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Students at commencement

Biblical Fluency

Immanuel Lutheran Church

Location: Saratoga, Calif.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Size: 240 members; average worship attendance, 109

 Download Immanuel's VCP report or see report contents below:

Ministry context

Immanuel is a relatively small Lutheran congregation, even by California standards. In its heyday, Immanuel had two pastors serving a congregation with a worship attendance of more than 200. For it to be a healthy, well-positioned congregation, poised to do vital ministry in its neighborhood, it needs to build membership and participation to that level.

In addition, the average age of the congregation is… elderly. While there have not had many deaths in the past three years, there will certainly be significant change in the next ten years. The loss of long-term members who have had large investment in the congregation, financial and otherwise, will take its toll.

Another challenge we face, besides size and age, is our neighborhood demographics. While Saratoga is a suburb of San Jose (the 10th largest city in the United States) and has a population of more than 30,000, 55% are white, 38% are Asian and 3% Hispanic. This area has never been a “Lutheran home”; rather, the birth and growth of the church, in times past, has been due to MLT – Midwest Lutheran Transplant. We have been transitioning from being a MLT congregation to a Christian congregation (that happens to be Lutheran) that reaches out to all people.

One additional current contextual item of note: We have a regular influx of visitors, which is a good sign for our aging congregation. The last few Sundays we noted that 20-25% of our Sunday morning attendance was made up of non-members.

Alongside these challenges, we have a congregation of dedicated Christian believers that is very engaged in God’s Word. The congregation has a very high view of Scripture (“inspired by God” is the most common descriptor), and yet most acknowledge the challenge to become more fluent in the Bible – understanding its basic story (God’s plan of salvation), where we fit into it, and putting into practice God’s Word and will in our everyday lives.

Pre-existing practices

1. Crossways Bible Study

Immanuel has been involved in Crossways Bible Study for the past three years, and almost ready to complete the 60-unit, Genesis – Revelation journey. We have had more than 60 participants in the study, with an average attendance of about 40. We currently have 49 people in this last section, which amounts to almost 50% of our worship attendance.

2. Adult Sunday School

The hour between ILC’s two services is set aside for Adult Sunday School. Attendance has gone in waves, from 30+ people in attendance down to half a dozen. Subjects range from a book of the Bible, to a Bible-related topic, to finances. We are currently using Dr. Mark Allan Powell’s DVD series on “How Lutherans Interpret the Bible.”

3. Lutheran Bible Institute Presentations

Twice each year we host a Bible Study sponsored by the Lutheran Bible Institute of California, for which we bring in a speaker to make presentations on the Bible, Luther, the Reformation, etc. Previous speakers have included: Drs. Rolf Jacobson, Craig Koester, Jim Nestingen, Mark Allan Powell, and Harry Wendt. Invited to the presentations are other local Lutheran congregations, as well to congregations served by our Interfaith Saratoga Clergy Ministerial Association. Attendance at these two-day events has ranged from 40-80.

4. Walk Thru the Bible Presentations

Each year we host a Walk Thru the Bible Seminar. We have been alternating between Old and New Testament presentations. Each five-hour seminar covers the major people, places and event of each Testament in an engaging fashion, making use of presentation, PowerPoint slides, and audience participation. Pastor Derek Engfelt has been a presenter of these seminars for more than 18 years, and leads them at ILC. Presentations are advertised throughout our community.

5. Thursday Morning Bible Study

Attended by only ten members of our congregation, this is the longest running Bible Study in the congregation, initiated more than 20 years ago. Usually a book of the Bible is chosen (we are currently completing the Gospel according to Luke, soon to begin Acts), and we focus on one chapter per week. The text is read, discussion follows. Conversations are interesting, people are engaged, and it is amazing how God unites people with greatly divergent ideologies through the power of His Holy Spirit.

Discoveries from listening process

1. Pastor-centric Model

We are a “pastor-centric” congregation said the first reflection from the interviews submitted. While the pastor took this observation as a rebuke (wanting the congregation to be Christ-centered, not pastor-centered), after discussion it was decided that this was, in fact, a good thing for the congregation. The Biblical Fluency Team’s interpretation of this observation was not that the church was centered on its pastor, but that the congregation saw the pastor as a leader with respect to the use of God’s Word in the congregation.

2. Members Value the Bible

Our people value the Bible (see above, under Ministry Context) and recognize that through it God reveals Himself to us. God’s Word makes known to us the Person and ministry of Jesus.

3. Room to Grow

While there is an overall high view of Scripture, there is also an acknowledgement that there is much room to grow when it comes to becoming more biblically fluent. Even among those who vocally treasure God’s written Word, it is recognized that they have a long way to go in making the Bible “their own,” being able to apply it to their own lives and share it in a meaningful way with others.

Opportunities for growth

1. Engage Members Daily

How do we engage people in a new (or renewed) commitment to read God’s Word on a daily basis? How do we engage them in the “Year of Experimentation” which we plan to begin in mid-January? What are the benefits of doing so?

2. Make Scripture a Priority

How do we convince those God brings to us (members and nonmembers) the importance of reprioritizing their lives to include regular worship attendance and engagement with the Word of God? This is the challenge of time management.

3. Train Lay Leaders

To identify and persuasively invite gifted and trained laity, to be small group leaders over the course of the next year.

Experiments undertaken

1. God’s River of Life

In Genesis 2, we read that “a river flowed out of Eden” and in Revelation 22, John tells of “a river of the water of life, coming from the throne of God.” Beginning in mid-January, 2012, we are going to set out on a journey down God’s River of Life. It will be a coherent and integrated journey.

Many people lose sight of what’s happening in the Bible. They find it hard to get the Big Picture and make their way around. The lectionary, while it helps to move us along from one subject to another, (and to avoid the pitfall of being too focused on one aspect of God’s Word that we miss other important components) can leave people confused, not understanding how the events of one Sunday’s readings connects to the next Sunday’s reading (or even how the readings on a particular Sunday morning connect to each other). Our aim is to engage in a “mostly chronological presentation,” covering the major events of God’s interaction with His people through history, and our hope is that this will serve to make it a coherent presentation. Our intent is that our Sunday worship, Adult Sunday school, mid-week studies, daily devotion, and personal reading schedule will all be connected to this journey. Thus, it will be an integrated approach.

We are using the E-100 material to identify the “essential” events of the Bible and will use most of them (albeit in a different order) over the course of our yearlong journey.

2. Follow the Path, not a Plan

There is no other planned path – that is the risk we are taking! All our marbles are in one bag, and we will face the challenges of keeping the interest of the participants and keeping the energy level high.

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