By: Christa Meland
Some years back, Lydia Zion UMC put an addition on its building. The addition was meant to be a tool that allowed the church to minister to people within and outside of its walls in new and different ways. In the past few years, with the support of the evangelism and outreach ministry team, the congregation has done just that.
The small church in the 50-person Lydia community started a weekly bilingual (English and Spanish) worship service in May 2018 that typically welcomes 20 to 30 people not previously connected to a faith community. And for the past year and a half, it’s offered Wednesday night programming that includes dinner, faith formation, and worship. On an average week, 40 to 50 attend—many of whom weren’t previously connected to a church. In the past few months, the congregation has had three new professions of faith.
“Many lives are being transformed,” said Rev. Larry Kasten. He points to a merger with a United Methodist Church in Jordan several years ago as the event that spurred revitalization within his congregation and encouraged its people to try new things. Each congregation was truly concerned about the other, and out of that, members of the merged church were determined to be better together than either could have been alone.
“God began to work in many hearts in ways that we had not seen or felt before,” Kasten said. That includes his own.
The bilingual service emerged in a rather remarkable way: Since the 1980s, Kasten has been a substitute school bus driver, which has proven an excellent way to meet new people and keep his pulse on the community. Last fall, he met another bus driver named Milton Jones. Right around that same time, Kasten was nearing the end of leading a year-long “Experiencing God” study for his congregation—and he felt God saying “I’ve got something for you to do.” Kasten began praying about what it was, and eventually God told him to go talk to Jones and invite him to preach at Lydia Zion UMC.
When Kasten went to see Jones, Jones said, “I know exactly what you’re going to ask—God told me you were coming to ask me to come to Lydia and do a bilingual service.” Come to find out, Jones is a pastor through Church of the Nazarene, and he was eager to work with Kasten on the bilingual service.
A demographic study done in conjunction with Lydia Zion UMC’s merger revealed that Lydia and surrounding communities have a high proportion of Spanish speakers, so Kasten and Jones started going door to door, introducing themselves and gauging interest in a Spanish-speaking service. What they learned was that most families were mixed language—while the primary language for some in the household was English, for others it was Spanish. A bilingual service, they discovered, would allow all family members to fully participate in worship.
The bilingual service is on Sunday afternoons; 65 people came to the first one, and one-third to one-half of that number continue to show up on a weekly basis. Kasten and Jones typically lead worship together. Jones does the sermon, and Kasten does the prayers. Sometimes an interpreter translates, other times Jones does it.
The church recently hired Jones as a quarter-time pastor, and he plans to transfer his credentials and become a licensed local pastor in The United Methodist Church. In addition to his involvement with the bilingual service, he’s also been leading worship services in a local mobile home park in hopes that it will provide a more welcoming atmosphere for the unchurched.
The success of the bilingual service and Wednesday evening programming has spurred lots of other new ideas: The congregation has expanded its Vacation Bible School to offer special versions during Advent and Lent. Members started a new outreach called “Shepherd’s Freezer” that provides meals to the elderly, working moms, and others who have a hard time cooking. And this summer, Kasten and Jones are looking at offering worship services around campfires and in other places outside of the church in an effort to reach new people who might be uncomfortable with a traditional church setting.
“It has created a whole lot more hours of things to do, but I was going to retire last February and God said ‘nope, you’re not going anywhere,’” said Kasten, who is planning to retire in summer 2019. “It just energized me.”
Kasten is confident that God will continue to lead his congregation to exciting places even after he’s no longer its leader, and he hopes that his congregation might serve as a reminder to other small congregations that God has plans for them too.
“Everybody has the ability to be reached,” he said. “I hope we’re an encouragement to other congregations to see where God’s leading.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church