When we don’t limit God: Church’s 150th anniversary focuses on community

January 18, 2018

By: Karla Hovde

The story begins with a “tap on the shoulder from God.” Randy Koppen was just starting as the new pastor at First UMC in Redwood Falls, a church that was just about to celebrate its 150th anniversary. As he was praying, he felt that God was tapping him on the shoulder to invite the church to mark its anniversary year by giving $150,000 to the community.
This seemed like a pretty outrageous idea for a church that has 140 people in attendance on a Sunday morning and 330 members. “This isn't my idea,” Koppen said to the church’s Finance Committee in August 2016. “I believe this is a message from God.” One committee member wryly said, “I'm glad it's not our 500th anniversary!”
The church marked 2017, the anniversary year, with a number of projects and special collections around the number 150. They asked for 150 people to read through the entire Bible in a year, and had 90 people commit to doing so. One month, the congregation started a collection drive for 150 pairs of shoes for a non-profit; they ended up with over 200 pairs. Another month, they decided to put together 150 birthing kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), and actually made about 300 kits. Members were invited to write the number of hours they volunteered each month on a poster in the church, with the goal of recording 150 volunteer hours per month. Some months they recorded from 200 to 500 hours. “This all fed into the feeling that if we put a call out there, amazing things can happen,” said Jim Boots, First UMC’s Administrative Council chair.

One month during the anniversary, the congregation aimed to collect 150 pairs of shoes for a non-profit; they ended up with over 200 pairs.
Through most of 2017, a team deliberated on what to do with this call from God to raise $150,000. They decided on a threefold plan, with the money divided into three categories.
First, they identified three community organizations that had financial need: the local parks and recreation department for upkeep of a nearby park; a food shelf that couldn’t pull together even $500 to pay the fee for a grant they were trying to apply for; and the early childhood education center across the street from the church, to cover families that just moved to the neighborhood and couldn’t pay for the first month of care. Raising money for these three causes became the first $50,000 category.
Members of the church created a sculpture to hang in the sanctuary for the 150th anniversary. Paper doves with every members' name since the beginning of the church were hung from the ceiling to represent the church's cloud of witnesses.

In the meantime, it became clear that the church’s aging audio/visual system needed to be replaced. Raising the funds to do this became the second $50,000 category.

For the third $50,000, the team decided to ask members to anonymously write on a poster the amount of money they donated on their own to nonprofits during 2017.
With this threefold plan in place, to raise $50,000 for the sound system, $50,000 through the church to go to three local organizations, and $50,000 in donations through the members, the team brought the plan to the congregation. Three tall glass cylinders were placed in the church lobby, each to be filled with a different color of sugar, which was gradually added as money came in. “From the first meeting, we got a lot of ‘you’re nuts!’ reactions,” said Boots. “Now we are all just amazed, and we really shouldn’t be, because God is good.”
 By New Year’s Eve in 2017, all three cylinders were overflowing. The money collected totaled $68,600 for the three local organizations, $67,000 for the sound system, and an incredible $83,000 given by members on their own. The $150,000 goal was surpassed by 44 percent. Koppen said during the last Sunday of 2017, when the last of the sugar was poured into and over the tops of the cylinders, people were really shocked at what they had done.
Boots was excited to be one of the people to deliver the checks to the three local organizations. “They were expecting checks of about $1,000,”  he said. “We were able to give each organization $20,000. That was really fun.” The remaining money went to an after-school kids club that First UMC started about a year ago.
Boots thinks that First UMC has learned through this anniversary year that every gift, from $10 to a pair of shoes to $50,000, makes a difference. “When God is in control, and people feel that, we can do a lot of good for our community,” he said. He emphasized that the congregation couldn’t have done this on its own. He hopes to make it clear to the Redwood Falls community that United Methodists didn’t do this work; instead, it is undoubtedly God working though the church. “Of course, we still had to make a plan and publicize the goals each Sunday,” he added.
Looking back at the history of the church when he first started as its pastor, Koppen saw that most of it had to do with constructing church buildings, listing the names of the pastors, and other internal events. “I wanted people to look back on our history and see what we did for the community, not just what we did for ourselves,” he said. From birthing kits, to volunteer hours, to money raised, this year will no doubt be remembered at First UMC for its focus on those outside the congregation.

By New Year’s Eve in 2017, all three cylinders of colored sugar were overflowing. The $150,000 goal was surpassed by 44 percent.
When asked what the take-home message of this story is, Boots said, “I keep coming back to: Don’t limit God,” adding that all churches have their struggles, but we should remember that those are human issues. “That’s not God. We need to put a challenge like this one out there and let people answer with their faith. Let God work through us.”
Koppen added that it’s his hope that as other churches celebrate a special event, they know that it doesn’t take a big church to make a big impact on the community. “I hope that our churches are known as a place where people can come and find a connection to God because of the community outreach the churches do,” he said. “It might take time, but the we have to trust that the Holy Spirit will work through us.”
The 150th anniversary has been a heartwarming experience for First UMC. “I can see where Wesley had his heartwarming experience, and I think we have that here now,” said Boots.­

 Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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