When a congregation’s location can best be described as “on the road out of town, near the mall,” that location might be one reason people aren’t filling the pews on Sunday morning. Living Christ Lutheran was facing a 65% decline in membership since 2013 and pursuing a second round of redevelopment grants from the Grand Canyon Synod when the pandemic struck, leaving the congregation unsure what their next step might be.
Yet Living Christ has reignited its ministry since then by expanding its online footprint to meet congregants’ needs after in-person worship was halted.
“We were initially just getting anywhere from 30 to 40 viewings for the sermons,” said Dean Garner, council member and IT/website manager for Living Christ. “When I put a little more work towards it when the pandemic started, we got up to 70 to 100. Then we put just a few dollars into it [on Facebook], and now we’re averaging 500 for the viewing of the sermons.”
The growing audience tunes in to weekly sermons posted by Kurt Fangmeier, pastor of Living Christ. PDF materials and links to hymns enable people to follow along with worship on their own schedules. The online presence has enabled this church on the edge of town to reach an audience that extends from Phoenix to the Philippines.
“There are not too many churches that walk the walk and talk the talk. Living Christ does.”
“The internet has basically been as much of a change for the church as, say, Gutenberg and the printing press was for Luther,” Fangmeier said. “How do we adapt these new technological advancements to use them, then, in the work of the gospel? We’re always trying to find new ways to be faithful, both to the calling in our baptism but also in the midst of the world as it is.”
Though Living Christ may be new to internet outreach, the congregation has long been known for involvement in their community, particularly Flagstaff’s LGBTQIA+ population. In 2011, the congregation began sponsoring Pride in the Pines, an annual celebration in Flagstaff that is hosted by the Northern Arizona Pride Association and typically draws over 4,000 attendees.
“There are not too many churches … that walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Debra Taylor, president of NAPA. “Living Christ does. They were eager to learn about the LGBTQIA+ community and how they can expand their reach outside of their walls.”
A new journey
When Amanda Vigneau was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for identifying as lesbian, she struggled to find a spiritual home. She decided to visit Living Christ after reading Fangmeier’s sermons about love and acceptance, which NAPA had shared on Facebook.
“My first time there, I picked up a red book and, being from a completely different denomination of Christianity, I had no idea what to do with [it],” said Vigneau. “For the first time in a church, I was invited to sit with this family, and they showed me how to use this book. They turned the pages of the hymnal for me because they knew where the songs were. It was great. As soon as you walk in the door, you’re family.”
After a few visits, Vigneau brought along her wife, Anna, and they began attending regularly. The Living Christ community proved crucial for them when Vigneau’s mother passed away suddenly and the young couple took custody of Vigneau’s autistic 12-year-old sister.
“There’s definitely challenges that come with all [of a] sudden becoming a parent, especially one to a teenager,” Vigneau said. “I don’t know if we would’ve made it without our church family.”
The pandemic has accelerated Living Christ’s transition to a hybrid in-person/online model, allowing it to plan a relocation to downtown Flagstaff.
“As soon as you walk in the door, you’re family.”
“The building has served us well for over 35 years and will serve us well again by providing us the means to take our mission elsewhere in our community,” Garner said. “Jesus did not share the good news from one place, nor shall we. So we are excited about this new journey.”
They also hope the move will strengthen their partnership with NAPA.
“What better way to have a partnership than to have a church involved that could, potentially, with the help of us and other community partners, get a resource center up and take care of gay, straight, young and old?” asked Taylor. “Head to toe, holistically. But it’s challenging [currently] because I can’t have a resource center that it takes two buses to get to.”
Living Christ faces an uncertain future, much as it did last March, when the pandemic began. But to members such as Garner, the mission has always been clear.
“Sometimes we get so concerned about people who come in and leave the church that we lose the real work of Christ,” he said. “Just continue to do the work in Christ and have faith and trust that enough will be there to continue. And don’t get obsessed with size. Get obsessed with the work.”