Elaine Fairburn, 93, of Fresno didn’t always describe her church Sundays as “easygoing.”
The lifelong member of Emmanuel Lutheran Church can still vividly recall sitting in a pew as a child, watching a robed pastor ascend the pulpit — three stairs up — to preach from his holy perch.
As he peered down at her from the pedestal, she regarded him as a strict all-seeing, all-knowing presence.
“It was a very traditional service,” Fairburn said of what sermons used to be like at her church, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in March. “We followed the opening services and all that right down the line from the Book.”
Things have changed at Emmanuel Lutheran, which moved from Fresno to Clovis in the early 2000s.
One stark contrast to the way things used to be: Its current pastor, Ed Krueger, sometimes invites his congregation to send him questions via text messages during a sermon, a kind of game he’s named “Stump the Pastor.” A praise band — jamming on guitars and drums — has taken the place of the singing of some traditional hymns, and many now follow along to words projected on a big screen instead of inside a printed Bible.
Other changes: “For one thing now, Pastor Ed wears a Hawaiian shirt,” Fairburn said, “and we don’t have a pulpit, so he just walks back and forth and talks.”
Emmanuel Lutheran is one of more than 6,200 churches across the nation who are part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The changes have taken Fairburn some getting used to. Sometimes she misses the old hymns and how everyone used to dress in their Sunday best. But despite that, Fairburn sure likes Krueger.
Of his sermons, she said with a smile, “He’s talking to me, he’s not talking down to me.”
That’s the way Krueger, 70, likes it. He strives to stay personal and “relevant.”
Church leaders say the decision to move Emmanuel Lutheran from Fresno to Clovis and become a mission church was rooted in that desire. Especially over the past decade, they say their focus has increasingly shifted outward, to reaching out to people who don’t go to church.
Krueger said the church’s ability to change with the community has allowed it to survive over the past 125 years, far exceeding the average 75-year life cycle of a church in America.
“Churches come, churches go, neighborhoods change,” Krueger said. “For a church to be able to morph, and to change with the community, gives it its lasting power — and Emmanual has morphed over those years. It had to.”
He said love is the engine that’s powered the evolution.
In Emmanuel Lutheran’s entryway, there’s a sign Krueger takes a lot of pride in: “Love God, love others, and show it.”
The “showing it” part is especially important to Krueger. “A lot of people may love God and love others, but it’s all inside their head.”
The road to a new mission
Fairburn and her 102-year-old sister, Erna Schedler (who moved to Hawaii at age 97 to be close to her daughter) lived through most of Emmanuel Lutheran’s history.
The sisters worshiped at all four of the church’s locations over the years. The first was a wooden church downtown, dedicated in 1896 at Ventura and L streets. In 1929, the congregation moved into a brick church at Mariposa and U streets, also downtown.
Of the church’s early years, the sisters remember when men and women had to sit on separate sides of the church, and when there were special services conducted in German to cater to a growing population of immigrants, including Erna and Elaine’s parents.
Christmases at the church were always special for the sisters — although a bit scary for their mother. As a tall man lit candles on a large Christmas tree inside the wooden church, their mom paid little attention to the pastor.
“Our mother would just sit there through the whole service, watching that tree, afraid that it was going to catch on fire,” Fairburn laughed.
But Christmas gifts were always a treat. “We always got a bag with oranges and walnuts and candy, and of course, you know, in those days that was a big deal,” Fairburn said.
Church chairman Doug Richardson said membership peaked in the 1960s with more than 1,600 members.
“We kind of joke and say we were the original ‘megachurch’ in the 60s because churches generally didn’t grow to that size back then,” Richardson said. “It was a large part of the fabric of Fresno for decades.”
The growing congregation called for another expansion, and in 1970, Emmanuel Lutheran moved into a new church in central Fresno at Floradora Avenue and Angus Street. Emmanuel Lutheran also started a mission chapel that later became the independent congregation of Peace Lutheran Church.
In those days, Emmanuel Lutheran’s central mission work was supporting Emmanuel Lutheran School at the Floradora property. Richardson was one of the children who attended that school from kindergarten through eighth grade. He said it closed in the 1980s for financial reasons.
Following the closure, Richardson said the congregation was hungry for a new purpose, and the decision was made to start anew with a mission focus in Clovis. The new Clovis church at 785 N. Fowler Ave. was dedicated in 2004 and after several years of leadership from an interim pastor, Krueger took the helm in 2009 after serving as a mission director for 12 years, helping start Lutheran churches across California, Nevada and Hawaii.
The decision to move to Clovis split the congregation. Many joined other Lutheran churches in Fresno.
“It took us a while to build ourselves back up,” Fairburn said. “I think we got down to about 65 members and now we’re back to about 125 at each service.”
Those numbers are just fine with Krueger.
“Our goal is not to build a big church,” he said. “Our goal is to see people build big hearts.”
Breaking down the ‘stained glass barriers’
A lot of Emmanuel Lutheran’s ministry happens off the church property — doing things like feeding the homeless and working through small ministry groups, including one for Hmong Americans.
On property, the church hosts events like country music nights and ice cream socials to engage new people. The aim is to “break down the stained glass barriers” to make worship fun, Krueger said, because “Jesus is fun. God’s fun. He brings a plus into your life, that’s how we view it.”
Yet Krueger said he recognizes the church’s “fun” events aren’t going to entice a large portion of the population.
“We have a lot of a generation called ‘nones’ — no church affiliation,” Krueger said. “A lot of our younger people never grew up in church. They wouldn’t go to church if you had five ice cream socials; that’s just not a place they are going to go. So what do you? How do you connect? You connect by showing love.
“Neighbors have barbecues and invite them over. You help them with their lawn, you help them with their car. … These are mission communities, small groups and developing ‘side doors’ (into church). Some of those people will never come in our building, but they will come into a home and they will learn about Jesus. They will learn about God’s love that way, and we’re OK with that.”
Richardson and Krueger said the church moved to Clovis because they felt that’s where their congregation could best connect and be of the most service.
Richardson added, “Clovis is a wonderful community, but it needs God just as much as central Fresno.”
Richardson said much of Emmanuel Lutheran’s past mission work was supporting efforts abroad.
“The changes in America itself have dictated that we are a mission field once again in this country,” he said. “So we started to recognize that, too. … We have to connect with our own neighbors just as much as we need to be looking out for people overseas.”
Through all of Emmanuel Lutheran’s morphing missions, the church has always had Fairburn’s love and loyalty.
“When I go to church and the service starts, it’s just a feeling that comes over you — that you’re in God’s house and you know you’re safe,” Fairburn said. “I know that’s where I belong.”