Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lutherans Need a Good Dose of Amnesia.

To the left is the 1967 confirmation class of First Lutheran Church. Where you ask? Well I'm not sure, the picture is courtesy of this person's blog. Location isn't too pertinent to this post because, to me at least, it is indicative of a specific day and age in American Lutheranism. This is a quintessential baby boomer confirmation class: Big, well coordinated, and presented with pride.

If you were to troll through the records of most Lutheran church of the 1950's, 60's and even 70's, you'd find bumper crops of Luther League, youth groups, confirmation classes, and well, really, just bumper crops of people in the church. Attendance was booming, churches were building, rooms were full, and everyone was living the Protestant American dream. Towards the late 70's, 80's and 90's these numbers trended downward, with increasing speed, and in the 21st century attendance and other measures have taken a nosedive across the denomination.

Now, I was born in 1983, and I, like a lot of Millennials and Gen-Xers, have never experienced a baby boomer like church. I have always been a part of over-built, half-full, ageing churches that usually had rooms that have stood empty for decades, and stored only memories & trophies of days gone by. I have been part of churches that are "past their prime" and yearn for the glory days. I have lead and served in parishes that at least feel like they are in decline, if not in their dying days.

But here's the thing: all of them, ALL OF THEM, have been good churches. All of them have done good ministry. All of them, to the best of their abilities, were fulfilling their duty as outposts of the kingdom of God. Some of them are even growing year over year. Some of them are doing ministry in new and exciting ways, and are showing a faithfulness that is inspiring. They all have issues and could do things better of course, but they also have gifts and people and stories that should make them hopeful and proud. Yet, in each of them, I sensed there was this pall. Sometimes light, sometimes heavy and it hung over everything they did. It clouded their perceptions of both their present and their future. 

It was their institutional memory. It was the memory of  "used to be," when the church _______- fill in the blank. "When we had 200 in church and 250 in Sunday school. When we had 75 kids in youth group. When we could not fit anyone else in the church for Easter." Some of these memories are so far in the past that anyone under 30, or 40, or sometimes 50 has no idea what people are talking about. They are talking about the 1960's or 50's church that they knew (or their parents) knew well. This practice is killing their current church because it blinds them to the good things happening now. This nostalgia is harmful to new programs because no matter how well they start off, they rarely measure up to the "treasured days of yore", and the momentum these current successes could build is squandered. In short, this institutional memory becomes sinful, because it borders on idolatry. It focuses members on the gods of the Past and blinds people to the living God whose Spirit is moving and working in the church RIGHT NOW.

By continually clinging to the past, our church fail to appreciate the amazing things they are doing today, and in turn fail to acknowledge the blessings God is giving to their congregation. This has to change. If our denomination (and a lot of its churches) is to pull itself out of its current nosedive, it needs all the energy it can get. We cannot afford to waste it on nostalgia and self-pity.

My proposal: institutional amnesia. We must forget the baby boomer era church; it's gone. We must forget the glory days of even 20-30 years ago; they no longer exist. We need to forget the Sunday School movement, it' dead. The world has gone through such a technological and sociological change in the last few decades that those eras no cannot really be compared to our own. We can remember them fondly, like we remember any other positive part of our history, but we need to stop measuring our church today by the church of back then. It was not as idealized as we remember it being, and our church today is not as bad as we dread it may be.

Instead, what we need to do is look and see what IS happening today. If you want comparisons, go back 5-10 years at the most. (Even that may be to far if there have been major institutional changes in that time). In fact, the best thing we can probably do is start precisely from today. Start with our church of 2014, and see how we can move forward given the strengths, weakness and challenges we face in the time and place that Christ has called us to now. God is working today, just as God was before and just as God will in the future.  So let's concentrate on the present and give thanks for it. Let's celebrate the victories we are experiencing in our churches and rejoice in God's goodness. Let's put the starting line at this point in history, and see where we can go from here. Let's have a little amnesia as a church and then maybe we can let that pall of the past lift, and see clearly where the Spirit is trying to lead us in the future. 

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