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For the preceding several years, Salem English Lutheran Church had been on a journey: from a small corner of their cavernous, old sanctuary, to the emptying sanctuary of Lyndale United Church of Christ, three blocks away, to the Intermedia Arts Center in a cramped art gallery space that was still holy space every Sunday (and some Wednesdays) for two whole years, Salem came home that day in January of 2012 to a version of their old home that they could never have imagined.

Fellowship Hall wall, SpringHouse Ministry Center, Minneapolis, MN

Gracious God, you have called your servants . . .

In 2006, Salem had called a young pastor whom the ELCA would not allow to be ordained because she was openly lesbian and in a relationship. She led this church through nearly 10 years of decline, death, uncertainty, wilderness wandering, endless hours of committee meetings, and many, many worshipful experiences. Pastor Jen Nagel was my pastor and friend for some of my most wilderness-like years of waiting for call. I resonated with a church that found itself in the wilderness like I was, one which had stepped out to accept everyone. These were some committed servants of God. Some of them remind me of some of you here at Trinity.

…to ventures of which we cannot see the ending…

Salem Lutheran did not know the end of the journey that they began in 2006, when they began conversations that addressed their reality: They were a church built for 2000 members which now had about 50.

That journey ended, or rather found its fulfillment, in SpringHouse Ministry Center six years later. First Salem, then at Lyndale UCC, and finally First Christian Church of Minneapolis, made the commitment to form a new kind of ministry: a cooperative model in which each church pooled significant resources toward a common worship space that is also a significant community space, while each congregation retained its own identity, board, and pastor.

First Christian Church was the last member of the three-church co-op to join. In 2008, First Christian sold its two-city-block long property that included a nursing home (which had closed a few years before they sold), a huge fellowship hall, a stunning fireside room (with a fireplace), and an architecturally significant, gorgeous sanctuary, initiating their own journey of discovering the future of God’s calling for them, beyond their historic safe space.

I worked for First Christian as their office manager during this time; they closed on the sale of their church before they knew what they would do next. Their interim pastor, Rev. Bob Brite, looked around the whole Twin Cities area for a new church space. First Christ even looked at an unusual two-story building that ended up becoming a law office. None of the available church buildings for sale looked good, and with their 85 members, many of whom were over the age of 70, some of whom had helped build that beautiful building in 1954, First Christian’s next steps were far from certain.

...by paths as yet untrodden…

The co-op model that came together in SpringHouse Ministry Center had perhaps not been tried much: three declining churches that had once thrived in membership joining in a new form of ministry together. I don’t know where else this model has been tried. But this co-op model is a real path, with a real outcome, when churches are not ready to close. Where does the path lead when you are not ready to call God’s ministry ended?

…through perils unknown…

These perils unknown. What are they? Running out of money? Out of members? Out of possessions? Out of energy, or inspiration, or hope? All of these elements will come and go multiple times throughout our lives, as individuals as well as communities. Beauty comes in many forms. The Holy comes through the same Holy Spirit wherever the Spirit blows: through a beautiful sanctuary, or someone else’s beautiful sanctuary, or a cramped art gallery, or a beautifully renovated building.

Some important things will be lost. Sadly, some important people may be lost too. First Christian was in the best financial position of all three churches to engage the co-op; they also stayed together without losing any members. Salem’s membership was in flux with newer members, but the core congregation stayed intact through many moves along that untrodden path.

We are seeing potentially rapid change at Trinity Lutheran Church in Park Forest. We might see the sale of our building before we’re ready to leave. We may get the option to rent back our space without the burdens of property ownership. Or we might not. But I can say from personal witness that faithful people can weather change, and that God indeed calls us beyond the walls that we have known, our physical walls and our spiritual walls, our emotional walls and our social walls.

We are not First Christian, Salem Lutheran, or Lyndale UCC. Perhaps this co-op church is a model that works better in a city than a suburb. But perhaps it can work anywhere. I have begun to tell the story of this ministry here; I will tell you more because I think it’s an important story for us to hear and pray over. You can find them on the web at www.springhousemn.org.

Until we find that path that God has for our future at Trinity, I propose that we pray this prayer together every Sunday: “Gracious God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

No matter where our path leads, these are your days to shine, Trinity. We have work to do, but we also have the Creator of our whole lives and universe to walk with us, sustain us, and love us into a whole new life.

May God bless you every day!

Pastor Chris

We are at a moment of a new and necessary reformation in our church. This reformation is necessary not only for Trinity Lutheran Church, or for churches in Park Forest, but in many places where churches are struggling to survive. I do have an inkling of that vision of the future of our struggling churches that I want to share with you.

In this vision, it is as if I am out on a long dock that extends a ways into a large lake, looking off into the night across a vast body of water.

I can’t see exactly what is on the other side, but I can see campfires burning in the night, far off in the distance, fires that are set to watch for the future, fires that have light for what is to come next. And I feel that we need to get a boat to travel to the other side and see what that light will show us.

The church of Christ will continue forever, whether or not Trinity will host it. We have spent the last several years adrift on that lake, not knowing which way the wind would blow us, or on which shore we would land.

But I can see the watchfires burning in a hundred circling camps, the watchfires of a new dawn of Christianity, one not based in guilt and shame and fear, nor in the accumulation of money or members or adherents, but one built in the love of the creation for the Creator, one which cannot bind that love up in a building but must literally take down the doors to let everyone in.

I have seen the watchfire of a new direction for how we live in community, when so many of our communities have been stretched beyond their breaking point and must find a new basis on which to come together, a new covenant of love and care.

We have been traveling the last six decades in a church that even looks like a ship. With our vote to sell this beautiful, historic facility, proceeds from the sale of our church could fund our journey to the other side of that lake, to bring us to the dim light that God might have for us burning in those distant watchfires.

I can't tell you today what our future will be. I don't have a plan to sell you. But we now have the opportunity to turn our church into a boat that could take us across this lake to look into God's destiny for us and perhaps for other churches as well that are facing the same challenges we are.

In the early years of the second world war, British prime Minister Winston Churchill proclaimed to his nation that their hardest times were ahead of them. The battle to save France from Nazi rule was over, and Nazis were advancing to Britain. The fate of the world really did at that point rest on Britain not being conquered.

Churchill told his nation in that time when their resolve was most needed in the world, when their nation may also easily have fallen to Nazi occupation, that if the British empire lasted a thousand years, people would look back on that time and say “this was their finest hour.”

It is easy to believe that the finest hour of the Christian church was when all the Sunday schools were bursting at the seams, or when all the pews in all the churches were filled to capacity and latecomers had to go to the balcony. By the standards of the world, that would have defined success.

We are not facing down a menace like the Nazi empire. But we are at a moment when the form of Christian community we have known has been changing, and we do not know what it will come to look like. That is the case in a majority of churches. We have seen some possible ways forward. I am convinced that we could find more, because when we step out in faith, God will always come to meet us.

Beloved in Christ, this is *our* finest hour. This is the hour in which we can take control of a ministry that has been drifting for a long time, in a form of church that has been taking on water and going under in church after church after church for years.

We can make a new life in ministry to bring good news to those who are poor, to bring freedom to those who live in captivity to fear, captivity to bad theology that shames and blames and scares, captivity to loneliness and to oppression of many kinds.

And I truly believe with the help of God working in and through us that we can help a culture that has lost its way through the intensity of its differences to find its way back to its better self, starting here, in this village of Park Forest, and working outward from here. Our village needs us. Our nation needs us. Our world needs us and all who carry the fire of God’s love into a world that is hurting from the fire of dictators’ populist lies, IEDs and nuclear weapons, and the hot pain of hunger in an underfed child’s belly.

Because this is the year of God’s favor. This is the year of jubilee, and with the power of the Holy Spirit working through us, with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus walking with us, I truly believe that we can claim the voice of love that God has given us to shout to the nations.

Because Jesus is risen and he lives, here, today, and not just for us, but for all who live under the shadow of death, either literal death of the body, or death of our churches from lack of membership or irrelevant messages. For in his death, there is eternal life. And by his wounds will come the healing of the nations.

Come, join the new reformation. It does not need great or famous or rich people to start it, because it is already underway through the working of the Holy Spirit. God needs living voices.

May God bless you every day,

Pastor Chris

Recently, I purchased a stack of newspapers that highlighted some of the most momentous events of the 20th century from the Goodwill thrift store online auction.

Over the course of a mere 24 years, these newspapers trumpeted the end of World War 2 (“PEACE AT LAST,” August 15th , 1945), the assassination of President Kennedy (“PRESIDENT KILLED,” November 22, 1963), and finally the moon landing (“MAN WALKS ON MOON,” July 20, 1969).

I wonder what it was like to live before anyone had ever walked on the moon? In this year to come, our human race will mark 50 years since the first human beings stood on the surface of the

moon, five years before I was born.

Many of our members at Trinity were alive when the astronauts from the United States landed on the moon. Many, indeed, likely remember that day, sitting in front of the TV, and watching this humanity-altering event with millions and millions of other people throughout the world. What must that have been like for people? What’s it like to think of this 50 years later?

And what must the level of change from that time to this have been like for all of us reading these words right now?

What must it have been like for you to deal with that much change in the world? Changes not only in how the world works, and how we as humans think about ourselves and each other?

As humanity often feels like we are alone and at the fate of forces beyond our control, to have lived in the last 100 years, as we all have, is to have dealt with changes that people could have foreseen but many would never believe could ever take place.

As a child, I met Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts who first stepped on the moon. He came to the University of North Dakota, to address a group of us “Young Astronauts” whose minds were lit afire with the possibilities of space travel. Not long after, the space shuttle Challenger was literally lit afire and lost, along with its crew of seven, and the hopes and dreams of a generation.

Still, that seed of exploration, of rocket propulsion, of going into places and realms that humans have never explored, still lives in my creative consciousness, still makes my heart beat a little faster. And I wonder if it might not come to germinate in the church of the 21st century as well?

As a church, not only as Trinity Lutheran Church, we are being called, in the words of a prayer we read together at the special congregational meeting on December 16th, “to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” For some, these paths are too much to bear. More familiar paths are needed.

Others, I hope, will be up to the task of exploring what the church could look like in this century, in which churches are for the vast majority of people like the surface of the moon itself: something they would never set foot on. Weddings take place everywhere now, and funerals need not happen in churches. Confirmations for Christian children and bar/bat mitzvahs for Jewish children are not the rites of passage to adulthood they once were.

The church, including our own dear Trinity Lutheran Church of Park Forest, must change. Our message need not change, but our context must fundamentally change.

Our call to change is like we are being called out to set foot on the moon. The “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful . . . magnificent desolation” was how the moon’s surface was described in 1969. This is the present reality of our church. Beautiful, magnificent, and in many cases, desolate.

We can approach the desolation of our churches with sadness, anxiety, and emptiness, or we can remember the rest of that prayer I mentioned earlier: “Send us out with good courage, knowing not where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.”

Because that love, which we celebrate on Christmas Day, is REAL. It can really guide and support us. And we must rest in it like there is no tomorrow. Because, literally, there is no tomorrow in the church without the love and guidance of God through our savior Jesus Christ.

We are about to live into our faith in a whole new way. For some, it will be like the church itself has stepped out onto the moon. Church will not look like it has. We don’t have many templates to follow. Only that what has worked no longer does, but the Gospel still lives, and it is our challenge, our duty, and our delight to find out what that way will be.

And, in the words of Frank Sinatra, with God’s had leading us and love supporting us, We will never walk alone.

May God bless you each day of the new year to come!

Pastor Chris