Filling the Gospel Gap
A partnership between the circuit, district and Synod helps St. Andrew Lutheran Church flourish in southwestern Albuquerque, N.M.
“It’s a rare Sunday when we don’t hear [police or emergency vehicle] sirens go by,” said Alan Arnold, president of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, N.M. The storefront church is tucked in the corner of an unassuming strip mall in what can be a dangerous part of town. Yet inside the church’s doors, the Rev. Adam DeGroot delivers Christ’s Word and Sacraments to his small flock each week.
On Sunday, Sept. 29, more than 50 people — 26 members of St. Andrew, as well as supporters from other LCMS congregations in the city — gathered to celebrate as St. Andrew became the newest congregation of the LCMS Rocky Mountain District.
“Today we constitute into The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and yet it has been for four years — 1,460 mornings — where the Lord’s mercies have been new each day,” said DeGroot, an LCMS national missionary who has served at St. Andrew since 2017. “The Word of God is and shall be preached in this holy house on this day and every day until our Lord’s return.”
The idea for what would become St. Andrew started in December 2013, when Arnold and his father-in-law, the Rev. Theodore Kuster, pored over a map of Albuquerque. They were on the mission board at Faith in Christ Lutheran Church on the east side of town, and they wanted to know where the LCMS churches were in relation to each other, as well as where Faith in Christ’s members were located. As they marked up the map, they discovered a “Gospel gap” — the entire southwestern quadrant of the city was not being served by an LCMS congregation.
“There were about 135,000 people in that section,” Arnold said. “Where I come from, which is South Dakota and Minnesota, there’d be six LCMS churches for 140,000 people.”
“This mission had all of the grit and diverse people groups that fit well for a western frontier in need of pioneers. It certainly had its ups and downs, but the Lord continued to provide what was needed, and this is the culmination of all the plowing and seeding and watering that took place over several years.”Rev. Dr. Steven Schave, director of LCMS Church Planting and Urban & Inner-City Mission
Arnold talked to the Rev. Elisha Lietzau, his pastor at the time, about the possibility of planting an LCMS church. Together they sought buy-in from Faith in Christ, the circuit and later the district. Eventually, the project became part of the district’s “Gospel Gap” initiative, a grassroots effort to promote new missions at the circuit level.
In April 2014, Arnold, Lietzau, Kuster and retired pastor Rev. Douglas May drove to a neighborhood in southwestern Albuquerque and started knocking on doors.
“We wanted to see who we would run into, see if people would tell us if they went to church, what church they went to, that sort of info,” Arnold said. A few houses in, Arnold met a woman from Norway who had grown up in the Lutheran state church and was interested in hearing what he had to say. Across the street, he met another woman with past ties to an LCMS congregation.
As the canvassers made more and more connections, people kept asking them where their church was located. “Our ad hoc committee decided that we just needed to get a place that we could direct people to,” Arnold said.
Most retail property in the area was out of their price range, but they found the strip mall location, and other congregations donated chairs, hymnals and an altar to make it a Lutheran oasis in an area plagued by many issues, including gangs, drugs and violence. Several local pastors took turns holding Sunday afternoon services and other activities at the church plant, despite the thumping of the bass from the Zumba classes next door.
One of the first people to attend was Sandy Westerfeld, who became the first adult confirmand at St. Andrew.
“I’ve been coming almost since they started,” Westerfeld said. “When I was going to church, I’d go out to [my daughter’s] church, which is 40 miles probably. So, I didn’t go very often. She heard that they had opened this church, and it’s only two and a half miles from my house.”
In 2015, Arnold reached out to the Rev. Dr. Steven D. Schave, director of LCMS Church Planting and Urban & Inner-City Mission, who helped bring DeGroot in as the church plant’s first full-time pastor through the Synod’s Mission Field: USA initiative.
DeGroot arrived in 2017 with his wife and son and quickly got to work. In addition to leading worship and providing Bible study opportunities, he began visiting residents at a nearby skilled nursing facility and striking up as many conversations with his new neighbors as possible.
“St. Andrew was one of the first pilot projects for the Mission Field: USA initiative, working together with the district,” Schave said. “This mission had all of the grit and diverse people groups that fit well for a western frontier in need of pioneers. It certainly had its ups and downs, but the Lord continued to provide what was needed, and this is the culmination of all the plowing and seeding and watering that took place over several years.”
On a sunny day last fall, DeGroot walked through a neighborhood near the church, equipped with Portals of Prayer and invitations to St. Andrew. He’s continued the congregation’s tradition of canvassing the neighborhood — something he also did frequently in his previous call as a national missionary to Philadelphia.
On this particular afternoon, DeGroot stopped to talk about football with a young man walking down the street, and he prayed with an elderly man in a wheelchair who was sitting in his front yard.
As he passed a house under a large tree, a woman called out to him. She recognized him from the nearby skilled nursing facility where she works. After DeGroot prayed with the woman and her husband, she asked him to visit her adult son, who lives down the street and recently got into some trouble.
This is just one example of the benefit of having a full-time pastor who is able to get to know people and care for them, said Arnold. “It was great when we had pastors volunteering on Sundays, but there’s no substitute to having the DeGroots living their lives here, talking to people, understanding the community that they live in.”
Challenges and Blessings
DeGroot is the first to admit that the work in Albuquerque hasn’t been easy. “You had to be reliant on your neighbors in Philadelphia,” DeGroot said, “but we’re not finding the receptivity here that we did there. It’s a totally different culture in the western United States.”
The area also is heavily Hispanic — with families that have been there for centuries, as well as newer arrivals — most of whom come from a Roman Catholic background, even if they no longer attend church. When people find out that the man in the clerical collar isn’t a Catholic priest, they have sometimes asked DeGroot to leave.
However, there’s also huge potential. The area is experiencing a boom, with new construction going up all around and thousands of new housing units planned for the coming decades. Even more important than that, St. Andrew has a solid core of dedicated members who are capable, well taught in the faith and not afraid to reach out to the community.
“This is one of the first times that I’ve had help, people that I know are standing side by side,” DeGroot said, “and that’s a tremendous blessing.”
‘A Regular Church’
The Sept. 29 constituting service was a milestone and a moment of joy in the life of the congregation. Yet, it was just one day.
After the cake and punch had been put away, DeGroot went back to work, continuing the long process to become a chaplain in the nearby detention center and meeting with his elders to prepare for the next Sunday.
“We started doing this project with nothing, literally nothing,” Arnold said. “People are here because this is a regular church. They have a regular pastor. They have pastoral care. … More than that, they have a pastor who talks to them, who visits them.
“There has been a lot of heartbreak and sorrow, but also a lot of real joy,” Arnold continued, reflecting on the hundreds of doors he knocked on before St. Andrew even had a location. “And that’s something that keeps you coming back — that one person who opens the door.”
- Read more about LCMS Church Planting: lcms.org/church-planting
- Get to know national missionary Rev. Adam DeGroot: lcms.org/degroot
- Support Mission Field: USA: lcms.org/givenow/mission-field-usa
Pray with Us
Your church, O Lord, the Body of Christ, is found wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. Bless those who hear Your Word in Albuquerque. Bless St. Andrew Lutheran Church and Pastor Adam DeGroot, that they might be witnesses to Your love and mercy to the people they serve. We thank You for this new congregation and ask that You would keep them in Your gracious care. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Megan K. Mertz
Managing editor of Lutherans Engage the World and chief copy editor for LCMS Communications.