Kansas congregation responds to hunger for conversations about God, authentic relationships

Youth expand the congregation’s outreach by inviting their friends to dinner before Wednesday evening services.

By Cindy Snider

Drummer Lisa Yoder and the praise team lead congregational singing at the beginning of a Wednesday evening worship service at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan. (Photo by Vada Snider)

HARPER, Kan. (Mennonite Church USA)—On the edge of rural Harper, Kan., less than a mile from the middle of town, 50 to 60 youth meet each week in what has become a thriving center of community outreach. The popular gathering place, Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church, is a “live” spot with plenty of good food and spirited music.

But it’s more than the contemporary praise music that captures the youths’ energy. And it’s more than the heaping plates of homemade food with seconds that fulfills their hunger. Deeper things of heart and soul keep them coming back to PVMC, where 30 to 40 adults welcome them every Wednesday night without reservation.

Pastor Alan Stucky shares what he believes is happening: “While it’s not universal, there is a clear hunger out there in the world to learn about God and the Bible and to find out how they apply to their everyday lives. Here we actually learn something about the Bible and deal with things that matter. We come here to learn what it means to know Jesus and to follow Jesus.”

Stucky came to the 110-member church three years ago with a youth ministry degree, a cultural understanding of youth, and a big picture view of ministry.

Each week a member of the Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church picks up community youth in the church van. The junior high youth arrive at the evening’s activities full of enthusiasm. (Photo by Vada Snider)

“Alan has done a good job of leading us through the challenges of our outreach to youth,” says Brenda Shue, one of the Wednesday night adult volunteers. “Most of the youth are unchurched. Being here on Wednesday night is church for them. It’s been very good for us to have all these youth because it has stretched us as a congregation, but stretching can be painful.”

Stucky says the makeup of the congregation has changed over the years. And that’s also been part of the stretching process. The church was founded in 1888 by a group of 11 people in the “Old Mennonite” vein. Like many Mennonite congregations, the church was dominated by family groups. But that’s no longer so.

“Now, only about half of our members grew up Mennonite,” says Stucky. “We’ve had to rearticulate what it means to be Mennonite in our community. We’ve had to expand our vision.

“Past pastors started pushing to connect more with the community,” Stucky says, “and we’ve had outreach to the youth for a long time. We are plugged into the cutting edge of youth ministry. Growing pains make new trails, and there is no rule book for this. We just continually ask, ‘Where is God leading us?’”

Junior high youth participate with voice and motion during praise singing at the beginning of worship on a Wednesday evening at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan. Youth pictured, left to right, are Dauson Pulliam, Lacy Hartson, and Haley Ord. (Photo by Vada Snider)

Five years ago, the number of youth participating in Wednesday night services was about a sixth its current size. High schoolers were having trouble getting to church after their sports practices, so they asked the congregation to provide supper on Wednesday nights. The junior highers smelled a good thing and asked if they could eat supper, too.

Ryan Masenthin and Brice Patterson were in the seventh and eight grades back then, and they invited everyone at school to come to supper at PVMC.

“We made a big deal out of it,” says Masenthin, now a high school senior. “We kept inviting people every week. We didn’t let up.”

Youth who had never associated with each other at school became friends at church. New connections were made. Relationships grew.

Following supper and worship during a Wednesday night gathering in April, some senior high youth are sitting in a wide circle of comfortable couches and overstuffed chairs. They talk a lot about connections. They talk about how important relationships are, and that they like that they can come and be open to God with each other.

Karissa Miller leads the senior high youth group in a time of reflection and sharing at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church. Youth pictured, left to right, are Ernie Mills, Ryan Masenthin, Brandace Albright. (Photo by Vada Snider)

“You can know these people and talk to them, and there’s no judgment,” agree the teens.

The youth say they appreciate that the adults of this congregation not only relate to them on Wednesday nights, but throughout the week. “I like that it’s not just a relationship at church,” says Austin Tompkinson, who recently chose to be baptized at PVMC.

Fostering real and genuine relationships between adults and kids will continue to be key to the congregation’s outreach, says Pastor Stucky.

“My goal is to help youth take one more step forward on their journey toward God. For some, that will mean getting baptized. For others, learning how to find a verse in the Bible. And for others, simply knowing that God loves them and that other people do, too.”

“The Holy Spirit has definitely been leading us through all of this,” he says. “When we’ve been pushed to another door, people have said, ‘We don’t know where this is going, but if the Spirit is leading, we’re going to follow.’”

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Before Wednesday evening meals at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan., the entire community joins together in a circle and Pastor Alan Stucky leads prayer. (Photo by Vada Snider)

Images available:

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0747.jpg
Drummer Lisa Yoder and the praise team lead congregational singing at the beginning of a Wednesday evening worship service at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan. (Photo by Vada Snider)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0477.jpg
Each week a member of the Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church picks up community youth in the church van. The junior high youth arrive at the evening’s activities full of enthusiasm. (Photo by Vada Snider)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0238.jpg
Junior high youth participate with voice and motion during praise singing at the beginning of worship on a Wednesday evening at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan. Youth pictured, left to right, are Dauson Pulliam, Lacy Hartson, and Haley Ord. (Photo by Vada Snider)

Adult church members host at each of the dinner tables. (Photo by Vada Snider)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0338.jpg
Karissa Miller leads the senior high youth group in a time of reflection and sharing at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church. Youth pictured, left to right, are Ernie Mills, Ryan Masenthin, Brandace Albright. (Photo by Vada Snider)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0496.jpg
Before Wednesday evening meals at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan., the entire community joins together in a circle and Pastor Alan Stucky leads prayer. (Photo by Vada Snider)

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/pleasantvalley_harper_0632.jpg
Adult church members host at each of the dinner tables. (Photo by Vada Snider)