Mormon Bashing

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

This week The Current in Westfield and The Current in Carmel included a 12-page “advertising supplement” entitled “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide.” In this “guide” provided by Tri-Grace Ministries of Ephraim, Utah, you’ll read all kinds of claims about the Mormon faith written by non-Mormons and by people who claim to be former Mormons.

Twice on the first page this “guide” refers to Mormon teaching as “deception.” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this is not an entirely fair “guide.”  This guide may be sincerely written by people of faith, but it is harmful to our community and particularly to our Mormon friends and neighbors.

“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23

It is entirely lawful for The Current to run this “advertising supplement.” The First Amendment protects and guarantees their free speech and that of the authors of this “advertising supplement.” But this massive “advertising supplement” is not beneficial. It does not build up our community.

It is not beneficial for a newspaper that arrives at every single house in our ZIP Code to distribute such a “guide” that dismisses as “deceptive” the teachings, practices, and faith of the Mormon Church. This “advertising supplement” is a form of public bullying, disparaging the faith and church of many of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Mormonism is a minority religion whose adherents have, for much of their history, been bullied, harassed, persecuted, and chased out of town. That ugly tradition continues with this “advertising supplement.”

Next week will The Current run a 12-page screed against Jews? Roman Catholics? Muslims? Lutherans? Homosexuals?

No matter what theological qualms some may have about the Mormon Church (or the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, or Lutheranism, or whatever), it does not build up our community when a public asset such as The Current distributes divisive and biased literature to every single household in our community. Rather than spread divisive and biased literature, The Current should seek mutual understanding, interpret the words, faith, and actions of our neighbors in the best possible light, and celebrate when members of our community celebrate (such as our Mormon friends are doing this week with the opening of their new Temple).

Martin Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”), says:

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I am attending an Open House at the new Mormon Temple in Carmel next week. I am doing so to learn more about the Mormon faith so that I can “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I am also attending the Open House so that I can stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander they experience all too often.

Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.

For me, living a life of faith is not about projecting my faith into the public square to the detriment of others, or seeking public assets – be they government or business – to enshrine and propagate my faith through their power and reach. Instead, living a life of faith is about coming to the defense of my neighbors, seeking the good of the community – particularly the most vulnerable and “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – living into the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and having the opportunity to worship and live according to the dictates of faith.

I pray for mutual understanding among the faith communities of Westfield and Carmel.
I pray for a renewed commitment by our communities to seek the common good.
I pray for God’s grace to strengthen us, and especially those oppressed by bigotry and prejudice of any kind.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

UPDATE – Saturday, July 11

After three days I have turned off comments on this post, as the conversation in the comment thread was no longer constructive. We all seem to be talking past each other. Thank you for the conversation and for sharing your different points of view on this matter.


Creating Space for Communion Before Baptism

Who is welcome to receive Holy Communion?

Are all invited to receive the sacrament? All baptized Christians? Or, all baptized Christians who believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament? Variations on these three invitations can be found printed in worship bulletins across our church.

Communion in the HandThe longstanding understanding of the church is that communion is for the baptized, a teaching that is upheld in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on The Practice of Word and Sacrament, adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997.

Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

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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.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.


Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.

Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

In an earlier post I shared how we are using the Here We Stand confirmation ministry curriculum to help us teach the Bible to our 7th and 8th graders.  Yet the hour-long, traditional Sunday School class session – informally dubbed "Learning Faith" – is only one of two core program components of our ministry.  The other core program component, "Living Faith," is a Sunday evening gathering with a more hands-on, book-free approach to faith formation.

To be honest, these Living Faith sessions were born not out of a sense that our kids needed to learn something – though there is always more to learn! – but rather out of a sense that our kids needed a chance to come together in a less formal setting to build relationships with each other, with the church, and through these, with God.  An hour on Sunday morning in a traditional learning environment was not condusive to forming relationships and creating community.  Hence, the Living Faith sessions – a fellowship event with a meal and a hands-on learning opportunity – were born.

We have fifteen Living Faith sessions during the year, divided into three units of five consecutive Sunday evening sessions each.  Each unit has a theme and objective:

  • Fall unit theme: Worship Leadership
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders feel competent and valued as worship leaders (readers, assistant ministers, ushers, communion preparers).
  • Winter unit theme: Serving Others
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders embrace service toward others as central to Christian identity and calling; and, that they plan and carry out a service project.
  • Spring unit theme: Spiritual Practices
    Objective: That 7th and 8th graders develop a competency and a comfort level with practices that can nurture their faith and relationship with God.

For this first unit of Worship Leadership, I'm not drawing from any curricular materials but am simply introducing each worship leadership ministry (sometimes by inviting congregational leaders to attend and introduce their ministries), and then giving the kids a chance to practice it.  To help set up a session on serving as lectors, for example, we watched a few minutes of a Dead Poets Society clip in which Mr. Keating speaks passionately about poetry as containing rich words of life, full of meaning for us and for the world.  In last evening's session, two ladies who each week prepare the altar, elements, and vessels for the sacrament of Holy Communion, took the kids into the sacristy and walked them through their Sunday morning tasks.  In the coming weeks, these kids will sign up, two by two, to assist these ladies with the task of preparing communion.

The schedule for these evening programs is as follows:

5:00 – Gathering, and introduction to theme
5:30 – Dinner (and dinner clean-up)
6:00 – Hands-on activity/training/practice
6:45 – Prayer
7:00 – Go home!

A different confirmation ministry family has signed up to provide dinner each evening.  We use for sign-ups and for Living Faith RSVPs, so that the dinner families know how many people they can expect to have to feed.

Our confirmation class has 14 kids on the roster, though past experience tells me that Sunday morning attendance will hover around 8-10.  At our first two evening sessions we've had attendance of 8 and 9.

The real success of this program – if I can speak of success after only two weeks – is that relationships are being created.  Kids are genuinely getting to know each other, and they look forward to spending time with each other.  There is laughter and lively conversation around the dinner tables.  It has been a pure joy.

Congregational Viability and the Future of the Church

I've been a pastor for a whopping 18 months, but have worked in church settings – seminary, congregations, church publishing house – for much of the last ten years.  As I settle into my career and my life as a parent of growing children, I find myself looking ahead.  And as I look ahead, I wonder how different the church will be in 30 or 35 years, when I approach retirement.

I am 35 years old.  Since 1974, when I was born, the percentage of people claiming a strong religious affiliation has declined by several percentage points, from around 39% to about 33%.  Also over that time, those claiming a "not very strong" religious affiliation has declined 10% … the same percentage by which the number of people claiming "no religion" has grown.  The "somewhat strong" crowd has fluctuated, but remains at the high single-digits.  Overall, folks are reporting a lower degree of religious affiliation (data here).

Also, since 1988 when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed, membership and number of congregations have declined, while the number of pastors has actually increased (data here).  Anecdotally, we can all think of congregations that are smaller than they were 35 years ago, with fewer staff, fewer members, fewer ministries.  An ELCA trend report (available here as a PDF) reveals many downward trends, including declines in giving (in dollars adjusted for inflation), membership, average weekly worship attendance, baptisms, and so forth.  The church, as we know it, is in decline.  Even those much-ballyhooed megachurches are showing signs of decline and/or stagnation.

So what's next?  What will the church look like in 30 or 35 years?  If these trends continue – or accelerate, as is altogether possible – the church will be even less of an institution than it is now.  And I use that word "institution" quite intentionally, for I believe that the Word of God and the faith will survive and even thrive, but that the current way many of us Christians gather to nurture that faith – the ways we institutionalize our practice and community as Christians – will necessarily change.  Are our congregations ready for this kind of a change?  Since congregations are experiencing a declining capacity to pay for full-time ministers, are pastors who depend on full-time church employment ready for this kind of change?

I think it would behoove me to read up on my church history, to wrap my head around the varying ways that the Christian community has gathered around Word and Sacrament over the centuries.  I imagine that the way we Lutherans currently organize – with large (and decaying) church buildings, full-time staff, a vast committee structure – is a relatively modern, largely 20th century phenomenon.  Lutherans haven't always "done church" in this way.  Is it time to find a new way to "do church"?  It's a question worth exploring …

Also, I'm continually struck by the things that God does in the world apart from the church.  Just this week I attended a meeting of faith leaders with staff from the county's Department of Human Services to talk about healthy dating relationships and dating violence.  The county has an amazing capacity to impact our kids and is doing good and holy work to promote abundant life and justice for victims of domestic violence.

And then just yesterday my daughter comes home from her first grade classroom with flashcards teaching her basic economics – consumer, producer, opportunity costs, scarcity, needs, wants, income, and so forth.  What she's learning are the essential tools needed to recognize, understand, and work against the forces of poverty and economic injustice in the world, to work on behalf of the "least of these."  And she's learning this stuff at school, in first grade!  Indeed, God is doing good and holy things through our schools …

Recognizing the decline of the church as institution, and seeing God at work in non-church settings, has simultaneously humbled and excited me.  I'm not quite sure why or what it all means, but in these past few weeks my eyes have been opened anew to what God is doing in the church and in the world, and I am seeking faithful ways that I as a leader in Christ's church might together with others faithfully discern the path to which our Lord is calling our church.

Trying to Make Sense of Israel and Gaza and a Lutheran Bishop

Today I had the privilege of attending a briefing at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC for leaders in the faith community regarding Israel's interception of six boats bound for Gaza with humanitarian supplies, an incident that turned deadly on one of the vessels.  A high level officer at the embassy gave a statement for about 10 minutes before opening the floor for discussion among the approximately 25 guests present.

What I heard on today wasn't terribly different or much more informative than what I had learned by reading the Washington Post and listening to reports on National Public Radio, though it was helpful to hear the Israeli position articulated clearly both in a statement and in response to questions and comments sympathetic to different sides of this issue.

In short, Israel is in a state of armed conflict with a Hamas regime in Gaza that seeks Israel's destruction.  Israel's blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken Hamas, particularly its ability to mount attacks on Israel.  Daily over 100 truckloads of humanitarian supplies enter Gaza – food, medicine, etc. – and store shelves are generally well-stocked with daily necessities.

The blockade prohibits the import of all kinds of "dual use" products, such as concrete and other building supplies, that in the hands of civilians would contribute greatly to the economic development of Gaza.  However, such materials could be used by the Hamas regime for the military purposes of constructing bunkers and other military facilities.  I asked the embassy officer if Israel does or would allow the import of such "dual use" products if it had ways to deliver them to international relief or UN agencies working in Gaza, so that the Palestinians living in Gaza could grow their economy and opportunities.  He cited the recent construction of a French hospital as one instance of building materials moving into Gaza, but lamented that Hamas has been known to forcibly seize materials intended for civilian use and put them toward a military purpose.  Thus, Israel is generally reluctant to allow "dual use" materials into Gaza, since it feels it doesn't have an honest broker in the Hamas regime.  Who gets hurt?  The civilians, whose economy continues to spiral downward.

The officer repeated the position of Israel that it will sit at the negotiating table with Hamas as soon as Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and drops its commitment to armed struggle against Israel.  Until that point, Israel considers itself to be in a continued armed conflict with Hamas, and will continue its blockade to weaken the Hamas regime.  He cited the near-daily instances of rockets being fired into Israel as one indication that this conflict is active, that Hamas is not a partner in peace, and that the blockade's cessation is dependent on Hamas ending hostilities.

Yet, it didn't take a meeting with a high level embassy official to understand this point of view.  By reading news reports and editorial page columns, even someone who is very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people (as I am) can clearly see that Hamas is no partner in peace and that Israel has a right to defend itself.  The flotilla was designed less to deliver aid than it was to draw attention to the blockade and force Israel's hand – and that it did.  The loss of life in the interception of the flotilla was horrible, and Israel should rightly re-examine its tactics – not just the military intervention, but all the diplomatic efforts that preceded the interception – to learn if there were ways this loss of life could have been avoided.  For seizing the boats Israel should not be condemned; for its poor execution of the interception, Israel rightly merits some criticism.  Yet we should be clear that the group behind the flotilla has ties to terrorists and was on a political mission to discredit Israel and its legal, if nonetheless economically crippling, blockade.

In response to this crisis, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a statement expressing sadness and regret at the loss of life, and calling for the the lifting of the blockade of Gaza.  The statement is disappointingly one-sided, failing to mention that Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to ongoing violence against Israel, and that the organizers of the flotilla had political motivations and terrorist ties.  The situation in Israel and Gaza is horrible, but the answer doesn't lie in opening Gaza's borders to trade from Iran, Syria, and other enemies of Israel.  Hamas has not demonstrated that it can be trusted.

Which gets us to the question about how all this ends.  Israel says it will talk with Hamas once Hamas gives up its commitment to violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.  But will Hamas ever agree to this?  Regime change within Gaza seems unlikely.  Hamas has such control over civil society in Gaza that there is little chance at this time for political opposition to mount a serious challenge to Hamas' authority.  So unless Hamas has a change of heart – due to internal or external pressure – it seems that this standoff will continue, and the people of Gaza will continue to suffer.

The official denied that Israel has responsibility for the suffering of the people of Gaza – that's up to Hamas, he said.  And to a large extent, he's right.  Hamas could do much more to improve the quality of life of its residents, but Hamas refuses.  Hamas would rather remain committed to an ideology than seek a better life for Gazans.

But on the other hand, the official's argument is insufficient.  The "Pottery Barn Principle," made famous by Colin Powell, states that "if you broke it, you buy it."  For better or worse, Israel as long-time occupier of Gaza and now blockade enforcer owns this situation and has to deal with it, no matter who is in power in Gaza.  Does Israel have alternatives to its current policy?  I'm not sure.  But saying "it's up to the other guys to make the first step" might not be enough.  While Israel waits for the other guys to make the first step, at its doorstep a failing society with lots of young, increasingly angry and poorly educated young men is descending into ever-increasing dysfunction.

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