Sioux Falls, SD
It's been more than two years since the nation's largest Lutheran denomination voted to allow gays to serve in the ministry. That controversial vote caused many members to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to form their own denomination.
More than 200 congregations across the country make up the North American Lutheran Church. One of its newest churches is now holding services in Sioux Falls.
A pioneering spirit fills King of Glory Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls.
"Definitely a leap of faith. But it was all God leading us in the right direction and bringing us together," King of Glory member Amy Johnson said.
King of Glory is not only the first North American Lutheran Church congregation in Sioux Falls. Its pastor was the first minister ever ordained in the new denomination.
"I want to set the bar high as it's been set high for us, we want to be faithful in fulfilling that call, Pastor Rich Merkouris said.
King of Glory holds services in the commons of Sioux Falls Christian School. Folding chairs and lunch tables serve as pews on Sunday mornings. Many North American Lutheran Church congregations are located in smaller, rural communities. So its arrival in a city the size of Sioux Falls is spiritually significant.
"Congregations in Sioux Falls are larger and it's more difficult to work the waters of going through the process of leaving that denomination for another one and you're going to do it in a way that's healthy for everyone and also God-honoring, so it's a difficult process," Merkouris said.
That long, difficult road began in 2009 when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to allow gays in committed relationships into the clergy. Merkouris says for many Lutherans, that vote was the final straw in a long, simmering doctrinal dispute with the ELCA.
"When they made that decision there was a sense in which went directly against God's word and the purpose that God has laid out in regards to our relationship between man and woman and one another," Merkouris said.
Many King of Glory members used to belong to the ELCA-affiliated Hope Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls. A vote to break away from the denomination didn't pass at Hope Lutheran. So individual members left on their own, a difficult decision for those who attended Hope Lutheran for many years.
"There's some tough, hard feelings about the situation, but we all survived that and we all have to go along with what we think is right," King of Glory member Dick Bjerke said.
King of Glory's membership has doubled to more than 160 since they first started meeting informally back in the spring. And they expect the numbers to keep growing.
"We only want to grow in each age area. So a year-and-a-half from now, I hope that we'd be double in size," Merkouris said.
Merkouris, and other King of Glory members say they don't want their new church to be defined by their opposition to gays in the ministry. Instead, they hope living the Gospel message of serving their neighbor will be the calling that everyone can agree upon.
"Not saying there weren't growing pains and questions asked. But a lot of what do you want to see? Let's dream big and narrow it down in which direction we want to go," Johnson said.
King of Glory members say they hope to one day have a building of their own to worship in. Pastor Merkouris says he hopes King of Glory can be a feeder for more North American Lutheran Church congregations to form in Sioux Falls within the next five years.