Free food, tons of games, raffle prizes, and four messages that worked together to create a theme of being “set free” from sins encapsulates a majority of what happened this past week at The Merge.
The Merge is catered for high schoolers in the Oakdale area to come together and enjoy fellowship in a fun, safe environment. Every night there’s opportunities to hang out, eat food together, play games, listen to a message, worship, win prizes, and more. Though the times were slated to begin each night at 6:30 p.m. and end at 8:30 p.m., the fun often extended well beyond that time.
“It’s nice to know that because of the Merge, you meet people who you can hang out with and talk with and share your faith with and not have to worry about them making fun of you or putting you down,” Riley Miller, a local high schooler shared. “It’s just better fellowship that way.”
“It’s different if you meet someone here rather than anywhere else,” Caleb Cole, a fellow incoming junior, agreed. “The first memory you’ll have of them is ‘Oh, I met them at a Christian event.’ So that kind of puts you on a good step to start your relationship with them.”
While it is a good opportunity for friendship and fellowship, both Cole and Miller agreed that it also had a sense of creating accountability on Oakdale High School’s campus.
The unique event merged church youth groups from all over Oakdale together – most notably, LifePoint, Living Hope, Mountain View, The River, and River Oak Grace. Because it was their third year hosting the summer event, the pastors have come to know each other well and been able to put aside any differences they have to work together.
“I think the ultimate goal is just to get all the churches together under the mutual understanding that we’re all just followers of Christ and allow the students to be able to meet, to interact, and just expand that presence on the campus,” relayed Jeff Sibley of LifePoint.
The River Community Church on East G Street was the venue for the four-day event, and youth pastor Ryan Poling was the coordinator.
One story that the pastors shared about their unique situation was that someone had come by The River Community Church during the event, seeking prayer and care. After finding out that the lead pastor wasn’t around, and the only pastor linked to the church was out on a food run, they were able to pray with the pastors present.
“It was almost mind-boggling for him,” noted Clifton Curry from Mountain View Church, to see all the youth leaders from so many different churches present and working together.
“We’re better together,” affirmed Poling. “We use our gifts and talents for one purpose, and that just is to glorify God. And that’s somewhat of a unique thing; not all cities have that.”
Organizers also wanted to note that the small community of Oakdale helped a bit with this; it may have been more difficult in a larger city to pull off such a community-wide event.
“A one high school town helps,” Josh Benziger of Living Hope confirmed. “Because that’s where we all feel called to, those students. Would it be possible in a bigger town? Yes. Would it be nearly as effective? Probably not.”
The pastors shared that they’re excited for what next year’s Merge has to bring, and will continue working together. They shared that they meet every other week to talk with and pray for one another.
Already showing what they learned from two years, this year they switched the prize system from auction to raffle, to ensure that newcomers earning tickets still had a chance to earn prizes. They also allotted more time for students to hang out with one another over food and games, because fellowship with believers and creating this Christian environment is one of the main goals for the event.
“I think the whole thing just teaches kids ‘kingdoms, not castles’,” Brad Gouwens from River Oak Grace said in closing. “Different organizations, reaching the city. None of us this week could care less about who came from what … we are better together and we’re only going to advance the kingdom of heaven if we can put our differences aside.”
For now, students and pastors alike can look forward to the joint winter retreat they have planned, and get excited once more for year four of the Merge.