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Cannons and Candy Draw Families to Church Outreach

First Assembly of God in Great Bend, Kansas, has an unusual way to draw families to its annual Easter outreach -- a pair of candy-shooting air cannons!

Easter egg hunts. It's like the saying goes, "If you've seen one, you've seen them all."

Then again, for those who haven't been to the First Assembly of God (Dwight Dozier, lead pastor) Easter candy hunt in Great Bend, Kansas, they may have a new experience in store.

Dale MacKinney, the children's pastor at First AG, and his wife, Sarah, have taken the family fun of an Easter egg hunt to a whole new level -- that includes a little bit of church, a whole lot of candy, and not one, but two cannons!

MacKinney, who has been the children's pastor for the past eight years, explains that they started out doing the community event about seven years ago at the high school football field, scattering 35,000 eggs for kids, 6th grade and under, to gather.

But inspired by a comment from a church member who thought a candy catapult would be a cool addition, another church member, Aaron Apley, offered the idea of building a candy cannon. MacKinney took him up on the suggestion and Apley came through with a 9-foot long, 6-inch diameter air cannon, welded to a pair of iron wagon wheels, giving it an authentic cannon appearance.

"We tested the cannon by shooting cantaloupe," MacKinney says. "At full pressure, it can shoot a cantaloupe about a quarter mile!"

A few years ago, Pastor Dozier decided to move the Easter event to behind the church. Now 100,000 pieces of candy are shot a few thousand pieces at a time (at a lower velocity/pressure than the cantaloupe!) across an open field for five different age groups of children to collect. The cannon has been so successful, this year Apley built a second cannon for the event.

"We used to spend a lot of additional time and money buying and stuffing plastic eggs with candy," MacKinney says, "but now we stuff a foam ball into the cannon and pour about 2,500 pieces of [individually wrapped] candy in at a time -- it's so much easier and cheaper."

The fun and unique event annually draws roughly between 7 to 10 percent of the 18,000-member community -- and an even greater percent of parents with young children.

"The motto of our church is 'Great Bend First Assembly -- a great place to raise a family,'" MacKinney says. "And the church really does promote and prioritize ministry to families and kids and teenagers -- it really is a great place to be and a great body to be a part of."

But it's not just all about candy and cannons. MacKinney uses the event to introduce people to the church.

"For those guests who want to register for prizes that are given away in addition to the candy, the registration path takes people through the church facilities," MacKinney says. "They walk through the church, through the gym, by the new youth room, back through the gym to the main sanctuary where Sarah, my wife, leads kids in games, some dynamic songs, and prize giveaways.

"We have a kids worship team, the Jam Squad," explains Sarah, "and we perform a bunch of different songs, do games with the kids, give away prizes, and keep them entertained for the hour before the candy giveaway begins. We sing songs by Toby Mac, Mercy Me -- everything we do is Christian, sharing the gospel, without being too 'in your face.'"

Sarah says that the kids, nearly without exception, participate -- doing the actions of the songs, jumping around, and singing along, "They just have a great time," she says.

This year, the church gave away about 45 different smaller prizes during the event, and then something unexpected occurred. Each year, the church gives away a "main prize," which happened to be a Nintendo 2DS gaming system.  A young boy, who is well known in the community for his heroic battle with cancer, ended up having his name randomly selected to win the main prize.

"Everyone knew who he was," Sarah says, "and when he won, everyone cheered!"

"That was pretty cool," agrees Dale.

Dale MacKinney says that the Easter event and other outreaches the church is involved in throughout the year may not result in "instantaneous" growth for First Assembly, which averages about 400 to 450 a week, but he believes that outreaches help break the ice for the future.

Sarah can attest to the impact. "For weeks after the event at church, kids and families will stop me in a store and say, 'Hey, I recognize you! You were at the 'thing' at the church.'  And we have had some families start coming to church simply because they liked what we did."

"People who don't know God," Dale reflects, "won't come looking for Him until times get tough, but when times do get tough, we want to have a connection that person can fall back on. Maybe it's a small connection like a church Easter egg hunt or someone who helped them out during a Serve the City Saturday, but it's something for the Holy Spirit to work with."


Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.