Our church’s mission is “Living and Sharing Jesus.” Living Faith: the ELCA’s Call to Discipleship focuses on the seven faith practices – pray, study, worship, invite, encourage, serve, and give – which form us as disciples of Jesus Christ. The first three relate to living Jesus, the first part of our mission: we live Jesus, indwell and commune with Jesus through prayer with God, the studying of Scripture, and worshipping together. The last four relate to sharing Jesus: inviting others into a relationship with us and with Jesus; encouraging one another in our walk of faith; serving our neighbors as they have need; and giving of our time, talents, and treasure for the sake of our neighbors.
The question is, how are we going to embody those faith practices and grow in them during the next year and beyond? How can we more effectively live and share Jesus today and in the days to come? The foundations are the first three – pray, study, worship. This year, our worship, Christian education, and home devotions will be coordinated, with lectionary based worship materials, curricula, and the Daily Readings. We will focus on faith practices ‘at church’ and in the home. In fact, the church is wherever the faithful are gathered or alone. Living Jesus, together and in every area of our lives, grows our roots deep in the soil of God’s grace, mercy, justice, peace, and love. It’s connecting with and feeding our souls. My goal in living Jesus as pastor, preacher, worship and education leader is not to frantically do more in terms of programming in the congregation, but rather to focus us in, and do excellent worship, learning, and prayer that grounds us in a common story and a common life. Music and the arts will be integral parts of our renewal of worship, study, and prayer.
If the first three faith practices are more inward facing (not in a self-centered sense, but in the sense of connecting with God and our souls), the next four faith practices turn us outward toward our neighbors, and remind us that our mission as a church is to be a church for others. Let’s look at each in turn.
Invite. It used to be that inviting people to join a congregation was straightforward: members (and/or the pastor) walked door to door in the neighborhood, inviting people to come and worship. This worked, more or less, in the post war world, when people were likely to have grown up in a church (often another Lutheran church), and were likely to respond to such and invitation. I often hear stories of how people in the 40s, 50s and 60s were invited to Good Shepherd. In almost all cases, they were already Lutheran (often Swedish, Norwegian, or German), and had recently moved into the neighborhood. As the church grew, right across the street from West High School (now a middle school), Good Shepherd became a destination for youth and young families. At one point, over 100 high school youth met weekly for youth group. It was easy to invite neighbors, because they shared a common culture, religion, and ethnic identity.
It is no surprise that the situation is very different today, and there is no point in bemoaning the fact. As the cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and ethnic – yes, racial – geography of the neighborhood has changed in the past 40 years, inviting our neighbors is not as easy as it was. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Church as an ethnic or class-based club is not the model to which we should aspire anyway – as the early church spread in the Roman Empire, it was known being a community of equals, where there was “no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female.” Good Shepherd must grow into its identity as a multicultural church, or wither away. We must be the kind of community that gets to know our neighbors – all of them – and loves them without ulterior motive. We must build relationships and partner with our neighbors, at West Middle School, Welsh Elementary, our neighborhood associations, and other community groups. You cannot effectively invite people that you do not know and truly care about.
Encourage. Pray for one another. Encourage one another in our walks of faith. Keep each other accountable. Visit the sick, care for the elderly, care for those imprisoned, call, write, and visit one another. Help each other grow. Give one another courage to live out our faith in the world. This is where advocating for justice and organizing our community come in as well. Encouraging our community to speak truth to power, in the tradition of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets.
Serve. This one is critical to our practice of sharing Jesus – service gives credibility to invitation, for example. How is God calling us to serve? We do some service – hosting organizations that meet in our building, collecting goods for food pantries and other organizations, throwing a party for our neighborhood each year – the Ice Cream Social. But on a week-to-week basis, we do not have a big impact on our community.
One idea to explore in earnest is an after school program, similar to the ones at Zion or Grace Lutheran Churches. This can be Wednesdays or Fridays (or any other week day), with a combination of a meal, fun activities, and learning. There is not enough time to put this together well before the fall, but work needs to be done now to make this a possibility in 2014 – in January. Specifically, we need to gather information about what’s happening in our community already, and what are the needs and resources at hand. We need to rebuild bridges with West Middle School and Welsh Elementary. We need to find other organizations with which to partner, and pursue funding sources.
Give. This is stewardship – how we use the gifts God has given us, especially for the sake of our neighbors. We will have a renewed stewardship focus this fall at Good Shepherd. In terms of the church, stewardship of time, talents, and treasure is the fuel of our common life.