From a Michigan apple orchard to a trek across the Libyan desert, one Lutheran congregation has traveled the world together and built a closely-knit community in the process.
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Northbrook, Illinois, recently took its parishioners on a 6,600-mile virtual walking world tour. The climax of their journey: a stable tucked into the hillside of Bethlehem, housing a newborn babe, some animals and a few shepherds. Befittingly, the congregants arrived just as Christmas celebrations began. And while the “Walk to Bethlehem” was virtual in the sense that Gloria Dei parishioners didn’t physically leave their Chicagoland area, it was quite real in the way it built wellness and community into the fabric of the congregation.
“We were focusing on health and wellness in the congregation for 2009. Walking seemed like a simple idea that would engage a large portion of the congregation,” explains Lynette Rodriguez, ministry coordinator and chair of the Caring Community Missional Team at Gloria Dei. Spurring on physical activity wasn’t enough for the missional team, however. They reviewed the Wholeness Wheel conceptualized a walk that promoted emotional and spiritual well-being alongside physical health. Ultimately, they wanted the “Walk to Bethlehem” to build “Koinonia,” or intentional, caring relationships between individuals and with God, thereby enhancing the whole-person health of each participant.
“(Koinonia) comes out in our actions – in our service, fellowship, in our caring for each other. We’re gathered here because we’re all believers in Christ, but each of us has our own gifts and passion. Our goal is that each person who comes here feels needed, wanted and loved,” Lynette explains.
Aspiring to foster Koinonia, the Caring Community Missional Team applied to Wheat Ridge Ministries for a $2,000 Congregation Health and Hope matching grant, which they used to implement the virtual “Walk to Bethlehem.” “The grant drove us into some serious thinking about what the team could do and how we would carry some ideas out. The grant was a wonderful impetus on getting some action done,” says Lynette.
A year’s worth of healthy-living, community-building events was then crafted, culminating with the 12-week “Walk to Bethlehem” in the fall. A “Walk to Jerusalem/Bethlehem” guidebook and resources available through St. John Health System in Michigan proved valuable. Other congregations could easily adopt and adapt Gloria Dei’s ideas to their own needs. Consider the following for your church:
- Pre- walk “training” sessions in the spring and summer at Gloria Dei included establishing a walking club, hosting yoga sessions, providing CPR training and certification, creating a healthy cooking demonstration evening, and planning several fellowship opportunities such as a baseball game and outdoor concert.
- A “kick-off event” like Gloria Dei’s Health and Wellness Fair featured local wellness-related businesses and two medical doctors performing blood pressure screenings and Body Mass Index readings. Attendees also learned how to participate in the virtual “Walk to Bethlehem” at the fair and were equipped with pedometers, log booklets, activity guides, and devotionals for the journey.
- The “Walk to Bethlehem” encouraged participants to log their physical activities and steps so they could be added toward the congregational total as the group progressed toward Bethlehem. In addition to physical activity, “walkers” could earn steps toward Bethlehem by attending worship, making a charitable donation, serving in the community, studying the Bible, and participating in ministry activities.
- Each week, the congregation’s progress toward Bethlehem was charted and significant landmarks the group “visited” along the way noted through email communications, bulletin inserts and visual guides. Susan Marten, a member of the Caring Community Missional Team, wrote a blog-style recap of the journey each week to add to the cultural and educational component. She highlighted their tour stops in Washington D.C., admonished them to wear sunscreen in Bermuda, and taught them that Libya is the size of Alaska and 90 percent desert.
- Congregants were encouraged to read a weekly devotional to deepen their spiritual walk. The devotionals, offered both in book form and by weekly email distribution, corresponded with the walk theme and prepared the participants’ hearts for celebrating Christmas.
- Visual cues within the church highlighted the walk, such as sanctuary banners showing footprints and, during the transatlantic portion of the walk, an ocean scene. A star was hung during the Advent season and was moved a little each week to show progress to the final destination.
- Other Gloria Dei missional teams were invited to tie into the “Walk to Bethlehem” motif. The Sunday School theme of “Come Follow Jesus” incorporated footprint attendance cards. The Praise Team included many worship songs about walking and journeying during corporate worship. Adult education hosted several sessions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
- The Walk to Bethlehem culminated with a Children’s Christmas program depicting a family that travels from scene to scene, learning the value of the journey and the ultimate reward in following Jesus.
When Gloria Dei’s “Walk to Bethlehem” was completed, the congregation had journeyed more than 17 million steps together. For some congregants like “Bob,” the journey sparked long-term changes. He had just started exercising regularly with his Wii Fit following hip replacement surgery when the “Walk to Bethlehem” kicked off. The walk “motivated me to stay with it and expand what I was doing. Now I’m addicted and while I’ve not lost a lot of weight, my vitals are much improved and I’ve lost at least an inch in the waist. I feel great and look forward to my morning workout each day.”