Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Worried about the mainline? Try the a la carte line...

Hi - I've been away from this blog for a couple of weeks - feels like so much longer. I was out of the office all of last week. Part of the time I was at a conference put on by Yale Divinity School on "The Future of the Congregation."

The conference was organized "at a time when membership in mainline Protestant churches [are] in steep decline in the United States."

The mainline are traditionally Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and yes, Lutherans.

These denominations hold much in common. They're rooted in different national immigrant cultures. They all, in their own unique ways, helped new Americans find a foothold in the unknown territory of the developing American culture.

They tend to be pitted against various Evangelical denominations (or non-denominations) as the other main Protestant group.

Every one of these mainline denominations is shrinking in the US, and it's the subject of much hand wringing. An article a few months ago in USA Today about the American Religious Identification Survey put some new stats to the scare (mainline down by nearly 6% in the past 18 yrs).

The Lutherans are scared too. We are shrinking. Many of our congregations are struggling. Some of our leaders are in a bit of a panic.

I care about the Lutheran church. I love it. But the fear about our future death has got to be examined a bit more closely.

We talk generically about "the Future of the Congregation" as if one of the options is that there is no future. That's not exactly putting a whole lotta faith in God. It makes me wonder: What exactly are we worried about?

Are we worried that bad theology (fundamentalists!) will win the day? Are we worried that Bach won't get played in church? Is it that people won't know God? Will miss out on real Christian community?

We have to name the fears. Otherwise it sounds like we're just worried about the institution. That's not going to fly.

Many people in my generation, and definitely those younger than me, don't have the kind of institutional loyalty that feeds the decline-of-the-mainline fear.

A label like "Lutheran" isn't enough for us. We require that churches prove their authenticity. And we also don't limit our church involvement to just one congregation or community.

Many of us go a la carte - finding pastoral care from a blog; uplifting worship in a CD of praise songs; spiritual community in an AA group.

I sometimes worship at an Episcopal church on Sunday nights when I'm free; I dig some aspects of mega-church evangelical worship and don't mind an altar call now and again; I'd love to be the pastor of a church where the word "Lutheran" didn't find it's way into the title.

And, true confession here, I'd look around at non-Lutheran churches as well as Lutheran were I in the position of church-shopping. The one year I had free from church commitments, I went Presbyterian as often as Lutheran. And I'm a Lutheran Pastor.

I can already hear the critiques of such an approach (too selfish, too demanding, too non-committal, too lazy, spiritually shallow). Behind the critiques is grief and lament. The church that many people love is changing, and that is sad.

But it's not only sad, or even mostly sad. It reflects that we are in a different time in America.
A hunch I have? Many of us no longer need our denominations to help us forge community as our foreparents did. That means church can be something different than a cultural religious island in the scary storm of a new country. That's a good thing.

Perhaps one reason the Lutherans are shrinking because Germans are not only cool with worshipping with Swedes and Norwegians, but also with Italians, even Mexicans, maybe even Iranians (!) and the culture of the mainlines just hasn't gotten the word.

If this is the case, I'd call off the hand wringing and start thinking about a) how to grieve and b) how to change (aka reform).

ps - For those who don't recognize the picture, it's a lego Luther reforming the church.


  1. Hey Pastor Sarah,
    I looked up the church to give a shout out to Pastor Steve, that I'm headed back and hope to be part of your congregation starting next weekend. But I this is the first pastoral blog I've seen. Very cool. I especially liked your commitment to name what we're afraid of. Unless we get specific, we can't face our discomfort, hold it to the light of day, see how God might be trusted to fill the need in new and exciting ways.
    Although I only got to meet you last August, I hope to get to know you better this summer. I like the way you think!
    Holly Hope

  2. I've been Anglican since there are no Lutheran churches in this country and I LOVE getting outside of my box. Granted, it's not that far outside but it's still hard to understand what these people are saying sometimes. And listening to the lessons read with an English accent is so crazily proper and serious. Love it!

  3. It is so true. I've seen the anecdotal evidence for some time as most of our Christian friends are Roman Catholic or Evangelical. Our Lutheran friends have become so because we have met them at church but not at work, school, or play.

    I like the way you think though Pastor Sarah. Unless you have been raised a Lutheran and you must always be a Lutheran, it matters little to most folks where they worship Christ. I think the important contribution of Lutheranism, is that it does provide a framework for Christian doctrine, not unlike the other "mainline" denominations you mention. (Not to overlook the other global activities of the Lutheran church mentioned later.)

    I have been Lutheran for nearly 30 years (half my life). I do think the world is changing around the "mainline" churches, who like the Lutherans, find it so hard to evolve with the changing times (do something new? why? this has worked so well for 500 years!).

    Speaking of ancient thought, I grew up Greek Orthodox and I know I can't go back, although I love it's language and tradition, and yes, adherence to the Julian calender. But the church I will belong to (whatever it is called), must not limit "outsiders" from partaking in the sacrements.

    Having said all of that, there are bonafide reasons for support of the Lutheran church (and other mainline churches). The loss of members is a threat to the Lutheran Church's "structure". There is a lot to be said for supporting that structure with its institutions, world charities, and global evangalism. These require a strong, growing and vibrant "flock" to continue its work. If the trend of mainline churches continues, there may be no choice but to merge some of the mainline churches to allow these institutions to continue their good work.

    I realize change it hard and there will be a lot of anxiety to do so. But I really don't think God cares what denomination we call ourselves. I am sure She is more interested in the good works that the "mainline" churches do, especially globally for those less fortunate. So that kind of change doesn't sound all bad.

  4. I just noticed these comments - wonderful thoughts. I especially love what Michael said about the good reasons to have a structure - ministry and mission.


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