Peaceful Valley. Such is the meaning of the name given to our community — Lodi, Wisconsin. This small town is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, small family-owned dairy farms, and picturesque Lake Wisconsin. We are also just a 20-minute drive north of the progressive University city and state capital, Madison. Lodi was founded by pioneers in the mid 1800s, at which time a fledgling Lutheran congregation just outside of town was formed by Norwegian immigrants. These Lutheran roots grew into Common Ground Church in Lodi, a community with deep, historical roots in this place, along with a drive to follow God’s Spirit amidst a changing external environment.
The context of our faith community is not unlike scores of other churches planted by European settlers across the midwestern United States. Common Ground’s predecessor congregation – First Lutheran Church – was a player in town, best known for its iconic, large, brick building situated at the top of “Norwegian Hill” overlooking the town of Lodi. For 141 years, the church’s building was a spiritual hub for worship, education and fellowship – providing spiritual meaning to those affiliated with the church. The congregation had also built a reputation for serving the poor through its local food pantry founded in the early 1980s. These features all contributed to what could be called the functional missional identity of First Lutheran Church – all the ways this community actually operated out of its particular gifts and perceived sense of call.
Though there had been comfort and familiarity in the original missional identity, the Holy Spirit was stirring and igniting a new energy within the community. Following a pastoral transition in 2004-05, the people of First Lutheran began a years-long process to actively discern their Gospel vocation through spiritual practices, including:
- Weekly stewardship Bible study with current council members, alumni council and stewardship leaders
- Lectio divina/contemplative prayer as the base for most of our discipleship
- One-to-one spiritual direction for at least half the council members
- Monthly clergy coaching sessions since 2006
- Participation in spiritual leadership network of synodical congregations that incorporated lay leadership in a missional discovery process
- Vocational discernment/attunement tool used at every council meeting
- Pastors with complementary strengths who work well together
- Pastors who practice Lectio, Bible study, generosity, silence, fasting….always rooting ourselves in the thing itself to mitigate against self-preservation bias.
Over an a eight year period of time (2007-2015), some fruits of this vocational discernment work included:
- Co-founding Reach Out Lodi – a community outreach cooperative for under resourced people
- Co-founding the Lodi Community Action Team – a coalition of community sector leaders and young people
- Organizing a free summer lunch program for our school district that mobilized several local congregations
- Hosting a weekly intergenerational ministry that connected with younger people with little to no church experience
- Initiating a food cart mission-start
Persistent Question – Adaptive Challenge
Along with these tangible actions, questions began to emerge around the inaccessibility of our building. The concern for greater accessibility expanded beyond accessibility for those with physical disabilities to include accessibility for:
- Generations less religiously affiliated than previous ones
- People who are marginalized in society.
With this expanded definition, the persistent question about our building’s accessibility morphed into an adaptive challenge as defined by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. An adaptive challenge is: “The gap between the values people stand for (that constitute thriving) and the reality that they face (their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment).”
- Was the current building’s accessibility the right or only question?
- Is God leading us to ask more fundamental questions around our church’s sense of vocation, echoing retired Pastor Rick Barger’s question – what is the ache in God’s heart, most needed in our community?
- A dedicated church building may not be needed in our primary Gospel vocation, but people called to love God and neighbor are always needed.
God’s Call – Player to Platform
God’s call for our congregation was to envision ourselves as so much more than a building.
After this period of transitional tension around how to address the church building’s inaccessibility issues, a vision of starting fresh as a congregation emerged in our annual stewardship cottage gatherings during the fall of 2018. We began to imagine church in smaller distributed, contextualized forms – dispersed into the Lodi community to embody the church in new and accessible ways:
“It is time we stopped imagining the church as something we have to invite people into and see it as something that is blessed to be broken and given to the world. The truth is, the people of God are already dispersed, they are already in the streets, in the brothels, in the mental health facilities, in the lives of orphans, the homeless, victims; they are people embedded and committed to their neighborhoods.” (Microchurches: A Smaller Way, by Brian Sanders)
With much prayer and discernment, First Lutheran was dissolved in August of 2020, and its assets reinvested in starting a new congregation, Common Ground Church. This move from First Lutheran Church, with an iconic building, to Common Ground Church sans a central location was a first step from being a player in town to becoming a platform – part of a larger ecosystem of love and care in the community.
“Being a “player” means to be firm in understanding one’s position or place in the environment and influencing others to one’s own benefit. Becoming a “platform” requires a shift from understanding oneself as central to understanding that one is part of a much larger, more organic, and constantly shifting ecosystem. As a player, the question is how to establish and protect one’s own presence. As a platform, the question is how to participate in the larger ecosystem by shaping a role (a platform) that serves the needs of others. As a player, one dominates. As a platform, one participates.” (Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World by Gil Rendle)
The transition from First Lutheran Church to Common Ground Church, i.e., from player to platform, represents a mindset shift and adaptive response to the challenges of a changing world.
- The local church is a creation within the fabric of, and for the whole, Creation.
- Our mindset was informed by both ecological thinking as it was missional
- The church functions within the fabric of the whole creation rather than attempting to extract human beings from it.
- We had to pour much more into discerning our faith community’s unique, local calling, as it related to the whole of all interconnected life than just problem-solving our building’s accessibility.
The image of church as a practicing community informed the discernment that went into moving from a centralized, weekly gathering for church toward smaller and contextualized local microchurches. This move was not to save the church from decline nor attract younger generations to church. Ultimately, the motivation was rooted in God’s love for us and God’s call to love our neighbor.
This work of vocational discernment is never complete even as we now seek to establish a microchurch platform in the new iteration of our faith community.
As we continue moving forward in this uncharted direction, by faith we affirm that “in God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and trust that God’s Spirit is the active agent of transformation in the world, in our faith community and in our lives.