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Harrison, Arkansas

100 churches — and a lost generation

By Scott Harrup

Snug in the hills of northwest Arkansas, Harrison is a rapidly growing town, thanks in large part to the tourists who travel through on their way to Branson, Mo., just a half-hour drive north on Highway 65. Harrison is the largest community in Boone County with an estimated 12,000 of the county’s 32,000 residents.

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Signs of growth are everywhere. A drive through town on Highway 65 takes one past shopping centers, hotels, banks, car lots and a host of restaurants. Toward the southern end of the drive is the old town square, a stately gathering of shops and businesses surrounding the county courthouse.

At dusk on a Saturday night, young people begin to congregate at the standard social spots of small-town America: fast-food restaurants, a movie theater, video arcades, a skating rink, a bowling alley, a parking lot.

Sean* is sitting at Taco Bell with his uncle. He’s soft-spoken, almost inaudible. If the subject is God or church, he really doesn’t have much to say. "I don’t go to church right now. My parents don’t go, so I don’t."

When asked how he would describe God, he says, "I don’t know."

Jared, Rick and Tyler are walking with their skateboards from a grocery store to a connected movie theater. Jared and Tyler say they attend church regularly, but Rick admits he hasn’t been in a while. Why? "I honestly don’t know. I really should go."

His ambivalence is echoed by Michael and Jacqui, who are waiting in a video arcade for a movie to start. They are Hispanic, belong to a mainline church, and friendly. But they really can’t offer much of an explanation about God.

"The kids I know can either take or leave God," Jacqui says. The biggest priority for her and her friends? "Having fun."

Responses are offered politely. Harrison is a polite place where total strangers casually wave when passing each other on narrow county roads.

It’s cold outside the theater entrance, but five friends are wearing the universal sign of masculine endurance — thin T-shirts with no coats. They shiver as they smoke their cigarettes before going in to be seated.

Pat, at 16, looks older. He gives some thought to any question asked. He attends a church, but he says God is a mystery. "There are no words to describe Him," he says. "He’s unknowable."

His friends have little else to offer. As for the most important things in life? Fun … school … girls. Kevin, Pete, Gaylon and Don agree with that list.

When the subject of girls is brought up, the guys concede that maturity and compassion have to be in the mix if a marriage is going to last. Of the five, only one lives in the family into which he was born. Divorce and separation have hit the other four homes.

Harrison Junior High’s parking lot is a few blocks from the town square courthouse, its proximity a little ironic in light of the crowd that gathers there. In the dark, pickup trucks and cars sidle up near each other, the occupants exchanging small talk and, it is rumored, drugs and cash. It’s a rougher crowd, but what they have to say reveals a spiritual hunger beneath their bluster.

Kevin and Sean are best friends. At 19, they’re built like lumberjacks — slabs of smooth muscle as opposed to the rippled physique of a city-dwelling gym jockey.

"Can we use profanity?" Kevin asks with a laugh after colorfully describing his priorities. The article will be edited, he’s told. Basically, his life is focused on "raising Cain." "Got any beer?" he asks as the interview moves on.

They recently spent an evening setting up an informal drag race at the local airport. The police arrived before the runway sprint could be completed.

"I didn’t get a ticket," Sean says. "If I get one more ticket, I’ll lose my license for 5 years."

"Just got my license back after 6 months," Kevin adds.

As the subject shifts to church, the young men offer disdain. But it’s mixed with clearly perceptible hurt.

"I was raised in church all my life," Kevin admits. "Haven’t been since because I’m getting tired of all the hypocrites going around trash-talking you. Me, I’d go to church, and I’ve had people turn around and say, ‘That’s Kevin. You know what he did?’ "

"Church around here is all about who you’re related to and who you know," Sean agrees. "If you don’t know anybody, or aren’t related to anybody, you just as well not be there."

The two’s friendship thrives on beer, wild driving and the excitement of an occasional brush with the law.

At the bowling alley across town, the crash of pins is periodically interrupted by the manager’s voice over the P.A. system. Amid the din, a couple of young bowlers are willing to answer questions between taking their turns at the lane.

Jason says he is a regular church attendee. He describes God as "loving, caring, our all-powerful Creator," and says his goals for a future family include finding a good church for them to attend.

Nate describes God as a big part of his life. "I look to God every day and try to live my life the right way. I do the best I can." But he’s stopped attending church. "I have no reasons not to go," he admits.

The noise at the nearby skating rink is also deafening. Awash in music and light, the crowd circles the perimeter of the wooden floor, some in traditional skates, others on in-line rollers. Here, another set of friends describe their faith.

Cal attends church and has lived in Harrison most of his life. When asked how his generation relates to God, he answers, "I believe they believe in Him but don’t know how to follow Him."

Steve is not currently going to church, but says God is important to him. "Most of the friends I’m with, they’re not into God," he says. "They prefer not to talk about it. I’d talk to them, but they prefer not to listen."

"They prefer not to listen…" Within a 10-mile radius, more than 100 churches proclaim the gospel. Spiritual light and darkness are at war in this quiet town, and the battle wages as fiercely as on any far-flung mission field. Multiplied opportunities to hear the gospel coexist with a generation apathetic to the truth so abundantly available.

Stacy’s life is a final case in point. She grew up in church and in a loving, supportive Christian family. But she strained against the boundaries established for her, became addicted to methamphetamines and robbed a convenience store. Recently receiving a 27-year prison sentence finally awakened Stacy to her spiritual need. She accepted Christ as her Savior and has already led nine other prisoners to the Lord. Having been brought back from the brink, she would tell you her prayer is that her friends can be salvaged before they pay a price as great or greater than her own.

Scott Harrup is general editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

*Names have been changed.

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