Thursday, September 2, 2010

Winds of Change

The only redeeming aspect of cleaning basements, closets, and junk drawers is the joy of an unexpected discovery.  You know, that baseball card you forgot about, or the picture album you've been searching for, or the box of clothes that are so old that they're now in vogue again.

I had a discovery moment yesterday while relocating a bunch of VHS tapes at church that were occupying precious storage space in our TV cabinet.  Stuck in between the stacks of old worship recordings and the entire volume of Mosaic videos was something called "ELCA: Ten Years Together" - a promotional video made in 1997 celebrating the first 10 years of the denomination.  Naturally, I found an old VCR and popped in the tape.  This is the kind of stuff I live for.

The video featured Dr. Martin Marty, who offered his reflections on where we had been and where we were headed:

(Church) members who are not often articulate, and don’t often give voice to things, really like it when we deal with the basic issues of faith.  These people in the pews lead very demanding and often prosaic lives.  They are not trained, always, to be highly emotional and enthusiastic about these things, but they have experiences – they’re going to die, they’ve known love, they’ve known hate, they’ve known friendship, they’ve known doubt.  Most of all, they have a daily disappointment; but in the midst of that, they have a fresh sense that they are not alone in the universe…that there’s a vow from a God who cares about them…that Jesus is not a story from the past, but a living presence.
I think the defining ideal and goal that reaches me most, is the very thing Bishop (H. George) Anderson says in his book – “Making the most of who we are instead of dreaming for someone else.”
We are not going to be a church of mega-churches; we’re going to have a few mega-churches.  Most of us don’t have the taste for them or aren’t situated where two superhighways meet.  So why is that our ideal?  On the other hand, we aren’t going to live back in 1859 and 1950.  Why make that our ideal?  I think Bishop Anderson, before him Bishop (Herbert) Chilstrom, and a lot of the bishops, a lot of the teachers of the church, a lot of the seminary professors, a lot of the music people, a lot of the lay workers have been saying all along – “we really have a lot of resources to do a lot of things where we are…let’s make the most of them.”
By constantly quoting the Large Catechism of Luther that pictures the church as a little flock, guided by the Holy Spirit, that is called to be faithful, we will achieve a lot more than borrowing secular norms of how to grow big or nostalgic norms of who we once were.

After watching the video, I hopped in Doc Brown's Delorean and returned to 2010, only to find this Phyllis Tickle quote on Tony Jones' blog:

Q: What will mainline denominations need to do to survive and thrive?
PT: If one were going to put one adjective to the Great Emergence, and thereby one adjective to emergence Christianity, one would say “deinstitutionalized.”I’m Episcopalian, and I hear with the same sorrow as my fellow Anglicans that we’re shutting parishes every month now in the United States in the Episcopal Church. That’s alarming.It’s not just that Christianity is changing. It’s the whole culture. Have you looked lately at the number of Rotary Clubs that aren’t anymore or the number of Kiwanis Clubs that aren’t anymore? American Legion? VFWs?Institutionalization is being leveled. One of the characteristics of emergence thinking is there’s a flattening out.

I also read David Householder's sobering thoughts on the state of the ELCA, some of which I agree with (though he makes too many generalizations for my liking and comes across as jaded and condescending in spots).  This was the blurb I found most interesting:

We have over-merged. In the mid-50′s, when Lutheranism was thriving, we had a bunch of medium-sized denominations which were very relational (every pastor could go do every national gathering), and each one had clear branding and vibe. There was loyalty to their seminary and mission fields. Now we have two mega corporations which have no branding and spend all of their time fighting, because we are forcing together constituencies that don’t belong together. Former ELC pietists have no business slugging it out for turf within the ELCA with former ULCA East Coast types.

All three of these leaders (Marty, Tickle, & Householder) are pointing to the kinds of things the LIFT Task Force is wrestling with.  LIFT is asking for people to offer some future scenarios for the future of the ELCA.  This is a big task; one that will require patience and time.  However, this represents, for me, a major shift in the way church leaders are doing future mapping and analysis.  It's a big step towards the necessary kind of deinstitutionalization that Tickle is talking about.  It's time for Lutherans (especially the ones who feel disenfranchised or unheard) to take a few bold steps and consider:

  1. What is God calling us to be and to do in the future?
  2. What changes are necessary in order to accomplish these tasks most faithfully?


  1. I'm not a denominational guy, so some of it I just don't get. But I wonder if there will be a need for all of these various organizations as more and more I see people forming community around their locality instead of their denomination. Honestly, the denom my church is a part of is completely irrelevant to the conversation and ministry! Certainly, there are distinctives between churches. But I just wonder if the need to organize and group together like has been done in the past is really going to be something people want to do.

  2. @erik - God is calling us to be disciples (this isn't new news...:)).... to love, serve, do justice and suffer alongside/with others. This isn't new, but it's our call and that makes it "new/fresh" for us.

    2. changes..... well denominations may have to die. This is where I guess I differ from Adam b/c i like to think at least theology from a luther flavoring really matters. You can dump a lot of lutheran baggage i suppose.. but grace, law/gospel, theology of the cross, priesthood, jesus launches us through baptism/communion, bondage/freedom of will to love... that stuff matters to me and it makes a difference to the students i know when interpreted through their lives and context. I suppose lutheran folk don't have the corner on the market for this stuff - but I'm thrilled to be connected with a slice of that church that (supposedly) holds onto that stuff.

    So the CHANGE i want to see is that our theology meets our action - ie Praxis - our thought/reflection/doctrine is shaped in regular, messy ways by our action/work/service/love. This praxis is informed by our prayer, scripture wrestling, conversation, community and families and will be enlivened by the daily reality that we are risking our egos/time/energy and lives for this wild vision of a gracious God who calls us to dangerous things.

    The ELCA as an experiment may well die. However the stuff above at least is what I'm willing to be about and live FOR .... I hope my part in ELCA is faithful to that.


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