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Reconstructing Santa
The Full Story of how Santa Claus United Methodist Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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After an army of termites destroys a 154-year old Methodist church, the congregation regroups and goes on the offensive—banding together as one unit with a revitalized youth group leading the charge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus. And He's alive and well and living in Santa Claus, Indiana. As to the 350+ members of Santa Claus United Methodist Church (UMC), they can tell you firsthand what happens when the Spirit moves you—quite literally. Call it a modern version of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites and all the other biblical "ites" that plagued God's people for centuries, in the case of Santa Claus UMC, it was the Termites that the Almighty would use, not only to help push the congregation out the door, but to rethink the way they do ministry.

Because of the massive damage caused by the termites, Reverend David Blystone, pastor of SCUMC for just over two years, was forced to begin the planning process for vacating the century-and-a-half old building. It was during that period when he received the church's demographic report (Ministry Area Profile).

The timing couldn't have been better: Santa Claus was experiencing a mid-life crisis. While the area surrounding their church was experiencing significant growth, the church itself was growing even faster (partly because they were one of only a few Protestant churches in town). After five years of going back and forth on whether they should move or simply remodel, the Orkin man made the decision for them. With or without the termites, one fact had become increasingly obvious: Santa Claus needed a larger base of operations. What was not as evident was where they should build their new church facility and what ministries they would need to develop.

One important statistic that the demographics revealed was that the number of children—including youth—was growing faster than the United States population as a whole. This information was key because it would ultimately have a strong bearing on the kinds of new ministries that the church would need to develop. An example of this was the potential need for pre-school and day care facilities—outreach ministries that would most definitively effect the design and planning of their new building. But it was an existing ministry, the Santa Claus UMC youth group, that was already making its mark—not only in the church, but in the community as well.

"While we definitely have had numerical growth, more importantly, we've had spiritual growth," says Blystone. "Our mission is simple: to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And when we began to think of how we could live that out in our community, well it was the youth that grabbed hold of
it first, saying 'Yes, we're going to do that!' And they did. Suddenly their faith at school was no longer being hidden. And part of the reason for this newfound boldness was a before-school bible club they started called "The Breakfast Club."

For 14-year old Kaytlin Earley, who joined the church soon after she moved there six years ago, the youth group has been her lifeblood. Her family was still unpacking when a member from Santa Claus UMC appeared at their doorstep—bringing them both food and an invitation to come to church. The Earleys, who at the time were Lutherans, accepted the invitation and soon thereafter became members. Kaytlin, who was then a precocious eight-year old, couldn't wait to be old enough to join the youth group. When that long-awaited day arrived she jumped in with both feet—involving herself in everything.

If you ask any of the numerous teenagers who started The Breakfast Club they'll quickly tell you that it was "God's idea." But it was Zeb
Young, a 17-year old student at Heritage Hills High School who took the idea and ran with it. Zeb, Kaytlin (the only middle school student on the planning team) and others chose the name "The Breakfast Club" because they believed it would be an attractant to kids who, like the movie of the same name, didn't always quite fit in.

"I Won't Be Labeled as Average"

Teenagers, especially middle-school girls, have a killer instinct for spotting anyone who isn't "cool." Once labeled by the popular police, many kids become social outcasts—often for the rest of their school life. But what happens when you're considered popular and "with it" but then willingly choose to give up that popularity for a cause bigger than your need for acceptance? Teenagers like Kaytlin Earley and Braden Gogel can tell you, because they have made such a choice. "It takes guts to go to school and worship God," says Gogel, a high-school student and one of the organizers of The Breakfast Club. "It's just not accepted."

While we as adults tend to make light of such child-to-adult life passages, in today's culture it is anything but a trivial issue. Consider Columbine. If one has any doubt about the pain of isolation that Christian teenagers suffer when they choose to live out their convictions in a peer-driven culture, they only need to read the story of 17-year old slain Columbine student, Rachel Scott. Rachel, who foretold in her diary that she was going to one day influence millions of people, at times endured a great deal of ostracism and loneliness as a result of her outspoken faith. Still she was courageous enough to live out her witness. When officials found Rachel's body soon after she had been shot, they also found something else—her diary. On the front of the floral covered book were scrawled the words, "I won't be labeled as average."

In reading through Rachel's diary, one thing was clear: Before she died, Rachel's life did begin to influence the kids around her. After she died, thousands would come to faith in Jesus Christ. But it was doubtful that Rachel Scott would have been the shining light she was had she not had the support of other Christians. In Rachael's case it was through a teen-based organization called Breakthru, where she would find the love and support she needed to help her withstand—and ultimately overcome—the cruelty of her classmates.

Kaytlin learned about the details of Rachel's ordinary, yet remarkable, life after going to a Christian event where Rachel's father, Darrell Scott, gave his testimony. "The story about his daughter overwhelmed me," says Kaytlin. "And for her to be willing to give her life for the Lord because she loved Him so much, I figured that I could give up my popularity, or my status, or whatever might be keeping me from being full-on devoted to God."

Since making that commitment just over ten months ago, it has cost Kaytlin just what she predicted—her "friends". As they began to get more promiscuous—delving into drugs, drinking and the related activities that go with that—they also began to grow increasingly uncomfortable around Kaytlin. Like her heroine, Rachel Scott, Kaytlin is honest about her pain. She doesn't hide the fact that her friends' ridicule, and eventual disdain, was a difficult cross for her to bear.

Kaitlyn Earley"At first I was very excited with my new relationship with the Lord," says Kaytlin. "I was thrilled! I was happy and I didn't mind that I was suddenly not as well liked anymore. But then it started to get to me because I would walk down the hall by myself or I would be made fun of . . .I was definitely being persecuted. And it's been hard because I'm always so willing to be a friend to everyone. I mean, that's just something that comes with your faith. But the truth is, is that since I have accepted Christ into my heart fully, and have devoted my life to him completely, I've lost my popularity. I'm not as well liked. And now most of the people at school won't even talk to me."

Much like Breakthru had helped Rachel Scott through some very tough times, The Breakfast Club is giving Kaytlin the support she needs to be a godly influence in a place where few kids are willing to pay the price
that it takes to live an authentic faith. She in turn is encouraging other teens who might be having a difficult time standing up for their beliefs because they feel that they're the only ones doing so. While made up mostly of kids from the SCUMC youth group, The Breakfast Club is also drawing kids from other youth groups, as well as their non-believing friends. Both Kaytlin and Braden have been overwhelmed by the response.

"We didn't really expect more than maybe 10 kids to come that first week, " says Kaytlin. "So when about 35 kids showed up, we were amazed! I think it has been a real encouragement to see other Christian kids step out of their comfort zone and become more bold."

The Breakfast Club is reaching both unchurched and dechurched kids in a powerful way. During the first week, a student who had not gone to church for years just happened to walk by the room where they were holding the meeting. When the girl heard the music she walked in—almost immediately she began to break down sobbing. Now the teenager is a regular club member and has also joined the youth group at Santa Claus UMC.

As to what they do at the club, well it's not, as one might guess, a time of heavy theology or preaching. First because it's too early in morning for anyone to be that heavy—let alone teenagers—and second, because
they know that it's not the most effective way to reach them. "We're not formal, we just sing worship songs, give a message about forgiveness, coming to know the Lord, hypocrisy—whatever the leader for that morning feels lead to share," says Kaytlin. "But what's great is that other Christian kids from other youth groups or wherever will come in and say things like, 'Wow, I didn't know that person was a Christian!' or 'I didn't know that they could speak in public like that!'"

Little Acts of Kindness

"I have this theory, " said Rachel Scott, in a paper she wrote on ethics, "that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People never know how far a little kindness can go."

Pretty far, if the breakdown of the barrier between adults and youth at Santa Claus UMC is any indication. Until two years ago, the line that divided the generations was relatively thick.

"Before, I don't think the adults in the church really thought too much of us," says Kaytlin. "We were the youth group, we were teenagers and we were probably pretty obnoxious—but they just never took the time to know us. They just assumed that we were like every other teenage group. I think their attitude was, 'Give them what they want and forget about them.'"

What changed all that were the "little acts of kindness" that the teenagers began to do for the rest of the congregation. Things like cleaning the church without being asked, raking people's leaves in the Fall, and (what was the biggest challenge for Kaytlin) getting up at the crack of dawn to shovel ice off of several members' driveways.

While such unpleasant tasks like shoveling, or rather scraping ice were, as Kaytlin describes so poetically, "a pain in the butt" to
perform, she, for one, is seeing the results.
"As we have changed—putting walk to our talk—the adult's eyes have been opened to how really serious about God we are," says Kaytlin.

Braden agrees with that observation. " I think with the Breakfast Club and all the other fund raisers and mission trips we are doing, that the adults have seen that they aren't the only ones who can do outreach or who really care," says Braden. "I think before they looked at our youth group as a bunch of kids that don't really do anything. But that has definitely changed now as they are seeing more activity—and more potential—in us. As a result, they're much more open to supporting us spiritually and financially."

In effect, by these self-sacrificial acts of reconciliation like cleaning the church and shoveling snow, they have literally and figuratively succeeded in breaking the generational ice. But what really excites Kaytlin and Braden and others is the fact that the congregation has grown together as one cohesive unit.

"Our being forced to move into a new building—even a temporary one—has made a huge difference in our church," says Braden. "People are tighter—there's more of a sense of community. It's funny, but when we didn't have a place to go anymore, we all kind of tied together. And I think that as a result, people began to realize what groups were out
there, what those groups like ours were doing and what they, in turn, could do to further the cause."

As one might guess, Rev. David Blystone is immensely pleased both with what the youth are doing and the newfound willingness of the adults to support them. "The church is the people, not the facility where they worship," reads the banner on Santa Claus UMC's Web site. But apparently it took an army of "crawling locusts" to convince at least some of the congregation that this was true. According to Blystone, the building had a pretty strong hold on people.

"I had to remind the congregation that while the church was founded in 1849, it was actually torn down in 1873, and it was done so for one simple reason—to make room for growth!" says Blystone. "And so for our present-day members who kept trying to go back to Egypt, they could see that this was not an unprecedented thing because that's what our congregation did years ago. They said back then, as we are saying now, 'Our current facilities no longer serves the ministries of the church—we need to do something different.'" And demographics gave us the needed information to do just that.

Doing ministry differently is becoming the motto of teenagers like Kaytlin Earley and Braden Gogel—not just at Santa Claus UMC, but in youth
groups and churches all over the country. Places like The Breakfast Club and Breakthru are providing a place for teens to gather in an often-hostile environment that has become the new mission field of post-modern America. In this ideological battleground it will not be cataclysmic events like Columbine that will win the day. Rather it will be the quiet, day-to-day acts of self-sacrifice embodied in the life of a Midwestern teenager who purposes to get up at the crack of dawn to shovel ice for someone she may hardly know, or grasps the hands of a schoolmate in prayer—someone who only the week before may have ridiculed her for her faith, but today is desperate to believe that faith is real. -Jenni Keast

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©  COPYRIGHT 2008 PERCEPT GROUP, INC.
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