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'STEPPING STONES' GUIDE THE WAY

A youth minister creates a relaxed, relevant church service driven by music.

When A.J. Beecher was hired this year as director of youth ministries at First Presbyterian Church, he was told about an idea for a church service geared toward a younger audience.

"We are a church that believes the Bible speaks to every generation with the same message, but not necessarily in the same way," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Andrew Beery.

One of Beecher's duties would be to lead a gathering every Saturday evening with a discussion message and live, contemporary music that would appeal to people 30 and under.

"Stepping Stones: Music with a Message" was how the service would be advertised.

"Think of a river with stepping stones laid out to help you get to the other side," Beecher said, explaining the name. "From a Christian perspective, that other side is ultimately heaven. Each individual is on a stone - some close to the other side, some still far away - but no matter where you are, you have to go one stone at a time and you have to figure out how you're going to get to that next stone."

The new services are about helping people get to the next stone, Beecher said.

"Some stones may be easy to get to, but there are some that are going to be difficult," he said. "We'll give you guidance and encouragement, but in the end you have to make the leap yourself."

The services, which started in February in the fellowship hall, have been attracting a growing audience.

"It's really taken off," Beecher said. "We're seeing new faces, and many of the new faces a couple months ago we see each week."

The music is provided by the band Potter's Clay.

"They play newer, contemporary music," Beecher said. "They also play some of their original work as well."

People attending Stepping Stones sit at large round tables and enjoy free food such as hamburgers and hot dogs, and hot and cold drinks. Some people bring snacks, such as chips or pretzels, to share.

The atmosphere is laid back.

"I believe people learn more when they are comfortable and actively participating," Beecher said. "For many people, a traditional church service includes neither of these."

People attending a traditional service for the first time may not know what to expect, Beecher said.

"Many people are uncomfortable because of the church's set order," he said. "A typical church service may, for example, sing three hymns, pray, recite the Apostles' Creed, have a 20-minute sermon in which the pastor is the only one talking, take offering, sing another hymn and close with the Lord's Prayer. People that have been going for a while know this and know what to do. This can be uncomfortable for a person attending for the first time, though, because he has no idea what's going on."

That doesn't happen at Stepping Stones.

"The only set thing in our service is music and a message," Beecher said. "We have music playing, but a person doesn't feel like he has to sing along. People are free to talk, eat or sing."

Another advantage, Beecher said, is that the message is always a discussion.

"We want everyone to get involved, ask questions and answer other people's questions. Another thing that is different is we offer a meal. People get up and eat throughout the service."

For his message, Beecher often shows a video or a section of a movie and then invites discussion for 10 to 15 minutes.

"The message always asks questions about what it means to be a Christian today," Beecher said. "Our culture is so different from the cultures of the Bible. How do we get useful guidance from the Bible when we have these cultural barriers? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? How do we live like Jesus? I ask multiple questions during the message, and people often raise their hand to add something or ask a question about it."

Before each service, if weather permits, people are invited to play beach volleyball outside.

"The church put in a sand court this spring, and some people get there early at 4 o'clock each Saturday to play," Beecher said. "We've also got badminton, horseshoes and bocce available to play."

Stepping Stones is a great place to come for an evening of entertainment and value, Beecher said.

"Potter's Clay makes their music fun; you get a free meal and hopefully learn a little about God and what God wants to do in your life in the process."

Beecher, 27, and his wife, Corrie, come from Evansville, Ind., where he graduated from the University of Evansville with a degree in religion. He is an experienced youth minister, having built groups for middle and high school students at several churches in Indiana. He also worked at a Christian-based juvenile detention center.

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SERVICES

If you go

The Stepping Stones services begin at 6 p.m. each Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 250 Bell Ave., Brooksville. For information, call (352) 796-4228.

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