Catching the Bethel Beat

by Don Retson, Reprinted from The Edmonton Journal

With four weekly services, a Lutheran church in Sherwood Park hits all the right notes.

SHERWOOD PARK - Carla Cuglietta was studying in Quebec City several years ago when a Quebecer started talking about "a really cool church" in Alberta, where she was from.

Back then, Cuglietta had never heard of Bethel Lutheran Church in Sherwood Park.

But she figured that any church known halfway across the country might just be worth taking a quick look-see.

When she did eventually check out a worship service at Bethel, Cuglietta wasn't disappointed. She felt instantly among friends.

"It's just a really upbeat, uplifting service," Cuglietta says of what's known as the "express service" at Bethel on Sundays at 9:45 a.m.

"The pastors there -- Pastor Marv and Pastor Matt -- are just so open. It's almost like it's your friend doing the service."

These days, after attending the express service, Cuglietta, 27, enjoys going out for a meal with several of the young adults from the congregation and getting involved in some great discussions.

"That's what keeps us all going back because we have such a strong network of friends from there now," she says. "Pastor Matt comes too."

Unlike other churches she's attended, Cuglietta isn't the least bit shy when it comes to inviting friends to Bethel.

Everyone at Bethel is so welcoming, she says, recalling, for instance the time one of her friends who'd never been inside a church before showed up with his ball cap on backwards. She says father-and son pastors Marv and Matt Ziprick loved it that her friend felt comfortable enough to do that.

"Everybody's included in everything," adds Cuglietta. "Even The Lord's Prayer is on PowerPoint so nobody feels inadequate" if they don't know the words. It's in large part because of its great success in attracting non-traditional Lutherans like Cuglietta that Bethel Lutheran has staged a resurrection of sorts.

Shortly after he arrived here in May 1987, Pastor Marv Ziprick was told that at the rate Bethel was losing people, the church would likely shut its doors within a decade or so.

Instead, this past Sept. 1, the church embarked on its second major expansion in five years.

It's now in the process of adding 9,500 square feet of space to its church at 298 Bethel Drive in Sherwood Park. The congregation moved into its current 18,000-square-foot building in May 2000.

Bethel's amazing transformation is causing church observers to sit up and take notice.

In a recent edition of Congregational Life, church consultant Joyce Madsen recalls hearing about Bethel through the grapevine and visiting there one Sunday two years ago.

"There were more teenagers in church than you could count," wrote Madsen, who was also impressed with the number of activities going on for every member of the family.

Today, Bethel serves 1,700 to 1,800 people, a nice jump from the 65 people Ziprick once counted at a weekly worship service in 1987.

A large percentage of the congregation is made up of people who either
started off in other church denominations or didn't have a church background.

Rick Kilford, 54, is among the former. About 31/2 years ago, Kilford attended a funeral service at Bethel. He was bowled over when Ziprick senior talked about a "loving, caring and forgiving" God.

Kilford said he'd never heard God described that way. Now a member of the
congregation, Kilford feels he's doing folks a favour whenever he invites or personally takes them to Bethel.

"I can't stress enough that pastor Matt and Marv are so positive," he says.

Members of the congregation weren't always so inclined to sing the church's praises.

Back in 1987, when Bethel was located in a smaller building on 98th Avenue near Ottewell Road, only hardcore Lutherans attended the lone Sunday service.

In a recent interview, Ziprick said born-and-raised Lutherans would tell him they liked the traditional worship format, the chanting and liturgy.

"But when they started talking about inviting people who had little or no connection with any church, they felt uncomfortable because they knew we were speaking a different language. They would feel awkward."

The coup de grace was delivered by Ziprick's three own school-age children.

Asked by dad how they would feel about bringing their friends to Bethel, all three confessed they really wouldn't be comfortable doing that. The writing was clearly on the wall: change or die.

The congregation embraced change. After a Bible study focused on the purpose of their congregation, a mission statement was drafted.

That was followed by a period of experimentation with different styles of worship and music.

Ziprick knew the church was on the right path when older members would
make comments to him like: "If we had been using this music and this style of worship, my children and grandchildren would probably be worshipping with us."

By 1992, the church was bursting at the seams and looking for larger facilities.

Although contemporary worship services are no longer the novelty they once were, three of Bethel's four services, including one on Saturday evening, are contemporary.

Drama, puppet presentations, video clips, various interactive elements and, of course, non-traditional music are all part of the worship mix at Bethel.

Unlike most churches, there isn't a core group of musicians who play every week.

When she was hired to run the music for its contemporary services, Normay Wiebe was told she'd probably need to bring in outside musicians as there weren't many at Bethel.

That's not what she found after putting an announcement in the church bulletin saying she was looking for folks to get involved in putting on the worship music.

Not everybody who signed up is orchestra-level in terms of their ability, although there are a few of those, too. But for Wiebe, passion counts as much as precision.

"I think we provide a pretty non-threatening place for them to be," she says of the 100 or so people that provide a broad range of music for the three contemporary services.

Ziprick agrees that the high degree of involvement and leadership shown by regular members is vital to the church's continuing success.

He knows not everyone is comfortable with change. Some former members felt the church should stick with doing a traditional liturgical service out of the hymnal.

As for Ziprick, there are no regrets. He notes that a survey done at the church three years ago showed more than half of its worshipping community was under 30 years of age.

Among that group are young people with no previous church connection. Ziprick says they often start off saying they're not interested in church. Then they come and start asking questions.

"Those kinds of things excite me," says Ziprick. "Probably this is the most exciting era of my ministry that I've ever been in."

Congregational News November 2005 Vol. 12 No. 1

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