With a new school year about to start, local churches are kicking off fall activities for kids.
One program being offered is Awana, an evangelism and discipleship program for children age 2 to 18. Six churches in Hernando County currently participate in the Chicago-based program.
"It's a lot of fun," said Darlene Hurst, Awana commander for Northcliffe Baptist Church in Spring Hill. "That's what really draws the children to Awana."
Children love to memorize verses from the Bible, wear special shirts, earn awards, bring their friends and compete in games, Hurst said. Points are earned to obtain Awana bucks, which can be spent at the churches' Awana stores, filled with items such as toys.
Students also earn badges, patches and pins for completing work in their handbooks.
"It's like a Christian Boy Scout or Girl Scout (program)," said Jeb Berleth, commander at Spring Hill Baptist Church. "It's a very structured program that gives Bible teaching, and we teach morals and good ethics. They make a lot of friends here."
The suggested weekly dues are about 50 cents. If needed, some churches will subsidize the dues and provide the handbooks. Shirts or vests may be earned at some churches.
"If that's a hardship, come anyway," said Bill Spratt, former commander at Community Bible Church, south of Brooksville. "We don't want anybody to be turned away."
The letters in Awana are taken from a Bible verse, 2 Timothy 2:15, and are an acronym for "approved workmen are not ashamed."
According to its website, Awana promises to teach children "to know, love and serve Christ." Now in its 61st year, the program has more than 22,000 churches in more than 100 countries that participate.
While the program works with about 100 different denominations worldwide, the majority of local churches that use the program are Baptist.
All Awana programs follow a basic structure, with the weekly meetings being broken down into three segments. Handbook Time provides small-group interaction and recitation of Scripture that kids learned during the week. Large Group Time consists of praise and worship, Bible teaching, awards, announcements and a presentation of the Gospel. Game Time is comprised of games exclusive to Awana that are played on a specially designed circle. There are also opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies that involve the entire group. All of the local churches conduct Awana on Wednesday nights throughout the school year.
Clubs within the program include Puggles, for 2- and 3-year-olds, which teaches children about the world outside their home and introduces them to the concept of God as the creator who is loving and good; Cubbies, for preschoolers, which emphasizes respect for authority; Sparks, for kindergarten through second grade, which teaches Bible lessons that focus on wisdom, and Truth and Training, for third through sixth grades, which emphasizes grace and mercy in relationships.
Two of the churches offer Trek, for middle school students, which emphasizes building a sense of destiny according to God's will. None of the churches currently offer Journey, which teaches submission to God's sovereignty, for high school students.
Along with the regular weekly programs, which include special theme nights, such as Wacky Hair Night, each church offers special events throughout the year. One that is popular is Grand Prix, where children design and craft wooden cars and race them on a specially designed track.
LeeAnn Walton, commander of the Awana program at First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach, said the program gives children a chance to socialize and exercise after a long day at school.
"More importantly," she said, "it is about hiding God's word in these clubbers' hearts and minds, helping them to understand and apply (Scripture) into their lives so that his will and ways become a part of their everyday lives.
"These, in turn, are the leaders of tomorrow."