The ELCA

The three congregations represented in the RT are unique, but they are also similar in that they are members of the ELCA. Let us now turn our attention to the ELCA and explore how the ELCA context both contributes to and hinders the communicative space created in the DITB project and projected for the future of the missional church. One of the greatest dangers that the church faces in the twenty-first century is the increasing polarization between various factions along various ideological lines and the violence that often accompanies the disagreements between them. I have already noted, in the previous section, that the pedagogical shift toward communicative action is necessary for a missional imagination for spiritual formation in the local congregation that will find a third way between these dichotomies. I will further argue in the next section that the move toward a postfoundational theology will help the church hold the tension between these extremes and find a third way that leads to the peace of God in the world. Here, I will argue that the ELCA is well positioned to embrace the paradoxical tension held in the communicative space between polar extremes.

The ELCA is well situated to handle these paradoxical tensions because the ELCA is a paradox that dwells in paradox. It is, on the one hand, ideally situated to offer a holding space for the type of communicative, missional imagination that I am arguing in this paper. It is also, on the other hand, significantly hindered in its ability to be that holding space. Let us explore the two sides of this paradox.

On the one hand, the ELCA is well suited to hold paradoxical tensions and communicative space for the missional church. This is true in three ways. First, the ELCA is a political paradox. It is a merger of formerly disparate Lutheran traditions, thus its DNA holds these differences in living tension. The ELCA was officially formed in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran churches: LCA, ALC, and AELC. Each of those churches was the result of similar mergers in the 1960s. Calvary and Bethlehem experienced both waves of merger, and carry within their DNA the various pre-merger identities. Ascension was born from the LCA and experienced the merger of the ELCA and carries within it those various pre-merger and pre-church plant identities.

Second, Lutheran theology is essentially paradoxical, in that part of its DNA is to hold theological dichotomies in tension; e.g. sinner and saint; the God who is hidden and revealed; the Kingdom on the right and the Kingdom on the left; to name just a few. Lutheran theology does not try to prove a definitive “right” answer that disproves the “wrong” answer. Rather, it acknowledges the mystery of the Triune God and seeks to hold these alleged dichotomies in living tension. That is one of the main reasons why I have been drawn to this tribe and why I have framed the DITB research project in the ELCA context. This is also why I will draw heavily from Keifert and Simpson when I discuss the theological frames in the next chapter, since they, as Lutheran theologians, seek to navigate these tensions. Lutheran theology, I believe, is wonderfully situated to be a holding space for people to encounter the Triune God in communicative action in the context of the local congregation.

Third, the ELCA is well situated to hold the communicative space for the missional church because it has a stated vision to be missional. I make this claim based upon the language of the ELCA constitution. 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.”  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.”[1]

However, the ELCA, on the other side, has some inherent elements of its DNA that can sometimes inhibit the freedom needed to structure communicative spaces. 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 theological challenge 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. 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 trajectory of this identity is still very evident in the suburban context of the RT. There is a great deal of pressure put on parents by the grandparents to get their children baptized and confirmed. This traditionalism is incongruent with the increasing pluralism of the suburbs and creates great tension among the generations.

The second theological issue is that of the sacrament. Lutheran sacramental theology lays a strong emphasis on the belief that the real presence of the risen Christ is in, with, and under 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. However, it also raises two notable hazards. First, there is a tendency, for the Lutheran, 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. The RT faced this issue as it explored the role of the Holy Spirit in the social Trinity as it stood in relation to the traditional Lutheran theology. The second hazard has to do with the administration of Word and Sacrament and leads into the third issue.

The third theological 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.”[2] 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. The RT experienced this tension as it asked the questions of power and authority in the local congregation.

Footnotes

[1] ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,”  (2011).

[2] Philip Melancthon, The Augsburg Confession, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), .pdf. (accessed November 3, 2011). (italics mine)