Two years ago, St. Matthew Lutheran Church was forced to confront questions about its future, the most critical being: will there be one at all?
The congregation in Aurora, Colo., has been around since 1949. But despite its long history and the city’s booming population, it hadn’t received anything close to its peak attendance of 200 in decades. Marcel Narucki, pastor, said the congregation had 70 members when he arrived seven years ago, but membership has since dwindled to 15 worshipers on a typical Sunday.
This dip in attendance is common among mainline denominations as congregations nationwide grow older and struggle to attract members. Among the ELCA, the share of worshipers attending church weekly stands at around 35 percent, down 11 percent from just a decade earlier, according to the Pew Research Center.
Despite these challenges, leaders believe St. Matthew is on a path to renewal. Now a year into reimagining its mission, the congregation has discovered its continued existence rests, paradoxically, not in preserving its inner community but in fortifying the surrounding one.
In 2016, St. Matthew confronted its reality, which included the struggle to support operational costs given its small membership, Narucki said. The reckoning coincided with its involvement in the Aurora Church Together Strategy (ACTS), a Rocky Mountain Synod ministry that aims to connect the city’s congregations with their surrounding community. The ACTS program is supported by a renewal grant funded by gifts to the Campaign for the ELCA.
“We knew our diminished condition was a great motivator to do something, and we knew minimally that we had the potential to leave a legacy.”
“The future of the church looks like building communities, not being in a silo where it’s only you and your [congregation],” said Cindy Robles, a deacon and ACTS director. “It’s looking outward to those around you—and just being faithful about loving God and loving your neighbor.”
ACTS became a catalyst for change at St. Matthew, said Robles, who assisted members in a process to discern their mission.
“We knew our diminished condition was a great motivator to do something, and we knew minimally that we had the potential to leave a legacy,” Narucki said. “We didn’t know what that meant, at first: renting the building, giving the building away. We just knew we were open to any possibility.”
Some of the obvious choices, like partnerships with Lutheran Family Services or with Mango House, a local immigrant-focused nonprofit, didn’t pan out. Mango House, for instance, was prioritizing homelessness, but turning the church building into a shelter proved challenging.
“The community was less responsive to those ideas,” Narucki said. “If you look at Aurora’s demographics, it has the highest population of refugees and immigrants in Colorado—especially in our neighborhood.”
Indeed, the city has been a landing spot for refugees for at least the past decade; today, roughly 1 in 5 Aurora residents is foreign-born.
Over Thanksgiving dinner that year, Narucki brought up St. Matthew’s challenges in finding a suitable nonprofit partner. His stepdaughter, Amanda Blaurock, suggested they start their own. “I had never thought about that,” he said. “It threw me.”
A lawyer and entrepreneur, Blaurock offered to plan a public-facing nonprofit serving the city’s refugee population. She enlisted help from a friend who was working for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Myanmar.
That same month, St. Matthew’s council brought the idea forward for a vote. The decision to gift St. Matthew’s assets to an about-to-be-formed charity was unanimous.
By March 2017, Blaurock had relocated to Denver to run the charity, secured its nonprofit status and transferred the deeds from St. Matthew to the new organization—the Village Exchange Center (VEC). The VEC is nondenominational and not even expressly religious. It provides support and fellowship for members of the growing immigrant and refugee population and the Aurora community at large. St. Matthew is guaranteed office and worship space in perpetuity.
While there was total unanimity with the congregation’s decision, that didn’t mean the transition was seamless. “People loved the idea of it, but once changes started to happen in the church … relinquishing control of the building … some people became disaffected,” Narucki said.
The change prompted “a small exodus,” but Narucki is sympathetic: “If you’ve been worshiping here for 40, 30, 20 years, as some have, it’s part of their identity, this space.” Even though the congregation continues worshiping there on Sundays, the adjustment “was harder for some than for others,” he added.
A new reality
St. Matthew’s identity, as it aligns with VEC, has also shifted from one of charity and mercy to one of justice. “We want to practice mercy, but move mercy in the direction of justice,” Narucki said. “We’re very committed to empowering people through education and connections in everything we do.”
The result has been a bustling community hub that celebrates diversity.
Habil Rasaily, pastor of Living Worship Nepali Church, was among the tenants renting space from St. Matthew before the VEC began. The congregation of Bhutanese-Nepali refugees still holds its weekly Sunday service at the VEC.
“I see Christian, Muslim and a few Hindu kids all playing … just being kids together, and that’s powerful to me.”
Many members were among those forced out of Bhutan in 1990 to spend nearly two decades in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Thanks in part to the VEC, they are beginning to thrive in the U.S., Rasaily said, adding, “The VEC [helps] my community with the [English as a second language] classes, citizenship classes and after-school programs for our kids. They have a food bank—and whenever we need a place for our programs, they help us.”
Blaurock cites the welcoming environment as one of the VEC’s greatest strengths. For Narucki, watching people from myriad backgrounds play, work and commune together at the VEC gives him hope St. Matthew has facilitated what could be meaningful change in Aurora—and has left a legacy of neighborly love.
“I see Christian, Muslim and a few Hindu kids all playing … just being kids together, and that’s powerful to me,” he said.
Blaurock is aware that St. Matthew’s—and ultimately the VEC’s—story could have veered in a drastically different direction. “I think this was a big decision to donate [our building] instead of giving it back to the larger synod,” she said. “We’re a [congregation] that did it: being outward-facing and expanding the ministry.”