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Meeting, serving people where they are

On Thursday nights in the Denver metropolitan area, about 125-200 people, many of them homeless and struggling in their lives, come to The Table for a free meal and hope.

“A lot of them have fallen and are looking for an answer, some kind of hope,” said Trevor Freudenburg, a vicar at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Colo. “They have lost their dignity with choices they have made or they have been mistreated by others. We’re trying to restore their dignity and welcome them in with our arms open wide.”

Many homeless people live, work and move along Colfax Avenue, the main street that runs east-west through the Denver metropolitan area. Bethlehem is about five blocks north of Colfax, an ideal location for the people who come to The Table on Thursdays.

Rev. Tim Ahlman (’08), who is now pastor of Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church in Gilbert, Ariz., started The Table in 2009 to better reach the surrounding homeless community with the Gospel. “Even though we are all fallen people, we all are a special creation of God,” Freudenburg said.

The outreach ministry bears out one of Concordia Seminary’s institutional goals to “raise up the next generation of pastors, missionaries and deaconesses who will carry out an evangelical ministry with mission zeal, with a deep commitment to Lutheran theology and practice.”

Dr. Glenn Nielsen, professor of Practical Theology and director of Vicarage and Deaconess Internships, said the Seminary’s vicarages and deaconess internships give students significant experience in evangelical ministry. “We seek to place our students in congregations that reach into the community with the Gospel in deeply faithful and vibrantly effective ways,” he said.

“During vicarages and internships, each of our students completes an evangelism project in which they learn about the congregation and the community and then plan an event or activity that brings people into contact with the church’s message of Jesus Christ and His salvation,” Nielsen said. “We hope that leading this evangelism effort will bear fruit not only in the congregations where they are serving but also in the one he or she will eventually serve.”

Vicar Bill Grueninger’s evangelism project is to produce a book of neighboring and community events that focus on relationship-based ministry, then to teach a small group from the church how to plan and run the different events. Grueninger is serving at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ind.

At lunchtime on Thursdays, Grueninger helps make grilled cheese sandwiches for students who come from Columbus North and Columbus East high schools, both located a few miles from St. Peter’s.

“It’s a new opportunity that we are taking advantage of with students,” Grueninger said. He credits Aaron Littmann, the church’s director of youth ministry, for seeing the need in the community and starting the outreach among the nearby high school students.

During a recent “Grilled Cheese Thursday,” 44 students attended, 20 of whom do not consider St. Peter’s their church home. Grueninger said that 16 of those 20 students would not have been at the church without the special sandwich event.

“We also have seen students who had been a part of our youth group and have fallen away from the group, only to come back for ‘Grilled Cheese Thursdays,’” Grueninger said. “God is good! God has really worked through Aaron Littmann and his ideas.”

At St. Peter’s, he credits Rev. Mark Teike with “leading the charge to go into the community,” he said. “It’s not just one person. It’s all of us.”

He named the many ways St. Peter’s is helping the community, including Wednesday Night Connections, Bible classes and Third Space, classes aimed at meeting the needs of those who attend. For example, a finance class is available that helps many single parents in the community learn how to manage a budget.

“We are trying to find a way to be a real neighbor,” Grueninger said. “God is calling us to make real friendships.”

Left photo: From left, Vicar Bill Grueninger and Aaron Littmann, director of youth ministry, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ind., prepare grilled cheese sandwiches for high school students Feb. 23, 2017. Photo: Jane Littmann. Right photo: Seminarian Trevor Freudenburg is serving his vicarage at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Colo. Photo: Emily King

Fundamentally speaking, the life of a Christian is a life of witness 24/7, said Rev. Kou Seying, the Seminary’s associate dean of Urban and Cross-Cultural Ministry and the Lutheran Foundation Professor of Urban and Cross-Cultural Ministry.

Seying notes that Jesus’ final words to the disciples before His ascension were: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” from Luke 24:47-48.

“We are living in an unprecedented time of opportunities to share Jesus Christ’s saving message with all the nations of the world,” Seying said. “Due to the great movement of people around the world today, it is vital that the Seminary trains servants of the church to be mission-minded in a multi­dimensional way so that they may engage meaningfully the various worldviews that the Gospel
penetrates at the same time in any given community.

“What we do and how we witness impacts the church and the world instantly,” he said. “Through an intentional focus on witnessing, our students and our graduates will help the church in its mission.”

At Our Savior Lutheran Church in Laurel, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., Vicar Derrick Miliner said his church’s ministry action plan includes meeting and ministering to people from all over the world who live in the four apartment complexes near the church. Many of the children attend Our Savior’s child care center, Open Arms Christian Child Development Center, giving more opportunities to develop relationships with families. About 180 children attend the daycare’s variety of full- and half-day programs.

“The goal is to develop relationships with the children and their families and discover how we can best serve them,” said Miliner, who is in the Seminary’s spring 2015 cohort of the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program.

“The SMP program has strengthened my faith in the Apostles’ Creed,” he said. “God is gathering us, and as the master narrator, He is telling the whole story, showing the Lutheran distinctions and what the Creed does every time we gather.”

Dr. Timothy Saleska, the Seminary’s associate professor of Exegetical Theology and dean of Ministerial Formation, believes the Christian message is getting lost in society.

“More and more people don’t understand the Christian faith, the stories of the Bible and where they come from,” Saleska said. “The need now is as great as ever to reach other people with the Gospel. If we form students with inwardly focused eyes, we’re neglecting the command of the church to go forth in society.”

At the Seminary, Saleska said the faculty helps students learn what strategies to use when witnessing to others, including those who come from different backgrounds. Students are encouraged to build relationships with the people with whom they come into contact and learn how to tear down walls with the Gospel.

“We have revisited our teaching at the Seminary and have had a growing emphasis in our curriculum with MissionShift and a more intentional cross-cultural emphasis,” he said. “The LCMS districts look to us for church plantings. That’s one way our Seminary is uniquely equipped to serve.

“It’s important for congregations to begin to think about ministering to people in their communities and to build bridges with them,” Saleska said. “The old model of attracting people who are already members with programs isn’t enough and that approach is too inwardly focused. We have to intentionally go out of our comfort zone and build relationships with people who are not members.”

First-year seminarians Joshua Brakhage and Jacob Buday are doing just that as they volunteer at an after-school pro­­gram and health clinics operated by Christian Friends of New Americans in St. Louis. “Being around new Americans means we have the opportunity to share the message of hope and salvation of Jesus with them, potentially for the first time,” Brakhage said. “The places they have left may have been unreached or hostile to the Gospel. I pray that our nation, our communities and our churches would always be welcoming places where strangers and those far-off may encounter the light of Jesus.”

At The Table outside of Denver, the doors open at 5 p.m. and people who have been outside in the cold all day come in and get warm. Freudenburg said witnessing comes through relationships and knowing peoples’ stories.

“Before we eat on Thursdays, we hang out,” he said. “There’s a level of intimacy that happens when you’re eating together. It affirms that they are your friends and this is a safe place.”

The people who gather at The Table range in age from 30 to 60. Many count themselves as Christians but have little to no faith life. Worship time allows them to reconnect with Christ.

“When we get to the worship service, we explain everything that is going on, because we always have new people,” he said. “We talk about what goes on with Confession and Absolution,” he said. “We tell them about the prayer cards, which gives us a chance to also speak personally to people who have great needs.”

Freudenburg said many of the people he has met at The Table are upfront about their past sufferings and struggles. “There’s not a lot of hiding,” he said. “It’s bad that they have often gone through so much but it’s good that they will tell you what’s going on in their lives. There is so much need.

“But it’s important to do something,” he said. “People are dying without knowing Jesus.”

By Jackie Parker

Top Photo: Jane Littmann