The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


First Lutheran seeks what should be first

Since the closing of the town's largest employer, members have learned to focus on discipleship and mission

Some congregations choose simplicity; other congregations have no choice. And still others embrace what's necessary so it becomes a blessing. First Lutheran Church in Newton, Iowa, fits the latter description.

Faced with the closing of the town's major employer and the eventual loss of more than 3,000 jobs, First's leaders knew they would have to pare the congregation's expectations and lifestyle. They would have to find a way of "being church" that could be supported by a drastically reduced membership and a severely diminished budget.

It was clear that the consumerist-corporate model of congregational life wasn't sustainable anymore.

Members of First Lutheran Church in
Members of First Lutheran Church in Newton, Iowa, attend a Tuesday evening worship service in a local park. Since the closing of the town's largest employer and resulting downturn of the congregation, members of First have learned to focus on "first things" — discipleship and mission.
Rather than seeing this reality only as an overwhelming problem — staff reductions, program cuts, fear and anger, loss of large numbers of families — leaders saw another possibility: First could eventually prosper as a "simple congregation."

Over several years and after facing all the predictable stages of grief that beset people and congregations, the leaders came to a breakthrough insight. As Howard D. Vrankin, pastor, recalls the moment: "We realized that we are a family, and we want to go somewhere with our family."

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