National Lutheran News

Congregations as the center of an evangelical church

What would a missional church look like and how will we know when we see it?

It’s just after noon on a Friday, a day when there are usually no classes at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). But this day, in Room 201, students are lined up six deep to talk to Stephen Bouman, the instructor of Mission Leadership, a new course he and colleagues developed and taught. Bouman, executive director of the Congregational and Synodical Mission (CSM) unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), focuses all of his attention on the student in front of him.

“Be honest about the situation,” he counsels a master of arts student who is not sure how to approach her class project on the conflicts in a congregation she knows well. “There may be deep conflicts, but there are gifts that the missional church can bring to this,” he tells her. That’s what Bouman and his colleagues have been emphasizing in this unusual course: that each church is a mission site and that it uses the gifts within and around it to fulfill its mission.

The Rev. Paul Erickson (left), assistant to the bishop for evangelical mission for the St. Paul Area Synod, strategizes with Marty Ericson, Como Park Lutheran Church, about the missional nature of the church. Photo provided by the St. Paul Area Synod

Each church is a mission site; it uses the gifts within and around it to fulfill its mission.

Offered for the first time

Mission Leadership, a course that met six Fridays during the fall semester from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., was taught by Bouman and a team of ELCA staff members. Bouman explained, “Several years ago, Craig Satterlee asked me to teach a course on evangelism. I counter-proposed teaching on mission. It has proven to be a great opportunity for the CSM unit team to bring to the seminary what we are trying to do across the church.”

CSM staff members have lectured for other ELCA seminary courses, but Mission Leadership is the first complete course the team has taught at a seminary. Students hope the course will be offered regularly both at LSTC and at the other ELCA seminaries.

Senior M.Div. student Aaron Decker said, “It takes everything we’ve learned in seminary and puts it into practice. It was one of the most practically useful courses I’ve had. It should be done again.”

Using missional texts to create a missional church

Bouman structured the course around missional texts from the Bible as a way to look at and to measure the work done in congregations. He hopes that students gained a sense of where they can start to transform their parishes to missional churches. “We have to deputize the whole church to do mission. Every pastor needs to be a missional pastor,” Bouman said. Making that case directly to seminarians is a powerful way to create a missional church.

Bouman emphasized the importance of getting to know people through one-on-ones. Each student was required to do six one-on-ones with people they didn’t know. “This work begins with three great ‘listenings,’” Bouman said, “Listening to God, through scripture and prayer; to the community, through one-on-ones both inside the congregation and in the community; and internal listening to discern where we are being called to mission.”

The Rev. Karsten Nelson, left, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, St. Paul, shares exciting missional stories with Erickson.

Students particularly appreciated the practical techniques and resources to draw on when they are in the parish.

Class days were typically split between morning presentations on the scriptural, historical, and theological roots of a missional church and afternoon presentations and discussions about how ELCA churches are putting these ideas into practice. In addition to Bouman, the teaching team included Neil Harrison, Ruben Duran, Brenda Smith, Everett Flanigan, and Gemechis Buba.

Gaining theological tools for mission

Decker admits that he had no idea what he was signing up for when he enrolled in the class. At first he was frustrated by all of the theory being presented. “By the end of the course I realized that it would be hard to teach the practical aspects of mission leadership without laying the foundation with scripture and theory,” he said. “I got a strong theology of what it means to be a church in mission engaged with the world and the biblical and theological tools to make it happen in the congregations with which I will serve.”

Others signed up for the course because they’d heard about Stephen Bouman and his ministries in the Metropolitan New York Synod. “The first day of class was September 11,” said M.Div. middler Matt Stuhlmuller. “Dr. Bouman came in that day and shared his experiences in New York on September 11, 2001. It was very moving to hear how the churches were able to support the firefighters and emergency workers because they already had an established relationship and trusted one another.”

Gaining practical techniques for building a missional church

All of the instructors for Mission Leadership stressed the importance of congregations building relationships in the community. ELCA Director of Discipleship/Evangelism Pastor Brenda Smith told the class how her congregation built and benefited from strong relationships with the police and other community services in its neighborhood.

Smith’s congregation used the seven faith practices of prayer, witness, service, encouragement, study, giving, and worship to develop discipleship and to discern what God was calling them to do. “Any size congregation can integrate discipleship and evangelism into its life. All it takes is a strong and willing leadership — but it doesn’t need to be the pastor leading the effort,” Smith said.

Students particularly appreciated the practical techniques and resources to draw on when they are in the parish. “I feel that we will be able to call on the teachers we had (from the churchwide offices). They also gave us names of people in synods – people we can go to when we’re in the parish,” said Bridget Thien, an M.Div. middler.

Ministry starts with listening

The large class, composed of seniors newly-returned from internship, middlers anticipating internship, and master of arts students preparing for rostered leadership, spent their last Friday together listening to one another. Each student had 10 minutes to present on one of three final projects: planting a new ministry, constructing a theology of mission, or selecting a core biblical text from which to construct a theology of mission.

Students became resources for one another, sharing their ideas and experiences. Senior Todd Koch explained how he helped organize his internship congregation upon learning they wanted to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation and take public leadership, welcoming LGBT persons into their faith community. Middler Sally Wilke outlined ways she has been applying the lessons of Mission Leadership to inspire and revive her Ministry in Context congregation. Bridget Thien described a process to help congregations become comfortable doing one-on-ones. And senior Dan Hille constructed a theology of mission relating ecology to the missional church.

Bouman affirmed that LSTC students understand the concept of a church in mission in the world. “I found a wonderful give-and-take – a free-flowing conversation that allowed us to cover the content of the course. LSTC students are very well-educated. They have a willingness to grapple with tradition and are widely diverse in their opinions and politics. I hope we showed them that there is no ‘paint-by-number’ kit for the parish. Thinking about ministry starts with listening and the power of one-on-ones.”

Jan Boden, communications director for LSTC, first published this article in the Winter 2010 issue of LSTC Epistle. The Rev. Paul Erickson updated it.

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