Tag Archives: ELCA

The Minority Status DNA of the Church

At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?                                                                                   – Gallup Poll question

Religion is losing influence in American society, according to 77 percent of those recently polled by Gallup. It’s not the first time Americans have been pessimistic about religion’s influence upon society. Gallup started polling on this question in 1957. At the height the Vietnam War in 1970, 75 percent of those polled answered the above question in the negative. During the 1990s, those answering “religion is losing influence” hovered near 60 percent. It was only after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that increasing influence numbers outpaced losing influence numbers. That positive bump only lasted two years, however.

Could this losing influence trend reverse itself in the future? Absolutely.

Contrary to what the Gallup poll might suggest, the church in America is not in the process of dying. As of 2014, 70 percent of Americans claim Christian affiliation, a clear majority. Not all of these, however, regularly participate in the life of a gathering faith community. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics and mainline Protestants are currently losing significant numbers of adherents, while the category grouping “unaffiliated” or “none” (many of these young adults) conversely grows – now at 23 percent, nearly one in four Americans.

As a pastor in a mainline denomination (ELCA) that is suffering numerical decline, I proclaim that the wane of religious influence and participation is not the worst thing that could happen. As I’ll explain, it’s a potentially good situation.

For the first 300 years of its life, the Christian church was a minority status organization. The apostle Paul described the believers in the church of Corinth as not measuring up to elevated human standards of wisdom, influence, or nobility. Even so, this small and obscure organization – the gathering community in Corinth being one example – maintained vitality. Its founding DNA, if you will, was infused with an ability to thrive in difficult circumstances.

early church

Roman Emperor Constantine gave his blessing upon the church in 325 CE, thus enabling it to (eventually) grow into what most American Christians know the church as – a majority status institution. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a majority status institution, but care must be taken that corruptions, entitlements, and ineffectiveness don’t infiltrate the institution and desecrate its mission. The American auto industry of the 1970s and ’80s is a prime example – remember the Plymouth Volare and the AMC Pacer? These inferior models, indirectly, helped make the way for the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry – significantly better automobiles, and from foreign manufacturers.

Like the US auto industry, the American church is not what it used to be. In the 1950s and early ’60s, social pressures dictated that respectable citizens be church members; church attendance numbers crested. The pendulum has now swung decisively in the other direction, as attributed by the growing number of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated, and shrinking church memberships.

It’s quite possible that the church is in the process of becoming leaner and more focused. The pendulum has swung far enough to the other side that churches no longer need to try to measure up to what used to be. Our numbers aren’t what they used to be a generation or two ago? So be it! Biggest is not always best. Infused into our organizational DNA is the ability to thrive as a minority institution.

The 21st century could be a time of clarified mission for a number of our churches. Mission that includes cooperation with peoples of differing faith traditions on topics of common interest: compassionate service to the human family for the advancement of common good; an impassioned voice for justice when the economy unfairly rewards the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged; the promotion of peace in the face of war. And all these things done in the name of that which we hold to be holy.

When peoples of differing religions operate together in this fashion, positive religious societal influence will proliferate and the world will be a better place because of it.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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Same-Sex Marriage Legalized – Egalitarianism in Action

I’m a pastor of a national church body that is both progressive and traditional. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved, in 2009, a resolution to ordain gay and lesbian ministry candidates. This decision led a number of folks and congregations to leave the ELCA; overall membership has plummeted now to under 4 million members. At its inception in 1988, the ELCA had a membership of more than 5 million souls. The 2009 decision is not the sole factor to explain the church’s decline, but one of many including changing cultural values and increasing number of hours worked by Americans.

SCOTUS

US Supreme Court – 2015

On Sunday, July 5, I preached on the recent US Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) to legalize same-sex marriage. The congregation I serve in Austin, Texas is dual-language, English and Spanish; we gather to worship separately in both respective languages each Sunday within a “one congregation” context. We have members in each worship group who represent either side of the gay marriage issue – traditional and progressive. The text of II Corinthians 12:9 – spiritual power reaching full maturity in weakness – served to remind our traditional-leaning members (most of whom were raised in the previous century and taught that homosexuality was wrong) about the hidden strength of spiritual power: It gives us the wisdom to sort out the things we can change from the things we need to accept. Our Christian tradition beckons us to love our neighbors and interact with them compassionately, even if their life choices and/or politics don’t agree with our own.

The Supreme Court decision, coming days before the 239th anniversary of the nation’s birth, gave me an opportunity to preach also on the egalitarian foundations, still alive and well, of our society. Egalitarianism, as I proclaim it, goes beyond equality to a deeper reality than simply equal quantities, measurements, or values. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. Egalitarianism is political in nature: a group or commu­nity engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, at­tains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor.

The word egalitarian was coined during the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) as the maturing industrial era created economic and social inequalities previously unknown.  While the word egalitarian is a very recent addition to most languages, the concept of egalitarianism is a deeply biblical and ancient one. From God telling Pharaoh through Moses “Let my people go!” to Paul proclaiming to the Galatians that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – egalitarianism, be it spiritual or secular, unites and liberates those who are subordinated by unjust domination.

The biblical record serves to buttress egalitarian­ism as a social value in secular society. As a political response to the dominance that a top-down hierarchy or majority can create, egalitarianism has played a major role in American history. Many immigrants came to America from Europe because the promised or imagined opportunity provided relief from social and economic domination. The abolition movement achieved success in the nineteenth century, as did the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, fueled by egalitarianism. Egal­itarianism is one of humanity’s greatest achievements be­cause of the opportunities it affords to those previously kept under thumb. Those seen to be individually weak join forces to stand up to or have equal footing with the strong and powerful. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s use of the egalitarian line “all men are created equal [sic]” in the Declaration of Independence has served both to restrict the haughty and to liberate the downtrodden. Egalitarianism best serves to eliminate unjust and unmerited privilege that debilitates minority populations. America’s slaves, indigenous, immigrants, minorities, women, children, handicapped, gays and lesbians have all achieved civil rights—sometimes through blood, sweat, and tears—because of egalitarianism.

scotus 1967 warren court

1967 Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall joined in October after the June 12th Loving decision)

The 2015 Obergefell decision echoes the 1967 Supreme Court decision to legalize interracial marriage in all the land. According to Gallup.com, some 75 percent of Americans in 1967 disapproved of interracial marriage, and fourteen former slaveholding states did not permit it. The Loving v. Virginia decision helped move the nation away from some of its racist past, and toward a future of greater light.

Our Supreme Court justices and their decisions are not infallible, but oftentimes a wisdom derived from the radical phrase “all people are created equal” comes forth from their decisions. Both liberty and egalitarianism are founding and guiding principles of this society; their simultaneous cooperation and competition with one another (balancing out the other’s excesses) help this society live up to its stated convictions.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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