At the 2022 Churchwide Assembly, the decision was taken to establish a Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church to “reconsider the statements of purpose for each of the expressions of this church, the principles of its organizational structure, and all matters pertaining thereunto, being particularly attentive to our shared commitment to dismantle racism.” This is no small task!
The Commission for a New Lutheran Church that led to the formation of the ELCA completed its work 35 years ago—before TikTok, smartphones, and telemedicine. Even MTV was relatively new. The world has changed a lot since then, so perhaps it is time to take a look at our statements of purpose and principles of organizational structure.
There has been a range of reaction to this—excitement, trepidation, a call to tear the church down completely and then rebuild it, requests to maintain the status quo, and everything else in between. There has even been the suspicion voiced by some that a cabal of churchwide leaders on Higgins Road has already completed the project (actually, no). We have committed to being a thriving church rooted in tradition and radically relevant—the tradition being our theology, not culture or cuisine.
The church is unique among institutions. It is divine and also very human. It is the only institution whose reason for being is to preach the gospel in its purity and to administer the sacraments according to the gospel. “The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world” (ELCA Constitution 4.01).
We have committed to being a thriving church rooted in tradition and radically relevant—the tradition being our theology, not culture or cuisine.
Do we always get it right? No. Since, as it has been said, the church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners, there are many things in the long history of the church and in the much shorter history of this church that have caused harm—even deadly harm—to people and creation. And yet, God continues to use the church and our branch of it to be an ambassador of hope and to keep telling the radical story of grace. We are a both/and church that understands the baptized to be at once saints and sinners.
Here is part of an essay by 20th-century Roman Catholic brother Carlo Carretto: “How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often have I wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.”
That pretty well sums up the beautiful, maddening, sublime and broken reality of the church and of its people. God alone preserves the church and God alone renews it. But God, in God’s inscrutable wisdom, continues to call, gather, enlighten and make “holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Small Catechism) and invites sinners to be part of the body of Christ.
I call all of us to be in prayer for the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church. The commission will meet together for the first time in July. Pray for openness to God’s Spirit, humility in discernment, and bold trust that God will bless our efforts as we seek to give the gospel free course in the world.