How can you get outside the doors of your church, learn about your community, and meet people where they are? In this episode we speak with Laura Heikes, pastor of Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas, about strategies for bringing a missionary mindset to your own neighborhood.
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How can you get outside the doors of your church, learn about your community and meet people where they are? In this episode, we speak with Laura Heikes, pastor of Bee Creek United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas about strategies for bringing a missionary mindset to your own neighborhood.
Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel and the associate director of the Lewis Center of Church Leadership. I am the editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I am your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. Our guest today is Reverend Laura Keikes who’s pastor of Bee Creak United Methodist Church in Spicewood, Texas. We at the Lewis Center know Laura from her participation in two of our leadership development programs for younger clergy, the Lewis Fellows and the Lewis Community Leadership Fellows. And I have come to know Laura as one of the most creative, passionate, and impactful pastors that I know. We are going to be chatting today about what it means to be a missionary within your own community. It’s so good to have you with us today, Laura.
Laura Heikes: I’m really glad to be here!
Ann Michel: Can you say a few words about your current ministry setting? Just so our listeners know a little bit about where you serve and the context that you’re working in.
Laura Heikes: Sure Ann. I’m the lead pastor at Bee Creek United Methodist Church, as you said. And we’re a community outside. We’re in Spicewood, outside of Austin. It’s a place where people have settled to get lower priced housing and also better schools and not have to be within Austin. So we’re kind of an “ex-urban community,” I’ve heard us called. But people own acrage, but there’s little communities out here. This church has been around for 16 years and I’ve been the pastor for half that time. I’m their second pastor and they are a new church start.
Ann Michel: Alright! So, Laura, you recently told me that as you were preparing for ministry your intention was to be a missionary. And I wanted to begin by asking you, why was your heart lead in that direction? What was it about being a missionary that inspired you?
Laura Heikes: You know, when I went to seminary, I didn’t really know what the shape of God’s call in my life was. And as I started hearing about all that was going on outside of our country. And the training that other missionaries were doing, that was really exciting! And it connected to something within me that’s always been interested in cultures, and languages, and differences, and communicating God’s word to people who are not exactly like me. And so, I was hearing about how these missionaries were making a lot of the same mistakes that American missionaries had made, you know, decades ago. And I thought “well we could take the experience that we have, as Americans, the mistakes that we’ve made. And if I could teach people who are passionate, and inspired, and have access to other countries that Americans don’t always have access to, that would be a really meaningful ministry.” So it was kinda the culture and the difference, and the need to be a learner all the time that was appealing to me.
Ann Michel: Mmhmm. And then, how has that missionary mindset influenced your approach to pastoral ministry? Because you didn’t end up going into the missionary field, you ended up serving in a local congregation. But I think you’re bringing some of those same attitudes, so do you want to speak to that?
Laura Heikes: Right, so that was a surprise to me that I ended up, instead of overseas, teaching missionaries, that 9/11 occurred and our missionary board stopped sending people for a temporary piece of time. So I came back to be a pastor for what I thought was just an interim thing. So I went to West Texas, where I had not grown up. It’s a different kind of a culture and I found that I could apply a lot of what I had learned and what I was passionate about to ministry in my own country, but with a group of people that were different than me and the way that I had grown up. So it was exciting to me and I saw fruit in that and I realized that not a lot of us pastors know how to do that well. And so, there was also an opportunity to do what I love and be a teacher, but to people who spoke English, which is also, you know, slightly easier than doing it in Spanish, or another language that I would have to learn. So it was appealing to see that there’s a mission field here in our own country that really needed me. And so I’ve stuck around!
Ann Michel: And are there some of the practical skills and perspectives that you’ve learned while doing missionary training that you’ve put to use?
Laura Heikes: Oh sure. Lots of them. First of all, when you go as a, at least what I was taught is, as you go as a missionary, you want to go as a learner. Find community leaders, elders, there’s elders in every community. As a pastor of a church, you should find those elders. You should learn the language. There’s different ways the English language is used in every community you go to. There’s differences in the English language among generational usage that you can learn. You want to learn how music is used in that culture. What speaks to people’s hearts when it comes to music and how the church could capitalize on that? Because it may not be your heart music, it may be the people’s. You need to learn the people’s heart music. There’s just so many things that you can think about. Another important thing is to learn what’s valuable. And different communities will have different values of different things. We may think that the value is family in one community. But it takes time learning: is it family? is it achievement? Every community is going to value something different. And so learning that, and then saying how the Gospel speaks to that is an exciting thing to do.
Ann Michel: I know you’ve been doing some training with pastors in your area around how they can get more connected with the pulse and the attitudes of their community. Can you describe some of the practical ways that you’re helping other people learn about how they can get more in tune with their community?
Laura Heikes: Oh yeah. There’s a ton of ways if you’re a pastor in your community that you could be a learner, a missionary. You could find a realtor in your area and ask them to take you around and just pick their brain. Ask them to tell you what do they know about that community. Ask them to drive you, if you’re in a new area, a growing area, drive through those new areas. Pick up fliers from those areas. See how the houses are even being sold. And it will give you an idea of who’s coming to live in that community. Some people tell me “well we’re not in a growing area.” Well, there’s a neighborhood you haven’t walked through. Walk through that neighborhood. If you have a dog, dogs are great because they’ll let you talk to people who see your dog and want to interact with you. Then you can talk to them and get to know them. Kids are the same way. If you can talk your kids to parks. This is really fun stuff, Ann. Like going to coffee shops. Figuring out where people hang out in your community and going to hang out. It might be something that you’ve never thought of before, like important in my community in Spicewood is something called the demolition derby. Which is where old cards are brought into this dirt ring and smash each other to pieces. That’s a huge deal that wasn’t really on my radar, but it’s on the community’s radar. And so I went to that and I found out it was a lot of fun. And you learn a lot about your community by going to demolition derbies. By figuring out what the kids are excited about. Are they into sports? Are they into science and technology? Are they into, there’s 4H, are they into raising livestock? That may just be a Texas thing, but are they into that? Just all of these chances you can get to learn. You can have that learner orientation of “I’m going to treat my community as if I was going to be a missionary overseas.” And then you think: “If I were going to go overseas, what would I need to learn?” Then say “Okay. How can I learn that about my community?” And, I’m going on, but it’s not just your church that you’re trying to learn this about. I would challenge pastors to learn their community. Because you’re a pastor, not just to that little group of people in your church, but to the entire community outside your church and you want to get to know them too.
Ann Michel: Mmhmm. So, as you’re doing this work, I – you’re not really just observing, right? You’re really going out and interacting. This is a relational exercise as well as just an observational exercise?
Laura Heikes: Yes. Absolutely, conversations are great. And, the more you can talk to people who are outside of your church, who are just part of your community, the more you’re gonna know them and understand them. You try to find those community elders in your own location. Some of those are just people with access to knowledge. So some of those can be – school counselors know alot about the whole community because they see the whole spectrum of children. And so, we’ve had some really fruitful relationships with counselors who, when you build that relationship and they start to trust you. They’ll start to say “well we have some families that don’t have running water.” We learned that about our community. We’re in a fairly affluent community and to find out that people didn’t have running water was shocking to our church. But it grew from a relationship that we had cultivated with the school and with the leaders in that school. And then we were able to respond and help people get running water. So yes. It is very relational.
Ann Michel: Yes, that actually leads, quite naturally to the next question I wanted to ask you. Which is: how have some of these efforts to explore your community really shaped the work of your congregation? If you’re learning things about the community, then what is it leading to in terms of your expression of ministry?
Laura Heikes: Well. I think the first thing I would say is it helps you craft your worship. What worship will look like in your space. Including, the music. Including, for me, how I preach. I’ve had three different churches that I’ve pastored and I’ve preached slightly differently to each one. If you’re in an academic community, it’s going to be a more academic preaching that will probably resonate with them. If you’re like me now, in a lake side community. My preaching is different than when I was in West Texas. It impacts how you lead worship in a way that feels to the community, like “this is our heart. And we love this. We resonate with this.” The second thing is that it impacts how you do outreach. How you do discipleship. How you set up your church. And so, for example, this is a huge example in our church. We realized that, the kids out here and the families out here, in Spicewood, were hugely into sports. But because of our distance from Austin and from big cities, people were driving about 30 minutes to get to a gym to practice their sport of choice. Though there was a huge lack of facilities out in our area. So when it became time to build the next part of our campus, part of me wanted to, a huge part of me, wanted a bigger sanctuary because you can fit more people and we were tight on space. But the church and I, discerned that our next thing to do would be a build a gym. Because then we could provide a place for our community to practice their sports, to fellowship with each other, to get to know us. We could just provide a service to our community if we thought about what they needed that we could provide and how we could be in ministry to them. So we went ahead and built that gym and now it’s filled with youth sports leagues and we’re looking at intramural basketball and tots and little preschooler kids programs come and use it. So it’s been very informative for us in directing where we move as a church. Both on campus and off campus. We found out that there was a library that left their WiFi on in Spicewood all night long because their community around that library didn’t have access to the internet. And, as we dug into that, we found out that half the kids in that area were also on free and reduced lunches. So we were able to focus our efforts on a real need in that community. We haven’t figured out the WiFi thing yet because the library has that covered, but we were able to plant a community garden to invite the kids and the parents to help, but most importantly, to provide fresh fruits and vegetables in a place that is kind of a food desert. And just, we wouldn’t have done that if we didn’t take time to know our community. We might have done the wrong, not a bad thing, but not the most important thing for that community.
Ann Michel: Mmhmm. Yeah. So it sounds like it really has shaped. From your worship service to the way you have invested in your building. It really has directed the course of your congregation’s way of being.
Laura Heikes: Well. I think that’s what it will do. What it should. We should be taking our priority list of how is the kingdom of God coming into this community in the ways that the community is in need. And the needs that they are experiencing in that moment. The Gospel has something to say about that. So we’re actually matching the need with the word of God that brings hope. Instead of hitting that mis-match while the community is saying what I really need is parenting skills. and we’re saying “let us teach you about theology.” There’s a lot of mis-match and if you just learn the community then you can help make sure that what you’re saying is good news to those people in a way that really meets the needs of their heart.
Ann Michel: Yeah. That’s really compelling. To hear that. I was wondering, at a more personal level, if there is a way in which you personally have been changed or felt conviction as a result of some of what you’ve learned about your community.
Laura Heikes: I find that the more I see our faith be able to cross cultural barriers, the more encouraged I am about the truth of our savior. Because, if Jesus is the savior in America, in one aspect of the American society. That’s wonderful and beautiful. But if our faith can cross cultural boundaries and be just as true in West Texas as it is in Washington DC and in Seattle, that encourages me in my faith. So this work has strengthened that faith that this is a timeless message that we have. It impacts all people, it has a word of hope for everybody. That’s hugely encouraging to me. In practical ways, like I mentioned a little bit. It’s changed my preaching. I’ve had to be flexible. Because I’ll have, what I consider, effective sermon delivery in one community and I feel like I’ve got the skills down. And then I am moved and I’m suddenly in a new community and they may not appreciate that same thing that the previous community appreciated. And so it’s humbled me because I have to remember “Okay. It’s not that they are wrong because this is great preaching and other churches agree that this is great preaching so they need to change.” It humbles me to say that “okay. I’m the pastor called to be with them and so I need to change to better reach them.” So it’s poured humility into me as a pastor. To be constantly learning…
Ann Michel: It’s profoundly on the other centered.
Laura Heikes: Yeah. To always say “I’m a learner. I don’t have it all figured out.” As soon as you have a culture figured out it’s going to change because a new technology comes along or a new neighborhood goes in or something key in your community closes down. So you can never say “okay! I’ve arrived. Everything is finished and I’ve figured it all out.” You have to constantly be humble and be learning. And that has been huge for me in my ministry.
Ann Michel: How about for your congregation? How has it impacted or changed the congregation itself?
Laura Heikes: It means that we’re doing a lot more outside our walls. That’s one of the things that we have been learning. That there is a whole group of people who are very interested in God but scared of coming into the church. So that’s really surprising, that has been surprising for my people because we consider ourselves to be very welcoming, very casual. You can come dressed however you want and people will welcome you and be glad that you’re there. We say we’re for all imperfect people. There was an idea in the congregation that if they just come, they will know they are welcome here. And as we’ve learned the community more and have learned the fear that is to come into a church building, it’s changed us in wanting to be able to take worship to places and to people so they don’t have to cross that barrier and come to us – that we will cross the barrier and come to them. So we’ve started worship in a local distillery. And that has been wonderful, a whole new group of people is now worshiping with us. We worship by the lake on Maundy Thursday so that anybody in the community can come. They don’t need to come into our building. We do half of our holy week either outside or they’re off campus. We take Palm Sunday to an ice house or a vineyard, or somewhere the community is used to going. At first that’s hard, because I’ve had people in churches say “I wanna be in my building on these holy days.” and there’s a little bit of unwillingness to sacrifice. And “it just doesn’t feel comfortable to me to have to go outside of my comfort zone for someone else.” Invariably the church will come back to me after that experience and say. “I’m so glad that we went where other people are so that we could reach more people with the love of Christ.” That’s what it’s all about. So there’s more of a willingness now in my people to get outside the church walls. To meet people where they are. And less fear. Because it’s a scary thing at first to do things like that.
Ann Michel: Yeah. And that actually leads to what I wanted to ask about next because I think that, some of the people listening are listening. And other people listening are church members. And I know some pastors who might feel that they could devote their own personal energies and their own personal time to wanting to get out into the community more. But how do you create the ethos within the congregation so that this isn’t just the pastor’s job to be the person who’s the emissary to the community but that the whole congregation sees itself as more outward facing and willing to engage in the kind of community exploration and dialogue that you’re talking about.
Laura Heikes: You know, if you were interested in that. Whether you’re a pastor or a church leader, or even a lay person in a church, what I would say is that it helps to get started small. So if you can do one small thing that can take you outside the church. Or if you’re a lay person and you can figure out “oh, this is a community meet. Or this is a love in this community.” and then have an idea to take to your pastor. Or to gather a group of people who are excited about that idea and say to your pastor. “Hey, we have this idea that there are all of these kids on the sports field on Sunday morning. And we have this group of people who are coaches. And we will lead it. Do we have your blessing?” That’s probably going to go – most pastors are going to be delighted that lay people are excited and are already out there with the plan. You can honestly just do it. You don’t really need permission in most instances to get out there and share the love of God with people. So I would encourage people to find that one thing. What’s that one thing that stretches you a little tiny bit? Or a lot? That you could do, that you could do with excellence or that you could give it a shot and maybe it’s not excellent, but you could get it out into your community, among them. Or just think “what is the one worship service, the one small group, the one bible study, that I could have outside of the church? And where would that be? Would it be at a burger shop? Would it be on the walking trail?” Mostly people can say “hey I want to lead a small group, or a bible study. But we’re going to have it on a boat on a lake. Or we’re going to have it at a coffee shop. Or we’re going to have it while we do yoga.” These are things that are very much in the reach of everybody to do. And once you have one success. You can build on that to create a lot more for your community.
Ann Michel: Yeah. You have the enthusiasm of the pied piper. I can imagine – I can see how this would catch root under your leadership. I think a lot of people would say to me “Oh, my people would never be willing to try that.” Are you casting a vision for this. Are you preaching about it? What are you doing to help your congregation to embrace this new way of thinking? Maybe it’s just happening very naturally and organically under your leadership. But for congregations that may be a little bit more hesitant to think about a new way of being. What leadership steps would you recommend to a pastor or another church leader who wanted to get their congregation to embrace this more missional mindset?
Laura Heikes: Well… A couple of things Ann. You could preach on it. You could just talk about how Jesus spent time in the temple, or in the Synagogue, but also went out to hillsides, was talking to people about birds and farming and lost things that they could understand. Talking to the people in ways they can understand and how we could do that too with the faith. We can talk in ways that our culture understands. You could build it. You definitely need to build it through your preaching. This expectation that we care about people who aren’t here yet. We’re going to learn about them. We’re gonna speak to them in ways they can understand because that’s what Jesus did. And then the second thing I would suggest is find something you know is going to be a win for your congregation. That your congregation would just love, even if they’re scared. In St. Angelo, the first thing that I did, that was kinda outside of the box, that would scare people, related to air force base students that, over Thanksgiving, many of them could not go home to their families and they were all alone on Thanksgiving. Well, this church was very passionate about the armed forces and showing love to the armed forces. So when I said to them “Hey, we could host” – I talked to the chaplains at the base, and found out these students couldn’t go home. I said “we could host officers and enlisted folks from the airforce that can’t go home for Thanksgiving. You could host them in your home! Wouldn’t that be amazing outreach?” Well everybody said “yes! That would be amazing!” And we actually had more people sign up to host people in their homes for Thanksgiving than we had people who needed a home. So it became a thing where people would sign up really fast because they really wanted to do it. Well, once you’ve done that thing that is really close to your heart, and that is just really easy. Like, I love those people. It’s not a challenge to love those people, it’s right there. Then you can start moving them, incrementally, towards people who are harder to love. The steps that are more of a challenge. And you can say “remember when we hosted those people at Thanksgiving? Lets hear some stories about that.” People share their stories and it was wonderful. Definitely have people tell stories about what went well and how it changed their lives. Bring in a couple of students and how it changed their lives to be hosted. Speak about it in the newsletter, in the bulletins, whatever auctions you have on social media. Tell the story, have a little video, and then, the next time you’re going to do something you can draw on the success of that, to encourage your people that this is going to be okay. Because remember, that was pretty great, what we did at first. And so it’s just building incrementally.
Ann Michel: Yeah. Now, I think that’s wonderful advice. Finding the first step, the medium place between where your congregation heart and passion already meets a need in the community to be that first step. That first success that you can celebrate. In terms of the more basic work of just beginning to explore the community and get to know the community, what first steps might be a good starting place there?
Laura Heikes: Well, one of the things that I like to think about is that I like to look at a map. Pull up Google maps of your community. Start to look and think “Okay. What direction do people flow?” And by that, what direction do they go naturally for work, for school, and for their recreation activities. There’s going to be a way that your community moves. North, south, east, or west, whichever way that is in your community. And, in mine, everybody flows away from Spicewood towards Austin. Which means that our church is kind of behind the flow. They have to go against the flow to get to us. So that’s a good thing to know. We’re working against the natural flow of people. You can see that on a map. The next thing that you could look at is: are there any natural barriers? There may be a real barrier or it may just be a mental thing in your city. A kind of historical. For us, there’s a lake which means that people across the lake, even though they’re less than a mile away, they’re physically unable to get to our church even though they’re geographically close. There’s also a river that is the divider between counties and between school districts. And everybody on our side of the river flows towards Austin. Everybody on the other side of the river flows the opposite direction, toward the town up there. And so that’s interesting to just know that there is a mental barrier in our community of crossing that river. And so, if we want people to flow against that mental barrier, it’s going to be hard to overcome. So one of the things you can do is just pull out a map and say “okay, what are – how do people flow and what are the natural barriers?” It might be a railroad track. I’ve seen towns where there’s a street and, historically, a certain group of people live north of that street and a certain group of people live south of that street. And it’s just a road. If I was visiting that city without any of the historical knowledge, I wouldn’t realize that there’s a difference. But when you’re part of the culture, you can see it. Then you can work to overcome it. So that might be something to start with.
Ann Michel: So, are you going with the flow or are you trying to change the flow?
Laura Heikes: Well, I, you definitely need to know that it’s there. It’s important to know what you’ve got in your community. Including how people flow. For me, it means that we have to go against the flow because people naturally flow the other way, away from our church. So we have to overcome that to get people to come to us. But you, as a pastor or a lay person, you might find that people flow right past your church, that they commute past your church. That there is the school nearby, or that there is something that has made it really ideal for your, maybe a parade that is at the heart of the community passes in front of your church. Capitalize on that. In my church in New Braunfels we had a big parade that was so crucial to the community that went right in front of the church. And people set up lawn chairs. For years the church grumbled about it “aw, I can’t believe it. Look at that. They leave trash…” And I said “Look, let’s reframe this. Look, the community has come to our church! Lets give them cold water. Lets give the kids balloons. And we started giving out water and balloons and opening up our bathrooms on these days when the community was flowing right past our church. And it was huge for our outreach and our effectiveness.
Ann Michel: What would be another area of inquiry?
Laura Heikes: I think you need to start going to places where you’re uncomfortable. Jesus went to a lot of uncomfortable places, places that might not look really great for a pastor to go to. But Jesus went there. So I, I’ve done a sermon series about finding God in places in the community that my church sends me. And I use that to take myself out of my comfort zone. And, so, I remember those same air force lieutenants told me “Well we need to go to this night club” Which meant I needed to stay up way past my bedtime, go at midnight to this nightclub and be in this space that I would never go to otherwise. And I felt completely out of my element. And I went, looking for where God was in that space. But I also went to get to know “here is a community in our city that is vibrant and that’s real. But that church people are not part of.” And so, if we can find those places, whatever they are in your community, and start to build relationships. And if you’re not comfortable, then try to find that, what I’ve heard called, a person of peace in that place. Somebody who’s open, or who just will welcome you. I’ve been to bars as part of this sermon series. It starts out hard, but you’ll eventually find somebody. I went to this one bar where we came in and the bar went quiet. I went a little, tiny group from the church and the bar went quiet. And they said tourists sit on the porch. And we said something like “we’re not tourists. We’re from here” And they pointed us to a back room. And we went and sat in the back room and they eyed us as we – the patrons of the normal bar. And I had this one person who never met a stranger and she said “lets go to the front room.” And I went with her. And she started making friends, using her gifts to talk to people, to make connections, and, by the time we left, there was actually somebody who came up to me and said “I really hope you come back because you’re welcome here.” So persevere. It’s not easy it is not comfortable. Missionary work is going to take you out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. And you just have to get used to not having all the answers and feeling uncomfortable and being in an awkward space. And it will lead to some great fruit.
Ann Michel: That’s a wonderful story. So, to begin to wrap this up, I thought maybe a good way to punctuate this would be to, maybe, allow you to share some other stories of real hope that you’ve seen in this, of where you’ve – encounters you’ve had that have given you hope about your communities, that have given you hope about the possibility for the church, that have allowed you to glimpse God in a different way. Where’s the hope that’s motivating you in doing this work?
Laura Heikes: Well, the hope is that new people can be introduced to our savior. And their lives can be chanted. And so, half of our people come by profession of faith. So, any time I am baptizing a father and his two children, you know, who have never been part of a church before or someone comes up to me, there is a very gifted person who’s now a lay minister in our church. I remember the first Sunday that he came. He came after one of these outside events that we did. Because we were at an ice house. We were at Angel’s Ice House. And he and his family thought “I could go to Angel’s” and they came by to worship with us on Easter and he came up with tears in his eyes and he said “I’d given up on the church. I had a really bad experience. But this church has given me hope that I can have a relationship with God and with another group of people to help me along this journey.” He said “Thank you, you’re renewing my faith!” And that young man became – has become one of the leaders of our no-walls worship services that meets in the distillery. And he’s now reaching people who have been outside of the church. And what is so cool is we have this one guy who came up to him – so the first guy is Trent, and this new lay person Bobby came up to him and said “this church is saving my life and I had given up and I didn’t know I wanted a relationship with God. That I was so angry at God.” He came to No-Walls and then he came to our main campus and he is now on his way to being a lay minister. And is so excited about how God can change lives that he’s looking at starting a Bible study on a walking trail in town. So when I think about what makes me excited, it makes me excited to see people coming to faith, sharing that faith with another person. They’re coming to faith, they’re ready to share it with another person. That is life changing stuff. And, to me, that’s what it’s all about. Being a pastor is being able to share the good news and then having other people share that good news with the next person.
Ann Michel: Well Amen. I’ve got tears in my eyes just hearing about that. Would that it be so in all of our churches that we have those amazing stories of transformation to share. Laura, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for this really creative and passionate energy that you’re bringing to your ministry there in Spicewood, but I also want to thank you because you have been so generous over the years in sharing your ideas and what you know with our constituency at the Lewis Center. It’s been great to talk with you today. And I wish you lots of blessings as you continue in this really, really important work of allowing the church to really impact its community.
Laura Heikes: Thank you Ann. And I hope that this inspires people to get out in their community. Because it’s meaningful work. Thank you.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Lovett H. Weems Jr. about how to plan for a pastoral transition, leave well, and get off to a strong start in a new church.
Lovett H. Weems Jr.: Transitions are always times of great opportunity and great vulnerability. They’re great opportunities because you have new leadership coming, or a leader is going into a new situation. But there’s also great vulnerability because someone is going from what’s known to what’s unknown and a congregation is going from what’s known to what’s unknown.
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