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A lifelong Lutheran, Donna Landa has always enjoyed fellowship in small congregations and sharing the word of God with those around her. However, when the North Riverside mother and grandmother no longer felt her local congregation was meeting the spiritual needs of herself and others, she decided to take matters into her own hands and guidance from her former pastor.
Since November, Landa has collaborated with her former pastor and North Riverside resident, the Rev. Mark Matthews, in forming reNEWed Hope Church, leading a small group of people from Matthews' former parish, Concordia Lutheran Church in Berwyn.
Upon Matthews' retirement as head pastor at Concordia Lutheran for 21 years, Landa and others felt as though the church was moving away from the types of worship many had come to love over the years.
Landa was looking for more interactive means of worship like the ones Matthews fostered during his time at Concordia Lutheran.
"I started reNEWed Hope Church, because after Pastor Matthews left, I went around visiting churches and I just couldn't find one that I liked," Landa said. "I still loved Concordia Lutheran and I loved the people, but they switched style, if you will. [ReNEWed Hope] play a variety of songs, like 'Amazing Grace' and more contemporary songs, and I like to worship with all of those."
Matthews, who was formerly a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod minister and is now a Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ pastor, has served in various capacities as a pastor, teacher and youth director for more than 40 years.
He worked at Concordia Lutheran for 21 of those years. That affiliation ended in 2011. But, he has continued to preach at a small mission church in Geneva.
When Landa approached Matthews with her idea, he jumped at the notion of offering support for members of his former faith community.
"I didn't want to do all the meetings, didn't want to do all the involvement, all the different conflicts that can come up in big churches," Matthews said. "So, [my wife] Kay and I were in a situation to help out in Geneva as well as here."
ReNEWed Hope is operating as a Lutheran church, affiliated with New Hope Lutheran Church in Geneva, which is part of the Lutheran Congregations in Missions for Christ (LCMC).
"Because we help in Geneva, they were willing to help us get started," Matthews said.
Any offerings given by members of reNEWed Hope are recorded and shared with New Hope, which in turn helps take care of expenses related to reNEWed Hope's operation.
Initially, Landa began holding services in her living room. Eventually, Landa knew the growing group would need more space and inquired about renting a room at Christ Presbyterian Church, 2350 8th Ave. in North Riverside.
Landa and Matthews figured that since most members come from North Riverside, Broadview, Berwyn and Brookfield, the church would be a convenient central location. Currently, the congregation has about 25 members.
Services are held Sunday evenings in the lower level of Christ Presbyterian, with 45 minutes of dinner and fellowship followed by an hour-long service and Bible discussion. For dinner, members of the church bring their own dishes to have a potluck-style dinner and for the service, music is courtesy of Praise and Promise, a group of musicians formerly part of Concordia Lutheran.
"People worship in different ways," Landa said. "Some people like to sit quietly and not sing and that's OK. Some people like to really get into their worshipping and that's OK too. I think you should feel free to worship as the Bible says, in spirit and truth, whatever that is for you. It's not ritualistic worship, and that's not a dig to anybody, but it's not just talking. Every week to me is new and exciting."
Henry Stahnke, a Berwyn resident who was a lifelong member of Concordia Lutheran and guitarist for Praise and Promise, says reNEWed Hope has been the blessing some members of his old congregation were looking for.
"When [Matthews] left our church, I missed what he brought every week," Stahnke said. "No matter what kind of week you had, you could go to church, and when you left, you felt good because he loves you and you could tell God loves you."
Landa says so far, she believes the church is meeting the needs of the group.
"We have good worship and discussion back and forth," she said. "At a lot of churches, you just sing and then there's a teaching, and I felt like I was missing out on the discussion. With reNEWed Hope, we're down to earth and we share in God's love."
Matthews says the goal of reNEWed Hope is to continue encouraging others to come join them and see what their form of worship is all about.
"The people who are coming are loving, giving people without an agenda," Matthews said. "Sometimes in congregations, there are a lot of agendas. We don't have that as far as I can see. It's just a bunch of people who are looking to worship the Lord and help each other out. I think that's what makes it really nice. The sad part sometimes about large congregations is nobody knows who you are."
Landa says this spring, she would like to raise awareness and get new people to see what the church is all about. Some of the church's ideas for outreach include hosting worship in local parks, walking in Fourth of July parades and having a booth at North Riverside's annual chili cookoff.
"We would love for some more people in the neighborhood to come," Landa said.
As to whether or not the church will have their own brick and mortar location in the future, Matthews remains optimistic but says the decision is not entirely in the hands of the congregation.
"I guess it depends on what the Lord has in mind," he said.
This article has been changed to correct Rev. Matthews' affiliation within the Lutheran Church and to clarify when his affiliation with Concordia Lutheran in Berwyn ended.