The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That’s our name. At least two parts of our name, “Evangelical” and “Church,” are either misunderstood or an outright stumbling block for a significant percentage of the American population.
Pew Research reports that over one-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third under 30—are religiously unaffiliated. These are the “nones.” The religiously unaffiliated, whether never churched or dechurched, don’t have a favorable impression of church. They see it as extremist, full of hypocrites, judgmental, anti-science, anti-intellectual, dogmatic, overly concerned about other people’s morality, naïve and out of touch. Ouch.
In the eyes of the nones, the ELCA gets lumped in with everyone else. Though we aren’t perfect, and some of the characteristics of church apply to us at various times, we have a theology based on a liberating gospel of Jesus Christ that is the euangelion—the good news. The “Evangelical” in our name points to the transforming love of Jesus, to reconciliation, to freedom, to grace. It’s expansive, for everyone and all creation. It doesn’t require our effort or our merit, only our trust in God’s promise.
It’s not naïve. Scripture, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others were clear-eyed about the reality of human sin and brokenness and the devastating consequences for individuals, groups of people and creation that result. There is judgment, but it is God’s, not ours. Our evangelical understanding of God’s word is that it is both law and gospel, judgment and promise. We aren’t an everything goes, antinomian church.
I remember the light bulbs going off in my catechism students’ heads when learning about grace. Does it give us license to do anything we want? Paul had to address the same line of thinking in the letter to the Romans. No. Grace makes it possible to be honest with ourselves and face our sin because the Spirit grants us the space, time and desire to turn from our sin to the source of life.
Our evangelical witness is full of paradox—we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Yes, there is hypocrisy in the church—welcome to humanity! But there is also beauty and love poured by the Spirit into sometimes stubborn and broken hearts. There is law and gospel. We are at once perfectly free and lord of all and bound and servant of all (Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian).
Our evangelical witness is that God called the creation good; that we have been given the gift of curiosity that compels us to study the natural world, to engage in scientific research. The more we know about creation, the closer we draw to the Creator. We aren’t anti-intellectual—Luther was a college professor after all.
I happen to know some millennials who had conversations with their none neighbors. These conversations were open and engaged. The none neighbors carried the above-mentioned perceptions of church, but they also knew that their millennial friends served as Young Adults in Global Mission and were active in their congregation. The nones were trying to reconcile their perceptions of church with their experience of actual Lutherans—one of whom is a scientist. Without that relationship, the nones would never have known a true evangelical witness to the liberating good news of Jesus.
In this issue you have read about Future Church (page 20). God is calling us into this exciting mission, and the Spirit will activate each of us to invite people to know the way of Jesus and discover community, justice and love. The ELCA can hold up our evangelical witness, which is an alternative face of Christianity—not for institutional survival, but so that more people will experience the deep love of Jesus, be transformed and liberated by that love and “work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Holy Baptism).
This mission will take all of us, and it means actual relationships with real people led by an incarnational God. I believe that God will transform this church.