by Pastor Doug Kings

A week ago last Sunday was a landmark anniversary for me. Forty years earlier on that date, June 4, 1983, I was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament in the Lutheran Church in America.

The event was held inside the holy spaces of the Peoria Civic Center. That year, the Illinois segments of the LCA, ALC and AELC decided to hold their annual conventions simultaneously and in the same location. Business meetings would be separate but various other events, including a festival eucharist, would be held jointly. Hence the need for a larger gathering space than any church could provide.

The LCA’s practice was to ordain ministers whenever possible at their annual synod meetings. So I and a half-dozen other recent seminary graduates were ordained at this over-the-top worship service, with the presiding bishops of all three denominations participating along with a couple thousand other people. Not exactly an intimate affair with my nearest and dearest. Yet it was all quite moving as well as a lot of fun.

Today, the denomination that ordained me doesn’t exist, as it was absorbed a few years later into the ELCA. When I was in seminary there was already talk about the church’s loss of members. The ELCA was formed in the hope that a new merged denomination could stem that decline, but it hasn’t. During my lifetime, American Lutheranism has lost half its membership.

I also recently marked the fortieth anniversary of my seminary graduation. Due to decreased enrollment, last year my alma mater sold its square city block, architecture-award-winning campus, to the neighboring University of Chicago. This coming fall, the school will begin operating out of one floor of a nearby Catholic seminary. I wonder how long it will be before the ELCA puts its Chicago office tower on the market (though demand for such properties is pretty low these days).

Memories of the church’s “good times” make these changes painful to see. The congregation I grew up in always seemed to be bursting at the seams: overflowing Sunday School, SRO holiday worship services, dynamic youth program, and still one of the most beautiful worship spaces (an early ‘60s design) I know. Today that church hangs on by a thread.

Of course, this is the world we live in. I grew up in “the rust belt.” Our family and most others I knew were dependent on the heavy industry Midwestern cities were known for. That seemed to change almost overnight. After he retired, I drove with my dad past the blocks long shuttered plant where he had been an engineer, now abandoned and broken. I worked summers when I was in college and seminary at a steel mill that employed 20,000 people. It was torn down years ago.

Economists, giving them a positive spin, describe such changes as examples of “creative destruction.” Is that what the church is experiencing? I think it probably is, as difficult as that may be to admit.

More than we have recognized, the church and most religions were products of the pre-modern culture of homogenous villages, small towns, and tightknit neighborhoods that the modern world has swept away. Gone too is the pre-modern worldview of a God above the sky, watching over us and manipulating the world as he saw fit. Like the Hubble space telescope before it, the new JWST will also never find such a God.

The end of law-pronouncing kings and emperors, as well as unquestioned domineering father figures, inevitably meant the end of the God inspired by them. That some churches and religions are still demanding an all-male clergy shows how dependent religion remains upon a world that now exists only in our fantasies. And the continuing appeal of abusive religious authority figures shows how difficult it is for humans to find the courage to embrace life as an experience of freedom, independence, creativity, and growth.

Our world can be a scary place. Lashing out in fear and anger, or fleeing to the safety promised by security figures and institutions, are understandable but ultimately self-defeating reactions. As Paul Tillich, one of my theological mentors, said decades ago, the challenge of modern life is to find “the courage to be.” Helping people to find that courage, Tillich believed, was Jesus’ mission. It was why both religious and political authorities needed to get rid of him. Free people are always a threat to those in power.

Empowering people to “be all that they can be”, as John Shelby Spong says, should be the church’s mission today. It is why my only real regret in forty years of ministry was my confirmation teaching. I didn’t enjoy it nor did the kids, and for good reason. (When the ELCA was formed, reportedly one newly elected bishop rejoiced, “I don’t have to teach confirmation anymore!”) Helping young people genuinely know and appreciate their gifts and believe in themselves is more important than learning ancient creeds and catechisms.

There is a reason confirmation came to be known as graduation from church. There is a reason our children and grandchildren abandoned the church in droves. There is a reason the church is in the state is in. The church of my youth, and yours, is not coming back, and that’s okay. As much as we may have liked it, it did not serve the genuine needs of many people.

In these last years of my ministry I’ve come to realize that the most important place to find God is within ourselves. I’ve also come to realize that traditional religion mostly gets in the way of that discovery. I think both of these were at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and is why he had so little interest in religion, let alone starting a new one. It’s why Richard Rohr says that church is one of the best places to hide from God.

But we don’t need to hide. Paul summarized his experience saying, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.” Augustine said God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Meister Eckhart preached,

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

This is our true nature. That experience is knowable for everyone. Helping people to know and experience this reality, and this love, is what the church and all religion are truly about. It may have taken forty years, but I am glad I have come to realize it.

Blessings in your life and ministry.