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.
The Riverside Innovation Hub trained 8 young adult Innovation Coaches during August 2018. Each coach was assigned to 2 partner congregations. These coaches spent 20 hours a week working with each of their 2 congregations from August 2018 – May 2019, walking with them through our Public Church Framework towards discerning the future of their ministry with young adults. We also supported 9 other congregations who were interested in this work but did not have a coach working directly with them.
The innovation teams at these congregations were taught the artforms of the Public Church Framework and spent the year putting these artforms into practice in their context. The artforms of the Public Church Framework are intended to help a faith community establish and deepen relationships with their neighbors in their context so they might see and hear how their neighbors are longing for good news. This is the work that leads to innovation. These innovation teams were also asked to invite young adults into this process and to allow these young adults to lead this process.
At the end of 10 months of accompaniment, interpretation, and discernment each congregation submitted a grant proposal outlining the ways in which they hope to experiment with being a public church with their young adults over the next two years. These congregations were awarded between $25,000 – $30,000 for this experimentation.
Here is a summary of what we learned about young adults, congregations, innovation, the Public Church Framework, and how to effectively support this work.
What We Have Learned . . .
The most important thing we learned about young adults is that they are not very excited about being “known about”. They would rather you take the time to know them than know about them. They are not a demographic or a target market, they are unique individuals who often resist categorization. They are busy and very committed to their careers and their friends and to holistic living. They are willing to put time into leadership and the local church if they are being asked to invest their time in things that matter and make a difference. Many are not able or willing to move into traditional volunteer roles in the local church (committee member, Sunday school teacher, etc.). So they are looking for new ways to be plugged in. Your local congregation might not get young adults to return to worship. That’s okay. The question and challenge is how will your local congregation find the ways the places where young adults are actively living out their faith and how will you partner with them in those places?
Congregations are eager to be in meaningful relationships with young adults. There are some congregations who expect young adults to simply change their ways and become committed to the traditional church and its traditional practices and simply take over the leadership from previous generations while maintaining those traditional practices. But those congregations are few and far between. Most really want to become meaningful communities for young adults and are willing to do the hard work to become that type of community. Those who had the most success were the one who trusted the process of the Public Church Framework and stepped out in faith into the practice of accompaniment – meeting and listening to the neighbor.
There are two necessary hurdles a congregation must overcome before being successful in this work. The first hurdle is their “why”. Why do they want to do this work? Why do they want to become a public church? Why do they want to engage their young adults in new ways? If your “why” is driven by anxiety about the church shrinking or dying, then the work will most likely not be successful. However, if the work is driven by compassion for your neighbor and for young adults, then your work will be fruitful because you will be more committed to developing relationships than simply numbers.
The second hurdle is your congregation’s threshold. Our partner congregations who have benefited the most through this project thus far are the ones who have moved beyond their church building and spent significant time meeting and listening to their neighbors – those who live and work in the neighborhood around the congregation. This work beyond the threshold often led to important relationships, insights, and partnerships that have truly shaped some innovative approaches to ministry. And it all started by walking out the door and being willing to meet the neighbor and hear their story.
We are learning that innovation is hard – of course it is! Innovation is especially hard when we think its outcome must be something new, or shiny, or “better” than what we had before. We are learning that innovation is best understood vocationally. This means that innovative ministry grows out of simultaneously deeply listening to the neighbors’ stories and to God’s promises. Those two things inform one another. God’s promises change the way we hear and respond to the neighbors’ stories. And our neighbors’ stories change the way we hear and understand God’s promises. Innovation comes out of a disruption, or what we call a disorienting dilemma. The neighbor is always a disorienting dilemma. God is always a disorienting dilemma. The gospel is always a disorienting dilemma. When we are sorting out the relationship between these things, we are discerning vocation. Our partner congregations who are listening deeply to their neighbors AND simultaneously pondering God’s promises are actively discerning their vocation. This listening and pondering and discerning is what leads to innovation.
Public Church Framework
We are learning that the artforms of the Public Church Framework and their relationship to one another make the most sense when put into practice. This does not mean it is easy to be put into practice. There are many things that impede this public work – tradition, fear, lack of time, not knowing where to start, etc. But what we have learned is that it begins to make complete sense once a community of people begin to put it into practice. Once you begin practicing accompaniment you begin to understand what accompaniment is all about and why it is important. Once you begin practicing interpretation you begin to realize how important those stories you heard in accompaniment are and you begin to learn how to put those stories into conversation with God’s promises. Once you’ve done this interpretive work you begin to find yourself naturally asking questions that lead you into the practice of discernment and out of that discernment work you will a hear a call to proclamation. We are still convinced the Public Church Framework is a viable method for helping congregations faithfully engage a discernment process in relationship with their context.
Supporting This Work
We are learning that we learn better together. No two faith communities are the same but they all desire to be vibrant and effective. The most transformative learning happens when we allow our partner congregations to learn from one another. The Riverside Innovation Hub is committed to facilitating mutual learning relationships rather than functioning as a consultant. The key to supporting our partners has been the establishment and maintenance of trusted relationships, patience, and curiosity. We are also learning to leverage other cross-disciplinary resources at Augsburg University that will serve our faith communities well as they seek to develop the skills needed to engage their neighbors. Honest conversations, curious questions, and deep listening have become our most important tools for supporting congregations in their innovative work.
The following story is from Amanda Vetsch, one of RIH’s Innovation Coaches. She shares her team’s experiences with discernment at University Lutheran Church of Hope (ULCH.) ULCH is located in Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota campus. Their work this year has focused on the challenges and opportunities of being a church in meaningful relationships with young neighbors who are experiencing frequent transition.
In theory, our idea was rooted in the intersection between God’s story, Our Story, and Neighbor’s story so it should have felt good, but we trusted our guts and realized that we had made plans and decisions. We hadn’t actually practiced discernment.
The Innovation Team at ULCH had a meeting to begin discerning their next most faithful steps in response to all that they had been hearing, seeing, and learning through the artforms of accompaniment and interpretation. The conversation began with a grounding reflection, responses to that reflection, and flowed into naming the main themes from the stories we’ve heard or learned about thus far. Then, we began to brainstorm the ways that we might respond to those stories and came up with a couple of ideas to write into the grant. We moved toward making a plan to write the grant and set some due dates for ourselves.
There was very little enthusiasm to begin writing or researching. As the Innovation Coach, this concerned me. I want my team to be excited about the work they are being called into. I didn’t want to shut down their idea, but I did need to investigate why the energy was low. Maybe it had nothing to do with the grant idea and more to do with the post-lunchtime lull, or the busyness in their work or personal lives, or maybe it was me projecting my own ideas onto what I expected them to come up with for the grant. As all good coaches do, I sent out an evaluation form. The form asked questions like:
On a scale from 1 – 10, how much energy do you have when you think about the work of the Innovation team?
If we were to start ALL over at the beginning of this work, where would you focus the accompaniment energy?
If there were NO boundaries to money, energy, or anything, what would you do for the grant proposal?
These questions were strategic. I wanted to know why the energy seemed low at our meeting. I wanted to know if they felt content with the listening they had done thus far and I wanted to push them to dream a little bit bigger in a more anonymous form. We also had a few one to one conversations amongst ourselves and multiple folks self identified that the group energy was low. In reflecting upon this meeting, one team member said, “I think we felt a certain pressure to produce something in that first meeting. So we were pushing ourselves to come up with a really tangible product, and I don’t think we felt like we had the freedom to say that we had more listening to do.”
On the surface this meeting went well, we talked about the things we were supposed to talk about, we reflected on what we had learned, and came up with an idea. In theory, our idea was rooted in the intersection between God’s story, Our Story, and Neighbor’s story so it should have felt good, but we trusted our guts and realized that we had made plans and decisions. We hadn’t actually practiced discernment.
Then, the question is how do we go from decision making to discernment? For the ULCH Innovation Team, it meant reconvening our team. This time we started by rooting ourselves in a reflection practice that pushed us away from the tendency to intellectualize and into dwelling in the emotional responses. We took thirty minutes at the beginning of the meeting to reflect, dwell in, and share the ways that we had felt the Spirit moving in this work. The specific question was, “During the artform of (accompaniment / interpretation / discernment) , when did you feel most alive? Remember the specific moment. What did it feel like, sound like, smell like?” Each person at the meeting had an opportunity to share their memory. In some ways, I’m sure this activity could have felt like a waste of time. We weren’t learning any new information and we weren’t following the action plan to complete the grant by the impending due date. Yet, we needed to take time to reflect in this way because it allowed us to reorient ourselves. We needed to shift out of the comfortable way of reflecting on our learnings as nuggets of information and into a reflection of experiences and awareness of where we sense God at work.
We challenged ourselves to dream a bit bigger. We tried to imagine a proposal idea that had no limitations to money, time or energy. This lead us to collectively realizing we didn’t have the information or experiences to represent what our neighborhood and congregation is dreaming about. So we dreamt up ways to begin to hear our neighbors’ and congregations’ dreams. In reflecting on the second discernment meeting, a team member said, “It was helpful to name the fears, or what feels risky. There’s a tendency to want to know beforehand that it’s all going to work as we plan it to. And we needed to be able to say, well it’s risky and it’s supposed to be.”
There is no magic formula for discernment. One of the biggest lessons we’re learning in this process is that discernment takes time and trust. There is a desire deeply ingrained in us to achieve and be productive, but discernment cannot happen when we focus on the product more than the process. A shift in rhythm has to happen and we have to trust that we have heard, experienced, seen, and felt God at work. For ULCH, this shift in rhythm means slowing down, giving ourselves permission to push back some due dates, and taking notice of where the energy is or isn’tso we can reorient our attention to where it is most needed. Being freed from expectations to produce a flashy new thing is allowing our team at ULCH to tend to relationships, stories, and life in our ever-changing neighborhood.
The following story is written by Lindsay Boehmer, one of our Innovation Coaches. She shares about her experiences with her congregational teams as they did the messy, surprising and creative work of interpretation—working to weave together their neighbor’s story, God’s story and their own story.
I love sticky notes! The first day I met the RIH staff, I was forced to reveal this bit of information about myself through a get-to-know-you question. Just the other day, I earned a new title from Isra—a middle schooler who attends Trinity Lutheran Congregation’s Homework Help Program—when she saw the piles of sticky notes I was documenting from a team activity earlier in the week: “What are you!? The treasurer of sticky notes!?” Well, yes, actually. I use sticky notes for many activities in my life, and this job has been no exception.
The first time I introduced sticky notes to my Innovation Teams was to brainstorm and collect our learnings from our accompaniment work in the neighborhood. Teams reflected on questions such as “what are our neighbor’s hopes, dreams, and desires for our shared neighborhood?” and “how are our neighbors experiencing anxiety, fear and heartache?” When it felt like our listening had fallen a bit flat, and we hadn’t done nearly all that we had hoped or planned to do, seeing these brightly colored learnings come together on the paper was exciting! It brought new energy as we realized we had heard from our neighbors! We quickly noticed that most of our sticky notes were not from the organized listening we had planned, but from the times we just showed up to events, gathering places, or even just the bus stop.
As we moved from accompaniment into interpretation, I saw increased opportunities for sticky notes to be involved! At St. Luke’s Episcopal, the team created a 106-year timeline and invited the congregation to add important events. Sticky notes—small and large, square and rectangular, in eight different colors—filled the years highlighting births, deaths, marriages, programs, leadership, and so much more. The congregation later went through and labeled these sticky notes as high or low or growth points in their congregation. Then, they sat together and shared these stories: one person’s memory triggering another, full of laughs and happy sighs of remembrance. I was asked by more than one member if we were keeping the timeline permanently. I raised my eyebrow about the brightly colored sticky notes becoming a permanent feature of their space, but it was about more than the sticky notes. These sticky notes hold stories that have carried this congregation and that hold life-giving potential for the future of this community.
These sticky note activities have been great. They’ve added color to our thinking and allowed for both individual and group reflection, but they still haven’t used the sticky notes to their full potential yet. See, in my opinion, the best use of sticky notes is when you have a whole bunch of them with a whole bunch of ideas, and you can move, re-stick, add, or throw away and create order out of chaos. It’s like a puzzle seeking order, and I find this life-giving!
By the end of February, the team at Trinity Lutheran Congregation had conducted four adult forum hours around interpretation topics of our story and God’s story. The team had met with multiple community leaders and residents and had showed up to numerous events, activities, and gatherings in the community. When we gathered for our March meeting, I brought all of the reflections/notes and “data” that the team had collected over the past five months. We walked through it, reviewed it, added things that were missing, and then I gave them sticky notes: every size and shape and color!
The team quickly picked pink to represent Trinity and everyone began writing the themes, values, events, activities, descriptions, actions, and phrases that stood out to them. When the activity dwindled, they chose orange to represent the neighborhood and began writing again. Soon, the board in front of us was covered in orange and pink sticky notes. The team began to group them, moving the sticky notes from place to place. Soon, they were adding arrows to show how the groupings influence each other and noticing that some groupings were all orange, others all pink, and others had both colored sticky notes.
This project is still a work in progress. The team has taken these stories and weaved them together in a way that is making new meaning that they hadn’t noticed before. These pink and orange sticky notes are holding and blending stories and potential for Trinity’s work to accompany the neighborhood’s work; they are holding a grant proposal.
It was those piles of sticky notes that Isra saw me combing through the other day at Trinity when she called me the treasurer of sticky notes. And I’ll wear that title proudly, because in these sticky notes, I believe there is treasure. Sure, they are a bunch of brightly colored pieces of paper with a bit of sticky glue on one end, but they’re holding stories and learnings and hopes and fears and dreams. And in their brightly colored, organizing way, they are helping us ask new questions, see different connections, and begin to discern the work that God is calling us to participate in.
This week, we hear from Mason Mennenga, an Innovation Coach at the Riverside Innovation Hub. Mason shares his understanding of the Public Church Framework and how this approach changes the way faith communities experience their own community and the local neighborhood.
“A religious experience is not simply another experience, but rather a reconfiguration of the way in which one experiences.” — Peter Rollins
Public Church1 is not another program, ministry, or outreach in which we hope for churches to add to their already-too-long list of programs, ministries, and outreaches. For far too long, churches have resorted to adding a food pantry, a sexy new Instagram account, or the latest curriculum to their Sunday school programming to engender upon people the need to have a religious experience within their walls. However, perhaps — and just bear with me — it is churches who need a religious experience: to be born again. It is the telos of Public Church to do just that — to reconfigure the way in which a church experiences its own congregation and local community. A church oriented to encountering their neighbor might just discover places of mutual transformation–places, people, and experiences that breath new life into itself and its adjacent communities alike.
Steph, a congregant and Innovation team member from one of the churches I coach through the Public Church Framework, recently had what one may describe as a religious experience. This church had a month-long adult and youth class leading participants through conversations reflecting on why they are Christian and why they participate in church. At the first session of this class, Steph and I were at a small table with other congregants. During a discussion around the table, several of these congregants voiced concerns about the number of young adults leaving the Church. While our tablemates’ anxieties were undeniably real, it seemed to Steph and I that there is more to the cultural trend of young adults leaving the Church than met our tablemates’ eyes. Nonetheless, Steph and I remained quiet and simply listened to them. After the session, Steph approached me and told me that if it was not for what she was learning by participating in the Public Church Framework, she would have perfunctorily went along with what our tablemates were saying. Without a doubt, many other people would do the same.
Accompaniment, the first part of the Public Church Framework, invites people to listen to the neighbor. In this case, Steph and her church’s innovation team listened to young adults. Steph spent time listening to her young adult coworkers and read resources on the engagement of young adults with the Church. She even picked up a copy of Phyllis Tickle’s The Age of the Spirit to learn more about the theological changes in our culture. All of this work of accompaniment was focused on listening to her neighbors and seeking further understanding of the cultural milieu in which her neighbors live.
Because of her work with the Public Church framework — listening with young adults and learning about the rapidly changing culture in which they live — Steph gained the lens to better understand the complexity of young people leaving organized religion and more faithful responses to such a shift. Her experiences of accompaniment, provided Steph with a lens that opened her up to a religious experience that did not resort to a better catechesis or a catchy new program but a wholly new way in which she experienced young people and their reasons for engaging, or not engaging, with the Church. Steph and the rest of her church’s innovation team have learned the shift of young adults leaving the church is complex, such as different ways young adults relate to religious affiliation and problematic theologies that are no longer relevant. They are also recognizing that young adults, like most everyone, prefer to be encountered uniquely as a person and not as a demographic label or a problem to be solved.
In the Christian tradition, we have a name for such a religious experience: born again. To be born again was never intended to be a switching of one’s experience from one or no religious tradition to another another but a conversion of how one experiences the world. Public Church, penultimately, attempts to provide a framework for churches to be a born-again in the way they experience their own congregation and local community. Therefore, allow your church to be born again through the learning framework of Public Church — not to lead your church into another program, ministry, or outreach but to fracture the way in which your church experiences your own congregation and local community. It begins with listening, one neighbor at a time. It continues through leaning into the curiosities that emerge, being willing to set aside old assumptions, and allowing God to invite new life that can mutually transform church and its surrounding communities alike.
1 Public Church is not another program, ministry, or outreach, but rather simply a framework by which churches can cultivate a reconfiguration of culture within their congregations to be more attentive and more faithfully responsive to their local communities.
This week, we would like to share a blog post written by Cassie Dong, our Communication Coordinator. Cassie was inspired to write this after participating in the “Palm Friday” chapel at Augsburg University last Friday. This blog post illustrates the Interpretative work our faith communities are working on.
If you are looking for a straight answer, stop here; there is none. If you would be willing to dwell into your neighbors’ story, your story, and God’s story, then keep reading. It will be long, but it will all make sense at the end. After all, only when you weave these very different stories together can you find how God is calling us to show up in our community. Be patient for this work is slow and challenging.
Our Story: Are we feeling guilty with “being Christian”?
As a young leader, I am used to being vocal about my beliefs. I speak up for people who have been marginalized and have no voice. Yet, one of the most difficult things for me is to learn how to publicly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks true to the communities that I serve. It is challenging to find the right balance between living out my faith in the public square and to be compassionate toward people who have experienced trauma and pain at the hand of the church. I am disheartened to see faith communities resistant to use “God’s language.” Many faith communities come forward to acknowledge mistakes the church has committed in its long history. However, instead of closely looking at and changing policies, systems, processes, and cultural norms of white supremacy, colonization, and toxic masculinity, many people respond by no longer talking about their Christian faith in public. Are there ways for us, as Christians, to declare that Christianity is a religion of love? Can we live out our faith and allow God’s stories and our stories to guide us in accompanying our neighbors?
God’s Story: Palm Sunday
To answer those questions above, let me first share with you one of God’s stories. I would make an assumption that many of us have read or heard of the story in Mark 11:1–11 in which people “spread branches they had cut in the fields.” They carried these palms as they followed Jesus entering Jerusalem while shouting praises to God. From this Biblical narrative, we have Palm Sunday—the Sunday before Easter when many churches celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by carrying palm fronds.
Let’s stop here for a moment and ask a few questions. During church service on Palm Sunday, when being given those palm branches, what do you do with them? Do you wave them while entering the chapel? Do you hold on to them throughout the entire service? Bring them home when the service is done? Do you know what exactly do these palm branches represent?
Our neighbor’s Story: The March for Our Lives
I would need to tell you about my neighbor’s story in order to answer those questions above. In support of stronger gun violence prevention measures, on Saturday, March 24, 2018, the March for Our Lives took place in Washington D.C. where between 200,000 to 800,000 people participated. In other places in the country, thousands of people—many were high school students and young adults—marched onto the street with protest signs sending strong messages against gun violence and demanding for change. Among those protest signs, there were some palm branches: some were held high above the head; others were tied to protest signs. Yes, Saturday, March 24, 2018 was the day before Palm Sunday.
Weaving together our neighbors’ story, our story, and God’s Story
On April 12, during the “Palm Friday” chapel, Augsburg University’s associate pastor Justin Lind-Ayres told us about his experience participating in the 2018 March for Our Lives. He compared those palm branches with protest signs we have today. He shared, when people held onto the branches and followed Jesus into Jerusalem, they were marching with Jesus to demand for a change and to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ. Similarly, people who were marching with palm branches at the March for Our Lives were also advocating for social justice while celebrating the incredible leadership of young people who organized and led this national demonstration. Moreover, these people were explicit about their identity. They sent out an important message: the Christian community is standing with the victims of the Parkland shooting and those young leaders who fight against gun violence.
I shared with you about our concerns as Christians, Mark 11:1–11, the sermon about Palm Sunday, and the presence of palm branches during the March for Our Lives because these stories teach us how to live out our faith. No, it is not enough to just listen to our neighbors, or to only understand our identity, or to only know God’s story. Faith communities must be able to weave together these three stories to discover: Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do? How is God calling us to show up in this community? Instead of ambiguously saying “we are not that kind of church” or “we are not that kind of Christian,” we must be explicit about our identity and our values—with words and actions. How can we fix our mistakes and/or remove misunderstandings and assumptions that people may have about the church and our faith without actually showing up in the community and being clear about our true Christian values? I strongly believe, as faith communities, we are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to challenge the particular bad news in our neighborhood.Only when we show up in the neighborhood—with humility and compassion—can we understand the bad news and truly discern the good news in our specific context. This is how we live out our faith.