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Iowa congregation sees its Matthew 25 future as remaining ‘faithful to the covenant’

Pastors Trey and Sarah Hegar share what they’ve learned after eight years at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

MT. PLEASANT, Iowa — When she sat for an interview this week, the Rev. Sarah Hegar, who directs congregational ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, was still basking in the glow of having welcomed six confirmands into membership the previous weekend. They got there in part by studying Matthew 25 confirmation materials that asked the youth: How do you change the world?

“We started that conversation last weekend. They are starting to think more deeply now,” Hegar said. Members of a previous confirmation class also participated since their class had been offered only online during the pandemic.

“I came away from last weekend on a high. They are so compassionate, thoughtful and hopeful,” Hager said of youth at the church. “They have such good ideas for getting involved. We should listen to them.”

Indeed, getting involved is at the heart of First Presbyterian Church’s varied Matthew 25 ministries in this community of nearly 9,000 people in southeastern Iowa.

When Hegar arrived in 2015 with her husband, the Rev. Trey Hegar, FPC’s pastor, and their son, few children were attending Sunday school. It was Trey’s idea to begin offering an after-school program on Wednesdays, which grew to include a Bible lesson, a mission project, games and crafts. “People on Sunday ask, ‘Where are the kids?’” Sarah said. “You have to come on a Wednesday afternoon to see them. We can’t keep doing church the way we’ve always done it. Matthew 25 helps us be more inventive and reach other audiences.”

Asked to imagine what the church will look like in a few years, Sarah envisions an even greater “sense of inclusion, and thinking even more broadly outside the walls of our church. It might mean constantly reminding people there is a community beyond our walls. It’s good to think about the ways we can keep the focus on mission for folks who may not leave their house much.”

First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has used a missional focus to boost its congregational vitality, one of the focuses of the Matthew 25 invitation. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

That work builds on efforts begun during the pandemic, when the church distributed take-home Advent wreaths for members and friends to assemble and count down the days until Christmas. Sarah said the mission has expanded to, “How can we keep serving online folks and make them feel like an important part of the church?”

“One conversation we have been having is around connectionalism,” she said. “Other folks will be hearing our story, but it’s also a chance to hear their stories. That’s been a good thing because it reminds people there are so many churches doing great things. What we’re doing here is also really great, and people will want to hear our story too.”

One of the congregation’s Matthew 25 focuses is congregational vitality, because, as Trey notes, “what gives us the most energy is serving others. When we focus on what we can do in partnership with others, we find ourselves energized and coming up with new ideas.”

“We’ve tried everything we know to do to get people to come to church — host the world’s best potluck, have a bounce house — and people don’t bang down our door. We were beyond knowing what to do next. We didn’t even know the right questions to ask. Now we ask, ‘What do our neighbors need?’ We ask, ‘How can we make our community grow and thrive?”

“That’s where we found our energy,” Trey said, “and that’s where we found our neighbors.”

The Rev. Trey Hegar (photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

For Trey, evangelism is more than “beating people over the head with a weaponized Bible. It’s about proclaiming the good news of God as opposed to the good news of Caesar,” who “used enslaved people to build infrastructure. Jesus said, ‘We are going to set the enslaved free and take care of the widows and children.’ That life counts just as much as this life. The good news is living into that, not just some heavenly place far away.”

First Presbyterian Church has indeed lived into that good news through ministries including IowaWINs and All God’s Creatures, as well as its partnership with the minimum-security prison in Mt. Pleasant.

“This congregation always understood the relational aspect of how life can be,” Trey said. “We all have something that’s broken in us. Here there is permission to take that brokenness and offer it up. They do that. It’s in their DNA.”

He said Christ has informed “this vessel,” the church, “to be a port in the community. Disembark and go inside the port town to do the work of discipleship.”

“You are the church, and when you leave the church, you’re carrying it with you,” he said. “Can you be the church at the bar? At the bowling alley? At work? Jesus sends us there to be the church.”

John Calvin, the Reformer near and dear to many Presbyterians, “didn’t want us to build just sanctuaries,” Trey noted. “He wanted members to serve the church and the community outside the church, taking care of each other and justifying how we spend our resources. The church used to do big things. We used to build universities and hospitals and orphanages — even whole villages. Now churches have been co-opted to other belief systems to be something we are not. Instead of building cities, we try to be attractional.”

“We have gone from shaping culture to wondering how we can get more young people into our pews,” he said. “That’s the wrong question.” A better question, he said, is, “how can we build something that meets needs based on justice, sustainability and meaning? We can do those things. Our churches think way too small when they do that ‘inside’ focus.”

Some of the church’s behind-the-scenes conversations concerning Matthew 25 have touched on the question, “What do we have to do?”

“I say, ‘I have no idea,’” Trey said. “We are taking on a covenant, like people do when they get married. There is some energy now, and leaders are saying, ‘We need to educate ourselves about poverty,’ and so we’re meeting with partners who work closely with those in extreme poverty.”

“We are willing to be used,” he said, “and to stay faithful to the covenant.”

Next week, look for Presbyterian News Service reports on how St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, Iowa, has embraced its Matthew 25 commitments in imaginative ways.

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