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.