Three steps to deepen your connection with God, neighbors, and community
A gathering of grandmothers lamented that their children didn’t attend church. Erin Nelson ‘09 M.Div. (pictured) challenged them to express their concern through a “God question” rather than a “church question,” and the women came up with: “What is God up to in the lives of our children and grandchildren, and how can we join in?”
Their children responded that God is most present at mealtime and bedtime prayers, so the women made “prayer bears” with pockets that held personalized prayers for their grandchildren. They also created mealtime conversation cards, each with a Bible passage and questions to facilitate faith-filled discussion.
“It was heartwarming to hear their stories of connection, especially when the pandemic hit,” said Nelson, the director of evangelical mission for the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin. “Some of the women joined dinners virtually to engage their kids and grandkids in conversations about Jesus, some for the first time. They built relationships of faith, and isn’t that more important than getting their kids to come on Sunday morning?”
Nelson recounted another holy experiment in rural Wisconsin. A church next to an apartment complex hosted a parking lot party to meet their neighbors. Over hot dogs, residents mentioned the lack of a playground in walking distance, so the church installed a basketball hoop and picnic table. The pastor worked at the table that summer, getting to know the kids who played outside.
“At the end of the summer, that pastor was out for ice cream with his family, and a teenage girl from the complex walked into the shop with friends,” Nelson recalled. “The teen waved, and the pastor heard one of the girl’s friends ask who he was. She said, ‘That’s my pastor.’”
These are two of the many examples Nelson witnessed during her engagement with Luther Seminary’s Faithful Innovation process, which urges all people of God, not just pastors, to participate in discerning where the Holy Spirit leads. The framework challenges congregations to engage in a three-step process: to listen to God, one another, and neighbors; to act, experimentally, collaboratively, and reflectively; and to share generously within the church and the world.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, Nelson said. Many congregations shudder at the thought of change, with visions of strobe lights and electric guitars zooming through the nave. It’s tough to reframe questions like, “How can we get more members?” as “How can we show neighbors we care?” Churches operate in a return-on-investment world, where they demonstrate their effectiveness through the collection plate.
SMALL SHIFTS, BIG OUTCOMES
Undaunted, Nelson and five colleagues dove into Faithful Innovation in 2018 after securing a grant from the Siebert Lutheran Foundation. The team collaborated with 200 churches, all within seven miles of each other, that were dwindling—or worse, losing their vitality and sense of purpose. The most transformative work Nelson witnessed was not the result of sweeping change. It came about through small shifts, when brave church members reframed questions, took neighborhood walks, and dwelled together in the Word.
“I asked a congregation to take a neighborhood walk, to which they responded, ‘This isn’t a neighborhood, it’s cornfields,’” she recalled. But the request got them thinking about nearby farms. Church members decided to ask neighbors if they could bless their crops.
“Some of the people told me this was the first time they’d ever prayed in front of other people or out loud,” Nelson said. “Blessing the crops and praying with their neighbors transformed their lives and the lives of those farmers.”
is about learning new ways to embody Christian identity and purpose in a changing context. It’s about adopting practices and habits that allow the treasures of the Christian faith to speak afresh today. Often it involves the rediscovery of ancient spiritual practices as much as the discovery of new technologies.
Simple practices of dwelling in the Word, neighborhood prayer walks, listening to each other’s spiritual stories, and paying spiritual attention to daily life.
Small, inexpensive experiments arising from the listening that focus on investing presence and relationship with neighbors.
Intentional reflection on experiments, group discernment, and identifying next steps from what we learned.
A PROFOUND SPIRITUAL CRISIS
Nelson is among hundreds of church leaders working to discover and reimagine models of ministry that cultivate Christian faith in the 21st century. Luther Seminary launched Leadership for Faithful Innovation in 2018, with the help of a $1 million grant through the Lilly Endowment’s Thriving Ministry Initiative.
Dwight Zscheile ‘08 Ph.D., Luther’s vice president of innovation, said Faithful Innovation continues to grow as churches and church leaders search for ways to connect with the now majority of Americans who are spiritual yet unaffiliated. A 2020 Gallup Poll confirmed that membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time.
“Our society is in a profound spiritual crisis,” said Zscheile, also a professor of congregational mission and leadership. “Especially now, people are feeling despair and estrangement on many levels. The culture is saturated with secularized religious impulses seeking purity, righteousness, identity, and belonging through political movements, health and fitness fads, consumerism—you name it.
“The church must figure out how to connect the ancient message of the Gospel with people’s daily lives,” he added. “Only 9% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. Most people are not leaving God; they are leaving the church.”
The pandemic pushed churches to innovate, but Faithful Innovation isn’t about hybrid church and Facebook Live. Technological solutions, Zscheile said, may be necessary but don’t address the deeper spiritual work needed. Solutions dwell in spiritual connection that is relevant to people’s lives and the issues in their community, he said, not in “working harder, doing more, or competing for people’s attention on platforms.”
“Our pastors and church leaders are exhausted, trying to do everything,” he said. “Faithful Innovation is not about adding more to a congregation’s plate. It’s about listening, really listening, and then meeting people and society’s needs through organic practices in our daily lives that become faith-filled.”
The difficulty is that no one strategy works for every person or congregation. Nelson said some churches she guided through Faithful Innovation tried 25 experiments, while others focused on one. The key, Nelson added, is to experiment and not lament when efforts don’t achieve desired outcomes. Success, she said, is not in the results; it is in the learning and any connections made with God and each other.
But the results are impressive. At the start of the Faithful Innovation grant process, only 11% of participants said they understood and were prepared to take on community challenges. By the end of the four-year grant process, that number grew to 68%. Nearly 90% of respondents said they felt more aware of God’s presence in their leadership, and 93% received useful tools and insights to implement in their ministries.
The statistics are encouraging, but Zscheile seems more enthusiastic to share stories of congregations connecting in meaningful ways with each other, their mission, and community needs.
“This work is reenergizing Christians in their faith, urging them to listen and look for God in their daily lives, and causing them to connect with neighbors who are spiritually curious,” he said. “Those are the rewards of this work, and those outcomes give us hope.”
A HOPEFUL FUTURE
Zscheile worked with Michael Binder ’17 Ph.D., assistant professor of congregational mission and leadership, and Tessa Pinkstaff, project manager for Faith+Lead Academy, to write a book about the process called “Leading Faithful Innovation: Following God into a Hopeful Future,” due out in early 2023. Binder said the book is an easily accessible read for all people eager to grow deeper in their connection with God and community.
“If you were to have asked the churches of North America before the pandemic whether they could worship online, 90% of them would have said, ‘no way,’” said Binder, former pastor of Mill City Church in Minneapolis. “But the pandemic taught us that we can, in fact, adapt. So, the question is: What is stopping us? Churches need to learn to articulate who they are, and they can no longer say, ‘I don’t know in light of the changing world,’ and wait for people to come or wish into existence how things used to be.”
He said the framework’s simple, concrete, and accessible spiritual practices of listening, acting, and sharing are the answer to evolving congregational culture to better serve Christians today and in the future. These practices help people and congregations understand and work within their strengths, limitations, and passions.
“We cannot and should not strive to be everything to everyone or to be someone or something we are not,” Binder said. “You don’t want to ask an 80-year-old to reprogram an iPhone, so you don’t want to ask an older congregation to explore changes that involve lots of tech savvy, unless that is what they want. Faithful Innovation experiments must align with the gifts of the church and address the needs or desires of the community. That is why the listening of faithful innovation is key. True active listening.”
Alicia Granholm, director of communities and consulting, supports church leaders and congregations in this formative work. Through online and in-person training, coaching groups, and consulting, she and other staff equip and empower ministry leaders to discern a new and faithful way forward in these changing, ambiguous, and uncertain times.
Granholm said this process invites people to wonder and rediscover their primary role in interpreting and living out the Christian story. It invites pastors to connect with each other and welcome lay people into leadership, rather than collapsing from exhaustion and spiritual dryness.
“I used to teach ESL [English as a second language] to recent immigrants in a new community, and I remember saying that when you are trying to help someone understand, saying it slower and louder is not helpful,” Granholm said. “You have to try something different, and Faithful Innovation is that something different,” she said. “It’s been a gift to support people who are reaching the ‘nones and dones’—people who do not identify with a particular religious affiliation and people who identify as Christian but who no longer attend church.”
Pastors, too, long for connection and resources. The Faithful Innovation team learned that many pastors feel isolated, exhausted, and spiritually disconnected: “How can I feed people spiritually if I don’t take time to dwell in the Word?” Granholm said the grant enabled Luther to create online and in-person gatherings and resources to support pastors, spiritually and professionally.
“A pastor in Texas received an offer for the church building, and she said normally she would have felt such pressure to lead the congregation through the decision. Everyone looked to her for answers,” Granholm said. “But she reported back that she delegated the audit, research, and discussions to lay leaders, and she even declined to vote on the matter. She felt light and free to focus on her ministry, while the congregation felt empowered.”
A DIGITAL GATHERING PLACE
Faith+Lead is the digital platform that houses most of the Faithful Innovation outreach. The site fosters grassroots connections and information sharing through a digital publication of research and reflections, a private social network for leaders, resources, and a mix of digital and in-person courses and events.
Robert Blezard is eager to learn more about these resources. The pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, Maryland, wears a stole for a traditional worship from the pulpit at 9 a.m., then changes into jeans and a flannel shirt and plays bass in the praise band before preaching among the people at 11 a.m. They serve about 40-50 people per service in a sanctuary that held upwards of 200 in the 1960s.
“We have many people of the Greatest Generation, who have endured so much change and loss in their lives, and we are honoring that by continuing with traditional services and programs, while striving to be entrepreneurial and creative with fewer resources,” said Blezard, who serves as editor of “Living Lutheran” study guides. “But in a way, God has always called Christians to adapt and work within the culture of the time.”
Blezard said Faithful Innovation sounds like it asks the basic question of, “What is the field God is calling me to plow, and how best can I plant those seeds to give us fruitful abundance?” Those churches and leaders who are aware and able to take creative leaps and to adapt are going to endure for centuries to come.
“I hold tight to the many scripture passages that tell us, ‘Do not be afraid,’ and remain open to God’s voice and teachings that remind us to embrace opportunities and challenges with the God-given talents of creativity and innovation,” he added. “God will give us the answers if we listen.”
CULTURAL VALUES OF THE DIGITAL AGE
Ryan Panzer was a Luther seminarian while working in the tech industry. Conversations and classes about Christian leadership in a digital age called him to write his first book, “Grace and Gigabytes,” for those concerned with the church’s future in this tech-centered world. “Whether they are affiliated with the church or tech industry, readers’ shared takeaway is that our tech-shaped culture is looking for more accessible, collaborative forms of Christian community,” said Panzer, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two kids.
His second book, “The Holy and the Hybrid,” is due out this fall. Panzer said it explores what digital or hybrid ministry might look like in a post-pandemic church, in the hopes of helping congregations imagine purposeful and sustainable digital practices and ministry.
Neither book is a how-to guide, Panzer said, but a theologically guided exploration into how we think about technology and the church. Learning alongside the reader, Panzer said his goal is not to be an authority on these topics, but to ask questions and provide processes that will guide a community’s discernment. “I’m passionate about this topic because digital technology is so influential in the way we think, learn, and believe,” he said. “Some of this influence is positive, some is problematic. I want to help Christian communities navigate this intersection so that they can purposefully respond to God’s call in a time of constant change.”
A MINISTRY, NOT A ‘HIGH-TECH BILLBOARD’
While the answers may not be online, those churches and church leaders who have expanded their digital presence are reaching and engaging with Christians in new and exciting ways. Ryan Panzer ’19 M.A., author of “Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture” advocates for spiritual connection online, but only if the approach is dynamic. If not, technology is simply a stale, one-way communication tool.
“Church online cannot only be about consumption of content, where people passively watch without much relational depth,” he said. “Church online can be an extension of church leaving the building, of people seeing God in their vocations and avocations and talking and living out faith beyond Sunday morning. We’re seeing this through groups that gather around a Christian podcast or read scripture before doing yoga together or talking about faith around a campfire.”
The proclamation of the church does not lie in the polish of one’s livestream, added Panzer, whose second book, “The Holy and the Hybrid: Navigating the Church’s Digital Reformation” comes out in September. With online forms of church community, Panzer said relationality and inclusivity matter far more than production quality.
Panzer provided an example of a church built for physical attendance that shifted its ministry to reflect the needs and preferences of today’s Christians.
The Riverside Church in New York City is grand, he said. It boasts the nation’s tallest church tower that suspends one of the largest tuned bells in the world. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from its pulpit, framed by ornate engravings and stained glass.
But many Riverside regulars have never set foot in the building.
Hundreds of people across the globe livestream Sunday services, chatting live on YouTube, after a virtual coffee hour. Members without the internet call in to hear worship, and kids can watch lively children’s worship videos at their convenience. Throughout the week, members engage in virtual small groups or listen to the “Be Still and Go” podcast, which features 5–10-minute meditations woven with scripture.
“Riverside’s Pastor Jim Keets was talking about digital ministry well before it was cool,” said Panzer, who works in talent development for tech companies, including Google. “They get that online isn’t a high-tech billboard but an engaging, enriching ministry. Not many churches can do what Riverside does, but they can find ways to infuse Christianity into their community in ways that are organic, whether that is fully online, partially online or not at all.
“The bottom line is the church must change, and who wants to be a part of that movement?”
Learn more about how to participate in Luther’s Faithful Innovation learning communities at faithlead.luthersem.edu/communities.
You can also find the Faithful Innovation Leader Companion workbook for sale on Amazon.