ELCA NEWS SERVICE
November 10, 2006
Lutherans Bring 'Hope for the Prairie' in the 21st Century
ABERDEEN, S.D. (ELCA) -- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a rural, small-town denomination, according to the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA. Delivering a keynote address at "Hope for the Prairie: Vital Congregations for the 21st Century" conference here Nov. 5-6, Hanson said 48 percent of the church's 10,549 congregations are located in rural and small town settings.
More than 170 participants of the conference focused on the future of Lutheran congregations and ministries in North and South Dakota with emphases on what the church has accomplished there and congregational resources designed to keep ministries renewed and vitalized.
It would be interesting to know what percent of the 4.85 million members of the ELCA can trace their family histories back to rural and small town life, Hanson told participants. "That's certainly true for me and (my wife) Ione," he said. Hanson's parents were born in South Dakota, and Ione was born in western North Dakota.
In response to the "Hope for the Prairie" theme, Hanson told participants, "Our hope is in God, (and) our source of hope is the gospel -- the good news that God has become flesh in Jesus the Christ. God has bent down from God's mighty throne to meet us in our frailty, in our humanity, in our brokenness to embrace us in love and forgiveness and reconciliation."
"The trouble is (that) if our hope gets too outwardly tied to the look of things, then precisely when we most need hope it's most absent. If you tie your hope to the price of crops or the price of cattle, if you tie your hopes or to the variation of weather, or the fluctuation of membership in your congregations or whether the school board will consolidate or keep going, then when precisely you are in need of hope, hope is most absent. But when hope is in a living, loving and ever-present God, then we can claim hope even when all around us (there are) signs of despair," he said.
Hanson offered a few hindrances to hope and sources of hope, along with "myths" about people living in rural and small towns.
"Nostalgia is a hindrance to hope, but living memory is a source of hope and there's a difference between nostalgia and memory," said Hanson, citing an article written by Penny Long Marler titled, "Lost in the Fifties: The Changing Family and the Nostalgic Church." In the article, Hanson said Marler writes that Christopher Lasch has defined nostalgia as "the abdication of memory." "Memory embraces the past in order to understand and inform the present, (while) nostalgia dwells in an idealized past (that is) unattainable and thereby disparages the present," Hanson said.
"Congregations that are stuck in nostalgia long to make ministry today just like it was in whatever period they are nostalgically longing for that probably never really existed. And, that longing to recreate the past in the present becomes an obstacle to living memory and to engagement in vital ministry today," said Hanson. "And yet, living memory is necessary for hope-filled ministries of tomorrow. I think we are increasingly becoming a society absent in living memory, absent of the stories of scripture. We are becoming a biblically illiterate church. How will you know what God is up to today if you don't you know the biblical narrative of what God has done in the past?"
A second hindrance to hope is loss, Hanson said. "Loss becomes an obstacle to hope But lament can provide an occasion of hope," he said. "Loss is very real in the prairies. You know the themes -- our young adults are not returning, there are not as many family farms, parishes are losing pastors. We can't deny change, we can't diminish the significance of losses, but we can lament them. Lament becomes a communal act of faith," he said. "We are called to be a people of lament which frees us then to be a people of faith."
A third hindrance to hope is "fear and the absence of trust" but "faith is a source of hope," Hanson said. "Trustworthiness begins from a posture of listening."
Hanson also cited certain "myths" about rural life as a fourth hindrance to hope. "I think you can help us confront the myths of rural life, so that telling the truth becomes a source of hope. You know these myths better than I do, but I'll tell you some of the myths I hear. One is that everyone in rural and small town America is active in a church, so there's no need for evangelism in our part of the world," he said. "The statistics I read are that 40 percent of rural and small town Americans are unchurched, and when you (reach) the Pacific Northwest it's over 80 percent."
Another myth Hanson named was that "poverty in America is (only) an urban issue. One in five children living in poverty live in rural communities," said Hanson. "The largest class of people that are on welfare are rural, White women. The largest number of growing and persistent poverty (exist) in counties in the Midwest and the Great Plains. But poverty is hidden, and it's more difficult to live in hidden poverty than in poverty that is known to others," he said.
There are signs of hope, said Hanson. "The ELCA is deeply committed to ministry among people living in poverty. When we talk about a farm bill, we are quite clear that it must contain adequate provisions for food stamps, provide for nutritious programs including school lunch programs and programs that will address hunger in the United States and abroad," he said.
"I think we know all too well the divisions among people of faith around issues such as abortion, stem cell research, end of life, gay and lesbian people in society, and deeply held convictions about personal morality. We need to continue to have (conversations on those topics), but I see great convergence going on among people of faith around our common commitments to ending poverty and making poverty and hunger history," he said.
"I sit at tables with Buddhists and Muslims, Jews and conservative Pentecostal Christians and Roman Catholics. What brings us all together (is) the common conviction that we can and must end hunger in the world." Hanson told participants that they "begin that process by developing the food that feeds the world."
Another myth Hanson cited is that rural and small towns are "racially homogenous. You know that's not true. American Indians are returning to reservations. Latino migration and immigration permeates all over the land. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia are coming to rural communities as the second and third migration (entering) the United States looking for work and often taking on work that others don't want to do. We need to be welcoming hosts of our new neighbors and friends," he said.
"We have great assets," said Hanson. "Our Lutheran theology, our Lutheran identity is an asset upon which we build. This is not a time to forsake being Lutheran. I think it's a time to build upon the strong found