Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Letting go (Sunday Reflections for June 6, 2010)

Jim Stuck is the retiring bishop of the ELCA’s Indiana-Kentucky Synod. He recently penned a farewell message to members and congregations of his synod. While he concludes hopefully, his feelings about the church and its future are nonetheless troubled and ambivalent. Bishop Stuck is distressed by the state of the church and, by his own admission, grieving the death of the church he grew up with. While last summer’s dramatic ELCA churchwide assembly brought all this into focus, he recognizes the church’s troubles began much earlier.
And as I prayed about this and meditated on what was happening to my church, I began to realize that this death of the church was not something that started with our decision last August. The church has been dying for many years. The church that I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s is gone. Our pews are half full. We have fewer and fewer young people. Many congregations no longer have a Sunday School. As our facilities age, the cost per person to maintain and run them is becoming prohibitive. It seems that fewer and fewer people are being called upon to do more and more of the work of the church. Many are feeling over worked and under appreciated. How long can we sustain our congregations, our synodical ministries and the wider church with all its ministries?
The church Stuck grieves for is the church I grew up in as did most in the congregations I have served. After World War II, churches of all kinds grew dramatically and sustained that growth for about 25 years. In the late 60s and early 70s, however, those same churches began a long steady decline that continues to this day. Most of these denominations have now lost a third to a half of their membership. In addition, the current membership is older, more female and more Caucasian than the general population.

On pretty good lutherans, the blog where I first read Stuck’s statement, some comments criticized him for being too revealing of his grief. I applaud him for it. Unfortunately I think there has been a lot of denial throughout the ELCA about its true state. One thing we have learned in dealing with dying people is that we do them no favors pretending their condition is something other than what it is or talking endlessly about the next therapy, treatment or drug to be tried. In reality, such avoidance is more about protecting the sensibilities of family and friends rather than the welfare of the patient.

Over the course of my ministry, I couldn't count how many sermons and speeches I’ve heard, workshops and conferences I have attended, and books and articles I have read about renewing and reviving the church. Regardless of what was said at the time, the primary motivation for forming the ELCA in the 1980s was to stem the losses occurring across American Lutheranism. In spite of all that, nothing has changed. In truth, there are forces at work in our culture and society that are simply beyond anyone’s control.

By talking endlessly of “renewal” (and without ever being clear what that really means), we ignore the thousands of congregations (probably a majority) for which this is not going to happen. As a result, they feel ignored, abandoned, and guilty over their apparent failures. They often become consumed with internal bickering and finger-pointing trying to find someone to blame for their state. They engage in liturgical and programmatic contortions trying to appeal to their mysterious and unidentified “neighbors” in hopes of getting a few new members to help pay the bills. Relations and resources are strained. Members become frustrated and exhausted, often causing more loses and accelerating the decline.

Hopefully, and correctly I think, Stuck see the church’s decline as a process leading to something new.
We know that God is up to something. This is God’s church and God is doing something great to renew and transform the church. God is working on us to prepare us for the future mission we are called to do. What this mission will look like we don’t yet know. What the church will be in the future is yet to be revealed. But what we do know is that it will not be the same.
Stuck goes on to interpret this experience as any good Lutheran would, in terms of the cross. Lutherans have always emphasized that renewal and new life necessarily involves death. Teaching it, however, doesn’t make it any easier to experience first-hand. The church we knew is going away and something new is coming. We just don’t know what that new thing is yet.
Yes, we will never have our old church back. Many of our dreams for the church have vanished. They probably needed to vanish, because they were our dreams and not God’s. We are being called back into prayer, study of scripture and discernment in order to allow God to lead us into this new future. By the power of the Spirit, we are being called to let go of the church and place it in God’s hands.
My personal expectations are probably less conventionally Christian or even religious than Stuck’s but I don’t know that. I haven’t talked with him. When I was in the IK Synod (before he became bishop), my impression was that he was pretty astute so perhaps our thinking is not so far apart. In my view, the world is undergoing dramatic and unprecedented social change and something very different than what has gone before is going to be needed to meet our spiritual needs. And honestly, I don’t see what that is going to be.

In any case, Stuck and I agree that now we are being called to let go of this church and its future. While painful and difficult, we do it knowing we really have no choice. What will happen, will happen. The future is out of our control. And to that I think Bishop Stuck would want us to say, “Thanks God!” For from death will come genuinely new life, for a future we cannot see and for a world about which we can only dream.

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