By Mary Kettl
Deb Stehlin hadn’t intended to start a church. She wasn’t even in seminary yet when, working at a church in Richfield, Minn., she learned about community organizing.
Six years later, though, Deb is pastor of Light of the World Lutheran Church, an ELCA mission startup in the mostly middle-class suburb of Farmington, Minn., and it’s thanks to that knowledge of community organizing that the congregation exists.
Light of the World, at about 270 members, meets in the lunch room of a local elementary school and describes itself as “Not your typical sit-down-and-be-quiet church.” It began, Deb says, over coffee. A lot of coffee.
Deb first learned about community organizing through a coalition of churches from several faith traditions in the Twin Cities. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s God’s work!’” While it wasn’t the reason she became a pastor, it did hasten the process, she says.
Community organizing gave her an “amazing toolbox” of ideas and strategies, which, along with the inner transformation, changed the way she thought about and did ministry.
The most valuable tools in that kit included listening deeply to people and building relationships. That got her thinking about future churches.
Deb had no intention of starting a mission congregation herself, but she felt strongly enough about the idea to take her vision to her synod bishop. “I told him that whoever started the next church should do it this way.
“Then the bishop said, ‘Wouldn’t that be you?’”
That’s when she started seriously drinking coffee. Beginning with a list of names provided by her first congregation, Deb had more than 100 one-to-one conversations with those people and with others that they suggested to her.
Throughout those conversations, Deb began to understand the need for community and relationships. She was surprised to find that “huge isolation” was one of the biggest issues facing these affluent suburban people. “They don’t know their neighbors. They’re lonely!”
From one kitchen table to the next, Deb became a connector. “We were starting to gather in groups at people’s houses. People said they wanted to join, but they didn’t know each other. I said, ‘I’ll introduce you!’”
The house meetings were conversational, including Scripture and Communion, and became the framework for Light of the World.
Building a community
Five years in, Light of the World continues to form and be formed using the tactics of community organizing. “It’s about listening,” Deb says, adding that congregation members are responsible for inviting new people. “When we started worship together, I told them to invite someone. Everyone knows someone who is searching for something,” she emphasized.
And whenever someone new comes in the door, Deb is ready to have a one-to-one conversation. “The first time someone comes, we say, ‘Yay!’ and we’re happy to have them. The second time, I’m on ’em like white on rice for a one-to-one!”
People seem to expect this reaching out, and they feel good about it. “It’s become part of the lore that I’m going to invite you to coffee,” Deb shares. “People discover that, whatever their story is, it’s OK to tell it. You matter to God. Really. You are beloved.” It’s a message people are longing to hear, she says.
Now Light of the World members are talking about long-range plans for the congregation. In five years, they hope to be in a building, but not a traditional church building, and they don’t want it to be theirs.