The schedule for the third-annual Small Wonders Conference listed an 8 a.m. Saturday worship on Oct. 8, but there was no sermon, no offering and only the slightest strains of an acoustic guitar.
Instead, the Student Center at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina had various stations set up, where participants could create with paints or Play-Doh, write notes of forgiveness or sit in silent, reflective prayer.
Teresa Stewart, a Kansas City-based expert on small congregations, said her church has a quarterly “Art Sunday,” and “millennials go right for the Play-Doh.”
Reaching millennials was the focus of this year’s Small Wonders, where about 90 pastors and lay members learned about reaching those born between 1981 and 2001.
“What they want is real,” said the Rev. Nicole Conard, coordinator of young adult leadership for the Great Plains Conference. “They want to talk about real stuff.”
Citing the book “Generational IQ” by Hayden Shaw, Conard said that millennials want meaning, authentic relationships and teamwork in their lives and in their spiritual choices. But, more than in previous generations, they are looking less to religion and see church as irrelevant to their lives.
“Millennials want to be preached with and not to,” Stewart said in her introduction to the gathering.
The Rev. Micki McCorkle, small-membership church coordinator for the conference, said that congregations of 100 people or fewer in average worship attendance best offer millennials the intimacy, authenticity, flexibility and empowering nature that they are seeking.
The conference’s clergy recruitment and development coordinator, the Rev. Ashlee Alley, said in the closing worship service that the best way to engage young adults was to show authentic hospitality; provide small group and/or mission opportunities; grow, identify, explore and use the gifts of the members; let young adults lead; and strengthen the church’s children’s ministry.
She quoted the theme song from the TV series “Cheers,” which includes the lyrics “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Musical entertainment for the Oct. 7-8 conference came from the Peterson Farm Brothers, three siblings from nearby Assaria, Kansas, whose farming-themed parodies of pop songs have become viral sensations on YouTube since 2012.
The brothers, two Kansas State University graduates and a current K-State student, have released 10 parodies – the first eight shot just from iPhones – and gave a sneak preview of their first original song, “Farming and Football,” which went public the next day.
They also discussed their Christian faith, and how that surfaces in their songs.
“We realize we were given a platform and wanted to use it the best we could,” said middle brother Nathan Peterson, 23.
Workshops about various topics in reaching young adults were conducted by Rev. Guy Chmieleski, campus pastor and dean of campus ministries at Friends University, Wichita; Dave Brant, lay leadership development coordinator for the Great Plains Conference; the Rev. Kalaba Chali, Mercy & Justice coordinator for the conference; Gregory Reffner, a Southwestern College senior and worship team member; Alley and Conard.
Those attending the conference said they felt energized by the presentations and the keynote addresses.
“It was exciting,” said the Rev. Emily Meckley, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Belleville, Kansas. “It didn’t have any for-sure answers, because there aren’t any, but it gives us great confidence in the Holy Spirit being with us moving forward.”
Condensing the advice, Meckley said, “Search them out, invite them and be hospitable.”
The Rev. Kim Shank, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Lyons, Kansas, said her takeaway was to “be creative and thinking outside what your normal is.”
“I feel very encouraged, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Shank, herself a millennial.
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