Twice weekly meals for the homeless, a ministry to disadvantaged children, buying school supplies for kids at the school across the street—it’s nothing you wouldn’t find on the outreach roster at most churches across the country.
But unlike those churches, Lamb of God Lutheran in Anaheim, Calif., manages to do all of that—and more—with just 40 members.
“It’s a generous community of faith,” Pastor Steve Bieghler says with a tone of wonderment. “It’s a privilege to watch that generosity poured out year after year here.”
Lamb of God was one of many Lutheran churches launched in Orange County during the suburban heyday of the ‘50s and ‘60s when families were moving to Southern California in droves. But as housing prices later skyrocketed, young families weren’t able to afford property there anymore and went elsewhere. Lamb of God, once a congregation of hundreds, found itself in a city witnessing cultural shifts that brought ethnic and racial changes.
“There is a large disparity of income in Orange County. There are a lot of wealthy areas, particularly as you get closer to the coast. But there is a huge number of people who have not benefitted from prosperity in Orange County,” Bieghler says.
It is in that setting near million-dollar homes and a few miles from the world-famous Disneyland resort that Bieghler has been pastoring Lamb of God members since 2006. But rather than spend their efforts trying to attract new members—“when you’re small you can’t provide the programs for families and children that larger churches can,” Bieghler says—they’ve focused on blending the church community with the local community.
“We have a clear sense of what we’ve been called to do here, and that’s kept us vital and healthy instead of getting caught up in our own difficulties,” Bieghler says.
That means Wednesdays are for cooking and serving a hot meal to anyone who wants to come by the church and eat. On Sundays a team goes off-site to provide meals in an outdoor area homeless people frequent. Lamb of God members reach out to children living at a local motel (a common source of low-income housing in Southern California), where they lead fun activities and offer a snack on Saturdays.
Each fall the junior high school across the street from Lamb of God receives book bags filled with supplies that are then distributed to students in need. At the high school, the church is matched with a senior who periodically requires assistance with uniforms or other school gear, and members donate as called upon. Most of the time the students don’t even know the church was their benefactor.
“We don’t do any of this with the intention of giving back. We haven’t seen any substantial impact from it on our congregation’s membership,” Bieghler says. “But we do see a lot of people showing excitement about it and who are interested in what we’re doing.”
He is quick to add that the church partners with other organizations in almost all of its service acts. The Salvation Army assists with food, for example, and other community agencies and churches join Lamb of God in its ministries to children. That support allows the church to concentrate on its core missions.
“We consider ourselves to be walking alongside these people the best we can to give them a sense that they are cared for, loved and that their basic human needs are met,” Bieghler says. “We believe that is what God would want us to do.”