It’s 6:25 a.m. on a Friday morning and the sun will not shine through the windows of Mugby Junction coffeehouse on Huff Street for another hour. Brandon Zieske arrived about 20 minutes earlier, pushing together tables and arranging chairs for more than a dozen expected participants in the side room of the empty shop—the only sign of life at this time of the day is marked by a sporadic customer stopping briefly to grab a quick fix before continuing on to other pressing matters.
Stacked in a neat pile next to his seat at the head of the pieced-together rectangular table, laminated cards displaying each week’s topic of discussion and related Bible verses were a creation of Zieske’s—one in which students collect and keep with them for later use. As the tired-eyed Winona State University students began to trickle in, Zieske offered free lattes and smoothies to the group before all 15 participants settled in and bowed their heads in prayer at the start of the gathering.
Every Wednesday during Lent at Central United Methodist Church, Justin Halbersma joined fellow congregants, community members and his own young family at a long banquet table inside Guild Hall. Macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, fresh fruit and homemade dessert bars lined the small kitchen window, decorated by a painted stenciling: “Be Present at our Table, Lord.”
Halbersma stopped to tickle his son, who sat in a high chair at the head of the table, before retrieving seconds on the mac and cheese. Although his table was just a short distance from the kitchen window, Halbersma took the long way back to his seat, kneeling down to a pair of young participants and chatting for roughly 10 minutes, plate still in hand.
Following the friendly meal, older members of the congregation gathered in a small side chapel off of the main sanctuary for a service where participants were encouraged to speak prayer requests, capped with verses of “They’ll Know We are Christians by our Love” and “Give Thanks.”
A brisk walk from the chapel to a second gathering room at Central led Halbersma into a room of a dozen eighth grade confirmation students, laughing, bantering and chattering at a mind-numbing pace. Halbersma popped in a DVD called “re:form,” and the students resolutely watched the short clip on that week’s lesson—the history of the church and its many divisions—as one eighth-grader nibbled on McDonald’s French fries.
Zieske is a college pastor at Pleasant Valley Church and the leader of H20 College Ministry, and Halbersma is an associate pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Winona, Minn. The two men are not the typical gray-haired, robe-donning ministers, but a new generation of faith leaders. Instead of sermons, Zieske and Halbersma transform Bible teachings into action.
“Preachings aren’t outdated; it’s the methods of preaching that are,” Zieske said. “When the gospel meets real needs, real power happens.”
Each of their respective churches has embraced mission-based campaigns and has involved their congregants in reaching out to not only the community, but the world.
At Pleasant Valley, Zieske heads the H20 project, a social change movement among universities and churches who seek to make a difference in the lives of people in Liberia, Africa by providing funds to dig wells for clean water. He also heads an outreach project partnering college students with local children who live at Bellview Apartments in Winona, assisting with tutoring and after-school social activities.
“Faith without deeds is dead,” Zieske said. “The gospel is half proclamation and half action-oriented. It needs to be holistic.”
Halbersma is at the head of Central’s Rebirth campaign to launch in June, and is part of the outreach team at the church that hosts quarterly missions and participatory activities, working with organizations like Operation Classroom Ministries (Liberia), Fresh Start Ministries, Habitat for Humanity, and Winona Volunteer Services.
“For me, you can’t disconnect faith and giving to others,” Halbersma said. “Your faith should compel you to try to help, and offer these opportunities and a framework for that.”
Both men are easy to talk to and simply more relaxed than stereotypical pastors. Halbersma regularly rocks tan and white Converse All-Star sneakers and Zieske includes references to youth-friendly anecdotes and celebrities. Creating a new way for community members to think about church, Halbersma believes the ministry is what needs to shift to continue its mission.
“I think there was a time when the church became very insular and focused on its own membership, but that formation to go out and connect was lost,” Halbersma said. “The younger generation wanted to make a difference and to see and affect change, and it then caused the church to start to think like that as well.”
“We’re walking into an age—seeing government as bankrupt; science is questioned—where the church is fertile ground for hope,” Zieske said. “Times are changing; we need to change.”
Following the weekly leadership study, Zieske happily chatted with students as they rearranged the coffeehouse tables before walking to class. That week’s lesson was how leadership and humility play hand-in-hand, and that the only way to lead is realizing God is the one truly leading.
“You have to put it on—clothe yourself in humility,” Zieske said, participants’ backpacks slung over renewed shoulders, despite the early-morning hour. “Instead of Abercrombie, think Jesus-crombie.”
Although years ago, pastors may have never considered referencing teen pop culture—Halbersma’s Rebecca Black discussion during the confirmation students’ workshop in finding common ground inspired thought-provoking and passionate discourse on the church itself—two local faith leaders see the importance in relating the church’s teachings to its members.
“Church is the hope of the world,” Zieske said. “It is within the church’s ability to fix so many issues and meet so many needs.”