Congregational Moral Deliberation as Next Public Church

[1] Community of moral deliberation is a distinctive social teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that commends a needed social witness.  I want to advance this church’s aspirations to embody communal deliberation by attending to current contexts and offering a sketch of an evangelical and missional opportunity for congregational life.  A Lutheran ethic is an ethic of the fitting, which begins by asking what is going on and per anderson.jpgidentifying things to consider in discerning God’s will for the needs of the community of life.  My sketch moves in three steps.  First, I locate community of moral deliberation within public church commitments of the ELCA.  Second, I note the congregational orientation of the ELCA in the future, as envisioned by a recent churchwide task force.  Third, I correlate this orientation with a pressing social need, as described by Christian Smith, and raise questions for further inquiry and conversation.

Claiming Public Church

[2] The ELCA foundational social statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” abounds in public church commitments.[1]  Vocation, communal deliberation, and corporate institutional witness constitute overlapping responses to God and service to the common good.  Community of moral deliberation functions as a local, small-scale society that forms participants for the callings of daily life and for collective interaction as congregations as well as national and global institutions.  While individuals are free before God to disagree with others, including sisters and brothers in Christ, they need community of moral deliberation.  They need diverse others to be compassionate and imaginative.  Further, the authority of institutional witness depends upon a participatory polity of collective deliberation, decision, and action.  While “Church in Society” mandates that participatory and deliberative polity should structure every ecclesial institution, the congregation incubates them all.  Congregational deliberation forms individuals, empowers corporate church institutions, and contributes to democracy generally.

[3] Ten years ago, the ELCA named public church as one of five strategic commitments: “Step forward as a public church that witnesses boldly to God’s love for all that God has created.”[2]  It undertook strategic attention to outcomes, indicators, and strategies.  These intentions sought to advance one of two strategic directions for the churchwide organization: “Build the capacity of this church for evangelical witness and service in the world to alleviate poverty and to work for justice and peace.”[3]  ELCA commitment to public church is real.

[4] Arguably, the ELCA has stepped forward boldly, having worked out a comprehensive social teaching through 12 social statements and 13 social messages.  The intellectual capacity of the ELCA is impressive.  And yet, the first twenty-five years have been less kind to other capacities—other resources and ministries.  We all know the shortfalls—membership decline, economic recession, schism over sexual ethics and rostered leader conduct, churchwide organization downsizing, including the elimination of the Church in Society unit.

[5] Suffice it to say, the last decade has been hard on the programmatic capacity of the churchwide organization.  Leadership claims “public church,” clearly and confidently.  But we can wonder whether this identity moves synods and congregations and members.  We can wonder whether we have made progress to “build the capacity of this church for evangelical witness and service in the world to alleviate poverty and to work for justice and peace.”  If efforts could be stronger, what kind of capacity should we build?  Where can the ELCA make a difference in the future?

Listening into LIFT (Living into the Future Together)

[6] Recently, in response to external and internal changes since 1988, the ELCA has asked these questions through the LIFT process and report, “Living into the Future Together,” the most extensive conversation about ELCA identity and mission in 25 years.[4]  The recommendations of LIFT provide the best clue concerning the kind of capacity we can build as public church.

[7] After considering complex forces affecting the ELCA, the task force calls for “significant renewal and change.”[5]  Because of fewer members and less giving, the ELCA must change given decreased monetary resources.  As a church committed to new multicultural membership, failure to achieve targets requires more effective means.

[8] Given resource challenges and the call to diversify and grow membership, it is no surprise that LIFT recommendations establish building congregational capacity as the top priority.  Under “New Opportunities,” we read, “Changing times present new opportunities.  God is sending this church to speak the gospel particularly through vital local congregations.  The future will require new forms and tools to reach people who may not be drawn to a traditional congregational setting.  God will empower us to ensure that the gospel will be good news that translates into every context.”[6]

[9] In recommendation number one, the task force “calls for a priority in this church on the work of evangelical congregations.  At this time in the history of the world and of this church, we need a renewed commitment to the ministry of local communities of faith: congregations will deepen the discipleship of their members and members will speak freely about their faith with their friends and their neighbors.”[7]  Please note this aspiration.  Going on, the first sentences of the first section on congregations read, “The task force believes that the priority for this church is to work together to nurture congregations that are evangelical (proclaiming God’s reconciling forgiveness, mercy and love) and missional (engaged in witness and service in God’s world) through which God makes disciples of Jesus Christ who are sent into God’s mission in the world.  A congregation’s vitality can be understood by looking at the relationships of its members with the triune God, with each other and with the community.  Strong reciprocal relationships throughout this church nurture vital congregations and strengthen God’s work in all ministries of this church.”[8]

[10] What is going on?  LIFT says it is time to make congregational renewal and change a priority by God’s grace for the sake of world.  This can only be good for advancing community of moral deliberation.  Unfortunately, while the report offers a long list of traits of vital congregations, it makes no mention of public communal discourse about faith and life.  It says nothing about building capacity for members to speak freely with intimates and strangers about ultimate concerns.

Moral silence

[11] As we imagine a next pubic church, I turn now to the needs of the world and those our congregations can address. We are thinking about building capacity for vital congregations—evangelical, missional, socially engaged, free talking spaces.  But for whom is this beyond those already in the pews?  If the future, that would be the neighbor who is young and/or unchurched and open to our witness.

[12] Here we should consider the important work of Christian Smith and his team at Notre Dame, who have done decade-long, interview-based qualitative research on the religious and moral lives of hundreds of emerging adults, ages 18-23, reported out in two books, Souls in Transition and Lost in Transition.  I will focus on the second book, with the subtitle The Dark Side of Emerging Adults[9]  The book addresses both private and public lives of emerging adults.  I will focus on the public and on distressing moral deficits Smith documents, which our congregations might address.

[13] The account is distressing because we live in a world of urgent, complex, and vast needs.  Americans widely believe we are forming a generation equipped for the future.  Unlike generations that created our failing world, these Americans are committed to the common good and a sustainable planet.  They are invested in social movements and political institutions.  They volunteer.  They have big hearts.  Together, young Americans are on course—in the nick of apocalyptic time—to build a greener, more peaceful, and just world than we gave them. 

[14] Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Smith.  Emerging adults are surprisingly content with the values and arrangements that dominate the adult world.  Their dream story reads something like this: “Get a good job, become financially secure, have a nice family, buy what you want, enjoy a few of the finer things in life, avoid the troubles of the world, and retire with ease.”[10]  The adult world, Smith argues, is failing seriously to form young Americans for anything that should count as the good life and the good society.  To be sure, emerging adults are not without virtues.  They are highly socially engaged, but they are not engaged in ways that fulfill their deepest potential for being human and the social and political conditions of justice and peace.

[15] Smith’s account of the public lives of young Americans is comprehensive and nuanced. Here I can only share his analysis of the moral mind of emerging adults—how they understand right and wrong, good and bad, why they do what they do, how they handle dilemmas or conflicts or failures.  Smith and researchers had repeated difficulty engaging their subjects in substantive conversation and heard eye-opening disclosures like “Oh my goodness, these questions right now, these questions are really difficult. What makes something right?  I mean for me I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it, but different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and what’s wrong.” Or another said, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.”[11]

[16] Such statements challenged Smith and his teams to look for patterns of thinking and conduct that render most emerging adults silent or inarticulate about the moral life.  Such patterns undermine practices of moral discourse and conduct that form people to think deeply and critically about normative human being and doing.  How ought I to live?  How should we live together?  These are the great questions of moral and social life.

[17] Emerging adults have almost nothing to say and what they say they hardly understand.  Smith observes, “Our central point does not have to do with moral degeneracy.  Our main point concerns moral education and training.  American emerging adults are a people deprived, a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.  They have had withheld from them something that every person deserves the chance to learn: how to think, speak, and act well on matters of good and bad, right and wrong.”[12]

[18] I quote Smith’s basic findings at length: “What we have found, in short, is that moral individualism is widespread among emerging adults and that a sizeable minority professes to believe in moral relativism.  We also found that emerging adults resort to a variety of explanations about what makes anything good or bad, right or wrong—many of which reflect weak thinking and provide a fragile basis upon which to build robust moral positions of thought and living.  We learned that a substantial minority of emerging adults admitted that, for various reasons, they do violate or would consider violating their own moral standards and those of society if it worked to their advantage and they thought they could get away with it.  We found that the majority of emerging adults say that they do not or would not refer to moral traditions or authorities or religious or philosophical ethics to make difficult moral decisions, but rather would decide by what would personally make them happy or would help them to get ahead in life.  Finally, we discovered that the vast majority of emerging adults could not engage in discussion about real moral dilemmas, but either could not think of any dilemma they had recently faced or misunderstood what a moral dilemma is.”[13]

[19] While critical of the moral knowledge and skill set of emerging adults, Smith has empathy for their deficits, first because the adult world has failed them and, second, failed them at a time when the moral worlds of emerging adults are more complex and challenging than ever before.  For Smith, emerging adults typically lack “the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims.”[14]

[20] These deficits suggest troubling implications for moral discourse in public.  The difficulties Smith encountered in engaging emerging adults in moral discourse are difficulties in public speaking and conversation.  ELCA convictions aside, public discourse is fundamental to corporate enactment of democratic social decisions, authority, and power.  This includes state actors, but many others in civil society who depend upon shared and dialogical decision making as well.  In our pluralistic context, such discourse requires capacity to enter into civil and constructive discussion with people holding different perspectives and positions.  For Smith, emerging adults have almost no such capacity.

Questions for Inquiry and Conversation

[21] Assuming Smith offers a sound picture of the generation that will shortly assume social power (again, I have considered only a part of the picture), what can be done to address this deficit?  What institutions in our society are best positioned to remedy the situation? What about the churches—the largest and most diverse voluntary association in the United States?  As we imagine the next ELCA, our next public church, does the call of leadership to congregational vitality offer an opportunity to address the needs Smith describes?  Can we agree meeting such needs would be evangelical and missional?

[22] Recall what LIFT says, “At this time in the history of the world and of this church, we need a renewed commitment to the ministry of local communities of faith: congregations will deepen the discipleship of their members and members will speak freely about their faith with their friends and their neighbors.”  Perhaps we are called to the new work of formation, so that members can speak freely to all.  Perhaps there can be no more urgent social witness today than community of moral deliberation.

[23] This witness must also be responsive to vast societal changes over the last twenty-five years, which complicate the quest for community of moral deliberation.  For Smith, these changes have generally undermined formation of young Americans for citizenship and pursuit of the common good.  For-profit mass social media and the forms of life they commend are particularly important realities that challenge the ELCA to undertake searching reflection and research about “community” and “moral deliberation” today.​

[24] For “Church in Society,” community of moral deliberation is about local, small-scale, face-to-face communication that goes deep and takes commitment, time, experience, and more to flourish and nourish.  Clearly, such reciprocal communication addresses Smith’s crisis of formation.  But for whom?  Is this the social world of emerging adults?  As LIFT calls the ELCA to new forms of congregational vitality, the critical work of community of moral deliberation must adapt to cultural change and find new ways to advance ELCA social witness. This is a place for congregations to begin speaking freely.


Per Anderson is professor of religion and associate dean for Global Learning at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.​

[1] “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” a Social Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 1991.

[2] (accessed September 10, 2013).

[3] (accessed March 8, 2014).

[4]“Living into the Future Together: Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA,” (accessed March 8, 2014).

[5]Ibid., 5.

[6]Ibid., 6.

[7]Ibid., 7.

[8]Ibid., 7.

[9]Christian Smith with Karl Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (New York: Oxford, 2011).

[10]Ibid., 237.

[11]Ibid., 22, 66.

[12]Ibid., 69.

[13]Ibid., 60.​

[14]Ibid., 61.



© April 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 14, Issue 4