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Shifting the Focus to Congregations: The ELCA LIFT Report

LIFT ReportEvery 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.

Shifting Focus and Resources to Congregations

The primary recommendation of the report is that we renew our focus on congregations by redirecting the flow of time, attention, and resources from churchwide to local congregations.

I think the report gets this exactly right. Congregations will be (in fact, already are) the innovative centers of mission in the church. Local congregations will be the ones who help us figure out how best to be the Body of Christ, share the Gospel, and serve the world in this time.

We should do everything we can to support congregations in this process - to build connections, provide financial support for new and innovative ministries, tell their stories, and share their work.

For the Sake of “Evangelical” and “Missional” Congregations

The reports says that this shift ought to lead to more “missional” (engaged in witness and service in God’s world) and “evangelical” (proclaiming God’s reconciling forgiveness, mercy, and love) congregations. They recommend that each congregation create a mission plan that help them exemplify characteristics of vital congregations, twelve of which they list in the report.

The report, which really nailed both the challenge of our current time and the shift toward congregations, unfortunately misses the mark here. It recommends the same techniques we have always used (which weren’t all that effective before) to meet a new problem and new time.  And its not just task force or this report.

This approach is symptomatic of three persistent problems that we have as a church: church language, the way we define success, and our intractable love affair with plans and reports.

Our Three Persistent Problems

1. Church Language

I find the word “evangelical” to be one of the most problematic words in our church. It is a word that says everything and, at the same time, says nothing.  No one really knows what it means, particularly when it comes to being the church at the local level. Is it welcoming, outreach, witnessing, prostylitizing, getting new members, all of the above? It is an inescapable word because its in our name - and because its what we think we ought to be. Its just that no one knows exactly what that is. I find “missional”, the latest church buzzword, to function in a similar way. We should be missional! Great.  What does that mean?

We've got to stop using church language to express ourselves. Let’s use real words that people use everyday.  How about something like: “excellence in what God has called you to do, alongside the people God has called you to do it with, where God has called you to do it.” I can do that.

2. How We Define Success

The twelve characteristics of vital congregations listed in the report are not new. They’ve been around forever - and we still haven’t seemed to realize them. Our problem is that we talk about success in congregations like success is the same for everyone.  We say, “Successful churches look like this.” 

Success in ministry looks different in every congregation, every context, every ministry. Congregations have spent way too much time trying to be all things to everyone. We each have to be uniquely ourselves and authentic to our ministry context. Maybe that means we do one thing on this list well. Fine. Maybe we are doing great things that aren’t on any list. Great!

3. Our Love Affair With Reports and Plans

This is the same old process that we have always followed in the church. We study (um, ourselves), write and submit a report, and then what? We’re all exhausted from the study process. We wonder how we’ll reach all these goals we’ve laid out. Implementation often falls to a few leaders, who get burned out. And so, it collects dust.

Mission plans are not transformative. What if we actually used that time to do mission. What if we gave ourselves permission to set aside something we usually to do (paperwork anyone?) to do something new and different beyond our doors? That would be transformative.

In sum, I think the report has got it right when it comes to congregations - but just as we need to set congregations free to innovate and lead our church into being the Body of Christ at this time - we also need to let them figure out how they get there.

What was your take on this part of the report? How can synods and churchwide better support congregations?

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