Clearly ELCA clergy are very networked, looking for even greater levels of networking and grassroots, democratic conversation, and the group is already functioning like that. One synod staff person posted the following on the group page, and gave permission to share it here on the blog. The post and response I hope are interesting in their own right, but then also interesting in that they offer a snapshot of the group conversation and direction:
So, I've been wrestling with an idea for a while I want to share and invite conversation. I work on the bishop's staff in North Carolina synod and am deployed ELCA staff as well - deployed to North Carolina (duh) ;)
A major challenge I see all over the ELCA, particularly in my own synod, is that of smaller traditional churches struggling to make a go of it. These churches aren't doing anything "wrong". They're comprised of wonderful people. Some of these churches have been around for 100 years, 200 years - or even longer. They've seen many, many changes and trends come and go over the decades, but have remained viable. Until now. I get calls regularly from churches like this asking for help. Desperate voices of wonderful people at their wit's end. I struggle to respond. I want to help, but I'm not sure how.
Many who serve in positions like mine suggest some ways the leaders can tweak and improve the ministry (think Natural Church Development). The hope is that, with some adjustments, these churches can turn things around and get growing again. Young people will return. A sense of vibrancy can be restored. And this happens from time to time. But mostly it doesn't. A decline may be slowed, but is not generally reversed.
I'm left with the sense that what is called for is not a minor makeover, but a more significant re-visioning of what it means to be the church. This goes WAY beyond adding a "contemporary" worship service or some other fix. That seems to me to be old thinking. Even the pioneers of contemporary church are looking past that now.
But people like me are often wary of naming such things because the institutions of our church (synods, churchwide, colleges, seminaries, agencies/institutions) are mostly dependent on keeping things the way they are. Too many jobs at stake. (For the record, my position is funded by churchwide, so this includes me). Funding streams all start at the local congregational level. To mess with that is messing with the life-blood of the rest of the church... local benevolence dollars. So, we mostly try to comfort the anxious and suggest minor revisions to things which helps make people feel better ... but has little impact long-term. Seems like I'm being asked to help manage the decline of our church (keep things as palatable as possible). I don't really care to do that.
Anyway, I don't want to sound fatalistic. I've no doubt the Body of Christ is alive and well. However, I wonder about the long-term viability of many of our small, traditional churches - which are the dominant form of church in the ELCA.
Your input, thoughts, and wisdom are appreciated. I want to be helpful to leaders like you all who lead local congregations. I want to do more than just hold your hand while we wait for the last person to turn out the lights. I'm just not sure how...
Here's my response:
This is precisely the kind of first post and ensuing dialogue I was hoping to witness here, so thanks all y'all. A few thoughts come to mind, some of which have already been mentioned by previous respondents. Here's my list: 1) Let churches die. I think we try to keep churches stringing along much longer than we should. Hospice is an important ministry, letting people or institutions die with dignity. That said, give birth to lots of churches. Perhaps a large part of our problem is we don't take the risk of starting lots of new churches, but just a few each year. 2) It really is about leaders. Vital, self-differentiated, gifted leaders are important. Many but not all churches that are dying prematurely are dying because of a failure of nerve, and lack of vision. 3) We need to raise up apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers within the congregation itself rather than thinking those gifts are centralized in one person hired to do it all. Most traditional small churches can't afford a full-time ELCA staff person with benefits, but they can afford volunteer or part-time leaders. Sometimes I think we have become too focused on recruiting from outside rather than training those with gifts in place, including for preaching and other apostolic ministries. 4) Start LOTS more churches. Some will fail. Start lots more anyway. Lots. 5) It's about bible and theology, not methods and strategies. "The cure for the missionary malaise in the Western churches will not come in a new marketing strategy, but in a new look at Scripture, for it is there that we see God clearly" (Paul the Missionary, Eckhard Schnabel). Theologically profound, hermeneutically creative, and homiletically sophisticated preaching will bear fruit. 6) Preaching is key. Although it isn't everything, it is a lot, and needs our sustained and best attention. 7) Seminary isn't. Seminary is a great thing, I loved it, but we should commission more leaders before they have a master's degree who have the gifts of the Spirit, and then train them later as situation and resources allow. There's an inverse correlation between the level of education in the leadership of denominations and their patterns of growth. 8) What we are experiencing is part of a larger national pattern. See Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian. There's a parasite, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that now passes for the Christian gospel in most denominations, even the most vibrant, so the battle we are engaged in is a shared battle even in other somewhat growing or vitalized denominations. || Those are my theses, all strung together without spaces because FB forces a new post every time you hit return.