Friday, April 09, 2010

Death throes or birth pangs? (Sunday Reflections for April 11, 2010)

For years The Lutheran has been the country’s largest circulation denominational magazine. It may still hold that rank but, if so, today it is in a much smaller field. Print media in general is in decline and then being tied to declining institutions is a double whammy. In recent years several church magazines have closed (some replaced by online versions) as have some non-denominational religious journals.

Circulation for The Lutheran has certainly dropped. One thing that used to keep it up was the congregational subscription plan whereby churches, at reduced cost, could subscribe for all their member households. Many churches have dropped these to save money and most were not replaced by individual subscriptions.

As with the church in general, The Lutheran has had trouble figuring out its purpose or identity. Early in the ELCA’s life it was reporting regularly on the denomination’s struggles to get going. Many synodical bishops criticized all the “negative press” implying the magazine was somehow being disloyal. The message got through and ELCA news was reduced while more articles were devoted to congregational and personal life issues.

The result was a magazine that became increasingly bland and repetitive. I’ve heard it described as a Lutheran Guideposts or even Readers Digest. Many clergy I know say the only things they look at are the obituaries. The one section most often criticized is the Letters to the Editor. Ironically as the articles became “happier” these letters became angrier, sometimes vitriolic. Given the selection that was printed I can only imagine the tone of those left out.

According to Editor Daniel Lehmann, the current April issue has a “Cover story full of risks.” In his editorial he acknowledges that for the past four years The Lutheran “tamped down” its coverage of the ongoing debate over gay clergy. Supposedly ending that embargo, this issue’s feature story reports the fallout to date over last summer’s Churchwide Assembly actions. To avoid any appearance of bias, the magazine contracted the story out to Lutheran Chicago Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy.

Lehmann needn’t have worried. In his editorial he says that past reporting was “straightforward news” of “official actions” limited mostly to “he said, she said” accounts. For whatever reason, this almost exactly describes this issue’s story. Guy provides almost no personal analysis but rather strings together dozens of quotations of lay members, pastors and bishops. The views of proponents of the assembly action, opponents, as well as those on the fence are all reported.

The article has nothing surprising to report. Many are happy, many are sad and/or angry, and many are unsure what to make of the acceptance of gay clergy. A few congregations have voted to leave the ELCA and more may follow but thus far the numbers do not look significant. Contributions are down but the biggest cause for that may be the recession. Opposition is strongest in small town and rural congregations, especially those which were formerly ALC. Support is strongest in synods with predominantly urban and suburban memberships.

Much more interesting is Guy’s article which follows the cover story, based primarily on an interview with ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Basically Hanson says the church needs to move on: “I’m patient with the process of decision-making, but I’m not putting ministry and mission on pause in the meantime.” While last year’s assembly action is still important to process, Hanson says there are bigger issues which the ELCA has been confronting long before this:

The changes of our demographics didn't begin with the Churchwide Assembly. We have been becoming a smaller church body in membership, increasingly older than the U.S. population, and a predominantly white denomination in an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural world. So in the larger context, what does it mean to be faithful, evangelical Lutherans in this changing context? Those questions will continue to be foremost.

While Hanson’s analysis is largely accurate it is also somewhat disingenuous. Many would argue that the decision to allow gay clergy was exactly the kind of step the church needs to make to be more relevant and connected to the contemporary world. The problem, of course, is that a lot of people don’t want to make that connection. What would it mean for the ELCA to draw in new, younger, more ethnically diverse members? How could it not mean making the ELCA a dramatically different church which very likely would alienate many of its current members?

This, of course, is exactly the dilemma faced by countless congregations of all Christian stripes, even those thought to have figured out how to be “relevant.” For years the Crystal Cathedral was seen as a model of a new way to do church. Started by Robert Schuler in the 1950s, his new essentially non-denominational church reached out to the young post-war families pouring into southern California. His stunning glass church seated thousands and came into the homes of millions more through its TV ministry.

It is now reported that the Crystal Cathedral is $55 million in debt, has a list of unpaid vendors as long as your arm, and was forced to cancel both its epic Christmas and Easter holiday shows (the Christmas show would have been its 30th anniversary). The church has been unable to find a successor for the now elderly Schuler. His son was kicked out as the church’s new pastor when his leadership was deemed inadequate. Yet this is surely a symptom of the larger question of what direction to take the church now that the demographic it appealed to originally has largely disappeared. What if the new people really don’t like all that glass?

Prior to the ELCA’s formation, and when he was still a skeptic of the proposal, the ALC’s last Bishop David Preus said Lutheranism’s biggest challenge was that “the boats have stopped coming.” By that he meant the biggest source of new American Lutherans had been immigration, and that was now over. Thirty years later American Lutheranism still has not figured out how to create a new identity and purpose for itself.

As much upheaval as last summer’s assembly action caused it may be only a start. If Lutheranism is going to have a future it may take many more such changes for the church to transform itself into something relevant and appealing to contemporary people. In other words, to quote Jesus (and only somewhat out of context), this may be only the beginning of the birth pangs. Whether the church has the commitment, energy, and the stomach for more such wrenching course changes only time will tell. Given how rapidly and dramatically our culture is changing, however, time may not be something we have much of.


Pr. jim Wagner said...

The last ALC presiding bishop was David Preus, not Robert Preus of the LCMS, although I think they were cousins.
Shortly after the formation of the ELCA David Preus wrote an article for (I think) Lutheran Forum where he said the new church needed to be concentrating on three things: foreign missions, home missions and strengthing the seminaries, because these were things we could all agree on. Instead we chose Episcopalians and sex. One has to wonder where we would be now if we had followed his advice.

The Rev. Erma Wolf said...

A small correction: the name of the last leader of the ALC was David Preus. Robert Preus was a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and taught at Concordia Seminary Fort Wayne.

Doug said...

Thanks Jim and Erma for the correction, highlighting once again the dangers of relying on memory. I've corrected the text. And yes, Jim, I believe you are right that they were cousins.

I doubt that Bishop Preus ever sincerely believed forming the ELCA was the right thing to do but rather gave in to the inevitable. Coming from the LCA side I decided in the end the merger was a mistake but it was too late to make any difference.

Jim, I don't think the Episcopalian agreement has amounted to very much (tho I had no problem with it) and it's probably obvious I fully supported cwa 09's decisions. I was not aware of this essay by David Preus but I actually think he was wrong on all 3 counts. They each presume a self-understanding which simply does not exist in the ELCA and really just perpetuate the church as it was. So I doubt following his advice would have made any difference.

schulkd said...

"Contributions are down but the biggest cause for that may be the recession."

It is a very convenient excuse to try to blame the economy, but I know at our congregation a fairly significant number of members are writing "No ELCA" in the comment line until we vote. (This redirects their percentage that would normally go to the ELCA to another specified ministry or mission.) It is unfortunate the ELCA didn't, and still doesn't, have a better plan than "deal with it."

Doug said...

@schulkd, I don't know what you mean by "deal with it." In my view one of the ELCA's main problems has been avoiding its real issues and problems out of fear of offending or alienating its members, in an attempt to be all things to all people. The goal has been to maintain the illusion that the ELCA was more united and cohesive than it really was.

Finally last summer CWA09 actually answered a real question and—no surprise—a lot of people didn’t like the result. The point I make in this post is that if the ELCA is to have any hope of genuine relevancy it’s going to have to make more wrenching choices which will likely alienate even more members.

As for the ELCA’s financial problems, you miss the point of my illustration. Like the Crystal Cathedral, churches and denominations of all sizes and varieties are experiencing significant revenue shortfalls. The NY Times recently had a story about the dramatic increase in church buildings in foreclosure. Many mega-churches have been laying off staff (which, by their nature, they have in abundance). Here in Chicago I just read this morning that LCMS’s premier local high school, Luther North, needs to raise almost $2 million by the end of the month to keep its doors open.

I have no doubt withheld contributions from disaffected members is affecting the ELCA but it is only adding to financial woes that have been around for a long time. In fact, the ELCA’s budget has been on a steady decline since the church’s inception over 20 years ago. The current recession is clobbering all churches, however, and very likely will push some institutions over the edge.

Mr G said...

A couple of things. As far as The Lutheran being a Lutheran version of Readers Digest or Guideposts, that's not the case at all. In fact, as a regular reader for over 20 years (and who has paid for his own subscription), my impression is that a lot of disaffected readers are disaffected precisely because it's trying to be the Lutheran Newswee, and not like the other two magazines.

Second, as far as the ELCA needing to become a different, multicultural and multi-ethnic place goes, I'm one of those "ethnically different" people who came to the ELCA, and the LCA before it, precisely because it wasn't my mother's Baptist church. Where will I go if the ELCA changes to be more like the churches I came to get away from?

It seems perfectly obvious to me that the ELCA is an ethnic church, and that the Scandinavians and Germans are to it what the Italians and Irish (and now the Hispanics) are to the Catholic Church. I am comfortable with this, but don't understand why the ELCA itself doesn't get it, instead wringing its hands over the fact that it's not diverse enough.

Perhaps I'm just not aware of what goes on there, but it seems to me that the Greek Orthodox church is not concerned about becoming more diverse. In addition, I also don't seem to recall hearing about the traditionally African-American churches trying to recruit more white members.