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Published: Saturday, 7/8/2006

Youth leader watches steps

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Watson Watson
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Nate Watson is walking a tightrope of sorts. He knows exactly where he wants to go, he's following a straight and narrow path, and he's being careful not to misstep.

As executive director of Toledo Youth for Christ, Mr. Watson, 26, is striving to fulfill the organization's vision statement: "To see every student have an opportunity to make an informed decision to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to become part of the local church."

At the same time, he's keeping his balance, making sure that YFC's outreach into public schools does not cross the line separating church and state.

And by running an organization that ministers to junior and senior high school students, he is working hard to assure area ministers that YFC is not in competition with their church youth groups.

"We're not as intensive as a youth group. We don't want to become a youth group," said Mr. Watson, who took the reins at YFC in November. "We want to feed the local youth groups."

Last year, about 800 teenagers participated in Toledo YFC activities, which include meetings in schools and homes and a camping trip to Colorado, which is coming up in just a few weeks.

Youth for Christ's usual schedule of events includes meetings on Monday nights in people's homes. Mr. Watson said Mondays were chosen because few, if any, church youth groups meet that night.

It also hosts meetings before or after class in six local public schools: Springfield, Anthony Wayne, Swanton, and Woodmore high schools and Perrysburg and Springfield junior highs, and when classes start this fall, will expand into Waite and Clay high schools.

"It takes a lot of planning and a lot of community commitment and agreement," said Mr. Watson, a graduate of Bowsher High School. "You don't want to go into a place where the community isn't ready or willing for us to be there. It takes a lot of relationship building with parents."

Mr. Watson said he is very aware of the need to keep church and state separate.

"It does come to be an issue," he said. "We have to be really sensitive to that, to be honest. We have to get a feel for each school and what the principal's comfortable with, what the counseling staff is comfortable with. We don't do any programs during school hours at the high schools or junior high schools. We are able to use their facilities after hours with the permission of the principal."

One of the main efforts of Youth for Christ is building relationships with students, Mr. Watson said. To help do so, he and YFC volunteers sometimes meet with teens in their school cafeterias for lunch. There is no preaching or evangelizing on the school grounds, just an effort to get to know the teens.

"We would like to incorporate more concern for the whole person, a more holistic ministry," Mr. Watson said. "We want to care about everything in a kid's life - their socioeconomic position, their civic literacy - and also the spiritual aspect, but doing that within a relational context."

YFC was founded in 1944 and the Rev. Billy Graham was its first full-time employee. The Toledo chapter was founded in 1951. During that decade it sponsored Bible clubs in 26 local schools and held Saturday night rallies that drew hundreds of teens.

It's a much different world today and Mr. Watson said he notices differences since he graduated eight years ago. Dress codes are more lax. Teen pregnancy rates have soared. Students' daily routines are so jammed that they have little free time. "Kids have a lot more to choose from nowadays. Their schedules are packed out. They lead just as busy lives as a grown businessperson," he said.

"Just because of that, there's a lot more stress on a young person - stress to get good grades, stress to get into college. In order to do that, they have to have their schedules packed with so many extracurricular activities. With Youth for Christ, we have to be careful. It's seemingly just another extracurricular activity," he said.

He went to school in Missouri and received a master's degree in theology from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

He and his wife, Sandra, who have three children, knew that there would be a lot of work for them when they moved back to Toledo last year. Just before he started at YFC, the neo-Nazi riot made national news.

"The publicity over the riots almost seemed like a plea for help. It made me feel like I was in the right place," he said.

Toledo Youth for Christ's offices are at 7112 Angola Rd., Holland. The phone number is 419-865-1442.

Contact David Yonke

at dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154



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