Active leaders build fellowship through shared pursuits
by By Clint Riese, Correspondent
Churches are increasingly rolling out new ideas as they attempt to evolve along with cultural and generational shifts. It’s no longer enough to wait for new members to come through the door; meeting people “where they are at” has become the way forward.
As the stories of these three Luther graduates show, churches don’t need to overthink this strategy. Often, a simple sharing of passions opens doors to spiritual-level connections with the community.
Fisher of men
Jay Grave, (’05 M.Div. and ’16 D.Min.) enjoys following Christ’s call as a fisher of men. Attendance at his Camdenton, Mo., congregation has grown nearly three-fold in his four years there, but Grave’s favorite platform for preaching is his boat.
Acting on faith in 2012, Grave swapped a full-time role at a large church in Minnesota for a part-time call near Lake of the Ozarks to chase his dream on a professional bass-fishing circuit.
Hitting the road each Sunday after church, Grave fished 275 days in his first year, across 13 states. Thanks to the tour’s format, his most treasured catches were the different strangers who would join him on his boat from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“In the matter of a day you become their friend, you get to know them and their story, where their life is heading,” Grave says. “The conversation transitions into how to be a better husband or dad, and I tell them I think Jesus is the answer to a lot of their questions. So weekend after weekend, year after year, you’re basically doing an extended pastoral visit.”
Grave is well-versed in sharing his faith in any setting. His internship during seminary and first call after being ordained came at a Texas congregation that was traditional enough to regularly hold services in German yet progressive enough to offer contemporary ministry designed for those in the service industry, including bartenders. In his next call, the former mixed martial arts competitor used yoga and kickboxing as faith-sharing vehicles for a small congregation in rural Minnesota.
“We define ourselves by all these pieces of our vocation—for me it’s dad, husband, son, fisherman, former wrestler—and it’s mind-blowing to me how God uses all of those pieces,” says Grave.
For instance, Grave cites John 21, in which the resurrected Jesus affirms his identity through a fishing-based miracle performed for the very disciples he once called as they fished on that very sea.
“How do you translate the gospel into language where you can meet people where they are?” Grave asks. “Parents coming to church have questions about how to be good parents. Young families have questions about budgeting and finances. So, you can talk about how the Bible particularly speaks to that. I think the key is knowing their context and authentically speaking their language.”
Though the father of two has moved on from the bass tourney circuit—“I did three years on the tour and discovered I’m a way better pastor than I am a professional fisherman,” he laughs—blessings from the outreach it allowed continue.
“The same type of conversations play out whether I’m at the mall or the grocery store or the soccer game,” Grave says. “I found out the same techniques I’d use to serve as an evangelist on the fishing tour have grown this congregation.”
Congregation builds bridges to buck trends
The Pacific Northwest is home to majestic mountains, scenic bays—and large populations of the unchurched. The area even has been dubbed “The None Zone,” in reference to what religion residents practice.
So John O’Neal, ’84, considers himself fortunate to have spent his entire pastoral mission at one of the region’s largest churches. The success of Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Wash., is no coincidence, though. The congregation is vibrant, from ranking as one of the ELCA’s top supporters of world hunger relief to launching unique programs in response to local needs. This outreach includes several bridge ministries designed to swing the demographic dilemma in the church’s favor by engaging the unchurched.
One head-turning example is Spirit Riders, a motorcycle club that welcomes those from other congregations (and those from no congregation). The club’s leather jackets and a 2015 trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota may paint a rough-and-tumble image, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When a church member was approaching 100, O’Neal offered her a birthday ride on his Harley’s back seat. A broken arm prevented the ride, but upon her death at 102, the Spirit Riders escorted the veteran’s ashes to a nearby national cemetery.
The group connects through weekly breakfasts, participation in church events and occasional chopper rides.
“The club is about building fellowship,” O’Neal says. “The more ways we can find to get men together to develop solid, Christian relationships, the better; as men, we don’t do that very well.”
Another unique way Grace Lutheran connects with the community is by helping residents in need come into compliance with city codes. O’Neal reached out to the local code enforcement officer after learning that violations can cost up to $300 a day and those in violation often are the elderly or disabled who struggle to maintain their properties through no fault of their own.
The result was the Compassionate Compliance program through which church members spring to action to repair structures, clean up yards, build wheelchair ramps or tackle whatever the issue may be. Neighborhoods are improved, fines are avoided and opportunities for evangelism spring forth. News of the program spread to two neighboring towns, which now also call on the church.
O’Neal sees the bridge ministry concept as a tool that is becoming more necessary.
“Being in the Pacific Northwest has always been a challenge,” he says. “We’re on a slight membership decline, but our activity in the community has actually grown. Churches need to find ways to enter the community and make connections in ways that are inviting and warm and non-judgmental. Lutherans can have a hard time inviting people to church and talking about their faith, but the more bridge ministries you have, the easier it becomes.”
Car club an engine for evangelism
Growing up as the son of a service station owner, Kurt Kalland, (’89), knows the allure of a beautiful car.
“I fell in love with cars as a kid,” the Twin Cities pastor says. “The smell of burnt transmission fluid or rear-end lube that’s gone bad or petroleum—it’s stuck way deep in my soul.”
As someone who lost his way as a young man, Kalland also knows the joy of coming back to a life in Christ.
That background fuels his passion for Motorheads, a car club and outreach ministry of his congregation at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
“We use the excuse of kicking tires, smelling exhaust fumes or talking about anything related to an internal combustion engine,” Kalland says. “There’s a depth and vulnerability around a shared interest, and we hope relationships are built.”
Two fellow car enthusiasts approached Kalland with the idea for a church-sponsored club about 15 years ago. Motorheads was born and an annual schedule developed: a winter event in February to a club member’s garage, a trip to a drive-in diner in June, the club’s signature show and worship service in August and a fall road tour in October. Each event is open to anyone and includes a devotion and prayer.
“The halos are on loosely,” Kalland jokes. “People say, ‘You can be a Christian and like cars? How does that work out?’ So in a non-threatening way, we get a chance to tell people they’re loved by the Almighty.”
Kalland grew up attending Mount Olivet—“I caused trouble, so I know every place in the church to hide,” he jokes—but fell into addiction and out of his faith walk. Now in his 24th year back at Mount Olivet, the father of two isn’t afraid of using his past to influence the future of others.
Mount Olivet practices what Kalland preaches. Its campuses in Minneapolis and Victoria, Minn., form one congregation and support a host of associated ministries: a church camp in northern Minnesota, group homes for developmentally delayed adults, a home for those suffering from mental illness, a nursing home, a retreat center, a counseling office and one of the country’s first intergenerational day care facilities.
It’s enough to keep the pastoral staff running at high gear, so come Fridays, Kalland unwinds under the hood.
“It’s my day off, and everyone knows I’m in my backyard playing with cars,” he says.
And every few months, he gets to bless cars and drivers that have gathered as he shares that passion with Motorheads like himself.
“As orthodox Lutherans, it’s all about relationships,” he says. “No matter if it’s in a pew or the parking lot or the backyard, relationships are where it’s at.”