Your Blog Steward
- Scott Frederickson
- 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.
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.
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 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.
 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.
 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?