Reaching out to the ‘unchurched’

As Lake Harriet United Methodist celebrates 100 years, congregation works to develop a new type of ministry

FULTON — As they reach their centennial anniversary, members of Lake Harriet United Methodist Church are reaching out to new people and creating new ministries in Southwest neighborhoods.

The more than 500 members of the church, at 49th and Chowen Ave. S., are starting a new ministry, aimed at those who do not now attend any religious community or who have dropped out of a church.

“It’s important that we build this new ministry now as we celebrate our 100 years,” said the Rev. Lyndy Zabel, senior minister at Lake Harriet. The church was started as a small worshiping group in some homes in Linden Hills in 1904, and was incorporated officially as a Methodist church in 1907. Just as people met in homes then, in very untraditional arenas for that time, so, now, Lake Harriet members are starting over in new, small group discussions of ways to reach out to their neighbors.

“We need to address the cynicism of the unchurched because it’s a legitimate spiritual spot to be in,” Zabel said, “just as we acknowledge and honor the strong faith of others among us.”

Lake Harriet now has two worship services on Sunday mornings, a traditional service at 9:30 a.m. and contemporary service with a praise band at 11 a.m.

In 1907, the church began at 44th and Upton Ave. S., but it soon outgrew that small frame building. The English Lutheran Church bought that building and moved it to 49th and York Ave. S. It is now the Dharma Field Zen Center. The Methodists then built a much bigger building at 44th and Upton, which is now the home of the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community Church. Right after World War II, the Methodists decided to move to the present site, to accommodate continuing growth, dedicating the new building in 1953. Thirty-three members at Lake Harriet recently visited the two other worshiping centers and “We saw that both communities have kept their buildings in excellent condition and continue to use them for spiritual, not commercial, purposes,” said Patti Marsh Cagle, a member at Lake Harriet.

Now, members, under their commitment to “Open Minds, Open Doors, Open Hearts,’’ reach out in literally dozens of ways to the community, nationally and internationally. Groups help build classrooms and clinics in some of the poorest parts of the world, including Sierra Leone, and young people from the church go annually on summer work trips to some of the neediest areas of the U.S. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, members continue to go to Mississippi and Louisiana, helping other churches and residents there as they struggle to regain their lives.

Members work with churches on the north side of Minneapolis to bring peace and healing and help with the basic necessities of life. Members regularly lobby their elected representatives on issues of the day. They also pay close attention to their own spiritual lives, with adult Bible classes and education programs for children and youth. The church produces an annual musical, seen by hundreds of residents. The next production will be “Godspell,” in March of 2008.

But, in the midst of this dynamic, growing, energetic congregation some of the most important work is the essence of community. “We observe a three-minute rule each Sunday,” Zabel said. “After worship, you have to spend three minutes talking with someone who don’t know very well before you greet all your old friends!”

It was in this light, of finding new friends and folks who might not want a traditional worship experience, that the new ministry, called the “Emerging Worship Community,” was started.

Lake Harriet isn’t the only church pushing new expressions of the faith in the hopes of gaining new members, but this particular effort is receiving financial support from the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and newly appointed associate pastor, the Rev. Tyler Christiansen, is leading the effort. The hope is that newcomers will be drawn to talk about their spiritual needs and experiences in order to help form and blend the new worshiping experience. Nothing will be considered too silly or too extreme for contemplation, leaders promise. The group is studying the book “Velvet Elvis: Repairing the Christian Faith” by Rob Bell. The next discussion is at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Uncommon Grounds Coffee House, 2809 Hennepin Ave.

Meanwhile, the members of Lake Harriet are in the midst of their centennial celebrations. All former members and others in the community are invited to any of the events and encouraged to come and share their memories. Members can often be seen around the church and the neighborhood wearing the signature gray T-shirts with the Lake Harriet centennial logo.

“We welcome anyone who wants to come and join us for any of our centennial events, whether you have ever been inside our doors,” Zabel said.

Martha Sawyer Allen is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a member of Lake Harriet United Methodist Church.