By Lindsay Peyton

Oikon UMC comes from the Greek “oikos,” which means “the family dwelling” or “houses.” The title is ideal for a congregation started with a series of small groups, gathering in house churches. The name reminds us that church is the house of God – and that churches were originally composed of small groups, meeting in homes. The family residing in the home has recently taken center stage at Oikon – as the congregation makes sure that everyone is included, even its youngest members.

Starting as “Oikon Chapelwood,” the congregation began with 10 house churches. Then, with time, Oikon became a separate church.

The congregation has been intentional every step of the way to develop something new for discipleship and faith formation. The founding members made a promise to God and to each other to pray, serve and witness together.

The congregation is now largely made up of young families with children. And Pastor Mike Whang has taken notice. His focus is on ways to ensure that children are equally part of the congregation. “How do we minister to them – and how do we equip parents?” he asked.

Then, Whang learned about the Ministry Specialist Initiative in the Texas Annual Conference. “My ears perked up,” he said.

The new Initiative, which launched in January, pairs clergy and congregational leaders with Ministry Specialists who are prepared to help. There are currently 64 categories of coaches.

Whang noticed that children’s ministry was on the list. “That was our major need,” he said. “It helps to be attached to a denomination, a connectional system of churches.”

He was intrigued by the possibility, as a new church, of learning best practices from others. “They could save us years of trial and error by sharing their experiences,” he said.

Whang read the profiles of several Ministry Specialists – and Cari Beneke, Executive Director at Good Shepherd UMC in Cypress, stood out. “She helped start something from the ground up and learned a lot in the process,” Whang said.

The two had a Zoom call, with Rev. Robert Besser, Associate Director of Church Leadership in the Center for Leadership Formation, serving as moderator. A connection was apparent immediately.

“Right away, I could tell Cari loves the Lord and loves the church,” Whang said. “I loved her spirit, and I could tell she was sincere.”

He was able to communicate what Oikon valued and what type of community they wanted to build. “And she resonated with that,” the pastor recalled.

The two then met in person, as well as two core leaders from Oikon. “We were all in the same room with doughnuts and a white board,” Whang said. “We made up a game plan.”

The idea is not to replicate what Brenek had accomplished at Good Shepherd. Her role is instead to serve as a guide and coach.

“She offered a lot in terms of vision and how to offer support,” Whang said. “It’s like we were getting ready to go on a long hike and climb a steep mountain. And Cari had already traveled down that road. It gave us confidence.”

More than anything, her support and presence were a game changer, Whang said. Especially meaningful to the pastor was that she brought a Bible verse that had helped as a children’s minister, 2 Corinthians 8:4, “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.”

“It was like she said, ‘I’ve been through this spiritual journey and here are the words that God gave me to sustain me. Now I’m offering them to you,’” he said.

Brenek started as children’s minister at Good Shepherd in 2007. “I got to come in and design the ministry myself,” she said. “It was fun, and I had just enough experience at other churches to know what works.”

As a Ministry Specialist, Brenek now can share that story with others, answer questions and offer advice. She said the initiative speaks to the connectional system of Methodism. “It helps us feel like we’re all one team. We’re all in this together,” she said. “It’s like, ‘You need help? I’ve got you.”

After Whang and Brenek started the conversation, the congregation sprung into action. Core leaders began making calls, and 16 members have signed up to serve.

“Everyone is doing their part,” Whang explained. “We’re a small family church. We journey together. Everyone needs to feel a sense of calling from the church.”

Brenek plans to return to Oikon in the future, when the ministry is further along. In the meantime, she emails regularly or calls to check on them and ask how she can pray for the congregation.

Regardless of the church, Brenek said children’s ministry is about equipping parents to be spiritual leaders and starting discipleship at a young age. “It’s critical to help kids learn to love church,” she said.

At Oikon, the entire congregation joins in prayer for the children each Sunday, and youth are part of worship. “We imagine a church where the kids know the names of all the adults, and the adults know the name of all the kids,” Whang said.

He explained that statistics show that college students who remain close to their church families at home had meaningful relationships with adults in those congregations. And that requires multi-generational worship and programming.

“When we silo everything, children get dropped off, then adults go to worship,” Whang said.  Teens head to youth groups, he added. Then, in university, students attend college ministry.

“That’s an entire generation of kids growing up who don’t have meaningful relationships with anyone who isn’t in their same life stage,” he said. “The witness of a multi-generational community is absent.”

Keeping each age in a separate group reinforces homogeneity in the church, Whang said. Finding a way to bring the congregation together is a challenge, but one worth facing, he added.

“How do we create a culture where these kids are known? It’s not formulaic,” Whang said. “It has to be intentional.”