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In the face of controversy, mission continues

The Christian Church has been symbolized as a ship tossed on roiling seas. Someone has jokingly compared it to Noah’s Ark: “We put up with the stench within because we more fear the storms without.”

Lutherans have no patent on church controversy, but they’ve endured their share. It can be credibly argued that the Lutheran “brand” is the product of the second greatest controversy ever to convulse the Christian movement — the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century. (Church historians suggest the first and greatest conflict was created in the first Christian century, when the Apostle Paul argued successfully for including non-circumcised Gentiles in the community of faith.)

Lutherans in North America have endured and survived some incredible inner struggles. There was the showdown between S.S. Schmucker’s “American Lutheran” movement and the opposition “confessional Lutheran” supporters in 19th century Pennsylvania. It caused a split in the Ministerium of Pennsylvania that took nearly a century to heal.

There was the great “language controversy” in the early 20th century. That conflict led to Lutheran congregations dividing over whether to keep using a European language at worship — or to convert to English. (In many Ohio towns and villages, even today, there are two ELCA congregations, often within a block of one another, products of the German/English church fight.)

There was the titanic battle over predestination (does God know in advance whether I will end up in heaven?), a fight that split congregations and families over a hundred years ago. (One Norwegian congregation in rural Wisconsin split right down the middle, resulting in competing congregations with church buildings at opposite ends of the same church cemetery.)

Most recently, North American Lutherans have taken sides over how to properly interpret the Bible. Those convinced that the Scriptures can and should be read literally are increasingly at odds with those who believe a more fluid and dynamic approach is needed, one accommodating to discoveries by modern science and literary criticism. A dramatic result of that conflict erupted in the 1970s in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), when advocates of a more literal reading of the Bible challenged others at the Synod’s St. Louis Seminary, resulting in hundreds of professors, pastors, and lay members leaving and forming a new Lutheran body. (They eventually ended up in what became the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA.)

The 2010 controversy

The same tug-of-war over how to understand Scripture has challenged the ELCA since its inception in 1988. The ELCA, at the churchwide level, has taken positions troubling many conservative members of the denomination — notably the adoption of an agreement with the Episcopal Church a dozen years ago and, last summer, a redefinition of guidelines for who may properly be ordained. Careful observers sense the real issue fueling conflict in both cases is the same one that troubled the LCMS 40 years ago.

The Rev. Cedric Olson, pastor at Central Lutheran Church (formerly ELCA; currently LCMC), Elk River, Minnesota, for more than 30 years, presides over the baptism of members of Elk River Lutheran Church, the new start formed by former members of Central.

The Rev. Cedric Olson, pastor at Central Lutheran Church (formerly ELCA; currently LCMC), Elk River, Minnesota, for more than 30 years, presides over the baptism of members of Elk River Lutheran Church, the new start formed by former members of Central.

That dynamic is likely the underlying issue for Lutherans in Elk River, Minnesota, a Mississippi River community between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Central Lutheran Church, a large (3,000-plus baptized members) ELCA congregation with a 60-year history of ministry, earlier this year voted overwhelmingly to cut ties with the ELCA. A significant exodus of members has resulted.

The more literal reading of Scripture — combined with a growing impatience with any who might dissent from it — appears to have contributed to the current outmigration. Among the 300 members who have subsequently left, five are retired ELCA clergy. Four of them were previously on staff at Central.

Dick Spyhalski chairs a steering committee charged with helping to create a new ELCA congregation in Elk River. He says all five clergy who were previously members of Central are helping to launch Elk River Lutheran. They intend to become a new mission start within the Minneapolis Area Synod.

Spyhalski, who grew up Roman Catholic, converted to Lutheranism in his twenties when he met and married his wife. “In my youth,” he says, “I learned about church rules and laws and didn’t hear much about grace and forgiveness. During the past five years at Central I experienced the same thing. I felt like I was in an Old Testament church. But I’m a New Testament sort of guy.”

Spyhalski and his wife joined the departing group after the first vote Central’s majority took to leave the ELCA. “The two hardest things to change for most people are your pastor and your hairdresser,” he says. “But if your dissatisfaction level goes high enough, you change.” A former hospital administrator, he likes to speak in marketing terms. “Elk River [was] left without an ELCA congregation. Some of us believe the ‘ELCA brand’ is important. That’s why we’re starting this new congregation.”

John Froehlich, another former Central member, is on the new congregation’s steering committee. He cited a focus on “law, not gospel” as one reason for his departure from Central, but alluded to narrow interpretation of Scripture as well. He said, “Individuals who challenged the leadership were asked to leave. Many did.”

And so a new congregation is born

Elk River Lutheran’s mission developer is The Rev. Cynthia Ganzkow-Wold. She says the new faith community is not looking back. “These people are incredibly focused on the future,” she says. But she admits there are tensions in the wider community. “Some of our members cite instances where store clerks at the local Bible bookstore have said that our church is going to hell.”

Ganzkow-Wold and her growing flock have little time to worry about such reactions. The pastor says, “We’re growing so fast my biggest worry is we won’t be able to keep up. We’ve moved our worship site three times now, because we’re running out of room!” There were 207 at worship on Palm Sunday and nearly 300 a week later. And the congregation hasn’t even officially organized yet.

A sign welcomes members and visitors to the newly formed Elk River Lutheran Church.

A sign welcomes members and visitors to the newly formed Elk River Lutheran Church.

The Rev. Susan Tjornehoj, bishop’s assistant in the ELCA’s Minneapolis Area Synod office, is working with the new mission start. She describes Elk River Lutheran as a “congregation in development.” She told Metro Lutheran, “Some who will be charter members for this congregation were actually charter members of Central Lutheran six decades ago.” She said the new parish is “a very benevolent and tithing congregation,” adding, “This isn’t a typical mission start. Usually, a mission pastor starts with no members at all and goes looking for prospects. Not in Elk River. They’re off and running.”

Tjornehoj says that, among its 164 congregations, there may be a half-dozen parishes in the Minneapolis Area Synod planning to leave the ELCA because of last summer’s votes about sexuality. So far two have taken the step. “At the same time, there are congregations that held a vote to leave, but it failed.” And, she adds, there are six new mission starts in the synod, including the Elk River congregation.

The churchwide office of the ELCA estimates around two percent of its congregations may decide to leave the church body following last summer’s votes on sexuality. On the other hand, the ELCA reported 41 new mission starts last year, including 23 among immigrant populations.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for his followers, asking that “they may all be one.” Scholars have suggested that a prayer of that sort only becomes necessary when the opposite reality is in evidence. The current atmosphere among North American Lutherans suggests the struggle to find common ground will not be ended any time soon.