By Jim Burton
REIDSVILLE—Progress has come to a one stoplight, county-seat town lodged in southeast Georgia. Reidsville recently got a McDonalds’ restaurant.
A “community in unity” as Tattnall County bills itself, this Georgia County with nearly 26,000 residents has more economic stability than most rural counties with five prisons and an agriculture base that generated an estimated $245 million in 2010, while residents spent about $9.6 million on lottery sales in 2012. Despite its lack of industry, with its school system, medical facilities, agriculture and prisons, Tattnall County has economic diversity that other counties would envy.
When Chuck Jonas joined Reidsville Baptist Church six years ago to serve as its worship and student minister, the Louisiana native already had about 15 years of experience on church staffs in similar capacities. Though physically isolated, technology has come to Reidsville.
The proliferation of cell phones represents one of the biggest changes in student ministry. That technology puts both good and bad resources in the hands of students. They can look at pornography and listen to raunchy music, or they can read a digital version of the Bible. Jonas challenges that paradox of carrying around junk on the same device that holds God’s Holy Word.
“My fear in ten years is that nobody uses a physical Bible anymore,” Jonas said. Technology seems to be forcing teenagers to grow up even faster than in past generations. That reality brought a shift in Jonas’ approach to student ministry. “The mentality has to be that I’m dealing with young adults, not kids,” Jonas said. “If we look at them like kids, they’ll act like kids.”
Many of the students that Jonas ministers to are from families whose parents do shift work, primarily in one of the five prisons.
“I am dealing with many kids that don’t have a lot of parental support,” Jonas said. Reidsville Baptist runs two van routes on Wednesday nights to bring middle schoolers to a mid-week Bible study. “If we weren’t picking them up, they wouldn’t get here,” he said.
Jonas has up to 35 middle schoolers midweek. He meets with 15-20 high schoolers on Tuesday night. He separated the age groups several years ago not just because of maturity levels, but because of space restrictions that prohibit setting up multiple tables and doing small groups. Unlike many youth ministries that center on small groups, Jonas uses an interactive teaching style. “I want to hear their responses,” Jonas said. “There is a lot of back and forth [when he teaches].”
Influenced by the book Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Christ, Jonas helps high school students discover the difference between being a follower and a fan of Jesus. A fan is someone who has limited knowledge about Jesus, whereas a follower has deeper knowledge, a hunger for more knowledge, and is passionate about their relationship with Christ. “In our churches and youth groups, we have a lot of fans,” Jonas said.
Being just a fan is evident in one of Jonas’ biggest challenges, one shared by most ministers—apathy among students and adults.
“If they aren’t getting a firm grasp on what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and how to make that relationship grow, they get the mentality, ‘Why should I care about this anyway,'” Jonas said. “‘Encourage me and teach me, but don’t challenge me to change. You are trying to change me before I know who I am.'” That attitude informs Jonas’ ministry objective.
“I don’t want to be responsible for having a generation of students coming through my ministry who are just fans,” Jonas said. “I want students who understand that if I follow Jesus I have to change some things in my life.” The good news for Jonas is that he’s seeing more evidence of change and focus on spiritual growth. He describes the biblical process of planting many seeds and seeing some beginning to germinate.
The economic prospects in Tattnall County limit the possibilities that Jonas will minister long term with many of his students. Most students go away for college and don’t return. The economic realities are not likely to improve dramatically, nor will Jonas’ ministry objectives. He will continue to lead worship and students, a combination position that many churches have. And he will continue to serve as a volunteer Student Ministry Network coach with the Georgia Baptist Convention to offer assistance with their student ministries. “I think youth pastors have a mentality that we will do anything in our world to help another youth minister,” Jonas said.
Jonas is available to assist other churches by calling 912-237-5498 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, Ga., and the bivocational pastor of Sugarloaf International Fellowship, in Suwanee, Ga. (www.sifsuwanee.com).