Preparing Leaders to "Enter the Life of This Age"
by Maria Erling
Training leaders to help congregations proclaim, teach, and live the gospel’s relevance is an effort that involves not only ELCA seminaries but also ELCA synods and global partners.
Lutheran pastors and rostered lay ministers enjoy a reputation for thoughtful leadership because of the tradition of excellence that has marked Lutheran theological education. At the same time, Lutheran seminaries face ongoing criticism for being too detached, pietistic, high church, academic, lax, feminist, ultra-confessional, socially minded, or rigorous for a proper devotional life. The misgivings about seminary education voiced within the church and the high expectations that meet Lutheran leaders in the public realm present dual challenges. Together — a fine reputation and a long list of grievances — these spell out the hard work seminaries have to do to retain the trust and support of church members.
Worldly, Scholarly Education
Congregations need trained leaders to help members hear God’s word addressed to changing neighborhoods, economies, world affairs, and lifestyles. Relevance — speaking appropriately to the matter at hand — can only happen if the church has a record of engagement. And we have a record, a history. Lutherans — from the presiding bishop to the Sunday school teacher — are accountable. They continue the witness to Christ’s power to free and save. Heritage affects the way we are perceived and shapes future possibilities.
But a record is not a straitjacket. Missionaries, social service agencies, and outreach efforts have widened Christian fellowship around the world. Lamin Sanneh, a missiologist and historian at Yale Divinity School notes that Christianity in its many contexts is not done in by a Western cultural filibuster. “The standard exegesis spins faith into just more cultural filibuster. Yet in Africa and elsewhere there is enough sense of commodiousness, with fresh materials being introduced into Scripture, prayers, hymns and liturgy, for that not to affect how people in the West think and speak about the gospel and the church.”1 So, to hone a relevant message, Lutherans need to widen their study. Learning about Bible times, jumping to the Reformation, and applying a “lesson” to our situation today are not enough. The growth of Christianity and Lutheranism in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean challenges the church in the United States to relate to new expressions of Lutheranism. The Holy Spirit pushes the church, too.
To be honest in our engagement, seminaries, even while they aim to educate in an ecumenical, or cross-cultural manner, must train students in the scholarly understanding of their theological tradition. For students to develop their spirituality or specialize in church development is not enough; we expect them to be conscious and critical bearers of a communal, theological tradition. Scholarly means that students become conversant in a tradition — not just repeat phrases as if by rote — so that they can recognize its distinctive emphasis within today’s ecumenical and religious diversity.
Those leaders with real fluency — a lifelong task — can speak in the tradition’s voice to new situations. Speaking that voice would be impossible to fulfill if theological education depended solely on the eight seminaries, but it doesn’t. There are partners: the ELCA’s Association of Teaching Theologians; our colleges; our journals and magazines, retreat centers like Holden Village, Mount Carmel Ministries, and Koinonia; online groups; conferences; and even at times the critics who through organizing push their networked members into agitated reflection.
A testy constituency holds the church’s seminaries especially accountable for training leaders in faithfulness and cultural fluency. This is a tall order. Many students come with only a basic catechetical understanding. Most have never studied philosophy or languages. Students with a technical or scientific background find theological study foreign to their way of reasoning. Second-career students express frustration at the loss of status they enjoyed in their former professional lives. Religious studies majors are puzzled and sometimes alienated from their fellow students. They sense that theological education differs in significant ways and wonder if it sacrifices academic integrity and objectivity. In short, the whole question of relevance is posed directly by our students when they walk through the door of a classroom or click into an online discussion room.
For younger students especially, the voice of the church in relationship to social questions is a highly relevant concern. A student in a discussion group on recent Lutheran history seemed surprised to discover that the ELCA had been dealing with the question of homosexuality and ordination for its entire two decade history. Noting that his background was Roman Catholic, he said that he had wondered for a long time, “Why didn’t the church just provide the answer?” He had made the assumption that people “look to the church” to provide guidance in dealing with moral issues, and that the ELCA wasn’t wielding its authority as he had expected. We probed whether providing more “answers” would make the church more relevant. Certainly, we all agreed, the “authority” of even the Roman Catholic Church is expressed and received differently than it was in the past.
Also for Lutherans, the way the church addresses contemporary issues has become an important dimension of its authority in the life of believers. In 1957, when Bishop Hans Lilje presided at the Lutheran World Federation meeting in Minneapolis, the delegates committed their churches to a continuing reformation. “The church is called to enter into the life of each age, to penetrate its thinking, to feel with it in its excitements and torments, and thus to administer Gods healing power with precision and compassion.”2 The image of the church engaged and subjected to the currents and questions of the times emerged in our group discussion also as an approach that, though it seemed to cede authority, would possibly prove more persuasive.
A relevant task in this time would enlist people of faith to shape a more peaceful world. The prospect of ongoing war, hunger, unrest, and violence affects every neighborhood, rural region, and small town.
Partnership in Training
The congregation will not be relevant just because it manages internal conflicts. It must strive for more than that. Congregations need the wider church.
Ecumenical progress, mergers accomplished, declining mainline birthrates, disillusionment with institutional structures, and the concurrent rise of identity politics have made loyalties to denominational projects almost vestigial. The structures that trained youth for leadership, like the Luther League, or the highly visible church-run schools and agencies have either disappeared or diminished in their capacity to reach our much larger constituency. Relying more exclusively on congregations for the important tasks of faith and leadership development seemed like a good idea in an antiestablishment time. Now youth and young adults are disconnected. Young adults increasingly delay marriage and career and home and family, so the congregation’s familiar assumption that young people will have families and then return to church will leave them with a large gap in their age profile.
Young adults can be involved in the ELCA’s strong and enduring ecumenical, global, interfaith, and outreach efforts. Our seminaries provide access to these programs, but synods and congregations can do more to make young people aware of them. Companion Synod relationships in the ELCA are becoming important and lasting bridges for understanding and common endeavor. Young adults especially should be encouraged, sponsored, even pushed to help create the lasting friendships that will undergird our future church relationships.
|For Further Information|
The following books serve as good conversation starters for adult groups or young people’s study:
- Mainline demographics and young adults
After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty‑ and Thirty‑Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton University Press, 2007).
- World Christianity
Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West by Lamin Sanneh (Eerdmanns, 2003).
In the ELCA’s collegial structure, we take time to bring each other along when we move forward. Observers note that the ELCA functions well; it hangs together. We have fostered a muted style of churchliness. We have learned to know each other through merger arguments and the inevitable conflicts. The time spent in fashioning new relationships has not been wasted. And from each other we have inherited many friendships around the world. I’m convinced that these international connections — through ethnic heritage as well as mission accompaniment — will become very significant in the decades ahead.
We have the capacity to build further on longstanding partnerships. So, when we send out young people, retirees, seminarians, and pastors to “enter the life of each age,” the process has only begun. We need to listen to what they have to tell us. That process of engagement, honing our ability to be relevant, will take time.
- Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 59.
- Thesis III.10, Messages of the Third Assembly, The Lutheran World Federation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House), p 111.
Web Alert: Equipping the Home
Maria Erling is an associate professor of Church History and Mission at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
The home remains the critical place for passing on a relevant faith. David Anderson, of the Youth and Family Institute, calls on the church to equip the home for this role. He also advocates that the ELCA considers making the home its fourth expression, alongside congregation, synod and churchwide. Read "The Great Omission: the Role of the Home in the Church’s Life."
This article appeared in the March / April 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 2)