Why does the ELCA matter to me?
It’s a question others have asked me, and I have asked of myself, quite often over the past few years.
My criticism of the ELCA, not only of decisions it has made but the discussion of such matters as authority of Scripture and our understanding of the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions, has at times caused others to wonder why I continue to care about it.
If I have such serious questions about this church, why am I remaining in it?
Wouldn’t I be happier in a different church body?
When I answer that, in spite of my criticism, the ELCA still matters to me, the question then comes back: Why?
I find that in staying with this church body I am being as much a contrarian as when disagreeing with decisions at a Churchwide Assembly.
Loyalty is losing popularity
Denominational loyalty is a concept that has been losing popularity for a number of years now. Many people switch churches and denominations with little or no sense of loss.
The argument gets made that any one denomination is pretty much like another. It’s not so much a matter of what one church confesses versus another (outside of the basic statement of faith in Jesus, that is) but in finding the right worship setting, the place that will best meet the needs of one’s children, a group that one fits in with fairly quickly, and activities that are both meaningful and usually enjoyable.
Many communities contain congregations that are only loosely connected, if at all, to a larger organization. In a time when denominational structures are undergoing major overhauls in trying to adapt to the forces of rapid change both within and in the larger society, many question the need for having denominations at all.
Loyalty to a particular denomination, especially one that is in a rough patch of dealing with disagreement, seems to make little to no sense. Just go elsewhere to a group that thinks more like you, where your ways of looking at issues are more alike. Think of how much more pleasant life will be then!
The good things
The counter-argument that I usually hear stresses all the good things that the ELCA does and the advantages of being part of a major, established church structure. I should value my connection with this body of believers because it does so much good in the world. And let me say, I do care that this church takes seriously the call to use our hands to do God’s work in the world.
I continue to find the ELCA to be a church that takes seriously the words of Jesus, “Wherever you have done this to the least of these, you have done it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) The way so many in the ELCA model how followers of Christ are to care for the sick, the poor, the outcast, the prisoner and the stranger is a challenge to me to be more active in my own work on behalf of others.
This church has educated me on how to care for others in ways that take me out of my usual comfort zone. I have learned to respect the gifts of others, especially the gifts of those whom I think of as needing my help!
I can’t imagine not being in a church body that responds so quickly to the emergency needs of those hit by disasters. These are some of the things that I am most proud of in being part of the ELCA.
The ultimate reason
However, ultimately the reason the ELCA matters to me, the reason I stay with it as my church, is not what the ELCA does.
The world constantly asks all of us, the various church denominations included, to prove our worth through what we do. Are we effective? Are we well organized? Do our programs hit our targeted objectives? Do we do any practical good for others? Have we earned our right to be “at the table” when those with money and fame and power start bestowing their gifts of approval? Have we acquired a good reputation among the leaders that count? Have we done enough good in all the right places, and are we effectively telling the story of those we are helping?
No, the ELCA matters to me because it continues to proclaim that all our honors and programs and deeds of love and mercy are a response to the overwhelming gift of grace we have been given as a free gift through the crucified one, Jesus Christ.
The ELCA exists to proclaim that before we fed one hungry child, or tied one quilt for a refugee or welcomed in one outcast, Christ died for us, sinners and enemies of God.
God doesn’t love us because we are good, but the love of God compels us to respond in gratitude and joy, showing God’s love to others around us who have needs we can fill.
The ELCA dares to witness to the gospel by being the body of Christ in all of Christ’s broken, crucified splendor. It is a church of and for the poor in spirit, a church that struggles with what it means to eat and drink with outcasts and sinners as well as with the scribes and Pharisees.
Filling a need
I need to be in the ELCA in order to be confronted with those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ but with whom I have ongoing arguments over matters we both care deeply about.
I need the ELCA to hold me accountable for following Jesus even when I fear he is going to people and places I do not want to go. Being in the ELCA means that even when I think I am right and others are wrong, I still have to repent my fault in perpetuating the brokenness of the church of Jesus Christ.
The ELCA matters to me because through it I hear the voice of Jesus saying to me, to us, “Feed my sheep; feed my lambs.” I do that first and foremost when welcoming others with the words that welcomed me, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In this challenging time, it may be that only the ELCA could show me the fullness of that promise of God.
Erma Wolf is an ordained pastor seeking a call to an ELCA congregation. She is also part of the adjunct faculty for the Institute of Lutheran Theology.