by Delores McDonald

Next year, First Presbyterian Church, Sebring (FL) turns 100 – but Senior Pastor Darrell Peer says the church is not acting her age! “I have seen a change in the last few years in the congregation and God moving among the youth in more than 30 area churches in our county.”

The change began several years ago in the Sebring Church when Outreach North America’s Ken Priddy offered to help area churches. Priddy was willing to help Florida ARP churches overcome declining numbers by developing strategies for church health, which would eventually lead to church growth.

Several church members attended a summary presentation by Priddy of his training program and were interested enough to attend further training in Orlando. As a result, the church formed a Vision Committee, which researched the demographics of the Sebring area, as well as the gifts and strengths of their congregation.

Approximately one year later, the Vision Committee was ready to share their findings with the leadership of the church, and then with the congregation. A vision statement was formed and printed on a banner that hangs in the sanctuary for all to see.

Several outreach events were held, but not all were successful. With changes in strategy, the Committee decided to focus on an outreach to youth. Committee member Marge Peer suggested a summer day camp for middle schoolers. Why middle school age youth?“They are too young to stay home alone and too old to go to daycare,” Peer said.

The free summer day camp was held Monday through Friday and started as soon as school let out for the summer until school started again in the fall. This way, the kids would not be home alone.

The camp was a big hit with local youth, with __ attending. “It was an amazing summer!” Peer said. “Most of our youth had graduated, so we were essentially starting over in bringing youth to our church.” The end result of this summer day camp was 15-20 new youth coming every Tuesday night to youth groups. It turned out that being together over the entire summer had created a close bond between these young people.

This summer will be the camp’s third year. But Rev. Peer says it’s the church members and community that make the camp fun for the children. “We searched around for things in our area that would make camp time as interesting as possible.” It was a bold step when the Church decided to offer the summer camp free as an outreach to the community.

But the church and community quickly pulled together talents and resources in a way Rev. Peer says brought the two together. Meals and field trips were covered by the church. But it was the out- pouring of financial help by church members and parents, as well as those volunteering their time, the use of property and those supplying food that made it a great experience for everyone.

At the end of the second summer, it was surprising that it only cost the church less than $5,000 for the entire summer. “But the real reward is seeing the lives of the youth changed,” Peer said. “Some joined the church and several have been baptized.

God Still Working

But God was not through working with youth and youth leaders in Highlands County, FL. It was at the end of summer last year that the local Youth For Christ Executive Director Greg Griffin contacted the mayor of Sebring and a Christian lawyer about a youth evangelist named Chad Varga. The ex-basketball star, now an inspirational and motivational speaker, had spoken to mil-ions of students nationwide.

Griffin was impressed that Varga addressed character development when speaking at schools, in a way that connects with youth. His topics also include bullying, child abuse and overcoming some of life’s toughest obstacles. Varga knows, he has been there. Growing up in a broken home, from an early age he watched his mother violently abuse alcohol and drugs. With all the turmoil in his life, he soon turned to basketball, which was his escape from a life destined for failure.

But he indeed did go on to be a successful player. But one night, after playing one of the best games of his professional basketball career, Varga was startled awake. He couldn’t go back to sleep, so he got up, picked up his Bible, and began to read. “I was led to Scripture one night that spoke to me about fulfilling my purpose in life. I began to feel that God was birthing something greater inside me and that maybe life could offer more than dunking a basketball,” Varga says in his biography.

So these men sent out letters to area churches in Highlands County, FL, which included Sebring ARP, and started meeting regularly and praying together. Eventually, more than 30 area churches got involved in planning an event for area youth and contributing to its success. “One thing that pulled us all together was the fact that we saw what the world was doing to our youth – and we didn’t like it,” Rev. Peer said.

“We committed to work together to do something about it. I have never seen so many churches of different faiths work together for one goal before. God was working, and it was great to see and be a participant with Him to reach the youth of our county.”

More than 3,500 youth attended the free December 2011 “Big Event” in a packed convention center in Sebring – joining together to celebrate the holiday season and the love of Christ. After Varga shared his life story and told of his love for the students and residents of Highlands County, all were invited to rededicate their lives to Christ. Griffin says approximately 1,000 came to the altar that Sunday evening. “We didn’t try to push any students to the altar or persuade them with any one denomination or faith. I’m happy and proud that a community of believers of Christ came together to promote the good Word.

“We’ve never done anything quite like this,” he said. “I’ve never seen a group of churches work so well together for a cause.”