Magazine article The Christian Century

Ways to Be Lutheran: New Churches Experiment with Polity

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ways to Be Lutheran: New Churches Experiment with Polity

Article excerpt

AMERICAN Lutherans became a full part of American Protestantism just in time to participate in its decline. From its high of more than 9 million members in 1965, the total number of American Lutherans declined to just over 7 million in 2013, representing about 2 percent of the American population. Though Lutheran numbers generally plateaued through the 1970s and 1980s, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod have declined markedly over the past 25 years. The ELCA went from 5.2 million members in 1988 to 3.9 million in 2013; the LCMS declined less severely, from 2.7 million members in 1988 to 2.3 million in 2013. The decline in giving to the national programs and offices of these two denominations is also fairly dramatic, though more pronounced in the ELCA.

Besides suffering from the same negative demographic trends facing other mainline Protestant denominations in this period--aging membership and an inability to retain younger members--the ELCA since 2000 has witnessed the departure of nearly 500,000 members who have coalesced into two new and distinct centrist Lutheran denominations: the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (2001) and the North American Lutheran Church (2010). Though the scale of these departures is noteworthy in itself, this development is all the more interesting for the new patterns and new directions that these denominations are attempting to develop. Their rejection of the ELCA (and implicitly the LCMS) has forced them to experiment with new ways of being Lutheran Christians in the American context, and they are actively exploring these possibilities.

The older and larger of these two new denominations is the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, which had its beginnings in 2001 and now numbers more than 350,000 members in over 700 congregations in the United States. This group has its roots in the Lutherans who were troubled by the ecumenical agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in 1999, "Called to Common Mission." Already disaffected within the ELCA, these Lutheran dissidents resisted the adoption of the agreement because they believed that it took the ELCA further in a centralized and clericalized direction. Losing this fight was the proverbial "last straw" for them, and many began the difficult and complicated process of formally leaving the ELCA.

As its name suggests, the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ is a Lutheran experiment in congregational polity, historically something that Lutherans have rarely attempted to implement. The LCMC vests power solely in the local congregations and understands itself as advisory to them. This is more than problematic for many American Lutherans, who, though they often complain about "synod," have come to rely on the sup port of a denominational body in times of need. Weaning pastors and congregations from this pattern and encouraging them to take their own responsibility has proven to be challenging. The leadership of the LCMC has been adamant about (sometimes even fixated on) not becoming just another Lutheran denomination, but rather continuing this experiment.

The congregations within the LCMC are not unified by a single theology or form of Lutheran practice, and many of them were already anomalies within the ELCA before they departed. There are a number of different wings or emphases within the LCMC--congregations whose ethos tends toward evangelical, charismatic, or low-church pietist expressions of Lutheranism--so the annual gatherings of the LCMC tend to be rather eclectic. This is mostly celebrated, but can cause frictions. Within the LCMC congregations are allowed (but not required) to join various Mission Districts; some of these groups represent geographical regions (as has been common in Lutheranism), but others are affiliation groups of congregations that share a common ethos, such as those listed above. An interesting example of such an affiliation grouping is one found in the upper Midwest, the Augustana District, which represents a creative move back toward some elements of the more typical synodical structure of mutual accountability between congregations. …

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