It’s been an unlikely autumn in Arcadia. It all started when a neighbor issued a concern with our Church Council at Trinity Lutheran about our church’s bells, which chime on the hour (between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.) and also play hymns at noon and 6 p.m. It was just a flicker of a complaint, and I thought that we’d be able to address it quickly and quietly.
Boy, was I wrong.
Arcadia being your quintessential small town, before long the word about the neighbor’s concern got out —a concern, it turned out, that was not shared by the vast majority of the community. And the next thing I knew, this little flicker became a full-on conflagration. Signs showed up in front yards, created by I-don’t-know-who, saying “Save the Arcadia bells.” The local NPR station did a story. And then the NBC affiliate produced a segment, which was picked up all over the state.
And I’ll be honest. When this bells kerfuffle first arose I found it a little vexing. “All publicity is good publicity,” they say, but this was by no means what I was looking for—not least because I was concerned for our neighbors who lodged the complaint and suddenly found themselves as personae non gratae around town.
Before too long, though, I recognized a blessing amid the brouhaha.
What was the blessing? I’ll put it this way. Churches will often ask themselves (or be asked), especially in seasons of transition, “If we weren’t here, what would be the loss to the community? Would our neighbors miss us?” Too often congregations don’t have a good answer to that question. They’ve lost a sense of purpose, a sense of identity.
I came to feel grateful for the bells kerfuffle, though, because members of our community started offering unsolicited input about what Trinity Lutheran means to our little village—in e-mails, phone calls, drop-ins, or conversations at the post office. They were coming to us and saying, “Here’s what we’d miss if you weren’t here.” To be sure, many comments specifically addressed the topic of the bells. But many others expanded to speak of the place of our church in the community generally.
Numerous folks, with no direct connection to our church, said things like, Trinity is the iconic center of town. Or that our presence embodies the spirit of the village. Or indeed that Trinity is “the heart of Arcadia”—not only in a geographical sense (which is true), but in a larger symbolic sense as well.
All this got me thinking.
It’s one thing to have an identity in the community as a result of your physical presence. That’s a great blessing, and we ought to be grateful for it. But what would it look like for us to lean into that identity, and build upon it? To embrace the place that our neighbors already accord to us in the community, and to strive for it to be not only a passive designation (due to our building) but also an active one (due to God’s work through our people and ministry)?
A Heart for Arcadia
I thought to myself, what if Trinity Lutheran were known not only for being the heart of Arcadia, but also for having a heart for Arcadia?
I shared these thoughts at our congregational voters’ meeting, at which we would decide whether or not to change the playing of the bells. Unsurprisingly, the congregation voted to keep the bells as they had been. But then the conversation immediately turned to: “This is going to be disappointing for the neighbors who had the concern. How can we make an extra effort to show them the love of Christ?” And straightaway a flurry of ideas came out.
And suddenly I realized that, to a large extent, this church already has a “heart for Arcadia.” We’re a church that is welcoming to the community and that cares for its neighbors in need. For instance, this summer I brought to our church’s attention a family in Arcadia with extraordinary needs. I challenged us to give generously to help, hoping we might raise a few hundred dollars to provide assistance in some tangible ways. The congregation raised nearly six thousand dollars in a single weekend. I about fainted when I saw the final number.
So in that moment at the voters’ meeting I recognized afresh that we are in fact a church with a history and tradition of seeking to be a blessing and benefit to its home. The invitation and opportunity for our next season of ministry is therefore to embrace more whole-heartedly, and with greater intentionality, who God has already made us to be.
My point in sharing this story is to say that, apart from the commotion over the church bells, I might not even have noticed this vision of our congregation that was right under my nose. And so my encouragement for other congregations and church leaders is simply this: pay attention to the kerfuffles that emerge in your own church and community.
Yes, they often feel like a distraction or worse. But it may be the case that, when they arise, your neighbors or parishioners are revealing their hearts—their deep-seated longings and values. And when the congregation’s heart touches the heart of its people with the love of Jesus, beautiful ministry can happen.
And you might just find a blessing amid the brouhaha.
Bells photo (c) Onishenko-Galina/iStock; Trinity, Arcadia photo (c) Michigan District, LCMS