Friday, April 02, 2010

Good News: New Churches! Bad News: Incomprehensible Press Release!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for which we really need to come up with a lovey-dovey nickname some day soon, has put a curious little gift into our Easter basket. It is a press release, linked above, which describes with gushing enthusiasm the church's "affirmation" of 41 new mission congregations.

That sounds like great news. Although new mission starts are expensive and have a frighteningly high failure rate, they are also exciting, and generate enthusiasm not just among those who are directly involved, but throughout whole synods. Beyond that, they are straightforward obedience to the Great Commission, and therefore an essential reflection of the Church's true being.

But the press release leaves us uneasy, for two reasons. First, because it is one of the most poorly-written things we have ever read, so obtuse that its precise content is almost impossible to discern. And second, because -- so far as we can discern the meaning of the words on the page -- we aren't sure the ELCA's plans are very good.

First, the textual problems. The release gives out all sorts of numerical information, but only piecemeal. Of the 41 "new starts," we read that 29 are "congregations under development;" 23 are among immigrant populations; 12 are "synodically authorized worshipping communities," and that "lay African immigrants initiated" 6 of them.

But there is no indication of how these factoids should be related to one another. How many of the 41 are lay-Africa-initiated and synodically authorized? How many are authorized but not under development? What immigrant communities are we talking about? And so forth.

A few paragraphs are thrown in, almost randomly, to describe a couple of congregations leaving the ELCA (boo! hiss!), while a faithful remnant applies for recognition as a "worshipping community." This seems to raise more questions than it answers, since church constitutions usually favor even the smallest remnant that wants to remain with the denomination. Through what legal chicanery were these remnants cheated of their rightful property? Or were they? We can't tell from reading this.

Intentionally or not, the release makes it sound as if the ELCA has just decided to plant 41 new congregations, which in a single year would be remarkable. But that's certainly not true. So what readers really want to know is "How many of these 41 'starts' are actually starting this year?" And there's no way to tell.

In the same vein, insiders may realize that "congregation under development" and "worshiping community" are both institutional terms of art, but most readers will not. Even those of us who do may not be able to keep the differences straight in our heads, and forgive our cynicism but we fear that is the intention: to throw out some cheery and quotable numbers that will not be understood by their intended readership.

There's also the problem of nice-sounding quotations in urgent need of exegesis. We read that "each [start] ... represents renewed relationships at ground level," which on its face means absolutely nothing. (It might mean that a weekly Eucharistic sacrifice will be offered in each place, thus celebrating the restored relationship between human beings and the Ground of Being itself. That would be quite nice, but it sounds more like our own personal spin than like a press release).

This press release is as poorly structured as we can imagine, and succeeds in creating many impressions while providing very few useful facts.

Then comes the second problem, which is what little insight it does provide into the ELCA's strategy for creating new congregations. So 23 of these new churches (or, realistically, might-be-someday-churches) will be planted "among immigrant communities." Hmm.

On one hand, that was a highly effective mission strategy, especially for Lutherans, and especially in the years between 1845 and 1945. And especially among immigrant communities from northern and central Europe, among whom many Lutherans were already to be found. (Even then, it never worked especially well outside the core constituency. There were, for example, efforts to plant churches among Italian immigrants, but they largely failed. We can't imagine why.)

On the other hand, this strategy has not worked very well at all in the past 65 years. Oh, we have planted the congregations, and a few of them have survived their first few years. But how many recently-planted Lutheran congregations, purposefully catering to an ethnic enclave, have gone on to become large enough to support themselves? Not many in New York, anyway. Some people do this really well -- hello, Rome! -- but it doesn't seem to us at the Egg that Lutherans are still in that group.

One major caveat, of course, is African immigrants. The growth of African Christianity in all its forms, including Lutheranism, is a miracle of the modern age. Attention given to new African immigrants -- including not only religious services, but also the full battery of help in resettlement -- may very well lead to strong new congregations, and perhaps not in the distant future.

A related concern. How many of those 41 starts are in economically marginal communities, and how many are in growing middle-class neighborhoods? The press release doesn't say, but for our own reason, we suspect a fair portion. And that troubles us. We know it's cheap, and that it sounds romantic, but for a church with limited resources, we don't think church planting is the best service that can be provided to the destitute. Nor does it serve the church's own long-term need for stable congregations.

Don't get us wrong: the church has a mission to the poor. We've read Gutierrez, and even if we hadn't, we're big fans of Elizabeth of Hungary. But it is extraordinarily difficult to create a stable, self-sustaining worship community among people who struggle each day for the basics of survival. What you can do, with less difficulty, is organize more prosperous people around the idea of providing help, spiritual but primarily material, to those in dire need. "Communities of compassion," and so forth.

So -- thank you, ELCA, for trying so hard. thank you, Evangelical Outreach unit, for "affirming" these new mission starts, whatever that actually means. We ask only two things: hire a professional copywriter to put those press releases together; and try to be smart about all this.


mark said...

Hmm. "Press" releases from the ELCA. I think they "downsized" their professional and she's now the "Pretty Good Lutherans" blogger which takes up some of the slack. :-))

Pastor Joelle said...

I'm with Mark.

Levi said...

Ugh... you are very correct about the PR aspect of this, I suspect. God love 'em, they're trying out there in Chicago... but this has the unsavory feel of a crude attempt to gain a little positive coverage more than anything else. 41 new congregations, wonderful... but on the spectrum of "fruits of a well-crafted plan for mission/evangelism" to "new methods for determining what is a 'congregation,'" where do most of these really fall? :-/

Vicar Matt said...

As an ELCA leader (and even if I wasn't one), I'm all about outreach and supporting ministries to those who may need it more than anyone. However, I've got two issues at hand:

One is your own. In an increasingly technological age where the press releases and "blogs" of the organization are more readily available than ever before, with more and more readers (lay and cleric alike), content and style are more important than ever before in said releases. At least give the people you're trying to inform some real information, or don't say anything at all. Bureaucracy at it's finest--when all's said and done, there's a lot more said than done.

Secondly, although I'm all about outreach, this sort of screams of a subtle means of implementing Presiding Bishop Hanson's idea (I paraphrase from the video transcript of his last town hall forum) of almost franchising thriving congregations into other areas that need ministry. This can't be done, nor can any other new ministry, without proper infrastructure first. In this case, it's about money.

Get support organizations in place first that can organize the potential parishioners, get systems implemented to stimulate interest and do some research to place said communities in areas that are reachable to larger groups to ensure that the new church at least has a CHANCE of surviving fiscally. Suburban parishes are closing their doors due to lack of sustenance...I wonder how these will fare when they're plopped down?