The moment the First Baptist Church of Glenarden opened its doors Friday night, nearly 3,000 teenagers rushed inside for a high-octane worship service.
Inside the Upper Marlboro mega-church, a large digital clock was at four minutes and counting down. When the numbers reached zero, the Christian go-go band Vertical exploded into view. Hundreds rushed the stage and the sanctuary was filled with spiritual music.
“Let’s salute the living Christ who rose on the third day,” the lead singer told the crowd. “Where you go, I go. What you say, I say. What you do, I do. What you pray, I pray.”
The beat and rhythm had the young people on their feet during the two-hour worship service that was part of Merge 2011, a joint ministry started by First Baptist and Zion Church of Landover.
The ministry included music and poetry. Actors presented a story of Jesus rescuing a young woman from a gang. Pizza and frozen treats were offered.
“I prefer to go to this instead of church,” said Antonio Nixon, 16, as he operated a remote ceiling camera in a control room filled with broadcast technicians and other operators. Nixon, a member of First Baptist from Bowie, said he was baptized last year.
The Rev. Bill Staton, the youth minister at First Baptist, preached from the book of Daniel about the story of the three Hebrews who were thrown into a fiery furnace because they said they would serve only God.
“When you are different you will always be called out,” Staton told the young people. “We have got to come to a point where we can’t bow down to everything.”
As Staton preached, the Rev. John K. Jenkins, pastor of First Baptist Church, and the Rev. Keith Battle, pastor of Zion, listened from one of the back rows. Jenkins said the decision to merge the churches’ youth ministries came after he noticed the work that Battle was doing.
“They don’t have a facility. They are a homeless ministry and yet they are serving hundreds of kids,” Jenkins said. “We decided to take the resources of both ministries and put it together. There is no shame in our game. We can learn from what Pastor Battle is doing.”
More than 6,000 youths have come out for Merge 2011 since it began last month, and Jenkins and Battle said the worship services have surpassed their expectations.
“It is not about Zion Church or First Baptist Church of Glenarden. It is about helping kids to reach their potential,” said Battle, who is known nationally for his work with young people.
The youths split into small groups (college, high school and middle school) to help one another work through their problems, Jenkins said.
“The smaller groups is where the kids get the chance to really interact with adults who love them and where they can talk about what they are going through,” Jenkins said. “When it all boils down to it, we are disciplining our young people and teaching them how to live their lives.”
Jennae Elizabeth Nance, a youth leader at Zion, said Merge 2011 shows that a person can be cool and serve the Lord at the same time. “I just hope that young ladies will be able to model their lives after Christ, and look for that model in their peers and the people they associate themselves with,” she said.
In addition to events at the church, Jenkins said, in the coming months young people will be going out into the community to serve others. “This culture drives home ‘me, me, me,’ but kids really need to learn about giving back to the community.”