Tuesday, February 18, 2014

* Warning: This Post Has Church Geek Written All Over It

If you truly love Jesus, have been saved, and are an earnest Christian, please click through these links and read their contents carefully before proceeding:

Did you read them? Every word? It's important, in order to join the geek church movement, that you immerse yourself in these two documents before proceeding. If there are any videos or attached links, you might want to chase those rabbit holes also.

Okay? Good. Now we can proceed.
Friends don't let friends play with fonts.

The existential crisis precipitating this post is straightforward... 

The ELCA recently announced its campaign, Always Being Made New. When I first heard about it, I was ambivalent. In fact I remain ambivalent.

(Obligatory geek conspiracy theory parenthetical aside: I think I am not alone in my ambivalence. Tiny elf reporters have informed me even those higher up in the church hierarchy may be similarly ambivalent.)

But I am a church geek. I love my church. So, rather than dismiss the campaign out-of-hand, I decided to explore a variety of related theological implications, and see where they lead.

My fundamental question: Does a financial campaign initiated and led by the ELCA Churchwide organization align with the LIFT recommendations?

Although the LIFT report offered a lot of recommendations, I think it focused on prioritizing the work of evangelical congregations. LIFT repeatedly calls on congregations to be centers of evangelical mission. 

When LIFT goes on to discuss how the three expressions of our church--congregations, synods, and church wide--are related, it says: "A primary role for the church wide organization is to support and build the capacity of synods, which are best positioned to work directly with congregations in planning and carrying out God's mission."

Center for Evangelical Mission
So, the evangelical mission of local congregations is central, and the work of the churchwide organization is to accompany synods in accompanying congregations in this mission.

At first blush, a national fundraising campaign for the churchwide organization seems to run afoul of this basic recommendation of LIFT. It sidesteps the fundraising and work of local congregations, and invites donors to give directly to the national organization rather than "centers for evangelical mission."

That's a legitimate critique and concern. It's a critique and concern that needs to be kept central if  the ELCA (as the national expression) is to accompany synods and congregations rather than colonialize them with churchwide directives or agendas. Although I can't in this blog post offer up a full comparison between this basic fund-raising topic and the topic of Paul's collection for the church in Jerusalem, I can hint at it, and provide another rabbit hole link (thanks to Bible Gateway).

That being said, we are also a church of churches. We practice, ostensibly, some form of communio-ecclesiology. Although local congregations are centers for evangelical mission, part of their evangelical mission is participation and sharing in the life of other congregations. We are ecumenical. We have a shared mission together. Shared mission includes shared resources. Share resources means shared money.

If we read the campaign goals for Always Being Made New, we see a significant portion of the funds ($35 million) are focused on renewing existing congregations, developing new congregations, developing leaders, and creating contexts for the formation of young people (for more on opportunities for young adults to be involved in global mission and gap year programs, see this post). So, if I get this right, the ELCA churchwide is campaigning to raise money so that local congregations will have more money (via grants from the ELCA through their synods) to fund redevelopment and development projects. And more programs will be in place to offer young adults immersion programs to discern vocation and serve in global mission. I'm all for this!

Here's where my skepticism remains. If congregations themselves are going to be centers of evangelical mission, then local congregations need to change their imaginations, and become churches that start churches. Until and when that occurs, all evangelical mission, although supposedly happening at the local congregational level, will still be churchwide funded, in which case the actual function of this campaign will be to make the ELCA churchwide unit a center for evangelical mission rather than local congregations. 

I am not quite sure what the solution is, but somehow this funding for development of new congregations, not to mention the funds for leaders, youth, and young adults, needs to be raised, administered, and distributed at the local congregational level. If this doesn't happen, congregations won't become centers of evangelical mission. So, although I am in favor of the goals of this campaign on this point, I am not in favor of the centralized nature of the campaign.

The remaining funds, and really the lion's share of the funds, are for world hunger and global mission ($154 million). These are the kinds of ministries where we really are "better together." Many local congregations could probably afford to send a missionary abroad, if their members gave sacrificially. Very few local congregations could establish a Young Adults in Global Mission program in South Africa, or address global hunger issues or work to end malaria.

So much depends upon whether or not the ELCA raises these funds and then makes use of them in hierarchical, centralized ways, or whether it takes its own best theology of accompaniment, not to mention recent insights into releasing missional networks, as a guide for development, redevelopment, and leadership formation.

My understanding is some of the funds for this campaign are already promised or given. Some donors with significant financial resources at their disposal want to give to larger organizations beyond their own local congregation, and the ELCA is a recipient of gifts such as these. Like Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, which raised $23 million of its $40 million for a new capital campaign from 24 donors, the ELCA can attract major donors. So this ELCA Campaign is worthwhile perhaps on that level, because it can capture donations local and smaller congregations might not be able to, but then in the service of local congregations.

But for the record, if you are one of those donors, and you'd like to make a very large donation that would make a difference in a local congregation, can I recommend Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and our current development of campus ministries and satellite ministries in a state where Lutherans are few and far between? Talk about centers for evangelical mission!

I'll stop here. I've invited readers to review a lot of material. I'm still processing all of this. I'm sure you are also. We need to open a conversation around this campaign, the LIFT report, and the future of the ELCA. For geeks like us (and if you have read this far you are officially a member of the ELCA geek club), the care we take over this campaign and these theological resources will shape who we are as a denomination over the next 25 years... by the grace of God.


  1. Clint, I share your skepticism in many ways. Here in Central States I've watched a synodical mission appeal not only fail, but the use of the meager resources raised used in questionable and less than missional/evangelical ways. The shift in thinking that you propose is spot on, but will require a change in DNA. Hopefully resources raised will be used to facilitate that change. Without it, I fear we'll only prop up that which is not working.

  2. One observation about the Always Being Made New campaign: Not one image in the multiple marketing pieces developed for this campaign shows a child. Not one. Could this mean children are invisible in this big picture thinking of our church body?

  3. People will send their money where they see it doing the most good. If people see the work of church wide as doing the most good, they will support this campaign. If they see the local congregation as doing the most good, they will support that. If they are like most older folks I know, they will give a little bit of money to everyone who asks because it makes them feel like they helping someone else and that feels good.

    ELCA Global Mission created "level 2" projects (these are special projects outside of the regular churchwide budget the support a particular need like buying a land rover for a traveling nurse program in Liberia, or remodeling a dormitory at seminary) David Lerseth who was running Global Mission Support at the time suggested that people would rather give money to a specific, tangible, project or person.

    Did Spirit Garage (groundbreaking in its time) get funds from churchwide? Did Nadia Bolz-Weber get churchwide funding at the start? I wonder if Churchwide even saw those two coming.