Finding Purpose

Church #35. Meet Joel Folkemer. He is the lead pastor at Union Evangelical Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania. With averaging worship attendance of 70 on a given Sunday, Folkemer describes Union as an urban church in a small city.

Union church

Union’s purpose statement is “Sharing the Good News of Jesus with our neighbors, as we grow together in Christ.” Folkemer unpacks their vision with 3 points:

  • It’s all about the Spirit’s actions! Gone are the days of “build it and they will come.”
  • It’s all about meeting the neighbors with God’s love! Neighbors include people around the church building, people in the places we personally live, and people around the world.
  • It’s all about relational ministry! Nowadays, churches need to lean into the gifts and talents of its parishioners as well as its neighbors, recognizing that everyone has something to offer.

York is a small city with big city issues; poverty, violence, and lack of education, contributes to its urban problems. Union, a church under redevelopment, is learning how to connect, live, and minister to its evolving neighborhood while attending to these issues in partnership with their community.

One day, Folkemer challenged the congregation on how to live into their purpose statement. He said, “Union needed to shift into a community church. If the church did not want to be involved with the neighborhood, where the need is great, then it would potentially die off.”

The church council and the staff took Folkemer up on his challenge. Together, they began to review of each ministry. Using the purpose statement as a guideline, ministries could fall into three categories: done (the ministry did not align with the purpose statement), tweak (some ministries needed to be realigned), or live (the ministry fits the purpose). Done. Tweak. Live.

Going through this process, here are some of the redesigns at Union:

  • Worship needed to reflect the context of the community. Now, Union has blended services that use ancient kyries to contemporary songs from different cultures and styles. Hospitality is core to the Sunday morning experience. People have been trained on how to help visitors, from using the bulletin to navigating the building, from befriending visitor to offering to sit with them.
  • Faith formation was revamped. No longer are children and youth learning Bible stories through a leaflet model. At Union, the goal of faith formation is to help people to see how God works in daily life. Faith formation then tends to be outward focus with great discussions and service.
  • Building relationships in the community is essential. Folkemer says, “It’s great to do nice things, but worship and education in the church should help people grow and understand why we do what we do. Good works then happens as outpouring from worship and education.” Union offers many ministries for the neighborhood including a food pantry, a clothes closet, free homework help, preschool tutoring, afterschool programming, feeding ministries, and a youth drop-in center.
  • Collaboration is the key in making ministries happen. Folkemer says, “When a congregation seeks to partner with the community, they find out how much more they can do together than by themselves.” For example, Union is part of a food ministry collaboration that provides a community breakfast on Sunday mornings. Many helping hands participate: Life Path Christian Ministries sends some food, a local caterer, G’s Jook Joint, donates paid staff to cook, and church volunteers hosts the breakfast. They serve over 100 meals on Sunday. Some people stay for worship and faith formation, and some eat and go. No questions asked as this meal is free to the community.

Why does this ministry matter? Union’s purpose is about “keeping the main thing the main thing!” Folkemer says, “We are called to be a great commandment church (Luke 10:27) while being a great commission church (Matthew 28:19-20).” Church is about relationships, and church can affect neighbors in a powerful way. It’s more than just being nice; it’s about finding purpose in loving God, loving our neighbors, and inviting others to join us in God’s work.

For more information on this story, please contact Joel Folkemer at 717-843-7897 or

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