At one United Methodist Church in Kansas, when the worship stops the engagement begins.
Atchison UMC has started a first-Sunday-of-the-month pilot program this summer called Engage. With a different theme every month, those attending go downstairs from the sanctuary after an abbreviated service for an hour of intergenerational learning and activities, as well as food.
August’s theme was “Engage Learning,” where participants could help stuff care packages for the four college students in the congregation or make goodie bags for elementary teachers in the city of 10,000. There was also the conclusion of a weeks-long trivia contest where questions about the Methodist faith and the Great Plains Conference were answered.
The food was school lunch-themed, served on trays, including a slice of baked apple with oatmeal (and a half a gummi worm) on top.
Lay leader Merri Leach said the idea for the Engage program sprung out of memories of elders in the church.
“When we were growing up there was so much of the intergenerational,” she said. “The relationships we have with our former Sunday school teachers, our former vacation Bible school teachers. We want the younger generation to also be able to have that same experience and to learn from the older generations.”
The idea stemmed from a visioning retreat during which Leach told of her interest in Messy Church, a nationwide, interdenominational, intergenerational movement.
“We were struggling with the whole connotation of ‘Messy Church,’” she said. “We have an older congregation that wouldn’t understand. It kind of evolved into the term ‘Engage.’”
Each month has a theme. June’s, at Pentecost, was “Engage with the Spirit,” including edible flames made of oranges and strawberries and burritos, with salsa ranging from “warm” to hot; July, during Independence Day weekend, was “Engage with Liberty,” featuring red, white and blue pancakes.
Activities have included writing prayers on paper airplanes and flying them, with others picking up a plane to continue to pray for the subject involved, and making maracas and other noisemakers. Older church members added their own special touches to the project.
“We try to incorporate all of the generations,” Leach said, “and we know this is a great opportunity for that.”
“And we know the older generation loves the interaction with the youngers,” said Marta Myers, the church pianist and co-coordinator of the Engage sessions.
The Atchison fellowship hall, which sits on the ground floor of the building, is arranged to give participants a choice of an eight-person round table or a six-person rectangular table.
“The families can stay together,” said the Rev. Cyd Stein, the church’s pastor since 2019. “To me that’s the big advantage is that the families are staying together and learning together and praying together and worshipping together and doing activities together.”
Stein has been a supporter of the concept from the beginning.
“They’ve had so much fun,” she said of her church members. “That’s the scripture, right, to have a childlike faith? This models that in so many ways.”
Though the activities are lighthearted, Stein says there’s always an element of learning and serving.
“It’s like vacation Bible school for everybody,” she said. “We all want to play, and faith should be fun, too. It shouldn’t entertain but it should be enjoyable.”
All of the activities, she said, are part of ministry.
“We’re not taking refrigerator art home,” Stein said. “Everything we do has some kind of purpose either in service or in ministry or engaging the community.”
Stein was familiar with the Messy Church movement but could not find a church in the area that participated. Indeed, the Messy Church website lists Wichita Pleasant Valley UMC as its only participating church in Kansas, with none in Nebraska and two in Missouri — one near Kansas City and the other in St. Louis.
She found the United Methodist Church in Maryville, Missouri, where her son goes to college at Northwest Missouri State, was active in Messy Church. Stein received encouragement and pointers on adapting it to her church.
“It was hard to get people back together with small groups” in Maryville following COVID, she said. “And then you’re wondering if they should do it in their house.”
The Atchison church received a grant from the Great Plains Conference for the program, which alleviated the duties of educational personnel, especially in summer months.
“It’s important for our leaders to have a break, too, to get their cup filled,” Stein said.
Organizers hope for Engage to continue, although plans have not yet been made for September. Stein's husband is a ceramicist, and she hopes to incorporate pottery into a future Engage session.
“We’ll do good if we get October pulled off,” Myers said. The first weekend of October is Oktoberfest in Atchison, and “Oktoberfest is known by the church’s German food booth,” including bratwurst and German potato salad.
Myers said all generations are enjoying Engage.
“We still have some of our olders who are definitely young at heart,” she said.
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