09 June 2011

Evangelizing Ourselves

Sunday night meal at University Lutheran Center

According to some statistics my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, accounts for some 62% of Lutherans in America.  Every year, Iowa State University compiles and distributes the religious affiliation, if any, of its students to their respective denominational campus ministries.  For the 2010-2011 school year, the “Lutheran list” had about 2,500 names on it.  62% of 2500 is 1550, so one could say that as the ELCA campus ministry at Iowa State, we are a “congregation” of 1550 members. 

We average 25 people at worship.  That’s less than 2% of our own young people making worship, much less dedicated membership in a faith community, a priority in their lives.  There is only one way to interpret those numbers:  we, as a whole denomination, have failed, miserably, to live out the vows we make at baptism to nurture the spiritual lives of our young people. 

We are our own mission field.  We are called to evangelize ourselves. 

I love my church.  I love being a Lutheran by birth and by conviction.  I love telling people my church encourages cultivation of mind and spirit.  I love explaining how we believe God’s children are always simul justus et peccator.[1]  I love dropping Luther’s thesis from The Freedom of a Christian:  “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly bound servant of all, subject to all.”  I love being a spiritual descendant of Augustine, Luther, Melanchthon, Bach, Muhlenberg, Kierkegaard, Prenter, Tillich, von Rad, Bonhoeffer, Forde, Marty and many, many others.  I love so many things about my church.  I just wish to God I could love my church for nurturing and cherishing and intriguing and challenging and forgiving and receiving and sending our young people and the families in which they are raised.  But I can’t – because we haven’t. 

I started making notes about this post in a conference hall in Iowa City at the Southeastern Iowa Synod Assembly.  I often make jokes about how much I despise Assemblies, but those jokes are not entirely true.  It’s great to see colleagues and old friends.  I get a chance to tell people about the wonderful work I get to do on campus.  This year, for the first time, I was a co-sponsor of a resolution our Synod considered in assembly.  The ELCA Church Council has proposed a budget for 2012 which includes a 38% cut in churchwide support to campus ministry throughout the denomination.  This proposed cut is far greater than that asked of any other churchwide ministry, and takes the highest percentage of financial support away from the ministry least able to absorb it.  We in campus ministry are currently organizing to attempt to amend the budget so that cuts are equitably shared among the vital ministries of this church.  But regardless of whether our attempt is successful or not, it is becoming abundantly clear that our denomination is divesting, on a national level, from support for ministries to, with and among those between the ages of 18 and 25.  This is why I’m having a hard time loving my church just at the moment.

Churchwide budgets won’t be the answer, however.  Even if we had all the financial support for which we could ask, that would only be one failure averted, and a minor one at that.  The far greater failure is this: our young people and their families are abandoning the church in droves, and we are letting it happen. 

Another example:  as a member of our campus ministry association at Iowa State, I’m one of several religious leaders who staff a table at Resource Fair, where incoming students can meet businesses, service organizations and other community folks they may get to know during their time at the University.  It’s a great chance to meet face to face with students, and to live out the ecumenical nature of what we do on campus.  Yesterday, I had a conversation with a young man who asked about one of our local non-denominational ministries; a friend had invited him to come check it out when he got to campus.  Let’s call him “Alex” (not his real name).  I gave Alex the information he requested and asked him to fill out our information sheet so we could send his contact information to the ministry in question.  When I looked over the info sheet at the end of our day, I noted that in the “Faith Community/Denomination” section, Alex had written “Lutheran.” 

I wish I could say this is an unusual occurrence, but it’s not.  Pastors and families tell me their Alex stories over and over again, and I don’t have a satisfactory answer when they ask “Why?”  What it comes down to is this: we have failed to present a compelling case for our church to Alex and thousands like him.  Alex’s friends evangelized where his own church, his own family, his own faith had not.  Alex’s friends gave him “good news” about their faith community, while we failed to do the same in an even remotely effective manner.  Because of this failure, the chance that he’ll consider campus ministry as a locus for faith formation has become infinitesimally remote, and the difficulty of our calling to tend to his faith is raised a hundredfold.

This crisis in our church is far bigger than campus ministry funding, though I would argue that our Churchwide divestment is a symptom of the crisis.  For the sake of our young people, we must create and nurture communities of compelling, life-changing, authentic, forgiving faith.  We must re-discover why “Lutheran” is a good thing to be, and we must communicate that goodness in everything we say and do.  We must live our faith in such a way that the good news of Jesus Christ becomes infectious in our daily living.  We must accept that our church is, in itself, a mission field in serious need of tending.  In these times, when the attrition of our young people is an epidemic that will take years to cure, we must be about the work of evangelizing ourselves.

[1] Latin, “simultaneously saint and sinner.”


  1. Being Lutheran IS a good thing, but it is not only the young people we have failed to communicate this to. There are Lutherans who have been coming to church all of their lives who still don't know. I listened to a woman my own age last week who shared with me her fear of being cast into hell for not doing enough. This is my greatest frustration: to be unable to find the words to convey that most freeing and yet compelling gift of grace.

  2. Hi, Scott.

    I shared some thoughts on this and quoted you (with attribution) over at my place.

    A friend of mine, Irena, is just starting school at Iowa State this fall. Her family is ELCA and I've told her to look you up. I think she'd be an ideal candidate for ministry. Look her up!