Detroit. With a population down more than 60 percent from 1950 and abandoned properties constituting more than half of its residential lots, the once-mighty center of American manufacturing now struggles against urban decay. But sometimes, as Pastor Tim Larson ’82 knows, necessity is the mother of invention—community-building, church-saving, denomination-crossing invention.
In 1998, after a circuitous route, Larson took on the role of pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in the northern suburb of Southfield, Mich., smack dab in the middle of the metro Detroit area. The ELCA wanted Larson to come to Southfield, he says, because it had lost so many congregations there and was looking for someone with urban experience to help shore up the church. “When I came,” Larson says, “I learned that the synod was there to talk to the congregation about closing, the very first day.”
Not disheartened, Larson sought another way. For a while, he had some success in building attendance. But then the Great Recession hit, and by 2009 he saw a small (fewer than 50 people), aging congregation in a facility valued at $1.5 million. “It was taking a huge slice of our budget to heat and maintain it,” he says. “So we decided to look for partners. And that was scary because it meant we had to admit to ourselves that we were in trouble and then admit to the community that we were in trouble.”
Larson took a leap of faith by putting a message on the roadside marquee—“Is your congregation looking for a home? We’re looking for partners”—along with his cell phone number.
Over the next several years, Larson’s building, which is now called the Peace Community Spiritual Center, became home to six other congregations—three types of Pentecostal churches, a missionary Baptist church, a Presbyterian church that practices largely silent contemplative prayer, and a Church of God in Christ congregation that has to bring in its own speaker system because the center’s is too quiet. The building also houses the Rosedale Community Players, a theater group that’s put on more than 150 performances there, as well as a meditation-education group, a neighborhood association, a local union, an African American women’s entrepreneurial school, and various Anonymous support groups, among them AA, NA, Clutterers Anonymous, and S-Anon, for people who have been affected by someone’s sexual behavior. The partners are as ethnically, doctrinally, racially, and culturally diverse as the neighborhood in which the building is located.
In lieu of rent, Larson collects a building contribution from each of the groups, which allows Peace Lutheran to take building expenses out of its budget and focus instead on ministry. And it allows the church’s partners, many of which would have folded without affordable headquarters, to continue to operate. It also keeps the building lively and vibrant: on Sundays, services are held from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., with theatre matinees down the hall.
“A friend who came in to talk to me once said, ‘It’s like you have a lifeboat for churches.’ And it is,” Larson says. “I look at this as a way to build an intentional community with other groups and stretch our church so that we start thinking out of the box. The question for me was how, on a practical and theological level, does a Lutheran pastor and a Lutheran congregation with Scandinavian roots live out our values and serve others in the name of Jesus in this place? As I began to meet these various pastors, it became evident that we could do it through a coalition and a partnership. The ministry that could be done in the place where we’re planted is that of being hospitable, to fellow Christians and members of our community, to extend grace to them and to be the body of Christ in this building together. That is the covenant that we live by, and that’s what it means to be a partner at the Peace Community Spiritual Center.”