Monday, June 15, 2009

Honking Big Lutheran Parish Defects

Community Church of Joy, in Glendale, Arizona, has announced that it plans to "re-align," by which it means leaving the ELCA. It intends to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, the same "association" that, as we mentioned last week, our colleague Mr. Slope intends to join.

(LCMC, since its inception, has insisted that it is not a distinct denomination, but rather an association of like-minded pastors and congregations, united by a common statement of faith, to maintain discipline and organize missions. We aren't entirely sure we see the difference. LCMC has about 220 congregations, and depending upon their average size, it is quite possible that the addition of CCJ will double its net membership figures.)

CCJ is an extremely large congregation, by Lutheran standards. Its senior pastor, Walt Kallestad, may not be a household name along the lines of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, but he is something of a celebrity. During the 1980s, he turned CCJ into the fastest-growing Lutheran congregation in the country, if not the world. In 2002, CCJ reported 10,716 baptized members, making it second only to the titanic Mt. Olivet, Minneapolis in the ELCA. Kallestad himself claims that membership topped out around 12,000. But since then, it has changed dramatically: In 2008 CCJ reported 6,834 members, and today it reports 5,282 members. It may not be the fastest-shrinking congregation in the country, but it must be close.

So what's going on here? What's going on with the staggering membership decline, and how does it relate to the decision to jump ship? We don't know enough about the place to say for sure. But ignorance has never kept us quiet before, and we don't see any reason it should begin to now.

According to Kallestad, the membership decline is the result of deliberate decisions growing from a re-evaluation of CCJ's ministry. The congregation was built on "entertainment evangelism," a model in which people were attracted to worship not by the promise of personal transformation, or even community with the like-minded, but by services that came to seem like professional variety shows. After a heart attack in 2002, he started to wonder whether this was the path of wisdom:

[S]omething was missing. We’d become an organization competing for market-share with other program-driven churches, but that wasn’t accomplishing our mission—we weren’t creating empowered disciples.

We’d put all our energy into dispensing religious goods and services, and as a result we were not empowering our people to transform their community. If our church, with the sheer power of its numbers, was populated with empowered disciples, they would be feeding the hungry and building deep, meaningful relationships with their neighbors. In short, they would be involved with community transformation. We were neither salt nor light—we were mere consumers.

And so he scrapped plans for the new "worship center" with its retractable roof (!), and took a sabbatical to study "transformational" churches. This means:

Instead of counting people and offerings, now we look for evidence that people are breaking out of their private, cocooned lives and fully engaging with God and his people. We want them to do more than grab a cup of coffee in the lobby or meet someone new during worship gatherings; we want them to go deep with one another ....

In the old days, we protected people’s anonymity; today we thrust them into community, living life together.

And as that happened, the people who had been coming for a show stopped coming. In droves. But that's okay, because pruning makes a tree healthier.

It's a good story, and we hope it's true. We do have a couple of minor reservations: (1) If we're reading the documents right, the membership decline actually began before Kallestad's heart attack; (2) he claims to have taken a cue from Robert Schuller, about "dying as a church to be reborn as a mission." Nice words, but ... Schuller? Is he really your best authority on this? And (3), every pastor of a declining church has, at some point, fallen back on the "pruning" metaphor, if only to salve his own fragile ego. Still, this trajectory and these goals mirror recent events at, say, Willow Creek, and we consider it all to be for the good. We at the Egg certainly value discipleship over entertainment as an ecclesiological goal. It's Pietism writ large, but the truth is, dear readers -- brace yourselves -- we have a great affection for Pietism, so long as it is a reflection of real piety.

So. Is all this connected to the decision to join LCMC? We expect it is, if only indirectly. CCJ identifies three main reasons that it is dissatisfied with the ELCA: Sex, hermeneutics, and Israel.

None of these is particularly original. CCJ apparently doesn't want to be part of a church that recognizes gay pastors; no surprise there. It doesn't like Biblical interpretations that tend in that direction, including some from something called the "Lutheran Study Bible," of which we have never otherwise heard but into which we will look, first thing, upon our return from Romania sometime in the coming decade. And as for Israel, it doesn't think the ELCA is sufficiently "supportive."

The net effect of these complaints, it seems to us, it to put CCJ squarely in line with standard-issue American Protestantism, on the conservative side of the mainline. There's nothing terrible about that, and much that is attractive.

On the other hand, we aren't entirely sure why CCJ -- and Kallestad, who is surely the driving force here -- felt that it couldn't simply remain a large, conservative congregation within the ELCA. The congregation has always been well outside the ELCA mainstream anyway; despite what you may have heard, Father Anonymous has no immediate plans to build a worship center with a retractable roof. It doesn't mind bucking the ordinary rules of a denomination, as for example by calling a second pastor (the unfortunately named David Tombs) who is not rostered with the ELCA. And those rules are pretty flexible anyway. No matter what happens at Churchwide this summer, it isn't as though congregations will be forced to call gay pastors. Or read the Lutheran Study Bible, whatever it actually is.

Anyway, it's all a bit odd. And sad. We wish them well, of course, and hope that they stop shrinking.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Once again, What is the definition of Success? I've always said that if a church helps someone learn about Christ, but that person decides that the church down the street is a better fit, than that is A-OK.

Lutheran Study Bible (not The Lutheran Study Bible) has been sold by Augsburg at all the recent synod gatherings, etc. If I have that right. One is ELCA and one is LCMS. I did run across a blog that purported to show foot notes from the one that were certainly, shall we say, "liberal," regarding some of the same sex issues. We have that Bible in our house, but I haven't looked up those footnotes.

Father said...

As for "success," yes, that's just the question that Comunity Church of Joy (and Willow Creek) have started to ask themselves, and come to the conclusion that their apparent and much-ballyhooed "success" was really something else.

My question is not why they chose to change an emphasis from entertainment to discipleship, but why they feel the need to leave the ELCA. I suspect that there is more to the story than their website reveals.

As for the Lutheran Study Bible, Augsburg certainly didn't sell it at *our* most recent synod assembly, since they didn't deign to have a display at all. And they wonder why they get so much bad press....

Pastor Joelle said...

A few years I dated a guy who claimed to be into Promise Keepers. "So..." I asked him, "You don't believe in sex before marriage?"

"Oh I don't take it that far" he "assured" me.

Pastor Joelle said...

Em...the above comment is in reference to the sex scandal about John Ensign.
Talk about non-sequiturs..

Pastor Joelle said...

Don't take it personal about Augsburg not coming to your assembly. They aren't coming to anybody's or anything anymore. They can't afford it they say. Shame - the Augsburg display was always my favorite place...

Paul McCain said...

Check out this comparison between the two Lutheran Study Bibles. Serious stuff here.

Paul McCain said...

Here is a comparison between the two Lutheran Study Bibles:

Father said...

Caveat lector: What Pr. McCain's brief comment above doesn't mention is that, as the director of Concordia Publishing House, he has a dog in this fight.

Paul McCain said...

No secrets there. You bet I have a "dog in this fight" it is called: passionate about Christ and His Word and when there is a Bible out there, from anybody, anywhere, telling us that when Jesus to make disciples of all nations He didn't really mean to make disciples of all nations, I have to "bark" and "growl" about that!

God bless!

Father said...

I will leave it for readers to decide for themselves whether Pr. McCain's implication here, that the Augsburg-Fortress editorial staff is *not* "passionate about Christ and His Word," violates the 8th Commandment.

I will point out, in fairness to both sides, that this particular interpretive point in the Augsburg-Fortress project did hit a nerve, and the publishers have promised to amend the annotations around St Matthew 28:19-20 in future printings.

Here's an interesting blog discussion, including comments from somebody at Augsburg-Fortress:

Paul McCain said...

"Father" the comparison between the two Bibles speaks for itself. And, facts are stubborn things.

The AF Bible clearly contradicts our Lord's words in Matthew 28.

Your remark is odd. I am not really interested in what individuals who work for AF think. All I care about is what the Bible they published says.

While it will be nice if they correct their errors, the question remains: how in the world could they possibly have published such horrendous error to begin with?

But the Great Commission is by no means the only problems with the AF Bible. It nowhere defines marriage being between a man and woman, among other problems


Don't you think it is tragic for a Bible produced by the ELCA's publishing ministry to contain such blatent error concerning salvation in Christ and the Great Commission?

Father said...

In fact, what I consider tragic is for the director of an otherwise quite fine publishing house to feel that his products -- and his church -- are best served by publicly (and very, very widely) disparaging the products of another.

It's really quite striking behavior, which is why I have allowed it to continue. Res ipse loquitur and all that. But I think the point is made, and we might to well to let it drop.