These days, kids are jumping into the baptistry of what once was Yankton Baptist Church in Yankton, South Dakota. They’re climbing the walls of the building constructed by Southern Baptists in 1966.
Yankton Baptist reopened last fall as the town’s first-ever indoor playground.
“When their pastor retired, they were ready to close their doors and join us,” Jeff Mueller told The Baptist Paper. He is pastor of Restore Church in Yankton, a North American Mission Board church plant in 2015.
“They gave us all their assets,” he recounted.
“It occurred to me: We live in South Dakota. It gets really cold here; the average temperature is below zero from November until April. I looked at the baptistry and said, ‘That would be a really great foam pit.’”
About 120 people — including a dozen or so from Yankton Baptist — comprise the steadily-growing Restore Yankton congregation, which allocates 12% of its offerings to missions.
In addition to the indoor playground in the building now called Kids Campus, Restore Yankton has started a “virtual assistant” ministry for pastors, a year-long residency program for those in the early stages of a call to ministry, as well as a second church plant in nearby Crofton, Nebraska. There also are outreach efforts such as a monthly community potluck and movie nights for the town that no longer has a theater. The lower level of Kids Campus has become a pregnancy care center.
“I can trace this really exciting season at Restore to one day,” Mueller said. “We had started weekly prayer ministry, and I started a ritual first thing every day: in my office on my knees before the Lord, begging Him to bless this ministry.
“There was a long time I didn’t pray like that, but I read somewhere that the pastor needs to be well acquainted with the smell of the carpet in his office,” Mueller recalled. “I pray for each person, asking God to intercede beyond my inadequacies. If we really want to reach people we need to get the church on their knees, to ask the One who can truly reach them.”
When Restore Yankton, meeting now in its fifth location, determined Yankton Baptist’s facility would be inadequate for the church plant, they made a commitment to continue using the building for ministry. The parsonage was sold, providing renovation funds.
Today there are “monkey bars” youngsters can climb to jump into the foam blocks, a climbing wall, slides and other kid-centric items such as a craft area, reading nook, toddler’s area and even a parents’ lounge “for community building.” The former worship center is used at no charge by appointment two or more times a week and on occasion open to the entire community for special events.
For Valentine’s Day, Restore Yankton provided gift cards to area restaurants for parents’ date night, with child care at the Kids Campus. Similar events are being planned for later in the year.
But last spring Mueller realized he needed help, though the church didn’t have funds to add full-time or even part-time staff. But there were a couple women in the congregation who had computer skills and were willing to work a few hours a week.
Mueller had the idea of a virtual assistant, whose task is “to learn how to do everything a pastor needs them to do so the pastor can focus on pastoring,” Mueller said. “We have a phone app, and she does my schedule too. There also are bulletins, social media strategy, website design, managing emails, whatever’s needed.”
So far, six churches have signed contracts with Restore Yankton for a virtual assistant to work at least three hours a month. Mueller’s assistant works 10 hours a week.
Last September Restore Yankton added two staff members: Pastor’s wife Brittany Mueller is children’s ministry director, leading programming, Kids Church during the adult worship service and the indoor playground, which she designed with her expertise as an occupational therapist.
The other part-time position is a pastoral ministries resident, spending a year learning all aspects of ministry so he can clearly see God’s specific call on his life to some type of ministry.
“God is telling me to trust Him,” Mueller said. “We are being so aggressive with some of our goals that we cannot do what we’re doing in our own power. We don’t have the energy, resources, time or money to do all these things unless God intervenes.
“We want to live in faith,” he continued. “We overextended ourselves this year. We’re trusting the Lord to fill in the gaps.”
Mueller noted one gap in Crofton, Nebraska, some 20 farmland miles southwest of Yankton, a town of about 700 that had a withering church.
“I led them through the closure,” said Mueller, who asked Community Bible Church to close for three months before being replanted in their existing building. “I wanted them to experience Restore Yankton sending them.”
During a “sending service,” members were commissioned as church planters.
“It was really exciting,” Mueller said. “I couldn’t dream of doing it any other way.”
Up to 30 people attend Restore Crofton, anticipated to be one of several Restore churches in small towns across a multi-state region.
‘Watching it grow’
“It’s a blast being part of the process of planting five or six years later … watching it grow and develop,” Mueller said. “I’m really excited to revisit some of the lessons I learned in Yankton.
“My plan for the first year is to establish stability. With a replant, and without stability, it’s really easy for old ways to come back,” he acknowledged. “With God’s help, His leadership and direction, we’re trying to not let that happen. We’re establishing a new identity.”