Churches Without Property

In 1998, I moved with my wife and my 3 year old son to Pembroke Pines, Florida.  I was sent there to start a new congregation in an area of Broward County that was located between I-75 and the Florida Everglades. 

It was an exciting time, but also a little frightening.  Would I have what it takes to knock on 5000 doors?  Would I really be able to gather enough people to form a worshipping community within six months?  Would this group of people be able to grow enough in numbers and giving to officially organize as a congregation?   

The answer to each of those questions was yes!  We held our first worship six months after I arrived in Pembroke Pines.  There were over 100 people there on the first Sunday.  Two years later, we voted to become a congregation, with over 100 members.  Not only that, but our congregation was multi-cultural, reflecting the area in which we were located.  Finally, we had lots of children and families.  Each week, over a third of the congregation was under the age of 18.

Everything was going as planned except for one thing.  We had been unable to purchase property on which to build a place to worship, hold Sunday School, adult Bible studies, and have an office.  On three occasions, we almost made it, but something fell through.  To this day, 25 years later, that congregation still has to rent space every Sunday to hold worship and Sunday School.

Why was it so difficult?  There were several factors.  Broward County was running out of land.  The cities had reached the edge of the Everglades and could go no further. What land remained was at a premium.  In addition, all of the land that remained was covered in muck.  To develop a piece of property, you had to “de-muck”, which means to scrape off all of the muck until you reached limestone. Then you had to re-fill the land with suitable soil for building.  At the same time, you had to set aside a third or more of the property for wetlands mitigation.

However, that’s not the primary reason it was so hard for a congregation to buy property.  The real reason that it was difficult was that the local municipalities, along with the county government, did not want any more churches.  You heard that right.  Churches were not wanted because they didn’t add to the tax base.  Furthermore, I suspect they were seen to be sectarian and divisive in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious community.  All of the things normally done by churches and synagogues could be done just as well by the schools, libraries and public parks, it was thought.

Why do I drag up the past?  Because I thought at the time, and still think today, that what happened to my congregation 25 years ago may be a preview of what will happen to many congregations in the 21st Century.  As church attendance drops, as more people identify as having no religious affiliation, and as the Church is seen more and more to be regressive and hateful, I expect government to seek to limit the freedom of the Church. One way to do that, among others, is through zoning and land use laws.  That’s what was used in Broward County.  Keep congregations from buying property and building facilities, and you limit their influence.

A further reason that I think this might be the future for many congregations is the growing denominational conflict which many of us have already experienced.  Over the past 25 years, Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists, among others, have learned again and again that they may have to choose between faithfulness to the Word of God and owning property.   Sometimes, when that happens, there are enough people who have been “de-churched” to form a worshipping community.  Often, however, all that remains are Christians who have no church.  I have spoken to faithful Lutherans, who on being de-churched cannot find an orthodox Lutheran congregation within a reasonable driving distance. 

Unless we have a model of how to “do Church” without property and buildings, many faithful Lutherans will remain de-churched.  When I first faced this problem 25 years ago, there wasn’t a model available to me for doing mission without property and a building.  I had to do the best I could. 

At the end of the 20th Century, there were two primary models with which I was familiar.  The first was the pastor centered model.  The second was the program centered model.  Both of those depend on a congregation owning property and facilities.  In the pastor centered model, the congregation gathered each week for worship and fellowship.  The pastor did ministry to and for the members in the building owned by the congregation.  (Evangelism consisted of the pastor visiting individuals in the community.)

The program centered model also required property and facilities, but more than what was owned by a pastoral centered congregation.  It was through the varied programs that the congregation did ministry to its members and reached out to the unchurched.  The better the programs and the more varied, the more people could be reached.  More than one called pastor and multiple lay ministers were required to run the programs of the congregation.  In order for all of this to happen, however, adequate facilities were a must.

When I was a pastor developer, property was key to the viability of a new church.  Generally speaking, the pastor developer was expected to locate more than 5 acres for purchase.  That’s because the goal was for new congregations to grow beyond the pastor centered model to the program centered model.  You’ll need more than 5 acres to build the facilities to sustain a program centered congregation.  On more than one occasion, I heard of a mission congregation that was shut down because it couldn’t find enough land.  In spite of what was said about “the Church is not a building”, buildings were considered essential.

I fear that if the Lutheran Church in the 21st Century follows that model, it will be difficult to plant enough new congregations to reach the thousands of un-churched Lutherans in North America.  Even less will it be adequate to do the kind of mission that is required in our post-Christian society.   What models do we have for starting new congregations today?  What models do we have for a time when there are not enough pastors?  Not enough land?  Not enough facilities?  Do we simply say, “Starting a new congregation here is not a viable option?” 

Of equal importance is the question of how to grow a congregation.  What alternatives are there to the traditional Sunday School model, with accompanying Children’s and Youth programs?  Can a program model of ministry be replaced by a disciple making model?  Are there creative ways to raise up pastors and lay ministers in places where a pastor can’t be afforded?  We need answers to those questions if we want to do mission in the 21st Century. 

She Just Does Not Get It

After reading two recent communications from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the only conclusion I can come to is this.  She just does not get it.

The first communication is dated September 3, 2021 and is entitled, “We Are the Body of Christ.”  A link to that communication can be found here. In that letter Bishop Eaton writes about the great, long-standing animosity between Jews and Gentiles, and about how in the early church, these two groups of people were able to be brought together.  She refers to the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15 as well as to the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and to how “the dispute between the two groups was healed.”  She said that this healing “went to the very core of what it meant to be part of the church.”  She then said, “They were one body.  We are one body. . . . Yes, we have significant disagreement about very important issues, but our cultural and political differences cannot dissolve this bond.”  I was absolutely floored by what she wrote next.  “We can take heart from the example of the early church.  If, by the Spirit’s power, they could set aside their differences – which were far greater than any of ours – then we, too, by the power of the Sprit, can live into the unity that already exists in Christ.”

She just does not get it.  The differences between confessional Lutherans today who hold to the authority of the Bible and who believe that the Lutheran Confessions are a reliable interpretation of the Bible and those who would call themselves the “progressives” are not far less than, instead they are far greater than the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the early church.  For example –

No one in the early church led the young people of that church in denouncing the views of the more traditional folks as a lie from Satan that needs to be renounced – unlike what happened at the 2018 ELCA youth gathering. 

The apostles did not ignore, dismiss, minimize, or marginalize the Hellenists when they expressed their concern that their widows were being neglected (Acts 6).  Instead, they appointed seven deacons to resolve the matter.  In contrast, those with traditional views are usually totally ignored when they express their concerns to those in positions of power.    

Heresies in the early church were dealt with (for example, see Colossians 2) rather than just accepted or even celebrated as culturally sensitive ways to contextualize the Gospel.

After the early church made their decision in Acts 15 as to how uncircumcised Gentiles could be a part of the church, they did not then a few years later claim to have decided something else.  Their honesty and integrity in holding to what they had decided stands in sharp contrast with the way in which the ELCA has expanded and re-interpreted what was actually voted on and approved in 2009 so that they are now able to embrace the full LGBTQIA+ agenda. 

The apostles did not break promises and ignore commitments as the ELCA has done by its not giving a place of honor and respect to traditional views and those who hold them.  I have heard of white male seminarians with traditional views being told to put tape over their mouths and not speak.  I also know of people whose ordination candidacy process was cancelled or who were denied entrance into the candidacy process because of their traditional views.   

Yes, Bishop Eaton just does not get it.  The differences between confessional Lutherans and those who would call themselves the “progressives” are not far less than, instead they are far greater than the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the early church.

Even more out of touch with reality is what Bishop Eaton wrote in the second communication, which is dated October 20, 2021, and is entitled, “A pastoral letter from the ELCA presiding bishop regarding the actions of the Reformed Church in America General Synod 2021.”  A link to that communication can be found here.  In that letter she told about one of the ELCA’s full communion partners, which had recently met in General Synod.  The final Vision 2020 Report was presented to the assembly, with its recommendations for the future of the denomination “with regard to staying together . . . and grace-filled separation.”  Bishop Eaton commended that church body for “adopting regulations to provide an unobstructed pathway for those local churches that will depart the denomination.”  She praised their actions, which she says “reflect the RCA’s commitment to walking together, respecting differences, and affirming common mission and ministry.”  She described the spirit of the synod as “conciliatory and hope-filled, as delegates shared their disagreements in the bond of peace.” 

What she then says in the next paragraph is totally out of touch with reality.  She talked about how the ELCA has “traveled this same road.”  She uses language from the 2009 social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” when she says, “It is possible, by the grace of God, to be a church that makes an active choice to live with the disagreement among us, and ‘to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and respect.”  How out of touch can you get?  There may have been those who – back in 2009 – were deceived into buying that line so that they were willing to vote in favor of the human sexuality social statement and the changes in ministry policies.  But I do not know anyone today who continues to believe that the ELCA has any plans to “honor bound conscience.”

I know that there are ELCA bishops and synod councils who have been gracious in their dealings with congregations who were voting to disaffiliate from the ELCA.   But I have also heard many stories of bullying, intimidating, threats to take property, and efforts to get as many dollars as possible from congregations who wish to leave.  I know of retired ELCA pastors who were told by their synods that they would be removed from the ELCA clergy roster if they did not leave a congregation that has voted to disaffiliate from the ELCA.  I know of a seminarian who was no longer welcome at an ELCA seminary once the congregation that she was affiliated with began the process of leaving the ELCA. 

Too many ELCA congregations have not experienced a “grace-filled separation.”  Too many ELCA congregations did not find “an unobstructed pathway” when they began the process of voting to leave the ELCA. I am certain that what Bishop Eaton wrote in her October 20 communication is something that she wishes were true and that she desires to be true.  But why does she not know that it is not true?  Does she really think that people will believe what she wrote?   

Letter from the Director – August 2018


That was my prayer as I read a recent announcement from United Lutheran Seminary, the ELCA school of theology that was formed by the merger of two separate educational institutions in Gettysburg and Philadelphia. That announcement, which is dated July 12, 2018 and which can be found under “News and Events” on the seminary’s website, is about the appointment of Dr. Crystal L. Hall to the faculty as assistant professor of biblical studies. It reads, “Dr. Hall’s research and teaching address the call to justice with the human Other alongside the call to justice with Earth as Other.”

When I read that, my first thought was, “What in the world does that mean?” I decided to try to determine its meaning by breaking it down into three phrases – “the call to justice” (which obviously must be very important because it is in there twice), “with the human Other,” and “alongside . . . with Earth as Other.”

I certainly agree that the Biblical authors are concerned for justice. The Old Testament prophet Amos wrote, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (5: 24) Another prophet, Micah, added, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6: 8) God is not satisfied with my merely being in favor of justice. I need to do justice. So Dr. Hall’s first emphasis – “the call to justice” – I completely agree with.

But what about that second phrase – “with the human Other”? I could not find references to “the human Other” in the writings of other Bible scholars, so I was left to my own devices to try to interpret it and understand it. Since the “O” is capitalized, I assume the human Other is Jesus. But how can we view calling Jesus the human Other as anything other than a lessening of Jesus? Jesus is not just the human Other. He is fully God as well as fully human. As the Gospel writer John tells us, He is the Word that has existed from all eternity who at a certain place and time became flesh and lived among us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God.” “In Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Colossians 1: 15 and 2: 9) Jesus is not just the human Other. He also is fully God.

And then that phrase, “alongside . . . with Earth as Other.” With the word “Earth” being capitalized and with Earth being referred to as “Other” in the same way as Jesus is “Other,” how can we view this as anything other than deifying a part of creation? How can we see it as anything other than placing a part of creation on par with the Creator? The apostle Paul had some very harsh words to say about people who do that. He said that they have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1: 25) What can we call placing a part of creation on par with the Creator as anything other than idolatry?

So as best as I can understand the language of the announcement, the newly appointed professor’s research and teaching emphasize justice (I completely agree with that one), de-emphasize Jesus (I have a major problem with that one), and promote idolatry (I also have a major problem with that one).

If emphasizing justice, de-emphasizing Jesus, and promoting idolatry are not what Dr. Hall’s research and teaching are all about, then I wish the announcement would have been made clearer and would have been worded in a way that even I can understand.

Speaking of being clear, the only part of that sentence that is clear for me are the four words “the call to justice.” And those four words must be the most important words because they are included twice. But is “the call to justice” really what should be the major emphasis of someone who teaches the Bible to future pastors?

Justice, Mercy and Grace

I like the following definitions of justice, mercy, and grace. Justice is I get what I deserve – no more, no less. Mercy is I do not get what I deserve. Grace is I get what I do not deserve. Justice talks about what God requires of me. Justice speaks of what I need to do. Mercy and grace speak of what God gives because of what God has done. Is the Christian faith primarily about what I need to do, or is it primarily about what God has done and about what God has to give?

Future pastors who are being taught to emphasize justice and de-emphasize Jesus and who are being taught that the Christian faith is more about what I need to do than it is about what God has done and therefore what God has to give are not being prepared to be shepherds for God’s flock.

If that is what our future pastors are being taught, my prayer is, “Please, Lord, spare the congregations.”

ELCA’s Next Generation Pastors

I had been concerned enough with the news from a few months ago that the LGBTQIA+ community at United Lutheran Seminary had forced the firing of the school’s president. When it became known that the president – about twenty years ago – not only had held a traditional view on human sexuality but had served as director of an organization that held a traditional view, the LGBTQIA+ community became so wounded, traumatized, hurt, and upset that the seminary leadership had to cater to them and fire the president. At the time I was thinking, if these poor students become so upset just because someone who agrees with them now believed differently twenty years ago, what are they going to do – how are they going to be able to handle it – when they receive their first call and attend their first council meeting – or even worse their first congregational meeting – and find that someone does not agree with them? The ELCA is raising up a generation of pastors who emphasize justice, de-emphasize Jesus, and who do not have the resilience and stamina to survive in the parish.

Excluded and Marginalized

That same announcement from the seminary also says about Dr. Hall, “She works to privilege voices that have historically been excluded from the classroom and the church.” But what actually are the voices that are being excluded from the classroom and the church? The voices that are being excluded are the voices of the historic, orthodox, traditional Christian faith. The voices that are being excluded are the voices that believe that the Bible is true, Jesus is God, the tomb of Jesus really was empty on Easter Sunday morning, and that the prime mission of the church is to proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord.

That announcement also says, “Dr. Hall works to read the Bible prophetically with communities struggling against the structures that keep them marginalized.” But who are the communities that are struggling against structures that are keeping them marginalized? It is certainly not the LGBTQIA+ community. That community is not marginalized. It has taken over. That community was not only able to force the firing of the president of the seminary where Dr. Hall has been appointed. The agenda of that community was also fully promoted by keynote speakers at the recent ELCA youth gathering. The communities that are struggling against structures that keep them marginalized are the people still within the ELCA who hold to a high view of the authority of the Bible and a traditional view on such things as human sexuality. They are the ones whose communications bishops ignore. They are the ones whose view of human sexuality has been called – at an official gathering of thirty thousand ELCA young people – a lie from Satan that needs to be renounced.

We Are Very Grateful

Speaking of voices that have been excluded and communities that are being marginalized, we are very grateful for all of you. We are very grateful for –

  • All who are sharing our letters and newsletters with others. Please continue to do so.
  • Pastors who have shared our communications with their church councils and congregations.
  • People who are asking to be added to our email or post office (paper) mailing list.
  • People who filled out the survey and told us how they feel about the recent ELCA youth gathering.
  • All those who have spoken to their pastors and/or written to their bishops with their deep concerns over the recent ELCA youth gathering.
  • All who send us an encouraging word, telling of their agreement with our concerns and their support of our work.


If you have not yet read them, here is a link to the letter we have written to Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, about the recent youth gathering.

Here is a link to the letter we have sent to all sixty-five synodical bishops of the ELCA.

In the letters to Bishop Eaton and the ELCA synodical bishops we have called upon them to do three things –

  • Exercise the authority of their office and hold the organizers of the youth gathering accountable
  • Restore sanity to the ELCA’s teaching on human sexuality, beginning with rejecting the “We Are Naked and Unashamed” movement
  • Publicly affirm that the traditional view of human sexuality is still an acceptable position within the ELCA rather than what one of the speakers at the youth gathering called it – a lie from Satan that needs to be renounced

Here are links to two sample letters that you might find helpful as you compose your own letter to your bishop. (here and here) It is not too late to write. ELCA leaders need to hear that there is a vast number of people who are horrified over what took place at the recent youth gathering.

Finally, here is a link to the names and mailing addresses of the sixty-five ELCA synodical bishops.

“That’s Just the Way Things Are Now”

One person told of speaking with an assistant to the bishop of one of the ELCA’s synods. That synod staff person rejected this person’s concerns by saying regarding the recent youth gathering, “That’s just the way things are now.”

What kind of a response is that? To be told that even though current ELCA behavior is in direct violation of ELCA agreements and commitments that are less than nine years old, “That’s just the way things are now.”

What if the federal government acted like that? What if ICE and the border patrol, after being told to reunite families, were to keep them separate and say, “That’s just the way things are now”? What if promises made to native Americans were broken with the justification that, “That’s just the way things are now”?

If either were to happen, can you even imagine how many ELCA bishops would write letters and how many ELCA synods would pass resolutions? And yet how does the ELCA seem to be justifying its totally ignoring and even violating the terms of the decisions made at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly? By saying essentially, “That’s just the way things are now.”

Please pray with us that the ELCA bishops actually read our letters to them. And then please pray that they will allow the Holy Spirit to convict them and that then they will make appropriate and needed changes.

Dennis D. Nelson

President of the Board and Director of Lutheran CORE