No Young People, So We Changed

An interview with Marv Ziprick
Pastor, Bethel Lutheran Church
Story by Centre Staff

It is a congregation full of young people, young adults, and children, with a healthy mix of seniors. We were intrigued. What makes this congregation thrive, when so many main-line congregations are aging and in decline?

Marv Ziprick agreed to share the journey with us. At his covenanting service, a little over 200 people filled the sanctuary. Imagine his surprise when on Sunday morning there were only 60 people in the pews, and most of them were over 60. There were no young people. There were names on the role, but they were not coming. Marv had been taking a doctoral course in Chicago on leadership. He challenged the Church Council: "If we don't do something, we will be closing our doors."

Bethel used to be on 98 Avenue across the river from Concordia College. They had some connection with students as a result. "My wife and I started inviting young adults to our house on Sunday afternoons. The initial group was small, 10 or 12. They did bible study and other activities." Marv had a question for them: "What would keep you coming to this congregation." The insight was: "We need young adults planning things for young adults."

Marv did a study of the differences between generations, and started making presentations to the Council and the congregation. What are Boomers like, the "X" generation? What do they look to the church for? What about their music, their faith?

"Then I held four different services. I picked the Builders first. Then the Boomers. Then continued with Generation-X and Generation-Y. Some of the older people said if they had worship like this when their children were young, they would probably still be coming to church."

One thing that was holding them back was the facility. It was an older building and not designed for modern ministry. They explored expanding on the site, but the only land available was a former gas station. They did not want to touch that. In 1992 they decided to relocate. "It was a painful time," Marv said. "Some wanted to relocate, some did not. We were at that for five years, working through it, looking for land."

In 1997 they moved to Sherwood Park and worshipped in Festival Place for three years. They did not have land when they moved, but knew they were in the right place. Sherwood Park was growing, and most of that growth was young families. "During those three years we learned lots about being a church for people, and learned to be flexible." They got tired of hauling 200 hymn books every week, which is when they went to overhead projection of the hymns. They did find land, and moved into their new building in 2000, only to find it was already too small. Construction of additional space is now underway.

Leadership Style

We know from past research how important leadership is in moving a congregation forward. Marv Ziprick's style is "to get people involved and owning the ministry." What he discovered is that as people take ownership, more and more come forward, and then they start bringing their friends.

"Someone asked me to define leadership. It is best defined with one word, influence." It is a matter of building the relationships that lead to influence with people.

The leadership role also means removing barriers that get in the way. An example? "Every church has standing committees," Marv told us. "If you want to kill an idea, all you do is pass it to a standing committee. They are called standing committees because they stand in the way of good ideas."

The practice at Bethel is to keep a few standing committees, but when they want to get something done, they form a study committee. Recommendations are then given to an action committee for implementation.

Leaders help to create an atmosphere within the broader community that things are positive. "So often people have a defeatist attitude. 'We are too small,' they say. We don't give ourselves enough credit for the gifts that we have, and don't give God enough credit."

The secret to moving ahead? "The vision must be big enough. If the vision is big, we need others to be involved and we need God to be involved." When that happens, says Marv, "God just shows up!"

The Naysayers

How does one deal with the opposition? It comes whenever there is change, as sure as night follows day.

"There were some who tried to sabotage things," Marv told us. "It was painful. Others were devious and worked behind the scenes. Some wanted me to pack up my bags and go back where I came from. Others just dragged their feet"

Marv's response with some of them was to meet over coffee. "Where are your children worshipping? What about your grandkids?" he would ask them. He knew they were not worshipping anywhere.

It was a matter of slowly working with people. Some came on board, and some didn't. When the vote happened in 1992, some 80% of the congregation supported the move.


The congregation's leadership take planning seriously. At their planning retreats they develop goals, and review those regularly. They call their governing body "The Parish Planning Council" in order to keep a focus on the fact that planning is important to keep the church moving. That Council has nine people. "If you have too many people," Marv told us, "it takes too long to work through issues."

The staff has grown with the congregation. Marv was joined by his son Matt as a pastor. They have added a full time youth leader plus half time music leader for the three contemporary services and a quarter time music person for the blended/traditional service. The secretary has become the office administrator and a full-time secretary was hired.

Technology plays a role, but it is secondary to building personal relationships. They use e-mail and the Internet a lot, and have cut down on mailings while increasing their ability to keep in touch with people. They are working on putting sermons on I-pod. That is in the future.

They keep learning from the new people who are coming to be part of the congregation, and responding to their needs. They are thinking about developing a coffee area seating 100 people around tables. It would be a place where people could meet to talk and pray together. "Young adults and teens are looking for relationships in which they can engage one another."

One of the ways they engage is through small groups. People currently have a choice between 11 support groups, 14 growth opportunity groups, and 13 service and fellowship groups.

A Culture of Appreciation

It started almost by accident. One of the four RCMP officers who were killed was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Marv decided to ask all law enforcement officers to rise and have it recognized how they put themselves into difficult situations day after day. "These people are living out their faith in their vocations. I got a hug of affirmation right after that service."

As a result, they decided to choose one Sunday each month to appreciate a vocation. They have had a Sunday for teachers and one for health care workers.

It was our impression that the willingness to affirm one another goes far deeper, and has a great deal to do with the feeling of warmth and acceptance that permeates this congregation. There is a recognition that the role of a congregation is to prepare people for a life of service. Marv puts it this way: "There is a difference between 'church work' and the 'work of the church.' Church work is ushering and what happens in the building. But the most important work is the work of the church, which happens every day as people go about their lives."

You can contact Marv Ziprick by e-mail: [email protected]

Congregational News November 2005 Vol. 12 No. 1

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