IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR ELCA LUTHERANISM IN AMERICA? (At Least Two Millennials Think So!)
“With this Joint Statement (between Catholics and Lutherans), we express joyful gratitude to God for this moment of common prayer in the Cathedral of Lund, as we begin the year commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.” – an excerpt from the Joint Statement signed by Pope Francis and Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation in Lund, Sweden on October 31, 2016
As previously shared with you through our congregational email a month ago, I watched the worship service in Lund, Sweden on Reformation Day with such joy. My heart was absolutely singing as I witnessed Pope Francis, Cardinal Kurt Koch, Pontifical Council President for Christian Unity, Martin Junge, Secretary General of the Lutheran World Federation, Munib Younan, President of the LWF, and Antje Jackelen, female bishop of the Lutheran Church of Sweden leading worship from the same chancel. The joint choir, in cultural garb, represented Lutherans from around the world; black, white, and Asian. The Swedish children’s choirs were angelic. And in addition to a worship service that spoke the message of our unity and reconciliation, a Joint Statement was signed that commits both of our Confessions to continued study to find a path to full communion and that commits our congregations to stand together in service, dialogue, study and prayer. (More to come on how LCR will live into those objectives.)
The Lund worship service reminded me that we are part of a large, worldwide church that is thriving in many places. Alongside the vibrancy of our global church I wrestle with the reality that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been in rapid decline and that our congregation’s numerical membership has plateaued despite the breadth of our ministry and the depth of our spirit. On the difficult and challenging days, say a Monday after a weekend of worship attendance of 180 in October (when it might have been 260 just a few years ago), I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any hope for the Lutheran church in America. (I’m resilient and confident, but I am human and the devil of despair likes to put doubts in my mind.) Perhaps when I need encouragement the most, our graceful God brightens my outlook. With that in mind, I want to share the story of Amy and Ben Morris.
Amy and Ben are Millennials who have been worshipping at LCR since July. Amy and Ben live in Erlanger, Kentucky and found their way to LCR because Pastor Nicole did a workshop on contemplative prayer at their last church. Early on, we had talked about membership but they told me they wanted to take their time and be careful because they made their last membership decision too hastily and things didn’t work out.
Last Sunday, they invited me to their new home for a house blessing and I had the chance to get to know them and their family better. Both of them were raised in very conservative Christian denominations; Amy in the Church of God and Ben in the Southern Baptist church. The obvious question was, “How did you become Lutherans?” Ben said, “We were ELCA Lutherans for a long time, we just didn’t know it.” That comment intrigued me and led to further questions. Ben explained that he and Amy had serious conversations about their faith and what they believed. Then they went to a pastor friend and asked what denomination best fit their personal theology. He led them to a website where they could enter the criteria and it matched their preferences to a denomination. Six denominations popped up for them and they tried out churches in each denomination only to find out that the ELCA was the right fit.
After they told me their story I said that I felt affirmation, especially these days when Millennials seem to be flocking to mega churches and not to the ELCA. I’ll let Ben put it in his own words:
Amy and I are definitely wanting to join LCR. We were indeed waiting because of our experience at our last church, but over the past few months LCR has exemplified to us the love, grace and message of welcome that we believe embodies Christ; a message that drew us to the ELCA in the first place. We are excited that God put Pastor Nicole in our path over a year ago and has given us the opportunity to be a part of the congregation of LCR. It further edifies in us the knowledge that even when you feel like you don't know where God is leading, there is a plan.
We are also in total agreement with you that there is a hunger in Millennials for a church like the ELCA. Millennials seek social justice among other things and a faith that is approachable, yet runs deep. We desire a pl
ace to ask questions and to be accepted while we are seeking. In all of our searching nothing embodies that more than the ELCA. And, in our experience so far, LCR represents that well. We have been sharing with our friends about LCR for about a month now and they are amazed that a church exists where all are accepted and love comes first. Especially those that grew up in more conservative, evangelical backgrounds like we did and now find themselves frustrated and attending a mega church or nowhere at all and searching for meaning, purpose and belonging. I hold a strong belief that the best days of the ELCA are ahead as Millennials begin to leave the shallow waters of mega churches in search of something deeper.
As a Baby Boomer, with deep respect for the intellect and inquisitive faith of these two Millennials, all that I can say is, “Out of the mouths of babes!” Of course, Amy and Ben are the exception and not the rule. Few, in my experience, are as serious about their faith as these two seekers. Thankfully, they have found us. But my conversation with them reminds me that we have to do a better job of finding them because their witness affirms that we (our ELCA theology and LCR’s unique gift of welcome) have what they are looking for “even though they don’t know it.” I have asked Ben and Amy to invite their friends who are seeking a church of love, depth, justice, and community. I ask each of you to do likewise! In our world of mega churches maybe there is hope for a niche market called Lutheran. At least two Millennials and one pastor (on his good days) think so!
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.