Today I was talking to our beloved scholar in residence and he reminded me what Church was all about. It’s odd how quickly we forget. It’s easy to turn Church into something that is really just an aspect of something Church is. Like focusing on one role a person plays as opposed to seeing the totality of that person. The Church, he reminded me, is the fellowship of the redeemed. I suppose it warrants capitalization: the Fellowship of the Redeemed.
Paul writes: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor adulterers nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. BUT you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The Church is the Fellowship of the Redeemed. We were something else entirely but we have been redeemed.
God saves. It is what he does and he’s good at it. He saved his chosen people from slavery and death and brought them to the land of the promise. He saved his chosen from exile in Babylon and brought them home to the land of the promise. In Christ, he saved his chosen ones, undid the curse of Adam, and opened the door so that all the lost might join his chosen people. And it all required a sacrifice and it all required a change in us: Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14)
Change is the cost of redemption. Not that change for the sake of change can accomplish redemption, but that redemption itself, when done by Almighty God, brings about change in people. Few could break bread with Jesus and not leave the table changed and transformed by God’s redemption made flesh. They stopped being who they were, and they became something else; his people. They came away from the encounter forsaking their former way of life, their former constructs, their former prejudices. Redemption has a way of cleaning out the old and bringing in the new creation.
What we mourn in the decision of the ELCA last weekend is that it slammed the door on redemption because it told a group of sinners that they were “good enough” and had no need to change. But if they were made that way, why should they change? Because people are changed everyday by a radical encounter with Jesus. Every day, someone predisposed to addiction is liberated; every day, someone hooked on an activity which leads to death is set free and redeemed. Everyday, a very real Jesus brings healing, wholeness, and, yes, redemption to real people. Jesus said, “Go, back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” (Mt 11:4-6)
Christ desired that his redeemed ones, snatched from the devil, bought and paid for by his precious blood, should be in community together. Jesus founded the Church, died for her, cleansed her with his blood, that she might be the community of the redeemed, the Fellowship of the Redeemed. It is a community based upon redemption, upon change and transformation. “You once were... But now you are...”
When the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted for inclusion without repentance and for leadership without surrender, they voted out the need for redemption. They said, “Sure, Jesus talks about marriage between a man and woman but what is more important is that Jesus would want everyone included, not that they should be changed.” They thought the point was that there should be this big crowd, not that the folks in the crowd should go away changed by their encounter with Christ.
What the scholar reminded me of was that nowhere in this debate in the ELCA is there talk about redemption. It’s absent. The talk is all about social justice, political correctness, inclusion, hospitality, etc. But what happened to redemption? Oh, yeah, it requires change. And change isn’t on the table.
Maybe that is why the ELCA is dying. I don’t say that lightly or with prejudice. I simply state the fact that the ELCA is shrinking and has been since even before the predecessor bodies merged. Soon, regardless of what the consequences of this vote will be, it will vanish from the earth. Why? Perhaps because somewhere along the way the ELCA forgot it was about redemption...
These are the statistics and can be found on the ELCA’s own website, www.elca.org look under ‘research and statistics’:
The ELCA represents 3% of the US population.
Non Christians also represent 3% of the US population.
ELCA average worship attendance is down 291,847 people between 1987 and 2008.
The average age of the person in worship on Sunday in the ELCA is 54.
Between 2001 and 2007, membership shrank 7.5% overall, from about 5 million to 4.7 million people.
The future trends, however, are more disturbing:
Between 2001-2007, the number of infants being baptized is down 19%;
the number of adults being baptized is down 30%; the reception of new members from other denominations is down 21.5%. In other words, we’re having fewer babies, fewer adult conversions, and fewer transfers.
Membership transfers from other ELCA congregations are down 33% from 2001-2007. Transfers from other Lutheran bodies are down 31% and transfers from non-Lutheran churches are down 20%. The total number of members added to the ELCA roles is down 24%.
Number of baptized youth being confirmed: down 20.9%
Average weekly attendance at ELCA churches is down 13.4% overall between 2001-2007.
The only positive news is that giving is up. 29.8%
God is busy doing his redeeming work. And maybe it is necessary for one denomination to die so that from that loss might emerge a new and redeemed people, a holy remnant, with a fire in their belly, to share with all who will hear: our God is in the redemption business; our God saves. And in saving, he changes lives and eternities.