Miracles happen on Wednesday afternoons at Bethany Church of Muskegon, Michigan. All a visitor might see is a room full of children, faces of every color, voices raised in laughter and song. But God is there with them—of that the people of Bethany are sure.
Every Wednesday these children gather at Bethany Church to sing and praise God—thirty-five of them, grades three through six. Fifteen of the children are church members, familiar with the hymns and teachings of the church. The other twenty are children from the community—many of them from poor families, some of them victims of abuse or witnesses to the daily problems caused by a parent's addiction, many of them strangers to God and the Bible.
But when the children join in the songs that they learn together week after week as part of Bethany's youth choir program, they are one. And the warmth of that community has brought God's love into many young lives.
More Than a Choir
How does a youth choir double as an outreach program?
First of all, by not limiting its focus to music. The children do sing together each Wednesday afternoon, but they also talk and learn. They discover new things about worship and Christian living.
Some of the children who join the program don't even know how to pray when they first come to the church. Some of them know almost nothing about Jesus and what it means to be a child of God. And many of them have never been to a worship service. But through singing, devotions, and prayer on Wednesday afternoons, many of these boys and girls are learning that it's fun being a child of God. Through their participation in Sunday services, they are learning about worship too. Children and their families are being transformed through contact with Christ and the members of Bethany Church.
A New Kind of Outreach
Evangelism is not something new at Bethany. For years the congregation has tried in a variety of ways to reach out to the people of Muskegon's inner city.
For example, the church has a summer VBS program that provides activities for the children and gives their single parents respite from their children for a day. This VBS-Respite program has become a feeder for the youth choir, making recruitment quite simple—children from the summer program are simply invited to attend. And before long, they invite their friends. Almost every week there's a new face in the youth choir room—partly because the children enjoy the program so much and partly because children are wonderful evangelists who easily share their excitement and joy with their friends.
When children join the choir, they are each given a cross—a symbol that helps them feel a part of die group and the larger church community. They wear this cross every time they rehearse or participate in the worship service (available for $6.95 from the Choirsters Guild, 2834 West Kingsley Road, Garland, TX 75041-2498; 214-271-1521). But the cross remains at the church until they have completed their sixth-grade year, serving as an incentive for long-term commitment to the group.
Involving the Congregation
Members of the Bethany congregation are very supportive of the choir and interested in the growth and development of these young children. They love to hear the children from such a variety of races and backgrounds sing for worship services. And they are eager to help.
Four to five adult volunteers assist during rehearsals each week and serve as drivers for children who need rides. And many other members offer financial assistance. Last year the congregation donated enough money to send choir members to the Choristers Guild Seminar for a week in the summer.
This seminar, held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for one week in July, was a wonderful experience for all the children who participated—a chance to grow spiritually as well as musically. The children from Bethany were touched in many different ways through this week of training in worship and music.
Involvement in Worship
One of the major activities of the youth choir year is the annual May musical. Prepared for an evening worship service, the musical usually focuses on a particular biblical passage or story. (For example, Adams Apple, The Troubbabk with Zerubbabd, Paul & Company, and Oh, Jonah—all available from the Choristers Guild.)
Taking part in this musical has been a wonderful learning experience for children with very little background Bible knowledge. 'Acting out" and singing the Bible stories is an outstanding way for children to learn more about this wonderful God they have been singing for and to throughout the year.
Families of the singers are also drawn into the church community through the event. Many of them attend the service and are extremely proud of what their child has accomplished. The celebration continues with a supper for the congregation and visitors where families share together in the joy of their children. All in all, excitement over the musical is a great motivational tool that keeps the singers inspired throughout the entire nine months of the choir season.
Like any ministry, the Bethany youth choir experiences setbacks, disappointments, and dropouts. Some children attend once and never return. Some families give no encouragement to their child, making it difficult for him or her to attend on a regular basis.
The Bethany staff works hard at understanding each child's situation and accepting each child in love whenever he or she attends. They and other members of the congregation are frequently amazed at how clearly they can see God working in the lives of children who are so in need of his presence in their lives.
Every week the people of Bethany see miracles through this program—new reasons to praise God for loving all the children of the city!