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Churches that work hard play hard

Bread oven party at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Courtesy of Betsey Hodson, Director of Communications at Hamline United Methodist Church.
Bread oven party at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Courtesy of Betsey Hodson, Director of Communications at Hamline United Methodist Church.

Except when the topic is related to children’s or youth ministry, the word “fun” may not come up much when planning a church program or activity. But fun and play are not just for the young. Christians who know how to have fun together also do effective ministry together. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first recorded miracle occurred at a wedding party (John 2:1-12).

Churches that know how to have fun together tend to be stronger, healthier and more connected internally and with their community. Barna recently released a study showing churches and faith communities that engage in regular fun activities are more vibrant than those that don’t. Games, parties and informal socializing with one another help communities build trust and grow closer together. That trust and community can translate into more loving and welcoming congregations and more effective ministry programs.

The summer months offer churches many opportunities to organize fun activities that bring their community together. The warmer weather allows them to get outside for events like picnics, park days, carnivals and cookouts. With children out of school, families are more available for evening activities like board game nights, trivia contests, outdoor movie screenings or bonfires.

Not all activities have to be church-wide. Members of small groups that complement their class meetings and Bible studies with fun activities and outings become closer to one another. Trust is critical to the success of small groups. Going out together to eat, see a movie, attend a concert or play games together helps members form closer bonds that will help all grow into better disciples. House parties or backyard cookouts are also great options for small groups or Sunday school classes to get together.

Seeing members having fun together can also make churches more attractive to those outside of them. People are more likely to want to join a congregation that knows how to have a good time and whose members clearly enjoy each other’s company. Hamline United Methodist in St. Paul, Minnesota, has found a creative way to engage its community – using an outdoor bread oven.

“We have had our own bread oven for about five years. We use our oven to do community bread bakes, pizza parties, movie nights and concerts out on the lawn,” said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, lead pastor. “We make it participatory for all ages and groups. We offer baking classes for both kids and adults. The youth use the oven to make granola to raise money for missions.”

The bread oven parties at Hamline attract anywhere from 100-200 people and have given the church a lot of positive attention in the community. Worship attendance and church membership have seen a healthy increase over the past five years.

But the bread oven isn’t just a neighborhood attraction. Baking together has brought members closer and made for a more cohesive congregation.

“Doing something fun together is a way to build trust,” Tollgaard explained. “It’s easy to get to know people when you’re cooking together and then get to share the resulting food with each other. We have so little opportunity for play in our lives today that adding that component to church helps us experience the presence of God in our relationships.” The fun is also contagious. At least nine other churches in surrounding region have started their own bread oven ministries.

Play can also improve and inform a church’s outreach ministries. In Toledo, Ohio Lifeline Church has incorporated art and free expression into all its ministry programs in unique ways. Lifeline began as a non-traditional church plant in 2007 when the Rev. Steve North came to the city and started informal meetings with local poets and artists in his own home.

“It all started with a chili dinner in my house with 16 people. That dinner became a regular event every first Saturday of the month. Everyone is welcome, and we give them the chance to express themselves through an open mic. They can sing, read a poem, share testimony, etc. It’s all about giving everyone a voice. The meal ends with us taking communion together,” North said.

Lifeline doesn’t have a sanctuary or traditional worship space, but works in partnership with various businesses and non-profits in the neighborhood. They rent space at the Friendly Center (a United Methodist Women community center) to teach art classes for local children, host events at coffee shops and do picnics in local parks with food, games and music. Lifeline also purchased a Greyhound bus that serves both as a free medical clinic and as a party bus. Whether they’re feeding the homeless in a park or giving children a safe space to go after school, Lifeline sees no reason not to have fun in the process.

“Everything we do has some component of creativity and imagination,” North said. “Many people are disillusioned with conventional church settings and culture, so we create spaces that feel safer and more comfortable. It’s all about bringing people together in a setting where they can get know one another with dignity and respect.”

When Jesus tries to put into words what heaven will be like to his followers, he doesn’t describe a solemn church service. Instead he compares it to a joyful dinner party or wedding banquet. When Christians play together they’re not just taking a break or blowing off steam. They’re getting a little taste of heaven and experiencing the real joy of being a child of God.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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