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A new paradigm in Lutheran outreach

LCMS ministry targets urban congregations

LINC–TC partner congregations helped build a playground for Trinity First Lutheran School in the Phillips Neighborhood this past summer. Photo provided by LINC—Twin Cities

If my congregation creates an innovative new program to attract unchurched neighbors, when will the newcomers start to show up? According to a creative new Twin Cities outreach ministry model, maybe never.
LINC–Twin Cities, endorsed by the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), was launched in 2008. Its mission is to equip congregations for effective witness. (There are similar LINC organizations in Texas and Louisiana.) But instead of using the “if we build [a program] they will come” model, LINC helps congregations to learn instead to build relationships with their communities — the neighborhood folks outside their church doors. LINC–TC executive director Gary Roberts told Metro Lutheran, “Congregations really want to do outreach, but they tend to be paternalistic when they do it. They want to control the process. A far better approach is to learn to work in partnership — with people they may not even know yet.”
How does that work?
Says Roberts, an LCMS lay minister who teaches courses connecting culture and ministry at Bethel University in St. Paul, “When members of a congregation decide they want to reach out to their community, they usually come with an agenda. It may not be effective. It may not address community needs.”
The better approach, says Roberts, is to build partnerships with the wider community. Lutherans are inclined to resist this, he admits. “They will ask, ‘Where is Jesus in this [approach]? Don’t we have to get out there and share Jesus?”
LINC takes an “asset-based” approach. Look for the assets already resident in the community, and build on those, Roberts counsels. “Jesus is in the relationships you’ll end up developing in the community.” That, he says, is less heavy-handed, less front-loaded, less paternalistic — and more “salt and light.”
“This is generally not a popular approach among church folk,” Roberts says. “There needs to be some conversion that happens in the congregation before the new paradigm can happen.” LINC spends a lot of time promoting conversion in congregations — the willingness to move from an old paradigm to a new one.

So, what’s the new paradigm?

Churches, when they are ready to do significant outreach, begin with valuable resources, says Roberts. They know and believe God’s commission to reach out. They have the capacity of their own resources, including their members. But what’s often missing is an awareness and affirmation of the wider community’s felt needs and desires.

Gary Roberts, executive director, LINC—Twin Cities

“What this congregation succeeded in doing was building dignity, not dependency.”

When you put all three elements together, you get holistic ministry. “You need the spiritual aspect, but you also need social justice.”
Roberts tells the story of a small south Minneapolis LCMS congregation that was ready to try a new paradigm. He worked with the pastor and a leadership team. “They admitted they didn’t know many of their neighbors, including their institutional neighbors. We made a list of community leaders who could be approached. The pastor knew the neighborhood council president. That was a great place to start.”
The leadership team discovered that the community has a party every year in a nearby park. They came up with a creative way to connect, without being heavy-handed and without trying to control the result. The church members proposed to videotape participants at the party, interviewing each one. They got permission to do it and then asked each participant three questions: What do you love best about this community? What would you like to see
improved or changed? What would you personally want to contribute, in order to help make change happen?
Seventy-five people agreed to be videotaped. The community council was so impressed, they showed the video at a neighborhood council meeting.
“What this congregation succeeded in doing,” Roberts maintains, “was building dignity, not dependency. When you listen you discover needs and help the community find resources. They didn’t start with their program. They began where the community was.”
LINC has some early successes in its short history. Just over two years ago, it was instrumental in helping get an unusual mission start planted in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul. “The Alley” (which already had a similar incarnation in Cottage Grove, Minnesota) is not a conventional name for a Lutheran congregation, but the congregation isn’t conventional either.
“We wanted The Alley to be a highly contextual learning lab,” Roberts says. “The members practice community listening.” In other words, this is a congregation committed to a new paradigm from the ground up. “It takes a learning process to ‘do church’ in a new way, and The Alley is committed to that. But it takes time to develop.”
Another significant new venture in which LINC–TC is playing a key role is a Phillips neighborhood project called Franklin Center. On land purchased from Trinity First Lutheran, an LCMS parish one block north of Franklin Avenue, LINC–TC is creating a job-development center. Plans are to include a restaurant that teaches culinary skills for neighborhood folks, a training track for basic office skills, and meeting space for the community. Ten LCMS congregations in the Twin Cities are partnering to help fund the project.
For more information about the work of LINC–Twin Cities, visit the organization’s website,

LINC–TC partner groups

Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Plymouth
Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Paul
Center for U.S. Missions
Christ Lutheran Church, Eagan
Concordia University, St. Paul
Cross View Lutheran Church, Edina
Golden Valley Lutheran Church
Family of Christ Lutheran Church, Ham Lake
Hosanna Lutheran Church, Mankato
LINC–North Texas
LINC–Houston, Texas
Lutheran Community Foundation
Messiah Lutheran Church, Lakeville
Minnesota South District, LCMS
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Anoka
Hoffmann Institute, Concordia University, St. Paul
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Rochester
School of Urban Ministry, St. Paul’s Lutheran (LCMC), Minneapolis
South Shore Trinity Lutheran Church, St. Paul
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Chaska
St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Columbia Heights
St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Bloomington
The Alley, Cottage Grove
Thrivent Financial for Lutherans
Woodbury Lutheran Church, Woodbury

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