By Paul Dickerson, Congregational President
One of my favorite parts of our church is this grand experiment in Christian community known as the multi-site that we have been conducting over the last several years. We are not the only church to try brining three unique sites all under one banner, but we are certainly in the minority. As a multi-site church, we have one mission and one ministry, carried out in a many and various ways by our three sites.
Living Water, St. Luke – Ann Arbor, and University Lutheran Chapel all do things a little bit differently, but we share the same core values of Reaching Up to God in worship, Reaching Out into our communities with the love of Jesus, and Reaching In to encourage, disciple, and grow our members in their faith.
At its best, our congregation enjoys the resources of a large church but still has the intimacy, accountability, and fellowship that is typically associated with a smaller community. And while there have been plenty of bumps along the way as we have learned how to live and love in a multi-site congregation, by God’s grace we seem to be getting better at it with each passing year.
Last year we hit one of the bumps. Back in 2004, our Living Water site was started with the plan of launching an LCMS outreach in the Whitmore Lake area. That location was selected based on numerous studies projecting economic and population growth in that area. St. Luke took the lead in planting the church.
But the projected growth hadn’t come. In 2012, after looking at recent attendance and giving figures, we put the question of Living Water’s future, and the future of our multi-site church, on the table. We narrowed down our discussion to four main options:
- Living Water ceases to be an independent site and returns to St. Luke – Ann Arbor;
- Living Water charters and becomes an independent congregation apart from the multi-site;
- Living Water continues its mission at a new, permanent location (either through a land purchase and construction of a new building, purchase and renovation of an existing building, or long-term lease) and ceases to be a portable church, or
- Living Water maintains the status quo indefinitely and continues its mission as a portable church.
But as important as being able to articulate a clear direction is, we all recognized that the uncertainty surrounding our multi-site church and Living Water in particular came down to one question: Was God still calling St. Luke to carry the Gospel to Whitmore Lake and the surrounding area?
As we reported to the congregation in a recent forum, our pastors and church leadership have been wrestling with this question over the last year. We weighed the four options. We researched what makes a congregation viable in Northfield Township. We conducted an in-depth study on the continued viability of Living Water’s ministry in the Whitmore Lake area.
After a year’s worth of work, we came to a clear conclusion: Living Water is a viable and vital part of our multi-site church and should continue as a site. Living Water is the second-highest attended church in the Whitmore Lake area. The giving from our members at Living Water is in the “normal” range for giving at other comparable churches and is enough to support two full-time staff positions, the rent at Whitmore Lake High School, and a small ministry budget. Since its birth, Living Water has celebrated 12 adult baptisms, far above the LCMS average, and nearly 80% of the adult members at Living Water are active participants in the mission of our church.
Living Water is a viable and vital part of our multi-site church and should continue as a site.
Beyond just the numbers, our pastors and elders from all three sites have been discerning through prayer the Lord’s will for the future of our multi-site and concluded that Living Water should continue as a site of St. Luke. Finally, our members at Living Water unanimously affirmed their passion and desire to continue the ministry of Living Water. As a result, the two options of Living Water returning to St. Luke—Ann Arbor or chartering and becoming an independent congregation are off the table for now.
I firmly believe we are in a better position to fulfill our calling and advance God’s kingdom as one church. For me, this goes back to our original decision to be a multi-site congregation way back in 2008.
Our members will recall we had several forums at each of the sites and the pastors went through the pros and cons of being one church or each site going its separate way. I remember that as I prayed about how I should vote, I thought that if we decided to be a multi-site church the results would could be spectacular … either a spectacular success or a spectacular failure: if the multi-site worked, the kingdom impact of three churches working together in unity towards one goal could be tremendous; on the other hand, if the multi-site crumbled, there was the chance it could take three churches with it.
We are in a better position to fulfill our calling and advance God’s kingdom as one church.
Even though I was fairly certain that if we voted for each site to be its own independent church, things would be okay, I decided the benefit of potential kingdom impact was outweighed any risk of failure. I voted for the multi-site and put my faith in God to make ensure it was a success and not a failure.
We are a multi-site congregation today because an overwhelming majority of our members agreed that we are stronger as one church than we are separately and that we are in a better position to advance God’s kingdom as one church than we are separately. I believe this is just as true today as it was in when we voted by be a multi-site church in 2008.
So looking back at the four original options, we are down to either looking for a permanent site for Living Water or maintaining the status quo of a portable church with no plans future plans for change. Living Water was started as an outreach church and it remains so today. But it was never in the original plan for Living Water to be a portable church forever. And over the last nine years our members at Living Water have found that the portable nature of that site, and more importantly the lack of visibility and permanence that comes with being portable, is hindering our ability to reach into the community.
On the other hand, we are still waiting for God’s provision of a long-term solution. Right now, there is not a piece of land or building available that will suit our needs. And even if there were, we do not have the means to make that purchase. And so we wait … and prepare for whatever God has next for our church.
It is no secret that a large part of this is financial. Right now our congregation carries a sizable mortgage that in many ways is suffocating our ability to carry out the ministries to which we are being called. We plan to continue to pay down the mortgage as quickly as we can and make good use of our other resources as we work to get our financial house in order.
There is also a member-designated fund which was established several years ago for the purpose of purchasing a permanent site for Living Water. If anyone feels a particular calling to financially support a permanent site for Living Water over and above a normal tithe, this fund is a great way to do so. (You can even give online.)
As we look forward to a permanent site for Living Water, or whatever else God has in store for us, it is vital that we get our financial house in order so we are ready to move as God directs.
But as important as the financial aspects are, we cannot forget the mission: Reaching Up to God in worship, Reaching Out into our communities with the love of Jesus, and Reaching In to encourage, disciple, and grow our members in their faith.
It is so easy to be distracted by programs and capital campaigns and money, in turn losing focus of our first calling. I truly believe that if we keep our eyes on Jesus, on sharing the Gospel with those who do not know Him and on maturing the faith of our members, all the other pieces, including the financial piece, will take care of itself. Only then will we be ready to answer God’s call, whenever it comes and whatever it is. And I can’t wait.