Rock music, speakers and a casual atmosphere on Saturday nights "plug" young people into faith.
The rock music, the teenagers clad casually in jeans and T-shirts, the comical skits, the guest speakers interacting with the audience all testify to the fact that the Outlet is not your traditional church service.
"If this is what church is like, I'm coming back," said one visiting teen.
"This is fun; I'm getting a lot out of it," said another.
It may not be like "church," but the name of the youth program at Hernando United Methodist Church in Citrus County every Saturday night suggests that these kids are being "plugged into" Jesus Christ in a powerful way. That, said Lenny Schultz, lay leader for the outreach program, is why the name was chosen.
"The Outlet was a concept that came into being between Pastor Al (McGowen), Bill Welling and Jamie Parker," he said. "They became concerned at the number of youths in Citrus County who were in and out of trouble. Different ideas came up, and out of the blue they picked it up that to get an electrical appliance working, it needs to be plugged into an outlet. If it's not plugged into the outlet, the electrical appliance won't operate. So getting plugged into the outlet in this program means being plugged into Christ."
Only a few months old, the program is drawing about 40 youths each weekend. As many as 80 young people, from age 13 to the mid 20s, have attended the program, which was broadcast live in early November over Citrus 95 and Country Fox radio.
"I'm having so much fun," said Tasha Parker, who at 14 is one of the worship and praise leaders and sometimes sings for the group. "We have Christian rock music that you wouldn't normally find in a church, but it makes all the kids want to come because it's the kind of music we're listening to. If kids my age hear hymns, they're just going to think it's boring. But with this kind of music, they're saying, "This is cool. I want to come back because this is my kind of music.' "
But fun isn't the only reason Tasha ministers at the Outlet.
"I do it because we need to reach the teens in this county and the surrounding counties, because they're not coming to Jesus, and the traditional church services aren't helping. This is not like regular church. You don't sit for an hour and listen to a sermon. The longest anybody talks is five minutes."
The young people begin arriving about 6 p.m. at the church sanctuary, where they are offered refreshments like hamburgers, hot dogs, popcorn and soda. Several adults supervise while the youths mingle and get to know one another. At 6:30 they settle into the chairs surrounding several tables at the front of the church for an hourlong program.
"We have the tables so the kids can fellowship and have whatever it is they are eating," Schultz said. "The leader, usually Bill Welling or Jamie Parker, will go up and introduce guest speakers. Sometimes kids who have been in trouble will come up and talk about their problems and how they got out of it, and they will tell what the Outlet means to them. Other times there will be people like myself, who have never gotten into trouble, who will tell them that it's not only kids who were in trouble who can identify with Christ. We don't just focus on troubled people. We focus on Christ himself and how he is prepared and ready to accept everyone. There are kids who come who have never set foot in a church. They have come and many have made a commitment to Christ."
One of the teens who visits the Outlet regularly is 15-year- old Jessica Rock.
"I get lots out of it," she said, "lessons, testimonies, the whole nine yards, and I've made new friends there."
At 20, Danielle Mills says life for her up until recently had been hard. She has shared some of her experiences at the Outlet.
"I tried everything you could possibly think of to fill the void in my life," she said. "But God prepared me with all the things I went through to come back with such a testimony that I can win people to him."
Mills said she leads the group in praise scriptures and participates in skits.
"I'm the one who gets up there and gets people moving," she said. "If I'm up there first, then others feel free to come up with me. There will be about seven or eight different songs with a message. We often have a theme that we go by, like the love that God has for us and the love that we should have for God and each other. There are three words that we should live by: responsibility, respect and love. Those are what we need to have for ourselves. We have to have a relationship with God's son so that then we can know the difference."
A relationship with God's son is what Tasha says has brought her to this place of ministry.
"Our theme song for the Outlet is Jesus Freak. One of the lines of the song is, "What would people think if they hear that I'm a Jesus Freak?' What the song is basically about is that people are attached to Jesus, and we can be attached to him, too. Some of our friends may think we're crazy because we're so attached to Jesus and we love him so much. But there's nothing wrong with that.
"When I was at camp last summer, I was just sitting there thinking, "I can't fake this anymore. I've been around Christian surroundings for most of my life, but I can't pretend to be a Christian when I'm really not.' And I thought if I was going to become a Christian, that would be the best time to do it. I couldn't wait any longer because I never know when Jesus is going to come back and take all the Christians away, and if I'm not a Christian when he comes back, I'm going to be stuck here. So I went and talked with one of the counselors at the camp, and he prayed with me. My life has been so good since then. I mean stuff has been hard, but with Jesus there by my side, I can face it."
If you go
Hernando United Methodist Church is at 2125 E Norvell Bryant Highway. Call 726-7245.