Celebrating a very happy birthdayFor Deb Stehlin, it started with a vision that wouldn’t go away. A dream of a church that balanced a relationship with Jesus and a relationship with community. A church she thought would be right at home in Dakota County. “I could not stop thinking about it,” Stehlin said. “It was like an obsession.”
By: Nathan Hansen, The Farmington Independent
For Deb Stehlin, it started with a vision that wouldn’t go away. A dream of a church that balanced a relationship with Jesus and a relationship with community. A church she thought would be right at home in Dakota County.
“I could not stop thinking about it,” Stehlin said. “It was like an obsession.”
Now, more than a year and plenty of nervous nights later, Stehlin is watching as her dream becomes a reality called Light of the World Church. The church celebrates its first birthday this month, and Stehlin said she couldn’t imagine a more successful start.
Stehlin, at the time a pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran in Apple Valley, didn’t start out with plans to build a church from scratch. When she first had the idea that grew into Light of the World she just thought it was something that needed to happen. The more she talked to other people about it, though, the more she realized she was meant to be a part of the process, not just its inspiration.
So, with the blessing of Shepherd of the Valley and several other area churches — what she calls the Dakota County’s Big Kahuna churches — Stehlin started talking to the members of the Shepherd of the Valley congregation. She was looking for people who had a passion for mission work. People who were willing to leave the comfort of their church and work to bring her vision to life.
“I just kind of laid a bomb on their lap,” Stehlin said. “It always took a few minutes for people’s jaws to close.”
Eventually, Stehlin found a handful of families willing to venture out with her. Many of them were from the Farmington area. That’s how the church ended up holding its earliest gatherings last fall in the meeting room at Southern Hills Golf Course.
In the months that followed those original members invited friends to attend church gatherings. Then, those friends invited more friends. One year in, the church has grown to more than 200 members and moved its services to North Trail Elementary School. The growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing, either. There seems to be one or two new members nearly every week.
Stehlin said about 90 percent of the people who show up once come back, an extraordinary retention rate for churches. She attributes that success to the feeling of community that has developed at the church. Children are welcome at services, and nobody will turn to shush kids if they act up a little. Stehlin wears shorts in the summer and has been known to chase kids around in games of Duck, Duck, Goose after the service is over.
Light of the World has built a community of people willing to go out of their way to help others. In the past year church members have taken on service projects including cleaning out a flood-damaged basement in Iowa, playing Bingo with residents at Trinity Care Center and volunteering regularly at Feed My Starving Children.
Chris Wolf, who heads the church’s music ministry, said for the first time in their lives her children, ages 12 and 14, are excited to go to church.
“This is not rocket science,” Stehlin said. “We don’t have to do something huge and complicated. Small and simple is good and can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”
Nate Toso has seen that sense of community. He and his family started attending Light of the World on Easter Sunday and immediately had people introduce themselves — make them feel at home.
“Because we had little kids we just felt so welcome,” he said. “We’ve just really enjoyed coming to church and worshiping as a family. That’s something we missed out on.”
Toso, a former Farmington High School choir teacher, started a pastoral internship at the church this week.
A scary step
Light of the World has been well received, but taking the step to start the new church was intimidating.
Stehlin remembers one day early on waiting to pick her son up from school and having to ask her husband to open the window because she felt like she was going to be sick.
“I felt like I was stepping off into the big unknown,” she said. “It’s scary, but at the very same time when it’s scary there’s something that makes you feel more alive.”
Stehlin isn’t sure where things will go from here. Light of the World’s first year has exceeded all of her expectations and she’s looking forward to seeing what the next 12 months will bring.
The church is looking at land, but beyond that she won’t make too many predictions about when they’ll be ready to build a permanent home.
“Who am I to predict what God is going to do in the next year?” she said. “I can’t see us changing too much what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Light of the World will hold a community birthday party at 10 a.m. Sept. 14 at North Trail.