By Rachel McGrath
“We are in an exploratory kind of situation,” says the Rev. Ruben Duran, M.Div. ’86, director for new congregational development at the Chicago headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “The church as a whole is not dying; it is transitioning to something different.”
The numbers tell this story of transition. Of 362 “new starts” in the ELCA, only a third are seeking to become traditional congregations with their own land and church building, said Duran in April. The remaining two-thirds are “very creative” and operating on some other model.
Two hundred ten new starts, or 58 percent, are based in communities of color or communities whose primary language is not English. One quarter of these new ELCA-affiliated groups have been launched by people who feel marginalized or are living in poverty.
Social issues and need alike are driving the formation of congregations, according to Duran, who has focused on new congregations during the past nine years of his 15-year career at the ELCA.
In Portland, Oregon, he says, a group came together that was interested in the environment and neighborhood issues, leading to the formation of the Salt and Light Lutheran Church, which is based in a community center.
Another small group in Renton, Washington, set up Luther’s Table, a place where anyone could eat for free, gather for coffee or a glass of wine, and just socialize and be together. They created apartments for veterans above the café and now, after three years, “have 40 people who want to be a church,” Duran said.
“They’re not going to change Luther’s Table. They’re just going to form a church and maybe even meet for worship somewhere else.”
At Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, California – where Duran studied and now occasionally teaches, and which became part of Cal Lutheran last year – it’s becoming more common to hear from Master of Divinity alumni who do pastoral work with such nontraditional startups. Many pastors continue to experiment with ways to serve congregations and also make a living.
Almost 500 years since Martin Luther set a historical epoch in motion from Wittenberg, Germany, some Lutherans in the American West are using the label of “reformation” to talk about their work as Protestants and as builders of community.
The Rev. Misael Fajardo Perez, M.Div. ’13, has a small office at Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Washington, but he’s hardly ever in it. Instead, the 30-year-old ELCA mission developer spends most of his time across the Columbia River in the Latino neighborhoods of South Wenatchee, which is the focus of his work.
More often than not, he’s to be found walking and looking for signs of spirituality.
“I went into a store and I saw that they had a picture of the Virgin Mary. So the next time when I went back, I started talking with the store owner,” he said.
Over time, he built up a rapport with workers at the store and some of the customers and invited them to participate in events he holds at a local community center, including a Día de los Muertos celebration and a Cesar Chavez Day during which he led prayers for farmworkers.
Forty percent of those living in South Wenatchee are Latinos, he says, and many are low-income families, but that has not been reflected in Lutheran congregations. This pastor feels called to base his ministry among people who traditionally have been outside the Lutheran sphere.
“I believe the church – the body of Christ – is a diverse community,” said Fajardo Perez, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City when he was 18. “What I see in churches, and not just Lutheran ones, is a lack of integration.”
When the Rev. Greg Ronning ’82, M.Div. ’88, arrives for Sunday worship at The Table in Orange County, he makes sure the coffee is brewing, the pastries are laid out and the chairs are in place around the tables.
As his small congregation arrives, they fill the mugs and plates, and when everyone is seated around two or three tables, the service begins. It features Ronning’s guitar music and group discussions, but no sermon, and it takes place not in a church building but at the ELCA’s Pacifica Synod office in Santa Ana.
“When you sit at a table and share a meal over worship and conversation, something transformative happens. It’s a powerful experience,” said Ronning, observing that the risen Jesus broke bread with his disciples as a way of being recognized by them and reconnecting with them.
Once a month, members of The Table have been joining with another church in Costa Mesa for a night at a laundromat. They bring with them about $500 in quarters and treat local people, including the homeless, to free washes through the evening and into the early morning hours.
A former campus pastor for 21 years at Texas Lutheran University, Ronning believes the focus on dialogue and service, rather than preaching, will continue to draw young adults to his fledgling ministry.
For the Rev. Anders Peterson, M.Div. ’12, a year spent at the bedsides of sick and dying people as a resident hospital chaplain in the Bay Area proved formative. He encountered people of different backgrounds, including the non-religious, and took up the challenge of embodying God’s grace for them without necessarily preaching it.
“While you’re present with them, you’re going to love them as best you can while you’re there and not try to force them to be like you,” said Peterson, who is from Minnesota and whose wife is Catholic.
He then spent another year working to bring two San Francisco congregations closer together. One was Lutheran and had no church building, while the other was Episcopal and had a building but few members.
After these experiences with religious differences, Peterson, 31, has decided that his calling is “to care for people who identify as spiritual but not religious, who might describe themselves as agnostic, who come from faith communities but are no longer actively participating.
“There are still a lot of people we see as other but that God calls us to see as neighbor,” he says. Some of these people “are not interested in going to church on Sundays or Bible study on Wednesdays. So what is going to be their thing?”
This year, he has embarked on a mission to find out. Rather than expecting people to come into a church, he is experimenting with ways “to meet people where they are.”
“We’re entering into another potential reformation, and it’s going to feel more secular,” Peterson said.
Secularism, multiculturalism and ethnic diversity are the new norm, and students arriving at PLTS with the goal of becoming ordained pastors understand this, said the Rev. Alicia Vargas, M.Div. ’95, Ph.D., a seminary faculty member and alumna who is serving as interim dean.
But the inability to adapt to changing times is an even greater challenge, according to Vargas. “In 10 years or so,” she said, some congregations that have maintained the same northern European ethnic makeup and styles of worship since they were founded “will be closing their doors as their longtime loyal and faithful members literally die.”
By contrast, the motives for launching new congregations vary from one community to the next.
“There’s a lot of non-church people in the Latino community,” said Fajardo Perez. “They have a Catholic background, but when they arrive in the U.S., they lose that tradition. And there are a lot of people who don’t feel welcome in that tradition because they’re divorced or single parents.”
Of the “new starts” begun since 2009, said Duran, 56 are by people whose churches left the ECLA following that year’s vote on human sexuality, which opened the door to recognition of same-sex marriages and the ordination or reinstatement of gay pastors. That is, the congregants were affirming their support of the new official stance.
Duran, who is originally from Peru, says that churches assume too much if they think that people will find what they’re looking for simply by coming.
“We should be more on a quest, on a journey, and we should have more curiosity,” he said.
That journey does not mean throwing out the past. But it may well involve dispensing with some comforting traditions.
“We welcome that tension. We live in that tension,” Duran said. “And we are looking for leaders who can understand that tension and want to explore it further. Faith is all we need.”
Rachel McGrath is a professional journalist and broadcaster who lives in Thousand Oaks. She has worked as a senior broadcast journalist at the BBC and co-founded an independent entertainment news agency based in Hollywood.