Several years ago, at the beginning of each calendar year I began choosing a focus for our congregation for the year ahead. I generally haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time trying to come up with the perfect idea or the perfect wording. I have simply tried to latch onto something we’ve spent some time talking about or wrestling with as a congregation, or something I felt at the time ought to receive greater emphasis. And then that focus statement, along with our mission and vision statements, gets reproduced at the beginning of our printed worship folder throughout the year, as well as in my printed reports to our Board of Elders, our Church Council, and our Voters.
Some years more than others, I have made a point of talking specifically about the focus I’ve chosen for the year. Each year, however, I have been amazed at some of the ways in which the focus statement I’ve adopted, to which I always feel the Lord has finally led me, actually does wind up connecting with at least some aspect of what we’ve done as a congregation during the course of the year. I never know quite what to expect, but I’ve yet to be disappointed.
At the beginning of 2021, as we were moving into the second year of dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, and as we, like probably most other congregations across the District, were seeing many potential reasons to feel discouraged as a congregation, I chose the following as our focus for the year: “Sharing Our Hope in Christ.” I wanted to be intentional about finding ways to emphasize the reasons we have to be hopeful as followers of Christ, and I also wanted to be more intentional about finding ways for all of us—myself included—to work at getting better at sharing our hope in Christ with others.
A Wall of Hope
At the end of 2021, as I was beginning to plan for the Advent season, I ran across a suggestion in Creative Worship that caught my eye. The gist of the idea was to invite members to share their stories of hope during the Advent season and then to create a “Wall of Hope” in the church, where those stories could be shared with the entire congregation. So I decided to ask our members to consider sharing their “stories of hope” and to see what happened. The initial idea was to do so in anticipation of singing the words “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” in the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” on Christmas Eve. The more stories of hope that were shared, I reasoned, the more we would be able as a congregation to connect those words, as we sang them together, to our own personal hopes.
I won’t say that the response blew me away, but I was pleasantly surprised. I placed blank sheets of paper in the narthex, taking advantage of the opportunity to highlight our District’s vision statement in the process (see below). I also invited members and friends to share their stories with me via email, text message, or personal message. During the weeks that followed, even into the new year, the stories gradually trickled in in many different ways. Most of them, I added to our “Wall of Hope.” Occasionally, however, as I scanned the collection of stories, I would notice that someone had brought in their story and posted it themselves.
Not every story shared was profound, I suppose, but each individual story represented the way in which hope has been experienced—or maybe even has been something of a struggle—in the life of one of our members or member families. Early in the Advent season, for example, one of our members admitted to me that they were legitimately trying, but they were having some trouble identifying reasons to feel hopeful. Before too long, however, even they had added their own hope story to our wall.
As we entered the new year, I told our congregation that I would plan to leave up our “Wall of Hope” through the end of the Epiphany season. Not too many new stories have been added during the weeks of Epiphany, but on occasion I will still notice someone standing in the narthex and reading the stories that are there. Now as we prepare to leave the Epiphany season in the coming days, I will admit that I find myself feeling a little saddened at the prospect of taking our hope stories down.
Why am I sharing this story? Not because our congregation is unique or particularly special. Any one of our Michigan District congregations could have done the same thing, and maybe some did. I am also not sharing this story because this effort was extraordinarily successful; I repeatedly reminded our members that we still had plenty of room left on our wall for more stories. I am sharing this story because we are, in fact, people of hope, both here in Michigan and as followers of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Much like in 2021, in 2022 we are surrounded by many potential reasons to feel discouraged and hopeless. If we so desire, we can place our focus there, and no one will blame us. However, even though I can admit that sometimes I struggle to practice it myself, I prefer the idea of focusing our attention on the many reasons we have as Christians to be hopeful. Fewer people may be in church these days, and some aspects of church life and ministry may look a little bit different than that to which we are accustomed, but God is still graciously at work in the lives of His people. As I reflect on the real stories of real hope our members recently shared, for that I am especially grateful—and hope-filled!
The Vision Statement of the Michigan District, LCMS:
Our congregations are filled to overflowing with people of HOPE! Our living hope, indeed our joyful and confident life and witness to the world, comes from the transforming power of the Gospel and the resurrected Christ who has graced us with an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for ALL who believe in Him as Savior and Lord (1 Peter 1:4). This living hope inspires our dependence on, devotion to, and commitment to the Word of God, worship, prayer, and each other, and moves us to take the love of Christ to our family, friends, neighbors, community and the world in word and deed.