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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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A new imagination

Church survival is about going into the world on Monday

We gather on Sunday and go out into the world on Monday. Both worship and action — like diet and exercise — make for a healthy church.

As churches struggle with dwindling membership and finances, congregations are evaluating their community responsibility as a means to both meet people’s needs and invigorate their ministries.

“We either gather on Sunday only or go forth into the world on Monday,” said Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches and a contractor for theFlorida-Bahamas Synod. This difference, he said, can determine whether a church is growing, holding its own or preparing for its own funeral.

Meyer, who has studied church and society, contends that there are two types of churches today:

• Those that focus inward.

• Those that focus outward.

The outwardly focusing churches, he said, exhibit imagination and dreams, developing ministries to meet emerging community needs. The others, he added, are open for Sunday worship only, teach fewer and fewer confirmation students, fellowship among themselves and hold funerals. 

“We need a new imagination for the life of a church,” Meyer said. “Survival is all about a church’s understanding of how God sends us out into the world.”

It only takes a spark ...

St. James Lutheran in Crystal, Minn., is one of the churches to which Meyer refers. With imagination and a desire to take its ministry into the world, the congregation formed a partnership with the local school district. 

With an average worship attendance of 200, the congregation had experienced declining membership for 20 years and wanted to get outside its walls, sort of like a “new Pentecost,” said David Lechelt, pastor. “You get to the point where you want redevelopment.”

So the congregation began working with the Robbinsdale school district to provide weekend snack packs to students who might otherwise go hungry. Along with House of Hope Lutheran Church, New Hope, and First Lutheran Church of Crystal, Brooklyn Park, they pack 2,580 food bags, enough for every other weekend. The churches decided that the packs would be offered to all children, not just those in need, to not differentiate. 

The program, which St. James has been participating in for 18 months, is so rewarding that the three churches formed Bonfire Ministry, reflective of the spirit of a new Pentecost. The ministry has launched other initiatives like a parish nurse program and a flu clinic at the three churches. 

“Bonfire is huge,” Lechelt said. “It’s been a good time for us; a great way to provide many more resources to the community.” 

Bonfire built on an idea from another church. “The people in our church wanted to do a similar thing, but the need in our community was bigger and we wanted to go bigger,” Lechelt said.

The churches solicited the assistance of a food bank and sought out grant money to come up with a program to ensure that every student would receive breakfast foods and snacks over the weekend.

Each packed bag, which costs approximately $2, consists of nutritious and quick foods, including a box of dry cereal, a package of oatmeal, a granola bar, crackers, applesauce and other nonperishable goodies. The program’s annual budget is $50,000, one-third of which comes from churches and the community, and the balance from grants and fundraisers. 

Volunteers meet at the area’s Emergency Food Shelter Network warehouse to assemble the packets (enough for a two weekend supply) one Tuesday a month. The packs are stored at the warehouse until the shelter delivers them to the schools on Fridays. 

“It’s an amazing experience to get together on a packing day,” Lechelt said. “We don’t solicit volunteers, but we always have more than we need and more come all the time. You feel so buoyed by all these people working together, it’s a spiritual high.”

But the feel-good program is about more than just feeding hungry kids, he said. “It’s about God’s hospitality, coming together to work, and about letting kids and families know that people care about them,” he said.

The experience has enlivened the church and is often the source of material for Lechelt’s sermons. “There are stories coming from me all the time,” he said. “It makes the story of the feeding of the 5,000 come alive. It’s a true Pentecost experience.” 

By the grace of God, he said, the program ended its fiscal year in the black, and benevolence has increased.  

“All of us leaders do need to learn to trust,” Lechelt said. “If it is God’s will, and is gathering fire and energy, then it’ll work.” 

Putting arms around veterans

Epiphany Lutheran Church of Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Va., also joined forces with an unexpected community partner. The congregation of about 55 Sunday worshipers looked at its community to see what needs weren’t being met. 

“Epiphany is a congregation that was trying to find ways to live out the gospel,” said Charles Oberkehr, pastor. “No real perfect way to do it, so we just rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”

The church’s close proximity to Fort Belvoir, an Army base near Mount Vernon, made reaching out to the military community a real possibility for new ministry.

“The clear challenge for us was how to minister to the folks in the community, many of whom had issues related to returning from battle,” Oberkehr said. 

Members decided to launch its Life Bridge Services, which Oberkehr describes as bringing veterans into dialogue. Bolstered by a Wheat Ridge Ministries grant, Life Bridge has for the past year fostered conversations between civilians and vets on how war has impacted their lives. 

The ministry is a partnership with Partners in Care, a National Guard program that links faith-based and nonprofit groups with veterans. Partners in Care sought out chaplains and congregations, and Epiphany answered the call. 

“The church knew the vets community existed and wanted to put their arms around it,” Oberkehr said. “We wanted to do something that would be meaningful and successful.”

Members went through training in active listening and being present for people, similar to the Stephen Ministries caregiving program. Chaplains from Fort Belvoir assisted in the training. “It was like learning a new language,” Oberkehr said.


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