By Bob Hulteen
Last Sunday I walked downstairs to retrieve the StarTribune from my front porch. Now, I hadn’t yet had coffee, which friends will acknowledge makes me potentially homicidal. Add to that a forecast for another day above 90 degrees and you will appreciate my mood.
As I unwrapped the rubber band from the newspaper, I immediately glanced Jean Hopfensperger’s “As Churches Close, A Way of Life Fades” on the front page of the front section. An article on “the unchurching of America” propelled me back to fifth grade, when I was transitioning from my little, but deeply engaged, LCA congregation (which was closing) to the large, but comfortable, ALC congregation (in which I was eventually confirmed).
“I immediately glanced Jean Hopfensperger’s ‘As Churches Close, A Way of Life Fades’ on the front page of the front section.”
The closing of a congregation is painful, and I remember the adults at Peace Lutheran in 1966 avoiding the difficult decision until just one-too-many families moved out of town for a new job. Even as the American church was still in ascendancy, the seeds for the deconstruction of church life (and other community institutions) was beginning. The adults at Peace experienced some sense of shame over the need to make the responsible decision.
Jean’s article points to the fact that many other congregations, including a couple in our synod, have had to make that decision in recent years. While anthropologists (and journalists) might take a sociological look at the facts, practitioners know the pain. So, I read with sadness the story of La Salle Lutheran church.
BUT THE TRIUMPHALISM of the period of church growth in post-war America in the 1950s and 1960s did not mark a high point of church life, in my humble opinion. The church of that age was so much enculturated that it was simply a puzzle piece to be connected to school, workplace, and Elks Club. Its mission was inseparable from the secular institutions it encouraged.
“Do you remember when we used to …” might be the most dangerous statement within churches right now. While the pews might be filled for the Christmas program, churches were mostly indistinguishable from other organizations.
“The triumphalism of the period of church growth in post-war America in the 1950s and 1960s did not mark a high point of church life.”
Let’s have a conversation about how the economy is changing, how families are changing, how education is changing, how political parties are changing. The mediating institutions of our society do not carry the place they once did – for good or for ill. (One could ask which institutions have benefited and which have been hurt by these changes.)
But, in all my years in the church, I have never had a time where such pertinent questions like “For what does the church exist?” and “How do we meet the needs of the world” have been so central to discussions about the future of congregations than now. Pushed out of complacency, the church might be figuring out the mission of the church. Maybe we had to “shrink” to be challenged to be creative.
A former synod bishop once told me that managing decline was the most difficult task of a church leader. On the other hand, he reflected, there seemed to be more clarity on the unique nature of the church in society.
Staring into the sociological realities facing our churches is daunting. Considering the many social factors – racism, sexism, ableism, and more – may require us to be smarter and more nimble. But, from my angle of vision as a communicator within the synod, I believe there’s never been a better time to share the good news of God’s action in our world.
Will we do so … even if it doesn’t get newspaper coverage?