The Great Church Disconnect 2

The second of two parts.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, Lutheran ministers seem intent on giving sermons that sound beautiful, but are very difficult to remember later that same evening, let alone throughout the week in the places people live, work, and play. This is the disconnect. Many congregants are suffering from strained relationships with spouses, other family members, and co-workers, but hear little that might help them begin reconciling with one another. Many suffer from mindless materialism, but are rarely if ever challenged in any specificity to live more simply. Congregants are frustrated with the shallowness of popular culture, but aren’t taught to live more vital spiritual lives at school, at home, and the workplace.

Instead, Lutheran ministers seem intent on stringing vague generalities together. Here’s a sample from a recent sermon from one ELCA church: don’t be weary, faithfully walk in his steps, don’t be afraid, live faithfully without fear, live the faith, and walk faithfully as a community of Jesus followers. There was also a reference to “unhealthy pathways”.

The first thing I impress upon my writing students is to substitute details for vague generalities. They know that if I was to read a transcript of a typical ELCA sermon, I would sprinkle the following comments throughout: What does that mean? An example would really help here. Elaborate. Explain more fully. This leaves me scratching my head.

If some Lutheran pastors read this, they may fire back, “You clearly don’t get it. Some congregants are liberal, others conservative, and so the only way to hold things together is to avoid being too specific about anything the least bit controversial.”

And how’s the moderate, mushy, middle working out?

I go to church thinking about Saturday morning’s running debate about Islam, terrorism, Christianity, religious extremism, and the military. Or education reform. Or the deficit reduction commission. Or the health of my marriage. Or what my larger purpose in life is. And what I hear is vague, unchallenging, uninspiring, and fleeting.

There are other hypothesis for the church’s decline that I stumbled upon following a quick search. No doubt some homophobic-inclined members have left the ELCA following its 2009 decision to embrace gay and lesbian ministers and members. However, given the gradual but growing acceptance of the GLBT community in society more generally, one would think at least an equal number of gay and lesbian people would eventually join what’s now a more accepting institution.

Another is that the church simply isn’t evangelical enough in the conventional sense of knocking on doors, talking to people about their faith, and inviting them to church.

I don’t think more door knocking is necessary. More people will try out church, and decide to stick around, when congregations model getting along and truly caring for one another despite political, theological, and interpersonal differences. When people see congregations living out the Sermon on the Mount in their family lives, at their workplaces, and  in their community-based ministries. They will be attracted to people living more purposeful, selfless lives than normal.

Literary and vague sermons given by the same one or two people every Sunday will not inspire that type of Christ-centered modeling.

More specific, relevant, challenging, and inspiring preaching probably won’t reverse the downward trend by itself either. A complete rethinking of the Sunday service may be needed. That won’t happen though because the service linchpins—the liturgy, the sermon, the hymns—all resonant with the traditional, elderly, 96% white congregants who yield the most influence because they’re the longest standing members.  They are, in essence, the “default”. By deferring to the majorities desire to maintain the status quo, the steady decline will most likely continue.

The Great Church Disconnect 1

Some numbers. 67% of Americans think religion is losing influence. In 1987, there were 5.3 million people divided among 11,000 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). At the end of 2009, there were 4.5 million in 10,348 churches. Since 2003, throughout the ELCA’s congregations, average weekly attendance has fallen from 144 to 131 people.

Why?

Here’s a New York-area religion reporter’s thoughts:

“I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading theTimes. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say ‘We missed you’?”

The ELCA church my family attends is a snapshot of the “graying of America”. I would guess the average age of people in our congregation is close to 60. There are few young families and fewer people than when we first started attending seven or so years ago.

Our church, our synod, and the ELCA are failing to connect with people in compelling ways, especially culturally diverse young and middle-aged people. Our synod’s percentage of “members of color” has exploded from 2.3% to 3.9% since 2003. Too few people are asking why the church is failing to connect with people of color in particular.

I think the religion reporter is discounting “worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music” far too quickly. On the surface they may not seem fundamental, but words—spoken in sermons and sung in worship—are symbolic of a worldview that does or doesn’t challenge and inspire people in meaningful, compelling ways. And the Sunday service is the center of the church week and the sermon is the center of the service.

Increasingly, ELCA preaching strikes me as problematic and may in part explain the church’s decline. What’s most fascinating about the preaching problem is it’s larger than any one person or ministry team, it’s a pervasive culture whose norms I suspect are learned first and most significantly in seminary. It doesn’t matter which of the 10,338 ELCA churches you attend next Sunday, you’re likely to hear a very similar sermon that I would characterize as unceasingly literary, vague, and forgettable. To be continued.