Two weeks ago I (Kent) ventured to a small town—Ottawa, Kansas—in the heartland of the United States. This is a quintessentially American place: a small town with one main street running through it, the heartbeat of the town’s corporate life. These towns were, and in certain ways still are, the heart and soul of American life.
But the challenges for church life don’t stop at the interior rings of urban areas or the outer rings of suburbia. In many ways, certain challenges are common to all the places where the church lives. Declining participation, lack of identification with a denominational tradition, increased apathy toward organized religion, congregations that are simply trying to survive, declining numbers of ministers and church workers, and the drag on the energy and activity of a small number of overcommitted laity. Such challenges can be true in urban New York just as well as Ottawa, Kansas.
These challenges elicit questions such as: What are we doing to engage the community in relationship-building? Do we have a plan for sustaining assimilation into congregational life of those we encounter outside the walls of our church? We are doing lots of things and are engaged in lots of programs but is any of that really effective at reaching the strangers to us in our community? Do we have any vision for adult faith formation into the gospel and our congregational life?
These were the kinds of questions raised by the pastors and laity who gathered at Faith Lutheran Church in Ottawa. The welcome I received was truly warm and hospitable. The fellowship between congregations, pastors, and laity was uplifting. That makes it abundantly clear that the relational resources exist in these congregations to sustain active engagement with the stranger and formation that leads to discipleship in the context of these congregations’ corporate lives.
What they were searching for was a way to structure, organize, and energize the congregation’s life toward the outside. And during our three days together they experienced and reflected on means of encountering the stranger, fostering discipleship, reflecting on the Word of God, sustaining ongoing catechesis, and a rich ritual life that facilitates an encounter with the gospel and transitions new disciples toward faith-filled and faithful life in Christ. I pray that the Spirit’s breath through the Word experienced and reflected upon in our time together in Ottawa will bear much fruit as these congregations engage with welcoming the stranger into congregational life.