by Pastor Doug Kings
In the latest issue of Living Lutheran, the magazine of the ELCA, the editor announced that at the end of the year it will cease printing of physical copies and go entirely online. This is not an unusual step for publications to take these days, but it is often a last step before ceasing operations altogether.
Production and distribution costs, of course, are the primary challenge. But circulation of the denominational magazine has been falling for years. Readers have been voting with their subscription nonrenewals because, frankly, it’s boring! I hardly look at it. (The most interesting section for pastors I know is the clergy obituaries. I guess we’ll have to go online for that now.) While described as a “difficult decision”, the result is given a positive spin for leading to the magazine becoming “a full online storytelling engine”, whatever that means.
A turning point in the magazine’s life came not long after the ELCA was formed, when the denomination found itself in serious financial trouble. Preliminary revenue projections for the churchwide operations were soon discovered to have been wildly optimistic. This led to a series of budget revisions, administrative reorganizations, and staff layoffs.
Ed Trexler, the editor of The Lutheran (as it was called then, having carried over the name of the LCA’s magazine), believed all this should be frankly reported, but not everyone agreed, especially people in church leadership. Soon there was criticism of the magazine for being “too negative” and the ELCA’s problems got less and less coverage.
Gradually the magazine turned away from news to feel good feature stories as its primary content. The name-change to Living Lutheran cemented that transition. The ELCA has been sailing rocky seas from its inception. All churches have been. But readers of Living Lutheran would have little awareness of this, except for the magazine’s shrinking size, frequency, and now near-disappearance. Somehow it was decided that the ELCA’s magazine’s role was to play denominational cheerleader.
The Lutheran (as the name should have remained) could have been a valuable part of the ELCA’s life. Numerous controversies have roiled the denomination during its life—why pretend otherwise? Controversy always involves energy and people who are passionate about something. That’s a good thing!
Imagine if, rather than putting a smiley face on everything, opposing writers penned point-counterpoint articles on issues confronting the church? Or columnists were intentionally sought who had differing ideas about church life? The church champions prophets but gets squeamish when such voices are heard in its own official forums.
The ELCA was formed as a circle-the-wagons operation by three shrinking American Lutheran churches. Surely, bigger will be better? But, of course, the decline didn’t miss a beat. From the start, the ELCA has suffered from insecurity and uncertainty but that’s true of all mainline churches, and now of denominational Christianity in general.
What does denominational identity mean, centuries after those categories were created? Living Lutheran has been running a series called “I’m a Lutheran.” Each issue someone’s story is told reflecting the importance of their being Lutheran. Yet that specific aspect of the story is rarely significant. In most cases, one could easily imagine them saying “I’m a Methodist”, or Presbyterian or Catholic, or often even a Jew or Muslim. But what does “living Lutheran” mean specifically, besides belonging to a Lutheran church? Meditating daily on Luther’s Small Catechism? (And one recent article was about someone who didn’t belong to a church anymore!)
At some level, churches are aware of all this. A number of denominations, including the ELCA, have been exchanging each other’s clergy for years. Our synod’s mission start in south Florida doesn’t use “Lutheran” in its name. People looking for a new church often switch denominations without hesitation, and we get many non-Lutherans worshiping with us at Gloria Dei.
For most outside the church, the word salad of denominational names is a meaningless jumble. But even the word “Christian” is confusing, since people and churches claiming that label hold diametrically opposed views on countless, often fundamental, issues.
Denominational Christianity is undergoing severe decline. Unfortunately, the discussion in the churches is mostly about how to manage the shrinkage. Too much committed to their institutions, church leaders and members are unable to recognize this time as a call to reconsider everything they are doing. At the time of the merger, it was asked if creating the ELCA was a real step forward or just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I think we know the answer.
The challenge now is to ask again the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the 21st century?” And to understand that this is very different than asking, “What will keep clergy employed, church doors open, and millions of people in the pews?”
How can it be today that “living Christian” would be the fundamental truth and guide in people’s lives, as it was at Christianity’s beginning? To start, we will need to be embarrassingly honest and admit that we don’t know. And that, frankly, the question scares us.
But perhaps now is a time when we can genuinely ask that question because the state of our world is scaring us even more. Jesus was a shock to everyone who knew him, even his followers. God was indeed doing “a new thing” as promised in Isaiah. We should hope that, for the sake of the world, God is doing a new, and perhaps shocking, thing now.
Blessings in your life and ministry.