Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The ELCA at 25: Always Being Made New (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was written in response to an invitation to reflect on the 25th anniversity of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The article was published on the ELCA site "Living Lutheran" on August 14, 2013, and can be found at:

As we celebrate twenty-five years of the ELCA “always being made new”, one is inspired to wonder what will become of this denomination in the generations to come.

One option for the ELCA is to be made new into a “concrete” church. Among other things, a concrete church perceives itself as unchanging and fixed, and thus refuses to compromise, adapt, or flex. A concrete church is firmly grounded in the belief that it moves faithfully with the Holy Spirit and fully comprehends God’s mission, and because of such unbreakable views it will not waver, regardless of the setting and potential consequences.  In other words, a concrete church cries “Here I Stand”, is immovable, solid, and resolute, and as a result, nearly impossible to bend or twist.

While there is much to be admired in a concrete church, there is also much to be criticized.  For example, while concrete may be strong and resolute, it is also fixed in time, stiff, and inflexible, and is thus unable to change in response to conditions, societal advances, and circumstances.  In other words, concrete – sooner or later – will crack.  And so, as future followers of Jesus will likely experience cultural and technological changes at rates far greater than any before them, a church that refuses to be made new will allow the Holy Spirit to pass it by.  Therefore, while a concrete church may appear to be one of strength, it is ultimately weak, vulnerable, and unsustainable. 

In contrast to the concrete church, another option for the ELCA is to be made new into a chameleon church. In literal terms, a chameleon is adaptable, flexible, and because of its ability to assimilate quickly, it can survive situations that many larger and stronger beings cannot.  In metaphorical terms, a chameleon church is one that can alter quickly and dramatically based upon its conditions and observations, and it cries “semper reformanda”, ("always to be reformed”). As a result, such a church is nearly impossible to back into a corner, and thus it seems to find ways to survive.

While there is a great deal to be affirmed in a chameleon church, there is also a great deal to be rebuked, as those that continually change colors are – in many ways – unreliable and unable to face opposition.  In other words, the (literal) chameleon changes color primarily for survival, thus churches that display a chameleon character not only lack faithfulness but are also untrustworthy during times of social conflict.  In the context of massive shifts in religious preferences, the chameleon churches are on full display in a large number of communities in North America. 

In order to move past the two options of concrete and chameleon character, the ELCA is drawn toward the image of Isaiah 64:8, which reads: “…We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  While a full biblical exegesis is not intended here, what is significant is the profound image of clay, for it can be firm when needed, but it can also be flexible and thus can be shaped when necessary.  In other words, a clay church can be both firm and flexible, it can cry out “Here I Stand” and “semper reformanda”, and in light of the biblical image, it moves based upon the ways in which God seeks for it to be.  In contrast to the immovable and static nature of concrete and the inconsistent and wavering form of chameleons, the ELCA “always being made new” as a clay church is a exciting future for the next twenty-five years and beyond. 

Gracious God, you have promised through your Son to be with your church for all times. We give you thanks for your faithfulness to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and we praise you for the signs of your presence within this community of faith. We ask that you increase in us the spirit of faith and love, and make our fellowship an example of solidarity, justice, and peace. We pray through Jesus, your Son, who sets us free and sends us out. Amen.