Black lights, colored Christmas lights and green palm tree party lights dangle from the ceiling and around the room, illuminating the neon graffiti painted on the walls. Music booms from huge speakers as a singer in the band belts out, "I just want to be a palm tree."
Minutes later, about a hundred teenagers rush into the room and jostle for space on the couches that line its perimeter. For these youth, loud music and blinking lights make up a typical Wednesday evening ... at church.
A year ago, the youth program at First Baptist Church of Eddy, Texas, located 18 miles southwest of Waco, was home to five or six high school and middle school students; church membership was about 150. Now, it's not unusual for more than 100 youth to attend church on Wednesday and Sunday nights, and this in a town with a population of about 1,000 and a high school with approximately 300 students.
Through the efforts of 12 Baylor students, who jokingly refer to themselves as the "12 disciples," the youth program at the church exploded. They created a curriculum of Bible studies, prayer groups and discipleship training. They also formed cell groups -- similar to Sunday school classes -- that are held in homes and led by the Baylor students on different nights of the week.
The singer in the band is David Keasler, the church's youth director and a senior religion major at Baylor. As a participant in Baylor Youth Programs, Keasler went to Eddy in August 2002 to speak to the youth group. A few months later, the youth minister at the church resigned and Keasler became the new director. Within days, he recruited 11 Baylor students to help.
Senior Alex Richards, who is majoring in entrepreneurship and real estate, leads the youth in worship. He was among the students in Baylor Youth Programs whom Keasler recruited. "I was looking for a place where I could disciple directly," he says. "David asked me to lead worship as a one-time thing, but I loved it, and the youth love it, and they asked me to stay. It has been amazing to see what God can do through a few goofy Baylor kids."
Don Mattingly, Baylor Youth Programs coordinator, says the experience in Eddy provides an opportunity for the students to be more involved in teaching. "They went with my blessings, and the Lord has blessed their commitments," he says. "There is a revival going on in that little town."
As enthusiasm grew, the Baylor students became committed to transforming the small-town youth program. "Few of us had ever even heard of Eddy," Keasler says. "I was just in the right place at the right time. This could not have come about with just me; it is the Spirit. The 12 of us really don't know that much, definitely not enough to be able to run a youth ministry. It truly has been God equipping the called."
The youth leaders gave themselves to the effort, devoting all their time and energy to developing the ministry. "This has become our lives," Keasler says. "Ministry and discipleship are not a Wednesday night thing. It's not a Sunday thing. It's a life thing."
Church members agreed to let the growing youth ministry meet in an old house adjacent to the church that was being used for storage. After receiving donations and love offerings during church services, the group raised enough money for a remodeling project. With furniture, paint and carpet donated by the community, the space became the new youth house, named "the upper room."
"Our logo is the palm tree because during a hurricane everything is destroyed, but a palm tree bends and just chills until the storm blows over. Then it stands up again and looks right at the sun," Keasler says. "So, as Christians, when storms and hard times come into our lives, we just need to lie back and chill until the storms of life blow over and then stand back up and face the Son."
Every Wednesday, the Baylor students lead the music with a praise and worship band, counsel the youth, pray together and share about their personal relationships with Jesus Christ.
"This is really progressive," Keasler says. "It is very alive. I've seen youth groups all over the place, and what the Spirit is doing here, I've never seen before. It is unbelievable."
Youth leader Kelly Murray agrees the growth of the group is nothing short of a miracle. Originally from Eddy, Murray attended McLennan Community College for two years and Southwest Texas State University for one semester, coming back to the church every weekend.
"Suddenly, God changed my priorities," says Murray, who transferred to Baylor in the fall. "As it turned out, the church needed youth leaders, and I fell in love with the youth group. God opened up all these doors, and I know this is where I'm supposed to be."
The youth group's growth and enthusiasm are changing the dynamics of the church as well, says Pastor D.F. Barrett. "I think for the most part, the people of the church are seeing growth through our young people, and the youth group is reaching a lot of people in the community," he says.
Some of the youth who were original members of the group say the experience has been a wake-up call about the true meaning of church. "Our church used to be about religion," says Justin Best, a sophomore at Bruceville-Eddy High School. "Now it's about our relationship with God. We no longer worship in a box."
The church has become missions oriented, Keasler says. Last summer, the youth traveled to Mexico for a mission trip and sent three people to Russia to work at an orphanage. Their goal, he says, is to send at least two people each summer to volunteer at an orphanage and to expand the missionary vision.
"It seems like kids are coming out of the woodwork," the Rev. Barrett says. "Some of the kids who are coming now have never been to church before, and the number of youth that have been baptized lately is unbelievable. It's been what we call, 'a God thing.'"