Friday, March 08, 2013

2020: The Year the ELCA Has a Baby

I know, I know. At least some nay-sayers are going to argue that we're in a post-denominational era, so why start new denominations.

Others are going to assume any proposal to start something new implies something negative about the current denomination, though this is not my point.

Nevertheless, here we go. 

A vision for 2020 for the ELCA 

By 2020 the ELCA intentionally gives birth to a new denomination. Instead of exhausting ourselves trying to "redevelop" the ELCA, let's pour resources into starting a new denomination, one that has as its DNA theological depth and multiplication of ministries, and a heart for reaching people groups at considerable cultural distance from the cultures we currently reach. Instead of putting the bandage of "missional" on the ELCA, start a denomination that has missional built in as the engine that drives it. 

Let's start a new denomination not out of strife or conflict but as an asset, intentionally, for the sake of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom.

Some talking points

1. This is a tried and true model in the business world. Larger corporations often launch subsidiary companies. These subsidiaries are given more latitude than the parent company. They can experiment, fail, develop, adapt, in ways the larger company cannot. But they represent space the larger company believes necessary to reach new markets, create new products, etc. One model of this already on-going in the ELCA is Augsburg Fortress and its subsidiary publishing house, Sparkhouse. Sometimes disruptive change can be handled through the creation of a new institution or structure rather than the dismantling and reassembling of an old one.

2. It doesn't have to be a denomination. I'm just using that as a catch-phrase for any kind of missional structure or network that can be highly adaptive, and structured in a fashion more conducive to reaching new populations and people with the gospel. 

3. This does not mean the ELCA itself can't continue adapting, reforming, redeveloping. The best part about having a baby is you get to nurture the baby and watch it grow, while continuing your own journey as an adult, growing and changing alongside it.

4. This models at the institutional level what we are calling ourselves to do at the congregational level. It builds into our very DNA the point that we are not just a church that gives birth to new churches, but a multiplying network that multiplies not just churches but even networks themselves.

5. Yes, the world is flat. Yes, hierarchies and structures have changed considerably. Nevertheless, even highly effective missional movements that grow and develop churches around the country eventually have to develop structures that, surprise surprise, look a lot like variations on a theme--denominations. 

6. You say you don't want more denominations, you just want to get out there and be in mission. I get it. However, you want a network of support. You want to have peers to consult, resources to draw on, a crowd to source. How are you going to do this? How will that work? A structure birthed out of the ELCA encompassing the missional tribe in the ELCA (specifics to be designed by that tribe) can do this in a way currently not available in our present model. 

7. Some of you still think I'm faulting the institution somehow, don't you? But I'm not. Instead, I'm proposing that multiplication and mission needs to be modeled at all levels. Each of us individually is called to be in mission and live out our baptismal calling. Individual congregations are called to multiple at their level, as are small groups and many other kinds of ministries. All this proposal does is add another multiplying level. Networks themselves can multiply. The ELCA is a network--and it can give birth to new networks/denominations.

8. Some of you still think I'm failing to be truly post-denominational in this proposal, but honestly, think about the modern world. Post-denominational does not mean the end of denominations. It means the advent of increasingly fluid networks, and the proliferation of networks. Proliferating networks that rely on and mutually reinforce each other are a good thing.

9. I remember Bishop Mark Hanson sharing at our synod assembly two years ago that bishops are "pontiffs"--bridge builders. At least I think he said this. Please correct me if I'm wrong. In any event, I happen to think this is something the ELCA is particularly good at, building bridges between communities and to new ones. I have been convicted by Alan Hirsch's discussions of cultural distance to realize that the ELCA is continually and mostly trying to reach the 40% of the U.S. population most other churches are also trying to reach--and we will in all likelihood continue to be like this. If we really want to reach groups at three or four on the cultural distance scale away from ourselves, I think the only way to do it is for us to give birth to a new (or even more than one new) network, ones that are free to get out into those cultural contexts in ways we can't.

That is all. Fire away. Shoot the idea down if you'd like. But please consider the possibilities. Imagine with me. I'd appreciate it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. dear clint,
    it sounds to me like you hope to head off any morphing of the ELCA into just one extra or vestigial wing of the liberal American "church." so far so good ...yet i suspect that turning to the slick, schlock universe of the business world will only make this [new?] church's identity still more obscure. authentic due diligence would require "evangelical" lutherans (& catholics) to gather together around the Cross of Jesus Christ in thanksgiving with contrite hearts and to place before the world's jaded self-image the plain, unvarnished truth of the Gospel.

    as i see it, the way to live and proclaim that Gospel in a flattened world is less through an "imitatio" of the digitally erotic cosmos [Google, Android, Samsung, Apple, TED, or 'Q'] and more likely to be conveyed through a virtual presence infiltrating that world with faith active in agape. Guy Kawasaki said something along these lines when he spoke at MacWorld in 1989, describing himself as an 'evangelist' for all things Macintosh.


    I can hear his echo in your imagined ELCA offspring! I just want to be sure we can continue this journey as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Dream on!

    dave bühler, o.s.m.

  3. Google (or one of the usual suspects) saw fit to delete the following link from my comment. I think Timothy George knows better than I why the supposedly arcane process of Cardinals choosing a new Pope from among all available papabili is not quite as much fun as giving birth to an ecclesiastical Baby. Should we adopt? ...


    "The Next Pope Should Be Catholic," by
    Timothy George. "On The Square," March 8, 2013 .

  5. I agree, Dave. I think much care would need to be taken in what this baby would be like.

  6. I have heard our P.Bp. speak of 'pontifex' as meaning a universal bridge builder (an idea championed by Bishop Munib Younan, among others). I think your Point # 8 above is the one I find most compelling, probably because I believe we all entered into Post-Denom'l existence about the same time we discovered we were living "After Christendom" circa 1990--though I can't say that I buy into all of Hauerwas' ecumenical ecclesiology, justy some of it.

  7. I cannot understand why you are making this so hard. 265 Popes ago, Christ founded a church on Peter. His plan worked. It's still here. I cannot understand why you think you could improve on that. Why can't we all just work together to spread the Gospel? This is a great article.

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  9. Well. The rub for me is that I returned to the Lutheran church after 20 years experimenting with ecumenical this or that and then with a little bit of Zen and so on. "Bringing in the sheaves" is an interesting challenge. But, ... "throwing the baby out with the bath water" may not actually make entire sense. I think one of the things that atttacts non-denominationalists to a place like the ELCA is a sense of history and connection. "To each, his or her own."

  10. p.s. "his or her" really messes with the King's English. Just sayin' ...

  11. Well, this proposal (and it is just a thought experiment) doesn't actually throw anything out at all, it simply adds. In this model, you would still have an ELCA to be a part of, AND there would be a denomination/network launched by the ELCA that would reach the 60% of folks who have no church connection.

  12. Okay, well, ... children have a way of messing with the gene pool. :D

  13. Oh! I want to do that at the seminary! I want to do an "inquiry-driven, project-based, portfolio-assessed" version of seminary...

  14. I think my proposal isn't original, it's just applying a basic concept at the denominational level. I agree it could work with seminaries also. Especially if the seminary replicated itself in local congregations around the country. :)

  15. One friend on Facebook added this:

    I think Ralph Winter’s distinction between a “sodality” and a “modality” may help to nuance your proposal. In my view, what you are seeking to develop is a “modality” (a movement for renewal) within the “sodality” (the matrix) of the ELCA, not a new denomination. What you are arguing for could be analogous to the way new “orders” have emerged and functioned within the Roman Catholic Church. Here’s the link to an article Winter wrote in 1973.