Editor’s note: In his book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (Fortress Press, 2019), Lenny Duncan offers a vision for the future of the ELCA and the broader church. Here he gives readers a look at his blueprint for the way forward.
Dear church: I am in an incredibly complicated love affair with you. I have never been so passionate about anything in my life. In Dear Church, I describe it like this:
Dear Church, I love you. I mean a stay-up-late-at-night-and-think-about-you kind of “I love you.” I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think of you, Church. … I’m not in love with the abstract concept of you—the inner ecclesia that Dr. King talks about, which is easy to love because it seems so ethereal you can wrap yourself in it like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. No, I love you.
This book is what the title says it is: a love letter to the most fulfilling and life-giving thing I have ever been a part of. It is simultaneously the most frustrating and heartbreaking endeavor of my life. ELCA, I have wanted to sit down and have a talk with you for a while now. We are in trouble, but not in the ways most thinkers and leaders in the church would have us believe.
The common narrative around church decline is that whole generations are abandoning faith and the revolutionary story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth for a host of reasons, including the increased “secularization” of society (whatever that means). I’m always suspicious when people blame facts, social change, science or technology for people’s choices about whether or not to engage faith.
Shifting demographics and shrinking congregations make all the headlines, but I see something else at work. I draw a direct line between the church’s lack of diversity and the church’s lack of vitality. The problems the ELCA faces are theological, not sociological. But so are the answers.
Called to a holy project
I believe that the call of the church in the 21st century is to dismantle white supremacy; that the way of the cross for the entire church is to lay down our lives, resources, buildings and endowments to this cause. That our entire future as a church and as a credible, viable Lutheran witness in the 21st century and beyond is balanced on this alone. That lifting up the name of Jesus means recapturing his revolutionary path, as defined by the Gospels. I believe the ELCA, more than any other church in the North American context, is called to this holy project.
What do I mean by “white supremacy”? My current working definition is “a series of interlocking systems, policies, beliefs and mostly unconscious actions that are part of the very tapestry of our society and church, the aggregate effect of which is oppression of people of color and other marginalized identities.”
It is historical and enshrined in our most beloved institutions in North America, and is self-replicating. White supremacy does not require you to be an active racist to function or police its systems, nor to passively benefit from it. It is demonic; a radical evil with a life of its own. It is anti-Christ.
The problems the ELCA faces are theological, not sociological. But so are the answers.
So why should we take on a system so embedded in our culture that trying to find it is like sending fish to look for water?
In Dear Church I suggest the following:
But we are the whitest denomination in the United States; if not us, then who will enter this battle for freedom? If not now, then when? It is our duty and our joy that in this time and this place we join the angels and archangels, the witnesses of the resurrection in their never-ending hymn of justice. The banquet that is about to be laid out by the sovereign God is a feast of equity. But make no mistake: it will be like the night this same God was arrested. God will take this church, lift it up and give thanks, and then break it. He will turn and face us, saying to those whom we have oppressed, “This is my body, broken for you.”
We have a calling from the Almighty to be better. To be different. To be the light in the world at a time where our nation is so divided that we have cracked in half. Our church is the place to have hard and loving conversations that call us to repentance and reparations; there is nowhere else. It certainly isn’t happening in our political system or on social media. We might be the last place where that courageous and brave space can exist—and our time is quickly running out.
If we want church vitality, if we want our sanctuaries to swell, if we want our congregations to be the community nerve center through which hundreds walk every week, it’s time to stand up, dust ourselves off and get involved in the defining battle of this generation. In a country that is hungry for grace, we can spill our life’s blood out as a meaningful sacrifice to bring radical reordering of the soul of America.