Jesus For Juniors

How do you lure disaffected suburban teens into the bosom of the church? Try this unholy trinity: rock & roll, junk food and Foosball.

"Go!" Carter yells. McGoop goes everywhere -- onto Williams, onto Carter, onto girls with their hair tied back in ponytails. No one vomits, though, and the winners go home with T-shirts.

This, in all its messy glory, is Jamie George's vision. The 34-year-old youth minister at the First Baptist Church of Harvester imagined this paradise of squeaky teen fun as an antidote to the distant suburbs' Bermuda Triangle of malls, drugs and faithlessness. Just around the corner from a strip featuring Long John Silver's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Wendy's lies the Realm, a project six years in the making, a type of facility Missouri had never seen.

Blenders, spaghetti and teenagers are all required for 
the Realm's version of Fear Factor.
Dan Padgett
Blenders, spaghetti and teenagers are all required for the Realm's version of Fear Factor.
What would Jesus play? If He visited the Realm it'd be 
pool, ping pong, air hockey and PS2.
Dan Padgett
What would Jesus play? If He visited the Realm it'd be pool, ping pong, air hockey and PS2.

Big, shiny and beckoning, the Realm is like a sports car. The Harvester congregation bit its lip and wrote a big check, hoping the youth of St. Charles would keep it washed and full of gas. They say they don't know precisely where it will take their children, but they feel confident it will bring them home to the kingdom of God at the end of the night.

Some, though, fear the kids will simply go joyriding, tear around in it while it's new and inevitably crash it into a tree. They will abandon it, and abandon their faith. At least a few of the church's approximately 3,000 members left when the Realm went up, taking their kids with them.

When the Realm opened in January, times had officially a-changed, both for church members and the nearly 900 youths -- from junior-high students to college kids -- who attend weekly programming.

"Some people say the youth are our tomorrow," says the only slightly less hipster than Williams George (who also happens to hail from Buffalo and be a graduate of Liberty University). "I believe that they're our today. I believe they can make a huge impact on society and the community and the world today. Most teenagers are more globally sensitive than their parents. I think they are a catalyst for energy and change."

Some might say the same about George. Briefly seated now in the Realm's "Green Room" -- where bands hang out before ascending a black spiral staircase directly to the stage -- the frosted-haired father of three seems exactly the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with. If he drank, that is. "I read Wired, I catch some of GQ to try to stay up on what's happening," he says. "I think Johnny Depp is cool. I loved Pirates of the Caribbean."

But free time is about the last thing George has. Since 1997 he's had the demanding role of First Baptist youth pastor, with an eye toward outreach.

"There are about 30,000 adolescents between 10 and 24 that live in a 5-mile radius of this building, and that number is only gonna grow significantly," he says, citing regional demographic trends.

First Baptist Church of Harvester's congregation reflects the demographics of surrounding St. Charles County, which is about 95 percent white with a median family income of approximately $64,000. By comparison, the city of St. Louis is 44 percent white with about half the median income.

"Our approach is: We want to serve the community. There are some churches who kind of hole themselves up, build up the walls: 'We don't want our kids to be like anyone else.' That's not our mentality."

George's original answer was the Planet Youth Cafe, an informal hangout for kids inside the church. When Planet Youth Cafe began attracting a few hundred kids a week, George set his sights on something bigger. Bringing the Realm to life required not only gobs of money, but convincing the congregation of its worth.

"We called the project 'Hand in Hand,'" George says, linking his fingers as if to mimic the logo of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "To reach across generations." Dissenters grumbled, but most congregants warmed to the idea. Fundraising took place mainly in the form of special offerings during services, and the folks at First Baptist gave generously. When the tally came up a little short, regular First Baptist attendee Ben Blanton -- who also happened to be the contractor on the project -- donated the rest in the form of free labor. "We raised about $1.7 million, but [he] put in the other $300,000. He gave us a sweet, sweet deal."

"I'm excited about it because Jamie's excited about it," says Blanton, whose own kids are long past Realm age. "He thought it's a need in his ministry. Jamie's a great kid. We built it, and we did it as a part of our ministry to the church, to the Christian community. We just passed on all that profit stuff."

Three large gears are mounted above the Realm's front entrance, representative of what George describes in a guide about his youth ministry as the "five essentials that lead people to balanced spiritual life development.... Each of these gears is driven by smaller gears and in each of these is written the word 'worship,'" he writes. "Without worship, the gears are useless. They will bind, rust, and have no impulsion."

The Realm isn't all about fun and games, though. Besides Fear Factor-type wildness, the center houses basement classrooms where weekly Sunday school-style classes are held. After Sunday-morning Realm programming (which includes an amped-up jam and prayer session for the junior-high set called "Awakening"), a shuttle bus takes the kids over to First Baptist for services.

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