Rearranging deck chairs

by Prof. Tim Huffman (WordAlone board member, Professor Christian Mission, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

August 8, 2003

More than 300 graves stretch in three curved rows resembling a ship’s hull in Fairview cemetery, which holds the remains of the recovered bodies from the Titanic’s sinking known or guessed to be Protestant.

Tourists to Halifax, Nova Scotia, include Fairview as a pilgrimage in their visits. I did. The poignant story of the real tragedy still captivates the mind. More than 1500 of the 2200 persons aboard died.

Contemporary press coverage quoted survivors, both passengers and crew. They expressed concern about ignored radio messages warning of icebergs in the vicinity and about the apparent full speed of the ship.

For generations it was believed that the iceberg had torn a large gash in the starboard hull. However, the recent underwater explorations of the hull of the Titanic have shown that it did not sustain a large gash, but instead suffered “a series of thin gashes as well as brittle fracturing and separation of seams in the adjacent hull plates, thus allowing water to flood in and sink the ship” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

After the collision, crewmembers repeatedly assured passengers “No, nothing’s wrong.” “It’ll be o.k.” Passengers accepted the reassurances of the professionals at their peril. The ship was already fatally wounded, but the urgency of the moment was downplayed. The sunken ship serves as a cautionary tale.

As was the case of the stricken Titanic, the prospects for mainline denominations in America are dim. Total mainline church membership topped more than 29 million in 1960. By the year 2000 it had fallen to 22 million, a 21 percent decline. During that period the U.S. population increased by 56% percent, so the effective loss was about 70% percent against population. Of all church members more than 25% belonged to the seven mainline denominations in 1960, but today they include fewer than 15 percent of all church members.

Lutherans often take comfort in the fact that our loses are the smallest among the mainline churches. The ELCA lost only 2.2 percent in the 1990's, and is losing about 1/2% per year currently.

But the ELCA loss of 2.2 percent in the 1990’s is a true loss of 15% against population, or a loss of roughly 20% against population during the short life of the ELCA. The median age of ELCA members is in the 50’s, increasing numbers of congregations lack pastors, seminaries graduate only a third of the seminarians requested each year, almost half our pastors are within 10 years of retirement by conventional standards, synodical and national budgets are falling short although congregational receipts are growing—all the warning signs are there. We are proceeding through ice fields, and the icebergs out there have done grave damage to the church bodies most like us.

What makes trying to save the ELCA worth the effort? The comparisons with other mainline bodies suggest that there still is time to salvage the ELCA. The ELCA has some things going for it, but the biggest advantage is that some of the major icebergs are still ahead for us, even as we watch our neighbors hit them and send back messages about the ice fields.

The question is whether those at the controls hear the message. “Full speed ahead,” “focus on the positive,” “emphasize the things that unite us,” do not reflect the reality of our time and place. The ice fields have claimed real victims, leaving only shells of formerly vigorous church bodies. That is also the certain future of the ELCA if we refuse to hear and heed the danger signals. The preparations for the Milwaukee Churchwide Assembly show little evidence of the change of course and speed that alone will spare the ELCA.

WordAlone is young and has been described in varying terms. Some have called it a resistance movement. Others have called it a renewal movement.

Perhaps the best way to understand WordAlone is as a prophetic movement. Prophets are those who genuinely understand the present, and who can see the inevitable outcome of present actions and decisions. They say, “This is the road to disaster. Change course.” True prophets are always grounded in the tradition and the covenant, always trying to recall the larger community to the faith entrusted to its ancestors, always challenged by those with a heavy investment in the present direction. Irritating? Yes! But when prophets are right, they are critically important. They can slow the rush toward disaster.

WordAlone is the community of those calling out that the ELCA is in a sea crowded with icebergs, reading aloud radio messages that other ships are foundering, protesting that ignoring what is wrong and misguided is the course to disaster. WordAlone refuses to accept the false reassurances that the bump in the night was nothing, and that we should ignore the iceberg because the design is modern, the ship is big and luxurious, and the crew is expert.

Perhaps the ELCA Assembly should meet in Halifax.

(A more detailed version will be published in the September - October Network News.)