I was reading a post on another Lutheran pastor's blog where I saw a comment that questioned the quality of Augsburg Fortress' work over the past few years, and pined for the last generation of worship materials (LBW and WOV). This, along with a few other comments critical of the new Lutheran Study Bible, got me all riled up (you'll see plenty of my comments over on his blog), because I've heard this kind of stuff before.
Over the years I've had unique opportunities to meet with hundreds of Lutheran lay and ordained leaders, first as the Director of Alumni Relations for our seminary in Philadelphia, and then later as a sales representative for Augsburg Fortress. I heard joys and praise for the organizations for which I worked, and also concerns and critiques. When these church leaders offered their critiques, I often heard a common strain in their chorus:
- when the speaker was a child or young adult leader/pastor in the church; or,
- the era when their mentor/teacher was a child or young adult in the church, or when that mentor/teacher was a top leader in the church; or other eras, including,
- the Reformation; or,
- pre-Reformation; or,
- the early church]"
and related . . .
"Our [bishops, theologians, churchwide staff, publishing house] aren't as good as they were in my time, and we're declining as a church for it. If only we had the likes of [insert name of "great" church leader, theologian, or publication from bygone era] we'd be much better off."
While I sympathize with their concern about the church, and am genuinely sad that they feel the church is not what it was or could be, I respectfully think their analysis of what is going on in the church is wrong.
Related to the first point: we cannot reprisinate an era that no longer exists – not the early church, not the Reformation, not the 1950s or early 1980s.
Secondly, the claim that in a past generation the church was more faithful fails, upon further examination, to hold water. Such a claim is often a cry of lament that a particular person, group, or theology no longer holds a prominent place . . . it is a cry that "we" are no longer "in charge" (whoever "we" are – adherents to a particular theological perspective, a once-priviledged class of individuals [white men, for example, who nonetheless are still quite priviledged!], or a small cadre of now-retired professors and their students, for example).
Furthermore, such claims of past faithfulness vs. a supposed current faithlessness tend to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Past generations had their strengths, for sure, but they also had their weaknesses . . . just like our generation. While I gladly mine past generations for thier strengths, we cannot paint these generations as broadly more faithful than ours when these were generations in which women had their place (in the kitchen), people of color had their place (as the object of our colonial missions), and theology failed to speak to the reality of poverty and struggle shared by the majority of the world's citizens. You call that faithful to the Lord who speaks Good News to the poor and uplifts the lowly and fills the hungry with good things?
But more importantly . . . I'm intrigued by the suggestion in the second claim that church "higher ups" have some amazing power to corrupt the church and lead it into a supposedly diminished stature. As I stated on Eric's blog,
“higher ups” of church authority, as if they’re to blame for all our
church’s problems. P’shaw. Despite one’s feelings about mergers,
bishops, churchwide headquarters’ moves, or the publishing house, we’re
a church with a polity that is functionally congregational. “Higher
ups” have no power to get butts in pews or ears within ear-shot of the
Gospel. Our church’s real (and supposed) decline (in numbers, stature,
etc.) is not a function of willy-nilly bureaucrats but of local leaders
(lay and ordained) neglecting their call.
So yes, offer critiques of Augsburg Fortress and churchwide offerings,
but . . . but I certainly hope that pastors and lay leaders will look
in the mirror when lamenting the state of the church today . . .
because no cubicle-dwelling editor in Minneapolis or program assistant
in Chicago has ever had the power to dramatically impact the viability
of local parish ministries.
Strong critiques of churchwide structures and accusations blaming these structures for the supposed downfall of the ELCA often come, paradoxically, from folks with very pietistic, congregational perspectives. That is, these are people who generally see the church as beginning with the individual believer, the home and/or the local congregation . . . but when it comes to explaining the so-called downfall of the church, they blame not the individual believer, the home, and/or the local congregation, but the churchwide structures. Huh?
Congregations which struggle with issues regarding size, ministry, mission, faithfulness, "relevance," and other concerns would do well to be concerned less with what churchwide agencies are doing or not doing, and more with what they are doing or not doing locally. The tasks of ministry are given to all the baptized and in local contexts, after all, not just outsourced to that small number of people with offices and cubicles at churchwide organizations . . . But if they do look to churchwide organizations with an open mind, more often than not they'll find a willing and supportive partner in ministry. That's been my experience, anyway.