Planting New Churches

by Kim Plummer Krull

When asked for a few examples of recently planted LCMS congregations, Rev. Yohannes Mengsteab, LCMS World Mission national director for new mission development, mentions the following:

    • an Arkansas congregation reaching out to people struggling with addictions;
    • a Florida multicultural congregation of African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics, among others;
    • members of an Arizona congregation who worship in a school gym and hosted Vacation Bible School in the homes (and garages) of neighbors.

If these congregations don’t sound like “typical” LCMS congregations, Mengsteab agrees. “It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people,” he says.

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Rev. Johannes Mengsteab, LCMS World Mission national director for new mission development, left, visits with Rev. Jeff Mueller, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Honolulu, Hawaii.  Since 2003, Good Shepherd has started five congregations that remain active and growing.
Photo courtesy Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Honolulu

As part of Ablaze!, LCMS World Mission provides leadership and assistance to help healthy congregations reproduce. One Ablaze! goal is to plant 2,000 new congregations in the United States by 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Today, nearly 200 “covenant” congregations have each pledged to plant up to four daughter congregations by 2017. That’s about a third of the 600 congregations Mengsteab eventually hopes will commit to church planting.

In the Synod’s early days, a growing congregation worked not only to reach new members but also to plant new churches. More than 150 years later, Mengsteab says, studies show that starting new congregations remains the most effective tool for reaching the unchurched, in the LCMS and other denominations.

“Sixty to seventy percent of a new congregation’s members [in denominations across the board] had no previous church connection,” Mengsteab says.

As a seminary student, Rev. Marty Strohschein thought starting a new church sounded “romantic.” Now as pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Buckeye, Ariz.—the young congregation that worships in a gym (see the story that follows)— Strohschein says he’s “more realistic.” He calls starting a new church “a roller coaster ride, with very intense highs and lows.

“It’s hard work, but incredibly rewarding when you reach new families,” he says.

To learn more about how your congregation can get involved in church planting, visit www.lcms.org/?8053 or call Mengsteab at 800-248-1930, ext. 1336.

For more about three diverse church plants, read on.

‘Come with Your Baggage,’ says Hot Springs, Arkansas, Church

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Rev. Greg Bearss
Photo courtesy Jennifer Cockrell/Admired Images

When Bonnie Johnston went searching for a church where her teenage daughter would feel at ease, she returned to the congregation of her childhood. “But I didn’t even feel comfortable,” says the 49-year-old single mom and recovering methamphetamine addict. “They didn’t know where I had been, and they didn’t care.”

Then Johnston happened on an old building in the heart of Hot Springs, Ark., that she assumed was being remodeled for a business. She visited the Web site, hoping to find a job. Instead, Johnston discovered information about a young church whose core values on outreach and families sounded appealing.

After taking the church for “a test drive” on a weekly local cable television show, Johnston and her jeans-clad daughter visited LakePointe Lutheran Church. “That was last November, and we haven’t missed a Sunday since,” Johnston says. “And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken groups of teenage girls and some boys who have never been to church before.”

Today, Johnston, a LakePointe member, coordinates the church’s new ministry for adults struggling with addictions and other crises. Daughter Cheyenne, 14, is one of 46 people who received the gift of eternal life at LakePointe’s third annual “Baptism Bash,” a lakeside service that drew more than 500 July 5. Later that evening, the congregation hosted a community celebration with free barbecue, Christian bands, and fireworks for more than 1,000.

Seeing a Need

Another Hot Springs congregation, First Lutheran Church, planted LakePointe when members “saw a need they couldn’t meet,” explains Rev. Greg Bearss, whose first call was to serve as LakePointe’s first pastor. Ten families, including some from First Lutheran, helped start the church in 2005. Today, LakePointe worships as many as 600 on Sunday.

Intentionally reaching out to the community and, specifically, “outsiders who do not understand who God is and the love He has for them through Jesus Christ” is LakePointe’s focus, says the energetic “Pastor Greg.”

He shares what he calls LakePointe’s mantra: “If you have struggles, bring them here. We don’t care if you have drug problems or addictions, if you’re gay or lesbian. Come with your baggage, and let us share our message of love and hope.”

Even as LakePointe grows in Hot Springs, the congregation is preparing to plant another church in the nearby college town of Arkadelphia.

At LakePointe’s July celebration, Bonnie Johnston served people “who probably hadn’t eaten in a day or so. We fed them both ways, including with the Word of God,” she says.

To learn more, visit www.lakepointefamily.com.

In Buckeye, Arizona, Blending Traditional with Contemporary

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Rev. Marty Strohschein
Photo courtesy
Lionel Martinez

A new congregation, says Rev. Marty Strohschein, means new opportunities to reach new people.

One example: Living Water Lutheran Church has no building of its own and worships in a school gym. Nevertheless, the young Buckeye, Ariz., congregation hosted Vacation Bible School this summer, inviting children for fun, games, and the Gospel at the homes of two Living Water next-door neighbors.

“We built on already established relationships [in the neighborhood] and took VBS to the families instead of asking them to come to us,” explains Strohschein, whose wife, Amanda, and neighbors Deb and Kelly Brown set up activity stations in their living rooms, kitchens, and garages. (The latter proved a most appropriate setting, thanks to this year’s VBS theme, “Gadget’s Garage,” from Concordia Publishing House.)

Twenty-two youngsters took part, including seven children who had no church connection; two have since asked to be baptized.

A Growing Mission Field

Trinity Lutheran Church, Litchfield Park, planted Living Water in 2007, 22 miles to the west in Buckeye. At the time, the Phoenix bedroom community was booming, a trend that has since stalled with the economic downturn.

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Photo courtesy
Lionel Martinez

Still, the congregation has doubled, drawing a mix of young families, retirees, and adults nearing retirement. About 20 percent of the membership is previously unchurched.

“The mission field here is big and will only get bigger as the economy recovers,” notes Lionel Martinez, a former Trinity member who helped start Living Water and now serves as congregation president.

Two Living Water strengths, he says, are the congregation’s warm embrace and the pastor’s outgoing personality. “Whether you grew up as a Lutheran or are attending a church for the first time as an adult, as I did, we are a welcome place to be,” says Martinez, 45. “We make sure that people who come through our doors know we care about them.”

The congregation offers a worship style unique in its community—a blend of the liturgy and classic hymns with contemporary songs. An electronic keyboardist leads the music, accompanied by a bassist, rhythm guitarists, and drummer.

Living Water has been an LCMS chartered congregation only since June. Each Sunday, members set up chairs in a rented facility. The congregation depends on financial assistance from sister LCMS congregations and the Synod.

Yet, the pastor and congregation president already see Living Water as a covenant congregation down the road. “We look forward to the near future when we will also be in a position to bless new and existing churches that can use some help,” Martinez says. “Just as the Lord uses people to bless people, He also uses churches to bless other churches.”

To learn more, visit Living Water at www.livingwateraz.org.

Sanford, Florida, Congregation Reflects ‘a Little Bit of Heaven’

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Rev. Chris Bodley, right, helped start Living Water Community Lutheran Church in Sanford, Fla.
Photo courtesy
Living Water Community Church

One seed that led to the planting of a multiethnic congregation in central Florida began to grow in a faraway field better known for battles than missions.

“Being in the military, it was very diverse. I had the opportunity to share my faith and disciple many different people,” says Rev. Chris Bodley, a former U.S. Navy Reserve chaplain endorsed by the LCMS whose service included a nearly six-month stint with the U.S. Marines in Iraq.

When he returned to the United States, Bodley saw God opening a door “to go in a direction that would reach out to the nations”—specifically, to people of different ethnic backgrounds.

At a church-planting conference in 2006, Bodley, who is black and was serving an African American congregation, met Rev. Jim Timmons, who is white and was preparing to leave a predominantly Caucasian congregation and start a new church. The pair discovered their shared vision for launching a multicultural church and joined forces. Three years later, Living Water Community Lutheran Church in Sanford draws African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics, plus people from the Caribbean and Europe.

“You can see a little bit of heaven,” says Rev. Yohannes Mengsteab, LCMS World Mission national director for new mission development. “Heaven is all of us included—black, white, and more. If we can have that reflected on this side of heaven, how beautiful it is.”

About 70 members worship at Living Water. Congregants favor a contemporary “praise” style, using a PowerPoint presentation instead of hymnals. “To maintain our mission focus, we state every Sunday: ‘We are a kingdom people, with a kingdom purpose, prepared for a kingdom assignment,’” says “Pastor Chris.”

Outreach is as varied as the membership. A rock-climbing outing targets young men. Last summer’s sports camp provided evening activities for children and dinner for the whole family. English as a Second Language classes are in the works to serve a diverse group of immigrants and refugees.

On a sticky July Saturday, members distributed cold bottles of water, wrapped with Bible verses. They prayed with passers-by who wanted to share concerns.

Facing Challenges

Like all new congregations, Living Water faces hurdles. In March, economic challenges forced members to move from a roomy warehouse into a smaller strip-mall location. In April, Timmons left to begin an outreach ministry in the city.

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Outreach at Living Water is as varied as the mosaic membership.  One popular event was a summer sports camp for Sanford youth.


Photo courtesy
Living Water Community Church

Still, Petra Konig rarely misses Sunday worship. Some of her children and grandchildren, who are multiethnic, join her. Konig grew up in a “traditional Lutheran church” in Germany and attended “a traditional Lutheran church” when she moved to Florida.

Now she enjoys worshiping with people from a variety of cultures at Living Water. “As Christians, we have an obligation to reach out to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds,” she says. “When we can come together, worship Christ together, and reach out to our community together, I think that, yes, it must be like heaven.”

To learn more, visit www.lwcc1.org.

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