By Francesca Norsen Tate
At a time when many congregations in Lutheran and other mainstream denominations struggle for survival, Bethlehem Lutheran Church has doubled its membership over the past 15 years. The church, on Ovington Avenue, received nine new members at a recent Sunday worship. The church attributes this success to the way it builds community through hospitality, outreach and creative ministry.
Pastor Paul Knudsen is a firm believer in making sure every visitor is greeted and made to feel welcome. Six adults and three children, having experienced this welcome, committed to this congregation and were received as members on June 17.
“Our faith needs to be important enough to us, that it will prompt us to make a commitment,” said Pastor Knudsen during the sermon on Membership Sunday. “These events are important enough to have a ritual, to have a ceremony. Our Christian faith only begins at our baptism. Our Christian life needs to be at the center of ‘who we are,’ the center of our existence. It needs to be that important, that we want to make a commitment. Our new members this morning will be committing to these promises today. Why do we join a church? Because our Christian faith is not meant to be lived in isolation. Our Christian faith is meant to be lived in community. The Easter People are an example of being a community of people to accomplish the ministry that Jesus left us to do. For all of this, God needs people. God needs people together, because we’re stronger together. We are more talented together; we have more gifts together. There’s support, there’s inspiration, there’s motivation; there’s love; there’s JOY.”
Those drawn to Bethlehem Lutheran Church for these reasons are largely from the neighborhood — the church is at 4th and Ovington Avenues — and other parts of Bay Ridge. But many come from Staten Island. Some keep their affiliation with Bethlehem even after moving from Brooklyn to other boroughs.
And there’s the church website.
“When we actually ask about those people who start attending our worship, the vast majority of them now are finding us on the web, and that’s part of their decision to come to Bethlehem. It speaks well of the ministries we have going, it’s very organized, and they come because they find us in the web.” That site is: www.bethlehembayridge.org.
The webmaster is an industry professional who’s a member of Bethlehem Church and its church council. The website’s design, with its regular and reliable updates and description of ministries, was a key factor in one person’s choosing Bethlehem Church during a critical moment. Pastor Knudsen said that a gentleman visiting the website then sought him out to provide pastoral care for his wife while he received treatment at a local hospital. Bethlehem Church also maintains a Facebook page.
Recounting a time he was ignored when visiting a Lutheran church in Chicago, Pastor Knudsen believes that “No church should ever allow someone to come and leave without being greeted and welcomed. When we share the peace, we don’t just turn to the person right next to us and simply shake their hand. The whole congregation gets up and walks around, and greets everyone. No one comes into this church and leaves without being welcomed. It starts by being a welcoming community that is enthusiastic about new people and new faces.”
Knudsen is a part-time pastor. His full-time work is with information technology. His corporate experience has proved valuable, because it is very similar to that of the vast majority of the congregation. This perspective helps him stay in touch with his parishioners’ needs. So does making time for them after the workday.
Moving from Staten Island into the church parsonage about six years ago so that he could better connect to his church, Pastor Knudsen began a tradition of taking newcomers and parishioners out to dinner so they could learn about one another, “where they’re coming from or going,” he says. “I think that just having those one-on-one conversations and social time, helps people feel that ‘this church really cares about me.’ “I just love living here in this community, and having the time in the evening to actually reach out.”
Another way of ensuring that his church stays united as a family is by offering just one Sunday service, with a traditional worship style.
During his first ministry after seminary, Knudsen had to pastor a church where multiple Sunday liturgies started to divide the congregation. Rancor over priorities split those attending the early and later services. “It really was a battle of two different churches,” he said. So he vowed, for the rest of his ministry, “to avoid a situation where we are dividing up our congregation into multiple services. We are blessed here at Bethlehem that our sanctuary truly is large enough that, even though we’re going to grow another 100 percent in the next 15 years, we can still fit them all into one service,” he quipped. “The intent is always to have one family worshiping together at one time.”
Pastor Knudsen preaches story-based sermons, and welcomes feedback on why people may find the sermon particularly meaningful. And under the direction of a dynamic choir director, Steve Wilson, the Bethlehem Choir has tripled, going from six to nearly 20 members.
Bethlehem Church’s focus on enriching all age groups and on outreach has contributed to an expansion of ministries. The church holds fellowship events and various luncheons, and soon hopes to organize a group for adults in middle age. And its financial priority–on outreach rather than on building an endowment–has actually blessed the church.
“It’s a shame, but there are so many Lutheran churches that are basically in survival mode. So much of their concentration is just to make sure they can pay the bills and keep the door open. So, that’s what their mentality is, ‘We just need to do things to exist. Here at Bethlehem, we are blessed by the decisions of clergypeople who were here before me, that truly had a vision for buying up property on the street, in terms of what we wanted to do with that. So the rental income that we have is a really good percentage of our income each year.”
Responding to concerns that money should be set aside in case rental income dries up, Pastor Knudsen reiterates the church’s priority to outreach.
“We still give away 14 percent of our income to benevolences and other ministries. So, from my perspective, we need to keep that focus. We need to continue to do the right thing. We need to be making sure that we’re tithing [giving at least 10 percent] as a congregation, and supporting ministries beyond our four walls. And the minute we start to just do the self-preservation, and making sure that we’re going to be here for a while, we lose focus of what ministry is all about. We are going to continue to be a vital presence of Christ in this community, as long as we’re able. As long as I’m here, our focus is going to be on giving, supporting ministries beyond our walls. The money that we’re blessed with, we’re going to make sure we use it the right way, and not just sock it away.”
One of such outreach is The Healing Center, for which Bethlehem took over as primary sponsor. Another is the Bay Ridge Center, which is “really what enabled us to be known in the community as taking care of senior services,” says Pastor Knudsen. They have activities and the on-site lunch program. They deliver over 450 Meals on Wheels per day.” The Bay Ridge Center is funded by the NYC Department for the Aging.
A vibrant Sunday school, complete with Bible stories, creative activities and parental commitment, helps raise children in the faith. “Interestingly enough, the fact that Bethlehem has a Sunday School has been a stabilizing force for kids in the community, he says. Pastor Knudsen also leads a three-year Confirmation program, and several youth were confirmed at the beginning of June.