Our Church’s Life, Death, and Resurrection

As I prepare to attend next week's synod assembly, I find myself thinking about the church and how it is organized for its God-given mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

The church has been around for nearly 2000 years. The church has taken on a variety of forms and said a variety of prayers, engaged in a variety of efforts for war and for peace, and has adapted itself to a variety of cultures. This should give us great comfort and great hope.

In 20th century North America, the church became an increasingly professional institution. Accredited seminaries provided professional three year degrees to candidates for the ministry. Congregations lining major corridors along rapidly sprawling suburbs built vast education wings complete with school bells and libraries, miniature religious versions of the public schools being built across the country at the time. These growing congregations welcomed the post-war generation with religious education for all ages, Luther Leagues for the youth, women's and men's groups, fellowship opportunities and dignified worship services. Their bells rang throughout the community, and a growing number of citizens heeded their call.

Congregations hired paid staff, not only paid clergy but also professional office, maintenance, and education staff as well. As there were buildings and funds and personnel to manage, structures of congregational governance took on a more significant role. Roberts Rules of Order became one of three books named in the constitutions of Lutheran congregations, alongside the Bible and Book of Concord. Managing the institutional and programmatic affairs of the congregation became a massive undertaking.

Denominations organized their ministries with national structures governing domestic and foreign missions, with boards and regional presidents and untold vast numbers of committees and commissions. Such institutional growth mirrored efforts to organize civil society with national labor unions and service organizations, and global society with the United Nations. Denominational organizations for women's ministry and youth ministry also flourished, with national boards, regional boards, and congregational boards overseeing and organizing their ongoing work and annual or biannual national conventions.

Denominational leaders were featured on the cover of Time magazine, and congregations were a cornerstone of neighborhood life. Clergy gave the invocation at town council meetings, and school systems deferred to the churches for scheduling of extracurricular activities. Prayer kicked off public school football games and high school graduations. 

This is not how the church had always been structured in its 2000 year history. As I wrote above, over its long history the church has taken on a variety of forms and has adapted to a variety of cultures. This description, above, is simply how the mainline church was structured in many parts of mid-20th century North America. The church looked somewhat different a hundred years prior, and it will look different a hundred years hence. 

We cannot keep trying to maintain a mid-20th century model of church in the rapidly-changing 21st century. The early-mid 20th century cultural factors that supported the massive institutionalization of the church are simply not part of our culture and society today. A new model of church has to be formed. 

The Good News is that God's Word will thrive, and the Holy Spirit will continue to gather the gather the church when and where it pleases, just as it has for 2000 years. Let us give thanks for what the church did in the last century, for the ways that God worked through the church and its institutions. And let us look forward in faith to how the Spirit will move through the church, empowering it to carry out a mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament in this next century. 

I think that as people of faith who also love our church, our challenge is to believe the Easter message that out of death comes life, and that everything – even the church we love – dies and rises to new life with Christ.

And more, I think that many of us in the church find ourselves in a Holy Saturday posture of not being sure of whether resurrection will really happen. Or, perhaps we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday posture, bewildered and not sure of what to make of the resurrection that's staring us in the face.

More thoughts to come. Later. 

Examining the “Ecology” (and Ecclesiology?) of the ELCA

My blogging friend Erik (koinonia, @erikullestad) recently wrote a post about a new ELCA task force of which he is a member:  “Living Into the Future Together (LIFT): Renewing The Ecology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”.  From a November 19, 2009 ELCA press release we learn that

"the task force will examine the relationships among and the key changes that have affected ELCA synods, congregations, the churchwide organization, agencies and institutions, colleges and seminaries, diversity, mission support and stewardship, governance of the ELCA, and external factors such as the effects of globalization and technology on the ELCA."

Their work will be guided by two questions:

  1. What is God calling this church to be and to do in the future?
  2. What changes are in order to accomplish these tasks more faithfully?

Wow.  Am I the only one who sees this as an amazingly tall order with huge ecclessiological implications?  It can be tempting to say that this task force is looking largely at "management" or "administrative" issues – how churchwide ministries are organized and how they relate to one another. 

But unless I'm reading too much into the words of the press release, it seems that task force is asking questions that go beyond a simple denominational "reorganization" effort.  The task force will examine, among other things, the relationship between synods and congregations, and issues of governance within the ELCA – matters that are filled with essential questions about our ecclesiology.  Furthermore, their first guiding question – what is God calling this church to be? – is fundamentally about what it means to be church in the ELCA … a question that has never been settled in our denomination's 20 years.

Speaking of ecclesiology, four years ago I read Tim Wengert and Gordon Lathrop's wonderful book, Christian Assembly (and commented positively on it here and here).  Perhaps I should pick it up again as I follow this task force in their important and ambitious work.

Erik promises that the task force will have a web presence in the coming weeks.  I certainly hope so, for I intend to follow their work enthusiastically.  They are asking critical questions – I'm anxious to see their responses.

UPDATED (Jan 11, 10am):

A brief article in the May 2009 issue of The Lutheran referred to this task force's work as a "structure review."  As I said above, this task force seems to be reviewing more than just structure.  By asking what it means to be church, they seem to be reevaluating our denominational identity.

A .pdf document summarizing the October 2009 Conference of Bishops had this to say about the task force:

The scope of this study is to ask what our theological, confessional, and liturgical identity brings today’s world; where is God leading us in the midst of change to new mission opportunities; what key changes are needed across ELCA partnerships to make this step forward; will the governing documents need to be changed to reflect this new future?

It will be interesting to see how the task force understands the ELCA's "theological, confessional and liturgical identity" as it as it seeks to bring that identity to bear on our church's witness in the world and our internal governance.

Finally, I found the notes from the November 2009 ELCA Church Council, where the task force was created.  I've republished the notes, which give background, scope, funding, and other details about the task force, here