by Pastor Doug Kings

Earlier this year, the ELCA officially implemented a new design scheme for itself. The ELCA has done these two or three times before in response to its steadily declining revenues. That is not the reason given for this rearrangement, but it will result in another 5% staff reduction.

Information about the change is gradually trickling down and was the topic of a synod presentation at our recent virtual conference meeting (I watched the Zoom recording). Language is all important in such efforts and words often hide as much as they reveal.

First, this reorganization has a name: “Future Church.” Like the names Microsoft or Apple have sometimes given their operating system updates, the phrase is innocuous but tries to communicate, “This is really new!”, which means, of course, that it’s not very new. Hence, this boilerplate introduction from a March Living Lutheran article:

On Feb. 1, the ELCA churchwide organization implemented Future Church, a new working structure focused on motivating the entire church to actively share the way of Jesus with more people so that they might experience community, justice and love. The design emphasizes the belief that members, congregations, synods, the churchwide organization and its partner organizations all have important roles in the church’s mission.

That, after nearly 35 years, these are presented as new ideas is an indication of the trouble the ELCA is having. Similarly with the next statement.

The church’s three expressions (congregations, synods and the churchwide organization) will remain, but the Future Church design is centered on a “One Church” identity that will bring greater collaboration to the mission of sharing the gospel and God’s grace in the world.

In other words, what we’ve been doing isn’t working and, like an out-of-tune engine, the church’s parts aren’t working together. To remedy this, Future Church sets itself the following priorities. To be

  1. A welcoming church that engages new, young and diverse people.
  2. A thriving church rooted in tradition but radically relevant.
  3. A connected, sustainable church that shares a common purpose and direction.

No. 1 is a response to the fact that the ELCA is predominantly white and aging (like other mainline denominations). Various charts were included in the conference presentation to support this, but it’s been obvious for a long time. When the ELCA was formed in 1987, it set itself the goal of achieving ten percent minority membership in ten years, but that number has hardly budged.

Most of us are also aware that churches have little appeal to young people. The presentation highlighted the much-publicized 2021 Gallup survey showing that, for the first time, less than half the US population belongs to a church or other religious community. Religious participation by young adults, especially, has fallen off a cliff.

How #1 is to be achieved is never made clear. We were also told that the ELCA has established the goal of “sharing the story of Jesus and the ELCA by engaging a million new, young and diverse people by the end of this decade.” How this could even be measured is beyond me, but so is what it means. “Sharing” and “engaging” are words that sound good in a presentation but are too vague to give any practical guidance.

This also applies to nearly all the words in priority #2. “Thriving, rooted, tradition, radically, relevant” all obscure more than they communicate. What #2 points to is the conundrum of how a 500-year-old denomination can still be meaningful today. But nothing can be accomplished without clearly elucidating that problem, which this statement doesn’t do. It only engages in handwaving and says that somehow it will happen.

Finally, #3 says Future Church is going to tackle the disconnection in the ELCA (i.e. members don’t know what the churchwide or synodical offices are doing or why) and will do so within the constraints of a shrinking budget (i.e. “sustainable” means “affordable”).

The predecessor Lutheran bodies were already in numerical decline when they merged to form the ELCA. It was hoped the new church would at least arrest that decline, if not reverse it. Neither has occurred and the rate of shrinkage continues as before. As I’ve noted previously, the ELCA’s own planning department projects the denomination will essentially evaporate at midcentury, or in about thirty years.

Denominational Christianity is in crisis and a growing number say it’s likely coming to an end. Few people anymore know what the difference is between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian or a Methodist—including members of those churches! The events that divided up Christianity happened long ago and most of the issues are meaningless today.

While aiming to be “radically relevant,” Future Church doesn’t begin to acknowledge how radical the changes would need to be to revitalize the denomination—or why that should even be the objective at this point.

A word that gets used a lot in explaining Future Church is “activate,” as in activating the church’s members. The term many be unintentionally revealing. Early in my ministry there was a lot of talk about ministry to “inactives,” i.e. congregation members on the fringe who had essentially dropped out. Are we saying that we have become a church of “inactives,” members disconnected and drifting away?

There are hints that Future Church is trying to point the ELCA in a genuinely new direction. Another word that gets used a lot is Jesus, which—frankly—is not a word that easily falls from our members’ lips. We’re told that the reorganization’s purpose is to “activate each of us so more people know the way of Jesus.” This isn’t the Jesus who died for my sins but the Jesus who calls me to take up my cross and follow him. This is the Jesus who centuries of mystics say sets us on a path of spiritual transformation: dying to our old, false self and discovering our true self-in-God.

Future Church, however, gives “the way of Jesus” little meaningful content. Nor does it explain how “activating” church members is supposed to happen. Doing so, however, would likely result in a very different denomination. This restructuring puts the ELCA’s toe in the water of a genuinely new, revitalized church. It’s not enough; this ship is sinking. What we need to do is jump in and swim.

Blessings in your life and ministry.