In 1997, then Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), The Rev. H. George Anderson wrote a book called, “A Good Time to be the Church.” His successor, The Rev. Mark Hanson, who will complete 12 years as ELCA Presiding Bishop in November, quipped that he was thinking of writing a book called, “It’s Not All That Great a Time to Be the Church.”
Lutherans are not alone in having to adapt to a changing culture. Mainline denominations have been experiencing a steady decline in membership and worship attendance. A 2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study from the Indiana University School of Philanthropy indicated that while church giving has started to rebound since the Great Recession, it is not keeping pace with the relatively slow rate of inflation.
There seems to be a simple truth: houses of faith do not play the same role they have in the past. There has been a lot of hand wringing over that truth, but as usual, hand wringing accomplishes naught.
In downtown Phoenix last month, Pastors Rob Rynders and Brian Kemp-Schlemmer, who are starting an innovative urban United Methodist congregation, attended a street fair at the downtown Arizona State University campus. They came with a chalkboard with the heading, “Church sucks because ...” Students lined up to take a turn with the chalk and the responses were fascinating. Many of the responses were painful to read, but impossible to disregard. The one that stuck in Pastor Rynders’ mind the most was, “Sometimes creates more hate than love.”
It is not an uncommon sentiment. Outdated, judgmental, homophobic and self-serving are just a few of the adjectives frequently used to describe the church. And yet, as I was watching retrospectives on the 1963 March on Washington last week, I was reminded of how church leaders have often been at the forefront of movements for change and social justice.
What seems to have happened is that the river of Christianity has diverged onto separate tributaries. One seems to be trying to move toward a passionate faith but is being perceived as hostile, while another seems to be radically tolerant but is perceived as bland, impassionate and tied to preserving a sinking institution. All the while, there is a larger and growing tributary of those who self identify as “spiritual but not religious.”
I am wondering where it is that the church doesn’t suck; what it might be getting right. What intrigues me even more is getting the respondents to both questions together for some good food and conversation because I think that something really important might take place. And frankly, I like an excuse to have some good food.
The good folks at Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria in Casa Paloma, 7131 W. Ray Road, Suite 23, in Chandler, have offered us a room on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. I’m not sure what will happen because the ground rule is “leave your agenda at home.” We’re calling it Gr3 for Grace, Grub and Grog. Cynics and skeptics are as welcome as disciples and devotees, but whoever you are, plan on listening at least as much as you talk. See you there.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.