Reclaiming the "C" word

Here at the Bishop's Convocation in the Southeastern PA Synod, ELCA, we've been treated to some great presentations, including two from Kelly Fryer or Luther Seminary. Kelly is the author of "Reclaiming the L Word" about getting to the core of our Lutheran heritage. Here she spoke about "Reclaiming the "C" Word: Daring to Be Church Again."

Kelly started by observing that Lutherans have "an anemic ecclesiology; a weak sense of what it means to be the church."

She noted that the ELCA -- like many denominations -- fashioned the 1990s as a "Decade of Evangelism." During that time in the ELCA there were hundreds of evangelism trainings, print resources, videos, grant programs. And at the end? The number of baptized members went down. There were fewer congregations. Members reported that they were less willing to share their faith than before. And, the congregations that did try new things grew -- and then declined faster than those that hadn't tried.

The ELCA took a look at the exercise and found that vital congregations have two key factors in common: a clear sense of purpose and vision, and an openness to innovation and change. Other factors -- facilities, contemporary worship, dynamic preaching, growing community -- all mattered only secondarily.

"A church will grow only if the people in it have such a clear sense of who they are and who they are meant to be that they will do whatever it takes to be that," she said. "In a vital congregation, the only non-negotiable is the vision. People know that God is on a mission to love and bless and save the whole world, and they are part of it."

In fact, she said, in a vital congregation, "People are going to expect things to change." As an example, she offered the church of Acts. She shared Justo Gonzalez's insight that Acts is about the work of the Spirit, not those of the apostles. Remember, the Spirit shows up at least 60 times in the first 20 chapters of Acts, well, acting: to empower and include people. To possess and compel them. To change people and make them new. To share God's story in their own langauge and to undermine ecclesiological and political powers...

Yet in Lutheran ecclesiology we acknowlege the Spirit "up there," and act in the Spirit's name in church, but we try to keep the experience of the Holy Spirit buried, Kelly said.

Throughout Acts the Spirit leads the church out of its comfort zone and into the company of strangers. There are new faces ... Peter finds Cornelius, Philip finds an Ethiopian eunuch. There are new leaders ... the church at Phillipi is born in Lydia's living room. There are new understandings.

Although Lutherans bristle at change, she says that real "change is possible -- but it's really hard." Kelly outlined five hurdles Lutherans have to get over to follow the Spirit out of our comfort zone and into the company of strangers:
  1. Experience -- Many Lutherans have had bad experiences of others "sharing" the faith with them. We need to acknowledge them and tell our own stories, and listen carefully to Jesus' command to love our neighbors. She quoted colleague Pat Kiefert: One day Lutherans are going to have to answer for the way we have not loved our neighbors.
  2. Ethnicity/"family" -- "Being a Lutheran is a family affair." 40% of ELCA members have been in the same congregation more than 20 years, 63% more than 10 years. 3 in 4 ELCA members have been Lutheran their entire lives. It can be very difficult for strangers to fit in. If our core is not being German or Swedish or using the green book but about God always coming down, our theological core, we can be freed up to interact with strangers from a position of comfort. ELCA churches need to celebrate their history, in the sense that every one was a congregation planted by immigrants. We need to take the same risks they were willing to take to spread the Gospel in a new land.
  3. "Everything goes" -- We need to resist the postmodern temptation to say all ideas, experiences and faith are OK and practice bold humility in the style of Lesslie Newbigin: Boldly proclaim that in Jesus God has changed our lives and can change our world; yet humbly admit that we don't have all the answers. "As theologians of the cross, we know that God is full of surprises," she said.
  4. "Empty doctrine" -- We have a core central doctrine -- "God comes down" -- we are justified by faith and trust in God, not by what we do. Luther poured his life into making sure everyone else on the planet knew this. 500 years later, Kelly said, we have his words, but without the model of his life we are left with "We don't have to do anything." We need to reconnect this great gift of salvation to the call to discipleship. We need to be free to give ourselves away, to be salt and light to the world.
  5. Ecclesiology -- Lutherans use shorthand from Article VII of the Augsburg Confession to describe ministry of word and sacrament. Kelly argues that we need to expand that to word, sacrament and community. The article begins by defining the church as the assembly of saints, and "an assembly is intended to be a party." She offered this definition of church for the age of the mission field: "The church is people of God created by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed." And that means doing church differently.
The church of Acts was out in the world, and when the met it was to prepare them to go "out there." Kelly noted that "The question isn't are we going to be the church in the world? The question is what kind of church are we going to be?

To "get out there" she offered five strategic behaviors of the church in Acts:
  1. Pray always. Help people listen to God's voice in scripture rather than telling them what the bible says.
  2. Set people free. Jesus told the disciples to be witnesses, then left them to figure out the details. Church leaders need to learn to jet ski -- when you start getting wobbly, go faster. When congregations are in trouble and feel scared, they want to put the brakes on and make up all kinds of rules. Instead, move forward.
  3. Take action. "It's not called the book of thoughts." Ask what needs to stop and what is getting in the way of people taking action. If people need more than 5 sec to explain what they need to start a new ministry, there is too much bureaucracy.
  4. Expect surprises. God promises to give us whatever we need when he calls us. "If Martin Luther would show up and see what we have done in the name of Good Order, he would have a 96th thesis."
  5. Be hopeful. "Our God brings light out of darkness and life out of death. If we fail, what is the worst that would happen."
Lutherans have a reputation in some places for being nay-sayers. She challenged us to become congregations of why-not sayers. Why can't we start this new ministry? Why can't we welcome the stranger?

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