Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Northeast Minneapolis young adults are the target of “Mercy Seat”

The ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod is launching the new ministry

Anticipation is building for the March 4 start of a new mission congregation of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA, a parish that will be far from typical.
Mercy Seat, the new church, will not be located in a sprawling new suburb but in the heart of northeast Minneapolis. And its founders will not attempt to attract members with a “contemporary” type of worship.

Rather, they say, Mercy Seat will be “a creative re-sponse to a growing need for critical-thinking, grace-based Christian orthodoxy.”

The Rev. Kyle Halverson, one of the team of three pastors who will serve the new congregation, says, “In many ways we are not a contemporary church at all, but the same old church of Jesus Christ.”

What Mercy Seat will attempt to do, he said, is to go as deeply as it can into the Gospel and communicate that to its target audience. These are young urban adults, many well educated and interested in the arts and music, who have drifted away from the church.

“We really want to find a way to give them the gift of their own church back,” Halverson declared.

He and the Rev. Kae Evensen will serve as full-time pastors of the congregation. The Rev. Mark Stenberg will serve part-time. All are in their mid-40s. All left established pastorates be-cause they were captivated by the idea for the new ministry, first suggested by Evensen.

Married and the mother of two children, Evensen had served six years at Lutheran Church of Peace in south Maplewood. Halverson, who became a close friend of Evensen at Luther Seminary, had been a campus pastor at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana, for 10 years.

Stenberg, a college friend of Halverson, had left his Lutheran roots for the Baptist Church, gotten a divinity degree from a Baptist seminary in Berkeley, California, and a doctorate from Northwestern Univer-sity in religious and theological studies. He had served 10 years as pastor of the House of Mercy in downtown St. Paul.

Stenberg’s experience at House of Mercy, which had a loose Baptist affiliation, helped shape what the trio would propose for the new mission congregation.

“We were able to draw people on the strength of good, critical-thinking Chris-tian orthodoxy that was grace-based and centered on Word and Sacrament,” Stenberg said. This, he added, was in an era when others were striving to be “relevant.”

People came to House of Mercy from all over the Twin Cities, drawn by this renewed emphasis on theology and preaching the Word, Stenberg said, most of them young adults interested in the arts and literature.

Stenberg, who was contemplating jumping ship and joining the Lutheran church, had the idea of taking what he had learned at House of Mercy and turning it up a notch in terms of liturgy, which was Halver-son’s area of expertise.
And that, essentially, is what has happened. The new Mercy Seat will take the House of Mercy concept and put it in a Lutheran setting.

Once the three pastors had come to agreement early in 2004 on the type of mission congregation they wanted to start, Halverson returned to Indiana and Evensen and Stenberg did the “grunt work” of selling the idea in the Twin Cities.
Stenberg shaped the documents to be used in making a presentation to Bishop Craig Johnson and the Minneapolis Area Synod, and he and Evensen met with a number of congregations as they sought a place for worship.

When the three pastors made their presentation to synod leaders in mid-2004, they outlined a concept of a team of pastors offering urban young adults a ministry based on very traditional Lutheran theology and avoiding a “contemporary” style of liturgy.

Leadership of the liturgy was to be placed in the hands of Jonathan Pember-ton, a free-lance jazz trumpeter and pianist in the Twin Cities who had collaborated with Halverson on writing a jazz liturgy.

Pemberton describes the music to be offered as “improvised music,” of which jazz will be an important component. “We’re going to try to feature the best of the improvising musical community in town, so sometimes it won’t need that exact label ‘jazz,’” he said. The music will be “moving and deep,” he added.

Bishop Johnson gave his enthusiastic backing to the Mercy Seat proposal, and it has been included in the Minneapolis Synod’s “Mak-ing a World of Difference” initiatives for 2006. The synod, along with congregations and individuals who respond to this initiative, will provide the start-up funding for the Mercy Seat mission, and it is expected to be self-sufficient in five years.

St. Andrew Lutheran of Eden Prairie was the first congregation to make a gift to support the northeast Minneapolis mission, allocating $30,000. Normandale Lutheran members Tim and Jan Maudlin have committed $40,000 to cover the costs of part-time musician Pem-berton for three years.

In searching for a location for Mercy Seat, Halverson said, the founders needed to find a church whose pastor shared their vision and wouldn’t feel threatened by the presence of the mission congregation. They found such a person in the Rev. Craig Pederson, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran at 724 Lowry Avenue NE, just west of Central Avenue NE.

While Mercy Seat will not be a neighborhood church, the founders have discovered that a whole new group of young adults who are artistic and bright have been moving into Northeast Minneapolis in recent years.

A number of studios and galleries are located in Northeast Minneapolis, and a “massively significant” part of what the new mission church will be trying to do is blessing the arts, Halverson said.

“We’re trying to help artists and musicians, to bless them and find ways to encourage their creativity and even give them venues in which to engage their work,” he said. “We hope to do art openings, have galleries, do music in bars and have music festivals.”

Over recent months the pastors have been building relationships with four or five clusters of people as they seek to create a membership base for the new church.
The have selected a 15-member board of directors, coming from diverse backgrounds. They’ve been hanging out with an alienated group of 20 to 30 young people, doing ministry with them and conducting Tuesday night Bible studies for them at Mayslacks bar.

The pastors have been making weekly calls at noon at restaurants in Northeast Minneapolis, and they’ve been building interest among groups at Luther Seminary and recent graduates of St. Olaf and Gustavus Adolphus Colleges who are working in the Twin Cities. Recently they’ve started a Friday noon prayer service and begun rehearsals for a group who will lead the liturgy for the worship services.

The target is to have 200 persons in the pews at St. Paul Church for the first worship service of Mercy Seat congregation at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 4. A lot of them will be persons “borrowed” from congregations that have been supportive of the new venture, such as St. Andrew and Normandale Lutheran and House of Mercy in St. Paul, the pastors admit.

These persons have been told to keep their membership and financial support in their home congregations. But the pastors said that two months prior to the first service they had a group of 40 other people who were committed to joining House of Mercy and another 100 who had expressed interest.
Based on the groups of people they’ve been getting together with, the pastors express optimism that the kind of ministry they have conceived will succeed.

“I believe it’s going to work,” Halverson asserted.

For more information about the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod “Making a World of Difference” initiative, which is supporting Mercy Seat, call 612/870-3610 or visit www. mpls-synod.org.