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Often, the Internet postings on Nick Baertsch's Christian social networking page are basic greetings. "Hey, how are you? Missed you at youth group last night." Things like that. Or a photo-included note like this one: "ok, cya later =]"

Through YouthGlue, Baertsch, about to turn 16 and enter his junior year of high school, can check in on friends from church and Christian teens from other churches across the country and abroad.

His dad and his youth pastor - who coincidentally are one and the same, Walt Baertsch - can rest pretty easy about the videos that stream, the language used, the photos selected and the people allowed to post on his son's site.

The material is monitored by youth pastors such as Pastor Walt, and the company that runs YouthGlue considers filth-free teen interaction as its mission. And if the youth pastors don't catch it, the youths themselves might and hold the user accountable.

Within YouthGlue, the porn and predators of the Internet have been a non-issue. The site focuses on topics like school letting out, upcoming mission trips and discussion over last-night's sleep-over. Getting a driver's license. Getting a car. Most of the posts have nothing to do with spirituality, unless you count the concept that most people

on YouthGlue have lives rooted in Christ.

"A blog is what you're thinking and what you want others to know about," said the younger Baertsch.

He was the first YouthGlue user at East White Oak Bible Church. He was a tester recruited by Pastor Walt, who took the company LOL Interactive up on a free trial offer to see if East White Oak young people would respond.

Nick said he got hooked right away, during the winter 2005-2006 test period. Walt says 80 of 200 in his junior high and senior high groups now use the network to some degree, as do he and assistant youth pastor Kendall Coffman.

Another church youth and YouthGlue member, Laura Shay, said, "You build relationships looking at sites and fun pictures."

Fellow YouthGlue and youth group member Elly Vance added, "You can let your emotions out."

Dani Baertsch, Nick's sister, called it "my way to talk to my friends."

At age 13, Dani has never known a day when there was no Internet. Also at her age, the distance to a friend's house - five miles - requires a ride. Phone, church events, school, get-togethers with friends and YouthGlue bridge that distance.

For the youth pastor, East White Oak's location and demographics is a driving reason in interest in YouthGlue. Located in the countryside between Carlock and Normal, the church tries to bond rural and urban Christians. Further, the church has a somewhat regional draw, an area 30 miles in radius represented by more than 20 junior high schools and high schools.

"Basically," said the youth pastor, "it's staying connected. It's not a witnessing tool."

YouthGlue gives users an easy how-to setup that enables design opportunities without vast computer knowledge. This also allows major redesign in minimal time.

Jessie Marrochello takes advantage. She estimated she redesigns her page about once a week.

Her latest creation involved green with white polka dots. She designs by mood. This time, she said, "I just wanted something girly."

Jenny Marrochello, her twin sister, created a collage of square photos of treats - a woman blowing a bubble gum bubble, a picture of cupcakes and the like - as a backdrop to her own pictures and written posts.

Pastor Walt encourages the young people to express themselves freely - within the accepted boundaries.

Some of the East White Oak youth use MySpace, headquartered at http://myspace.com, where the boundaries barely exist.

MySpace has become a premier social networking spot among the swath of Internet users, including those in high school and younger. Christians are heavily connected there. Top Christian musical artists have MySpace sites with song samples.

But MySpace is part of the unregulated Internet. In some MySpace pages, the language, photos and themes are profane and sexual, and while he can't stop that, Pastor Walt prefers his junior high and high school students not browse it.

"The ads are raunchy, let alone the posts," he said. "You can't avoid the raunchy stuff."

He monitors all 80 YouthGlue users from East White Oak. (He doesn't read their private e-mail.) If he sees something he objects to from a youth at his church, he will ask for its removal. The pastor has options, the first of which is to get voluntary compliance for removal of the objectionable written posting, picture, song or video. Another is to block a user's access to other users. The ultimate is to, as he puts it, "nuke it" - knock the East White Oak user's site completely off the network.

Thus far, though, Baertsch has made only one request for removal. A student posted a photo from the Internet in which beer bottles were in the background. The student agreed to yank the photo.

The network gets busier when something big happens - like a church trip. It produces fresh photos and stories to relive.

There are lulls, too, and Jenny tried to pick up the enthusiasm during one in May. In big pink lettering, she posted:

"No Body gives each other messages anymore you guys!

C'mon we need to encourage our fellow Christians - SO KEEP THE MESSAGES GOING!"

There's another rule for YouthGlue, incidentally. People don't fret about spelling, punctuation and rules for capitalization. That's still reserved for school.


LOL no laughing matter among Christian youth

By Steve Arney | sarney@pantagraph.com

LOL Interactive president Jeremy Hazzard said he started YouthGlue in May 2003 specifically as a tool for Christian youth groups - as a way to give teenagers a safe, Christian social network on the Internet.

He wanted a place where creativity is encouraged and smut is nonexistent.

Four years into the project, Hazzard views YouthGlue as ministry more than business. Age 26, Hazzard sells medical equipment as his full-time job and lives in Wichita, Kan.

The social network costs a church $25 a month and Hazzard said he'd waive the fee for a church that truly cannot afford it.

YouthGlue is limiting in that the only way for a teenager to use it is to go through his or her church. But that oversight is by design.

The pastor, usually a youth pastor, is responsible for monitoring content of the church members' sites. In that way, an individual church can draw content-based lines based on what that church's leadership feels is appropriate. The system also keeps the price lower by not requiring YouthGlue to hire monitors, Hazzard noted.

Any YouthGlue user can report questionable content directly to YouthGlue, but YouthGlue will initially turn to the pastor to solve a problem. If an item clearly seems objectionable and the pastor doesn't correct it, YouthGlue will intervene, Hazzard said.

This remains a hypothetical. YouthGlue has received three complaints in four years. Two it dismissed because material was unquestionably appropriate, Hazzard said. The third involved writing "hell" in a non-biblical context. The pastor had the student remove the post.

Parents also have a role. They decide how their children's content can be viewed.

At one level, only the youth pastor can see a teen's page. At the next, only the church youth group members can access the site. The third level allows anyone with Internet access to view a student's site but only allows people with YouthGlue's church-issued sign-on to contact the teen.

Walt Baertsch, associate pastor for youth at East White Oak Christian Church, encourages parents and students to discuss the options and jointly decide on the access level, but he said that parents have the final say.

YouthGlue has more than 15,000 users in 61 nations and 5.5 million page hits per month.

It provides a deluxe version of its material for $35 a month, and it includes organizing tools for youth pastors. However, LOL is launching BlockHead Ministry Management Software to provide that same organizing service for free. It may in the future charge for the service.

YouthGlue also offers a basic group Web site for $9 a month, but that doesn't provide the interactive social networking.

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