‘I’m a dealer, but I don’t gamble’
LAS VEGAS — I hit the jackpot on a recent…
NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — When Tyler Yeager, a fourth-grade teacher in northern Arizona, told colleagues he was going to Las Vegas for the weekend, they voiced surprise.
His friends know he’s a Christian and active with the High Country Church of Christ in Show Low, Ariz.
But Yeager, 23, didn’t make the 400-mile drive to gamble at a casino or attend a concert by a big-name singer.
“It’s great to see things like this appearing on the West Coast … so we don’t have to move out to Tennessee.”
Instead, the volunteer youth minister — along with five children, preacher Howard Odom and 14 other adults from the rural congregation — trekked to Sin City for an event focused on saving souls.
Bright lights, meet the Christian youth leadership training program known as Lads to Leaders — or “L2L,” as it’s often shortened.
“Vegas has a reputation, but it’s just another place that needs evangelism, and it’s a great central location,” Yeager said. “It’s great to see things like this appearing on the West Coast … so we don’t have to move out to Tennessee.”
Since then, at least a quarter-million children, parents, ministers and church leaders have participated in the program, according to its executive director, Roy Johnson, one of those original eight boys.
Ordinarily, L2L’s multiple regional conventions — most in Bible Belt locations such as Atlanta; Fort Worth, Texas; and Orlando, Fla. — draw a combined 21,000 children, parents and other adults from Churches of Christ.
However, overall numbers this spring were down 20 percent to 25 percent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said. In Nashville, Tenn., the largest convention site, the typical attendance of 10,000 fell to about 8,000.
Roughly 1,800 miles from Music City, the inaugural L2L gathering hosted by the North Las Vegas Church of Christ — nine miles north of the famous stretch of hotels, casinos and resort properties known as “The Strip” — got off to a humble start.
Of course, so did the first L2L convention put together by Zorn in 1973: It drew 74 participants to Alabama Christian College, which is now Faulkner University.
“This was just the beginning,” Johnson told the North Las Vegas church Sunday after about 150 children and adults came together from Arizona, Nevada and California.
With a population of 3.1 million, Nevada has only 27 Churches of Christ — with a total of about 2,600 people in the pews each Sunday, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
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“It’s purposeful,” Johnson said. “I think churches outside the Bible Belt feel neglected. And they may need the association — they may need the training — maybe more so than those in the Bible Belt who have so many things they can attend.”
The first Vegas convention mixed training adults for future service — in roles such as mentors and judges — with opportunities for boys and girls to read Scriptures, lead hymns and make Bible speeches.
Rick Dunning, a longtime L2L volunteer and member of the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Ark., directed the Nevada convention. He collaborated with North Las Vegas minister Leo G. Gay and associate minister Nathan L. Elder.
“The North Las Vegas congregation of the Church of Christ is an active group of people who are always standing ready to host and support events that bring God glory and bring God’s children together.”
“The North Las Vegas congregation of the Church of Christ is an active group of people who are always standing ready to host and support events that bring God glory and bring God’s children together,” Gay said in a statement provided to The Christian Chronicle. “Their work of faith and labor of love ring out across the brotherhood.”
North Las Vegas, a predominantly Black church, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Since COVID, it averages Sunday attendance of about 200. The church also supports a Spanish-speaking ministry led by Fernando Renteria.
The vibrant congregation is a regular host of the West Coast Preachers and Leaders Forum and the site of a two-week Vacation Bible School (although last year’s VBS was reduced to one week because of COVID-19 concerns).
“In the midst of ‘Sin City’ dwells a group of Christians who will not be denied their crown or cause their labor to be in vain,” Gay said. “Yes, they are truly ‘more than conquerors.’”
For the L2L gathering, North Las Vegas members grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for Saturday lunch and prepared spaghetti for dinner as they welcomed fellow Christians.
Zariyah Barkum is the 10-year-old granddaughter of North Las Vegas members David and Annette Barkum. She participated in oral Bible reading and songs of praise. Under L2L rules, boys and girls events are conducted in separate rooms. Only women are allowed in the girls’ sessions.
Annette Barkum chuckled as she described Zariyah learning to lead the hymn “This World Is Not My Home.”
“She wants to sing the bass part like her grandfather, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not your part,’” Annette Barkum said. “She needs to sing the soprano part. So we had another sister who sings help her out.”
Barkum, a mother of six and grandmother of 14, said she sees L2L as an opportunity to “build a bridge between generations” in the church.
“She wants to sing the bass part like her grandfather, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not your part.’”
“Hopefully, that’ll bring more youth to our congregation, and we’ll get to meet more people from other congregations,” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll become big, and we’ll be able to host and be kind and help and do all the things we’re supposed to do as Christians.”
The Barkums first experienced L2L when they attended a convention in California a few years ago. L2L canceled its Fresno meeting this year because of COVID-19 restrictions but hopes to return there next year, Johnson said.
North Las Vegas members Brad and Kalyn Harris are the parents of 10-year-old Priya and 8-year-old Johnnie. Brad Harris said he appreciates L2L’s ability to bring together young people from different congregations.
“It allows them to meet other like-minded Christians in their age group,” said Harris, a vice president for a vacation business. “So, when they study the Book of Joshua for a month, they know there are other kids as interested in God’s word as they are.”
That’s particularly true for young people from isolated congregations such as the High Country church in Arizona’s White Mountains, that congregation’s leaders said.
“I’m excited for our children,” said Yeager, the volunteer youth minister. “I think it presents an opportunity for them to get out of their comfort zone, right?
“A lot of our kids, they don’t get off of our mountain a lot. And opportunities they have for fellowshipping with Christians their age are few and far between.”
“A lot of our kids, they don’t get off of our mountain a lot,” he added. “And opportunities they have for fellowshipping with Christians their age are few and far between. So this presents a unique opportunity.”
Dinlen Lilly, 14, from the High Country congregation participated in songs of praise and the Bible Bowl. “It’s nice to have something like this,” she said, “because in our town there are not really any Christians.”
Connor Clark, 16, also from the Arizona church, agreed.
“The majority of our congregation is elderly,” said Clark, who signed up for songleading, speech and Bible Bowl, “so there’s not a lot of younger Christians to talk to.”
Don’ta Young, a member of the Victory Road Church of Christ in Henderson, Nev., brought his sons — 11-year-old Isaiah and 3-year-old Isaac — to the Vegas meeting.
Young’s sons didn’t participate in the inaugural convention, but he wanted to acquaint them with it for the future.
“For me personally, I would just like to see young people get back excited and back involved in church events and church things. Growing up, they were some of the funnest times I had.”
“I think we need more things like this,” Young said. “I think, too, with the whole pandemic — I know it hit us hard as members of the church as being adults. But also for youth, it really hit hard because they weren’t having Bible classes.
“So I think this is awesome,” he added. “I’m looking forward to it growing and becoming bigger and bigger.”
Given Vegas’ status as a tourist mecca, it has plenty of hotels and transportation options to accommodate Christians from throughout the region, said Elder, the North Las Vegas associate minister.
“L2L can become a central hub for the tri-state area of Arizona, California and Nevada,” he said. “And for me personally, I would just like to see young people get back excited and back involved in church events and church things. Growing up, they were some of the funnest times I had.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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