God’s people in South Plainfield and beyond,

Recently I read a letter a teacher wrote to his teaching assistants: “Thank you for joining this team.  The course changes every year because the students are different and this team is different.  But the constant in the midst of the change, and the reason why the course is important, is that people come here to make a difference out there” (Sharon Daloz Parks, Leadership Can be Taught, 58).

People come here to make a difference out there.  That’s the line that struck me.  It sounds to me like church.  Like worship.  People come here to make a difference out there.

A year ago, we started a journey.  A journey together writing a statement–a “purpose and principles” statement–to answer the question, Why are we here? Why is St. Stephen Lutheran church here?  It is a question about our purpose, our reason for being, and the goal and meaning of our labor.

As we continue on the journey, let me suggest an answer.  We are here to make a difference out there.  Out there in South Plainfield.

Perhaps this answer does not surprise us.  Maybe it sounds like boilerplate institutional blah blah blah.  But consider this:  A year or so ago, a St. Stephen confirmation student answered a question about worship–Did anything unusual happen this morning?–by writing: “Pastor actually talked about what is being done specifically in South Plainfield through the churches.  We don’t always hear about the town we live in at church.”  This student’s surprise, I believe, came not because he or she does not pay enough attention in worship, but because he or she has ears to hear what, perhaps, the rest of us cannot.  Surprising churches are the ones actually and specifically making a difference in the towns they live in.

Consider the alternative answer to that purpose question we’ve been trying to answer together, Why are we here? The alternative is: We are here to make a difference, not out there, but here.  We come to church to make a difference at church.  Or, in our case, to make a difference at St. Stephen and in the lives of people at St. Stephen.  This is the answer we give when ask people to serve on church committees and when we talk about needing more people in worship.  This is the answer we’ve inherited from those who organized and built St. Stephen.

When people came to church automatically, this answer to that purpose question served the mission of Jesus Christ in South Plainfield.  At that time, people came to worship and Sunday school every week, joined the church and served on committees because doing these things was just what people did.  In such circumstances, that answer–we are here to make a difference here–made it possible for many people to come to know the love of Jesus Christ and his life-changing story of becoming human, dying, and rising for the sake of the world.  To put it simply, that answer worked.  When people came to church as a matter of course, making a difference at church, for the people at church, meant making a difference out there in South Plainfield too.

Today, our circumstances have changed.  People do not come to church automatically.  We see that reality reflected not only in statistics but also in our own habits and those of our children and grandchildren.  Because of these changed circumstances, many suggest changing our answer to that question of purpose.  When many worry about congregations dying, others suggest the way to real and vital congregational life is through reorienting everything we do around the idea that people come here to worship to make a difference out there in South Plainfield–in homes, schools, workplaces, and borough halls, at soccer games and Labor Day parades, on streets and sidewalks, during elections and economic downturns and everyday life.

In a changed world, surprising churches are the ones actually and specifically making a difference in the towns they live in.  It is Jesus Christ, the one who surprised everyone first by dying and then again by rising again, who makes churches surprising.  Christ makes surprising churches by surprising them with the question, Why are you here?

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith

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