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Four churches start new mission congregation

The Rev. Per Nilsen will lead the new congregation.

The Rev. Per Nilsen will lead the new congregation.

Rosemount is growing fast but has no ELCA church.

Dakota County is exploding in population. ELCA congregations in Burnsville, Apple Valley, Eagan, and Lakeville are drawing in new members at a sometimes astonishing pace.
Except in Rosemount.
A former ELCA congregation in Rosemount fell on hard times, saw its membership hemorrhage as many families found other church homes, and then left the Lutheran Church to become an independent congregation.
Following a pattern once used more widely among Lutherans in North America, an informal alliance of neighboring congregations decided to address what they saw to be a mission opportunity going wanting.
There were three reasons the leaders of ELCA congregations in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, and Lakeville decided to act. First, they knew the territory (with Rosemount, all these congregations are in Dakota County). Second, there were no funds available at the synod or churchwide level to launch a mission start. And third, the congregations already had a history of jointly supporting a mission launch.
Five years ago the same congregations bankrolled a new ELCA congregation in Atlanta, Georgia. The results were so satisfying it was only a matter of time before they were ready to try it again.
After the former St. John Lutheran Church of Rosemount lost most of its members and then left the ELCA, the Rev. Michael Foss, senior pastor of Prince of Peace Church, Burnsville, convened an informal consortium of leaders from his parish, along with neighboring Grace and Shepherd of the Valley, both in Apple Valley, Easter in Eagan, and Hosanna! in Lakeville.
According to the Rev. Per Nilsen, one of the pastors at Prince of Peace, “There was great excitement on all sides. I was asked to lead the process of developing a plan. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to consider becoming the mission developer.”
As it turned out, it took the planners three tries to get Nilsen to agree. In the meantime, Grace Lutheran found it necessary to withdraw from the process, leaving four ELCA congregations to carry the plan forward.
“The approach probably seems a little unconventional in the present ELCA,” Nilsen admitted. “Normally the synod or the national church takes the initiative.” But, he added, “A half century ago it wasn’t so unusual. I’m aware of a group of Lutheran congregations in the Moorhead, Minnesota, community having joined together to birth a new Lutheran congregation in their midst back then.”
Nilsen is a high-energy individual with an obvious passion for what he’s been called to. “We’ve been praying very diligently about this,” he told Metro Lutheran. “We are looking for 50-100 families with a high level of commitment as we begin.”
He’s got a good start. His own congregation, Prince of Peace, has informally promised to transfer around 35 families, all of which are either looking for the excitement of helping launch a new parish, or who live in Rosemount and want an ELCA congregation closer to home.
The other three congregations in the partnership are expected to provide a core group of their own families for the new mission start. And that’s not all.
“[Among] the four supporting churches,” Nilsen says, “combined with some funding from St. Paul Area Synod and the ELCA, we’ll have beginning financial resources of $270,000 coming to us over a 4-5 year period.”
Nilsen hastens to add, “That’s both blessing and bane. The risk is that participants may (falsely) assume their financial commitment isn’t needed. In fact, we’re looking for members who will be joyful tithers.”
The new congregation already has a name. “Community of Hope Lutheran Church” plans to begin its life with education and prayer support programs during January, and then offer worship beginning in early February. A Rosemount school facility may be available for initial meetings.
That Per Nilsen would find himself developing a new Lutheran congregation seems more than a little surprising, given his past history. “During high school I was in full rebellion against religion. I explored drugs and alcohol, and finally had to get help. But it was the church that proved one of my best support communities.”
Still, he wasn’t thinking of ordained ministry. He majored in math and physics at the University of Minnesota, Morris, after which he spent a year teaching martial arts. “I could not get a ‘real’ job,” he remembers, “so I got a second degree black belt teaching karate while I looked for something else.”
He tried a stint in the Air Force, but flying led to a painful problem with his inner ear, so he quit after a year.
He experienced a call to ordained ministry, graduated from Luther Seminary, and with his wife, Mary, served a New York congregation for six years, before accepting the call to Prince of Peace in Burnsville.
Reflecting on his new challenge, Nilsen says, “Rosemount is a terrific mission field. The population is 15,000, projected to reach 33,000 in 20 years. The median age is 27. This county has the fewest churches per capita in the metro area, but is one of the fastest-growing counties in Minnesota. (In the city of St. Paul, there is one church for every 984 people; in Dakota County, it’s one church for every 1,473.)
According to Nilsen, the model being used (by the consortium of ELCA congregations starting Community of Hope) is working because the four churches don’t threaten each other. He says, “Fostering a non-competitive mode is fairly uncommon in the ELCA.”
Nilsen says a search is underway for worship space to accommodate around 400. “When we have around 700 worshiping on a weekend, we’ll start thinking about owning our own property.”
Since the family already lives in Rosemount, 40-year-old Nilsen, his wife and children — Bjorn, 10, and Kristian, 7 — know the territory. For the next year or two they may well be eyeing every vacant lot in town, trying to imagine a new worship center there.