By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, MN St. John’s Lutheran Church in Howard Lake is a place of growth both spiritually and in terms of numbers.
“For many years, we were called the little church in town,” Pastor Joel Swedberg said. “That certainly isn’t true anymore.”
With a vibrant youth program, contemporary service, and outreach opportunities, St. John’s attracts many young families from Howard Lake and the surrounding area.
“We are an unusually young congregation, especially for a Lutheran church,” Swedberg said, explaining that the median age for a Lutheran congregation is about 58.
“We are at least two decades lower than that,” he said.
St. John’s, which was established in 1884, has about 500 members. On average, 240 people attend Sunday services. Many of the church’s attendees have children in the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School district.
“When I came here, the average attendance was 160,” said Swedberg, who has been at St. John’s almost 20 years. “This church puts more effort into outreach than it used to.”
The Alpha program is one of St. John’s major initiatives. The 10-week course is designed for people interested in investigating Christianity, newcomers to the church, new Christians, couples preparing for marriage, and Christians who seek renewal of their faith in Jesus.
“I think that has been a real life-giving resource in this congregation,” Swedberg said.
The course runs twice each year, with the next one starting in September. During the classes, participants get together once a week to enjoy dinner together, watch a short video lesson, and then divide into small groups for discussion.
“People in those groups get to know each other really well,” Swedberg said.
Many still meet for Bible study, years after the class is over, he added.
“We say that the Alpha program drops their faith 16 inches, to get it out of their heads and into their hearts,” Swedberg said. “It does seem to have that effect.”
The Alpha program’s success has spilled into other parts of St. John’s, creating more interest in Bible studies and other adult education opportunities.
Men’s Bible studies are Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9:30 p.m., and women’s Bible studies are Mondays and Thursdays, 9 to 11 a.m. or 7 to 9 p.m.
Teenagers also have plenty of opportunities for spiritual growth at St. John’s.
Grades nine through 12 meet every Wednesday at St. John’s for youth group during the school year. About 35 to 40 students come on any given Wednesday, youth leader Karen Egeberg said.
Some of the students are members of St. John’s, some attend other churches, and some are not part of any church.
“We have a real diverse group of kids,” Egeberg said.
On the first Wednesday of each month, parents are also invited to attend. This connecting time allows parents to eat dinner together with their teens, pray together, have praise and worship time, and then divide into small groups.
These meetings give parents and teens an opportunity to discuss tough issues and develop stronger relationships, Egeberg said.
“We have fun, but we teach hard lessons,” she said. “We learn about Christ and how we can become more like him.”
During the summer months, the youth meet each week at Egeberg’s home. Grades seven through 12 are invited to stay for a bonfire, Bible lesson, and fellowship with other students.
The group often watches a movie and eats snacks together, as well.
“The tradition is warm brownies and ice cream,” Egeberg said.
Throughout the year, the youth group participates in several activities, including overnight events.
“In June, 44 of us are going to Atlanta, GA for a mission trip,” Egeberg said. The group will be working with Youthworks ministry to host a day camp, help with soup suppers, and do repairs on low-income houses.
St. John’s has a few different options for worship, including a traditional service at 8:30 a.m., Sunday school at 10 a.m., and a contemporary service at 11 a.m.
From Sunday, May 30 to Sunday, Sept. 5, there is no Sunday school, and a 5 p.m. Saturday service is added.
During this time, the contemporary service time changes to 10:15 a.m. Sundays.
Each of the three services is different, Swedberg said.
“A contemporary service is led by a praise band,” he explained. “One of the hallmarks of a contemporary service is that they tend to sing three or four songs in a row. Most of the songs they sing were written more recently, but every once in a while they throw in a classic hymn.”
For more information about St. John’s Lutheran Church, located at 625 12th Avenue in Howard Lake, go to www.hlchurch.org or call (320) 543-2227.
St. John’s staff
St. John’s Lutheran Church in Howard Lake has several dedicated staff members, including:
• Pastor Joel Swedberg
• Karen Egeberg, youth leader
• Jen Ahrens, youth assistant
• Tim Luhman, youth assistant
• Nancy Hovlid, church secretary
• Grant Judd, church organist
• Dawn Kalvig, senior choir director
• Wendy Fie, youth choir director
• Bob Lea, contemporary music leader