Let’s Talk: Bishop, our Synod adopted a new mission statement at its last Assembly, ”Proclaim the Gospel, Make Disciples, Do Justice.” What focus do you think this commitment will bring?
Bishop Olsen: First of all it very much changes the focus of our Synod from what it has been for the last few years. I think that our Synod is evolving. And there’s nothing wrong with the previous mission statement. What is happening is that the world in which we live is changing. Our theology does not change, but the context in which we do theology is changing. I think this new mission statement brings us back to the core of what we are as a church. I cannot think of another mission statement that answers so concisely and incisively the question of what we are about as a church. Those three thrusts say it all.
The issue for us is to bring that kind of message to the congregations. You can bring that message about mission statements to the congregations, but unless you give them the vehicles and the tools by which they can interpret it and implement it in the life of the congregation, it is only a lot of words on paper.
And that is true for any mission statement in any congregation. I am quite convinced that we need to be honest…that mission statements have not been misused, but misplaced. They have been done and abandoned. What we are going to attempt to do in this Synod is to make this mission statement come alive in the lives of our congregations. The mission statement is not for the Synod Council. It is for every congregation of the Synod. It is not every congregation’s mission statement. It is ours together, corporately. And that is the key for us.
LT: What might some of those vehicles for interpretation be?
Bishop Olsen: I think the Synod Council is still moving on that issue. We are moving in the direction of trying to flesh out the 3-pronged thrust of the mission statement. As we develop case statements for each of those areas, I can see moving into definitive programs that will be offered to congregations. Then congregations will have the opportunity to choose. But prior to any congregation making a decision on implementing any part of this mission statement in its own life, the basic question has to be asked, “What is the faith situation in that congregation?”
I am convinced that no matter what kind of program, or strategy, or mission statement you bring to a congregation, unless the congregation is receptive in its faith story to hear that mission statement in the light of its faith experience, it’s basically not worth it. It will be just another piece of paper and nothing will happen. The issue is what is the faith climate in the place in which that is heard? And will it be taken seriously as a part of our mission as a faithful people of God?
LT: How can we ensure that that is done? How can we work with congregations to let them know that they must establish their faith situation intially and then bring mission statement in as a part of it?
Bishop Olsen: I think it depends upon the leadership of the congregation, and not only pastoral leadership, but lay leadership as well. Will the leadership of our congregations accept this as a serious challenge to the stance that they take in the life of their church?
What will our congregations’ leadership say about their purpose? It seems to me that this mission statement defines our purpose as a congregation, a Synod and as a churchwide organization. Probably an even more important question is, how will we implement these directives in the life of our church? I think that is where we as Synod Councils and churches, and leaders will have to struggle to find ways to make the faith come alive in the lives of good people who may have just taken their faith for granted. And I can say that as one who has experienced that. I am not condemning. I am observing my own life and saying, maybe I am a part of that kind of thinking. It is so easy to be a Lutheran and rest in that heritage.
t is so easy to say, “I’m a Lutheran, I go to church, I’ve been to confirmation, what is the issue here?” The issue is that we are not lukewarm, but that we have a passion for the great heritage we have as a grace-filled people, based upon our faith experience. We are using words that are Reformation words. I hope we will take seriously how that works itself out in the lives of our congregations.
LT: Do you think we are in the midst of a reformation, or about to have one here?
Bishop Olsen: Absolutely! We have, in my opinion the most opportune moment in my 35 years of ministry right now because everything that we have taken for granted is being challenged. Everything we have done, and have done quite well, thank you, over the years, no longer is just going to happen. Now we have to ask ourselves, “How are we going to help make this happen?
The faith journey and mission statement is not intended just for congregations in crisis. It is not intended for just those congregations in survival mode. It is intended for every congregation in this Synod, because I am convinced that even congregations that are “successful” or at least strong, are maybe the most vulnerable congregations and in need of a statement that causes us to go in the direction of mission. And I know this word “mission” has been overused in the last few years, but I still think we have to hold it up as a word that has great meaning in the life of the Lutheran church.
LT: What does the adoption of the key initiative “faith development” say about where we are as a church, and where we want to go?
Bishop Olsen: Not too many years ago, the Search Institute in Minneapolis did a very extensive survey among several denominations, our ELCA being among them. The surprising, and I think disturbing results, were that we Lutherans were not terribly knowledgeable about our faith. And we are not as verbal as we all thought we once were, after our confirmation experience.
It was a kind of a “cold water in the face” experience, because we Lutherans have taken it for granted that we have this down pretty well. What the Search Institute learned was that we really have to take seriously that we have not been as good in our catechesis and in our own understanding of our faith as we once thought that we were.
So, I think the initiative is at the core of everything we are hoping to accomplish in the life of our church. For example in a congregation, if you are having problems getting people to teach Sunday School, if you are having problems getting people to be passionate about what our venture of faith is, if you are having problems enlisting people in the life of worship, if worship attendance is falling, or if your stewardship is awry—at the very core, you have a faith issue.
It’s an issue about who we are and what we believe. For example, we have a lot of congregations that are going through transition in their communities. If a congregation does not deal with that transition honestly and faithfully, it will lose the opportunity to serve. There is a period of time, a window of opportunity, and the window is not open indefinitely.
What keeps people from seeing that as an opportunity of evangelism and growth in the life of this new community? I think it is a faith question. If we see ourselves only in a very narrow way, we will not see ourselves in mission. Our mission is not to look inward and only care for people in the church. Our mission is to go outward and also care for people in the community. And that really requires the faith initiative of our statement.
People of faith say yes to the struggles they face in their lives and in their communities. People whose faith is shallow are always going to look for some other way of dealing with the issue. So I believe no matter what situation your congregation is in, no matter what its size, no matter where you are located, the issues that you are confronted with come down to, “what is the faith temperature of the people in your parish?”
If your people have a passionate faith in Jesus Christ, then you will discover that there are no issues and no problems that cannot be overcome. But if our faith is weak, if it is based upon the way things used to be, then you are going to struggle with the wrong questions.
When I sit down with congregations and I talk about, “What do you see as your mission in this place?” I hear questions that relate to things that happened in the fifties. And for me, that just is not relevant.
LT: So you are saying that if the faith temperature of our congregation is stronger, that would give us the courage to step out from our comfort zone and deal with issues in an up-front manner?
Bishop Olsen: Absolutely. Look at the people in your congregation who are willing to risk. And it does not matter what the subject is. Whether it is changing the time of the service to meet the needs of new people, or changing the whole experience of liturgy in order to speak to a whole new generation of non-liturgical Lutherans, the issues always come down this: What are we willing to risk in this place?
And I find that the people whose faith is strong are willing to say, “Yes, we need to do this to proclaim the gospel to a new generation!” When I say that, I want you to hear me very clearly. I am not asking us to give up our core. I’m asking us to say that the core has to be heard by people who have never heard it. They won’t listen in the ways in which we were so used to having them listen.
LT: Given all of that, what might a healthy Lutheran congregation look like in fifty years—giving us some time to get there because things don’t happen overnight?
Bishop Olsen: I think that a healthy Lutheran congregation in 50 years will be a Lutheran church that has moved from a primary chaplaincy role to a primary mission role. It does not mean that there will not be pastoral care. It just means that it will not be the center. The center will be outreach. The center will be responding to the question, what are the people in this community looking for? How can we serve the needs of this community as the church of Jesus Christ? How can we speak to people who may have never heard the Word of God? What are the designs? How shall we fashion and structure this church to speak to this new age and new day?
We have been so used to having a certain style. We have a building. We have worship at a certain time. We do it in a certain way. We have certain groups of people who do certain things. And that has worked very nicely for us, for many years. But as we move into a new century, the church may not look the same way as it did when we came into it. It may be a church that meets in small group settings, rather than in a single way. I am not saying that it won’t have a single worship experience. I have been saying for a long time that it may be that we have to form small group units that will feed into the greater church for worship. And these small working, study or prayer groups, or whatever purpose they have, will become the actual engines that propel these communities of faith.
At the center of these healthy congregations will be an emphasis on Word and Sacrament. It will always be the core of a healthy Lutheran congregation.
t is to this kind of church that we will develop a faith experience of people as they are in relationship to one another. They will take on the tasks that will be assigned. Rather than having standing committees, I see a very fluid type of task oriented, small group arrangement, where people can become involved in caring for children, single parents, or meeting the needs of a community’s safety, in a small group dynamic that is much more flexible. It is able to act with efficiency, quickly. It does not have to wait for the Church Council to give approval. It doesn’t have to wait for the Annual Meeting. It responds out of a faith-based strength and in those small groups we begin to see the needs of the community being met.
You have to go outside and ask the questions rather than always asking the questions inside. A classic example of the wrong way of doing things is when a church decides to come up with an alternative worship experience in order to meet the needs of non-church people and the people who have been in the church for 50 years make the decisions about what that service should look like.
Now these are good people, wonderful people. They decide we will be radical and go to Morning Prayer, instead of Setting 2. We need to ask the question, “Who will we ask for direction, whose needs are being met here?” Is it our need to feel like we are doing something, or are they the needs of people on the outside who have never been in these doors? I don’t know all the answers. I do know that we have to ask questions in ways we never have before.
LT: How will we know that the mission statement is being successfully implemented? What are the signs we need to see?
Bishop Olsen: That’s a good question. The things I listen to are not obvious things. I look for climate signs. I listen to see if people are happy. I know that sounds strange, but I have discovered in my years in the church that when the Gospel is being preached, and the faith experience of people is being met, there is a joy that is expressed in peoples’ lives. I look for that. You asked before, “What does a healthy congregation look like?” I think a healthy congregation is joyful and willing to step out. A healthy congregation is not consumed by itself or in itself. It doesn’t ask questions like, “Is the pastor making enough calls? Are we taking care of our building?” A healthy congregation is when you pull up, and the parking space doesn’t say “this space reserved for the pastor,” it says, “this space reserved for visitors.” Those are evangelism gimmicks to some degree, but they say a lot about the health of a place. It says you are a welcoming place.
I think a healthy congregation—the type of place or facility we may be looking at in the years to come—may not have fixed things but have flexible things. It may be a community center for more activities than we could ever imagine. It will truly be a “welcome place,” as we Lutherans have been proclaiming on our bumpers for many years.
The “welcome place” may be that people don’t even ask about our denominational affiliation. But they come in because they feel the hospitality of the place. Another sign is that there will be no pressure applied to be a member. People will want to be a part of things. They will be attracted by the magnetism of the place. They won’t have to be asked.
It will be a time when the joy of being together is expressing who we are. It will also be a place where our grace theology will be eminent and prominent by example. I think catechesis is preached through lives of people who are committed to their faith experience in Jesus Christ. I sense that the congregation that will be the healthy congregation in the years to come will be filled with people who are very certain about who they are. There will be no wooziness about its theology.
There will be no identity crisis. There will be no need to say we have to maintain this Lutheran symbol, because our Lutheran theology will be lived out through our people. By expressing that kind of forgiveness, that grace, that experience of being loved, the church will not be defined by anything other than its theology.