Nobody Knows What We’re Talking About

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.

9 responses to “Nobody Knows What We’re Talking About

  1. This is going to hurt. I wish you could stop being so judgmental and negative. It seems like every blog has a negative point. I do not expect you to overlook the negative things about churches. But it is time to be preaching more good ways. Since Covid it seems that even when you write a paragraph of positivity, you add three paragraphs of criticisms.
    You are a great writer and speaker…I have heard you in person. Thank you.



    Thank you. We are on the edge of the future at out church. I love the people, though I am often on a different page from them. If we don’t change and embrace change, we won’t make it.


  3. Yes! Thank you. And this is not your larger point, I know, but can we just take down all church marquees now? All of them? They’re never good.


  4. You make an excellent point. I’ve noticed similar church marquees and been irritated when they use acronyms that mean nothing to me. The message they send out is, “Join us, if you know what we’re doing.” To carry it another step, the same holds true in church bulletins. Just because someone has come in the sanctuary door on Sunday morning doesn’t mean they’ll understand some of the activities listed in the bulletin.


  5. Mantra of a member of church I served (dual-denomination but shrinking in a growing community):
    “We need a better sign. I’m sure there are plenty of xxx’s and xxx’s out there.”
    Uh, no. They’d be here if they wanted to be.


  6. I am an ELCA Charlotte Church member. I grew up Presbyterian, both before unification and after.
    I’ve read some of the replies to this post and it seems like you are an intellectual person with some positive things to say.
    This is a generalization. You are implying that whatever sign this is, doesn’t get the point. But have you attended the church with the sign? Maybe they actually DO get the point and their church is growing and is serving all generations.
    Much like my church. That you might pass in Charlotte as well. We are growing. We are reaching all generations. We are traditional, evangelical, and contemporary. It’s because our leaders do get it. The message is more powerful than judging anyone because they are this or that or what the sign says on providence rd.
    The challenge that I personally see in religion today is that everyone generalizes, uses data points, talks about not serving or serving.
    Be specific. When you state a fact, make sure it is a fact that you personally experienced.
    And most importantly, let the word of god be the guiding light for the church. It isn’t meant for everyone so all those groups doing other things on Sunday, well that’s their choice. Mine is to sit in church with my family listening to a specific message that will help me through my life.

    I invite you inside a church with a sign out front. All are welcome. 9am traditional. 11am contemporary. Christ Lutheran Church, ELCA. Providence Rd at Sardis. Come see for yourself and if it isn’t what you want, that’s fine. Others do want it and that’s the point. An exclamation point.


  7. Hi Jan! Thanks for your witness here. Thirty years ago, a judicatory official remarked to me, “It’s hard to be a minister in a declining empire.” I thought of that truth again when you referred to the “if you build it, they will come” mentality of our Fifties churches, the one that to me still haunts the mainstream denominations. Somewhere along the line we missed a key transition point. I don’t think, though, that we can leap from that kind of inertia straight to a message that compels people today. How can we begin?

    You’re right to observe “it’s all in the relationships.” Those to me begin with what’s cultivated between church folk and those they meet at work, at play, in the community, or in school. Let’s train our people to contact those they meet there, to love and respect them, and then to share about the gifts of their churches – worship, preaching, small groups, work for justice – and about religious experience generally. I don’t think we do a good job of training our people to tell their stories – and ultimately the Christ story, and how that intersects and redeems our own.

    I don’t know if that would satisfy Mr. Cannon. I tend to shy away from “a specific message that will help me through my life”: most of the problematic situations of my life aren’t specific enough to admit of specific solutions. Same with “Bible-believing” churches – I tend to trust what I find in the ebb and flow of human and spiritual relationships more than I do in the written word, even the Word, even though Biblical truth is essential. Church life in a declining empire doesn’t admit of easy solutions. Yet we have it in ourselves to participate in the common wealth of God.


  8. To add to the confusion, the “Evangelical” in ELCA does _not_ mean “the conservative branch of the denomination.”


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