Any day of the week, if you step in the new entry of First United Methodist Church in Manhattan, Kansas, don’t be surprised if you find children – lots of
children! It isn’t a rare occasion when you see one of those children staring up at a beautiful old stained glass window called "the Link" that looks “brand new” in the large lobby, as they hold on to a parent or guardian’s hand.
This old stained glass window had spent years in a coal bin from an earlier church that was on the site. Susie Olsen, the Director of the Pre-School, says, “Often the parents don’t notice this beautiful old window when they walk in; the children are the ones staring at it in awe, pointing it out to the adult that is with them.”
In 2006, this child and adult would have been standing in the middle of a dangerous alley way with no stained glass in sight. A sign on the east side of the building, with a big Cross and Flame sporting the invitation “Let the Children Come” would have been visible if they looked hard enough. However, that wasn’t the real sign of pivotal change for First United Methodist Church when considering children’s ministry.
The true sign that children were welcome came when the church leaders were willing to “rethink” invitation to children and families and what it meant in addressing their facility. For years, Manhattan First United Methodist has been known for its Pre-school, Children's Day Out Program (this may be more familiar as Mother’s Day Out or Parent’s Day Out in your church setting), great Sunday School and being a place for kids to grow! Their large campus of four buildings on two blocks adjoins the downtown scene of Manhattan, Kansas. It also has a history of renovation – both preserving the beauty and being accessible for the next generation of worshippers.
So, when the church leadership was looking at campus improvements with the thought of putting in an elevator, the figures came back high enough that it caused the pastor and leaders at the time to ask, “if we are going to spend this much for that improvement, maybe we should look at the whole campus and ask what God is calling us to do?”
It was with that question that a team was put together and found that the most neglected building on the campus, despite the popularity of its use with children’s ministry, was the education building! In addition, this building was located behind the main church building with an alleyway that had steady traffic and was icy if winters were particularly cold. Either way, the space was not safe.
Not without much debate, the task force agreed to search for architects that would re-imagine the space and meet multiple needs. With the right firm, the image began to transform into a place that met the needs of “all God’s children.” Ideas such as rethinking the entry point into the church, rethinking the needs of each classroom footprint, addressing asbestos, putting doors where they were needed, making sense of indoor space connecting to outdoor play space and many others began to emerge and come to light. It was as if light were emerging for the first time from an old window. New life was becoming a possibility for an old building.
Was this an easy process?
No! In fact, many struggles went into the work of creating this new space. Several turnovers of the task-force building team and many dollars raised and weary transitions later, the renovation finally came to fruition; and what a renovation it was! Now the entry of the church is a connection point, where children find a safe, healthy Christian environment to grow in. It is clear that as you walk through the doors of the space that the pain and beauty of this vision was well worth it. This space not only welcomes little children, but every child, no matter what age.
As we observe this large church going through the struggles of raising enthusiasm, expectations and funding for such a large endeavor to make space for children, it may seem discouraging to consider this process for you and your church. This may be especially daunting if you are a member of a church that may be struggling to pay a half time pastor, let alone have ministry for children. This is a current reality.
This discouragement, however, comes with a word of encouragement. As I consider what First United Methodist Church Manhattan has done, I cannot tell you how crucial it is to look not at the enormity of the building project, but the task of the process! You may not be able to engage in a large building project, but the questions of what you are “building” for the future of children in your community is a task we can all pursue.
Despite the struggles, the decisions, the weighing out of what the call of Christ was to continue to reach people in Jesus’ name, this church continued to press forward in order to live up to the sign that hangs on the Education wing: “Let the children come.”
It is clear to me, however, that the greater task was not just about improving a building; it was about making physical space and spiritual space to consider the possibilities of what Christ is calling us to do with our facilities, especially in welcoming children and families.
I invite you, as you read this, to consider asking these questions to the leadership of the church
To learn more about the Children’s Ministry and schedule a possible tour, contact:
Susie Olsen: Director of Weekday Education