by Pastor Doug Kings

Last week I learned that my seminary alma mater was moving to a new location. The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) was created in the mid-1960s by the merger of several schools of different Lutheran ethnic heritages—German, Swedish, Danish, and Finish. This had been prompted by the recent formation of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), which also brought such groups together. 

The new campus occupied a city block in Chicago’s southside Hyde Park neighborhood, which was the home of several other theology schools, as well as the University of Chicago. The property’s primary feature was a large, award-winning, modernist, dark glass and steel structure, affectionately dubbed in later years as “Darth Vader High School.” 

Late last spring, the school announced the sale of LSTC’s property to the neighboring University of Chicago. There was no relocation plan then, but now an agreement has been announced to move the school into the top floor of the Catholic Theological Union building, also in Hyde Park. Thus, LSTC will move from the block-sized, multi-story building I knew to one floor of a nearby modest sized building. Such a dramatic development obviously implies a story, one that is probably similar to the story of why CTU had an empty floor to lease. 

The downsizing, merging, and closing of theological schools, across the country and across denominations, is one more chapter in the story of the shrinking of Christianity in the US and elsewhere. It is a story of institutional upheaval, readjustment, and uncertainty. In this case, closing congregations means both a need for fewer pastors but also fewer people interested in becoming pastors. Increasing use of electronic classrooms, especially since the pandemic, also means less need for brick-and-mortar spaces. 

I also just received notice that the search is underway for the 35 members of the new Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church. Authorized by the ELCA’s churchwide assembly last summer, this group will eventually propose an overhaul of the denomination. In promotional materials it’s said that a primary objective of this project is to help the ELCA be more inclusive (a noble goal the ELCA has always had but with little to show for it). In reality everyone knows its real purpose is to transition the ELCA’s administrative structure to something much smaller, less cumbersome, and less expensive. 

In our first book group conversation this week (we’re reading Brian McLaren’s Do I Stay Christian?), we talked about the transformation underway throughout Christianity. We noted both the departure of those who have become dissatisfied with the church and the vast disinterest in the church on the part of most young adults. Yet while the church may have declining appeal, there remains interest in at least some aspects of Christianity and especially in Jesus. 

The term “spiritual, not religious” has come to be used to describe people who are not affiliated with any religious body but nonetheless value the spiritual dimension of life. Some had religious affiliation in the past but no longer; others have never been members of any particular religion. Surveys indicate that SNR, as I call it, is the fastest growing religious segment of the population, and the single largest among young adults. Just recently Gallup reported that for the first time in its history, a majority of Americans surveyed said they were not members of a religious congregation. 

In talking about this, a commonly expressed view was that the church needs to think about itself and its mission in new ways. It was agreed that community was an important part of spiritual life. Yet since the pandemic it’s become obvious that spiritual community can be found in many places outside a traditional congregation, our own Zoom book groups being an example. 

We know that at least some portion of the national 25% drop in worship attendance is the result of people interacting with churches virtually, often with more than one. Bishop Suarez told me there has been some talk about allowing congregations to have virtual members, but that seemed to him an administrative nightmare. 

Which it would be if we are going to try to maintain our longtime structures and organizations. But simply making them smaller, which I’m afraid is what the new commission will try to do, isn’t change. What if instead of asking how we can reshape the church for its reduced circumstances, we asked questions from a different standpoint: the people and world around us. How can we help bring meaning to people’s lives? How can we help relieve people’s suffering? How can we bring people hope? What, in short, would Jesus do? 

Now it is disingenuous to think we can easily insert Jesus into the 21st century. But it does help to remember this: Jesus didn’t start the church or show any interest in doing so. Nor, like the prophets before him, did he show much interest in traditional Judaism. In fact, in the view of Marshall Davis, one of our book group authors last year, Jesus himself was “spiritual, not religious.” 

Jesus’ interest was in people. He put his effort into healing their wounds: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. Jesus wanted people to discover their inherent goodness and to learn to live from that. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says in John. To reimagine its future, the church needs to begin by imaging what that might mean today.

Blessings in your life and ministry.