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How ‘pew sitters’ become doers of the Word

A focused message elevates excitement

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Webster Groves Presbyterian Church | St. Louis | Approximately 700 members

Matthew 25 focus: We are defining congregational vitality by how our members are engaged in hands-on mission, not by total dollars given to an agency.

This April 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Last year, a St. Louis church, Webster Groves Presbyterian, celebrated the 49th event in a big way — with a water-themed worship service, featuring a flowing fountain with blue and green fabric “water” cascading down the chancel steps. There was also an ethereal rendition of “Amazing Grace,” complete with the sounds of birds filling the sanctuary, and a slide show displaying photographs of water from the congregation, along with a soulful version of “Wade in the Water.”

The service was created by Webster Groves’ environmental stewardship team, and it was just one part of a yearlong focus on the importance of clean water for all God’s children, said Beth Kazlauskas.

Matthew 25’s focused message is creating more vitality among the Webster Groves Presbyterian congregation, as young and old are helping their St. Louis community. Here, members mark storm drain lids with “Drains to Streams” to raise awareness of the need to keep storm water systems clean. Courtesy of Webster Groves Presbyterian Church

A year ago, Kazlauskas, Webster Groves’ mission outreach coordinator for the past 11 years, shared over breakfast with the Rev. Rhonda Kruse the many missions that the church was engaged in.

As she talked about the projects, among them the congregation’s environmental and social justice work, it became clear to Kruse, who was then the PC(USA)’s mission engagement advisor for the Midwest, that Webster Groves was an example of a Matthew 25 church.

At the time of their breakfast, Matthew 25 was just being launched as a denominational invitation for congregations to heed the words of Jesus to feed the hungry, visit the lonely, clothe the naked and release the prisoners. Kruse explained to Kazlauskas that congregations would be invited to commit to any or all three ministry focuses: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

Kazlauskas took this invitation to her pastors, the Rev. Ed Zumwinkel III, senior pastor, and the Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, then parish associate.

“Becoming a Matthew 25 church felt like a perfect fit with what we were doing,” Kazlauskas said. Zumwinkel and Andrews agreed.

When the official Matthew 25 invitation was extended to the denomination on April 1, 2019, Webster Groves Presbyterian was among the first congregations to RSVP. It’s a decision that church leaders have not regretted, especially Kazlauskas, who has noticed increased energy among its members over the past year. She credits this energy — and renewed excitement in missions — to the focused message of Matthew 25.

“Our hope was that it would help us better communicate to our congregation and our community how we are reaching out and engaging with those around us,” she said.

Matthew 25 has done just that — and much more.

Julie Wood, chair of Webster Groves’ missions, sees the Matthew 25 invitation as opening a space for conversations to take place about the diverse interests of Webster Groves’ members, which can then be turned into hands-on missions. After all, the key to success, she says, is to have “issues/efforts that are near and dear” to members.

“Matthew 25 has fit in well with the energy that was already growing in our congregation,” Wood said, adding that a “strong group of members” were ready for more engagement in mission work and social justice.

Out of the desire to do more came the creation of a new advocacy team, Kazlauskas says. The team is currently focusing on hosting events to elevate gun violence prevention and is seeking ways to alleviate poverty in the St. Louis area.

Along with better communications and a rediscovery of the gifts of those in the pew, Matthew 25 has helped the Webster Groves congregation learn how to “appreciate and celebrate all we are doing as a church,” says Sue Scott, co-chair of the newly formed advocacy team.

“By celebrating what we do, we build even more synergy around those efforts,” she said.

For Emmy McClelland, co-chair of Webster Groves’ advocacy team, Matthew 25 has provided “a way to answer the age-old question ‘What would Jesus do?’”

What would Jesus do if he saw someone naked?

Webster Groves answered that by collecting more than 150 pairs of socks for the homeless last October in a project called “Socktober.”

What would Jesus do if he saw someone hungry?

In November, members of Webster Groves created food kits for teens experiencing homelessness.

And what would Jesus do if he saw someone thirsty?

The congregation answered that Matthew 25 question in a big way.

Besides its Earth Day water-themed worship service, throughout 2018 and ’19 the congregation tied the water theme into education, worship and mission. Funds to build five wells for communities in Africa were contributed. Children learned about the need for clean water and raised money for water filters for families in Flint, Michigan. Speakers, including a staff member from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center, a lawyer from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, and an artist who shared her work related to watersheds, were invited to share their passion and knowledge for clean water with the congregation. As the year of water came to a close, 22 members rolled up their sleeves to do their part — traveling around their St. Louis neighborhood, marking storm drain lids with “Drains to Streams” to raise awareness of how important it is to keep trash and chemicals out of storm­water systems.

Webster Groves will continue its environmental work as part of its Matthew 25 focus. But that is only a start. And with a clear focus on the words of Jesus to reach out to others, who knows what the next 12 months will bring?

“The people in our congregation all have different talents and interests … and more and more members are involved in hands-on mission projects, from sorting and delivering donations at a local furniture bank to working on our annual mission weekend projects [a weekend in the fall when the church goes out and helps the community] to packing meals for Rise Against Hunger,” Kazlauskas said. “There is a job for everyone to help us meet our goal and fulfill our commitment in being a Matthew 25 church.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is the editor of Presbyterians Today.


Becoming a mission-focused church

Beth Kazlauskas, Webster Groves Presbyterian Church’s mission outreach coordinator, offers these tips on how churches, no matter their size, can create more excitement around missions:

  • Go beyond the mission team — Involve as many people from your congregation as possible.
  • Narrow your focus — If your congregation supports many causes, prioritize and narrow the list.
  • Know what interests your members — Make sure those missions connect with the interests and passions of the congregation.

Learn more

For more information on Matthew 25, go to pcusa.org/matthew25

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