by Pastor Doug Kings

As I wrote earlier, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly held its triennial gathering from August 8-12, in Columbus, Ohio. One topic which was feared might create some controversy was the proposal, made by several synods, that the ELCA undergo a thorough constitutional reorganization. In fact, a resolution to start such a process passed overwhelmingly with little debate.

The vagueness of the resolution, however, was likely the key to its support. The ELCA Church Council (which is composed of bishops, pastors and laity) was directed “to establish a Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church” which “shall reconsider the statements of purpose for each of the expressions of this church [i.e. churchwide organization, synods, and congregations], the principles of its organizational structure, and all matters pertaining thereunto.” The Commission will present its report and recommendations to the next churchwide assembly in 2025.

The discussion was surprisingly short given the potential impact of the resolution, and all the speakers were in favor of it. Their comments focused on two primary concerns. First, that the ELCA is organizationally handicapped from being more racially and ethnically inclusive, and second, that the ELCA is organizationally handicapped from carrying out its mission effectively in response to changes in our culture.

While I would agree with both of those concerns, I think they skirt the ELCA’s main problem. Ironically, perhaps, it was only the last speaker, a youth representative from Maryland, who touched the church’s sore spot. She believed the ELCA needs to be reorganized because she has watched all her fellow youth members leave her church. “I’m the only one left.”

The problem, in her view, is that they, along with many people like them, do not feel welcome. I think that’s accurate but not in the way most would interpret such a judgment. That is, it’s not that church is hostile to younger people (and you’re welcome to pick whatever upper age bound you’d like for that) but that rather the church is disinterested in them. That is, the church is not interested in knowing who they are individually or as a generational cohort. The church is not interested in knowing what they are interested in.

Through most of its history, the church has acted as if it had something to offer which people ought to inherently want. This “something” was called “salvation,” which was experienced and received primarily through worship, preaching, and the sacraments. People were probably never as interested in the church’s salvation as it thought they were, but beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine, the church was a pillar of society and culture. Without needing to think about it much, nearly everyone was a church member.

About four hundred years ago, however, that began to change. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions all combined to turn traditional society upside down. People had new ideas, new resources, and new freedom to live life as they chose, including whether to participate in the church. Over the years, for a host of reasons, a growing number have chosen to opt out of church. And it won’t be long before that choice is the norm.

In general, though, that young woman is right. If your passion in hunting, you’re likely to feel “unwelcome” at the gardening club meeting because the interest of its members isn’t your interest. You’re not interested in fertilizing or cross-pollinating, so you won’t be back. You’ll go looking for other hunters to be with. And no, it won’t help if you’re asked to be on the finance committee.

One speaker reiterated a theme often heard in church circles. The ELCA needs to be renewed and reorganized to better carry out its “mission.” This is a buzz word popular not only in the church but also in secular nonprofits and businesses. Such popularity is often a warning that language is being used to hide more than reveal.

This is true in the ELCA and in much of the church. We rally around “mission” as a feel-good word without ever being clear just what that mission is. It’s become like that storeroom or garage we avoid going into because we know we need to clean and reorganize it, probably giving or throwing away much of its contents. Better to just not look inside.

The ELCA’s shrinkage has created structural issues but that’s not its primary concern. As you are probably aware (and have perhaps experienced), reorganization can be a popular way for groups to look like they are changing but not actually doing so. Such projects make for great charts and graphs and thick reports. Yet after expending much time, energy and money, somehow the same problems continue. To repeat the image I cited a couple weeks ago, think Titanic and deck chairs. It looks better but it’s still sinking.

A Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church will accomplish little if its members are unwilling to ask if the church needs to make fundamental changes. If it is unwilling to consider whether our mission and ministry are no longer effective. If it is unwilling to genuinely ask why all that young woman’s friends left her church, and perhaps hear answers it doesn’t want to hear.

It’s often noted how in the gospels people come to Jesus with their concerns and problems, not the other way around. In other words, Jesus accepted their agenda rather than try to impose his own. He listened and responded, often showing interest in people the predominate culture, including religion, had dismissed as unimportant or unworthy of attention.

The church could do worse than rediscovering such a practice. Jesus strove to live out the Great Commandment, believing that everyone deserved compassion. Asking what that looks like today may be a place to start a genuine church renewal.

Blessings in your life and ministry.