By: Christa Meland
Just a few years ago, Detroit Lakes United Methodist Church saw its Sunday School attendance dwindling. Some weeks, there were fewer than 10 kids in attendance.
Around that same time, the church was going through the Minnesota Conference’s Healthy Church Initiative (HCI)—a transformational process designed to help mid-sized congregations grow spiritually, numerically, and in community impact. One of the recommendations members received through that process was to move educational opportunities for adults and children to Wednesday nights.
In September 2013, the church took a leap of faith based on that recommendation and started offering a meal and small group education for all ages every Wednesday night. The initial response was significant—and participation has continued to increase since this September when the congregation added a worship service to the evening activities, referred to as “TGIW” (Thank God It’s Wednesday).
More than 100 people have attended Wednesday worship every week since its launch. More than 90 percent of them are under the age of 45 and most of the families previously came to church rarely or not at all.
“There is no doubt God is working miracles here,” said Rev. Brenda North.
Nicole Ballard is a single mother of three. Last summer, a friend invited her kids to attend Vacation Bible School. The kids loved the program and the people so much that, when Ballard heard about TGIW, she decided to try it as well. TGIW has since become an integral and cherished part of Ballard’s life—and the same is true for her children. Wednesdays are now the day her family looks forward to all week.
“The welcoming atmosphere and small group participation has been a very needed element in my life,” said Ballard, who has invited her own friends to TGIW activities. “I feel so blessed being able to come here and learn with others and really work on growing my faith. Spending time with Jesus, through these activities, really makes my life easier and better—it keeps me on a straight path and helps me look at my life circumstances differently, with a more positive light.”
North said a key part of the process of moving educational activities to Wednesday was listening and responding to the needs of the young families the church wanted to attract. What Detroit Lakes UMC heard from them was that weekends were full of too many activities—and they needed an alternative.
Wednesday worship is deliberately very different from Sunday morning services. It features guitar music and has an increased emphasis on media elements (like videos) and interaction. Messages are geared toward people of all ages and life circumstances.
North said it’s largely the Healthy Church Initiative that convinced church leaders to try something new.
“The same old ways weren’t going to work,” said North. But that’s not to say that change didn’t come with its share of challenges; departing from longtime traditions in order to go in a new direction was not easy. “You have to be willing to take the first step without knowing what’s going to happen next,” she said.
Here are some of the comments that Detroit Lakes UMC received after worship was added to TGIW in September:
“Our family really feels like we belong here. Our boys love coming here . . . This is their church home.”
“This was awesome! I am so excited. This is so good for me and our whole family.”
(This was from a mom who had attended the children’s Christmas program but said not to expect her back because she was “just not a church person.”)
“I can’t thank you enough for this message tonight. My teenage daughter is going through one of these impossible phases, and we had an argument right before church. But during the message, I could visibly see a change in her. After the service, she gave me a hug and said, ‘I am sorry mom.’ This service is going to be so good for our family.”
Members of Detroit Lakes UMC aren’t sure exactly where God will lead them next, but they are excited about the future and all the possibilities it holds.
“I am so grateful for the Healthy Church Initiative,” said North. “I believe it came just in the nick of time, and I can see how it could really be the difference between abundant life versus just keeping afloat for many of our churches in the conference . . . God wants to do new things in our churches.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church