The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States with over 4 million members. Beginning with the 2009 Churchwide Assembly decision on human sexuality and its embrace by ELCA leaders, numerous congregations are leaving the denomination, other congregations are being split apart, and others are simply closing due to dwindling attendance. Non-denominational churches, however, are thriving and expanding. Most of the non-denominational churches, such as Blackhawk church in Middleton, WI and the Elm Brook churches in the Milwaukee, WI area, have one thing in common. They are Christ centered. It would appear those that are searching for something have found it and that something is the freedom gained through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Good works abound in these congregations, but nary a word about social justice. Those that attend these houses of worship are driven by the never ending joy in proclaiming the Gospel to the world. It matters not what is your political bend or chosen sexual identity is. The pure Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached from the pulpits of these churches, without the socio-political bent that has become so prevalent in the ELCA.
ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson talks about his two-step dance, a balancing of the gospel of radical inclusiveness and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is telling that he places radical inclusiveness before the Gospel. In the August edition of the Lutheran, the featured article “Spiritual Nomads, a blueprint for young adults in the ELCA” attempts to discern why young adults are fleeing from what they view as traditional churches. The author, Benjamin M. Stewart, is the assistant professor of worship and dean of Augustana Chapel at the Luther School of Theology in Chicago. Of course, sociologists are quoted in the article, explaining that young adults today share a general sense of what the appropriate role of religion in society should be. According to Stewart, young adults believe religion should teach a “golden rule”, encourage people to be good and should teach people to pray. He further states that emerging adults bring what is described as a therapeutic approach to religion: it’s good if it makes you feel good about yourself and expresses your identity. So, in the opinion of those who are much brighter than I, religion should not only make one feel good toward others but to feel good about oneself. In other words, he believes that young adults expect affirmation and look within to find their identity, rather than looking to the cross and to the Savior that gave everything for us.
Quoting, Robert Putnam, a political scientist, “this generation has moved to the left on most social issues-above all, homosexuality-many prominent religious leaders have moved to the right. Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them. The implication here is clear: the belief that classic or traditional Christianity is driving young adults out of religion with hypocritical judgmentalism while liberals were losing them because of the very content of the U. S. liberal gospel (the golden rule and therapeutic approach to life) has been increasingly succeeding in the wider culture. To overstate it: politically speaking, conservative Christians alienate young adults and liberal Christians bore them.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-21, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
Four churches were described in this article, one from Washington D. C., one from Chicago, one from Atlanta, and one from Dalles, OR. Each was asked to use words that describe your congregation. Liturgically eclectic was used three times, social justice was invoked twice, LGTB once, yet faith and God were cited only once each and preaching the Gospel was notably absent. Unfortunately, these churches sound more like social clubs than a house of our Lord. There is an emptiness in humankind’s heart that can only be filled with the love of Christ. Search all you want for the proper enticements to fill your pews, when the answer is plain. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of forgiveness, redeeming love and everlasting life is the only invitation that is necessary to bring the lost to Him. Come and see. Muddy the waters with political and social issues and those thirsting will look elsewhere. That is what is driving congregants away from the ELCA, not simply the fact that Luther’s statement to “sin boldly” has overtaken its doctrine.