MCLEAN, Va. – The predominantly white Evangelical Lutherans are getting clear though not completely clear about their identity in an increasingly pluralistic society.
In a time when mainline denominations are on a steady decline in membership, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), said the dropping numbers are not something he is proud of. But at the same time, he does not want the church to become generic for the sake of survival.
"People want continuity and change," Hanson told reporters just before delivering a "State of the Church" address at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer on Sunday. But not at the expense of each other, he added.
The ELCA is 97 percent white, Hanson reported, and dropped 1.6 percent in membership to 4.85 million in 2005. Congregants also raised concern over ELCA becoming an "older body" with a continuing exodus of youth. Without hesitation, Hanson told them that Evangelical Lutherans are 10 years older than the average age of the U.S. population.
"You're right," he told an older white crowd whose church represented the demographics of the national denomination. Hanson even admitted his own six children, including an African American son, were most likely not all present at church that Sunday.
"I think Lutherans got lazy," Hanson said directly. Plus, the Lutherans have seemingly lost their evangelical flavor.
"We are evangelicals," Hanson told the congregation. "We're still ambivalent about what that says about us."
The presiding bishop said he worries that the church will look at the statistics and act on impulse and lead the denomination to do the "wrong things." That wrong way would be shedding the Lutheran identity and becoming a generic church and becoming multicultural for the sake of survival rather than being enriched by other people groups.
The denomination is also currently shaping its stance on human sexuality, and more specifically, homosexual ordination and same-sex “marriage.” Since 2001, the church has released studies to its members to come to a consensus for the drafting of the ELCA social statement on human sexuality – due out early 2009.
Hanson made clear that the statement will be concocted on the basis of the congregants' responses. While Hanson, who will possibly seek another six-year term as presiding bishop, does not yet know the direction that the church is headed in its stance on homosexuality, he stressed both diversity and unity.
"You can differ and you don't need to divide," he said. "Differences can also enrich us."
His words also applied to the milestone agreement on justification that Lutherans, Methodists and Roman Catholics came to in July in Seoul, South Korea – an agreement that some Lutheran congregants worry would have conflict. The three bodies arrived at a "differentiated consensus," Hanson pointed out, on the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, meaning they had "enough" agreement not to condemn each other but not "complete" agreement.
Despite the raised concerns and challenges facing the church, one Evangelical Lutheran feels good about the direction the ELCA is headed.
"I feel very good about it (issues that the ELCA faces) and having dialogue about it," said Ron Kutscher, 74, a member of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.
Hanson also expressed optimism.
"It's a challenging time to be a Lutheran Christian in the United States and in the world," he said. The challenges and the questions raised in the church "humble us but don't paralyze us."