By: Karla Hovde
Beginning as a conventional new faith community eight years ago, Northern Light Church tried all the typical marketing, events, and strategies a new church might use to reach people in its community—but none of them felt quite right. Rev. Cullen Tanner, who has been pastor of the church since 2013, says the cookie-cutter new church model just wasn’t right for this congregation.
Tanner said the church began a discernment process “to start discovering the unique church that God was calling us to be, and how we could be our most authentic selves in the community.”
Out of this process, members of the congregation discovered two important and inseparable themes: They wanted to invest equally in deepening their faith and stretching themselves to care for their community. As the congregation began to unpack the implications of this discernment, it became clear that a monumental shift in the structure of the congregation would have to happen.
Three big changes
In early 2019, Northern Light Church rolled out a plan to make three major changes in the church. The location, structure, and name of the church would all have to change if the church wanted to live into its new, more authentic self.
First, the church would move locations, from an expensive storefront in Ramsey that didn’t suit its needs to a warehouse space in nearby Anoka with a dedicated space for children’s ministry. The new space is in close proximity to many community organizations the church was already partnering with: A homeless shelter, a youth shelter, a Christian daycare for low-income families, and a food shelf are all located within a few blocks.
The second and perhaps most unusual change the church made is to dedicate 50 percent of its budget to internal ministries and 50 percent to share with the community.
“We want our budget to actually reflect our heart instead of paying lip service to caring for our neighbors,” said Tanner. He agreed to transition to a quarter-time position to reduce his salary, which, combined with the more affordable location, frees up funds for important community efforts.
The third change is to rename the church to Roots & Branches to reflect the new identity and vision. Roots represent the 50 percent of the church that focuses on deepening faith, and branches represent the 50 percent that is reaching out to the community. The imagery of roots and branches can also represent loving God and loving neighbor or, to put it another way, personal holiness and social holiness.
“It’s not only authentic to who we are, but it’s deeply Wesleyan and Methodist to frame ourselves this way,” said Tanner.
As part of this overhaul, two new teams have formed at the church. The Intention Team (roots) is focused on sharing spiritual practices, teaching Bible studies, and structuring worship around the church’s new identity. And the Extension Team (branches) is dedicated to forming personal relationships with the leaders of the community organizations near the church.
Grow, reach, heal
Restructuring the church has made it clear how Roots & Branches will carry out the three gospel imperatives that the Minnesota Conference is focused on. Growing in love of God and neighbor is inherent in the new name and identity.
In terms of new people, Tanner believes that many people have left church because of hypocrisy; there’s a sense in today’s culture that churches are focused on fundraising, large buildings, and big budgets.
“This authenticity and generosity that we’re trying to live out is showing our community a face of Jesus they maybe haven’t seen before,” Tanner said. He hopes that Root & Branches’ transparency in how it uses its resources will encourage people to give church another chance.
And healing a broken world is why Roots & Branches exists. Understanding that there are already nearby organizations doing important work and making a difference, it seeks to partner with them to help extend their impact.
“We want to acknowledge that the homeless shelter is a holy endeavor, and that God is alive at the food shelf, and that there’s sacred work happening at the low-income daycare center,” he said. Given the church’s commitment to give away 50 percent of its resources and to partner with efforts already underway, Tanner anticipates that its impact will continue to grow.
God at work
Coming to the decision to step out in faith and make these extensive changes wasn’t easy, but Tanner said God has been present with the congregation throughout its discernment and implementation process. And he has enjoyed seeing the church’s lay people step up and take on more responsibilities in order to bring Roots and Branches’ fresh vision to life.
“This process has taught me to take my hand off the wheel and trust that God can do these things better than I can,” he said. “God is more at work in all of us than in any one of us, including me.”
Karla Hovde is the communications specialist for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church