I was driving by a church building in Charlotte last week and the marquee in front of the sanctuary said “ELCA!“
This is not a post against Lutherans. Some of my best friends are Lutherans, as they say, and I would have had the same reaction if the sign had said PCUSA! UMC! RCA!
Insider knowledge: The ELCA stands for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not to be confused with the LCMS which stands for Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The ELCA ordains women and gay people. The Missouri Synod does not. Anyway . . .
I had a visceral reaction to the ELCA! sign – that was probably intensified by my personal COVID-related stress quotient – in that I. Was. Enraged. Seriously, I felt deep rage, and I would have felt the same rage if the sign had “shouted” any other denominational acronym.
I would probably love that ELCA congregation in terms of the people but their church sign exemplifies one of those enormous Adventures In Missing The Point that makes The Silent Generation say things like “Where are all the young people?” while Generation Z shrugs. Also most other generations shrug.
This is Church on most Sundays where I live, (And I live in the Bible Belt.)
- People gather for a 15 minute Bento Zoom to focus on being intentional this week regarding personal and community goals.
- People gather en masse to coffee shops with their babies and dogs to hang out with friends who also have babies and dogs.
- Brunch at the craft breweries is extremely popular.
- Physician Moms are meeting for an online coffee to comfort each other during COVID and share the craziest stories they heard last week. (My own doctor participates in these. Last week’s crazy story: that the COVID vaccine causes infertility in young adult women which is ridiculous.)
I could go on and on, but I want to get to my point: the average person doesn’t know and doesn’t care that our church is ELCA or ECOP or AoG or LDS or AME or REC. Adding an exclamation point after the initials doesn’t inspire excitement. It looks a little ridiculous and it screams: “Nobody Knows What We’re Talking About.”
I served a congregation for many years that was established in 1947 and it grew to 1000 members within two years because 1) everyone was grateful that we beat the Nazis, 2) everybody was having babies and wanted preschools, Sunday schools, and Vacation Bible schools, and 3) if you built it, they would come.
Congregations established just 30 years later may or may not have thrived. Citizens of the U.S. were not necessarily on the same page in the early 1970s when it came to fighting wars in other parts of the world. And our young leaders were being assassinated.
Congregations established in the 1990s were often established because of growth in the suburbs. More than one congregation has told me that “it was the Presbytery who wanted to put a church here.” In other words, there was not a core group of believers who organically wanted to be The Church together.
I don’t know how to start new worshipping communities today but I do know how it won’t happen. It won’t happen based on what we put on church signs. It won’t happen because people are looking for a church. (Okay, yes there are people who move into the community and immediately look for a church. I live in Charlotte, NC – the birthplace of Billy Graham. But of the 21,000 people who moved to Charlotte since March 2020, I’m going to guess that most of them have not joined traditional churches.) For towns and cities whose residents are moving away, churches are getting even smaller.
Yes, there are exceptions. But even the most conservative, evangelical congregations are losing members.
What we’ve also lost: an understanding that whether people are “in church” or not, they have spiritual lives and they crave meaning and they want to serve their communities. How can we be The Church for a totally different time? It’s all in the relationships. We can’t be the Church with and for people we don’t understand.