Lutheran church asked to be more evangelical

Top bishop makes stop in Parkville as part of his two-year, 65-synod tour

January 18, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Bishop Mark S. Hanson, who leads the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, stood yesterday before a gathering of pastors and lay leaders in a Parkville church and exhorted them to be more evangelical.

"Now come on, be honest. If you were lying on a therapist's couch and had to free associate and she said, `What's the first word to come to mind when you hear `witnessing,' how many of you would say, `Oh, Luther- ans!'" Hanson said to peals of laughter. "I don't think so!"

Hanson, 56, a native of Minneapolis, is in the second year of a six-year term as presiding bishop of the 5 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination formed 15 years ago with the merger of three smaller Lutheran groups. He is in the midst of a two-year tour of the denomination's 65 geographical synods, trying to fire up the troops to be more vocal about their faith.

Even though "evangelical" is part of the church's name, it's not necessarily in the nature of its members.

"Garrison Keillor keeps referring to the Lutherans in Lake Wobegon as shy. And I think he's right," Hanson said in an interview. "We've got to break that mold."

"We've got to equip Lutherans, who historically have been both shy and, I think, lazy, waiting for the culture to produce Christians for us," Hanson said. "You know, if we just put a Lutheran church in a growing neighborhood, open the doors, they'll show up. Well, that's not true any longer."

Hanson made his appeal in the face of sobering statistics. Last year, the Lutheran church lost 26,000 members, part of a trend that has seen it slip from the fifth largest Christian denomination in the United States to sixth. Hanson's congregants are, on average, 10 years older than the population of the country.

Reaching out a focus

Evangelical activity, a concerted effort to invite people to become part of the church, is expected to be adopted as a focus of Lutheran energy and resources when an evangelism strategy comes for a vote this summer at the Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, a biannual meeting that sets policy for the denomination.

Yesterday, Maryland church leaders who heard Hanson's vision at St. John's Lutheran Church said he outlined a difficult, but necessary task.

"It's going to be tough," said the Rev. Michael Dubsky, pastor of St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hampden. "But I don't think we have any choice. We either move in that direction, or become a footnote in a church history book."

Hanson also touched on several other issues facing the church, including relationships with other Christian denominations, and the divisive matter of homosexuality.

The Lutheran church has become a pioneer in ecumenical relations, forging agreements that stop just short of merger with five other denominations -- Moravian, the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church USA.

"The interesting paradox is that we are viewed externally with gratitude for the deepening of our ecumenical relationships. Internally they are still a source of controversy, because not everybody in the ELCA supports them," he said.

Even more divisive is the issue of homosexuality, over whether to ordain non-celibate gay clergy and to bless gay unions, a debate every mainline Protestant denomination is facing. A Lutheran church committee is studying the issue, and a vote is scheduled in 2005.

Traditionalists views

Traditionalists, who oppose gay clergy and gay unions, base that opposition on biblical passages that condemn homosexuality as an abomination. Hanson warns audiences that biblical interpretation must be nuanced.

"We're not fundamentalists," he said. "But it's easy to become fundamentalists when it comes to sexuality."

Hanson said he is afraid the church will lose members no matter what it decides. But it is important to come to a resolution on the question.

"We're working very hard," he said, "to create a climate of moral deliberation where we both listen to the tradition as it's in scripture and in our confessions, and also hear one another."

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