Whether reclining on bean bag chairs and taking communion, nailing struggles to a cross or roasting hot dogs by the lake, Utah teens from the Greenhouse Community Church (GCC) youth group experienced the Easter narrative in a new way last spring.
GCC youth and associate pastor Drew Pankratz and three youth leaders planned an interactive experience to demonstrate the importance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The full-day event was planned with GCC’s context in Utah County in mind. Utah County has the highest concentration of Latter-Day Saints in the United States, with around 70 percent of the population adhering to the LDS religion.
“While the LDS Church does recognize Easter for the resurrection, the events of the Last Supper and crucifixion are not focused on,” Pankratz says. “Being able to show our students the necessity of Jesus’ work on the cross was powerful.”
As a teenager attending church, Pankratz says the experiences, more than the preaching, stuck with him. So he brainstormed ways to make the Easter story come alive for GCC youth.
“I believe the story of Easter, more specifically Christ’s death and resurrection, is the greatest news one can ever hear,” Pankratz says. “It is this good news of Jesus that rescues us from sin and gives us hope beyond the grave. While reading and studying this story in the Gospels is great, many of us experience things better visually or hands-on. Seeing, touching, and interacting with the story can bring it to life in a whole new way.”
GCC’s resulting “Easter Mystery Tour” included four stops around Saratoga Springs, providing an interactive way for students to experience, reflect on and engage with the Easter story in what Pankratz hopes becomes an annual event.
An element of mystery
Students gathered April 10, 2022, for the experiential tour in Saratoga Springs, which is nestled on the shores of Utah Lake surrounded by two mountain ranges and just 30 miles south of Salt Lake City.
“Although most of our youth have a general knowledge of the Easter narrative, incorporating the ‘mystery’ element kept students on their toes,” Pankratz says. “They knew where and when to meet but had no idea what we would be doing or where we would be going on the ‘tour,’ which included four stops/events.”
Seated around a table on the floor of a dance studio Greenhouse rents for Sunday worship gatherings, students listened to the story of the Last Supper in Luke 22:7-22, wrote their sins and struggles on notecards and participated in communion.
Next, the group climbed a hill overlooking the city as one student shouldered a cross. Leaders told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:32-49, then students nailed their notecards to the cross.
After a time of confession and surrender, students climbed to a hidden cave on the outskirts of the city to hear the story of the Resurrection.
“It made the perfect spot for students to climb up and see the vacated white linens lying in the ‘tomb,’” Pankratz says.
The tour concluded at the Utah Lake marina where leaders shared the story from John 21:1-19 of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples, serving them breakfast and commanding Peter to follow him.
“At that point we didn’t have time to go fishing, so we enjoyed hot dogs over the fire instead,” Pankratz says.
At the close of the event, lead pastor Jason Quiring invited students to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me.”
“I remember watching the group walk out to meet me on the jetty,” Quiring says. “I could tell many of the students were experiencing the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and calling in a whole new way.”
Quiring notes Pankratz’s creativity and genuine heart for people in planning the event.
“Experience is a great teacher, so Drew and the GYG leaders taking the time and energy to provide this opportunity for the students was really powerful,” Quiring says.
A positive impact
Although hard to measure impact, Pankratz says initial feedback was positive.
“While measuring tangible impact can be difficult, our youth ministry team was greatly encouraged by the student feedback we received,” Pankratz says. “For some, they participated in communion and confessed their sins to Jesus for the first time.”
Sophomore Joy Schmutz was one of 13 students who participated.
“I loved writing our current hardships and burdens on the paper and nailing it to the cross,” Schmutz says. “It felt so good to not only put my thoughts on paper, but also to give it to God and nail it on the cross.
“Ultimately, getting to experience the story of Easter through the activities—like walking up the hill to the cave and nailing our burdens to the cross—made the whole story more intriguing.”
The Greenhouse youth leadership team would like to make this an annual Easter event, Pankratz says, and a similar tour is planned for April 2023.
“Being the second year, we may lose some of the ‘mystery,’ but we are praying the experience and impact continues to grow,” Pankratz says. “We have considered inviting other area youth groups or adults from Greenhouse to participate with us as well.” —Janae Rempel
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.