Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.

The Charter of the ELCA Ecology Task Force

A web presence for the ELCA’s new Ecology task force is is coming soon, but here are the notes (copied from a .pdf document linked here) outlining the purpose and scope of the ELCA’s new task force.

Awkward formatting due to copying and pasting from a .pdf document.  To read the .pdf, click above link, and then select Report of Particular Actions of the Church Council from their November meeting.


At its March 2009 meeting, the Executive Committee
recommended the following action, which was approved
by the Church Council [CC09.03.04]:
To acknowledge that the principles
of organization of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America call us to
be one church consisting of
“interdependent partners sharing
responsibly in God’s mission” in which
this church is called to be in
relationship with institutions and
agencies, including seminaries,
colleges, and universities, as well as
other partners, so that together we can
build capacity for evangelical witness
and service in the world;
To recognize that more than 20
years have passed since the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America came into
existence, that the relationships among
this church and partner institutions and
agencies have evolved substantially,
and that assumptions that undergirded
the original organization, governance,
and interrelationships of this church
may no longer apply or apply in a
different way in the 21st century;
To recognize further that
significant societal and economic
changes have taken place that raise
profound issues regarding the
organization and governance of this
church, its interrelationships with
partner institutions and agencies, and
the ways in which ministry can be
accomplished most effectively;
To acknowledge the desire by this
Church Council to address these
difficult and complex issues by
beginning a process to evaluate the
organization and governance of this
church and the interrelationships
among its expressions and partner
agencies and institutions for the
purpose of bringing a comprehensive
report and recommendations to the
2011 Churchwide Assembly;
To authorize the Presiding Bishop,
in collaboration with the Executive
Committee of the Church Council and
the Conference of Bishops, to appoint
a study group for the purpose of
formulating a plan to undertake such an
evaluation; and
To request that the study group
bring a report and possible
recommendations through the
Executive Committee in consultation
with the Planning and Evaluation
Committee for the April 2010 meeting
of the ELCA Church Council and such
report include the membership of a task
force to conduct the evaluation, an
outline of potential topics to address, a
timetable, budget implications, and
such other issues as the study group
believes will facilitate the evaluation.
Church Council Action:
To approve the charter for the Ecology Study
Design Group [as printed below]:
Living into the Future Together:
Renewing the Ecology1 of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America2 (ELCA)
October 28, 2009


The purpose of the ELCA Ecology Study Task Force
study is to recognize the evolving societal and economic
changes of the twenty years since the formation of this
church, and to evaluate the organization, governance, and
interrelationships among this church’s expressions in the
light of those changes. The intended result of the Ecology
Study Task Force’s work is a report and recommendations
that will position this church for the future and explore
new possibilities for participating in God’s mission.


At its March 2009 meeting, the ELCA Church
Council authorized Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson in
collaboration with the Executive Committee of the Church
Council and the Conference of Bishops to appoint a study
design group. The task of the study design group was to
design a charter for a task force “ … to evaluate the
organization and governance of this church and the
interrelationships among its expressions and partner
agencies and institutions for the purpose of bringing a
comprehensive report and recommendations to the 2011
Churchwide Assembly.”3 The report of the task force first
will be received by the ELCA Church Council.
The study design group was formed and met on June
15-16, 2009. The group met via a conference call on
August 4 and then in a face-to-face meeting on September
15-16, 2009. In fulfillment of the ELCA Church
Council’s assignment, the study design group submits the
charter below. The charter contains the context, scope,
membership, budget, timeline, and process for the work of
the proposed ELCA Ecology Study Task Force.


“The Church is a people created by God in Christ,
empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear
witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying

activity in the world.”4 In light of the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America’s calling to participate in
God’s mission, this church is engaging in an evaluation
and reimagining of its ecology and related ecosystems.
The Church, the body of Christ, is a living entity that
must be mindful of and attentive to its relationships and to
its contexts. The ELCA, part of the body of Christ,
celebrates that an important part of the ELCA identity is
its relationship with its partners in ministry. While each
partner occupies an ecosystem of its own, the three
expressions of this church (congregations, synods, and the
churchwide organization), along with its agencies and
institutions, live together as they seek to participate in
carrying out God’s mission in the world.
In the 20 years since the ELCA was created, the
environment has changed dramatically in ways not
imagined when the ELCA was formed. There has been an
explosion of knowledge. New developments in
technology, particularly related to electronic
communication, have altered the way people understand
and relate to one another. Globalization and mobility have
produced new levels of religious, ethnic, racial, and
cultural diversity within American society.
Many churches in the United States have struggled to
negotiate these changes positively. The trends in
membership and giving within the ELCA—back to its
predecessor bodies—reflect the challenge of envisioning
these changes as rich opportunities.
• In 2008, the baptized membership of the ELCA was
4.7 million while the population of the United States
was 304 million. In 1970, the baptized membership
of the ELCA was 5.7 million while the population of
the United States was 203 million.
• The number of those attending worship in a typical
ELCA congregation has declined from about 148 in
1990 to about 128 in 2008.
• The ELCA has been unable to achieve the goal it set
for itself in 1988 of a 10 percent baptized
membership of persons of color or language other
than English. While these groups represent 32
percent of the population in the United States, they
comprise only three percent of the baptized
membership of the ELCA.
• The membership of the ELCA is considerably older
than the population of the United States. The average
age of a baptized member of the ELCA is about 56.
This compares to an age of about 40 for the general
• In 2008, undesignated and designated giving to
ELCA congregations declined for the first time since
he beginning of the ELCA. When adjusted for
inflation, undesignated and designated giving to
congregations in the ELCA has risen only slightly
since the beginning of the ELCA.
• Congregations consistently have lowered the amount
they share with their synods and the churchwide
organization as a percent of undesignated and
designated giving. In 1990, congregations remitted
about 10 percent of their undesignated and
designated giving to their synod and the churchwide
organization. In 2008, congregations sent about six
• Mission support passed on from synods to the
churchwide organization has remained at about $65
million since the beginning of the ELCA. Adjusting
for inflation, the churchwide organization is
operating with half the financial resources available
in 1990.
• The American economy, which is now clearly global
in its scope, has most recently slipped into a
recession that has impacted the financial capacities of
the various expressions of this church and its
• The structure and governance practices of the ELCA
(i.e., the Churchwide Assembly, the Church Council,
the Conference of Bishops, Synod Councils, the
churchwide organization) have not been evaluated as
a whole in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and
At the same time, in this changing, exciting, and
sometimes overwhelming environment, God has
continued to bless this church with abundant gifts. The
ELCA has a long history of service through its
congregations, synods, the churchwide organization,
seminaries, campus ministries, outdoor ministries,
colleges and universities, social ministry organizations,
global companions, and other partners. Because of the
faithful commitment of the members of this church, the
ELCA continues to accomplish its purposes to proclaim
God’s saving Gospel, to carry out Christ’s Great
Commission, to serve in response to God’s love to meet
human needs, to worship God, to nurture members in the
Word of God, and to manifest unity.5
The ELCA gathers together 4.7 million baptized
members in over 10,000 congregations. In 2008, 1.3
million people attended worship each week, 62,000
children were baptized, and $1.9 billion was given by its
members to support the mission and ministry of the
ELCA. This mission and ministry grow out of a
theological heritage that believes the Good News of Jesus
Christ speaks to all people and all places. Its confessional

documents recognize that unity is in the teaching of the
Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.6
Over the decades, this ecology has been shaped by
the Lutheran capacity for broad theological reflection,
dialog, and conversation. Opportunities abound for
participating in God’s mission in creative new ways. As
we live into the future together, how can this church in its
various expressions participate most effectively in
carrying out God’s mission in the world?


Recognizing these significant environmental changes,
the ELCA Ecology Study Task Force will be led by these
overarching questions:
What is God calling this church to be and to do in the
What changes are in order to help us respond most
Specific questions to be addressed are:
1. What unique gifts does our theological, confessional,
and liturgical identity bring to this environment and
to this time of change?
2. How is God surprising and leading us in the midst of
change and uncertainty to new and distinctive
3. What are the key changes, internal and external, that
have most impacted the relationships and
interdependence within and among the
congregations, synods, the churchwide organization,
and related organizations, agencies, entities, and
partners including, but not limited to, seminaries,
campus ministries, outdoor ministries, colleges and
universities, social ministry organizations,
ecumenical partners, global companions, and others?
4. Given the importance of congregations in the ELCA,
how has the changing environment impacted their
mission and relationships? How might this church
through its congregations, in partnership with synods
and the churchwide organization, engage in ministry
with evangelical missional imagination for the sake
of the world?
5. How can the ELCA’s relationships with its full
communion and global mission partners strengthen
and extend this church’s mission and ministries?
How can we learn from and partner with ministries
and organizations accomplishing God’s work beyond
this church?
6. How can this church most effectively and efficiently
steward and deploy the funds available for its
mission? What are the current patterns and what are
their implications for future funding patterns?
7. How can the governing documents in the
Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions
provide structures and governance mechanisms that
strengthen identity and faithfully and effectively
facilitate mission and ministry?
The twelve to fifteen members of the ELCA Ecology
Study Task Force will reflect a variety of perspectives and
backgrounds representative of the expressions of this
church. The study will engage additional resource people
throughout the process.
The estimated expense for the ELCA Ecology Study
Task Force’s work for 2009–2011 is $170,000. This
includes expenses for staff support, travel, task force
meetings, and limited research and consultation services.
2009: $35,000
2010: $90,000
2011: $45,000
The ELCA Ecology Study Task Force will report
regularly to the Conference of Bishops and Church
Council for the purpose of preparing a report and
recommendations for action at the August 2011
Churchwide Assembly.


The methodology with which the study proceeds will
be critical and will be the first order of business. The
ELCA Ecology Study Task Force will carry out its work
with transparency and regular communication with the
various constituencies of the ELCA. It will seek wisdom
from existing research and input from the expressions of
this church and its institutions, agencies, and partners.


1 Ecology is the science of the relationship and
interdependence between living beings and their
environments. It is also a study of the relationship
between parts and the whole, in this case among the
ELCA’s various constituencies.
2 In the remainder of the charter, the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America normally will
be referred to as “this church.”
3 CC09.03.04, ELCA Church Council Meeting,
March 27-30, 2009.
4 ELCA Constitution 4.01.
5 ELCA Constitution 4.02
6 The Book of Concord, The Augsburg Confession, Article VII