National Lutheran News

What happened to those “Jubilee” churches?

ELCA predecessor, ALC, launched 19 new mission starts five decades ago

Exactly 50 years ago, a group of U.S. Lutherans did something fairly audacious. They agreed to a mixed marriage. For the first time, Lutherans agreed to merge across ethnic lines in order to create a new church body. (Prior to 1960, it had always been Germans uniting with Germans or Norwegians with Norwegians.)

A little-remembered but significant element in the launch of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in 1960 was the decision to plant 19 new mission congregations. Since the new church body had 18 districts, the goal was to plant a new mission in each (perhaps the extra one was added for good measure). Interestingly, all 19 were named Atonement Lutheran. All were declared to be “Jubilee” congregations. And all came to birth between 1960 and 1963.

An exploration of the statistical data on the ELCA Web site reveals 15 congregations with the Atonement name, and with start dates between those years. Assuming these are all part of the ALC Jubilee Churches project, it’s clear that four such mission starts did not survive.

From left, Rutger Mason, Marilyn Nelson, and Steve Mason are regular worship participants at the Atonement congregation in New Brighton, Minnesota. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Fifty years later, give or take, the Jubilee Churches project appears to have become a living illustration of Jesus’ parable of the four soils: Some seed landed on poor soil and didn’t survive; some grew but struggled; some fell into good soil and prospered; some on thepathway and was eaten by birds. Who knows why some of these congregations prospered while others languished?

­The decision to launch 19 new mission congregations in the early 1960s was not an idea pulled out of thin air.

Consider the following:

* Atonement Lutheran in Overland Park, Kansas, organized in 1963 and the largest of the 15 remaining parishes, today lists more than 2,000 baptized members.

* Atonement in Barrington, Illinois (founded 1961), and Atonement in St. Cloud, Minnesota (also 1961), have well over 1,000 members each. As it turns out, during the past seven years, Barrington is trending upward, while St. Cloud has declined by about 400 members.

* Four of the Jubilee congregations have fewer than 200 members today; five have between 500 and 800. Most of these congregations have experienced membership growth during the past seven years.

* Atonement in Beaverton, Oregon, a Portland suburb, is the smallest surviving Jubilee congregation. Organized in 1961, it struggles for life in the famously-unchurched Pacific Northwest. The congregation now lists just over 50 baptized members and today shares its ministry with a Roman Catholic congregation.

A wide variety of Atonements

Efforts to identify and locate church officials who participated in creating and launching the Jubilee Churches project have come to naught. It’s likely none are still alive. (Readers who have evidence to the contrary are invited to contact Metro Lutheran; a follow-up article with correct information will be run).

Are members of these Jubilee churches aware that they began that way? Queries to the leadership of some brought no response. Some leaders knew that they had been part of the ALC initiative. A few have included paragraphs in their brief historical summaries, on their Web sites, identifying themselves in this way. Included among the self-aware congregations are those located in Boulder, Colorado; Missoula, Montana; Jamestown, North Dakota; Rapid City, South Dakota; and St. Cloud and New Brighton, both in Minnesota.

Should the leadership and members of the ALC feel vindicated, after planting 19 new congregations in a three-year period? In the case of Atonement Lutheran in Muskego, Wisconsin, the answer would be decidedly positive. The Rev. Greg Van Dunk, who serves this 700-member Jubilee parish in a suburb of Milwaukee, told Metro Lutheran, “It was a good decision to organize this congregation — despite challenges.” According to Van Dunk, “We are currently at the highest point in our membership history.” The congregation currently sees around 260 at worship and 330 in Sunday classes.

How has the Muskego congregation influenced its neighborhood? Van Dunk says Atonement’s impact on the immediate local community is a work in progress. “We are, however, a congregation with significant local partnerships with the center city and ministries among the poor in the [Milwaukee] metro area.”

Should the leaders and members of the ALC feel vindicated, after planting 19 new congregations in three years?

The Rev. John Kroschel, who serves Atonement in St. Cloud, Minnesota, is sanguine about how his congregation has fared. “Atonement reached its high point in the early 1990s. Its worship attendance peaked in 1994 averaging 654. Its membership peaked in 2000 with 2,210 baptized members. Currently, our membership is 1,597 and we have 380 at worship. In the early 1990s Atonement saw a leveling off of numbers and the beginning of a slow decline. The neighborhood was [at the end of] its growth.”

The decision to launch 19 new mission congregations in the early 1960s was not an idea pulled out of thin air. Lutherans have long taken their marching orders from Scripture directives like Matthew 28 — a challenge to “go into all the world, teaching, baptizing.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), of which The ALC is now a part, continues to launch new mission starts, as do the other Lutheran church bodies in North America.

In the case of the ELCA, and its predecessors, organizing new congregations has been a priority. The Rev. James Bergquist, who headed the ALC’s Division for Service and Mission in America (DSMA), told Metro Lutheran, “My own memories from the days I directed the ‘old’ DSMA are of ‘50 More in ’84.’” The Rev. Stephen Bouman currently heads up mission outreach for the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination. He says, “This year — 2010 — we have already begun 64 new [mission congregations], almost twice as many as we have ever started in a year in the life of the ELCA. Many of them are among immigrant groups and people living in poverty. It is a wonderful story.”

And no less wonderful is the story of 15 Lutheran congregations, all named Atonement, where ministry continues five decades after their founding. In ancient Israel, a Jubilee Year was supposed to occur after 49 years. Perhaps it’s time for these surviving Jubilee congregations to throw themselves a party.

ELCA congregations named Atonement founded between 1960 and 1963

Founded in 1960

San Diego, California

Founded in 1961

Orlando, Florida

Barrington, Illinois

New Brighton, Minnesota

St. Cloud, Minnesota

Missoula, Montana

Cincinnati, Ohio

Beaverton, Oregon

San Antonio, Texas

Founded in 1962

Boulder, Colorado

Rapid City, South Dakota

Green Bay, Wisconsin

Founded in 1963

Sacramento, California

Overland Park, Kansas

Jamestown, North Dakota

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