ELCA reaches milestone in welcoming new congregations

5/28/2015 3:00:00 PM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – For the Rev. Ruben Duran, the message is quite clear – "Christ's church is not dying." That's a different message, he says, than what has been widely reported in recent years about the decline in membership among U.S. mainline denominations, such as the 3.8 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

            As director of ELCA new starts, Duran believes that this church "is not dying. It is changing" – particularly as the ELCA reaches a significant milestone this spring.
            Since the ELCA began in 1988 as a result of a merger, more than 500 new congregations have been "planted, organized and joined the ELCA. That is a milestone worth celebrating," said Duran. The "changing part," he said, is that 56 percent of all ELCA new starts are among ethnic-multicultural communities, and 27 percent in communities where people are living in poverty or low-income. Another 26 new ministries started with leaders whose congregations left the ELCA in recent years, and there are 65 ELCA prison ministries.
            Put that all together, he said, and "we have 10 percent of the denomination in the growing stages. This is a good moment to celebrate. God is making all things new. The new start is the new skin of this church, and the new skin of the ELCA is a fusion of many nations being welcomed into the ELCA. It reflects the country that we're becoming. We are not dying. We are changing."
            "I use to believe that my neighbor was an object that I had to convince," Duran said. "Now I realize that my neighbor is a child of God, who also has a message to share with me. I need then to shut up and listen to my neighbor, and together we can discover ways to be in relationship with one another under God's grace. That's a whole different story, and I'm thankful for it."
            For the Rev. Anna-Kari Johnson, assistant program director for ELCA new congregations, "It is inspiring to see so many congregations race across the finish line together to become the 499th and 500th congregation." Ten of the newly organized ELCA congregations were welcomed at several of the ELCA's 65 synods hosting synod assemblies this spring.
            In addition to the newly organized congregations, Johnson said that there are 352 ministries under development. "And with all of us working together, we can start more. That's a sign of a healthy church – each of our home congregations starting another congregation," she said. "And all of our churches can be part of this!"

Worship at a senior center
            When ELCA members have an idea for a new ministry, they contact their synod office and ask for the bishop or director for evangelical mission. Next they invite people to serve as "prayer partners" for the ministry, identify a mission developer and garner financial resources. As new ministries take root, it is not unusual for people to gather for worship in city parks, libraries and cafes, shelters, senior centers, homes and elsewhere.
            According to the Rev. Judith Spindt, director for evangelical mission, ELCA Southwestern Texas Synod, mission developers are often asked, "'Where is your church?' Most of the time mission developers are only equipped with contacts and a list of cellphone numbers. That's where the church begins. As the mission developer commits to relationships, people start engaging and seeing each other and the face of God is revealed."
            Spindt is one of nearly 65 directors for evangelical mission in the ELCA. As part of the work of these directors, "We lay the groundwork to begin a new ministry and partner with people in their development life. We ask questions like, 'Are you worshiping? What are you doing to include others? Are you ready to organize?' It's also about discipleship and self-sufficiency. A lot of prayers and dollars go into making mission possible," she said. "It takes love, discipleship, commitment and a sense of growth to make things happen."
            For the past two years, Spindt partnered with two congregations in particular that declare to be the 499th and 500th ministries to join the ELCA – Spirit in the Hills Lutheran Church in Spicewood, Texas, and Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church in Seguin, Texas.
            "We're 4 years old and started as a 'new wine' congregation," said the Rev. Tim Bauerkemper, pastor developer of Spirit of Joy. A "new wine" ministry is a congregation that began from a congregation that had disaffiliated from the ELCA. Although there was a group that sought to leave the ELCA, there was a group that wanted to remain, said Bauerkemper.
            "We need to start new ministries because God is always writing a new story," he said. With a radical sense of welcome and community, "we had a new opportunity to think of who we are as church. Even when something can fail, we can learn some important things. We have a lot to teach, particularly among congregations who have been around and want a breath of fresh air."

The Campaign for the ELCA
            Starting new congregations is a priority of Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA – a five-year campaign approved by the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. It seeks to raise $198 million in support of new and expanded churchwide ministries above and beyond those supported by regular weekly offerings. The goal for the ELCA New Congregations priority is $4 million.
            "We are experiencing a time of a modern day 'Book of Acts' as the Spirit calls together people to experience the transformational love of God," said the Rev. Ronald Glusenkamp, director of the ELCA campaign.
            "These new starts are signs of an amazing movement that is happening. I am grateful for the gifts of individuals and congregations with 'glad and generous hearts' who support this growth by giving to The Campaign for the ELCA," he said.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.8 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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