Toledo hosts ‘Courage to Connect' conference for Lutheran leaders

4/12/2013
BY TK BARGER
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Mission developer Josh Graber is a conference presenter at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Toledo.
Mission developer Josh Graber is a conference presenter at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Toledo.

Churches face challenges attracting young adults to their congregations and then keeping them as members.

The Rev. Josh Graber is a mission developer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is taking the lead in developing the Living-Learning Initiative, which is starting a residential experience for young adults to dedicate a year to developing their faith and serving the public. The Living-Learning Initiative will house its first community at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in downtown Toledo in September.

The Rev. Nathaniel Adams Jr. of Euclid talks with the Rev. Christine Thompson of Cleveland between sessions during the conference.
The Rev. Nathaniel Adams Jr. of Euclid talks with the Rev. Christine Thompson of Cleveland between sessions during the conference.

"You invite young adults to go to a congregation and you hope that they find value there," Pastor Graber said. "But I worry that they're going to hear some conversation about the color of the carpet and be like, ‘What?' You know, there's some nervousness about that because we know we're not quite where we want to be in terms of the church culture [and young adults]. I think this is the number one thing that I've heard from young adult pastors, is that you want to live into the future church but you're serving a parish that isn't quite there yet and is even resistant to it, so ministries that bridge that gap are incredibly important."

The Living-Learning Initiative is one of those bridging ministries, and its formation was a highlight of a summit for leadership and evangelical justice called "Courage to Connect: Discipleship and Young Adults."

About 50 Lutheran leaders from Ohio, neighboring states, and a few from afar, were in Toledo on Monday through Wednesday looking at how to bridge gaps and what the future church might be. Most of the the "Courage to Connect" attendees were pastors and they met at different churches in Toledo.

The Rev. Eric Deibler of Mt. Airy, Md., said that for the church that he co-pastors with his wife, "We have a growing young adult population, and I would just like to know how I can better address their needs, their concerns, their faith questions in a way that's going to be meaningful for them and not just assuming I know how to talk to them."

Attendees learned about the way church takes place at Threshold Church next to the University of Toledo, and the discipleship approach of its pastor, the Rev. Tom Schaeffer.

OBJECTIn a small-group presentation at St. Paul's Tuesday the Rev. Al Rider, pastor of Servants of Christ Lutheran Church in Indianapolis and chairman of a committee to establish Community of the Living Spirit, a new Lutheran and Episcopalian church in downtown Indianapolis, gave a presentation on emergent churches.

During a sabbatical leave, Pastor Rider and his wife visited 21 churches around the country that are considered innovative. "While we were on the road, I also networked with people who were active [in emergent churches] in other places, including Toledo," Pastor Rider said.

Pastor Rider found that these churches that are popular with young adults and some older members don't have a characteristic look, but they have similar qualities. Pastor Rider said that inclusiveness and diversity are important. There is "consensus that certain moral questions are settled," he said, such as on race and sexual orientation — being welcoming and open to difference from tradition.

There is "a different kind of grieving," over loss to come in the future (including relating to environmental issues) rather than in nostalgia for the past. And the congregants are "hands-on" regarding social justice and community, Pastor Rider said.

For worship, emergent churches have revived some ancient liturgies and practices, such as making worship part of a common meal and having the Eucharist at most services, but they also take creative risks and do original work. Their uniqueness comes from their "calling forth the gifts present in each community," Pastor Rider said, which makes for variety, participation, and interaction.

The key word for an emerging church, Pastor Rider said, is "‘contextual.' Be in your community -- be fully in your community. Know the people who are there."

Contact TK Barger at: tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.