Project builds community as people share personal stories
by Myra Holmes
North Fresno (Calif.) MB Church is offering a daily devotional for Lent, written by attendees of the congregation around the theme, “Stories of Life on the Journey with Jesus.” The primary purpose of the devotional, according to project editor Tim Neufeld, is to build community within the congregation.
“We’re always trying to think of ways to connect our faith community,” he says.
Some 40 North Fresno attendees wrote for the project, representing the church’s breadth of ages, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and length of attendance. Each devotional offers a personal testimony of God’s grace in the midst of darkness, a relevant verse of Scripture and a brief prayer.
Neufeld says that while many quality Lent devotionals offer a Scriptural meditation, the North Fresno project is unique in that it focuses on the personal testimonies of those within the congregation. “These are our people; these are our stories,” he says.
Pastor James Bergen adds, “Hearing people’s stories is life-giving.”
Bergen says that even though the assignment didn’t specifically ask for stories of suffering, writers naturally offered testimonies of God’s presence and grace in the midst of both life-altering and everyday struggles—a very appropriate Lent theme.
The idea for the devotional arose out of a desire to encourage artists within the congregation as well as out of observing other similar resources.
North Fresno makes an intentional effort to encourage community through artistic expression, such as offering space for visual arts in the church foyer. This project, Neufeld points out, was one way the church could encourage those with writing gifts.
In addition, North Fresno leaders took note of similar resources created in community, such as the Advent devotional offered annually by Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, the MB seminary in Fresno, and The Crave Project, a 40-day devotional created for teens by Bible Fellowship Church, an MB congregation in Rapid City, SD.
North Fresno leaders quickly rallied around the idea. Each member of the pastoral staff took an active role in the project, writing devotionals, recruiting writers and helping with various production tasks, which, Neufeld says, made the project an expression of community at the leadership level as well.
The biggest challenge of the project, Neufeld and Bergen agree, was that of working with 40-plus writers and volunteers to meet deadlines and bring the project to completion in a timely manner. Neufeld says work began in December in order to have the devotional ready by Feb. 13, the first day of Lent.
The devotional is offered both online, using WordPress blog format, as well in print. North Fresno attendees LynAnne Wiest and Dani Dickie played key roles in making the project a reality in print and online.
The devotional has been well-received at North Fresno. Bergen says that the congregation quickly snatched up the roughly 200 printed copies, and the online version boasted nearly 2,000 hits within the first two weeks.
Congregants engaged with the writers and with each other through online comments and through face-to-face conversations on Sundays. In addition, Bergen talks about an intangible spiritual and emotional “energy” surrounding the project. He feels that sharing stories in this way has helped the congregation better connect, and he hopes that as a result North Fresno will enjoy stronger relationships and a depth of community for the long term.
Bergen would like to see this kind of sharing become an ongoing part of North Fresno life. “We need to hear each other’s voices,” he says.
Leaders will evaluate the project after it’s done, but it’s likely that North Fresno will try something like this again. In fact, Bergen encourages other congregations to consider something similar, whether for a specific season, such as Lent, or “just because.” He says, “Make up an excuse to do it.”
Find the North Fresno Lent devotional here: http://northfresnochurch.wordpress.com/.