Sunday, April 17, 2011

How the ELCA (or any denomination or church) Can Grow

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. Start more churches. Lots more churches. Plant churches, try, fail, try again. That should be our mantra. We figure out theological training around that mantra. Train up people in place in the congregation to go out and start new churches.

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. The Spirit will see to that!

6) Preaching is key. Although it isn't everything, it is a lot, and needs our sustained and best attention. Get ye to the woodshed and figure out how to preach!

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. Paul was trained in a special school, but did he require the leaders of the churches he planted to travel to Jerusalem and study for three years before beginning a call? Not saying we need to repeat Acts in the present day, but it does seem we've taken a cultural construct (seminary education) and elevated it above its proper place. I'm not advocating against seminary either, just encouraging open-ness to great diversity of practice, and especially the practice of identifying gifts within the local congregation and then training in place.

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.


  1. I think rethinking seminary is essential. Apprenticeships in local congregations can
    be supplemented with internet classes for
    specialized subjects. That would reduce
    the debt load seminarians carry after
    graduation and give them tons of practical
    application training.


  2. Love your 3rd point. We have overprofessionalized ministry. On a related note I think we need to prepare our pastors to do the work of theology and eliminate this foolish distinction between academic theologians and pastors. Augustine, Luther, Erasmus, Tertullian were all all parish pastors.

  3. Matthew, absolutely. I consider myself a pastor-theologian. Thanks for the comment!