The Story of Three Congregations

Calvary Lutheran Church

Calvary Lutheran Church was once the flagship congregation for this particular region of the metropolitan era. It was established in the county seat in the early 1900s as the first Lutheran church in the area. This was significant because the majority of European settlers in this area were Scandinavian and Lutheran. Calvary comes from a Norwegian Lutheran tradition and provided all the religious services that the first settlers expected in that small town, county seat context.

The city of which Calvary is a part has experienced the most dramatic changes of all three cities involved in the DITB project. The town sits at the conjunction of two major rivers. This conjunction has served significant purposes for various civilizations over the centuries. It was the spot at which two warring native nations found peace. The tribes used the rivers to mark their territories and ceased their fighting. Later, it served as a logical site for trading between French trappers and the native people. Once the Europeans began to settle in the area, the confluence of rivers made it a logical spot to construct a logging and mill industry. The logs were floated from two regions up state and brought together and milled in this town. People settled in this town and constructed brick buildings along a main street in the late 1800s. The main street was surrounded by a grid-system of streets and avenues full of turn-of-the-century homes. This town, built around a centralized grid system, is similar to the plan found in both the inner city of most urban centers and in small towns in the rural context. The town, and Calvary Lutheran within it, maintained an autonomous, centralized, thriving socio-economic eco-system until the late 1950s.

The large urban center, thirty miles to the southeast, expanded during the 1940s and 50s, and the expansion engulfed the county seat, and Calvary Lutheran, by the mid 1960s. Large housing developments sprung up around the downtown area and the population increased exponentially each year. Two significant things happened to Calvary Lutheran during the late 1960s. First, it became part of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), thus setting it on a trajectory to become part of the ELCA in the 1980s. Second, the bishop asked the church to plant a new church in the next township to the north. That congregation was Ascension Lutheran, the third congregation involved in the RT.

Calvary Lutheran, and its host town, have experienced great cultural shifts over the past forty years. The urban sprawl brought prosperity to the town in the 1970s and 1980s, but the sprawl continued to expand in the 1990s and the race for larger lots and larger homes moved the upwardly-mobile population further away from the town and the church. This most recent outward expansion brought a significant demographic shift to the population. The city has both aged and become more ethnically diverse in the last fifteen years. The high school is now populated mostly by students from the next suburb over that has younger families, larger homes, and more money. Currently, the town is finding a resurgence in its vitality by capitalizing on its historic downtown and small town nostalgia.

Calvary has also experienced a recent history of dysfunction and scandal within its leadership. This has created uneasiness among its congregation and a decline in attendance among the younger families. Even with the decline, it is a large congregation with thousands of members and very traditional worship services.

I connected with Calvary through the associate pastor who was leading adult spiritual formation. She allowed me to visit various adult forums in order to present the research project. Many people seemed interested, but only four women committed to the project. Each of these women were long-time members of Calvary and had experienced the dramatic cultural shifts in the congregation and the town that I have described.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Bethlehem Lutheran Church was established by the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in the township directly east of Calvary Lutheran in the 1940s. The original township formed around the construction of a dam that was contracted by the federal government in the late 1800s. A small, temporary village was constructed to house the construction workers. A clay brick factory was also established on this location at the same time. Neither industry was large enough to establish a permanent downtown like the county seat, yet enough people remained in the area following the completion of the dam to establish a township. There is also a lake in this town that became a popular cabin community to which the central city dwellers would travel during the 1940s and 1950s. The post-World War II urban sprawl engulfed this township in the early 1960s and continued to expand in various waves up through the 1990s.

This city provides an interesting historical timeline of architecture that runs south to north. The southern neighborhoods contain homes built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and would now be considered high-density, at-risk neighborhoods.[1] At the northern end of the city the neighborhoods were built during the housing boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s and are considered middle-class, bedroom-developing neighborhoods. The neighborhoods between these extremes span the decades and the socio-economic strata between them. There is also a strip of large homes and the upper middle-class and wealthy population along the river that runs along the city’s western border. This city also exemplifies the decentralized urban sprawl in which the zoning laws have separated housing, shopping, education, and industry into disparate areas, thus requiring automobile transportation for its citizens to utilize these services.[2]

Bethlehem Lutheran is situated one-quarter mile from the city high school and middle school and directly across the street from the dominant Roman Catholic Church in the area. During the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, a majority of people in this city identified with either Bethlehem Lutheran or the Catholic Church as their place of worship. These churches provided the religious services and were the center of the religious institution for thousands of families in this town. Many families in this city migrated to the emerging suburb directly north of Bethlehem, but maintained their membership and participation at Bethlehem. While the host city has experienced a significant demographic shift over the past fifteen years, the Bethlehem congregation has not.

I connected with Bethlehem through the associate pastor that led the Children, Youth, and Family ministry, as well as the pastoral care ministries. He advertised the DITB project in various church communications, allowed me to make a presentation to a men’s group, and personally invited specific people to join the RT. Four men joined the team from Bethlehem. Each of them were over the age of 50, had children and/or grandchildren, and had been long-time members of Bethlehem. They had seen much change in the area and in the congregation.

Ascension Lutheran Church

Ascension Lutheran Church has an interesting location and relationship to its host city, the other congregations, and the DITB project. I mentioned earlier that Calvary Lutheran planted Ascension in the late 1960s. The town in which it was planted had, at that time, a different name, a population of eight hundred people, and consisted mostly of farms, sandpits, and trash dumps. The city has since changed its name and has vastly expanded in the last twenty years. Its growth has spread north and east of Ascension’s location. The city is now comprised of mostly single-family residences and has a population of over 40,000 predominantly white, middle to upper-middle class people. Unlike Calvary and Bethlehem Lutheran, Ascension is not located in the center of its host city’s political and social activity. Instead, Ascension sits on the extreme southwestern corner of its host city at a major intersection on the corner of four cities. The intersection has a traffic flow of 40,000 cars per day. This location allows the congregation to be accessible to a population that needs its food pantry services, day care, and the various civic groups that use its physical space. However, the congregation also owns land closer to the heart of the city and has wrestled over whether it should relocate to this land, plant a new multi-site location there, or stay where it is. Ascension continually asks how it can be truly missional in its space when the relatively short physical distance of the new location would be a quantum leap in social location. Is the congregation called to minister to the homogenous population of the host city, or is it called to stay on the more diverse crossroads?

Ascension is not only uniquely related to the host city and the other congregations, it also has a unique relationship to the DITB research project. It is the congregation in which I serve as pastor of spiritual formation. Therefore, it makes sense that ten members of the RT are from Ascension. These members had a history with me as a pastor and teacher for the four years preceding the research project. My journey from the conservative evangelical world, through the emerging church movement, and into the ELCA is one that has colored my teaching at Ascension. The RT members have journeyed with me as I transitioned into the ELCA. We have been asking the missional questions as a congregation for a while. Much of the conversation in the research project is a continuation of our shared journey. This familiarity created both awkwardness and a unique opportunity for the RT to welcome the stranger as we connected with the four members from Calvary and the four members from Bethlehem.

All of these stories—both those of the individual team members and of the three congregations—came together to form the Deep in the Burbs Research Team. Our combined stories and the interactions between team members constructed a new framework in which each team member was able to address the research question from a new perspective. This experience of our shared stories has changed each of us and, thus will change the DNA of Calvary, Bethlehem, and Ascension Lutheran.


[1] Myron Orfield identifies six distinct types of suburban communities: at-risk segregated, at-risk older, at-risk low density, bedroom-developing, affluent job centers, and very affluent job centers.  These six types represent one of the greatest challenges of suburbia: the socio-economic stratification of the suburban population. Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997), 31-48.

[2] See Craig Van Gelder, “Effects of Auto-Mobility on Church Life and Culture,” Word & World 28, no. 3 (2008).

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