"If we can see a little farther, it is because we stand on the scaffold built by others." Olin Reigstad, Pastor 1921-1946
The ministry of Bethlehem Lutheran congregation began in a rented second-floor hall on Franklin Avenue in the heart of the city's Norwegian-American community on January 1, 1894.
The congregation became a spiritual home for Norwegian immigrants and Norwegian-Americans: workers and executives, families with children and young people new to the city, professors and students from a nearby seminary (later, Luther); Norwegian was the first language of worship and church business.
A pastor was called that fall and by 1899 the congregation had built a red stone sanctuary with a tall slender spire at the corner of 14th Avenue and 18th Street. This location, directly north of the present-day Franklin Public Library is now lost in the commons area of Interstates 35W and 94.
The congregation thrived. It weathered a gradual transition from Norwegian to English. Members played key roles in the beginnings of what later became the Ebenezer Society, Lutheran Social Service and Fairview Hospital, and were involved in other vital issues in the city.
In 1923, Golgotha Lutheran at 31st and Pleasant Avenue merged with Bethlehem, and in 1927 they moved south with the growing city, building the present sanctuary at 41st Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis. The new worship space incorporated the altar painting and baptismal font from the old church. The stained glass windows were given by individuals and church groups and were dedicated in October 1929, two days before the stock market crash.
Outreach, both at home and abroad, was a part of the congregation's ministry from its earliest days. In 1923 Bethlehem's first commissioned missionaries, Pastor Irv and Nora Jacobson, were sent out from the congregation as missionaries to China. Several generations of their descendants are long-time members of Bethlehem.
Bethlehem continues to reach out from south Minneapolis and its two daughter congregations to other parts of the city, state and this country to the southern tip of Argentina and to the other side of the world in central Africa and India.
Today, Bethlehem is an open, healthy congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with many opportunities for participation for both adults and children. We have a proud heritage and we are a thriving, vibrant community who welcomes all who enter our doors. Bethlehem is the place to be. Come and see!
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 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 God is calling us to. 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. Church Transitions (www.churchtransitions.com) conferences are held regularly at Bethlehem. The staff also consults with pastors, staff and lay leadership of churches of all denominations throughout the country and in India, Papua New Guinea and Argentina.For more information about purpose-driven adventures see the Purpose-Driven website.