The Deep in the Burbs Research Project is a story of a particular place in Midwest suburbia. It was necessary to pursue this research in a specific location, through participatory action research within three neighboring congregations, because it is my assumption that a reasonably adequate Christian theology is done in, with, under, against, and for the local congregation. ((I am indebted to Dr. Patrick Keifert for this important understanding of the nature of theology. This is his modification of David Kelsey’s assertion that theological education—To Understand God Truly—is done about, against, and for the local congregation. Kelsey.)) To know anything truly, especially how God is at work in the world, is to study the particularities of it. ((This asserts an Aristotelean vs. Platonic approach to knowledge. It also denotes the nominalism of Jon Scotus Duns who believed that we can only know the incarnation within the particulars of creation, not in the abstract universal ideals. Further, it takes a phenomenological understanding that all knowledge is bracketed by the experience of the perceiver and communicatively interpreted.)) This research project asks how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations. This implies, and I assert, that it might have far different effects on people in different contexts. Therefore, I must limit my inquiry to a specific group of people in a specific place. There are two classifications in which I will describe the people in this study and frame the question. ((In spite of the particularist nature of this inquiry, classifications are still helpful for communication.)) The first is suburban. The second is Lutheran.
What are the Suburbs?
We must be clear about two things regarding the definition of the term suburb:
First, there is no such thing as “the suburbs” in a grand, unifying definition. ((Jon C. Teaford, The American Suburb: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2008); Jon C. Teaford, The Metropolitan Revolution : The Rise of Post-Urban America, The Columbia History of Urban Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Jon C. Teaford, Post-Suburbia : Government and Politics in the Edge Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Christopher Niedt, Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013).)) No two suburbs are alike, and each municipality that is generally classified as a suburb is a unique entity that has its own story. However, general classifications can be helpful for broad-stroked conversations. The suburbs involved in this research project fall under the general classification of the bedroom-developing (B/D) suburb. ((Myron Orfield identifies six distinct types of suburban communities: at-risk segregated, at-risk older, at-risk low density, bedroom-developing, affluent job centers, and very affluent job centers. These six types represent one of the greatest challenges of suburbia: the socio-economic stratification of the suburban population. This research will focus on the bedroom-developing (B/D) suburb. The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers. Orfield, Myron. Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability. Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997, 31-48.)) Simply stated, the B/D suburb is The B/D suburb is comprised primarily of residential neighborhoods that are within the metropolitan sprawl surrounding a central urban center, but separated by great distances from shopping centers, schools, and civic centers.
Second, The three specific suburbs—A, B, and C—are located northwest of Minneapolis, along the Mississippi River and fall under the purview of the Metropolitan Council. ((metrocouncil.org (accessed May 12, 2014))) There are three congregations involved in the research project, each located in one of these suburbs. The three suburbs, while sharing the B/D classification, are radically different from one another. The unique history of each suburb, along with the history of each congregation and the history of the interaction between these congregations, provides a rich texture to the context of this research project.
The Bedroom-Developing Suburb
Refining the Term
The B/D suburb is the middle-class suburb. It is not an edge city, ((see Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1991); Jon C. Teaford, Post-Suburbia : Government and Politics in the Edge Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).)) or a place with gated communities and multi-million dollar homes. Nor is it the older, at-risk suburbs. It is the suburb that is comprised mostly of single-family homes, strip malls, and parks. The residents typically have a triangular commute between home, work/school, and shopping. Some of these residents commute to the center city, but just as many of them commute to another suburb. The vast majority of them, however, must commute by automobile everywhere they go. ((The impact of the automobile and the development of the interstate system cannot be underemphasized as a key component to the development of suburbia. see Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).Alex Marshall, How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken, 1st ed., Constructs Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000).Craig Van Gelder, “Effects of Auto-Mobility on Church Life and Culture,” Word & World 28, no. 3 (2008).)) There is very little public transportation, lots of green spaces, and large distances between destinations.
Key Sociological Aspects of the B/D Suburb
The typical B/D suburbanite (again, if that is fair to say) is a member of a middle-class family where both parents (many of whom are divorced and now living in two-house, shared family scenarios) work and the children are involved in multiple school and civic activities. They spend a great deal of time driving between work, school, and social activities. They have access to cable television and streaming internet. Most members of the household have a personal digital device of some sort and often resort to texting as the preferred mode of communication.
The B/D suburbanite falls closest to the Fishman’s bourgeois ideal. ((Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987).)) Downs names the dominant vision of this suburb to be: ownership of a detached single-family house; automobile ownership; low-rise workplaces; small communities with strong local governments; environment free from signs of poverty. ((Allan D. Wallis, “Filling the Governance Gap,” National Civic Review 87, no. 1 (1998): 103.)) The modern dogma of fact/value, public/private dichotomy is the dominant vision. ((here I am referring to the buffered self from Charles Taylor and the plausibility structures proposed by Newbigin. see Taylor.Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture.)) The local church is, if thought of at all, one component of the fragmented private world. God is mostly a deistic entity that probably exists, but has very little to do with either public or private life. Living a good life and keeping the family safe is the highest priority.
The sociological factors that drive the B/D vision are radical individualism, self-sufficiency, autonomy, personal liberty and freedom, consumerism, and the commodification of goods, services, and people. ((The suburban lifestyle is a picture of the buffered self that Taylor describes. The drive for radical individual freedom and personal space is what drives most suburban communities. Garreau discusses how these values have formed Edge Cities that have redefined the meaning of community based upon these individualistic and utilitarian values. Garreau.)) The research will reveal how the research team members: (a) recognized these factors within themselves, and (b) allowed the social/relational/entangled Trinity to invite them into a new imagination.
This, after all, is the missional frame for the project. Van Gelder and Zscheile claim that
it is vital for the missional church to offer an alternative view of humanity. It must be a view that recognizes the fluid and socially embedded character of personhood in pointing toward relationships of communion and love, through the Spirit, rather than the cultivation of lifestyles that offer false security by seeking to isolate us from others. To be a Christian is to be given an ecclesial identity that is dynamic and relational, defined intersubjectively, but freed through participation in Christ to share in the lives of others with open hearths and hands. ((Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 122-123.))
Specific Issues related to Suburban Spirituality.
I have already identified some key issues regarding spiritual formation as it relates to the modern, Western Christian in the Spiritual Formation Frame. These have to do with dualisms of modernity that create the struggle over individualism vs. Socialism, Individual piety vs. Community welfare, etc. In this section I will highlight some important issues that are specific to the social location of the Research Team.
The first issue is racism or white privilege. Tisdell says,
Often people in North America who are white or who were cosocialized within the Christian tradition have little sense of their own culture. Perhaps when one is representative of the dominant culture, it is difficult to have sense of where theta culture is. As many have recently discussed in considerations of race in adult education, whiteness is the primary invisible norm, the invisible standard that people are often measured against. To be fully conscious of what is so pervasive that it is almost investable is difficult, just as fish probably have little or no consciousness of water. But if fish were not in water, they probably would very quickly have a sense of what water is. ((Elizabeth J. Tisdell, Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education, The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).))
This is not a strictly suburban issue. Jennings says that racism is the mistake that is as wide as the horizon of the Western Imperial culture. ((Jennings.)) However, this is the lived experience of the research team. The fact that everyone on the team is white and middle to upper-middle class means that the group will be prone to live into its own white/dominant-culture blindness.
Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Tatum present a model for identity formation among those who have begun to recognize white privilege. They recognize that people must: (a) experience a disorienting dilemma, (b) begin to explore their own assumptions, and ( c ) explore what it means to be an ally to people of color or other non dominant groups, e.g. The LGBT community, or people with disabilities. ((Tisdell, 170-171.))
Local Government vs. Metropolitan Government
There are two basic narratives that have informed the conversation about suburbia since the mid-twentieth century. The first is a story of vilification. The second is a story of glorification. Those who would vilify the suburbs tend to paint in broad strokes. Suburbia, they would say, started with the “white flight” of the 1950s when the automobile and cheap housing made it possible for the white middle class to flee the city (read people of color) and seek the “good life” in the suburbs. This is a portrait of a homogenous group of predominantly middle-class, white, protestants, who are primarily uneducated, working class people who have capitulated to consumerism and the commodification of the individual. They care nothing about the community, but simply want to get more material wealth, consume large amounts of fast food, and burn up the world’s resources in massive Sport Utility Vehicles while they drive their children from one meaningless sporting event to another, living vicariously through the success of their children. ((Gibson laments the captivity of the suburban church along these lines. Gibson Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches: An Analysis of Protestant Responsibility in the Expanding Metropolis, 1st ed. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961). The New Urbanism movement paints a bleak picture of the history of the suburban sprawl. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, 10th anniversary ed. (New York: North Point Press, 2010).)) The lament continues as digital technology has further enhanced the disembodied existence of the nomadic, atomistic self across the barren, meaningless landscape. ((Jennings calls this displacement. Jennings.))
Those who would glorify the story point out three flaws in the previous tale of woe. First, the suburbs are anything but homogenous. Every suburb has its own story and each was started for various reasons—some political, some economical, others religious. ((Jon C. Teaford, The American Suburb: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2008).)) Second, the suburban move did not start in the 1950s. The suburb has been a part of the urban landscape as long as there have been urban centers, and they have served as counterbalancing agencies in society. ((Jackson.Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000, 1st ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003).Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).)) Third, the suburbs are a celebration of the American ideal of autonomy and freedom. The local municipalities identify in their uniqueness and will not be melded into an homogenous metropolitan melting pot. ((Teaford makes a strong resistance to the regionalism proposed by Orfield, et alia. Teaford, The American Suburb: The Basics. see Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997).))
Both of these stories are grossly overstated, yet they each have valid points to make about the suburban experience. The specific location of this research team lies within purview of the Metropoltian Council. This is one of the few metropolitan areas in the United States that has such a council as is proposed by Orfield. Thus, this research group will not address the issues of regionalism vs. Localism in the same way as those suburbs in other metropolitan areas. One of the objectives of the Regionalists is to spread affordable housing across the metropolitan area and to have a tax-base sharing to insure equitable water, parks, and public transportation. This is an effort to alleviate the inevitable trajectory of unchecked expansion in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
One of the greatest challenges to the B/D suburb is its dependence upon the automobile. B/D neighborhoods are built in such a way that no one can realistically walk anywhere that they need to go. Zoning codes aggregate shopping in one place, business in another, and residential in another. Schools cover large regions in which students are bused or driven from miles in any direction. Children often make social connection with peers who do not live within walking distance. Therefore, the only way children can be socially interactive is if they are driven to locations in which other families have scheduled to meet. This perpetuates auto-dependency as every member of a household must travel great distances to participate in society.
A recent report, sponsored by the Metropolitan Council said that there will be important changes from 2010 to 2040 for the metro area as a whole and the central and non-central counties:
- For the Twin Cities Metro area as a whole, senior citizens (65+) will account for 58 percent of the share of the population change between 2010 and 2040. In the central counties of Hennepin and Ramsey, seniors will account for 70 percent of the population change while for all other counties their share will be 47 percent. The aging of existing residents will be a dominant demographic change.
- The “new majority” demographic, comprising all racial and ethnic minorities, will account for nearly all net growth in the Metro area, all the growth in the central counties, and 77 percent of the growth in the non-central counties.
- Between 2010 and 2040, for the Metro area as a whole, households with children will account for 23 percent of the total household change while households without children will account for 77 percent. For the central counties the figures are to 21 percent and 79 percent respectively, while for the non-central counties the figures are 24 percent and 76 percent respectively. One-person households will account for 38 percent of the total change for the Metro area, 47 percent for the central counties, and 31 percent for the non-central counties.
It goes on to report:
For the past half-century, housing demand in the Twin Cities was driven by baby boomers’ parents who wanted to raise their children in suburban, single-family, detached homes on larger lots, and then by boomers themselves as they became parents. Planning throughout the Metro area continues to be based on the baby boom “time warp.”
The built environment of the Twin Cities will be reshaped through a combination of new drivers of housing demand and recycling of existing nonresidential spaces. To accommodate emerging market needs efficiently, effectively, and equitably, a series of actions are needed at the local, regional, and state levels. In summary, they include:
- Updating land use plans and codes to get ahead of the curve, mostly by getting beyond the baby boom time warp.
- Expanding housing choices.
- Rethinking infrastructure investments.
- Using existing public sector tools and inventing new ones to leverage private redevelopment.
- Engaging and educating local decision makers and citizens on the implications of the sweeping nature of demographic changes.
- Twin Cities Metropolitan Council Area Trends-Preferences-Opportunities 4
- Investing in modern regional transit systems that connect key centers and other nodes along existing commercial corridors.
- Adjusting state policies to address sweeping demographic changes.
- Enabling all communities in the metro area to plan for and implement policies that broaden housing choices responsive to sweeping demographic changes.
The challenge for the Twin Cities is to create public-private-civil partnerships that can facilitate approaches to meet future housing needs and simultaneously reshape the massive commercial redevelopment that will occur. If such an effort is successful, perhaps redevelopment and new development to 2040 will support changing demographics along with other regional goals around transportation, public health, and the environment. These partnerships are needed to leverage private resources that can unlock these opportunities. If successful, the future Twin Cities will be more walkable, bikable, vital, and responsive to change than is currently the case.” ((Nelson, Arthur C. Metropolitan Council Area Trends, Preferences, and Opportunities: 2010 to 2020, 2030 and 2040, June 10, 2014 pdf http://metrocouncil.org/getattachment/571ff237-6d73-4e26-86bc-3c12978b1b89/.aspx (accessed August 1, 2014)))
One of the questions to which this research must be attentive is to see how much the suburban ELCA Christian connects issues like these to spiritual formation. It is the assumption that spirituality that is based in modern, dualistic ontologies will naturally separate the above issues from spirituality, naming the demographic study and matter of “public” affairs and spirituality a matter of private faith. The question is whether the introduction of the social/relational/entangled Trinity will connect the research team to Sheldrake’s proposal that “Human existence and Christian discipleship inherently embody a common task. “The public” is thus better thought of as a dimension of identity, an aspect of the individual self.” ((Dreyer and Burrows, 289.))
The Lutheran in the Suburb
The ELCA is a young organization that encompasses the entire United States. It was formed in 1988 and numbers nearly 5,000,000 people in membership. It is important to note that the ELCA statement of purpose has a very missional imagination. ((This is found in chapter Four of the ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” (2011).)) Article 4.01 states, “The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.” ((Ibid., 21.)) Article 4.02 states that to “participate in God’s mission, the church shall…carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all…working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs…to see daily life as the primary setting for the exercise of their Christian calling, and to use the gifts of the Spirit for their life together and for their calling in the world.” ((Ibid.))
While the ELCA seeks to be missional, Van Gelder and Zscheile do not think it has quite moved fully into that imagination. They label the ELCA as a church that is discovering the missional church conversation. The discovering churches have made great strides toward the missional imagination in that they have begun to turn the church’s focus toward engagement in the local context and have helped foster the idea that all believers must be understood as being missionaries, not just the professional clergy or missionary. However, Van Gelder and Zscheile note the following limiting factors to the discovering church’s ability to live fully into the missional imagination.
[the discovering churches] continue to frame agency primarily in human terms as either obedience to the Great Commission or the responsibility of the church to carry out its mission, thereby diminishing an understanding of God’s agency. (2) The central role that Christology plays for most of them tends to: (a) Downplay the role of the Spirit, (b) Reinforce hierarchical patterns of authority and decision making, and (c) Focus attention on our responsibility to emulate the example of Jesus—a perspective not wrong in and of itself, but insufficient for disclosing the fullness of God’s intent in sending God’s Son. (3) Focus on mission/missions tends to promote a functional understanding of ecclesiology, which diminishes an appreciation for the nature of the church as the creation of the Spirit. (4) Any discussion of the reign of God is either very limited or absent in defining God’s redemptive work in relation to the church and world, which makes the church the primary locus of God’s redemptive activity. ((Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 74-75.))
The ELCA struggles to realize it missional aspirations. The critique above provides a helpful framework to identify areas of growth and transformation that need to be addressed. The ELCA strives to be a diverse multiethnic group, but the reality is that the vast majority of its membership is white middle class people in either a rural or suburban context. The B/D suburbs are sprinkled with ELCA congregations. This is especially true in the Midwest region, with a high concentration in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area.
The B/D suburban ELCA congregation finds itself pulled in a variety of cultural and theological directions. The combination of these divergent forces creates a tendency within the ELCA to be internally focused rather than externally or missionally focused. One of these forces is the fact that the ELCA has a long history of being an ethnic immigrant church and many of the older members still identify Lutheranism with Scandinavian cultural heritage. Another force is that the ELCA is an amalgamation of three distinct Lutheran churches that were each previously formed from nearly 60 separate synods. These synods bring with them a wide array of theological perspectives. Lutheranism is not a theological monolith and with the combination of diverse ideologies on matters like church polity, ecumenical relations, church/culture relations, etc. there is the temptation to become fixated on internal matters of agreement and compromise rather than be missionally minded or attentive to local context. Finally, another force that pulls on the ELCA is the disparity between its stated missional aspiration and the lived experience of its local congregations.
Ethnic Identity and Social Enclaves
The ELCA was the merger of three Lutheran churches: the American Lutheran Church (ALC), The Association of American Lutheran Churches (AELC), and the Lutheran Church in America.
The Lutheran church is an immigrant church. Lutherans from Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Norway immigrated to the United States during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. 58 synods were formed between 1840 and 1875. These synods varied in theological perspectives, culture, and language. The first generations of Lutherans still looked to the homeland for pastors and liturgical aids. The younger generations began to speak more English and the demand to engage with the new host culture became stronger. The church struggled with how to interact with the modern American ideals listed above. Several factors in the early twentieth century—language, economics, and war—brought the various synods into cooperation for the purpose of a unified effort to support their soldiers and the homeland that was being ravaged by war. This movement to unification continued through mid-century until it reached the formation of the ELCA in 1988.
The Lutheran church has an interesting relationship with the suburban story. In some ways it is part of it. In other ways it is parallel to it. The first Lutheran immigrants followed the typical path of other European immigrants. They flocked together in ghettos. However, the suburbs were first populated by primarily white, middle and upper middle class people, so Lutherans, being from northern Europe, eventually blended in well with the established white, protestant population. Therefore, when the middle-class began moving out of the city, the Lutherans were among them.
Most white urban churches of all denominations shared a similar experience from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Lutherans were no exception. Their congregations began moving away from the city, where the church building had been central to the ethnic and geographic identity, and followed the outward/upward migration to the automobile suburbs. Many of these churches became commuter congregations. The white population would drive in from the suburbs on Sunday morning to attend worship while the church building sat in the middle of a neighborhood with which it had no connection. Many churches made the choice to follow their congregations into the suburbs. In this new context, however, there was no longer a concentration of Lutherans in one particular area and the suburban church was forced to become the program church that served the Lutherans in a region for the exchange and consumption of religious services. Winter describes this as the captivity of the suburban church. He states:
The problem of the churches in the metropolis is intimately bound up with this conflict between the major principles of social organization in metropolitan life; in fact, the mission of the Church in the metropolis can only be understood in the light of this polarization of the principles of metropolitan organization. Since churches have traditionally anchored their communal life in residential areas, they inevitably become victims of the pathology that assails neighborhood life, whether it be small-town gossip or metropolitan discrimination. The revival of religious interest and the peculiar pattern of religious development in the metropolis are interwoven with the special problems attendant upon the struggle to stabilize local communities, these problems create the peculiar dilemma confronting Protestantism in the metropolis. How can an inclusive message be mediated through an exclusive group, when the principle of exclusiveness is social-class identity rather than a gift of faith which is open to all? ((Winter, 32-33.))
Three theological issues challenge the ELCA congregation and hinder its ability to move more fully into the missional imagination. They are: ecclesial identity, the sacraments, and polity.
The first is that of ecclesial identity. Lutheranism was born under Christendom in Europe. The church was the center of society in that world. Everyone born within the political realm, of which the local church was the center, was considered Christian and a member of the parish. Lutheranism was also born at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Western colonization of the world. Missions, in this era, was separate from the church and carried out by specialized individuals who were sent oversees to proclaim the gospel to heathen nations in order to bring them into the church.
The ecclesial identity of the parish church is what immigrated to the United States. This worked in the first and second generations of immigrants since they tended to live near each other and established the church in the center of their dwellings. The parish mentality dominated the United States during one hundred fifty years of its existence, thus creating a churched culture. If people wanted to commune with God, they went to church.
The second issue is that of the sacrament. Lutheran sacramental theology lays a strong emphasis on the belief that the real presence of the risen Jesus is over, under, and above the elements of bread and wine. It also closely associates the presence of the Holy Spirit with the Word as it is proclaimed and with the water of baptism.
This theology is beautiful and can have some important missional implications. Those will be explored later. Currently, we must discuss two notable hazards inherent within it. First, there is a tendency to have a God-in-the-box theology. God is contained within the sacraments and the liturgy. If a human wishes to commune with God she must enter the church and participate in the liturgical structures in order to do so. While the missional church is gathered around the risen Jesus, it is dangerous to limit the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit to the confines of the kerygma and the water of baptism. The second hazard has to do with the administration of Word and Sacrament and leads into the third theological issue.
The third issue is that of polity. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession defines the church as “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered (italics mine).” ((Philip Melancthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921) (accessed November 3, 2011).)) It goes on in Articles XIV and XV to speak of good order regarding ecclesiastical usages and restricts the administration of the sacraments to those who have been called by the church. The ambiguity of the term good order, combined with the historical tradition of hierarchical power structures within certain episcopal-structured branches of the Lutheran tradition, has created a bureaucratic power structure within the national-synodical structure of the ELCA. This power structure can prove contrary to the dynamic spirit at work in the missional church.
A Snapshot Summary
We have, thus far, traced the contours of the ELCA congregation in the B/D suburb in the late/post modern era. It is a congregation that consists of older, ethnically oriented (Scandinavian) members mixed with younger, transient, middle-class families who have a vague cultural memory of religious commodities such as Sunday School and confirmation. It is connected to a hierarchical power structure of which it is the lowest of three rungs. ((The ELCA claims that it is not a top-down bureaucracy, but is, rather, an interdependent partnership of three expressions of the church—the churchwide organization, the synod, and the local congregation. The reality is that, in the American culture which is dominated by neo-Weberian bureaucratic structures, it is difficult to function in any way other than a top-down command and control system.)) It is situated in a brick-and-mortar building that was first established to house the religious commodities needed for the Lutheran constituents within the sprawling suburban region. The members travel a number of miles, past other, closer church buildings, from multiple residential communities to gather in the building for liturgical practices that are in keeping with the traditional Lutheran patterns of the proper administration of Word and Sacrament. In the suburban culture of increasing dislocation, the commodification of self, consumerism, and the hectic lifestyle of auto-mobility, social-networking, and self-indulgent consumer based entertainment, the local congregation is just one small commodity on a vast smorgasbord of viable options for the American consumer of religious goods and/or recreational, self-gratifying activities.
How the ELCA Developed within the B/D Suburb
Many ELCA suburban churches were planted by the synod during the initial boom of the suburbs during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. That means that many suburbs, especially in the Twin Cities are peppered with formerly LCA, ALC, or LCMS churches that started as the neighborhood church for that synod and were absorbed into the ELCA post 1988. The ELCA suburban churches were typically planted with a neighborhood parish mentality in which the local church serviced the spiritual needs of the Lutherans that lived in that area.
If the suburban ELCA congregation is going to develop a missional imagination it will need to come to grips with its own place—its history, its present, and its future. I will now turn my attention to a missional imagination for the ELCA congregation.