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Trouble in the garden?

by Frederick W. Baltz, WordAlone board member, Galena, Ill.

May 25, 2007

photo of Dr. BaltzI never knew my grandfather on my mother's side. All I know of him has been learned through things older people said. Among those facts is this: he always planted Rutgers tomatoes. It's funny the things we remember.

Years ago I conducted an experiment. In the garden behind the parsonage I planted four kinds of tomatoes. Three were newly-developed, wilt-resistant varieties, and the fourth was plain old Rutgers. This experiment was made necessary because of a black walnut tree that towered over the garden. These trees produce an acid that kills tomato plants and some other garden plants as well. The problem is called "walnut wilt."

Well, the Rutgers plants stood up to the walnut wilt better than the other three, but not even they could grow well in the poisoned soil of that garden. Either the tree would have to go, or future tomatoes should be planted somewhere else.

Bishop Mark Hanson commented not long ago that he has been disappointed in the ELCA's failure to grow as a denomination. You may remember Bishop H. George Anderson, Bishop Hanson's predecessor, stating his surprise that pastors weren't baptizing more people. Before him Bishop Herbert Chilstrom seemed unable to understand why this exciting new ELCA didn't eventually see numerical growth.

Despite all attempts to reverse the gradual loss of members by the ELCA and its predecessors we are still losing members each year. Losses now threaten to be less gradual with 80,000 lost last year alone.

I believe the soil has been contaminated; there's trouble in the garden. Our witness cannot grow and produce the intended fruit. We need to identify and remove what harms that witness. The experience of some denominations shows us that the witness can indeed thrive if the soil is right.

We used to be told by denominational leaders to discard the immigrant church idea that church growth comes naturally through having families. We were encouraged to witness to people beyond our doors and walls, not just our relatives (who were already coming to church). To that we should say, "Amen!" Yet now the message from the ELCA is that we must not be surprised to find that our membership is down, because research shows we are having smaller families! Is this an explanation or an excuse?

The Lutheran (April 2007) summarizes ELCA Research and Evaluation head Kenneth W. Inskeep's report to the Conference of Bishops. "The vast majority of Lutheran congregations are neither predisposed nor well-equipped to engage the modern world."(p. 52) He further says that if Lutheran congregations decide to engage the modern world, "they have only conservative evangelical models for doing so."

Somehow the news of this inability to make disciples has missed the WordAlone related churches. The information available for them strongly suggests that they are not only growing, but out-giving non-WA churches, with more members involved in the ministries of the churches as well. These churches apparently occupy a corner of the garden where the wilt agent hasn't reached.

What is contaminating the soil has roots. One root is a concept of the church which makes it a bureaucratic system with "expressions," and not primarily believers in congregations. Another root is a falsely-based ecumenism which is not grounded in already-existing unity in the Gospel and Sacraments, but substitutes a unity on paper that has to be achieved by human effort. Still another root is a failure to insist that Scripture be the judge of culture, not something to be judged by culture. A fourth root is the pervasive notion that the supposed wisest among us, our ordained leaders, must continually speak to political situations on behalf of all the rest. There are still other roots . . . and fallen leaves and nuts that all keep contaminating the soil.

The WordAlone Network exists to remove these roots for the sake of the church's witness. Please continue to support the network, and enlist a friend.