ELCA logo oursaviordaytonorgOn August 17, 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) opened its week-long 11th Annual Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Lutherans in North America will remember the controversy surrounding it for many years to come.

I lived in an area with a lot of Lutherans of Norwegian, Swedish and German heritage. They were serious people.  Their recreation was sport.  Strong drink was abhorred;  ice cream or homemade pie took its place.  Families dined together.  Rules were there to be adhered to, not broken.  Sex was not discussed.  Nor was atheism.  When you were with Lutherans, there were certain things you just did not do or say. 

At that time, the ELCA didn’t exist.  My friends attended congregations that were part of either the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). 

In 1988, the ELCA came into being.  It represented the merger of the LCA, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.  You can read more about their history and that of the LCMS here.    

The LCMS remained true to its conservative confessional roots of the inerrancy of the Bible.  The ELCA is more open and free-thinking and appeals to those who like a flexible theological outlook.  It makes clear that its constitution is a living document which ‘can change and grow’.  The ELCA has 10,500 congregations throughout North America and the Caribbean.

You can get a taste of the ELCA through excerpts of the opening addressMark S Hanson elcaorg 090722_myle1_thm of the Presiding Bishop Mark S Hanson (emphasis mine):    

‘As I think about … the future of the ELCA, I want to reframe my question a bit. Rather than focusing only on “what will be our witness this week,” I invite you to think ahead eight years and ask the question this way: “Looking back from 2017, what do we want our witness to have been?” Why 2017? Some of you already will have guessed: in 2017 Lutherans all over the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. 

‘I pray that … by 2017 we will have become more fluent in the first language of faith, the language of Scripture. Oh, friends, never doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to work through one congregation to move an entire church body.

‘Looking back from 2017 let our witness also be that “God’s work, our hands” became much more than our ELCA tag line, for it became a powerful and memorable way for us to communicate not only who we are, but whose we are. “God’s work, our hands.”

‘Last year, I received a gift in Tanzania. It is a hand-carved cross that poignantly captures our witness to God’s work, our hands.  The dove of the Holy Spirit is in the center and is surrounded by hands. It reminds me of three things about our witness: the center of our witness is the cross of Christ; the scope of our witness is the whole world; and the source of our witness is the Holy Spirit. That is why our ELCA tag line, “God’s work, our hands,” belongs with our ELCA emblem: a cross centered within in four quadrants of the globe.

‘Looking back from 2017, let our witness be that every one of the 10,464 ELCA congregations has grown as a center for evangelical mission. That is not a wish. It is a commitment. It is one of the two priorities of the churchwide organization emerging out of the Plan for Mission.

‘Let me be clear. The call for a commitment that every ELCA congregation be a growing center for evangelical mission is not about the survival of a denomination. Rather it is about the Holy Spirit being poured out, bringing renewal in and through us. It is about being who we claim to be: evangelical Lutherans.

‘I must confess to a bit of confusion, if not impatience. There have been warnings that, on the basis of our decisions this week, we could become another denomination declining in membership. Here is your morning wake up call from the presiding bishop: we already are, and we have been for years! The ELCA has had a drop of 465,990 baptized members since I became presiding bishop in 2001. That is a fact for which we must all assume responsibility.

‘May our witness be that we are not all anxiously holding our collective breath over human sexuality. Let our witness be that we breathing in deeply God’s Spirit poured out upon each one of us. We are faithfully and generously using God’s abundant gifts for the sake of the gospel and the life of the world.

‘Looking back from 2017, let our witness be that we have trained 1000 evangelists following the model of many of our global companion churches. One thousand evangelists linked to congregations and sent into communities, listening to neighbors in laundromats, coffee shops, parks, malls, and at their doors and sharing the story of Jesus, inviting people to prayer and Scripture study, and exploring the possibilities for planting a new congregation or ministry related to an established congregation.

Mark S Hanson bathtub elcaorg 090722_open1_thm‘Looking back from 2017, let our witness be clear that in 2009 members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said, “Enough. Enough. Enough of being a 97 percent white church in an increasingly and richly diverse context.” Let us resolve not to pass ethnic ministry strategies at churchwide assemblies and then go home to ministry as usual. Let those of us who are white begin to die to what gives us comfort, power, and privilege so that we might rise to become a Pentecost church.

‘By 2017 let our witness be that each synod has new and renewed ministries that are the results of our ethnic ministry strategies and our commitment to ministry among persons living in poverty. Let our witness be that every synod has a Latino lay formation project on the model already begun by Latino lay leaders, clergy, and scholars.

‘Yes, looking back from 2017 may our witness be that, in the midst of continued economic volatility and uncertainty, ELCA members advocated for public policies, business practices, and personal financial decisions that would first reduce poverty in local communities and throughout the world. Let us as ELCA members model this commitment by our personal stewardship of at least a tithe and also growing in our support of the ELCA World Hunger Appeal.

‘Looking back from 2017 may our witness be that in 2009, members of the ELCA— the vast majority of whom are descendants of a once immigrant people—gave leadership to welcome new migrants into their communities and congregations and were instrumental in the U.S. Congress adopting and President Obama signing fair and just immigration reform.

‘May this be our witness: that ELCA Lutherans—people of the prairies and cities and of mountains and rivers—continue to exercise leadership in the care of God’s creation. No small achievement was the completely green churchwide assembly in 2013, a feat that began in earnest in 2009.

‘May this be our witness: that the development of the social statement on justice for women will be as lively and participatory as the social statement on human sexuality. Let us continue to confront the scandalous reality of sexism in this church and society that too often is manifested in patriarchal power and the marginalization of women and girls.

This is the sort of clergyman who gets on my nerves.  Why?  Because he:

  • denies that the sentiments expressed here might have something to do with the ELCA’s drop of nearly half a million members — no, it’s everyone else’s fault 
  • hates his heritage and wants everyone else to follow suit
  • loves lefty causes
  • focuses on world hunger instead of the unemployment mess in his own country which has led to tent cities — mmm, maybe it’s the wrong demographic
  • wants people to ‘at least’ tithe in these difficult economic times then fritters the money away on things with no relevance to ELCA congregations
  • is a card-carrying member of the Church of Gaia
  • is moaning about nearly non-existent patriarchal power in Christianity but refuses to tackle that problem in other faith groups 

This sets the stage for my next post.

Tomorrow: What happened next at the ELCA Assembly