Friday, September 03, 2010

Big Enough to Fail?

There has been a good deal of discussion on these interwebs about a blog post by Fr David Housholder, who apparently lives on the beach somewhere west of the Hudson. The piece is intelligent, provocative, and well worth a read.

Housholder's main point is that Lutheranism in the US is suffering as a result of changing demographics and poor evangelism. The point is obvious, but bears repeating. Anybody who thinks this is not true simply hasn't been paying attention.

Some of his subsidiary points are open for debate. He's already getting a lot of flack for the suggestion that low birth rates translate into fewer new members, although that one strikes us as common sense. (The challenge is how to respond. Do we demand that Lutherans start making babies, or try to recruit people who may make some babies anyway?) We're more skeptical about his homiletical claim -- is Lutheran preaching really noticeably worse than, say, Presbyterian preaching? Not in our experience. Indeed, we'll put the Christ-centered and Biblically-inspired sermons we have come to expect from [most of] our colleagues over the rambling meditations on family and manners that we normally hear in our visits to Baptist churches, too.

But one particular point strikes us as full of holes, but still worth exploring. Housholder says:
We have over-merged. In the mid-50′s, when Lutheranism was thriving, we had a bunch of medium-sized denominations which were very relational (every pastor could go do every national gathering), and each one had clear branding and vibe. There was loyalty to their seminary and mission fields. Now we have two mega corporations which have no branding and spend all of their time fighting, because we are forcing together constituencies that don’t belong together. Former ELC pietists have no business slugging it out for turf within the ELCA with former ULCA East Coast types. No branding, no new customers.
Now, this seems to proceed from an hypothesis we have encountered elsewhere, which proposes -- apparently seriously -- that mainline denominations were done in by the advent of the railroad. By permitting fast and safe travel across the country, it turned regional church bodies into continental ones, and undermined the sense of connection between pastors and churches. A merger of the New York and Pennsylvania Ministeria was relational enough; but the one ULCA pastor in Arizona must have been a lonely man. The jet age can be presumed to have amplified this effect.

There is a great deal of logic to all this, and if true it would certainly go a long way toward explaining a readily-observed phenomenon, which is the sense of disconnection evident among (in ELCA jargon) all the various "expressions of the Church." But is it true?

We aren't sure. The hypothesis seems to grow less from documentable facts than from a classic "myth of the golden age," in this case one in which many small Lutheran denominations were more effective at spreading the Gospel than fewer large ones. If current trends continue, of course, we will all have an opportunity to test the hypothesis directly. Oh, joy.

As for Housholder's actual claims: Because we have only a skeleton library with us in Romania, it is impossible to check a few important facts, so we can't say any of this with certainty, and will have to depend upon readers to confirm or deny. That said, here are the things we doubt:

(a) "In the mid-50s, when Lutheranism was thriving." This is a common but misleading meme. Yes, many Lutheran congregations were established during the 1950s, as the post-war suburbs flourished. What is rarely mentioned in this account is the concomitant decline of urban congregations, some of which lost between 50% and 90% of their membership within a few years. (And no, despite the myth, overall church attendance wasn't notably higher in the 1950s than now). So define "thriving."

(b) "Every pastor could go to every national gathering." Really? In the ULCA, the number of pastors was 3,644 in 1942, and growing. We're not sure what it was by the mid-50s, but it must have been somewhere around 4,000. And Missouri was larger. We're sure that every pastor could attend a biennial, along with the hundreds of lay delegates -- but how many did? Does anybody know?

(c) "Each one had a clear branding and vibe." Yes and no. What held most of them together was ethnicity, pure and simple. (You don't think so? Then tell me how many Latinos joined the Suomi Synod.) That's clear enough, but self-limiting. Sure, the ULCA had a kind of liberal bent, and and the ELS had a kind of pietistic one, but even there ancestry played at least as large a role. Apart from ethnicity, the only really clear "branding" belonged, then as now, the Missouri, with its consistent claim to be the last faithful remnant of Lutheranism on earth.

(d) "Now we have two mega corporations ..." Well, yes, the 4.5ish-million-member ELCA is the fourth- or fifth-largest Lutheran church body in the world, depending upon how you count. And the LCMS is pretty large as well, with something like 2.5 million members. (Both are smaller than the Southern Baptist Convention or the United Methodist Church.) But if we recall correctly, at the time of the 1962 LCA merger, Missouri had about 2.6 million members -- meaning that its size is virtually unchanged. So one of the "mega corporations" has nothing to do with the mergers Housholder is talking about.

(e) "...which have no branding" -- okay, he has a case there -- "and spend all their time fighting" -- he means each body within itself, and this is true enough -- "because we are forcing together constituencies that don't belong together." Well, that's the real point, and the place where Housholder's entire paragraph comes closest to describing reality.

There is no question that Lutherans fight a lot, nor that the history of the ELCA has been marked by two especially destructive internal battles, first over relations with the Episcopal Church and now over the treatment of gay people. In the first of these, especially, ELS pietists and LCA high church types were indeed at each other's throats. (And we all know who was right, don't we? Hmm?) The question is whether this fighting results from efforts to bind different constituencies into a single body, or from the intellectual culture of Lutheranism. It seems to us that strong cases can be made either way. Never forget that, early on, the the Gnesio-Lutherans made a virtual war against Philip Melanchthon and his followers, so that in a sense one of our key confessions of faith is an effort to discredit the author of several others. We get awfully combative.

It seems to us that Housholder is onto something, but not exactly the thing he thinks he is onto. It cannot easily be demonstrated that the challenges to Lutheranism in the US proceed from the fact of large denominations. We think this is a red herring. But it can be demonstrated that the challenges proceed from (1) a strong connection between "Lutheran" identity and ethnic identity, at a time when ethic identity is declining among Americans of northern European descent; (2) the nature of "Lutheran identity," and especially differences in faith and practice so deeply felt that some Lutherans are routinely unable to recognize each other as authentically Lutheran. To these, in the case of the ELCA, we might also add our "sin of origin," (3) constitutional and cultural concessions made by the CNLC to representatives of the AELC, especially Will Herzfeld, which have helped to create a national leadership (including churchwide assemblies) chronically out of touch with the reality of parish life for most Lutherans. Hence, for example, two decades and more of relentlessly "celebrating diversity" in a church which isn't especially ethnically diverse, which however well-intentioned have had the effect of making middle-class white people feel a little guilty that they can't be less middle-class or less white.

This leaves what Housholder calls "branding." It sounds crass, but the truth is that a pluralistic society doesn't leave any Christian community the luxury of simply declaring itself "the Church." We have an obligation to put a public claim the central marks of our identity. So what are they? Unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, but of course everybody wants those. The Word rightly preached and sacraments rightly administered, but that sounds a bit pompous. Can we go snappier? In light of this post, it would be easy to think that Lutherans should put up flyers saying "we are people of northern European ancestry who often disagree amongst ourselves," or -- in MadAv-speak, "We're white and we fight."

Yikes. No. We can do better, because there's far more to Lutheranism, and to the ELCA, than that. Actually, given the way we try (and sometimes manage) to hold those ELS and LCA types in tension with each other, not to mention the straights, gays, whites and whatevers, it strikes us that we could do worse than to declare our selves "The Big Church."


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Responding to only one of the points: about not enough babies. Well, duh. But there is always more to the story. For example, in the last 20 years, the new people that I've seen in my particular church don't have any babies. They are either too old already or too single. We have lots of people like that. I'm not implying anything by "too single." I haven't asked them why they aren't married.

Our school districts in this area have declined about 50% in school age population, so of course, it is reflected in the churches as well.

Even getting the best preacher in all of US Lutheranism wouldn't change the demographics. There might just be a few more cars on the road headed in the direction of our church just before 9:30 a.m.

Tim said...

Hello Father,

Can you say more about this?

>>constitutional and cultural concessions made by the CNLC to representatives of the AELC, especially Will Herzfeld>>

I'm especially interested in learning about what you are calling the cultural concessions.

Father Anonymous said...

I'm reluctant to say too much in the absence of my reference materials. But as I recall from Edgar Trexler's "Anatomy of a Merger," many of the most instantly unpopular features of the then-new ELCA were argued for by the AELC representatives. I'm thinking particularly of the "representative principle," or quota system.

When I talk about "cultural concessions," I DON'T mean concessions to a prevailing secular culture, although I realize it probably sounds that way. That's another discussion entirely. I was (awkwardly) trying to describe the way the ELCA quickly developed a church culture which was strange and alienating to most of its members. Much of the fault for this lies with the CNLC, and I think a disproportionate amount with the AELC team.

They were a very small minority of the new church, whose delegates used the generosity of the two larger groups (as well as their battle-honed parliamentary skills) to get their way on questions that would otherwise have gone differently. And I don't mean theological questions, but organizational ones.

And fair warning, here. As longtime readers know, I customarily blame the AELC for everything I don't like in the world, including mosquitoes and the Celsius scale. You probably shouldn't take me too seriously.

Tim Fisher said...

Father, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on the constitutional and organizational problems with the ELCA. I don't really care where they came from, be it the AELC or LFC. (I like to blame everything on the Lutheran Free Church, which is particularly fair in this context, since they ceased to exist as of 1963.)

I can't seem to find an email link on your blog. And there are too many Anonymouses out there for me to Google you effectively. If you are interested, please email me at the email link which I think I will be leaving here when I click the send button.

Tim Fisher
Minneapolis, MN

mark said...

I would appreciate a more careful use of the word: "myth." Langer and Cassirer would be appalled.

Anonymous said...

Bless you for posting my essay. It's gone all over, especially since Ed Stetzer propped it on Twitter.

Father Anonymous said...

Tim: the link came up as "profile unavailable." I'll google you. The main point, though, is that I like the ELCA, despite its flaws. Sure, there are things I wish the CNLC and subsequent CWAs had done differently, but for the most part I think it's a pretty respectable institution. And I think that's the thing that most needs to be said these days.

David: Any time. It's interesting stuff.

Mark: Well, the Egg Editorial Board held a special conference to discuss the word "myth." We were divided between (on one hand) the elitist college boys who normally govern our Usage Handbook, and who all agree with you, and (on the other hand) the wimpy pop-culture crowd, who think that definitions 3-5 in the American Heritage Dictionary (1979) are common enough to merit an occasional toss into the salad. The college boys won a smashing victory, principally through their use of Latin abbreviations in footnotes, but they did grant one concession to their opponents, viz.: the popular usage will henceforth be permissible when linking to an article called 'Myths We Tell Ourselves,' although the use of [sic] or some other derogatory indication of our own superior judgment in lexical matters is warmly encouraged."

Diane said...

I really really like your commentary on David. How about the "Big Tent" church?