Just Leave

—Part Two: Is the Wilderness a Geographic Place?

by Jaynan Clark (President, WordAlone Network)

Date Unknown

There is more and more talk by ELCA members in all parts of the country, many of them outside the WordAlone movement, regarding the formation of a non-geographic conference or synod. A “working group” of 13 pastors from nine states met in Minnesota in January to discuss preliminary work needed if this concept is to become a reality. Currently there are congregational leaders from California to New York, from Minnesota to Texas who concur that the time seems to be upon us for the formation of a conference or a non-geographic synod.

The only known factor in this equation is the term “non-geographic.”

Membership would not be based on where a congregation was located on a physical map but rather where it was located on the theological map. Because of the more and more apparent theological drift within the ELCA, it seems timely for congregations to “locate” themselves not according to their geographic locale but rather by their self-understanding of the church’s mission and ministry on biblical, theological and confessional grounds. The “where” answered by a non-geographic conference or synod would be where you were as individuals and congregations in your teaching, preaching and practice of your faith according to the orthodox teachings of the historic Lutheran Christian church.

Are you involved in the transforming ministry of the living word of God or are you conforming to the world and its rapidly changing social standards? Does the Word of God—living, spoken and written—have authority over you and your life of faith? Do you see the church as an “institution” of bricks and mortar—the visible and tangible—with its hierarchical structures, or do you understand it as believers gathered around the Word and sacraments?

Who? What? Why? When and how? These are all being asked about the concept of a non-geographic conference or synod. Let’s take them one at a time knowing that as this concept is being formulated, there are many thoughts being shared but few hard and fast answers settled upon.

  • Who? From persons in the very largest of the “mega” churches to the very small rural parishes on the prairie, I have heard a desire to bond together more publicly and confess our faith in this time when many feel isolated in their beliefs and alienated from their church leaders as well as from the direction the institutional church is heading. Though the WordAlone Network is initiating discussion and planning for this new synod, the discussion is also taking place beyond WordAlone. Whatever develops, it will probably not mirror exactly the current WordAlone Network makeup and may well have a much wider membership than the Network and its supporters. There even may be WordAlone congregations that decide not to be a part of a non-geographic conference or synod. However, the current conversation across the church indicates that there are many ELCA congregations who need a closer connection to other congregations with a common and orthodox confession and practice of their faith.
  • What? A non-geographic conference or synod could be organized under the specific provisions within the ELCA constitution that allow such a synod. In fact there is a non-geographic synod in the ELCA, The Slovak Zion Synod. See these sections in the ELCA Constitution: 8.10 9 (synods in general), 8.60 (special interest conferences) and 10.02.01 (non-geographic synod). While some see conflict among the ELCA constitution and the authoritative voices of the scriptures and confessions, a non-geographic conference or synod could be formed on the Confessions, first and foremost and not on a constitution.
  • Why? At the 2003 churchwide assembly the voting members were debating a WordAlone Network resolution, requiring ratification by a majority of congregations of Churchwide Assembly votes on new ecumenical agreements or changing ministry standards or the understanding and practice of marriage in the ELCA. A voting member speaking against the resolution said “ . . . church leaders must lead, and sometimes ‘that means dragging some congregations along.’” (ELCA News Service, August 16, 2003, ELCA Assembly Declines to Seek Congregational Approval of Agreements, 03-CWA-42-DM)

I have observed that many congregations are tired of being dragged places they don’t want to go and to which they find no scriptural directive to move. They recognize the theological drift of the ELCA. They see its current decline in evangelical mission. They want to move forward faithfully in a renewed mission based upon Christ’s Great Commission and not on yet another social agenda. I believe many of our local churches have clarity on the issues being studied by the ELCA and they are not interested in being brought through another parade of votes at successive assemblies until the decision is acceptable to the “home office.”

Congregations are getting more and more disillusioned with leadership and voting members who devalue and readily disregard the need for their voice and vote. I have seen that although continually detoured from their primary mission and ministry by ELCA “issues,” they desire to bind together with others who want to invest their resources—time, energy and money—in preaching and teaching the good news of Jesus.

  • When? A timeline has been proposed to the working group considering forming a non-geographic conference or synod. There would be a variety of times and places where regional meetings would be held to educate congregational leaders about the proposal, including the WordAlone convention in Roseville, Minn., April 25-27. Later this year, a resolution would be available for pastors, councils, congregations, chapters, and conferences to express their intentions prior to the churchwide assembly in August 2005 regarding their affiliation with the newly formed non-geographic conference or synod.
  • How? We have very fine and able folks reviewing the constitution to work out all those details. In the meantime, in addition to what I stated above as far as meetings at the annual WordAlone convention and regionally, the working group will be opening a new e-mail list dedicated to this single topic to further the conversation and provide an opportunity for an exchange of ideas, hopes and vision. We will post on WA-Announce the pertinent information when non-geosynod@wordalone.org is up and running.

You probably have more questions, fewer answers and a variety of thoughts after reading this. Suffice it to say now, at this early stage of development, that to move forward can create a “place” for Lutheran congregations to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other congregations to confess their common faith no matter how far apart they are geographically.

We are “neighbors” in the church of Jesus Christ, united by our faith alone. Why leave now when we neighbors near and far need each other and voices crying in the “wilderness,” a non-geographic place of preaching, repentance, prophecy and confession?

Part 1