Despite a pandemic limiting gathering opportunities, Trinity Lutheran Church has put together its most expansive Simpson Forum yet, calling in some other community churches for assistance.
The Simpson Forum is an adult learning opportunity tied to religion, established by an endowment from retired Gustavus Adolphus College professor and Trinity member Barbara Simpson, who wanted to honor her late husband and fellow educator Justin Simpson. This will be the fourth iteration of the forum, and it’s named “Re-Visioning the Role of the Christian Community in Today’s Society.”
Four 7 p.m. sessions on Jan. 20, Jan. 27, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10, all over Zoom, will have speakers presenting specific topics. Each is related to the idea that the church’s role in local communities and larger society today does and/or should look different than it has in the past.
“There are a whole number of factors involved,” said Darrell Jodock, one of the organizers from Trinity, speaking about why this year’s topic is relevant.
“One is the growing recognition that the church has not done as much as it should in regard to racial inequality in the United States; that’s been front and center since the George Floyd situation, but it’s been talked about much longer. A second thing is that some of the alliances formed between some parts of the church and the religious right, and that has been disturbing to some people. For some young people, it has kept them from wanting to join the church. A third thing is the pandemic. What that has done, I think, is, in many people’s minds, is raise the questions ‘What is the role of the church when we’re not assembling on a Sunday morning? How does it remain active? What does it do in the community?’”
This year, Trinity brought in representatives from First Lutheran Church, Union Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Peter to help pick a topic and put the forum together. Alan Behrends, of Trinity, said the extra input was critical in picking this year’s topic.
“What we’ve done in the past with this forum, we have a number of possible options every year, and as we were reading through them this year, little pieces came out from all of them where we realized we needed to discuss what has changed,” Behrends said. “What are the normal changes in responsibility for a church in today’s world?”
Adding more churches to the process, Behrends said, also helps those organizations take ownership, and he hopes to see even more participants in 2021 than previous years, and he also hopes to see these conversations brought back to individual churches for further discussion.
“It would be presumptuous to say that we’ll answer every question out there, but there might be one or two pieces that might be relevant to a particular church or group,” he said.
In the first three years, attendance has ranged from 45 to 75 people. Over Zoom this year, the forum can host about 100 people, and organizers will continue accepting registrants, as long as they’re not at capacity.
A new role
Amid a pandemic, race-related protests and continued scrutiny, the Christian church is at something of a tipping point concerning its role in the world. There is still an estimated over 2 billion Christians in the world, according to Pew Research, but people’s personal definition of their own beliefs and values are constantly changing.
Five different speakers over four separate presentations in the Simpson Forum will aim to address a variety of topics to help understand the church’s past, its present and its future.
The first is Ellie Roscher, who will present “Why this topic? Contemporary Challenges Facing the Christian Community.”
“She is in her 30s, and she has worked with high school students since graduating from Gustavus,” organizer Jodock said of Roscher. “She has two master’s degrees in theology and writing. She is a very thoughtful and she has been involved with people her own age, listening to their concerns with religion and the church. She’s been involved with producing some podcasts about people commenting on the situation. She will comment on what people seem to perceive about the church or what they’ve experienced.”
The next speakers will be Michael Chan and Eric Baretto, of Luther Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, will present “The Vision of the Early Faith Community: In Israel and In the Early Church.”
“Our two biblical scholars Michael Chan (old testament) and Eric Barreto (new testament) are going to talk about the vision of what it meant to be Israelites in the old testament and then the vision of the new church in the new testament,” Jodock said. “Then they’ll spend some time talking with each other about what it means for church today. A conversation about how you put it together in a way that is helpful today.”
The third speaker is Deanna Thompson, director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values and Community at St. Olaf College, will present “The Body of Christ in a Suffering World.”
‘Deanna Thompson taught religion for many years and was directly involved in student relations,” Jodock said. “She is distinctly aware of social media and the opportunities that raises for the church. She used her own experience with cancer … to think about how the church should respond to suffering people, and the role social media and other platforms could have on that.”
Terri Elton, a religious leader and author, will close out the session, accompanied by Jodock, presenting “Putting the Vision into Practice in an Anxious Society.”
“Terri Elton teaches leadership at Luther Seminary. She has worked at a parish. She is not ordained. She teaches now at a seminary level.” Jodock said. “She will respond to questions formulated from the first three sessions that have to do with practical implications. Taking what we discussed and applying it to an image or vision for the church.”
A forum like this is no small feat and takes plenty of organization and hard work to put together. It’s well worth it, though, Jodock said, for the conversations it allows: “We’re continuing to ask ‘What is it we need to learn to go deeper?’”