This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Lutheran Sunday mornings are for prayer and pews, for Scripture readings and weekly sermons.
This Sunday members of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church convened at 9 a.m., as they always do. But they wore T-shirts instead of ties or dresses, and their hands gripped pressure washers and pruning shears instead of Bibles and hymnals.
They were celebrating, along with some 10,000 other congregations, the 25th anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – and they did so by leaving their pews and sanctuaries empty for a day of service.
At St. Stephen’s, 37 congregants made the trip to West Lenoir Elementary School, which shares a downtown-Lenoir neighborhood with the church.
Volunteers trimmed bushes, cleaned playground equipment and spruced up a painted map of the United States on the school’s playground. They were joined by the school’s new principal, Kristy Hollar, who had also provided a list of work that needed to be done.
Those who couldn’t work on their feet stayed indoors at the church, filling gallon-sized plastic bags with toothpaste, combs, shampoo and other personal-hygiene items to be delivered to the Shelter Home of Caldwell County and Leo’s Place, an emergency outreach shelter in Lenoir.
But in terms of belief, not tradition, there was nothing all that incongruous about spending a Sunday trimming hedges and filling bags with toothpaste and combs, Pastor Tony Bradshaw said.
“In our worship of God, it’s really about how we live our life,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not just about the Sunday morning gathering. That’s important, but worship is in everything we do.”
Church member Stephenie Oxford said the day of service was also a way to get back to basics during an era when church membership continues to drop – not just for St. Stephen’s or for Lutherans but for traditional denominations across the United States.
“The younger generation seems disillusioned with church,” Oxford said. “Many churches changed their worship with a lot of flash to attract younger adults, but it really hasn’t been an effective way of getting new and retaining existing members.”
Bradshaw said he thinks it’s easy, in 2013, to become a consumer – even a consumer of church. Sunday’s event, dubbed “God’s work, our hands,” reminded church members to give as much as they receive, he said.
“We need to remember, always, that we’re being fed to feed others and blessed to bless others,” Bradshaw said.
But beyond all that, church members also wanted people to feel loved, Bradshaw said – whether that was through a clean playground or a fresh tube of toothpaste.
“It’s just proclaiming God’s love for them and his presence,” he said. “We want West Lenoir to know, and the same with the Shelter Home and Leo’s Place, that they are precious to us and precious to God.”