"Silent Night." "O Come All Ye Faithful." "Away in a Manger." The songs were familiar as they cut through the cold air, but for the singers, the tradition was a new one.
The night of caroling was shared by members from three separate Minneapolis churches that have come together to create a shared home. For the first time, Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church, Living Table United Church of Christ and Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community will celebrate Christmas under one roof.
They've planted a courtyard tree, swapped pews for chairs and made room for a common space in the remodeled building they call New Branches. This holiday, they're welcoming the members of all three congregations to attend any of the seven different Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services — from Spirit's afternoon family liturgy to Lake Nokomis Lutheran's silent night by candlelight to "Jammies with Jesus" over Zoom with Living Table.
At a time when thousands of churches across the country are closing every year amid shrinking membership and growing expenses, these congregations have reimagined their church as an abundant resource to share instead of a financial burden.
Each congregation has maintained its own faith identity, and after years of building consensus, restructuring and remodeling, they now have a tax-exempt building partnership, with shared ownership, shared costs and a shared hope for a more secure future.
"Here were three groups of people that said, 'You know, we're more alike than we are different. What could we do together?' " Lake Nokomis Lutheran Senior Pastor Sara Spohr said.
Just a few years ago, New Branches' building was home to a single congregation, Lake Nokomis Lutheran. It had anchored the corner of 31st Avenue South and Keewaydin Place for more than a century when Spohr joined as pastor in 2020. At that time, church leaders were already deep in conversation about sharing the building.
Spohr thought it meant they were in survival mode. But she came to realize it was "less about survival and more about an innovative way to thrive," she said.
Under one roof, the three churches can do more, she said.
"We actually have a common voice for speaking the gospel and love into the world. We can do that better together."
After her congregation agreed to join, Living Table's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefeworked with Lake Nokomis Lutheran leaders to find a third church for the partnership, Spirit.
Each church made a donation when they joined. Lake Nokomis Lutheran gave its building, and the other two contributed to renovations starting in July 2021 that created a shared common space with a kitchen, reoriented the altar and made space for two sanctuaries and a library. Together, they pay for a building manager.
A path forward
Keefe sees this three-way church as a path forward — not just for her own church, but others facing similar situations. Before they sold their building at 40th Street and 38th Avenue S. and joined New Branches, Living Table had enough budget reserves to plan for five years, she said.
"I honestly think that the shared campus is going to be the future of mainline church," Keefe said. "And who knows, maybe 20, 30 years from now these three congregations will merge into one. And maybe not."
The partnership means sharing both financial and human resources, said Keefe — with a wider pool of volunteers for service and social justice projects all three congregations find meaningful. The congregations gardened together, shared a table at the city's Pride celebrations and combined forces for Trunk or Treat neighborhood festivities and a three-church Thanksgiving worship.
Recently, Living Table hosted a work day to install a pair of stained glass windows from their old church building in the new sanctuary — with help from members of the other congregations.
"It's kind of neat because we can be three separate identities but have common work together," Spohr said.
A shared heart
Spirit, formed by a group of parishioners and lay leaders who left St. Stephen's Catholic Church in the Whittier neighborhood more than a decade ago, had been renting and moving for years. After visiting more than 160 potential spaces, they found a permanent home at New Branches.
"This is the first place we've had to really settle, to not wonder, 'Is the rent going to go up?' 'Are they going to boot us?' " said Marilaurice Hemlock, community life and liturgy coordinator at Spirit of St. Stephens.
Still, merging three churches hasn't been without its bumps. Inflation has meant utility costs are higher than anticipated. They're still looking for a school tenant for the attached classroom spaces. And, like new roommates sharing the fridge, the congregations are getting through those little awkward negotiations that happen in shared spaces.
"We're like, three old bachelor people or something, because we've all lived alone," said Hemlock.
The first time Hemlock walked into the space that would become New Branches, she wasn't sure combining churches would work. But then she saw three scripture banners hanging high on the wall with the prophet Micah's words: "Do justice." "Love mercy." "Walk humbly."
"It was like, 'Yep, we can do this,' " Hemlock said. "Because that's our heart as well."