Director of Church Strengthening, Converge North Central
Elevate: A Youth Ministry for the City
In the summer of 2017, Epiphany Station in Thief River Falls MN, merged with and was gifted the nearby building of sister Converge church, First Baptist. It was a fitting, full-circle as Epiphany Station was a church plant that came out of First Baptist 11 years earlier.
It didn’t take long for the church to decide what do with the building. The town of 8800 in northwestern Minnesota needed a youth center and as the church was temporarily meeting in a local movie theater while in the process of constructing their own building. It was against this backdrop, the idea of the Elevate Youth Center was born, according to Mary Sieckert, a member of Epiphany and the current Executive Director of Elevate.
However, the idea of a youth space for just the Epiphany church morphed into something bigger. Believing God was calling the church to be “in the city, for the good of the city,” it became obvious that Elevate needed the building to serve as a youth group for the city.
They approached other churches in Thief Rivers Falls about the idea of a citywide youth group and many were receptive and signed on as partners. There are four official partner churches along with Epiphany. Together they promote, provide volunteers, and support Elevate as their youth group. Sieckert adds that many other churches are represented by the students who are a part of Elevate.
Elevate employs two part-time employees, three interns and operates with the help of 48 volunteers from partner churches and the community of Thief River Falls. Though Elevate operates as a separate organization with its own board, the shared DNA with Epiphany is strong.
The mission of Elevate is to provide youth in the greater Thief River Falls area a nurturing environment in which they can embrace their identity and reach their fullest potential. Elevate strives to inspire action and support our community’s young people with purposeful programming and devoted mentors. Their aim is to develop strong children, families and communities across the city through academic readiness, character development, and social enrichment activities.
Elevate seeks to accomplish this mission through two main avenues:
The first is the faith-based atmosphere and activities on Wednesday evenings. This time would be reflective of what would normally be seen in many church youth groups. It includes games, worship, teaching, and small group interactions- and lots of pizza.
During the week, Elevate seeks to reach “every single one” using its space as youth drop-in center. On a given weekday, prior to Covid-19, they would see 50-60 students visit Elevate. In addition to homework space and tutoring being available, it’s a casual and fun space for students to hang out. Adult volunteers build relationships, interact with, encourage, and pour into the lives of the students. Sierkert points to numerous examples of where the weekday drop-in youth center has served as an entry point to the Wednesday evening church youth group experience.
When the pandemic hit, Sierkert and her staff were anticipating a drop in their usual attendance. The school district had been providing transportation after school to Elevate and that was ending as the school shut down. She was preparing for a significant drop in attendance. Sierkert was adamant that the youth center needed to keep learning “through the dip,” pivoting in order to continue to minister effectively. She knew the stakes were high in regard to the students mental, relational, emotional and spiritual needs.
The first week’s attendance was down by 30%. The second week, attendance was back to where it was pre-Covid and has continued to maintain that rate. Sierkert attributes it to three factors. School officials have been tremendously supportive of Elevate and provides great encouragement. Sierket has shared stories from school personnel about students who were struggling in the school setting and are now thriving because of the atmosphere of Elevate. She also points to parents who highly value Elevate and work hard to get their students there. Finally, the culture of Epiphany Station runs deep at the Elevate Youth Center. Epiphany Station, from it’s very earliest days, has been a church willing to risk, experiment, and think outside of the box in an effort to reach people for Christ and be there, in the name of Jesus, for the good of the city.