ELCA

July 29, 2018

Liberal Lutherans Doubling Down

Over the last reporting decade the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has lost more than 1 million members or 25% of membership, now down to 3.5 million, from 4.7 million ten years ago. At this rate of decline the denomination won’t exist in 30 years or so.

Newly elected ELCA bishops might be expected to address this existential crisis with fresh eyes and energy. But a recent Religion Service News interview, capably conducted by Emily McFarlan Miller, with six new women bishops shows no such interest. Instead, they seem determined to double down on the heterodox theology and political activism that have been so destructive for the ELCA and other Mainline Protestant denominations.

There’s almost no reference to the ELCA’s decline in the bishops’ interview. Perhaps the closest came from Bishop Patricia Davenport of Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod who asked without really answering the question: “How do we move from the mentality of “the church is declining, the church is declining,” to building up the kingdom of God?”

Bishop Laurie Skow-Anderson of the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin noted that many churches are effectively museums, theaters or “political action committees,” which are not the church’s purpose. “The real problem is that they think they are a social club, and they get together to be with their friends on Sunday morning and to drink coffee. They don’t know how to be the church in the world on Monday.” But she didn’t really explain here what being real church entails.

Several bishops cited immigration as an advocacy issue. And Bishop Deborah Hutterer of the Grand Canyon Synod asked: “How do we reach out to our Mexican brothers and sisters and those from Guatemala? The Hispanic population will add a richness to the church that we haven’t quite tapped yet.”

Very true, but the ELCA like all Mainline denominations is more than 90% white. Liberal Protestantism, unlike Pentecostalism, doesn’t work with Hispanics or other immigrant groups. So how can the ELCA reach them? Won’t the ELCA have to change its message? None of the bishops indicated so.

Instead, Bishop Susan Briner of Southwestern Texas Synod declared: “Because I’m telling you what, the Spirit is up to something …”

And the other bishops responded: “Amen. Yes, she is.”

And Briner said: “… if we would just let her out.”

The bishops then responded: “Let her out. Get out of her way.”

Then Briner said: “Open the doors and let her out.”

And her fellow bishops concluded: “She’s out! She is loose!”

Presumably the bishops were referring to the Holy Spirit, whom Scripture and the universal church call “He.” Alternative pronouns are usually confined to some quarters of Western liberal Protestantism and associated with 1990s-era feminist theology, not classical orthodoxy. So are these new bishops rejecting or minimizing orthodoxy in favor of more liberal Protestantism?

Comments about the ELCA’s political activism confirm the latter. Religion News Service asked the bishops about “the rise of the religious left,” of which the ELCA would be considered part, and whether members felt “energized.”

Bishop Davenport responded: “I’m not going to say it’s a resurgence for me. I’m going to say it’s a continuation.”

Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld of Southwestern Wisconsin Synod added: “That has been where the Lutheran Church has been, particularly this branch of Lutheranism and its predecessor bodies. So it’s not new for us. We’re continuing that legacy that says we’re in the world and that Christ was in the world and that we take that as a model.”

Then Davenport said: “I love that. This is a path that we’ve always been on. I would say there are more people who are now living into this …”

Bishop Briner fully agreed: “We’re becoming bolder with our public witness, and I really appreciate that. And it’s not without a cost. If you look at our synods, we have a variety of political persuasions that sit in our pews, and so we recognize every time something like this happens, there’s going to be conversation about it, and it may not always be pleasant conversation.”

No doubt. Lutheran laity are traditionally more conservative politically, unlike their denominational elites. But no matter. Evidently the ELCA should, per the bishops, firmly identify as Religious Left.

Bishop Thomas-Breitfeld said: “And we’re reminded that Jesus was political. He wasn’t partisan. God is not a Republican or Democrat or independent. God is God. Jesus called out issues of how the poor, how the widow were being treated. That wasn’t a partisan issue. That was a gospel issue.”

But for the ELCA and other liberal Mainline denominational officials, “Gospel” issues always turn out to be on the political left, without exception.

So these bishops don’t indicate any awareness of ELCA’s misdirection or any need for course correction. Undoubtedly ELCA will lose another million members over the coming decade, in sync with other U.S. Mainline denominations.

But here is my personal prophecy: In about 15-20 years, when these bishops and other current Mainline elites are retired, and their denominations have further shrunk to a fraction of their current size, a new generation of leadership will recognize the disaster and embrace orthodoxy as the only hope for rejuvenation. They will seek to resurrect great ecclesial traditions by which time evangelical nondenominationalism may have run its course.

I hope and pray so.


39 Responses to Liberal Lutherans Doubling Down

  1. William says:

    I recently told my UMC pastor that I believe that when the next Great Awakening or Christian Renaissance comes, people will be falling over themselves embracing Wesleyan theology and studying it with a fervent not seen since Martin Luther. What the UMC has on paper is astounding. Moving away from it has been an obvious tragedy.

    As for these Lutherans, the photo speaks volumes as they stand there wearing their robes and tassels in all their pretentiousness.

    • Nick Stuart says:

      The photo looks like it could have come out of a Chick tract.

    • Padre Dave Poedel says:

      I don’t see any tassels, but those chase lies and copes are pretty darn ugly….this from a conservative, chasuble vesting, LCMS Lutheran Pastor….just saying….

    • Neely Owen says:

      Don’t call them Lutheran. They left Lutheranism long ago and don’t deserve the name. They are so far from the confessional foundation of orthodox Lutheran believe, teach and confess that they wouldn’t know a Lutheran if they fell over one.

  2. Michael Murphy says:

    Interestingly, the only thing that seems to be missing from all this is Jesus. Is HE or is HE not the reason for any church? Is not the purpose of the church for believers in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, to provide a place where they can worship Him together without fear of reprisal by the powers that be?

    If Jesus is not alive, then none of this matters. If He is alive, then your article just shows how far we have fallen from our original purpose, and still have need for the forgiveness and sanctification of a loving Savior.

    Thanks for sharing all of this, Mark. We need to be kept updated on when we, as Christians, continually miss the mark.

    • Martin Roules says:

      Their heretical corruption of NT is abhorrent. Jesus announces the Holy Spirit in John 14 and every reference is Masculine in the Greek. Sola Scriptura

  3. Loren Golden says:

    One can always hope and pray that the ELCA, the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, et al, will come to their senses and, like the Prodigal Son, seek to return home to Christian Orthodoxy.

    But I am not at all sanguine about the prospects.

    The denominational elites in the PC(USA) were all hyped about doing some “new thing” in this year’s General Assembly, but all I’ve seen are “kin-dom building” rhetoric (which in essence is nothing more than Liberation Theology all over again), shameless one-sided criticism of Israel, and resolution affirmations opposing religious freedom and freedom of conscience for those who believe that life begins at conception and that sexual expression outside of monogamous, lifelong, heterosexual marriage is a sin in the sight of God.

    Moreover, the denominational elites of all these Mainline Protestant denominations (except UMC with Asbury, it seems) have all their seminaries under total control, to ensure that the next generation of pastors, executive presbyters/bishops, etc., will be at least as out-of-touch with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as they are.

  4. Phil says:

    I disagree with Mark. They’re not learning anything now, why would they figure it out in the future. Their successors will quadruple down on rejecting Christianity. More likely, those denominations will cease to exist because they’ll likely end up merging with the Unitarians.
    And has it ever occurred to them that many Hispanics may hold views that are not in line with the Mainline denominations? Why would any Hispanic Christian or any Christian would want to join an apostate organization?
    Honestly, if any ethnic minority Christian sent an anonymous letter to Mainline clergy that detailed their adherence to orthodox doctrines and teachings, they’d declare them backwards ‘hate’-filled white Evangelicals.

  5. Humility and compassion are what Jesus teaches me. I pray for us all. The Rev Dr. Mary Johnson wrote a wonderful book called LOVE IN ACTION and I recommend it highly.

  6. Donald says:

    Clearly the ELCA is absolutely no threat to the other Legacy Denominations who are racing to see who can get below 1M members first. Even the Episcopal Church has slowed and if the Methodists are able to toss out Glide Memorial in San Francisco, they may also start to gain members again.

    It looks like the Presbyterian Church (USA) has taken a strong lead in this race to the bottom, with only 400K or so members to drive away – an easy task for them since they’ve lost over 2M in the last twenty years.

    • Keith Wilson says:

      The Episcopal Church just recently got into the fast lane of irrelevance, and will likely pass all the other mainliners on the way over the cliff. They now mandate no diocese may refuse to “marry” two people of the same-sex, only individual ministers may refuse with a deferral to another willing minister. Guess how long that will last?

  7. Jeffrey P Allen says:

    My childhood has been left out. The Disciples of Christ have been under a million for a long time. They have less than 500,000 active members. They will need to merge with the UCC to possibly survive.

  8. Bruce says:

    I can’t think of any congregations that have expanded membership under a woman pastor. Has anyone done a study of the effect having women pastors have on church membership or broken down membership declines based on sex?

    • senecagriggs says:

      I’ve wondered about that too. If you “google” you come up with nothing.
      I am highly suspicious that under women pastors, they do not thrive, do not grow. Possibly, any studies that would suggest less than stellar results under female pastors is supressed by the google/yahoo algorithm

      • Scott says:

        The only type of congregations that sometimes grow with woman pastors are Pentecostal. Aimee Semple McPherson started a church in Los Angeles. She did not come in like a bull in a china closet to take over an already established congregation. The church that she planted grew to about 5,000 under her ministry. But she believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, though interpreted some Scriptures different than the complementarian view.

    • Patrick98 says:

      Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in
      Sioux Falls South Dakota grew from 125 members to over 400 under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Valerie Putnam. This was from about the late 1990s to the mid-20teens when she retired.

    • April user says:

      My thoughts, exactly. I am a woman, owned my own business, and a spouse of a UMC clergyman. I’ve always thought women could lead but, as of late, I’ve begun to reconsider the notion of women in spiritual leadership. Women tend to, but not always, nurture. That can also be reflected in their leadership style which is not leadership.
      My thinking has evolved to such that I am now most confident that women can and should have active roles in a church but not as the most senior pastor. I have not seen effective women as lead pastors in the 45 years of ministry involvement (not that there are that many effective male pastors either!). I would be open to being proved wrong. Blessings.

    • Donna says:

      All you will gather here is anecdotal evidence. “Pastors” like Nadia Bolz-Weber of the ELCA have grown ministries, but the theology would be considered suspect (at best). To offer another anecdote, as a pastor for 35 years, I have had churches thrive and grow when I was the pastor. But note that, up till now, many female pastors are called to less-viable ministries which have little chance of growth because they are small and rural, or inner city fading congregations. It would take a much more comprehensive study to fairly address this conjecture.

  9. Stephen P Gutridge says:

    Why is it that so many church folks look to the culture for their message. The Bible has the only message for the church to proclaim, “Jesus saves.”

  10. Sarah Flynn says:

    This analysis ignores that the Southern Baptists have now begun to lose members and they are not in the least bit liberal.

    It is quite likely that the shrillness of Conservative churches and their unholy alliance with Trump and his UN Christian behavior and political agenda accounts for many dropouts by those who have decided they prefer ‘None of the above’. They see how Christians love one another and want none of it!

    • Rebecca says:

      Oh, but the Baptists are now experiencing the same things as the mainline Protestants. You can read all about it on the Christian news sites. They are becoming liberal.

  11. Tony Heine says:

    Mark,
    Concerning your prophesy:
    I pray for a Great Awakening in this country. If it comes, it will come from the Holy Spirit, and not from a group of blind teachers who achieve an epiphany when their balance sheet goes red.
    God is no respecter of persons, or of their earthly institutions. His Church exists in huddled platoons all around the world, and His measure of them is their obedience, not their affiliation. Judging from the history of the Church, He has no problem abandoning dis-obedient groups to their own corruption.
    I’ve detected some amount of side-eye from you towards those of us who attend churches of the evangelical bent.
    There are certainly many groups of evangelicals, both the denominational and non-denominational kind, that will eventually take their places on the ash-heap of Church history. Some started out in dis-obedience, others were obedient once, but have slid into dis-obedience.
    If you could go back in time and snatch a stolid Anglican from the era of Wesley, and show him a modern, liberal UMC church, you would be hard pressed to explain to him that you were holding out hope that this church would return to orthodoxy. He would likely tell you that this Methodist thing had “run its course.”
    As always, Mark, I enjoy reading your essays and articles. Keep up the good work and may God bless it and you.
    -Tony Heine

  12. John Petty says:

    The LCMS has been in decline at the same times and at roughly the same rate as the ELCA. I don’t think so-called “liberal theology” has anything to do with it.

  13. Padre Dave Poedel says:

    While usually not particularly proud of my little tribe of Lutheranism where I serve as a Pastor, the LCMS is thankfully devoid of the sort of thing you note in your article.

    We have our issues, but they are not the ones you describe. We are declining too, maybe not as rapidly, but declining nonetheless.

    While I found the comments of these bishops very discouraging, they seemed as cliche as the statements my group makes about being “confessional” or “missional” in our “outreach”.

    May our Lord have mercy on His Church!

  14. Walter Pryor says:

    Why are we surprised? The Bible says there will be a great falling away of many. This looks a lot like that.
    I feel very sorry for them. They have left their first love.
    Congregations and denominations have been seduced away from following God.
    This is no different than what Jesus saw with the Sadducees and Pharisees.
    What they have done is place love before obeying and repentance.

    • William says:

      Walter,
      Progressives have taken the beautiful love message of Scripture and twisted it, contorted it, and perverted it —- using it as a Mac truck to run down and kill off sin while redesigning Jesus as just another good guy who accepts anything and everything in the name of their new version of love and inclusiveness.

  15. Joe Duffus says:

    One of Robert Conquest’s three rules of politics was “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”

    This always strikes me when I look at the decline of mainline denominations. They drift into self-centered navel-gazing, looking for the new way, not to remain custodians of a trust.

    Are denominations a 19th century concept that is no longer needed? If their purpose back then was to be a “brand” promising continuity of practice in new territories, does that need vanish with modern communications and mobility?

    If the purpose of denominations is instead about accountability and “quality control” in different churches, that never seems to be their focus. We hear of the rare defrockings only because they are rare. Institutionally, denominations today are afraid to challenge those on the Left who preach bad doctrine, but perfectly willing to smile and wave goodbye to the conservatives who leave because of it.

    Mark wonders if the mainline will return to ensuring right teaching in the distant future, when all the white-haired hippies have exhausted themselves and are gone.

    I ask if anyone will miss what they ruined.

  16. The statements by the various officials in this “post” are insufferable examples of the social justice warrior pop psycho-babble of our age.

    The “theology” that used to matter has been replaced with a postmodern BYO version.

  17. Dave N. says:

    Same old irrational IRD saw. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (about as fundamentalist and conservative as one could imagine) is declining even faster than the ECLA. (Their ASA went down 15% in a single year!-2014.)

    The North American Lutheran Church, also more conservative than the ELCA, is losing members so fast they’ve stopped releasing membership statistics.

  18. James Beadle says:

    Why is this organization being discussed as a church? They are so only in the common sense of ecclesia (gathering of people). They are not a Kircke in the proper sense, they have abandoned the scriptures and practice maleficent heterodoxy. There is nothing to reclaim here, they have destroyed themselves.

    I’m just a seminarian in Fort Wayne, however it seems to me that to even credit them with the concept of being a church in the sense of Kirche is giving them credit for something that is lost and dead. Lord have mercy.

  19. David says:

    The ELCA is not, and has not been Lutheran for nearly 30 years.

  20. MikeS says:

    Liberal church leaders have long since ceased to be interested in being attractive to prospective new members. They are primarily interested in being (what they regard as) enlightened and noble (per their own eccentric definitions of these words), even if it’s a huge turnoff to normal people. So as they get weirder = “nobler”, they convince themselves that the Spirit is moving, even as their groups shrink. It’s a great scam, until the money runs out.

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