Pastor Aaron Wardle from Wangaratta Baptist Church recounts the wonderful experiences that his church has had this year providing free community Fun Days over the summer and during Easter, and the follow on effects. What a wonderful expression of love shown to the community – Well done Wangaratta!
Towards the end of 2022 our church sought ways to bring hope to our community in a practical way. Our vision is to bring glory to God and Hope of the Gospel to the North East. Putting legs on our vision, seeing it work out in practical ways, led to the birth of our Free Summer Fun Days.
We know that during Summer in Wangaratta there isn’t a lot going on for kids, teens and families, especially things that are free. So we wanted to provide a solution to that problem and bring some hope in a practical way. The idea was to run 3 Free Summer Fun Days on the first 3 Wednesdays in January – each with a different attraction or activity in a public space, open to everyone completely free of charge.
Everywhere I went, speaking to businesses and locals about the fun days, there was fantastic support. Our local Newspaper ran articles promoting it, Coles donated over 1,000 sausages and the bread to each Fun Day and Woolworths kicked in some funds too. Our church people were so generous in their support as well. Finances flowed quickly, even from young teenagers in our church, one donating $100, and others in our church supporting with finances and as volunteers as well.
On Day 1 we offered mobile laser tag (an activity not offered anywhere in the region), a toy making workshop run by a church member and a free sausage sizzle. To say the Laser Tag was a hit is probably an understatement as 500 kids participated through the day, and hundreds of kids made their own wooden toys. For Day 2 we booked out the local Council operated public pool and the inflatable zone with free entry for the whole community, plus a free sausage sizzle. God blessed us with a scorching hot day, resulting in over 1,000 people attending. On Day 3 we hosted 2 giant inflatable water slides, a jumping castle, and once again offered the free sausage sizzle. With a warm 28 degrees and a bit of humidity we had around 500-700 people rolling through the day with long lines for the water slides. Through the three events we gave away nearly 3000 sausages and 800 bottles of water.
God blessed us with funds, resources, and connections to run these events. Our local council provided some funding for our event through a community pitch process, where we were awarded $750. In addition, some of the other community organisations that also pitched for funding were so excited by our pitch that they offered to participate in our Summer Days events for free. A Dance School came along to the first event, put on a pop-up dance workshop, and gave us $1,000 towards the events. The local concert band was also supportive, playing at the first one, and members from the band also played in a jazz band at the second one, and a French band at the third.
The attendance and response from the community was amazing! But it was the conversations that we had with people at the events that was the best thing for me. Everyone was so thankful for what we had done for the community, some even commenting that “for a little church like ours to put on something so big like this was amazing”. One lady said to me that she thought it would take a lot to restore her faith in the institutional church, but we had done it with these fun days. I could go on and on recounting conversations with people in our community about life and faith. Those are conversations we would never have had if we hadn’t taken this step to reach out and bless our community generously, bringing hope in a practical way.
On the back of the success of the Summer Fun Days our community was asking for more things like that, and so we held another free fun day on Easter Saturday. This one was the most highly attended of all, with well over 1000 people coming along. We provided jumping castles, face painting, easter craft, free hot cross buns, a sausage sizzle (we ran out, having already given away over 1,000 sausage and so had to go and buy some more!), and an Easter egg hunt with 1200 big eggs. Once again it was a great success, and everyone that came was so thankful that it was free – it was a privilege to bless our community with this generosity and bring hope in a practical way.
Over the last 18 months we have seen our numbers increasing at church and in March this year we began a Youth Group – something our church hasn’t had for many years – with 30 high school aged regularly coming along. We have also seen people who were irregular attenders, come back more regularly to church. We think it’s a combination of clear vision and motivation. Our people have caught the vision and are running with it – bringing the hope of the Gospel in practical ways – through contact with our community, connecting with people on a deeper level, and having the relationship to communicate the Gospel. We have also benefited from the increased visibility of the church and a level of trust having been built with the community based on both us wanting to bless people and bring hope, and the conversations we’ve been able to have with people in our community whom we might otherwise never have had contact. We’ve taken the church to the people in unexpected ways, and it has been great to see the community responding so positively to a church generously blessing the community, not asking for money, but giving to our community. Some people from the fun days have come to church, but the most important thing we have done has been sowing the seeds of generosity and hope into our community.
Giving our people an opportunity to serve our community outside our four walls has been a great encouragement to them as well, and I think is one of the reasons we continue to grow, alongside a friendly and welcoming congregation, solid biblical teaching, and a culture of generous hospitality. We have recently submitted plans to council for a new 250 seat purpose-built auditorium, and the current building will be repurposed into a Youth, Children and Community Centre which we will offer to the community to use for free. We already have several community groups using our facilities, but this will expand the opportunities.
We are excited for the future and what God is doing in Wangaratta.