Two recent news stories from the ELCA speak loudly about the values and priorities of that church body. The first one is dated November 16, 2020 and is entitled “ELCA Future Church design affirmed by ELCA Church Council.” A link to that article can be found here. The second one is dated November 4, 2020 and is a transcript of a video message from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton about the national elections, which occurred the day before. A link to that article can be found here. There are four things I would like to say about those two articles.
First, the article on the ELCA’s Future Church design described the desired outcome as “so that more people may know the way of Jesus and discover community, justice, and love.” Now certainly community, justice, and love are important. They definitely are a part of what the church needs to work for and offer to the world. But Jesus said that He is the truth and the life as well as the way (John 14: 6). The ELCA seems concerned only about pursuing the way of Jesus as they define it — working against gender injustice, racism, and white supremacy and affirming the full LGBTQIA+ agenda. The ELCA does not seem to value whether people know the full truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus did and whether people are experiencing the life that Jesus gives through a saving faith relationship with Him.
In Bishop Eaton’s video message regarding the national elections, she describes “the gospel of Jesus Christ as the basis for equity, justice, and peace for all people and creation.” Again, I would fully agree that as followers of Jesus we must pursue equity, justice, and peace for all people and creation. But the gospel of Jesus is not primarily about equity, justice, and peace for all people and creation. It is primarily about what God has done so that we can be in right relationship with Him. Pursuing equity, justice, and peace for all people and creation, though important, is part of our response to what God has done for us, not our main message or the prime focus of our faith and mission.
At least Bishop Eaton’s video message regarding the national elections was an improvement over the “Summary of Actions” which came from the ELCA’s 2019 Churchwide Assembly. A link to that summary can be found here. At least Bishop Eaton mentioned Jesus in the elections video. But one would hope that the Presiding Bishop of a Lutheran church body would mention Jesus. In contrast, the “Summary of Actions” from the ELCA’s 2019 Churchwide Assembly never mentions Jesus. And it only mentions God once. And the sentence in which it mentions God is not focused on God. Instead it is focused on people. It states that all people are created equal in the eyes of God.
At least Bishop Eaton mentions Jesus as she refers to “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” But in what she says next she does not seem to see the gospel as a record of what God has done so that we can be in right relationship with Him and with each other. Instead – typical of the ELCA – she speaks of the gospel as the basis for what we need to do. And what she defines as what we need to do has nothing to do with sharing the saving message of Jesus. Instead it is all about typical ELCA priorities – our holding “fast to our commitments to gender justice, to dismantling white supremacy as an anti-racist church, to welcoming the stranger and accompanying the neighbor, to affirming LGBTQIA+ siblings, and seeking economic justice for all.”
If anyone were to claim that I am misrepresenting the ELCA and/or being unfair to the ELCA, I would refer them to the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” which was approved by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. A link to that document can be found here. In that document the statement is made that we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgment regarding other religions, and that our main role is to love and serve our neighbor. In other words, according to the ELCA, the church – including the ELCA – has nothing unique to offer to the world.
Second, the article about the ELCA’s Future Church design places great emphasis upon the need to reach and engage “new, young, and diverse people.” Now certainly if the ELCA wants to have a future it needs to reach and engage “new, young, and diverse people.” Any congregation that wants to have a future needs to reach and engage “new, young, and diverse people.” Lutheran CORE needs to reach and engage “new, young, and diverse people.” Any Christian ministry that wants to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20) needs to reach and engage “new, young, and diverse people.”
The ELCA knows that it is in major decline. It is fully aware of the fact that those who built the congregations, built and paid for the buildings used by congregations, and developed the educational and social service agencies are aging and dying. The builders and developers are not going to be around much longer to maintain the ministries and pay the bills. But ELCA leaders show no concern about the disaster they are creating and the fact that they are alienating those who built the organizations and built and paid for the buildings that ELCA leaders are selling in order to balance synodical and churchwide budgets. ELCA leaders are creating a disaster in the way in which they are reaching out to and engaging some “new, young, and diverse people.”
For example, for the November 2020 issue of CORE Voice I wrote an article entitled, “You Reap Whatever You Sow.” A link to that article can be found here. In that article I told about an ELCA pastor by the name of Lenny Duncan, author of the book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the United States. The ELCA had made Lenny Duncan into a hero-celebrity-poster boy. But now that hero-celebrity-poster boy has turned against the ELCA. He is demanding that over the next three years the ELCA set aside $32 million in reparations funds in order to right the wrongs of centuries of racial injustice here in the United States. And if the ELCA does not do that, he will work through his “Defund Churchwide” movement to get people to divert $32 million in contributions away from the ELCA to his reparations fund. Lenny Duncan is now also advocating for polyamory (multiple partners).
Lenny Duncan is only the latest in a series of people who are doing such things as demanding that the ELCA eliminate any kind of expectation that pastors be married in order to be sexually active, throwing out the Bible because they claim that for centuries the Bible has been used to abuse people, and eliminating the Lutheran Confessions because they were written by white males.
As an aside, a while ago the synod in which I was rostered before I retired created a new staff position called Assistant to the Bishop for Authentic Diversity and Ethnic-Specific Ministries. As a white, confessionally orthodox male within the ELCA, I should be an example of authentic diversity. So I responded to the announcement by writing to the synod asking how this new staff person would be relating to someone like me. As I expected, I did not receive a reply. I am no longer new and young (though I once was new and young), but within the ELCA I am an example of diversity – and maybe even authentic diversity. So the ELCA should have an interest in reaching out to and engaging with someone like me.
Those who valued the organization of the church built the organization of the church. Will the ELCA learn – from their experience with Lenny Duncan – what will happen if they continue to enable, empower, and cater to those who do not value the organization and would be very happy to tear the organization down? When will the ELCA come to realize what they are eventually going to have to deal with because of whom they have been enabling, empowering, and catering to? Or do those in leadership realize that these movements are already beyond their control?
Third, I am concerned about the second of six “new criteria” which “were affirmed for the ELCA” in the Future Church design – “Unite all expressions of the church (congregations, synods, and the churchwide organization) into one church – together.” That statement was not further explained in the article. I am concerned about what that statement might mean for the future integrity and identity of congregations.
Fourth, there was one place where I found myself agreeing with the article on the ELCA’s Future Church design. And that is where it reported how Bishop Eaton told the Church Council that the ELCA has been witnessing “a pattern of significant decline” for more than thirty years and that “the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need to respond more quickly to this rapidly changing world.” Here I would totally agree. Dr. Thom Rainer from Church Answers describes the pandemic as a change accelerator. He says that during this past year the dynamics and trends present in every congregation have been advanced by about four years. For example, if a congregation is in decline, its decline has been advanced by four years. In 2020 it already was where pre-COVID it would not have been until 2024.
The ELCA with its current leadership reminds me of a family where one generation built up the family business, and then the next generation is driving the family business into the ground. One generation gathered the resources. The next generation is consuming, if not squandering, the resources. The ELCA will be able to keep going for a while – because of all the buildings they can sell because of all the churches that will close. But even that source of income can only keep the ELCA going for so long.
The ELCA needs to re-design itself in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures rather than in a way that is in line with the current, top, social justice warrior causes if it is going to have a future.