Ablaze! Snapshots

by Sandy Wood with introduction by Rev. Jotham Johann

Creativity, community outreach, working with young people: These are the responses of numerous LCMS congregations to the economic downturn we’ve all experienced recently. Instead of looking at their current situations in life as “a glass half-empty,” many congregations have used the recession as a hidden blessing, allowing them to rally their “troops” to reach out with the Gospel to the communities around them.

These congregations are boldly and winsomely sharing the Gospel with some of the most unreached and strategic mission fields in the United States: the Hispanic population and young people in their 20s and 30s.

They are not using budget cuts, unemployment, or lack of grants as an excuse for not sharing the Gospel. Rather, they are using the gifts and resources of volunteers, innovative programs, engaging community-outreach events, and deployment of lay leaders to bring the Good News to disadvantaged, lonely, and hurting people.

The following is a snapshot of these Gospel outreach activities through the lens of four specific congregations in mission.

> Rev. Jotham Johann

Fourth Friday: Focusing on Families

Church: St.Paul’s Lutheran
Location: Cheney, Kan.
Pastor: Rev. Ken Kaufmann
Membership: 470

On the fourth Friday of every month from February through October, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church invites the community of Cheney to a night of dinner and entertainment.

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Children wait in line for a turn to hit the piñata.
Photo courtesy Carl Koster Jr.

In April it was Fiesta night, with tacos, piñatas for the kids, and the movie “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”

Last summer, there was a movie under the stars and swimming. This year’s events include Big Truck Night this month, Zero Gravity in September, and Fallabration in October. (Last month’s event was Christmas in July.)

The cost: $1 per person; $3 per family.

“Last year was the debut of Fourth Friday in our community,” says Emily Kerschen. “It has been exciting to see the Lord work through Fourth Friday and allow it to begin to blossom.”

Kerschen is a member of the young adults Bible-study group that developed the Fourth Friday program and coordinates the event each month.

The Bible-study group wanted to offer families an opportunity for a night together that was inexpensive and fun in a Christian setting, Kerschen says. “Our main mission was to show others the love of Christ through our event.”

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Waiting for tortillas!
Photo courtesy Carl Koster Jr.

This year, the group has included more emphasis on prayer. Between the meal and the evening’s entertainment, there is a special devotion or personal testimony along with prayer.

And then those attending have the opportunity to fill out prayer-request cards.

“Prayer teams of St. Paul’s members will focus on praying specifically for the individual families attending Fourth Friday,” Kerschen says. “Our prayer is that members from these prayer teams will have the opportunity to contact families once they have attended Fourth Friday and serve as the bridge between the event and further spiritual growth.”

Fourth Fridays also have given Rev. Ken Kaufmann, the church’s pastor, a chance to connect more closely with some families in one of the church’s other ministries—its latchkey program, called REAL (reaching, educating, and loving) Kids.

“Many of those families are members of the community but not of the congregation,” he says. “I’m not often with them that much, but members of those families have been coming, and I’m getting to know them, and they’re getting to know other members.”

Kerschen says that Fourth Fridays keep a continued focus on simply living the Gospel—loving our neighbors. “Giving without the expectation of getting anything in return opens the door to share and show how Jesus loves us.”

A Light on a Hill

Church: Good Shepherd Lutheran
Location: Florence, Ky.
Pastor: Rev. Rich Tursic
Membership: 410

On a hill in northern Kentucky, members of a dynamic congregation rally their brainpower to find more ways to share their faith in Christ with more people in more places in their community.

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Pastor Rich Tursic visits at Colonial Heights & Gardens Retirement Community in Florence, where he leads services about four times a year.
Photo courtesy Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is just one example of how LCMS congregations across the country are focusing on reaching into their communities to share Christ’s love and the good news of the Gospel.

“We are sited on a hill and hope to be a light to our community that all can see,” says Rev. Rich Tursic, the church’s pastor. He refers to Matt. 5:14 and 16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. . . . In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (ESV).

Members of the community may see the light shine on that hill, but they see it blaze brightest as it flows through their streets and into their homes and businesses
and hearts.

Women in alcohol rehabilitation at a residential facility nearby see it. Church members spent time with them and touched their lives.

The directors of a network of home-schooled students see that light. About 80 students use the church facility every week.

Residents of a local retirement village see it, as Tursic conducts worship services and members lead sing-a-longs there.

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Kirk Porter, Tina Tolson, and Mary Givhan, who are members of the Human Care Committee at Good Shepherd, clean up the yard of a citizen in her 80s.
Photo courtesy Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

And Dean Daniels, a church elder about to begin a term as chairman of the congregation, saw that light when he walked into the church less than two years ago.

“I had just moved to the area and had three churches on my list to check out,” he said. “When I walked in . . . I thought I might have already found a match.”

Tursic says the church’s human-care outreach is dynamic because of the commitment of the people involved, and that at least every quarter they engage in a new way to reach out with Christ’s love.

“My people are nuts . . . in a biblical sense,” he says, quoting the apostle Paul: “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God . . . For Christ’s love compels us . . . He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him” (2 Cor. 5:13–15 NIV).

Encouraging Fellowship: It’s All Free

Church: Trinity Lutheran
Location: Baton Rouge, La.
Pastor: Rev. Benjamin Bahr
Membership: 1200

Bruce Ray’s daughter, Stephanie, wanted to see more people in her 20-something age group involved with church, and more importantly, with Jesus.

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Coffeeshop crew Karla Burkee and Bruce Ray chat in the kitchen.  The sign displays the selection of bistro-style coffees.
Photo courtesy John Schweitzer

Ray, who is president of Trinity Lutheran, knew that he needed to bring something centered on Christ to them, rather than just asking them to come to church.

“I prayed about what God was telling me,” Ray says. Seeing young people gathering in coffee shops got Ray thinking that his church could provide something similar, but Christ-centered.

And shortly after Easter two years ago, Trinity’s “58watt coffeeshop” opened.

Now, every Wednesday night, folks come to share a meal, pray, study the Word, sometimes hear music, and just relate in the fellowship of Christ. And drink fancy coffees.

It’s a concept that a handful of other LCMS congregations have adopted or are starting as they experiment with sharing their faith in new ways.

During the first six months of the coffee shop, the crowd was mainly high-schoolers.

“Then we began to have an older group, with 50s to 60s meeting and visiting in one area, the high-schoolers in another,” Ray says.

Charles Tate and his 5-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, have been coming to 58watt pretty much since it started.

“The faith group there has become a very real family to Jasmine,” Tate says.

“Every week, we look forward to going. Although we’re Roman Catholic, we share our likenesses.”

They meet in a sleek house on 25 acres. The location, called Trinity Oaks, is in a growing area of Baton Rouge, Ray says.

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The 58watt Coffeeshop looks out over acreage lush with oak trees.

Photo courtesy Bruce Ray

For that area, the coffee house provides an opportunity to share the Good News, observes Rev. Benjamin Bahr, Trinity’s pastor: “At 58watt, we are able to show compassion and care to people who have fallen away from organized religion, from churches, and they are able to be reached with the Gospel of Christ again.”

Often, at 58watt, several things go on at once, including a Bible-study group and tutoring for junior-high students. It’s all free, though donations are accepted.

Ray says it’s clear that God’s hand was in all of this. One of the women he recruited to be on a team to get things started asked if Ray wanted her husband to bring the coffee. Turns out, he is a production manager for a company that supplies coffee pods for espresso machines. Ray had no idea.

And the coffee-house name became a good conversation starter.

It’s from Eph. 5:8 (NIV): “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”

Ray: “We all thought that this describes the journey that we are all on.”

Growing Vegetables—and Growing in Faith

Church: Trinity Lutheran
Location: Portland, Ore.
Pastor: Rev. Darren Anderson
Membership: 350

For some LCMS congregations, growing gardens is a way of “growing faith” in Christ in their communities. In Portland, Trinity Lutheran began its sixth season this year with one garden, started another, and became the host of a community market also.

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Young gardeners help the more seasoned ones tend the crop at Trinity Lutheran’s community garden.
Photo courtesy Fred Kramer

The church’s first garden is part of an outreach program to its Latino community. With help from a local plant society, Trinity provides the space, compost, water, and basic tools, while a local food bank helps with plants and seeds.

Sometimes, the garden itself is enough to open a door and connect someone to church, explains Fred Kramer, Trinity’s coordinator of Latino Ministry.

Sometimes, too, the garden works in concert with the other parts of Trinity’s outreach program, which includes English and computer classes, an emergency food program, summer school for immigrant children, and enrollment in the church’s school.

Kramer shares this story of Angelica Ek Juarez:

“Eight years ago, Angelica Ek Juarez began attending English classes,” Kramer says. “Sometime later, Angelica, her husband Santos, and the children began attending English worship services. Angelica and Santos completed instruction and were received into membership. Their oldest son, Carlos, graduated from Trinity School and is an honor student at Portland Lutheran High School. The two younger children are enrolled at Trinity School.”

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Students participate in an English as a Second Language class, an important part of Trinity Lutheran’s ministry.
Photo courtesy Fred Kramer

He goes on to say that Santos is now a member of the congregation’s lay-ministry board. And Angelica serves in many capacities at Trinity, including teaching English and Sunday School—and is an effective evangelism outreach person.

Rev. Darren Anderson, the church’s pastor, says Trinity is hosting the community market on the church parking lot every Saturday this summer. The market and the second garden reach beyond the Latino community to the rest of the congregation’s Portland neighborhood—a neighborhood with only one grocery store, making the market, where fresh produce is sold, a vital place.

Both of the new ventures grew out of Trinity’s members spending time with people in the community.

And in turn, the community is reaching back to the church. The group organizing the Saturday market wanted Trinity to have an active, visible presence there.

So every Saturday, customers visiting the market to buy fresh produce can learn about Trinity and hear the gracious invitation Philip extended to Nathanael: “Come and see” (John 1:46).

The invitation is at the heart of all of Trinity’s work.

About the Author: Rev. Jotham Johann is an executive consultant with the LCMS World Mission/National Mission Team.

About the Author: An award-winning reporter and editor, Sandy Wood is a member of Chapel of the Cross Lutheran Church, St.Louis, Mo.

Rev. Darren Anderson of Trinity, Portland, recently accepted a call from St. Paul Lutheran Church, Plano, Texas, to be a missionary pastor. His work there will include planting a new church in inner-city Dallas.

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