by Steph Dodge
Overview: This activity is meant to model for the students what the early Christians went through meeting in the catacombs to avoid Roman persecution. It requires a lot of preparation and a number of volunteers but it can be a very powerful exercise to help youth understand what it is like to live as a Christian in areas where Christianity is not accepted.
Let your parents know ahead of time what you are going to be doing that night! This is a great opportunity to ask them to help out because you need a lot of volunteers. Give your kids a heads up on what you will be doing that night. Remind them that the early Christians had to avoid being caught by Roman soldiers. Encourage them to dress in dark colors and wear old clothes because they will be running around outside at night.
You will need volunteers stationed throughout the area. Some will be Christians that will help guide the students to the meeting area. Others will be Roman soldiers, they will stop cars and try to determine if anyone is a Christian (if anyone is wearing any Christian symbols, this is a good reason to arrest them). Roman soldiers will also be wandering around the area looking for anyone who might be a Christian. Suspected Christians who are caught by Roman soldiers are “arrested” and brought back to the meeting place. Have some of your adults already in the catacombs for when the first groups arrive.
The Night of:
Have your students meet that night after dark at church or another meeting place that is separate from your catacomb meeting place. When the students arrive that night, explain to them that in the first century it became illegal to worship a god other than the Roman emperor. Being a Christian was an offense punishable by death. For that reason, Christians developed secret signals and meeting places to be able to worship without being arrested by Roman soldiers. Tell the students that if they are wearing any visible sign of Christianity (cross necklaces, Christian t-shirts) they must hide these things.
Also, you may want to discuss with them what they are to do if asked by a Roman soldier whether or not they are a Christian. Or you can leave this discussion for after they get to the catacombs.
Instruct the students that if they are caught by a Roman soldier they must go with the soldier, they are not allowed to fight or run away if they have been caught.
Explain that one of the secret signs used by the early Christians was the fish. If you wanted to know if another person was also a Christian you would draw half of the fish in the dirt. If the other person is a Christian they will draw the other half of the fish (see Figure 1). But always remember to wipe out the fish after it is drawn (you don’t want to leave any evidence for the Roman authorities!)
Figure 1: First Person draws half of fish, second person finishes it.
Divide the group up into different vehicles. The adult driver will bring the group to a drop off point where a Christian will meet them. Have the Christian contact make each of the students complete the fish symbol to ensure that they are Christians and not Roman spies. You may want to have each vehicle first drive past a Roman checkpoint where the soldiers will explain that they are looking for Christians and ask if they have seen anything suspicious. The Christian guides will bring each group to the meeting place while trying to avoid Roman soldiers. If the group is caught, they must go with the Roman soldiers.
At the catacombs:
As groups start arriving you may want to have snacks and hot chocolate/apple cider available (especially if it’s a cold night). If you are doing a bonfire, have that already going. If you are inside, have the lights turned off with only a few candles going. Find someone to play guitar and lead worship or play some soft music in the background. It will take awhile for everyone to arrive.
Remember that in the actual catacombs there were no printed materials (Bibles, song lyrics, etc.). So you may want to follow this rule and just do worship songs from memory. When all groups have arrived hand out the slips of paper with stories from different Christian martyrs and have different people read them. Continue the worship service by reciting Bible verses from memory or have people suggest songs to sing.
You may want to have a time of discussion to discuss how the students felt trying to get to the catacombs. And explain what many Christians have to go through even today to worship God. Help them to understand that we are blessed to be able to worship openly.
Communion is a great way to end the night.
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