A Brief History of Grace Lutheran Church (2007-2017)
Grace Lutheran Church is a daughter of Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 2007 Pastor John Strackbein and the leadership of Holy Cross involved their entire congregation in a planning process to determine the focus of Holy Cross's ministry in coming years. Leaders proposed renovating the existing facilities, adding another wing to the building for fellowship and classroom space, or starting a mission in the Norman area. The proposal to start a mission in Norman received the most support, and in January of 2008 Pastor Strackbein began exploratory work there.
In 2009 Mission Counselor Ed Schuppe spent time in Norman doing a thorough analysis of the city for its mission potential. He concluded in his report: "Definitely a growing area. No question about that.... Everyone we talked to indicated the greatest present growth and future growth was to the north of Norman along Tecumseh Road." The population of Norman is just over 100,000 people and grows by 2000 to 3000 people per year. In addition to the University of Oklahoma, Norman employers include the National Weather Center, a number of hospitals, and a robust community of smaller businesses, many of which have been started by graduates of the university. Many residents of Norman also commute to Oklahoma City or Tinker Air Force Base in nearby Midwest City. Grace currently is focusing outreach efforts on the northeast side of the city, where the congregation plans to relocate there when it has grown to the size that makes the purchase of land possible. About half the population of Norman has no church home.
Pastor Christian Eisenbeis became a part of the pastoral staff for Grace Lutheran Church in 2012. Pastor Eisenbeis is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran Seminary (ELS) in Mankato, MN. When Pastor Eisenbeis graduated from the seminary in 2009, the ELS did not have enough congregations seeking new pastors to issue a call to all the graduates. Pastor Eisenbeis found work as a police dispatcher in Norman and joined Holy Cross. Special funding from the Antioch Foundation made it possible for Grace to call Pastor Eisenbeis on a part time basis in the summer of 2012. From that time on Pastor Eisenbeis and Pastor Strackbein shared the preaching responsibilities at Grace and Holy Cross. In 2013 Pastor Eisenbeis and his wife Leah, who have two children diagnosed with autism, began a support group for parents of autistic children called "The Thorn Bush" as a ministry of Grace Lutheran to the community. As many as 10 families have been served by the support group, and a new branch has recently been started at Gethsemane Lutheran Church on the north side of Oklahoma City. (Read more about The Thorn Bush in the article from the Norman Transcript below).
The South Central District Mission Board began issuing calls for a full time pastor at Grace in late 2013, after it received mission support from the WELS Board for Home Missions. Several pastors declined the call, but Pastor John Vieths accepted the call in late May of 2014 and arrived in Norman the first week of August. Grace enjoyed a rather unique situation as a mission congregation with two pastors, one full time and one half time. After his arrival, Pastor Vieths gave his attention to door-to-door evangelism in the newer neighborhoods on Norman's northeast side, finding a new place to worship in the target area, fine-tuning the congregation's advertising, and developing the long term outreach goals of the congregation. A key part of the plan is to be the first church in town to welcome new residents to Norman. Like the Eisenbeis family, Pastor Vieths and his wife Robin have an autistic son and appreciate the special outreach the congregation offers to families affected by autism.
In 2010 the new mission counted 20 people under its care, most of them former members of Holy Cross who were residents of Norman and the surrounding area. At the present time (2017) the mission is caring for about 50 souls. Grace celebrated its first adult baptism in September of 2014. The members of the congregation are very dedicated to spreading the gospel in Norman, and as many as a dozen of them will show up to assist in door-to-door canvasses of neighborhoods or prepare postcards for distribution. By God's grace we pray that Grace Lutheran will become a thriving and independent congregation in the years to come.
In May of 2015 Grace moved into its first full time location in Norman at 900 24th Ave. NW. Until then it had been meeting in the Catering Creations Event Center, a space it could use only on Sundays and on Wednesday nights, and a location that was difficult to find due to other buildings in the retail center that blocked its view from the street. The new ministry center is located on a well-travelled street in the heart of Norman's growing business district. The new retail center is attractive and offers good visibility. The space is well-suited to the needs of The Thorn Bush and Grace's other outreach activities, and it provides plenty of room to grow. We look forward to using this new tool to spread the gospel in Norman.
In December of 2015 Pastor Eisenbeis received a call to serve as the full time pastor of First Trinity Lutheran Church in Marinette, WI. Pastor Eisenbeis accepted the call, and he and his family moved to Marinette in January of 2016. Pastor Vieths continues to serve Grace as pastor, and he continues to lead the Thorn Bush Autism Support Group.