Faith in fellowship

Published 10:50 am Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Q: How long have you been pastor at Salem Lutheran Church? What brought you to Albert Lea?

A: As a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I came to Albert Lea through an interview process directly through the congregation. I began serving in November of 2010.


Q: Where were you before Salem Lutheran?

A: Before being called to Salem, I served as pastor at Cedar Valley Lutheran Church in rural Winona and Looney Valley Lutheran Church in rural Houston.

The Rev. Mark Niethammer of Salem Lutheran Church holds a hot fudge sundae. The pastor began a get-together called Desserts and Dreams. Stories like this one appear in Progress 2013, which comes out Sunday. --Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

The Rev. Mark Niethammer of Salem Lutheran Church holds a hot fudge sundae. The pastor began a get-together called Desserts and Dreams. Stories like this one appear in Progress 2013, which comes out Sunday. –Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune


Q: How many members are there at the church?

A: There are around 500 members at Salem. A usual Sunday worship attendance is anywhere from 120 to 150.


Q: When you first started at Salem, you were doing what was called Desserts and Dreams. How did this come about, and how did it go? What were you hoping to accomplish?

A: The concept, which was first shared with me by a congregation in urban Minneapolis, was very basic. It was a time in which small groups from the congregation would get together for dessert and conversation. The conversation revolved around the people’s experiences of Salem, no matter how long they had been here.

We then moved into what we see that God might be doing in this place; that is, how we can best serve the community. Each small group, as much as possible, was made up of people of various generations, as well as a mix of the genders and a combination of longtime members, new people and frequent visitors.

The main goal was to provide different people of the congregation the opportunity to get to know people that they had never had conversation with. Although we are a small church, there are many people who hadn’t gotten to know each other’s stories.

From these conversations, I was given an interesting insight into the congregation that then provided a basis for me to start my ministry. It showed me some of the needs of the congregation as well as some of the rich history of these people.

Two years later, I am still using my notes from these conversations as I try to lead this congregation into God’s future.


Q: What other types of activities have you implemented to encourage fellowship at the church?

A: One thing I wanted to do right away at Salem was to provide intentional time for the congregation to be together, but not just in the usual groups that would always be together on Sunday mornings.

I always try to incorporate intergenerational activities so we as the people of God at Salem can learn from each other.

Last summer, my wife and I had a weekly event called “Where are Molly and Pastor Mark?” Each Wednesday, we would let the congregation know at which city park we would be, and we would have a picnic together. Turnout was great, and each of them were wonderful, multigenerational events where we took time to explore some of the great parks this city has. One particular event saw the oldest baptized member of the church and the youngest baptized member of the church together as we watched one of our fourth-graders play a softball game. We are planning something similar for this summer.

This year, each first Sunday of the month, we have family Sunday school. Instead of having the kids go to their separate classroom, we are all together in a big room with parents and grandparents present as we learn the Bible story for the day. Sometimes we play games; sometimes there are crafts, scavenger hunts or skits. Each month is different, but again, with multiple generations together, we have a chance to learn from each other and with each other.


Q: Why is fellowship important?

A: Fellowship is a vital part of who we are. When we are together, we can learn more about God and what God has done in our world through the stories of many different people who have different sets of experiences. If we open ourselves up to see what God has done in each other’s lives, we get a bigger picture of the goodness of God for all creation.


Q: Why have you felt it was important to think outside of the box on this?

A: I have tried to go outside of the box on this because I have seen for far too long the desire to conform younger generations to fit patterns of life from older generations. Rather than doing this, I think there is a need to see that we all have a witness to offer and stories to share about how God has guided our lives no matter how old or young we are.

We aren’t all supposed to look alike, so offering time to learn from each other and have fun together enhances our faith and witness in what God has done and what God is currently doing.

While I have tried to think outside the box for fellowship, our worship services remain very traditional and formal. In spite of trends to the contemporary, I would say that many across generational lines find more meaning using the songs and prayers that have sustained God’s people through the centuries.

Some say that traditional worship won’t appeal to young people. However, I would say that by using ancient forms of worship, and doing them well, we are more easily able to find ourselves by connecting our lives to the lives and stories of God’s saints who have come before us. It is our worship, then, that calls us back into the world, to engage God’s people in love and service.

A faith that is lived out is about much more than self or entertainment. That is why our worship transcends the concept of self and connects us to people of all times and places.

Our fellowship, however, is where we get to live out this faith that we foster in worship. Seeing God’s goodness throughout all time, we enter into the world to offer witness to Jesus and to show, in our lives, that God is still active today — in all people regardless of age.


Q: How have these things been received?

A: My perception is that this has all been received quite well. Those who have participated in these events and have immersed themselves in the worship have found that the revelation of God wasn’t a one-time thing that ended 2,000 years ago. Instead, they see that God is at work in all people. By offering intentional, intergenerational opportunities, we are able to see the grace of God in the faces of all.


Q: Where do you hope they will lead the church?

A: My prayer is that by the leading of the Holy Spirit, we as a community who gather at Salem can offer a model of how to be a community of people who look different, are of different ages, cultures and backgrounds and yet be one congregation who gets together to worship God and to be a part of something greater than themselves.

Together, as a community, we can do so much more good than we can as individuals. Sometimes we gather in out-of-the-box ways, but we come together and form relationships with each other based on love and respect. In so doing, we figure out how we can best serve the world we live in. Through intergenerational fellowship, we finally see how inter-related we are.