Imagination Incubator inspires Riverside UMC to do church differently

March 09, 2023
Riverside UMC rents a bus and picks up kids from school on early release days for an afternoon of worship, activities, and dinner with their families.

By: Christa Meland

For years, Riverside UMC in Park Rapids has hosted local kids during two separate 45-minute “release times” from school on Wednesdays. But leaders started to wonder: How can we develop relationships with their families? What more can we do to walk alongside them?

Enter the Imagination Incubator, a 12-week human-centered design process that Rev. Roger Grafenstein and four members of the church participated in during early 2022. The conference contracted with Virginia-based Fresh Expressions to offer this opportunity to a handful of churches after a small staff team participated in 2021.
What resulted is a “Wednesday congregation” that gathers on the five or six early release days taking place throughout the school year. Riverside sends a bus to pick up kids at 1, and their afternoon includes worship, games, and “choice time” when students can opt to help prepare an evening meal, knit, play music, run around in a gym, or engage in other activities. Then between 5 and 6:15, the children’s parents come to eat dinner with them.
“We’re getting beyond the ‘it’s all about Sunday morning’ mindset,” said Grafenstein. “What are new ways we can be the church and engage our community with the love of Christ?”

Grafenstein said the focus so far has been on building trust and caring for families. But he hopes to at some point add “messy church” to the Wednesday evening lineup. “Would they have time for half hour before heading home to be part of hands-on, intergenerational worship and learning time together?” he wonders.

On early release days, some kids help prepare dinner that's served to families after parents arrive at the church after work.
Another element that’s come out of the Imagination Incubator process is a preschool playtime for families in the Park Rapids community. Indoor play space is almost non-existent in the area, and parents were eager for a place for their children to expend energy, especially during the winter months. The play time has been a huge hit—and a local daycare even brings its kids.  
The Imagination Incubator process

Grafenstein said one of the most valuable parts of the Imagination Incubator process was learning how to start with the needs of the people you want to connect with as opposed to pushing the church’s agenda.  
Riverside gathered feedback by contacting the parents whose children come to the church for the weekly release times and inviting them to dinner. At the dinner, church members who had been trained as listeners were assigned to different families and tasked with getting to know them and asking questions to learn how the church could be helpful to them.

A small team then sifted through the feedback and used it to generate dozens of ideas for how the church could serve local families in a deeper way. The process helped the Imagination Incubator participants, and gradually the whole congregation, to shift their mindset away from simply trying to get people in pews on Sunday.

“There was a tendency in the church to want to create—let’s just jump in and come up with something that may or may not fit people’s needs…and this mentality of ‘If we could just get these kids and families into the church on Sunday morning,’” said Grafenstein. “Instead, let’s try and meet them where they’re at.”
Next week, the church will welcome children and families for its third early release day. In the afternoon, students will participate in a stations of the cross-type activity through which they learn about the Easter story and fill their “resurrection eggs” with items that relate to various aspects of it.

The feedback to Riverside’s new initiatives has been extremely positive. The Wednesday dinners currently welcome about 45 children and adults, and Grafenstein hopes to increase the reach to between 60 and 75 during the 2023-2024 school year.

He highly recommends the Imagination Incubator process to other churches.  
“It gives some language about how to do church a bit differently at a time when maybe people are a bit wary of church in general,” he said.

How you can participate
Students engage in activities at Riverside UMC on an early release day from school.

If you’re curious about the Imagination Incubator, you can participate in a two-hour virtual “play date” on March 25. Fresh Expressions consultant Mitch Marcello (who led both of the conference teams that participated in the longer process) will get attendees thinking differently to generate new ideas in their lives and churches, and provide a taste of the multi-week process.

Rev. Susan Nienaber, director of congregational vitality and the staff liaison for the Imagination Incubator sessions, said the play date is a one-time, drop-in, low commitment experience to learn a few creative tools. 

Her hope for participants: “First, I hope that folks have fun! We so need and deserve some joy in these tough times. Secondly, I love it when people feel freed to do ministry in creative ways. The upside of not being able to go back to the way things were in 2019 is that there is more room and openness for the new. Now is the time to take advantage of this moment.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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