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Ascension Lutheran Church: Tailgating for Jesus – A Unique Approach to Community, Worship, and Volunteerism

If someone asked you to describe your church, what would you say? You might tell them about the awesome youth ministry. You might describe your worship style. You might talk a bit about your pastor. Or maybe…you wouldn’t know how to describe your church at all. 

But what if I told you that there is a church that describes themselves as a tailgate? You read that right. Ascension Lutheran Church in Pratt, Kansas, is a church plant started six years ago that will say they are “Church as Tailgate.”

When you think of tailgating before your favorite sporting event, what comes to mind?  Great food? Lot’s of friends? Spending time with other like-minded fans to support your hometown team? It’s somewhere you want to be, and more importantly, it’s an event that you want to invite your friends and family to be a part of. 

Now picture a church with that same kind of spirit, the same comradery, the same love of their hometown. That’s what “church as tailgate” is all about. It’s an experiential vision of who the church is. Instead of a long vision statement no one remembers, Ascension is living out their unique vision and mission as a congregation through this memorable and clarifying vision picture—a picture that runs through everything they do.

You see it in the décor. The welcome center is the tailgate of a truck. There are cornhole boards on the floor. The fellowship area has tables and chairs reminiscent of seating you might find at a tailgate.  

You’ll find it in their community engagement. Tailgates, and tailgaters, are mobile. They go where the team goes. So you’ll find Ascension “tailgating” for community events, serving free hot chocolate and cookies at the town’s Christmas festival. You’ll find them “tailgating” and serving lunch for the volunteers who set up for Pratt’s Octoberfest. You’ll find them actually tailgating in conjunction with the High School before the first home game of the season, working with the school to engage the parents with back-to-school information.  

Church as tailgate informs Sunday morning worship. The whole reason you go to a tailgate before the game is to celebrate your team, to be a part of what your team is doing. Before every service, the congregation spends a few moments sharing and celebrating what they see God doing in their lives, in the lives of their friends and family, and in the community.  

It even helped the congregation develop a unique and highly effective volunteer management system. As you can imagine, when you say you’re “church as tailgate,” the sports metaphors come easy and often. So when Ascension was looking to develop and improve their volunteer experience, they went all in.  

Every year, the church holds a recruiting season. It comes right after Easter, during the time when the church historically focuses on how the Holy Spirit works through his people in the Book of Acts. With this in mind, the church uses this season in the church to focus on calling people to use their gifts and talents in the church. The ministry team leaders stand up in front of the congregation and say a few words about what their ministry is all about. Sounds pretty normal right?  

But the people don’t just sign up for a ministry. They have to prepare for the Volunteer Draft. That’s right. A Volunteer Draft. Each recruiting season, every member of the congregation is given one of two forms (think Gifts and Talents Survey).  

If you’re new to the congregation or if you haven’t gotten involved in a ministry yet, you’re given a Draft Declaration form. It asks you what ministry or ministries you might be interested in joining, what talents or skills you would be willing to share with the congregation and community, and your service preferences—such as how much time you are able to give and whether you like to be up front or behind the scenes. It even lets you rank your ministry choices.

But for those who have already been serving in ministry, a different form is handed out.  It’s their Transfer Portal paperwork. Every year, volunteers at Ascension are given the opportunity to change where they are serving, no questions asked. They fill out a sheet that is similar to the Draft Declaration, indicating the same type of information. No more getting stuck as a volunteer until you die. No more awkward conversations for volunteers or leaders when changes need to be made. No more feeling guilty when things come up in life. You just hit the Transfer Portal!

Once the paperwork is collected, the Commissioner (also known as our Volunteer Coordinator) hosts a Draft Party with all of the ministry leaders. The names are put on the big board under the service opportunities and the draft begins. This takes away the pressure on the ministry leadership to be the first to ask someone to serve. It also gives the leaders the opportunity to discuss the needs and possibilities of particular ministries and the church as a whole.  

But all of this—the décor, the worship, the community engagement—flows from this single vision picture of Ascension and how the church operates as a congregation. It’s not a gimmick. It comes directly from the congregation. The vision picture was developed based on the congregation’s lived-out values. The picture is just a shorthand way for everyone to understand who they are, who they are trying to reach, and how they are achieving their mission. And maybe best of all, it’s a simple and memorable way for everyone who attends to talk to their friends, their families, and their neighbors about church. 

“What’s your church like?”  

“It’s like a tailgate.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let me tell you.”

In this case, a picture is truly worth a thousand words.


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