Making lemonade

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Community youth group fosters sweet rewards

by Myra Holmes

Life in a small, rural community comes with its share of ministry “lemons,” circumstances that challenge congregations to make the best of adversity. Crossroads Bible Fellowship, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Balko, Okla., cooperates with two other area churches to make lemonade out of one particular lemon: meeting the needs of teens when population numbers are shrinking.

“It’s hard to gain a certain momentum if you’re limited in the number of youth,” says James Epp, pastor of Crossroads. The Crossroads congregation includes half a dozen high schoolers; the local high school only has about 45. Since youth in the Oklahoma Panhandle are scattered across a wide geographic area, it adds up to a challenge. 

Teens need a time and place to be with Christian peers, says Crossroads youth worker Craig Frantz. “They need to develop relationships that bring about accountability. If they can build relationships in the church setting, then they can be stronger in the world setting,” he says. 

Frantz is familiar with the unique demographics and challenges of the Panhandle, having grown up in Balko. When he and his wife, Jana, moved back in the mid-90s, they compared notes with others who had a passion for youth and discovered two other Balko churches with the same challenges. So they formed a community youth group that eventually came to be known as Students With A Testimony (S.W.A.T.). 

“It was a neat thing right off the bat,” Frantz says. 

S.W.A.T.’s Wednesday evening gatherings begin with a meal provided by volunteers from the three congregations, then move into games, worship and a time of teaching and prayer. Volunteers and pastors from the three churches take turns teaching.

Volunteers from all three congregations organize, plan and connect with the students who come. Crossroad volunteers also include Jason and Amanda Frantz and Seth Mills, Crossroads’ new part-time youth intern under a grant from the Southern District’s Church Extension and Evangelism Commission. 

S.W.A.T.’s cooperative lemonade is not without its challenges. The three congregations, while all solidly Christian, come from differing theological streams: Mennonite Brethren, Southern Baptist and Apostolic Faith. Frantz and Mills agree that S.W.A.T.’s success depends on the volunteers being like-minded, and so volunteers carefully focus on what they have in common. 

“It’s based on following Christ,” Mills explains. “When you break it down like that, denominational issues aren’t a problem, because we’re talking about salvation.”

On the other hand, Epp says, “It’s not a bad thing for churches to be in a situation where they depend on each other and where they must communicate for things to go well. It brings Christians together. I think God is pleased.” 

Perhaps the biggest advantage to the cooperative effort is that it reaches youth who are not connected with the churches. Of the 30 to 35 young people who attend S.W.A.T., roughly two dozen are not affiliated with any church. That, says Epp, is a ready-made mission field.

Part of Mills’ assignment is to develop Crossroads’ Sunday ministry to youth. The hope is that an additional opportunity to gather will better meet the needs of the youth who are already connected with Crossroads and will provide a bridge for S.W.A.T. youth and their families to connect with the church. 

Epp says that, even after a dozen or so years, S.W.A.T. is a work in progress. “But if a small church wants to be effective, they need to stop looking for comfort and look for ways to be stretched. That’s where we experience the most fruit.”

From time to time, they do see changed lives. Frantz tells about one young man not affiliated with any church who recently gave his life to Christ at a special event. S.W.A.T. gave him a setting in which to share his new commitment with his peers, and now volunteers will have a chance to disciple him every week. Now that’s powerful lemonade.

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