For years, I had wanted to nominate youth to attend the Augsburg Youth Theology Institute, but had not yet been able to have one attend. Then, finally, my own daughter was midway through high school and we were in the midst of Covid. She applied for several opportunities in the summer of 2020 when she was looking toward her junior year of high school, and AYTI was the only program that found a way to offer their summer program online. She was not certain that she was prepared for a week of theological engagement or a week that resulted in writing a paper, but she was willing to give it a try. We promised to support her.
Today’s blog post has been commissioned by the Riverside Innovation Hub to bring in the stories and views from our partner congregations forward. We continue with a piece by Ryana Holt, a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
I have been reflecting on the word “yes.” This word or similar affirmative phrase mark the cusp to new beginnings. Like Samuel’s “here I am”. How do young people become leaders? Some create opportunities for themselves. Others find themselves saying “yes”, “here I am,” and the journey thereafter unveils and develops their leadership.
“Yes” was the beginning to my involvement at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (HTLC) when I only knew only about five people’s names and it was likely that less than five people knew mine. After a service, one of my pastors must have recognized I wasn’t just a 20-something passing through and asked if I would join other young adults in the Riverside Innovation Hub grant team.
Yes, of course. I was there to root in community. Take my email, I am ready to participate.
Today’s blog post has been commissioned by the Riverside Innovation Hub to bring in the stories and views from our partner congregations forward. We first start off with a piece by Kaylie Johnson, a member of the Trinity Lutheran congregation.
I didn’t fully understand what it meant to have a “church without walls” until I started to attend Trinity Lutheran Congregation. Part of this phrase “church without walls” is literal; we worship on Augsburg’s campus, and the offices are down the street on Riverside Avenue. The part that kept me intrigued and engaged in Trinity is the figurative meaning of a “church without walls”: A church that works outside of the church walls and seeks to be a helping and hopeful presence in the community, not only there for its congregants, but there for those who are not at Trinity on Sunday mornings. Trinity saw needs in the neighborhood, and encouraged its members to find ways to engage with the community. The Riverside Innovation Hub gave me a chance to take a leadership role in helping Trinity continue to explore what it means to be a church without walls.
On Friday, July 30th and Saturday, July 31st, the Riverside Innovation Hub gathered online with 75 participants from 12 local congregations to mark the launch of new learning community. We spent our time together learning more about who is in the learning community, how our learning will take shape, and what’s next.
Enjoy a few highlights from our event.
Introductions to Congregations
One person from each congregation was invited to introduce their congregation and why they’re participating now. Some shared that they hope this learning community can provide guidance as they reimagine what church might look like after the pandemic has disrupted the ways in which the church had often remained inside the four walls of a building, or for others in time of deep transition. Some congregations hope that this learning community helps hold them accountable to the neighbor-oriented work they have wanted to do, but have not always been able to make a priority. Others hope for a process to learn how to be good neighbors in their neighborhoods. See this blog post for a list of partner congregations.
The Minneapolis Area Synod (MAS) and Augsburg University’s Riverside Innovation Hub are both launching opportunities for congregations to be a part of a two-year learning community. These opportunities are both funded by the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Congregations grant.
The two initiatives will work in parallel for the five years of the grant. The hope is to learn with, beside, and from each other during the two, two-year cycles with distinct cohorts of congregational leaders. Both opportunities are for congregations interested in pursuing or deepening an orientation in their particular place, in relationship with the neighbor and neighborhood, leaning into God’s promises and challenges and that meet us there. The promotion and application processes are collaborative, through co-hosting information sessions and a shared application for congregations. More details on information sessions and the application will be released soon.
Each learning community will have two, two-year cycles of learning cohorts, composed of multiple congregations. The cohorts will be coached or facilitated by a staff member at each respective organization. Both learning communities will learn from and with each other, with shared learning Summits in the second year of each cycle of learning cohorts.
RIVERSIDE INNOVATION HUB (RIH)
The Riverside Innovation Hub, stewarded by the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University, will learn and experiment with the Public Church Framework as a method for place based vocational discernment in the public square for the common good. This new opportunity is an invitation to congregations interested in pursuing or deepening this same orientation in their particular place, in relationship with the neighbor and neighborhood, leaning into God’s promises and challenges that meet us there. The first learning community runs July 2021 – July 2023 and the second learning community runs September 2023 – September 2025.
This project is open to all Christian denominations within an hour of the Twin Cities Metro Area. Congregations outside this geographic area may apply but should know their experience in the project may differ slightly. Participation in the learning community will include bringing teams to Augsburg’s campus 3-4 times a year (as COVID-19 allows.)
MINNEAPOLIS AREA SYNOD (MAS)
Neighboring Practices and Faith Practices, stewarded by the Minneapolis Area Synod, will focus on faith practices and neighboring practices, because congregations connect best with their neighborhood when they practice their faith and they see with new eyes that God is already at work in their neighborhood. The first learning community runs September 2021 – 2023 and the second learning community runs September 2023 – September 2025.
The MAS project is open to all Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) within the geographic boundaries of the Minneapolis Area Synod and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregations within Minnesota.
There is a joint application process for both projects that will be released on Feb. 3, 2021.
A letter of intent from the senior pastor is requested beginning March 1, 2021.
The deadline for submitting the completed joint application is April 15, 2021.
Selected congregations will be notified on May 15, 2021 and have until May 28, 2021 to accept the invitation.
The first RIH learning community runs from July 2021 – July 2023. The first MAS learning community runs from September 2021 – September 2023.
Stay tuned for more details on the information session and application process. If you have any additional questions, you can reach out to Amanda Vetsch with RIH (firstname.lastname@example.org), Kristina Fruge with RIH (email@example.com), or John Hulden with MAS (firstname.lastname@example.org)
We were asked to preach a sermon series on the public church at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, MN during Lent. The remaining services have since been canceled to allow for social distancing. This sermon was the last sermon we preached on Wednesday March 11, 2020. We wanted to share it with you, our partners, because we think it speaks to the tension and anxiety we find ourselves ministering in these days.
There is an irony in asking a congregation to “be public” when the times call for social distancing. The purpose of the Public Church Framework is to move us into a humble relationship with our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake. And sometimes the best thing we can do for our neighbor is disengage and physically distance ourselves. At times like this we must find new ways to be public, new ways to proclaim God’s mercy in the midst of fear.
Fear & Mercy
March 11, 2020
“Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.”
Today’s blog post comes as a video from Stephen Richards at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. He shares the story of their journey with the Public Church Framework and what it looks like in their context. A transcript of the video can be found below the video credits.
Video: Written, filmed, and edited by Stephen A. Richards
Music: “Pulse”, written and produced by Stephen A. Richards, taken from the album “Cyclone”, copyright May 2019 (used with permission)
“Hello, my name is Steve and I’m a member of the Innovation Team at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minnesota. I’ve been involved with the Innovation Hub team from the beginning and I’m really excited by the work we’re doing.
However it’s not always been this way. There have been times where I have found the work very frustrating. You see, when we were invited to go on a journey to connect with young adults and God in our community we were not handed a road map for which to do this. And for a long time, I found this difficult. For me, mission had often begun in the church and was about bringing people into the church. Yet, that’s not the way this innovation stuff works.
You see, when you start asking “What is God up to in our community,” you have to step outside the church and into uncharted territory.
As we walked the three artforms, accompaniment, interpretation, and discernment, our focus as a group and then as a church began to shift. We started to think more about hearing and telling stories and how we might go into the community to do this. So rather than sitting inside of a building and waiting for people to come to us, we began to look for ways we were already connecting with neighbors. The Montessori School in the basement of our church was an obvious one. And also the green space out front. We learned that people were using the Adirondack chairs that we had placed out there. They were tying ribbons to the peace pole, and regularly visiting the food box. We decided to focus on this as a space where God is present in our neighborhood. A holy ground where we could start wading further into the river. From this, the peace craft project was born. Which is a brand new initiative of St. Luke’s Episcopal church and intended to creatively engage our neighborhood in peace making activities. Peace Craft has become the connector between the church and the local community.
Through the work we do, and funded by the grant money we received, a new vision for God’s mission has emerged. We are also seeing more people in the church joining us and excited about finding out about where God is working in their lives and the local community.
For example, one of the innovation team members suggested we might ask for grant money to give out free ice creams to our neighbors after church each Sunday. So we did, we named it, “Ice Cream Sunday.” For three months over the summer of 2019, we stood outside the church, eating ice cream and inviting passersby to join us. In doing so, we met lots of people and got to know their stories. We also got to tell them our stories, barriers came down. We began to wade into the river. First, ankle deep, then knee deep, and finally waist deep. This simple act of going outside and sharing ice cream changed our community. We recently lost our Rector, but rather than finding this period of transition unsettling, people have instead become energized, inspired and open to new ideas. There is a tangible energy in the church. There is a tremendous desire to know and discover what God is doing among us. In many ways, Peace Craft is at the forefront of the mission work of our church. The waters of God’s spirit are now flowing within, through, and from our church. And as it does, the fruit of God’s spirit is evident for all to see. As each week, new people are being added to our numbers, including young adults.”
This week’s story is written by Marie Page, a congregational learning partner at Church of All Nations (CAN). She shares about CAN’s experience of understanding the land as their neighbor.
Throughout the past year, our leadership discerned that learning how to relate to the land as neighbor would be the most far-reaching and impactful focus for our RIH partnership. Over the past
winter, we had a core group of pastors, staff, youth, and adult members who met regularly to study the guiding philosophies and practices of permaculture in preparation for spring. The multi-year plans for our property were made after many discussions with our friends at Ecological Design [the women-owned design group behind Main Street Project, Tiny Diner, and more]; they incorporated a kid’s play area, culinary and medicinal herbs, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, a pergola, and an outdoor worship space- all priorities for our community.
When spring [finally] came, we got to work! Our regular core group meetings turned into work days, and we even had a few “Permablitz” events with the whole community to kick start some of the most needed projects: removing typical sod, spreading compost, reseeding bee-friendly lawn, planting trees and perennials, and a lot of weeding.
We were honestly surprised by the number of people who came out regularly for core team meetings and that even more came out for our Permablitz and work day events. We could see the enthusiasm spreading as real visible changes took root around the church- wildflowers and grasses that we’d maybe only seen in stores or pictures, and especially our herbs. Our community has been blessed by several meals made with herbs grown right outside our doors, that many of us planted and watered and weeded.
We’ve also had many positive interactions with neighbors we’d not talked to previously. Many were grateful for the work we’re doing and curious to learn more. In addition, we’ve had talks with the local park just down the
hill, on our same lake- they’ve been working to foster native species all around their property and are enthusiastic. There was one individual who must’ve been upset over the temporary visual changes when we were doing initial digging and reseeding- they reported us to our local watershed district, but when the district came out and saw our plans, they were thrilled with the work we’re doing, as it will greatly slow the water flow and prevent erosion down into Silver Lake at the base of our hill.
Our children have responded beautifully. They were deeply impacted by our VBS program we put on this year, which we crafted intentionally as an offshoot of our permaculture project, to help them understand what we were doing and feel included in it. As we’d spent a lot of time studying how water moves around our property (in preparation for the addition of swales and rain gardens), we created a curriculum around the many ways God uses water to bring forth and sustain life. We were astonished by the degree of attention, focus, and enthusiasm for the stories and activities this year- far more than any of the standard programs we’ve put on in the past. At the end of the week, they each got a watering can and helped water the herbs in our front yard.
A few weeks ago we had a special Sunday program where 20 of our grade school children helped us harvest some of those same herbs they’d helped water this spring, which we will be processing for our craft fair fundraiser this winter. We were able to teach them how to care for the plants and pick gently with gratitude for the work they have done to make this gift for us. We also showed them how to notice which flowers have bees but to not be afraid of them- because the bees don’t want to hurt us, just like we don’t want to hurt them. They also learned how to notice when the herb is too young or too old to be picked.
This aspect has been the most profound for many of us. In bringing many forms of nature closer to our building, we’ve been able to reshape the narratives that many of us were raised with: nature is an angry “other” that will harm us if given the chance. Instead, we’re able to experience and share with our children that the land is loving and abundant when we approach respectfully- full of food and medicine both for us and for the many forms of crawling friends that have moved in to enjoy the harvest. (The variety and quantity of bugs, bees, butterflies, and frogs has surprised even those of us who’ve lived in this area our whole lives!)
It has been profoundly healing for many of us not just to learn these things ourselves but to watch our children grow up in a community where the land as neighbor is part of the air we breathe- seeing them greet their favorite plants, not scream and run from grasshoppers or even bees but approach carefully, with curiosity. This re-narration of “other” into “neighbor,” then friend, and then family is fundamental to our ministry as a church. It fills us with profound joy and hope to work towards a future where the natural open-hearted curiosity of our children can be guided with love to carefully navigate and embrace the unknown, rather than shrinking back or isolating from it in fear. Their hearts and minds, shaped in this way, will shape a better world.
Thanks to the support of our members and partners like RIH, God is bringing forth a harvest far beyond what we could’ve asked or imagined- in our land, and in our lives. We can’t wait to see the new developments next year will bring!
This week’s story is written by Stephen Richards, a congregational learning partner at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Steve writes about his transformation throughout the process of practicing the Public Church Framework.
Ever had an argument in the car with your partner about the “right way” to get somewhere? My wife and I frequently have such “debates”, and it often boils down to this: she likes to plan how to get somewhere in advance, whereas I’m more of a “wing-it” guy. She likes to pre-navigate potential traffic snarls and find the most economical route to get somewhere, whereas I know where I need to go, have a vague idea of how to get there, and if there are any holdups along the way I’ll navigate my way around them based on what looks like the best option at the time. Needless to say, my wife and I often find driving together a frustrating experience.
This past year, working with the Riverside Innovation Hub has felt a lot like driving with my wife. When St Luke’s first started this journey and I was invited to be part of the team, I was excited about the idea of working to get more young people to come to church. Of course I wanted more young people coming to church; I wanted lots of people to come to church. However, I quickly began to realize that this was not the point. So I pushed back. If this is not about getting people into church, then what is it about? I remember regularly expressing a sense of frustration to our coach that I simply had no idea what we were trying to achieve. The “goal” was to find ways to connect with young adults in our community, but how to do that and what that might look like was opaque. “So what” and “What next” questions dominated my thinking. I found the process frustrating. I wanted a road map. I wanted a planned route from Point A to Point B. The trouble is, that’s not the way this works. You see, when you start asking “What is God up to in our community?” you’re heading into uncharted territory.
For too long I’d been looking for God inside the church building, and many “solutions” for how to address the dearth of young adults in our churches often begin there. If only our services were more exciting, if only we had better programming and the like. Using such reasoning we also talk about how God is or is not working in our midst. More people in church equals God is working, and vice versa. But instead, we were told to reflect on Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, and imagine this flowing out into our community. I liked the image, but continued to push back. I made the point that if the river was flowing from the temple then surely this means the river is flowing out from our church building? Our coach patiently allowed me to navigate my way through this.
When I joined this project I thought it was about connecting young adults to God in church. However, as we began to follow the river (both inside and outside of our community), I suddenly realized that it was about a different kind of connecting. In fact, it was me who was connecting with God as I began to realize my entire understanding of mission had been grounded in the notion that there was nothing of God going on outside “in the world.” Sitting inside a church building, I’d been staring at the walls wondering why more people weren’t inside with us, rather than going outside and asking them. The walls were preventing me from engaging with people. They were a physical barrier between our community and our neighbors. Whereas the veil separating us from God had been torn down in Christ, and in the years since then we had been physically and theologically putting it back up.
As we walked the three art forms, I became to see where God is at work outside the church. I should not have been surprised, because God is always at work everywhere! How do I know this? Because God is everywhere. There is no place where God is not:
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).
Once I began to realize that church is not the Ground Zero, the modus operandi of God’s activity in any community, I began to realize that the roadmap of mission I had been using had been leading me away from young adults; leading me further inside the church building (where they are not), instead of outside and into our neighborhood (where they are).
As we continued with Interpretation and Discernment work, I sensed that not only I had changed, but the team had also had a transformation. Our focus had shifted. We had begun to dream and imagine how we might go and meet people, rather than sitting in church waiting for them to come to us. Jesus told us to “Go,” and we were going. We began to look at ways we were already connecting with our neighbors; the Montessori School in our church building was an obvious one, but also the green space out front. We learned that people were using the chairs we had placed out there, they were tying ribbons to the Peace Pole and using the food box. We decided to focus on that as space as a place where God was present; Holy ground where we could start wading into the river.
And so we began. It was the start of summer and one of our team suggested we might offer people free ice cream after church on Sunday. So we did. We named it Ice Cream Sunday. For three months we stood outside the church eating ice cream, and inviting our neighbors to join us. In doing so we met lots of people and got to know their stories. We got to tell them our stories, but we never used this as a recruitment tool; just a way of showing love to those around us, you know, doing the very thing Jesus told us to do (Matthew 2:39). And as we did this week after week, relationships began to form. Barriers came down. We began to wade into the river; first ankle deep, then knee deep and finally waist deep. Some people came back just to hang out with us; people who had never stepped inside our church building. And as we listened to their stories we realized that God was at work in their lives and in our community. In fact, God had always been working in our community, we’d just never taken the time to go outside and listen. But now we were outside, and listening, and starting to see the walls come down. We’d torn up the roadmap, and with the Spirit’s leading had started to “wing-it”…
This week we hear from Ellie Roscher, a congregational learning partner at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Ellie shares a story about the mutual transformation that comes from listening to and empowering young adult leaders.
Siri, a talented and emerging folk singer, spends significant time on the road playing music. In between tours, she works at the front desk at Bethlehem even though she is skeptical of institutional religion and questions the existence of God.
About a year ago, Siri found herself in a cycle of despair. She was feeling adrift and unsure of where her community was. And she was feeling cynical, angry and overwhelmed about climate change. She could hear the earth moaning and see it crying out. One night, in response to her lament a friend kindly offered, “Would it help to do something about it?”
Siri took the challenge to heart. She floated her idea of starting a community garden to me and some other folks at Bethlehem. Yes, yes, yes. We helped her flush out her vision and celebrated with her when she received a generous Foundation Grant. Then it was time to begin.
At the Riverside Innovation Hub, our guiding text is from Ezekiel 47. In it, we are led away from the temple to deeper water. Along the riverbank there are lush trees with fruit for food and leaves for healing. Siri had a prophetic vision to grow a garden outside the walls of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, a large and resourced church, had not yet leveraged its voice and power to address climate change in real and meaningful ways. We recognized Siri’s passion and vision as beautiful, and we met her there, downriver, to put her plan to action.
Planting a seed requires the audacity of hope. Tilling the soil quiets the mind, brings peace to the heart, and slows time just a bit. Weeding is a spiritual practice. Watching seed transform is a living metaphor. Fresh air shakes the dust from our souls. Billowing clouds invite us to look all the way up and remember that we are small.
Siri was ready to move from despair. Her leadership invited others to do the same. She built beds, planted seeds, watered them and tended to them. She showed up week in and week out and created a space outside the walls of Bethlehem for folks to gather. Sunday school kids came out into the sunshine to guess what sprouts would become. A neighborhood kid asked if he could help water the beds, another asked if he could have a cucumber. More neighbors, who previously did not engage started congregating when Siri and volunteers showed up to work. More congregation members lingered outside the church.
Now, at the end of the summer, the garden has exceeded all of our expectations. It is bursting with life. The sun flowers tower over us. The pollinators bring life and vibrancy and splashes of color. We tended to the earth and it is showering us with bounty. The neighbor who was the most skeptical has thanked Siri for creating a space for folks to gather. Congregation members have thanked her for inviting them out of the sanctuary to God’s nature.
Siri, too, has been amazed at the transformation inside of herself. She is a pastor’s kid, and she has a lot of hurt toward the Christian institution. She sees the harm the church has caused in the world. “It has felt like
gigantic tectonic plates shifting in my being,” she said. “It has been truly transformational to go from overwhelmed to empowered. And to grow a garden on the grounds of a church has been important for me. I’m not ready to worship yet, but growing flowers and vegetables here and having the community rally around me has ushered in healing.”
Bethlehem’s innovation team recognized Siri’s vision and leadership. We built our vision around the growing garden and our growing partnership with folks doing conservation and reforestation in the cloud forest of Guatemala. Siri will be one of the young adults traveling to Guatemala come January, after our garden is harvested. She kept asking me if I should send someone else instead, someone who has more clarity about God and church. I think of Ezekiel and smile. “No, you are perfect.”
The garden has been a blessing. A physical reminder of God’s abundance. A place to gather and listen to the soil and and remember whose we are. It brings dignity to get down on our knees and get dirty. Get some earth under our fingernails. Siri said yes to an invitation to grow something new and rich and beautiful. It has given her hope. And community. Fruit for food and leaves for healing. We are all better for it. We are grateful.