I heard this story from the bishop of another synod: A woman was talking with him and said that she thought her smallish congregation was “just the right size” the way it was and shouldn’t try to get bigger. He asked, “Do you think there might be one person left in the neighborhood of your church who doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ?” When she acknowledged that there undoubtedly was, he said, “Then your church isn’t big enough yet.”
The Turnaround Synod Initiative (TSI) is a response to the reality that two-thirds of the congregations in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod are declining in average worship attendance while there are, undoubtedly, many, many people in the neighborhoods of our churches who don’t have a living, life-giving relationship with Jesus. Whatever else this decline might mean, one thing it assuredly means is that, rather than reaching more and more people with the Gospel and inviting them into a congregation where faith can be nourished, we are reaching fewer and fewer. It means that we are not doing a great job with the one thing that won’t get done if the Church doesn’t do it: spreading the word about redemption and new life in Jesus Christ.
A Generational Shift in Focus
In my lifetime (roughly 55 years) I have seen a major shift of focus in the Lutheran Church from heaven to the world around us, an intentional move away from a focus on salvation (especially salvation in terms of “going to heaven when you die”) and a turn to what God would have us do in response to the material needs of our neighbors in this life. In the process of opening our eyes to the world around us, we began to conflate the both/and of kerygma and diakonia and to use terms like “outreach” and “missional” for activities devoid of verbal communication of the Gospel. We latched onto the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ years of ministry as our template. We began to downplay what had historically been at the center of Lutheran teaching: Christ crucified and risen as the ground of our justification before God. Perhaps Lutheran clergy thought that the Gospel was a given and didn’t need defending.
In the process of opening our eyes to the world around us, we began to conflate the both/and of kerygma and diakonia and to use terms like “outreach” and “missional” for activities devoid of verbal communication of the Gospel.
Meanwhile, the folks in our Lutheran pews, influenced outside the church by secularism and individualism, and finding little guidance to the contrary from church leaders, drifted so far away from any idea of sharing the Gospel message with friends and neighbors that the very word evangelism causes everyone from congregational presidents to Sunday school teachers literally to shiver with distaste.
So, what kind of turnaround is needed? Not 180 degrees, certainly. But the ELCA — and probably the whole Mainline — needs to turn about 90 degrees, to the vantage point from which we can see both the needs of the world for food and shelter and justice and the need of each person in the world to know the truth about the God of love and the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What kind of turnaround is needed? A turnaround that would allow us to see that sharing what we know about God and the world with people who think differently from us isn’t arrogant or imperialistic or un-American because we’re not claiming any kind of superiority but only leading someone to a source of hope that someone previously led us to.
This is the turnaround we’re talking about with the Turnaround Synod Initiative. The goal of the initiative is that fifty percent of the declining congregations in our synod would see an uptick in average worship attendance by the end of Bishop Miller’s term in mid-2013. Aware as we are of all the various ways in which a congregation might be growing — in strength of relationships, in financial giving, in participation in the wider church or in the community, and so on — we are also aware that a Christian community’s life isn’t complete if it’s not sharing the gospel beyond its walls intentionally and consistently. And we’re aware that dwindling congregations often are also becoming less rather than more healthy in those other areas, whether as cause or as effect or both. And, finally, we’re aware that a congregation can keep up all those good things only if it continues to exist. As an issue of both faithfulness and practicality, then, our congregations must challenge themselves to turn around. For many of our congregations, this will mean a change in both values and patterns of behavior.
What might this kind of turnaround look like in a given congregation? And what relationship, if any, does it have to the “turning” of repentance?
At the risk of painting in over-broad strokes, my experience suggests that the majority of people in our congregations fall into one or both of two categories. The first is people who learned growing up that a church member is in good standing if he or she attends worship most Sundays and contributes to the congregation financially. Nothing further was asked or expected — no Bible study, no church-sponsored service, certainly no evangelism. Who could hold culpable a 70-year-old layperson, raised up in the church under those expectations, who can’t make sense of any motivation for evangelism except that “we need more people here or we won’t be able to pay our bills”?
Another set of folks in the pews came of age in a church in which even the clergy wince at the idea of evangelism. Laypeople in this contingent might say things like: “Evangelism is what those judgmental conservatives do, and we don’t want anyone to think we’re like them.” Or, “Every religion is an equally good path to truth, so why would I force my religion on someone else?”1 Or, “Evangelism means knocking on doors, and there’s no way I’m going to do that.” When laypeople express these sentiments and pastors don’t strongly and consistently teach otherwise, the marginalization of evangelism is reinforced. More and more of our pastors have themselves been raised in this climate and without any first-hand experience of robust, unself-conscious evangelism.
How can turnaround begin in congregations steeped in these two schools of thought — minimal expectations on the one hand, antipathy to evangelistic outreach on the other?
In the summer of 2010, we sent an email to all rostered leaders in the synod, asking them to respond briefly with the names of any renewal resources their congregations had used. One congregation (one which has since left the ELCA) sent a two-word reply: “The Bible.” This may have been intended to have a bit of an edge to it — as in, “What else would real Christians need?” — but it’s a good first answer. Almost everyone in our congregations will agree that the Bible is an essential resource, and few will argue against reading it together, whether they themselves choose to participate or not. Diligent interaction with Scripture, and especially with the fullness of the New Testament witness, ought, over time, to broaden and deepen a congregation’s understanding of all aspects of its calling in the world, including the apostolic imperative to be carry the Good News to people near and far.
Attention to the distinction between Law and Gospel might help a congregation maintain its commitment to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and advocating for justice for all, without compromising the message that we all are sinners equally dependent upon God’s grace.
In addition, catechetical attention to the distinction between Law and Gospel — and the irreducible importance of each — might help a congregation maintain its commitment to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and advocating for justice for all, without compromising the message that we all — poor and rich, oppressor and oppressed — are sinners equally dependent upon God’s grace and the redemption earned for us by Jesus Christ.
A congregation might well turn to Scripture for clarity, conviction, and guidance long before anyone would think to use the word repentance. The first move might even be an anxious response to financial stress, a waking up to the need to make some changes in congregational life before it’s too late. First, like Zacchaeus, we need to open the door to Jesus and let him have an effect on us. Then, in light of his love, we can see that, yes, we wish we had done otherwise than we’ve been doing, and we want to turn and do things another way. Or, as I suggested above, we want not to turn and abandon all the good we’re doing but to turn ninety degrees and see the other essential aspect of our calling as well.
Turning Culture Around
Now, I realize how simplistic this sounds. So allow me to add a note about the challenges of turning around a congregation. It seems to me that here also the model of repentance is apt.
The process of congregational turnaround can be halting and ragged. Repentance involves a change in culture — an overhaul of “how things are done,” how things are talked about, who is included, what values drive things. This kind of change doesn’t happen quickly, easily, or with everyone moving at the same pace. But, when conversations and planning that used to center on “How do we keep things going a little longer just the way they are?” have begun routinely to include the question “How are we helping people who aren’t here yet get to know Jesus Christ?,” and when that shift in focus plays out in the behavior of individuals and the activities of the congregation, then that congregation has turned around. And the people in that congregation, experiencing the lightness of being that comes with their new attitude, will be able honestly to say, “We wish we’d been doing things this way all along.” That’s repentance.
Since my invitation here was to write about the Turnaround Synod Initiative, let me say a few more words about the initiative itself.
The goal, as I said, is to see numerical growth in half of our declining congregations. It has been important to have an actual goal to help focus the energies of the synod staff and, ideally, those of the synod as a whole. But the major portion of the initiative has been the ways in which we have tried to provide support for congregations that are seeking to turn around. We believed we could best offer support in two ways. The first is offerings for the whole synod: (1) workshops, including three significant Evangelism for Congregations workshops; (2) financial support for the Transforming Church Index congregational survey and for participation in Koinonia Leadership Training (now Acts 15); (3) distribution to all of our churches last summer of the Alban book Pathway to Renewal; and (4) trained coaches to help congregations and pastors work more effectively toward their goals.
In addition, more intensive and ongoing support is available for churches that sign on as Focus Congregations. These Focus Congregations send renewal teams to an initial Turnaround 101 workshop and then are provided with coaches to help their teams decide on a renewal strategy and follow through with planning and execution. After an initial group of eleven early-adopter congregations that got to work in early 2010, another six have joined in this approach. The Focus Congregation pastors meet a few times a year to share experiences and support one another. Renewal teams also gather periodically.
Also under the auspices of TSI, another thirteen churches have taken advantage of financial support for participation in Koinonia Leadership Training (now called Acts 15), provided by Stephen Ministries. This is a two-year process aimed at developing a cadre of people trained in biblical leadership and prepared to establish new patterns of leadership in their churches.
In all this, our goal as synod staff has been to provide support for whatever approach to renewal a given congregation determines is likely of success in that particular setting. The preparation of coaches who can work in a non-directive way with leaders is probably the most consequential component of this support. A coach can be there consistently over time to help keep things moving even when there are bumps in the road.
All of this is aimed both at supporting congregations that are ready to tackle change and also, more broadly, to help to change the climate in our little part of the Mainline church from resignation to hopeful expectation, from “Oh well, what are you gonna do? It’s happening everywhere” to “What can God do through us next?”
As I write this, I am in my last month on the bishop’s staff. Pastor Sarah Stumme, who has been working with me on TSI for about a year, will increase her time-commitment and bring even more of her energy and creativity to this work. Sarah has a particular passion for helping pastors live out their vocations abundantly and successfully, and she will likely focus more strongly on support for rostered leaders.
As for me, I will continue to pray for our churches individually and for our synod and the whole ELCA, that, wherever we need to turn, we would start to turn and keep on turning, till, in the words of the Shaker song, “by turning, turning we come ’round right.”2
In “Church Growth in the ELCA” (March 1, 2007), Kenneth Inskeep, director of the ELCA Office of Research and Evaluation, reported on a 2001 survey of ELCA pastors and parishioners. The survey showed that 53 percent of respondents between the ages of 15 and 24 “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement, “All the different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth,” as did 60 percent of respondents age 65 or older and 18 percent of clergy.
“Simple Gifts,” written by Elder Joseph Brackett.