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Experiments in Action: Tree of Life

This “Experiments in Action” blog series features individuals and communities who are trying something new. This post features a story from Tree of Life, Minneapolis, MN a Lutheran church start-up that is queer-affirming, millennial-led, and for the spiritual but also slightly religious. This post is written by The Rev. Marissa Sotos, pastor at Tree of Life.

Before Covid-19: Background

Before Covid-19, Tree of Life Lutheran was a millennial-focused mission start in the North Loop neighborhood of downtown Minneapolis that was turning toward intentional long term planning. We had established Evening Prayer and Dinner gatherings on the first Sunday of every month that were the anchor of our faith community’s spiritual and social life, with a rotation of other gatherings throughout the month for service, yoga, theology on tap, etc. One major problem we faced was that to create opportunities for invitation, connection to newcomers, and a habitual pattern for participants we needed to have our primary worship gatherings more frequently and make them easily accessible. ​​​​​​​

Tree of Life Worship
A worship service at Tree of Life

Meeting more frequently posed serious resource problems including a lack of staff time for planning and a lack of funds for worship space rental and food (dinner was always provided). Our worship space also posed several accessibility problems: it was at the back of a building down a hall and had extremely limited parking. Additionally, spreading an average attendance of 15 people over multiple Sunday’s posed a potential risk.

While being intentional about our commitments to worship, prayer, music and rich interaction, we began to plan ways to strip down Sunday gatherings to be group facilitated and easily navigable for visitors. We also decided to try stretching our resources to add another gathering on the third Sunday of every month.

Now: The Experiment

​​​​​​​On Saturday, March 14th, the night before what was to be our first third Sunday together, word of community spread of Covid-19 led Tree of Life to abruptly shift plans to go online the following day. We realized immediately we needed to do two things: first, create high quality and highly interactive online worship that could help provide a communal and spiritual safety net during extreme stress, and second, offer it weekly as members and friends lives began to change by the hour. We chose Zoom as a platform because it was highly interactive, easy to use and easy to share. The first service went ahead with what we had planned for worship that day which was Holden Evening Prayer. Everyone who was planning to attend that Sunday successfully made the last-minute switch to Zoom and we found we could easily converse in a group our size. However, Worship did not go well. We learned very quickly that communal singing was impossible due to lag, and that following along on a PDF bulletin without much interaction or explanation led to people quickly giving up on participating.

Tree of Life

Recognizing these problems, we spent the next several weeks building a format for gatherings that worked with, rather than against, Zoom. We flipped our social and check-in time to be before worship rather than after it so that everyone would know who was in the “room.” We adjusted singing to be either call and response that could be done between two different computers, or easy to sing melodies that everyone except the musician would sing along with on mute. We added a lay-led Bible Study component, continued our tradition of volunteering for first readings but with a wider variety of poetry, and asked everyone to show up with cups and candles. This meant we had some common physical objects to work with: cups to talk about how full our spiritual “cup” was that week and candles to light together at the beginning of Evening Prayer and extinguish together at the end. ​​​​​​​

Then we started inviting people and realized that our new location and format was more accessible to visitors. We could send a link to someone anywhere, it was easy for them to find us, low risk to show up, and interaction over Zoom made it easy for people to participate to their comfort level. We also found that worshipping digitally solved the problem of limited resources. We no longer needed to budget for rent or food or budget time for space set up, and even if our numbers were small there were enough of us every week to make a Zoom call feel full where a physical space might have felt empty.

Into the Future: Learnings

Worshipping weekly and worshipping digitally have become part of our DNA as a faith community. As we anticipated, gathering weekly has made us a stronger and more mature community while also providing more opportunities to invite guests and integrate them. We have found that simple but frequent gatherings work better for us than occasional elaborate ones and being digital gives us the resources to support those. The convenience and untethered nature of digital gatherings also mean that we often have worshippers from a much larger geographical area than we would have before and that our core group shows up more frequently than they would in-person. Finally, we have found that being an online community gives us new options (and new challenges) for outreach and getting to know people.​​​​​​​

There are also many things we lost in moving online: communal singing, regular communion practice, eating dinner together, and passing the peace in-person. We miss those things and still look forward to resuming in-person worship when it is safe. At the same time, we don’t want to lose our new out of town community members, the ease of accessibility and the sacred space we’ve found in our online format, or our ability to stretch our resources. When Covid-19 is no longer such a present danger we plan to shift again and become a hybrid community, worshipping both online and in-person. We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet but have clarified our priorities around weekly worship and broad access. Having pivoted so completely once we know we can do it again to bring together the most important components of our community’s online and in-person life.

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17th Sunday After Pentecost: The Marshmallow Challenge

The ELCA Innovation Lab is partnering with the fall intensive of “Leadership On the Way.” Leadership On the Way (LOTW) seeks to offer creative space and supportive relationships for early-career leaders as they learn, innovate and adapt to their unique settings. This past session, the LOTW cohort focused on design-thinking and equity-centered design, and LOTW coach Pastor Bradley Schmeling, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (St. Paul, Minnesota) found himself exploring the connections. In his own words, “The whole design conversation became a way for me to explore the gospel text in a new way.” Check out Pastor Schmeling’s sermon below and on the Gloria Dei website. 

Matthew 21:23-32

Maybe you’ve heard about the marshmallow design challenge. It’s a teamwork and design exercise. Groups are given 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the tallest structure you can in the time allotted. The only rule is that the marshmallow must go on the top and must be in one piece.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that all usually goes well until the last minute. With the clock ticking, the group adds the marshmallow. Very often, the whole structure collapses. It can’t handle the weight. You may also not be surprised to learn that recent graduates of an MBA program, and probably seminaries, have some of the worst track records. The best?


Why do kindergartners perform better than adults? The adults jockey for power, spend a lot of time talking about process, try to get around the rules, or just cheat. The kindergartners succeed because usually none of them is trying to be the CEO. They share equally in the task. But mostly, it’s because they start with the marshmallow. They build under it, and when something doesn’t work, they dismantle and start over. The marshmallow is always on top in their project.[1]

Marshmallow Challenge
“Marshmallow Challenge 6” by MTa Learning
is licensed under
CC BY 2.0

I sometimes wonder if Jesus would have had a more supportive team had he invited twelve kindergartners to join on the way to Jerusalem. A group willing to be closer to the ground than scraping the sky; a group that values each member of the team and knows that God’s wisdom is always collaborative.

In today’s gospel text, we hear the final conflict between two design processes. By the end of the week, Jesus will be lynched and buried. He just entered Jerusalem, to great acclaim and the waving of palm branches. He overturned the tables in the temple, a pretty clear symbol of what he’s about. And now this is the first argument with the authorities, likely with the police who were sent to disburse the protesters.

On one side: Jesus’ project to build a structure that beats with God’s heart. On the other side: the institution, political and religious, that resists change, silences dissent, and rewards the wealthy and powerful. [Let me be clear about one thing: The temple doesn’t represent Judaism, as if Christianity is somehow the real spiritual project that gets rid of some rigid Jewish system.]

Here the temple represents the world that we’ve all been schooled to believe is the real one, or, at least, the only practical one. If you want to hear what the temple-reality looks like today, get on Twitter or turn on the TV or open the newspaper. You’ll find it on just about every page. I like to call it “an accumulation system”; an endless, frantic, and finally murderous race to have more and more. It’s literally a dead-end.

The entire gospel text for today turns around the question of what kind of authority will re-make the future. In Matthew’s gospel, this a moment of crisis, a turning point. In fact, even the way he tells this story, compels the reader to choose a side. Do you want to end up like the leaders, the ones who have everything but really nothing, or the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the judged and despised, but are open to discovering the deepest truth? Will you be the child that nods their head at the request but never does anything about it? Or the one, who may not get it at first, even arguing with the authority, but tackles the work, anyway?

I can’t help but think that Jesus overturning those tables and now confronting the authorities is an iconic image for the time we’re living in right now.

Part of building the world that God intends means we have to work at dismantling another one. Maybe that’s what it means to be the faithful child, the one trying to follow the guide: to be constantly deconstructing those things that kill the least among us, and building something that brings good and deep life for those same people.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda says that if God is the creator, we have become the “un-creators” in our destructive and unstainable use of the earth. When I first heard the term in a talk about Jesus, I misunderstood.  I thought they said that Jesus was an un-creator, overturning the systems that we have built, by initiating his own design process to heal, and feed, and welcome; building a community that has a wide-generosity of heart and energy.[2]

Maybe that misunderstanding was a little inspiration. (Don’t tell the preachers that often it’s a good idea only to half-listen what they’re saying!) In the work of creation, God designed a spirit of un-creation, to keep death from having the last word. Maybe Lutherans hear it as reformation. Maybe on the streets today, we hear it as protest or breaking down privilege. Maybe it’s a growing awareness of the need to make reparations for centuries of injustice. Maybe it’s just the old church term is repentance and making amends. Or the Christ pattern of dying and rising.

The kindergartners knew this, breaking apart a little bit of their work in order to keep it moving taller, always keeping the marshmallow—that sweet and beautiful goal—at the very center of their task.

This time feels like a big design project that we’ve been all been given in order to learn something about collaboration and design and truth. It’s the pandemic challenge; the white supremacy challenge; the getting-through-until-tomorrow challenge. Name your own marshmallow!

The gospel news is that the Christ who stood in the temple is the one standing among us, sending us out into this field. We’ve been given some tools, a few directions, a lot of grace to make it up with our friends, and one sweet vision of love and mercy and justice that will crown it all.

It’s also gospel news to remember that the conflict in the temple didn’t end on Friday, but on a Sunday.

In the name of the Creator, the Un-Creator, and the Wisdom to Build, Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

[2] Thank you to Mikka McCracken, Director of Innovation, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for pointing me to Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s work.

The ELCA Innovation Lab Blog is new! We’d love to hear what you think. If you’ve got a few minutes, complete this short survey. If you have any additional questions or comments let us know at