Although I have a Norwegian surname, I come from a long line of both German and Scandinavian Lutherans. I am grateful for the faith my ancestors brought when they immigrated to the United States.
Now I live in Minnesota, a land that is a bastion of Lutheran strength. But things are changing. Yes, some churches are growing, but more congregations are shrinking. Sanctuaries once filled with a thousand worshipers are now happy with 100.
People wonder if they will have the resources to keep the doors open. When I asked one church what they thought God was calling them to do and be in the next five years, an older woman said, “I just hope our church is around long enough to have my funeral.”
This is not a new reality for many in other countries, especially Europe. But, in Minneapolis, many are nostalgic for the good old days and wonder why we can’t just bring them back – those days when the cultural supports for the church were strong.
And yet, in a profound way, this is an opportune moment for American Lutheranism – a time to reflect on our true identity, our true mission. Without cultural supports or cultural expectations, we can look more carefully at what God is calling us to be and do. We can ask: What might it mean that people believe in Jesus and belong to faith communities not because it’s supported by culture, but in spite of culture’s indifference or even discouragement? What new thing is God doing in our time?
This is God’s church and God is alive, calling us in new ways, to new ministry and service. So, what is our identity and mission in this new time? Are we called to save an institution? A denomination? A specific congregation?
Or, are we called to share the good news of Jesus Christ? To form life-giving communities of faith? To join with God in seeking justice and shalom throughout the world?
We can’t just ask what we can do better to attract people (not that that is wrong), but we must ask how we meet people where they are. Not how are we going to get folks to come to us, but how do we go where people are, entering the neighborhoods and communities we share.
These are exciting times, if we can but see it.
I rejoice to see a new apostolic age. The Spirit of Christ is awakening the church for the sake of the Gospel.