In a growing community where about half the residents claim no religious affiliation, a new mission is working to share a message of God’s undeserved love.
Grace, Norman, Okla., started as a daughter congregation of Holy Cross, Oklahoma City, a congregation about 20 minutes away. After several years of Holy Cross’ pastor conducting worship and Bible classes in the area, the Board for Home Missions funded a full-time pastor in the fall of 2013 so Grace could expand its ministry.
Norman is unique in Oklahoma in that it has been growing by two to three percent each year for the past decade. A university town, Norman also is home to many University of Oklahoma graduates, who return to start their own businesses. And even though it technically is part of the Bible Belt, it is largely unchurched. “And we’re not talking about whether they go to church or not,” says John Vieths, pastor at Grace. “Less than 50 percent would say they were any religion of any sort.”
Yet the congregation is working to make inroads into this community with the Word. When Vieths arrived in August 2014, he and the congregation concentrated on door-to-door canvassing in the newer neighborhoods on the northeast side. “Even the atheists at the door are usually pretty friendly and will engage in conversation,” says Vieths. The congregation received a Home Missions’ special project grant in 2015 to start a New Movers program in which members mail a “Welcome to the area” package to new residents that includes information about the congregation.
They also found a new full-time location for the congregation’s ministry in a visible strip mall on a busy street in Norman.
Besides targeting new residents, the congregation is trying to fill a need in the community. Christian Eisenbeis, a pastor who had been working part time at Grace since 2012, discovered that Norman didn’t offer many programs for parents of autistic children. In 2014, he and his wife started a support group called The Thorn Bush. While providing love and emotional support to families in Norman, The Thorn Bush also is a connector to the church and God’s love. “Ninety percent of families with children with autism are unchurched,” says Vieths. “They don’t feel welcomed at worship . . . and find themselves out on an island spiritually.” Vieths says about six people attend the semi-monthly support group; most have worshiped at Grace as well. To further serve Thorn Bush families and others in the community, Grace has started monthly Worship at the Cross services, simplified worship put together by Jesus Cares Ministries.
Planning for the future, Grace is considering other outreach opportunities, including sponsoring a community book drive or diaper drive to help low-income families, expanding the campus ministry program, and potentially partnering with WELS Christian Aid and Relief to help after disasters strike (storm and tornado damage is common in this part of Oklahoma).
With all these plans and about 25 in attendance each week, “it’s a fairly small labor pool,” says Vieths. But “the members of the congregation are dedicated to spreading the gospel in Norman.” The 40-member congregation celebrated its first adult baptism in September 2014 and confirmed three adults in February 2015. And with 250 names on Grace’s prospect list, there are many more opportunities to share God’s saving message.
“By God’s grace we pray that Grace Lutheran will become a thriving and independent congregation in the years to come,” says Vieths.
Learn more about The Thorn Bush in “Moments with Missionaries,” a video series that shares stories about WELS mission fields. Find the video at wels.net/missions.
Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.
Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.
Volume 103, Number 02
Issue: February 2016
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us