A few weeks ago I attended the ELCA's first "large congregations" event. This was an event for staff and select members of ELCA congregations that worship 500 people or more on a Sunday morning. At Trinity, we worship around 1,200 people on average. We are the only congregation in our synod that is that large, and we are also one of the only Lutheran congregations on the east coast that is that large. I have been told that we are the largest Lutheran church east of the Mississippi River and the 11th largest in the country.
Because of this, one of the frustrations that the staff at Trinity faces is that we are not like other people. We have a hard time relating to many of the problems found in smaller parishes. We don't consider ourselves to be better, just different. It is also sometimes difficult to relate to our colleagues who work in smaller parishes, because our needs and challenges are often different. Granted, some of our problems are the SAME (attendance and accountability issues, for example), but many of them are just on a different scale and need to be handled in a different way than they would be in a smaller congregation.
So, this "large congregations" event was an opportunity for us to network with other congregations who are similar to us in size and makeup. It was also an opportunity to learn about ministries in other congregations, brainstorm new ideas, hear amazing speakers, and be challenged to grow, change, and try new things. In many ways, that is exactly what happened. I think I can speak for most of the folks on my staff when I say that we were challenged, refreshed, and ready to try new things by the time the event was over. The worship was amazing (for the most part), the music was uplifting, and the speakers and workshops were all very helpful.
I want to share with you one thing that I learned at this conference, however, that is rather alarming to me.
Lutherans have known for a long time that our membership numbers, along with the membership numbers of other Mainline Protestant denominations (Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.) are declining. The Evangelical and Non-Denominational churches are growing in leaps and bounds, while the Mainline Protestant denominations, at least in the U.S., are shrinking.
Now, I know there are a lot of reasons for this. I have heard a lot of theories about why this might be. There have been LOTS of books written about why this might be, not all of them flattering to the Lutherans, and not all of them very nice to the Evangelicals, either. I'm not going to go into all of that here. I'm sure I don't even know all of the reasons for this phenomenon. The reason that became terribly clear to me over the course of this conference, however, can be summed up in one word: Lutefisk!
Now, I know you are probably wondering, "What the HECK is lutefisk?" If you are asking that question, then you OBVIOUSLY don't have a Norwegian heritage. My Norwegian ancestors are probably rolling over in their graves right now. Wikipedia defines lutefisk this way: "a traditional dish of the Nordic countries made from air-dried whitefish and soda lye." Wikipedia also defines soda lye as "a caustic solution which is made from ashes and is used for glass, soap making, and certain food preparations." All in all, lutefisk is some pretty nasty stuff. That having been said, however, it is considered a delicacy among Norwegian-Americans and is often eaten during the weeks approaching Christmas.
Needless to say, lutefisk lovers everywhere get a lot of flack for liking the stuff. It has kind of become a thing of legends, though. When I attended seminary in Minnesota, they honored lutefisk once a year by serving it, along with other traditional Norwegian dishes like lefse (which is not nearly as offensive). Minnesota is the Norwegian capital of the U.S. It is also the Lutheran capital of the U.S. Southwest Minnesota has the highest concentration of Lutherans per square mile in the WORLD. So, there are a lot of Lutherans there. There are a lot of Norwegians (and other Scandinavians), and there is a lot of lutefisk. These three things have pretty much become synonymous in that part of the world--Norwegian, Lutheran, lutefisk-eater.
I'm sure by now you are probably wondering why I think lutefisk has anything to do with the decline of Lutheranism (as if lutefisk alone isn't enough to scare people away!). Lutefisk itself is not so much the problem. The problem is what lutefisk represents.
So there I was, sitting in this "large congregations" conference in Minnesota, surrounded, for the most part, by good mid-western Lutherans of Scandinavian heritage, and the lutefisk references and jokes were just unbearable. And then it hit me! If you are not a Lutheran of Scandinavian heritage, if you have never lived in Minnesota and become familiar with the lutefisk phenomenon, then these references will mean absolutely nothing to you. My parishioners in Southeastern Pennsylvania are mostly of German, Irish, and/or Italian background and know nothing about lutefisk. To them, mid-western-lutefisk-eating-Norwegian-heritage Lutheranism is IRRELEVANT!
That is a big reason why the Mainline Denominations are failing. They have ceased to be relevant. We are preaching a message of lutefisk to a generation that eats sushi. Now, don't get me wrong--the gospel, the message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, is NEVER irrelevant. What it ultimately comes down to, however, is getting that message to people in a way that is relevant to them. Using lutefisk lingo with a sushi crowd will do nothing but make them feel unwelcomed, not-in-the-loop, and will ultimately result in them writing you off.
There are lots of relevant ways for us to spread the message of Jesus Christ. I remember visiting a parish in downtown Minneapolis that in the 1950's and 60's worshiped more than 3,000 people each week. In 2004, when I was there, worship attendance had dwindled to around 200. Upon inquiring, I discovered the reason: the congregation was filled with Norwegian immigrants in the 1950's who joined this church because of the cultural and historical link with others in the congregation. The things that went on there were relevant to Norwegian-American immigrants of the day.
Over the years, however, the demographic of that neighborhood changed. This Lutheran church is situated one block off Lake Street. For those of you who don't know, Lake Street has become the home and place of business of many of Minneapolis' African, Asian, and Arab immigrants. Just like in the 1950's, that neighborhood is still a thriving place for immigrants. Unlike in the 1950's, however, now those immigrants are not Norwegian, are often not Christian, and are generally not white.
This congregation has been clinging to the past of its Norwegian heritage while the world outside has changed and grown. Being a white, middle-class, Norwegian church in that neighborhood is no longer relevant. If that congregation refuses to change its story, then it will eventually die.
There are so many things that that congregation could be doing to become relevant in that community. Offering free legal help, medical clinics, and English classes would be a great place to start. Building relationships with local shops and restaurants and inviting them into their church building to feed people and sell their goods would be another interesting way to go. I know that these things may not be easy. I understand the politics of congregations--many church members might object, and some might even leave. But is the ultimate price for ceasing to be relevant really worth it?
This congregation is, of course, just an example. I think that we all need to be thinking about how we as Christians can be relevant to the people of this world. It is a challenge that I face every day when I enter the doors of my church building to go to work. Trinity is a wonderful place to work and to be a part of the Christian community. I love being there. However, just because Trinity is big and has had incredible growth in the past doesn't mean that we've got it all figured out. In fact, I would say that we have a lot of work to do if we want to remain relevant. Our congregation is 98% white in a community that is now almost 11% southeast-Asian. Our congregation has a lot of money because we have a lot of very generous, well-off people who give to us, but the average person in Lansdale today is struggling financially. What can we be doing better so that we become relevant to those people who are living in Lansdale and who are not a part of our Christian community? As blessed as we are, we still have some work to do!
People are hurting. They have real problems and needs and the church has the answer that will help them. Jesus Christ loves them and wants to be a part of their lives. He died so that we may have eternal life. But if we use words of lutefisk to share this good news with a sushi world, then our message will not be heard.