|Haarlem, Netherlands. A. Hanson, 2009.|
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in 1517, he was responding to a overruling church hierarchy that was out of touch with the people and with what God was already doing in their midst.
But it is with care and deliberation that I raise the following question, with this radical reforming history in our tradition, are we really willing to be re-formed now?
I am not convinced that the ELCA is open to reformation in this day and age. I raise for your consideration this article that appeared in the most recent edition of the Lutheran magazine, "Get set for clergy retirement wave: Age, perspectives to change the face of the ELCA" by Charles M. Austin. Austin's article is primarily making the observation that there is an anticipated wave of clergy retirements in the near future, and these retirements will change the face of leadership in the ELCA. This is an absolutely valid observation. He also argues that this can be a good thing, with young clergy bringing energy to their work and perhaps building bridges between younger members who are new to the ELCA, with which I also agree.
But the overall tone of the article is one of unwarranted mourning. Austin, along with many others quoted in the article, lament that with the retirement of many of these older pastors is the loss of "skill and wisdom gained in decades of ministry", "'residual memory' of predecessor church bodies", and perhaps most grating, these retired leaders' "commitment to ministry." (Which seems to imply that younger clergy do not have the same commitment to their work.) To all of this lament, I raise our own theology for consideration.
At the core of our Lutheran theology is the cross. A symbol of death. That in order to have new life, the old self must be crucified. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that door in 1517, it probably felt a little bit like death. He was standing up against a giant behemoth of an institutional church, and he had no way of knowing that his bold act would lead to anything but excommunication. But as Marty himself said, "Here I stand, I can do no other." This is not to say that older pastors are dragging down the ELCA, but rather the attitude that the good days have already passed in our church. It is fully possible to be a pastor in a call for decades and be continually open to what God is creating new every day. In fact, I feel fortunate to know and be mentored by several of these older pastors.
I have been working on my ELCA assignment paperwork, and in my Rostered Leader Profile, one of the questions is, "What are your hopes for the ELCA?" which I answered with the following response:
It is my hope that the ELCA will be open to what God is already doing in the world in surprising places, and be willing to let some things die in order that new things might be born. It is my hope that we believe what we confess in our own theology about death and resurrection.
Here I stand, I can do no other.
The ELCA is in decline. This is not a special distinction. We share this dubious distinction with all other denominations. There are fewer people coming to church. There can be no assumed Christian culture. Being a member of a church is the exception, not the rule. We are more likely to be eating brunch than attending church on Sundays. The understanding of "church" that pervaded American culture for so long is dead. It hurts to hear and hurts to say, but it is true. Healthy congregations still exist, and will continue to do so, but the sort of church that we hold up as overwhelmingly normative in the ELCA (or any other denomination, for that matter) just doesn't exist any longer.
I am a Lutheran. I love our tradition. I love our theology. I also hurt for a church that seems to be stuck in the past. I hurt for all the vibrant, excited young leaders who have their vision squashed by people like Charles M. Austin and others who view us as second-string replacements for the "all-star" pastors who are retiring.
I do not think it is timely or appropriate to throw out all of our tradition. But I ask that we consider why we do the things that we do. And be willing to let certain things go to make room for the new life in our denomination. I know that the word "death" used in this post is going to make some people uncomfortable and angry. So how about re-formation?
Are we as the ELCA actually willing to be re-formed?
Are we willing to let go of "cultural Lutheranism" (tired jokes about jello salad and lutefisk and Scandinavians) and be willing to see what Lutheranism looks like today? Are we willing to find places for people of color in our overwhelmingly white churches? Places for other languages and cultures in our expression of liturgy and worship? To be influenced and changed by those people that we label as "Other" to "Our" tradition?
Are we willing to dare to be different in the way that we "do" church? Are we willing to provide space for our people to co-create worship alongside the seminary-educated professionals? Are we willing to let go of control? Are we willing to explore alternative ways of educating and forming pastors?
Are we willing to dare to believe that the church does not actually exist within four walls? That it might have nothing to do with buildings at all? To believe that God is already at work in the world and instead of creating a place where people can come and encounter God, we will walk alongside people in the world where God is already with them?
Are we willing to stop lamenting what has been and turn with joyous expectation to that which is to come?