Small congregation has big heart
In March 2011, members of Amazing Grace
Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights, Minn.,
collected 7,785 pounds worth of food items
to support a local food distribution service.
For members of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., "living Lutheran" means going public with their faith.
And that's not easy, admits Christopher Becker, pastor of the congregation.
"Lutherans tend to do charity well, but when it comes to justice and advocacy work or some involvement in societal change, it's awkward for many of us," Chris admits.
But Amazing Grace members have managed to work beyond that awkwardness. They've discovered that for them "living Lutheran" is about generosity and standing together to do God's work in the world.
"Our faith may be personal but it should never be private," says Chris. "Together we are called to do God's work. And for our members that means being a generous congregation when it comes to the gifts and resources that God has entrusted to us."
And giving is what this 350-member congregation does best.
Small congregation gives big
It all began in 2007, when two neighboring ELCA congregations, Peace Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights and Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in Mendota Heights, Minn., decided to combine their resources and become one congregation.
"And from the beginning Amazing Grace took on an identity of generosity," according to Chris.
After the sale of Royal Redeemer's property and land, members of the new congregation gave away 20 percent -- $200,000 -- of the profits.
The funds went to support a variety of community outreach programs that work directly to meet the needs of local residents.
Members gave to Lewis House, an organization that supports women and children seeking a haven from abusive circumstances, and to Neighbors Inc., which works to reduce poverty and promote self-sufficiency.
According to Chris, it's these kinds of advocacy support and social experiences that encourage spiritual growth among the members of Amazing Grace.
Funds were also sent to companion Lutheran churches overseas, particularly in Tanzania and Guatemala. And in an effort to support seminarians involved in youth ministries, the congregation gave a large gift to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
Today the congregation continues to give thousands of dollars in mission support, while maintaining an annual budget of not more than $330,000.
Not bad for a rural congregation that, up until recently, had an expanse of gravel road for a parking lot.
The congregation also began a capital campaign to help pay for the new parking lot, a new piano and an outdoor church sign. And as a continued part of Amazing Grace's intentional generosity, members decided to commit 10 percent of that project toward supporting local and global ministries.
"We raised $233,000 in actual cash and gifts, not pledges, in the first year of the campaign," says Chris. There was some debate in the congregation about the benevolence factor, but giving "is who we are."
But it's not all about the money.
Voice to the voiceless
"For us it's about building relationships with people, getting to know our immediate neighbors and our Lutheran companions overseas," he says. "We have mission trips and other opportunities to walk alongside our brothers and sisters in other countries and support their voices. And building these kinds of relationships enables us to give voice to those who are not often heard."
"We don't provide financial support unless we have someone in our congregation who is active in the specific ministry that we're supporting," he says.
Members are invested in the lives of the people with whom they serve.
"We want to be in contact with women and children who are seeking safe havens, older folks bound to their homes and others. We want to be a congregation in relationship with all people and work to have a sense of belonging for all."
With the congregation's various outreach commitments, Chris admits to sometimes being overwhelmed.
"I wonder whether or not we can participate in a certain activity, but this congregation always figures out a way to make things happen, even during this economy."
And that, according to Chris, is something to celebrate.