engages this teen generation."
Segale said his goal is not to simply preach to the teens. He wants to reach them. He hopes what they learn in Bible study sticks with them for a long time.
"Teaching the Bible means nothing unless you minister to the heart," he said.
When the hour-long class ended, the teens thanked Soto and Segale and then grabbed their phones and put their candy wrappers in the trash. Nankervis gave Soto $5 for a copy of The Gospel According to Star Wars. Smiling, he said he would see them all next week.
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]