Bethlehem has long been a strong congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), but starting in the late sixties to early seventies, as more families were moving out to the suburbs, Bethlehem began shrinking as most urban churches did. By the mid-90's Bethlehem was still considered a "strong urban congregation" because it was only declining slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it was easy to pretend that it wasn't happening. At this time the existing staff and leadership decided that it wasn't necessary to acquiesce to the trend of urban decline. So we began looking for a model of ministry to couple with our theology and heritage to help us reclaim God's plan for our church. It was then, 1996, when a brochure for the Purpose-Driven Church conference arrived. What? Lutherans learn from Southern Baptists? Not likely, but the allure of southern California in spring and the silent intention of the Holy Spirit moved us to take a chance. The Spirit also inspired us to set another earthshaking precedent, for which we also can't take credit, that was sending all our pastors, program staff and congregational president to the conference together. Most of us spent the first day and a half arguing with Rick Warren in our heads, after all we have theological and practical differences with him, but the Spirit was still at work. We soon quit arguing, knowing there will always be differences, but the principles Rick Warren was talking about apply to any church. Bethlehem hasn't been the same since.
Where did we start the changes? Where we could! Starting with that first sermon after the conference, the pastors began retooling their sermons to not just be biblically and theologically sound, and relevant to the congregation, but directed towards life change. Not to make God love us more, or to ‘get us saved' but because God's grace is transforming. We started expecting God to make things happen at Bethlehem; we held up a lofty vision of the Christian life and asked for commitment. And rather than chasing people away, it attracted them. We were sent scrambling to find programs and materials to meet the needs of a large congregation responding to God's call to become Christ-like. We also took the idea of balancing the purposes of the Christian faith seriously for ourselves. If God was going to use us to lead this congregation, we needed to be willing to take the first steps of recommitting our lives to Jesus Christ. What we didn't do was to try to officially become a "Purpose-Driven" church. We didn't want the label, but the health. PD isn't our identity, it is a model of ministry that helps us be the best Lutheran Christian church we can be. Neither did we try to change our governance to a PD model, instinctively knowing this would only attract resistance and criticism before people experienced the benefits of health through balancing God's purposes of the church.
In 1999 Bethlehem was in the first class of churches to receive the Purpose-Driven Church Health Award. One of only five congregations nationally. Indeed, Warren's commonsense understanding of what it means to be the church helped us to become a healthier congregation. Since 1996 our worship attendance has grown from 650 per Sunday to over 1300. Giving, ministry, education have grown at a faster rate, beginning with growth from within; growing dramatically in worship attendance for several years before adding many people to membership. Bethlehem has learned how to be more generous than ever as well. Three successful capital funds campaigns have been undertaken to help us stretch into the ministry to which God is calling us. In each one 15% of the total raised has been given away to mission. Since 1999, in fact, Bethlehem has averaged more than $1 million in outreach giving over every three year period. Spirit Garage (www.spiritgarage.org), an emerging congregation aimed at the unchurched in the nearby Uptown neighborhood, was launched in 1998 as a satellite, and in 2006 another congregation, Jacob's Well (www.jacobs-well.net), was launched to reach the unchurched community of south Minneapolis. The pastors and staff continue to ‘learn and return' in the purpose-driven tradition. For more information, take a look at the Purpose-Driven website.