Pastor Bruce Miller and leaders at two South Dakota congregations have used AWANA as an educational initiative to spark growth and discipleship exceeding their expectations. The AWANA ministry is entirely in keeping with the American Baptist Churches USA Commitment to Discipleship, one of seven denominational priorities currently being carried forth.
AWANA is a ministry based in the U.S. in Streamwood, Ill. Founded in 1950, its mission is to equip local volunteers in churches around the world with Biblical evangelism and discipleship solutions so that today’s children may become tomorrow’s Christian leaders in every aspect of society and culture. It aims to “reach kids, equip leaders and change the world for God.”
Miller explains that in September 2009 at First Baptist Church in Winner, SD, parishioner Alice Minchow, had a passion to start an AWANA ministry for “Cubbies” (ages 3 and 4). In September of that year the ministry began with four teachers with the intention they would switch off on Wednesday nights. Minchow was joined by Jessie Elsasser, Linda Schroeder and Donna Brozik. The ministry started with only one child and one teen attending church.
“The intention was to have something for this one child in the form of Christian education,” Miller explains. Seven other children joined in.
In 2010 Rev. Bruce and his spouse, Lori, came to Winner and started working with AWANA, adding the group “Sparks” (grades K-2) and “Truth and Training” (grades 3-6). “We had 18 children in attendance by then. The game floor was 12×18, and there was not enough room for the children to assemble for book time,” Miller explains. In 2011 AWANA began with 30 children, and “space problems were definitely an issue.”
Miller explains that in December, 2011, the congregation received an anonymous gift of $100,000, having in mind to build a new church. “The building we had was very inefficient,” Miller, a retired contractor, explains. “The walls were made of concrete block and did not have any insulation in them. The windows were also in very poor condition.”
“We formed a building committee and started meeting for the sole purpose to consider what our greatest needs were,” Miller says. “We decided no matter what that we needed to start by making the current church a better space for AWANA to meet,” Miller says. “We had a 100 percent approval vote to take the pews out of the church, add carpet and purchase a larger AWANA game floor mat.”
Miller explains how gratified he was in his early life as a pastor in Winner that the congregation was so unified and open to such a move. “Winner is far off the beaten path,” Miller says. “Many people won’t move there because it is so far from a big town. The annual income for many is below the poverty line. The church has about 50 percent working in some sort of agriculture and another 25 percent retired and on a fixed income.” He says much of the church’s progress resulted from prayers for wisdom, discernment and unity. “We needed God’s wisdom, and we really wanted unity within the body of Christ,” Miller says. Unity resulted.
In 2012, one year before the new church was scheduled to be completed, 50 children were attending AWANA to start the year. “All of our leaders were looking at each other with fear!” Miller says. “It looked like our new building would not be big enough, and we were not even in it yet!” The congregation decided to add additional classroom space in the new structure’s lower level.
“We needed more meeting space, so we added still another 3,000 square feet of finished space in the lower level, including two more bathrooms,” Miller says.
“In 2013 we started AWANA with 68 children in the new building and quickly moved up to 78,” he continues. “In 2015 we added TREK (junior high AWANA) so that by the time the original eight children graduated from the ministry we would have the next level in place and functioning.” Now, “Journey” (high school AWANA) is in place at First Baptist. “We needed 30 leaders for an AWANA ministry of that size,” Miller says. “Whenever we needed more leaders, someone would call and ask if they could help. It was amazing to see God’s provision along the way!”
About a year ago, Miller moved to Wessington Springs, SD, to Immanuel Baptist Church, where AWANA ministry had begun 26 years before.
“They had about 30 children in the ministry but no ‘Cubbies’,” Miller says. “We’re going to be adding Cubbies to the ministry and adding one more room in the lower level of the church to make room for one more class.”
“Bruce and the leaders there did a fantastic job of ministry and growing the church in Winner,” says Rev. Randy Rasmussen, regional executive for American Baptist Church of the Dakotas. “The AWANA Ministry there is still going strong.”
Who knows what may be possible in Wessington Springs?