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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Does any Congregation matter in the ELCA?

Recently, I came across a teaser for a documentary film coming out entitled “Do Black Churches matter in the ELCA?” I love that question for many reasons. Here are some reasons I consider this an important question for the ELCA today.

Reason # 1
It assumes not one, but two collective nouns, and a provocative, identity-based adjective. Questions that have so many variables are always the most interesting for moving conversation forward. Take, for example, the object of the sentence “ELCA.”

What is the ELCA? It is a collection of individuals, gathered in various ways, who adhere to the precepts and principles of a particular constitution and attendant ways of being Christian. And what’s most exciting about this particular group of Christians is they have never settled on the question of individual vs. group mentality. In other words, it’s not the Marines. Individuals can flat-out disagree on any topic, and both of them can still be “ELCA.” The ELCA does have some theological touchstones that many give a passing nod to every now and then, but by and large, the ELCA is made up of people who believe they are the ELCA, even if no one else believes they are.

So to ask, as the movie does, do Black Churches matter to the “ELCA” has 3.9 million answers. (That’s roughly how many people self-identify as ELCA.) Granted, the answer will probably be somewhat quantifiable, but there is no “one answer” the ELCA could offer to the question. That’s why the question is so important: the answer is irrelevant, because we already know what it’s going to be. There will be some “yeses” and “noes” on each end of the Bell Curve, and all the rest somewhere in the middle.  But that’s if you take the “ELCA” as a collective noun.

If taken from an individual perspective, the question has even more power. Now, all 3.9 million folks have to answer for themselves whether Black churches matter? It’s tougher to be in the middle when you’re the middle, as well as both ends of the Bell Curve. And to throw an interesting twist to this question, although there are Black members of the ELCA, the congregations have historically been constructions of White culture. This leads us to that wonderfully provocative adjective…

Reason # 2
Who knows what a “Black” Church is? What does it mean to be a “Black” Church? We might think Richard Allen and the African Methodist-Episcopal Church is a Black church, but would a Church that has a few Black Americans amongst a majority of White Americans be a “Black” Church? What makes a “Black” Church black? This is especially difficult to answer in a Christian tradition like the ELCA dominated by White, Euro-centric culture.[1]

For example, I went to seminary on the south side of Chicago in the 1980s. I went to a lot of Black congregations, some of them were in the ELCA or one of its predecessors.  But looking back on those experiences, what made them “Black” was either the leader was a Black American or they were populated by “more than a few” Black Americans; otherwise, my memory is that those congregations were just like any others. They did the same stuff, had the same posters, and sang the same songs. But again, that’s why the question in the film is so important. I’m willing to bet that if you think you know what “Black” Church means, you probably don’t.  And you should probably watch the film.

Reason #3
The Church historian Martin Marty once remarked that all Christian traditions in the USA are “de-facto Congregationalists.” For one thing, it’s built into the IRS tax-code all Christian congregations adhere to in their formation[2] For another thing, almost all Americans value “freedom.” That means you are free to join or free to leave any congregation without adverse recrimination. Neither a White European like Jean Calvin or a Black African like St. Augustine understood congregations that way. There were huge recriminations for not leaving or not joining. But in the good ol’ USA…

The word “Church” forces us to come to grips with God.  What is God doing with “Church?” Does “Church” matter to God? Does “Black” matter to God? Does the “ELCA” matter to God?  It has to matter if only because it does not matter; and it has to not matter only because it does. God has made us each beloved children, regardless of identity. But built into each identity is a corporeal existence that subsists in communion.  Each of us are created to participate in the life and being of the Triune God, both together and alone (or, both alone and together, if you’d rather.)

I am looking forward to this documentary not because I am Black (I am not); nor, because I am of the ELCA (I do self-identify that way.) I am looking forward to this because I want to know what God is up to in this film-maker’s corner of the world. Because that corner is my world too, whether I ever go there or not.




[1] I do not delineate in this essay men from women in creating the dominant Christian tradition in the ELCA. Both men and women are very responsible for its culture. No White male has ever asked my wife is she wished to be “First Lady” of the congregation, but women ask her that all the time. There is a definite need for a feminist critique of the ELCA, and I would love to see a film about that as well.
[2] Interestingly,ecclesiologist Daniel Anderson, often suggests that if he were starting a new congregation he would not seek tax-exempt status. This would allow the new congregation to actually franchise new congregations down the road, and perhaps they would not be “Congregationalist” in their polity and structure?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

#decolonizelutheran

A group of newer, often younger, folks from my tradition are advocating a new way of being "Lutheran" that does not depend upon the colonizing cultural influences of the past. The colonizing theological influences are OK, but the folks who share and press for a "de-colonized" Lutheranism are much more concerned about the social mores. They will succeed in the end. How can they not? Culture, when faced with theology, always loses.

The problem is, however, that one can never divorce oneself from culture, and therefore you never actually experience the victory your theology vindicates. All you experience is suffering. But theology always wins. We just never see it. This was Luther's great insight into the question of theology and culture (which is, of course, anachronistic to Luther's culture, but that's the point of his theology.) Theology (and in the case of Luther this is God's Word, Jesus Christ) conquers all cultural relativizing precisely because Christian theology is non-cultural. (Never make the mistake of equating "non"-cultural with "counter"-cultural, that is the failure of all Christians who think God cares about their politics. In essence God cares about no politics because Love is not a political energy. All cultures are relativized by theology.)

I'll never forget when I first came across this line by Martin Luther "Seventh, the holy Christian people are eternally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross." (On the Councils and the Church, 1539) I was blown away by that insight into what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ as the way of God. Think about this line with me. Christians are possessed by the "sacred cross." (Think of your favorite movie about demon possession, and replace it with Jesus Christ on the cross.) And this possession we experience is not bound by history and the vicissitudes of time, but rather is an "eternal" possession that leads to our being recognized by God as lovers of Jesus Christ and the way through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amazing.

In short, what it means, is that God recognizes you as a child of God as you suffer from possessing the cross you have been given in life; and, as that cross is sacred, that is blessed by the power of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (that's how things become "sacred" to a Christian), that cross, that suffering becomes your very salvation. Unfortunately, the predominant experience is suffering, but that suffering is literally a sign of your salvation. And culture has been relativized by theology once again.

But, Black Americans get shot in the back by white police officers. Women get raped by men. Elderly get abused by the youth. Trans folks get fired from jobs. The suffering, the salvation, has real consequences. People die. People cry. People live. People give. And culture gloats on its merry way to obsolescence because the people who died, who suffered, who cried, who gave everything were defined by their theology, not their culture.

It's the ones who don't die, who survive, who tell the most heart-breaking of stories. It's like they have been taken to the cliffs of Mount Nebo, and rudely left there to sift through the ashes of their pain. Mount Nebo may be a good metaphor for what I am talking about. The view may have been gorgeous, but we'll never know because the only one who saw that view didn't make it down the mount alive.

So it goes for anyone who tries to de-colonize Lutheranism or de-colonize anything for that matter...you may glimpse the promised land, but your chances of making it back down to share with the rest us is pretty much nil. But, I'm guessing, if like Moses you went through all that suffering to just to get there, you'd probably be OK with that.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.