By Dan Flynn
Shortly after the birth of my congregation, Living Water, a new member convinced me to start “Team Living Water,” a cycling team that would train for the 300 mile, 3-day “Make-a-Wish” ride across Michigan that takes place each July.
“Make-a-Wish” raises funds to grant wishes to seriously ill children. That member’s young daughter, Mackenzie, is a poster child for the organization, and her dad is passionate about supporting it. Little did my fellow team members or I realize the challenge we had before us.
None of us had experience with pace lines, endurance rides, or spandex shorts. In fact, most of us had to purchase road bikes. On the last Thursday of July, we took a long bus ride to northern Michigan with 700 other riders, camped overnight, and started our first century (100 mile ride).
Little did my fellow team members or I realize the challenge we had before us.
Seventeen miles into the ride, I was in the front of the pace line and heard a crash behind me. A bike flew into the ditch next to me, and two others spilled onto the ground. We lost Greg (first bike) to a broken collar bone. Now apprehensive of bodily harm, we got back on our bikes and rode down the big hills of Michigan (30+ mph, a true adrenalin rush).
I still remember riding into a school parking lot at the end of that day, finishing my first century. I, the semi-fat man in my late 40s, did it. I actually got tears in my eyes. Of course, we had another two days of centuries to go, but for the moment the first century was achieved.
In the fall of 2004, we launched our new church plant, Living Water, a site of St. Luke Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our launch team of 49 with me as pastor had no idea what was ahead of us. We knew we were called into a ministry to reach the lost. We wanted to be kingdom builders, not kingdom sustainers.
Our launch team of 49 with me as pastor had no idea what was ahead of us.
This group of highly entrepreneurial people was willing to step out and let me, a former teacher going through delto (Distant Education Leading to Ordination), be their pastor. As with the bike ride, building a church is an endurance ride—a marathon, not a sprint. Marathons take time, training, commitment, and fortitude to reach the goal. We did not fully grasp the marathon of peaks and valleys we would experience.
Our goal is to reach the unchurched, the lost. As a nine-year-old portable church that meets in a public high school, we have a deep desire to extend care to the people of our community and draw them into a transformational relationship in Christ Jesus.
Starting out, we knew that 63 percent of our community was unchurched. This number still holds true today. Initially that was exciting because we knew we could make an impact. We had a reason to be in the community and still do.
We did not fully grasp the marathon of peaks and valleys we would experience.
It is an endurance ride. Our journey has been filled with hard climbs up the big hills and the adrenalin rush down the hill. When we started, we had hopes of becoming one of those churches that planted and grew to 1,000 in worship after a couple of years.
We believed that we would be one of those stories—but we are not. Reality is that we are a small congregation of about 130 people in Sunday worship, but we have a passionate desire to give hope and peace to a fractured world. We want to share the message that Jesus gave to his disciples in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We are deeply committed to bringing this godly shalom to our neighbors. God has called us to this community to be a place that offers peace and speaks to Christ’s intervention into our world. Again, doing this is the long century ride on the bike and not the quick sprint. What have we learned about the unchurched?
- They are suspicious of the church, particularly denominational connections. Our Lutheran heritage means nothing to them. The impression I hear in conversation is that we [Lutherans] are bureaucratic and ineffective and definitely not fun. “Non-denoms,” in their eyes, are simply more fun.
- They don’t seek the church for answers to life’s questions. The church has been marginalized. One of my members who tutors in a public school mentioned to a student that she was going to church on Christmas Eve. His response: “People still do that?”
- But they are spiritually hungry. It is the wiring God has placed within all of us. We work to provide places where they can have the freedom to ask questions.
All of this means that I have to get out of my Christian ghetto, where as a pastor I spend well over 90 percent of my time, to connect with people in the community. I can wish to be the big church, but BIG doesn’t transform people; individual relationships do.
I can wish to be the big church, but BIG doesn’t transform people; individual relationships do.
Living in an unchurched community means I always must be looking for ways to get beyond the church walls and into the wider community. Here are some things we have done over the years.
For nine years, Living Water has had a presence at the Whitmore Lake July 4th parade, handing out free hot dogs and bottles of water. We have collected school supplies each fall to give kids through Northfield Human Services. We give gifts to the poor in the community at Christmas. Members have mentored middle and high school students. We have held community wide service events and concerts with free food and games for the kids.
We started a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) program and provided an educational speaker for the school district. We have hosted the Baccelureate service at the high school for serveral years. I serve on the local Kiwanis board of directors. We build relationships where we can and pray the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of the people.
We build relationships where we can and pray the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of the people.
I met Pam and Bob through the Kiwanis club at weekly meetings. I didn’t know them well. When they stopped attending Kiwanis meetings, we learned that Pam had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I decided to make a phone call and maybe visit their home.
Ultimately, I made many visits over the year. Pam’s cancer spread. It became apparent that she was going to die and leave her husband of 43 years, their four adult children and their grandchildren. By God’s grace I served as the voice of godly hope in their home actualizing John 16:33 as a pastor speaking into their lives.
I came sharing scripture and Psalms of hope. I prayed with them on each visit. Shortly before Pam died I shared the hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less….” I sang it while Pam lay quietly on her bed now under hospice care with her husband next to her. This moment became something extraordinary, a Holy Spirit moment. A week later she was gone.
By God’s grace I served as the voice of godly hope in their home actualizing John 16:33 as a pastor speaking into their lives.
Through these visits Pam did make a testimony of faith. She had drifted from her Baptist heritage and now embraced the salvation that Christ Jesus had given her. Pam asked me to do her funeral. I shared her hope in Christ Jesus, calling on the community to explore their own faith.
It has been two years since that funeral. Bob doesn’t attend Living Water or any other church, yet he and I still continue a very warm relationship. I do trust the Holy Spirit is working in his life.
Through these visits Pam did make a testimony of faith.
In this and other ways Living Water has become the community congregation that also sponsors me as their pastor in that larger community. At the end of 300 miles Team Living Water rides into the Michigan International Speedway with hundreds of people cheering.
After 300 miles of strong winds, weariness, and spandex, we hear people shouting and clapping. The ride is coming to an end. Exhausted, we get off our bikes and walk onto a stage where our Living Water “Make-a-Wish” child, Mackenzie, puts a medal around our necks. That is worth our “suffering.” I now have eight medals on my wall constantly reminding me of the difficult journey with a celebration at the end.
I now have eight medals on my wall constantly reminding me of the difficult journey with a celebration at the end.
In the midst of all our suffering there is a bigger story. It is the story of granting sick children a wish and a moment of peace
from their illness—and many other ways that Living Water reaches into the community with signals of Christ’s love.
This is the story of Living Water. There are celebrations of Pam but also of Manny and Connie and Sam and Annie and Sammy and Spencer and Paul and others. The journey is difficult and—I don’t say this lightly—I love the celebrations.