Friday, November 13, 2009

"The ELCA has left us"? Not exactly

The reports and stories are starting to trickle in of congregations leaving or preparing to leave the ELCA. This certainly isn’t surprising and it’s too early to tell yet how significant the exodus will be. The current meme on this week’s layoffs at ELCA headquarters is to blame them on contributions being withheld by discontented individuals and congregations. This may have played a part but it’s also true that revenue for ELCA churchwide operations has been falling for years. Most or all of these staff cuts likely would have happened sooner or later.

Here in the Metro Chicago Synod, one of our larger congregations, Hosanna! in St. Charles (far west suburbs), voted (89%) this past Sunday to cut its ties to the ELCA. For the designated synod representatives at the meeting, it apparently was not a pleasant experience. The congregation also voted to affiliate with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), an association of disaffected former ELCA churches. None of this was unexpected.

Another relatively large congregation likely to leave is St. Mark in the far North Chicago suburb of Lindenhurst. Its most recent newsletter includes a report from its Senior Pastor, Terry Breum on the recent annual “gathering” of LCMC, which St. Mark is also considering joining. Apparently he didn’t even need to enter the church where the meeting was being held to know this was the place for him: “When . . . I drove into the parking lot I instantly felt an incredible peace and the sense that we had arrived at home.”

Breum then goes on to give a lengthy and rapturous description of the doctrinal and biblical beliefs of LCMC members with which he, and he assumes his congregation, is in full agreement:

I knew that I was with people exactly like the people of St. Mark, Christians who are not ashamed of the Gospel, love Jesus, and believe the Bible to be the true Word of God, without error. Our core convictions of Jesus, the cross, salvation, heaven and hell, were all the same that we hold to here at St. Mark. We all believe the miracles of the Bible to be true and in the reality of angels and demons. There is no question at all that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and even Jonah’s existence are not in question. There is not even a hint of universalism (the belief that all are saved and that there is no such thing as hell. This is taught in many seminaries today). They believe Israel has the right to exist and do not agree with the ELCA’s strong support of the Palestinians. LCMC is strongly pro-life. And when it came to issues such as marriage we all held to the same Biblical doctrine of creation. Marriage is to be only between a man and a woman. There is no revisionism here at all. How refreshing! How invigorating! How thrilling! How inviting! To be with like minded, fellow believers, it felt like we were one body and indeed we are. St. Mark is where the LCMC is. It is safe to say the ELCA has left us.

And there’s another meme: “The ELCA has left us.” Um, no. Reading this paragraph does not in the least remind me of the ELCA, or of the predecessor body I knew, the LCA, or of the seminary I attended over 25 years ago, LSTC. If such a view genuinely represented a significant portion of the ALC that organized St. Mark, then the ELCA should never have come into being. The Bible “without error”? Adam and Eve? Jonah? Oh dear.

Surely such beliefs can be found in the ELCA (obviously) but they certainly aren’t the norm. And I doubt they were the norm in the ALC but they likely were more common than in the LCA. The AELC separated from the Missouri Synod, of course, over just such questions. The ALC described the Bible as “inerrant” in its constitution but this was explicitly left out of the ELCA statement of faith.

To me this just further confirms that the ELCA has been a bit of an illusion act from the start. Its creation depended on people seeing in it what they wanted to see. The vote at this August’s churchwide assembly finally pulled back the curtain for pastors like Breum and congregations like St. Mark. The ELCA is obviously more diverse than they wanted to realize. To say the ELCA has left them is disingenuous—it was never where they were to begin with. As I’ve written before, their leaving can only help the ELCA to finally get a coherent sense of its identity and mission. In my view, whatever the cost, it will be worth it.

(And here's a follow-up.)


Holly Hansen said...

Wow, I so agree and have for a long time. When I moved from the northeast to the Midwest I experienced Lutheran culture shock. Where the heck did all these fundamentalists come from. It seems also that the largest congregations leaving are of the mega church model and are very Pastor centered, many have abandoned Lutheran liturgy in favor of an entertainment model. Take your stinkin money and go !

Doug said...

"Take your stinkin money and go!" That about sums it up, Holly. Thanks for cutting to the chase. (And you're right, Midwestern Lutheranism is a different breed from what you knew out East.)

William said...

Well said, Doug and Holly.
I grew up LCA in the conservative/Republican western suburbs of Chicago. The congregation was former-ULCA, and my family roots were former-Augustana. I first deeply understood the significance of that when I got to LSTC. But I wasn't alone in feeling "at home" there. A dear friend, who grew up in the ALC at a former "Wartburg Synod" congregation felt far more "at home" at LSTC than at the Haugian college in Minnesota she had attended.
This issue has, indeed, been infecting the ELCA since before it was formed. Serving in NW MN (approx. 5:1 ALC:LCA, ALC overwhelmingly Haugian) at the time the ELCA was forming, both my congregational members and I were subject to taunts from local LCMS and ALC laypersons and pastors about being a part of the "homo" church.
But I also need to say that, while the trend definitely seems to go in that direction, the issue is not solely former ALC-based, nor is it merely Midwestern. A look at the list of those who signed "An Open Letter to the Voting Members
of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly" from CORE bears witness.
Perhaps where US Lutheranism is headed is a long-needed realignment, which, unfortunately, will come at great cost to those at Higgins Road and in the parishes who are personally affected.
In that regard (and I engage in pure speculation here) is it mere coincidence that "LCMC" differs from "LCMS" by just one letter?

Tricia said...

While I do not agree with the pastor that you are quoting, my heart hurts due to the manner in which the opposing side is responding. I feel a deep and profound sadness. There is one body in Christ and it is being further mutilated. I will not rejoice over it. I am certain that the devil is rejoicing over the split and I will not side with him.

Development said...

The devil loves to use righteous hate to steal the hearts of men and women and drive them from the love of Jesus Christ. But those of us left in the ELCA must provoke people to love again and show that love is stronger than hate and only though the power of our lord and by grace are we welcome into the arms of our heavenly father.

Jeff Ruby said...

As an ELCA pastor, for a little while anyway, what both William and Holly said disturb me.

True, many larger churches are leaving. But not true, many are entertainment or pastor based. The church I serve, one of the largest in the nation, has three out of four services every weekend that are traditional and use Lutheran hymns and organ.

So, actually most, if not many, of the larger churches are this way. And to say "take your stinking money and go " is not Christlike at all.

Finally, this is not about larger churches, it is about the many, many (thousands, actually) of smaller churches that will close because of this. At a minimum 15% of this church is gone forever, either by people just walking, or churches closing and denominations laying off folks. It is about those faithful people who have seen their church hijacked by small special interest groups who spent millions to force this vote.

In the last study in 2007, sixty percent of the laity was opposed to this. Why was this done?

And actually, LCMS and LCMC are different. LCMC ordains women because their is scriptural support for that, unlike this issue. For the church of sola scriptura, a bad time.

We are in a post denominational era. This just hastened the end for the ELCA. Historically, it will still be alive for another five to ten years, and then be a failed thirty year experiment . The future is in local mission and ministry, and a church that doesn't vote on divisive social issues.

Mark said...

How is it possible that "their leaving can only help the ELCA to finally get a coherent sense of its identity and mission"?? Lacking certain knowledge of which way society's wind will blow in the next five years or five weeks, the ELCA would seem to have no idea what they'll believe or promote at any point in time.

Anonymous said...

You all have no clue. Read it and weap.