By Elaine Creasman
“I don’t want to go,” my 11-year-old granddaughter, Destiny, moaned on another Sunday morning as she turned over in bed. She said the same five words on Wednesday evening and then again on Friday evening—which was usually a fun time for middle schoolers. It seemed she had lost all interest in church.
Then we discovered Unclub.
This ministry, founded and led by Gary Hunt, the retired middle school minister from our church who served on staff for 27 years, was just what my granddaughter needed. Instead of me begging her to go to church, she started to beg me, her grandfather, or her mom to drive her to Unclub. The group meets at a 2,700-square-foot rented building in our community.
This grandma is grateful that instead of embracing traditional retirement, Gary Hunt decided to keep on touching lives. Recently I visited Unclub and spoke to Gary about his unrelenting passion for reaching young people for Christ.
Encouraging Kids’ Potential
Unclub (unclubministries.org) is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers. Gary gets a small housing allowance and Tyler, Gary’s 31-year-old son, gets a small salary for taking care of the building, picking up kids who can’t get a ride, and teaching.
On Wednesday evenings a guitarist leads the music and then the young people study a book of the Bible in small groups. Sunday evenings is mealtime at 6:00 p.m. followed by an interactive sermon by Gary.
Friday evenings is fun time from 6:30-9:30 p.m. There’s a short but powerful Bible lesson led by Gary, and the rest of the time is spent playing soccer, basketball, or riding scooters outside or playing video games and lounging on couches socializing with friends inside.
On my visit I encountered lots of laughter, hugging, running around, going from room to room, excited chatter, and just plain having fun among the 30 young people who were there. Some kids stayed on their cell phones for a little while and then joined in the fun. Food was available for purchase at a low cost of 75 cents for a slice of pizza.
One truth that stood out to me that Gary proclaimed to the young people is this: “You have the potential to do great things for Christ.”
A Heart for Middle Schoolers
Not only has Gary led Unclub in the community since 2014, he has also led Unclub meetings at four local middle schools since 1987. These weekly, before-school meetings last a half hour and have an attendance of 125-150 students over the four schools. Donuts are served along with spiritual truth and encouragement.
Gary chose to work with middle schoolers because a youth minister led him to the Lord. He stopped attending church in middle school. “I was bored and there was little there for youth.”
He stayed away for 10 years, returning at age 23 and committing his life to Christ at 25. The youth minster asked Gary if he would help with the middle school group. He’s been working with them ever since, attending Liberty University along the way and graduating in 1976. Gary said, “I love the age group.”
What the Students Say
I asked the kids what they liked about Unclub. Numerous young people (Jayden, Meghan, Grace, Andrianna, Caleb, Clayton, Sean), though not in each others’ presence when I talked to them, gave similar answers: “We can come and hang out with friends.” The word “fun” was also mentioned often.
Having a fun hangout is essential for this age group. Kids have said, “We love this place; we don’t want to go home.”
The kids also appreciate the spiritual aspect of Unclub:
• “I like learning about God. Gary introduced me to him,” said Kayti, 8th grade.
• “Gary’s a really good teacher. He makes it easier for us to understand. He tells stories from his life. Here I’ve got closer to God,” said Sean, 8th grade.
• “I’ve learned a lot about God—that God loves me like I’m his child,” said Clayton, 7th grade.
• “I like Gary. He’s really nice and has a fun way of teaching us. My mom had Gary as her youth group leader,” said Destiny, 7th grade.
• “Gary’s pretty cool. He’s one of the best ministers I’ve seen so far,” said Owen, 7th grade.
• “Gary cares so much about us. He thinks we’re his own. He loves us a lot,” said Madison, 8th grade.
Lots of Drama
Gary describes Unclub as “a comfortable place to be” and “nonthreatening” even though there can be “lots of drama.”
Gary knows how to deal with behavior problems. He’s firm with the young people in regard to language, rudeness, gossip, and how they treat each other. He said, “Remember that people have donated everything you see here. Treat it with respect. And treat each other with respect.”
If girls come dressed immodestly, they’re given a T-shirt to wear over their clothes. Another rule that is enforced is no touching between guys and girls.
One student was warned by a volunteer and asked, “Do you want to go to Gary’s office?”
“No. I’ve been there before,” he said, and skulked away. Apparently this confrontation talk is something to be avoided. If a talk isn’t enough, Gary sometimes has to call a parent or guardian.
Gary said he sees many kids with self-esteem problems. “Ninety percent feel horrible about themselves.” He has as a goal for himself and the volunteers to communicate that “we love them, God loves them, and we’re all different.”
A favorite Bible verse of Gary’s is 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise your youth” (New King James Version). He lets the kids know if they don’t want to be despised for their youth, they need to display certain actions: “Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
Unclub has had two summer camps so far. In 2015 more than 50 students took a bus to a camp, stayed for three nights, and had lots of fun activities and plenty of learning about God. Eight students were baptized.
My granddaughter was one of those who were baptized. I have seen such a change in her. Destiny said, “I learned to be thankful.”
Allison (Destiny’s best friend whom she invited to Unclub and camp) said, “At camp they give you lots of freedom. I liked the man hunt at night—tag in the dark. I liked the wave pool, water slide, and lazy river. They talk a lot about Jesus. I rate it five stars.”
Parents call and tell Gary the same thing that has been true in the case of my granddaughter: “I couldn’t get my kid to go to church, but he loves Unclub.” Part of the ministry’s goal is to connect kids back into the local church as well as being a part of Unclub.
“Christ changes lives, but Unclub is a tool” is Gary’s conclusion.
I wondered aloud how long Gary, now 66, was going to continue to do this. “I don’t get burned out,” he said. “I still have energy.”
I continue to thank God for Unclub, for Gary, and for all who make a difference in the lives of middle schoolers.
Elaine Creasman works as a mental health tech and lives with her husband in Largo, Florida.