By Cindy Novak
As her children glided down waterslides and jumped on inflatable bouncers, a young mother approached Brian Foxworth, pastor of Spirit of Joy Community Church, an ELCA congregation in Hemet, Calif., and thanked him for holding the church carnival.
“She shared that if it weren’t for the carnival, her children would not have had anything fun to do all summer,” recalls Brian. “Her family had been under such financial strain that she and her husband could not afford to drive them to the beach as they had promised.”
The carnival is just one way Spirit of Joy — the 100th new-start congregation of the ELCA, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013 — “reaches out with God’s love,” Brian says. “There is no hidden agenda. It’s just a celebration of the community. It’s an opportunity to meet our neighbors and invite them into our church home.”
Spirit of Joy was founded nearly 16 years ago as a satellite ministry of nearby Trinity Lutheran Church, in response to a housing boom on Hemet’s west side.
In the 13 years following the first worship service, the congregation changed locations five times. Groundbreaking occurred in December 2007, with worship services beginning in the completed building in September 2009.
And through all those changes, Spirit of Joy has retained its warmth, says Carolyn Straub, a charter member. “We are a hug-y, friendly, family-feel church,” she says. “When our new pastor (Brian) came two years ago, he said he had never seen a group that cares so much for each other.”
As they look to the future, congregational leaders are evaluating how Spirit of Joy can better serve the community, which has struggled with rapid change and diversification due to Hemet’s housing boom. The area also has seen turmoil in recent years, due to the housing bust and challenging economic climate, Brian says.
“We have seen a huge increase in the number of homeless and underserved folks coming into our office wanting help,” he says. “We give them what we can — it’s frustrating because we are doing our best. We are trying to figure out creatively how we could be more welcoming and helpful to those folks. It’s all part of this visioning process.”
In addition, the area has seen an uptick in crime, even impacting Spirit of Joy three times over the past couple of years, with vandals stealing metal products from the church to recycle for money, Brian says.
“The congregation believes that crime is a symptom of a larger problem of poverty and social injustice,” he adds. “People are struggling they get desperate and sometimes make poor decisions. If we look deeply, we realize we are seeing an increase in crime because people need help — they need support.”
Congregational leaders also will re-evaluate how Spirit of Joy can better reach out to unchurched people, Brian says. “The West Coast is one big mission field,” he says. “We don’t have a large Lutheran presence here. It’s an opportunity to be a symbol of hope for people to help people understand the grace we live in as Lutherans.”
And as congregational leaders and members “navigate the waters,” they are beginning to see Spirit of Joy as being “the new face of the Lutheran church of tomorrow,” Brian says.
“The old way of church is not working in every community the way it used to,” he says. “The world has changed. But that is the beauty of Lutheranism: We all have grace as part of our core theology, which transcends any community. Spirit of Joy, if nothing else, will hopefully be one of those churches that successfully does true mission of the kingdom, merging tradition with new ideas.”
Click here to visit the ELCA’s interactive 25th-anniversary timeline.
Cindy Novak is a member of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville, Ill. She lives in Lisle, Ill., with her husband, David, and her children, Sam and Emily.