5.21.2007

Missing the boat?

Searching the Inquirer's website for "Lutheran" I came across an interesting AP story about the ELCA's efforts to diversify. Our church, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its formation this year, set an initial goal of having 10% of its membership be persons of color or language other than English by its 10th anniversary...and fell about 8 percent short. In 2005 just 1 percent of the ELCA's 4.85 million members were African Americans, a "dismal" percentage, the article says, "considering that blacks constitute more than 12 percent of the population." The piece notes that the denomination has strategies in place to reach out to five groups: African, Asian, Latino, American Indian and Mideast/Arab.

Diversity is a gift of God, and the church ought to reflect the community it serves. But the experience of Rev. Lucille Mills and Rejoice Lutheran Church in Chesapeake, Va., highlighted in the AP piece, indicates that there is more at work than demographics.
Mills says most blacks tell her they are puzzled by the Lutheran tradition, and often mistake it for Roman Catholicism. Others imagine stuffy services where freewheeling praise is discouraged.

Often, she said, "they think it's inauthentic. They think it's for white people."

With "ethnic staples like hand clapping and rhythmic preaching" the church has seen black visitors, but:

"They came. They said they enjoyed it," she said. "But none of them stayed."

For minorities, the church's heritage - reflected in everything from Sunday services to church dinners - can seem alien.

"We would serve the German sausages," Gunsten said. "Food, like faith understanding, like liturgical practice ... it can be perceived as a barrier."

This underscores that fact that inclusion is far more difficult than being hospitable. Hospitality takes some steps to welcome a new person into community; inclusion requires making the church the new person's church and allowing their history, experiences and dreams to shape the church. However, the article points out that in practice that is very difficult, since if the fit isn't right many people won't stay around to try and change it. (Visit a church where the style of preaching, music and theological tenor are foreign to you, or just hidden behind unfamiliar jargon, and see if you return.) And since many churches have tried so hard to hold on to heritage rather than to change with the community, the gaps in some cases are almost too large to bridge.

There's another issue not tapped by the article. It states that from 2004 to 2005 the ELCA lost 79,000 members -- 80% of the baptized membership of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, in just one year. That loss is not because people of other ethnicities are not coming to the church. It is because the traditional white, northern European base is dying off without replacing itself. I've read that nearly 90% of the youth who grow up in the ELCA through high school have left the church by their early 20s. And this is another fundamental disconnect.

While we have not paid attention to racial and ethnic diversity, we have also ignored the changes in the culture at large. The average age of the population in the Philadelphia area is 37 -- the average age of Lutherans here is at least 20 years older. Many of the majority of 20-somethings (who were not raised in the church) who would happen upon a "Lutheran" service would likely be as puzzled as the visitors Mills describes. I've talked to a number of 20-50 year old Lutherans who have visited evangelical churches recently, and they report that the worship is more engaging and there are lots of the young people missing in their churches. While some have commented that they like the intimacy of their church and don't like the scale of megachurches, none have said anything about the theology they experienced.

We are in the midst of a cultural shift with profound ramifications, which many thinkers call "post-modern" because it comes after the recognized "modern" era. Frost and Hirsch note that some of its features are a preference for rawness over refinement, action over theory, a concern for human wholeness over ideology. ("The Shaping of Things to Come," 134) And yet the ELCA's research person, paid to keep an eye on culture for the church, says in a March brienfing for church leaders: "I will spare you my views on post-modernity, other than to say I dismiss it as little more than a hyper form of modernity." (See the pdf posted here.) The paper goes on to contrast with modern evangelicalism, but the postmodern, emerging activity across the evangelical world (and occasionally in the mainline) isn't on the radar screen.

There are some moves, for example the ones noted in this article (ht: Chris), to adapt to cultural practices. The article contains some hand-wringing about the loss of tradition, and has insight from retired clergy, that congregations either hold too tightly to their Lutheran heritage and become irrelevant to many, or break out of that mold and throw away their Lutheran core. Rather than an either-or, there is a more balanced way to look at this: If the liturgy, doctrine and ethos we define as "Lutheran" doesn't do its job, which is to point people into relationship with Christ, then maybe we need to find ways to earn their attention, demonstrate for them God's love and grace, and once we are in relationship with them form them to live as grace-filled followers of Jesus, forming and re-forming ourselves in the process. That seems close to the spirit of Luther, even though he did things differently in his historical context than we will do in ours.

It seems we're facing a challenge similar to the one posed to the apostles in the controversy over circumcision in Acts 15. Can we find a way for people to join us while still being true to themselves as they were created, or must they become like "us" to join the faith and "our" church? More importantly, how can we follow God's incarnational impulse to become like "them" to welcome and include -- for our sake as well as theirs?


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