When I was younger, I pilgrimaged to medieval cathedrals. Now I pilgrimage to new mission churches.
Last week, I made pilgrimage to Humble Walk Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, a mission start congregation of the ELCA.
Humble Walk is true inspiration to me. Their pastor Jodi Houge is just amazing and gave one of my favorite interviews in Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. As she told us there,
"We recognized that most people don't come looking for a church, in our demographic. And so, we through from the beginning, 'We know this. The church is sinking.' The facts are on the table for the mainline denominations. So, we're not going to these big glossy things that try to draw people to our cool, fancy, hip church. We're going to be where people already are and try to be the church where they are."
On December 5th I had the honor of preaching the funeral sermon for my mentor and friend, The Rev. Dr. Ronald Thiemann. We lost him too soon and will miss him greatly.
I remember the first time I met Ron Thiemann. It was 1996 and I was a newly minted first year Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and Ron was the Dean. I was invited, along with all first years, to the traditional welcome cookout at Jewett House, the Dean’s residence. We shook hands in the receiving line and said hello. And that was it. In that brief moment, neither of us could have possibly imagined that our journeys would somehow lead us here today.
I never had a class with Ron, a fact he would later tease me about frequently. I tried to explain that he just wasn’t in my area, but he didn’t buy it. But I did see him often. You know, at Harvard, professors are our versions of celebrities and Deans all the more so. I remember seeing Ron walking hurriedly across the Div School campus. I’d say, “Hey, there’s the Dean!” It was like seeing a theological rock-star. I knew that he was brilliant, important, and busy teaching and guiding the Divinity school, which he did for 13 years.
So, perhaps you can imagine that when Ron and Beth appeared unannounced for Sunday worship here at Redeemer when I was serving as pastor, I had to do a double take. I peeked into the sanctuary from the back door and said, “Is that the dean? That’s the dean!” I walked up and, I’ll never forget, I nervously said, “Hello, Professor Thiemann, I’m Keith Anderson.” And Ron said, “Yes. I know.” Eek! And then I had to preach in front of him a sermon I didn’t particularly like. My heart thumped in my chest as it did for my sermons in the weeks to come. After weeks of calling him Professor Thiemann, he finally had to say, “Keith, please, call me Ron.”
And in the time since, I came to know Ron, not only as the incredibly accomplished scholar and institutional leader, advisor to political, religious, and business leaders, but as a colleague, a wise mentor, and, truly and most of all, a friend.
Mainline denominations are not dead. They may be dying. At the very least the way they once were, the way we have known them for the last 100 years, is dead. So why do we keep looking to them for answers to the challenges we now face? Why do we keep expecting that they will somehow roar back and save us?
Clergy waste so much time lamenting the state of their denominations. It’s exhausting and fruitless. And I'm beginning to think that it says more about clergy than about the denomination.
Could the problem be that we are looking for something that they simply can no longer provide? Could it be that find it easier to lament and blame the denomination than to create our own solutions?
One of the promising aspects of the ELCA LIFT report (some background here in my previous post) is its urgent call to begin to understand our church, not as a monolithic institution, but as a collection of overlapping and interconnected networks.
It “calls for immediate attention to this church as a grouping of networks. Caring for these networks, some of them virtual networks and social networking relationships, is an immediate necessity.”
Further, it recommends that we “initiate ways to encourage congregations, synods and partners to develop flexible networks for varying purposes, recognizing these networks can increase collaboration and connections across this church and include emerging leaders from all parts of the ecology.”
This is incredibly helpful and I want to make some suggestions about how we might do this.
Every mainline Protestant denomination is struggling with declining membership, decreasing financial support, and the question of how best to be the Body of Christ in this time.
In response, my denomination, the ELCA, created the LIFT (Living into the Future Together) Task Force, which was charged with making recommendations on how to change our denominational structures or "ecology" in order to help best fulfill our mission today. The task force issued its final report to the ELCA on April 11th.
My short take is that the task force shows very good instincts, particularly in its overarching recommendation regarding the shift of focus and resources to local congregations. However, I think the report also falls victim to three persistent problems we face in our church ecology.
In August 2010 I attended Follow Me: Sharing the Gospel in a 2.0 World, a conference hosted by the ELCA for synod communicators and campus ministry pastors and students. You can find video, presentation slides, and other resources on the Follow Me webpage.
On Thursday we heard from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson andPastor Nadia Bolz-Weber from House for All Sinners and Saints(HFASS) in Denver. The Bishop preached at the opening worship, and then he and Nadia had a conversation about emerging church, pastoral care by text message, Lutheran theology and liturgy, social media, being clear about one's cultural context, and the cultural shifts that the church must engage if it is to be relevant and survive. A couple things struck me:
In his sermon, the Bishop preached movingly about the Call of Samuel and how his generation of the church must be willing to embrace the role of Eli, who was Samuel's mentor, the one who helped him discern God's voice and will and to follow it. The Bishop said that he and his generation must embrace and support the young Samuels (pastors and leaders) in the church, asking them, "What is God saying to you?" This was exceptional both for the heartfelt way he shared it, and because it is something I have rarely heard articulated by older pastors. Most times the reaction to younger leaders and their approach to ministry is suspicion, fear, and, in some cases, dismissiveness. In great contrast to this, Bishop Hanson expressed great trust and hope in the younger generations of leaders. Thanks Bish!
Nadia affirmed this later in her conversation. When asked about getting young adults (people in their 20's) to traditional church. She said, "They aren't going to come." She said the best thing we can do to engage those folks are 1) identify leaders from within that group, 2) give them excellent theological training, and 3) fund them.