Delegates Ruth Seib, Deirdre Kildow and Lisa Bittinger with Pastor Rick Egtvedt
PORTLAND, OR - These were three intense days of presentation, reflection, and discussion among members of our own congregation and with members of other congregations.
Much of the focus was on how our church can be or become visible and active in mission in the community, and perhaps this was especially strong in the redevelopment track in which we were participating. Involvement in our local community is required by the Great Commission (“Go therefore and make disciples”) and the Great Commandment (“Love God and love your neighbor”).
We revisited the “welcoming vs. inviting” church concept, which suggests that “welcoming” is a passive activity but that the emphasis should be on “inviting.” The idea of inviting someone to church can be intimidating, and the author of the essay proposed a five month training program, breaking the invitation into “small bites.” The first month, members are asked to simply use the words, “my church,” in conversation at least once a week. The second month, they are asked to expand to “my church is” and mention something about what their church is or does. The third month challenge is “My church is good at . . .” The fourth month project is to invite someone to a church activity (other than a worship service), and the fifth month project is an invitation to worship.
One of the presenters pointed out that while our mission may be to invite people who are “unchurched,” it’s quite likely that these people who don’t go to church consider themselves quite familiar with church and religion, and have made a conscious decision not to participate. In order for these people to give church and faith another chance, it’s necessary to change their perception of what we do and why we do it, and this is another place where strong and visible community involvement can be helpful.
But anything we do must be in line with our mission as a congregation. Consider asking, “What is my church known for in our community?” If the answer is “A play and a rummage sale” that’s probably not the right track. This means that the first thing we must do is be clear about our congregational mission and committed to it.
Our group from SOTH thought it might be a good time to readdress our stated mission with prayer and discernment. As we work to discern what God is calling us to do in this community, we may want to ask if there are unmet needs where we can make a difference, or whether there are existing efforts that need our support. While SOTH, and particularly members of SOTH working individually, have been quite conscious and active in this kind of community ministry, we may want to consider whether we can make a more concentrated collective commitment, and evaluate any new efforts in light of our stated mission. It may be helpful to meet with community leaders to ask about needs as well, for instance commissioners, educators, Community Action, social service agency, etc. We heard of one congregation that designated a series of Sunday worship services to honor groups of community servants (firefighters, teachers, etc.) – members of these groups were invited to attend the service of thanksgiving and blessing on them in their occupation, and this was also an opportunity for conversation.
We also heard from Rob Nelson, pastor of New Heights Lutheran Church which has been in redevelopment for the past nine years. Growing from two congregations that together had four children in Sunday School, today this is a single congregation with over 100 children attending Wednesday Family Faith Nights. The pastor emphasized that this is not an overnight process, and it requires change and growth which is painful. People are asked to give up things that are important to them, and when that’s the case, it takes a conscious and possibly lengthy effort to help the whole congregation examine and acknowledge and understand the need and the benefit. This generally involves cottage meetings. In the midst of one of these processes, one of the long-time members said to the pastor, “You really love us, don’t you!” When someone at the conference asked this pastor how change originated in his congregation, he acknowledged that often the first impetus came from him, but that the next step was consultation with the leadership team and by the time anything emerged from the team, it was fully embraced and not “the pastor’s idea.” This congregation uses a simplified service format and an annual narrative lectionary rather than the three-year lectionary. The pastor said that many people in the congregation, including some long-time Lutherans, really aren’t so familiar with the narrative story of the Bible.
We brought back many resources, including thought-provoking questionnaires, charts, and checklists for evaluating the spiritual health and discipleship orientation of our congregation. Here’s one example (slightly paraphrased from Neil Harrison).
A healthy congregation is focused on:
. Witnessing to faith (rather than growing the church)
. Forming disciples (rather than running the church)
. Being Spirit-led (rather than people-led)
. Having a mission (rather than participating in mission projects without a mission)
. Creating (rather than fixing)
Lutheran researcher Alan Klass says that regardless of size or location, the churches most likely to grow:
See themselves in mission beyond their current membership
Clergy and lay leadership share that vision
Are flexible in methods of communicating an unchanging message in a changing world
On Sunday, we each attended a church in the Portland area. I attended Mission of the Atonement in Beaverton, OR. This is a congregation that includes Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have been worshiping together for 23 years. This came about as a financially struggling Lutheran congregation entered conversation with a Catholic parish in the adjacent community which was filled to overflowing. Leaders suggested that the Catholic parish might rent space in the Lutheran church for an afternoon worship service. A series of organizational meetings were scheduled, and through illness and coincidence, it happened that no clergy were present at one of the meetings. The lay members decided that they wanted to worship together, rather than simply co-occupy the building, and leaders of both organizations agreed to give it a try (including relatively liberal local Catholic leaders). This has been so successful for two decades that the congregation is expanding its physical building with the help of an ELCA development grant.
The congregation is led by a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic lay leader. The Lutheran pastor preaches most of the sermons, while others are given by the lay leader or priests from the local area. Each week, the congregation splits for communion, with one group or the other leaving the sanctuary and going to a separate area. The liturgy has been slightly rearranged to accommodate this, and a “sending” song is sung as the group departs. In all other respects, this is a single worshiping body. The only time members are asked to identify as “Catholic” or “Lutheran” is at Confirmation (maybe Baptism). There is strong lay leadership and a sense of identity and commitment to the congregation. I spoke with a woman who started attending a few years ago before moving to another community, but who travels a distance to continue worshiping there.
This was a moving experience. While it was painful to see the congregation divide for communion, it was exciting to see how much could be done together.