The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Change or die

Church is being reinvented. So are technology and education. And all for the same reasons.

Facebook just started moving Google's cheese with its launch of Home. An army of upstarts in Silicon Valley is challenging the hegemony (authority) of Microsoft. Nothing is staying the same; disruption is the path to prosperity.

The reason: the marketplace is highly dynamic. New needs emerge. New products stimulate new needs. New entrants want to make a difference right away. Problems and opportunities multiply faster than bureaucratic pillars can respond.

In education, new technology such as online learning is ramping up tension between bricks-and-mortar institutions and students seeking affordable education.

Many church leaders continue to believe that reinvention is an optional choice they can or cannot make. They think they can control the pace of change and shape its outcomes. Those attitudes are delusional. The reality is reinvent or die. The pace of change is driven by external factors, not by earnest deliberations and visioning exercises. We have no control over outcomes.

What does a reinvented church look like? Take your pick. Depending on the constituency being sought, it can take many forms, thus confounding cultural stereotypes of organized religion.

The reinvented church can rent space in a strip mall, university or school. Not as a temporary way station on the road to erecting an edifice, but as an ongoing solution to inflexible and costly overhead. It can create satellite operations, such as the congregation in Manhattan whose 5,000 young adults meet in four separate locations at four separate times on Sunday.

The reinvented church can downplay Sunday morning altogether. Meet instead on weeknights and Sunday evenings, when young adults are more likely to be available.

Or don't gather at all, in the sense of the whole congregation being together in one place. Focus instead on a network of small groups and house churches, which nurture strong relationships and are what Jesus himself envisioned. Or focus on a tech version, like Oklahoma-centered LifeChurch.tv, which has 15 locations around the country plus an online church.

A reinvented church can go intentionally small. Some house churches have no desire to grow, to depend on clergy or to join denominations. They meet, talk, worship, pray, sing and provide mutual care.

Many traditional congregations are trying to reinvent themselves by going hybrid. They offer a standard Sunday morning service, but go way beyond it with additional offerings, alternative styles, small groups and satellite presences.

Even staid denominations are open to reinvention efforts. The United Methodist Church in Atlanta, for example, allowed and now encourages a start-up called Sacred Tapestry that meets in a strip mall and takes the form of a coffeehouse serving brunch.

Reinvention touches everything. Clergy become communicators and organizers. Small groups provide pastoral care. Worship has a leader walking the aisle or leading an on-stage combo, not an organist seated at a bench. Classes deploy online tools. Evangelism uses social media, not doorstep conversation. Mission projects matter more than parish history. Communications promote networking, not institutional needs and offerings. Vestments that set clergy apart give way to jeans and sport coats — whatever says we're in this together.

None of this is exactly new, but the willingness to experiment and reinvent seems to have swept into most corners of the Christian enterprise in America.

Congregations that cannot push past an older generation's loathing of such reinvention are likely to wither away. 


Patricia Kennedy

Patricia Kennedy

Posted at 1:05 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

Mission projects matter more than parish history.

This is the sentence that caught my attention.  In the church I am currently attending, what matters most is the history.  There are a few older members whose families have gone to the church for generations.  They still talk about this being a "Swedish" church.  That has absolutely no meaning for me or many of those sitting in the pews  who are not Swedish and who migrated to Lutheranism and this particular church via Catholocism or other faiths and have attended many other churches.  When it comes to church, it is the mission and theology that matters to me not the heritage.  This church could easily publish a calendar page from 40 years ago and it would be the same as this months calendar of events.  I love the Lutheran theology, but I don't know how much longer I can hang in there with this rigid view of what church is.  Don't tell me to become more active and try to introduce change. I tried that.  Believe me.  I was totally cut off at the knees for trying to introduce new ideas to the liturgy and some new directions with ministry.  The motto of this church is "Change R NOT us."

Marilyn Miller

Marilyn Miller

Posted at 2:09 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

I disagree with the idea that church history does not matter.  My church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year and I am on the archives committee.  We have been going through our archives and discovering what our early congregation was like.  Church council was all men back in those days.  Men entered the church through one door; women through another.  When there was a non-church dispute between two church members it came before the church council to settle.  Nothing seemed to be a private matter between two people.  There were big disagreements on whether or not services should be held in English or German.  And contemporary worship services weren't even considered.  Had someone suggested them, I am sure that it would have been considered blasphemy.  Over the years our church has changed.  But still, church history does matter.  We see where we have been and look to where we are going in the future.  No one would want to go back to the way church was in the 1800s but that does not mean that we can't learn about our congregation's history.  Do you want to go back to life the way it was in pioneer days with the lack of modern conveniences and medicine?  Of course not.  But I and probably most people believe that it is important that we know the history of how our country was settled and what the people who ventured west encountered as they entered new frontiers.  Everybody and every congregation has history that should be preserved and asknowledged.  Of course, the mission and theology matter.  But had the early church members not passed on their theology to future generations, none of us would be believers with a theology and a mission to spread the gospel.

Anthony Rodriguez

Anthony Rodriguez

Posted at 2:43 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

Every church in every era is faced with issues of relevancy. It would behoove all of us to look back on denominations and individual congregations that weathered the storms of great change with grace, love, and success. We have much to learn from our past if we humble ourselves. 

We are members of a congregation faced with many challenges. However if we as a congregation succomb to the black and white thinking of "change or die", then we may find ourselves in another generation regretting the loss of some of the traditional faith practices. Or we may reinvent ourselves to the point of leaving the ELCA.

As a denomination we must always ask what the Gospel is asking of us. Yet we must do so with love and care for our aging congregants at the same time we seek to be relevent to younger generations.

If I anger and hurt my "cloud of witnesses" while demanding relevancy, I'm not living the Gospel. 

Jennifer Ohman-Rodriguez

Kurt Rogerson

Kurt Rogerson

Posted at 3:07 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

Robert Barndt

Robert Barndt

Posted at 3:21 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

Last youth gathering I attended was in SanAntonio and the group Lost and Found performed.  Between songs, they explained that the most important part of their name was the word AND.  Being lost/being found wasn't an either/or kind of thing.  It was both/AND!  That was a-road-less-traveled-by moment for me and has made all the difference!  I thought of that moment, again, when I read the title for this article:  Change or die and I wonder if it, too, should be seen not as either/or, but as a both/AND  Especially when the article is talking about a community chosen by god. . .  to deny itself and take up its cross. . .  to serve and give its life. . .  Change AND die!

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 4:43 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

Not so fast there, cowboy!

I'm a librarian, in fact I'm the librarian who helps people learn how to use eBook readers and download audiobooks. I can't tell you how many times I've heard over the past five or so years that digital media is going to kill traditional publishing...next week.

It's true that digital books and audiobooks and webzines and such have altered the publishing landscape tremednously, but guess what...people are still reading regular ink on paper books. Digital media has opened up new niches, and turned traditional publishing into a large niche rather than the predominant mode, but books and magazines will be with us for a long time to come, no matter what the digiterati do.

So what does this have to do with this article? Everything.

Yes, there is change coming. Perhaps church as we knew it won't be the predominant mode anymore within a generation, but it will still be a viable option for many...provided that those people can let go of the church they went to for 40 years, with a weekly attendance of only 25, and merge with a few others within three miles of each other to become a single viable congregation again.

Maybe there won't be as many "traditional" congregations anymore, but the "new form" won't become the dominant one either, and I'm tired of people forcasting the imminent death of the traditional church while they try to push the "new model" as the norm for everyone.

In technology there are people who love to be on the bleeding edge, using new gadgets that are really impractical for the average person, just so that they can say that they were first. And then there are the people who resist buying into the new device until they see that it satisfies some need they have, or that it's easy enough for them to learn to use without having to jump through a ton of hoops and bend themselves into a pretzel. And then there are people who are just plain Luddites.

The same goes with the church. There are some out there who are at "the next level," and want to drag everyone else there, whether it works for them or not. There are others who are taking a "wait and see," piecemeal approach, and then there are the liturgical Luddites who'll be using shape notes forever.


We don't all have to be the same. We don't all have to worship the same. But it sure would be nice if we had options out there for everyone, and let things evolve on their own, instead of having changes that may not stand the test of time forced on us.

I have an eBook reader, I listen to audiobooks, I get some magazines digitally. But I also read some books and magazines that are printed on good old paper. Each way has its good points and bad, and sometimes "sneakernet" is the most efficient way to get a piece of information from here to there.

The church as I grew up with it will still exist, for those of us who need it that way. And it will coexist with the "church of the future," for those who need it that way. The key is to not insist that any one way is THE way.

Note: Keith Gatling edited this post at 6:38 pm on 5/28/2013.

Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

Posted at 10:49 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/28/2013

"Congregations that cannot push past an older generation's loathing of such reinvention are likely to wither away. "

As one who is quickly becoming one of the older generation, I am highly offended by Fr. Ehrich's statement. First, I don't think it is exclusively the older generation who likes the traditional ways and, second, I don't think all of the older generation loathes change and reinvention. 

Not all the traditional ways are bad merely because they are old ideas and not all new ideas are good merely because they are new.

I attend church in the conference room of a foreign embassy out of the watchful eye of a government which is very skeptical of religion and the Sunday service is packed to overflowing, mostly with young families.

We have also started a contemplative prayer group for expatriates under the radar of the government here and I always have a sense that what we are doing is a future direction for the church, a small group meeting in an apartment. 

Conversely, I truly miss the sense of community of my home church and the sense of the sacred contained with in the walls of a sanctuary where thousands upon thousands of songs have been sung to God and thousands upon thousands of prayers have been uttered. 


Rather than blowing off the older generation or pointing a finger at them and saying that their unwillingness to change is causing the death of congregations, why not actively listen to them. Do they find a sanctuary in the community? In the music? In the liturgy? What can we learn from them?

Of the contemplative prayer groups about which I know, most were started by people with gray or white hair and the online contemplative community of which I am a part was formed by an octogenarian; in my early 60s, I am one of the youngest in the group. 

Fr. Ehrich, please don't ever forget, God willing, your beard will be white much longer than it has been brown. How do you want to be treated when you are a part of the older generation?


P.S. Keith, I think you are right. I can get e-books that would be unavailable in the English bookstores here and can carry a small library on my iPad, yet I read a small hard cover book recently and it felt good in my hands on the subway. We will have many small Christian communities, virtual and physical, and we will have churches in the forseeable future.

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 2:45 pm (U.S. Eastern) 5/29/2013

You know, I often wonder, when I read articles like this, about smaller church bodies, or ethnic church bodies; and whether or not they do the same kind of hand-wringing that we seem to be doing.

We used to, and probabaly still do, concern ourselves greatly over the minority representation in the ELCA, and the fact that it doesn't begin to reflect the demographics of the country around us. As an African-American, I laugh at this, because I don't exactly see the "traditionally black churches" wringing their hands over not having a truly representative number of Swedes in their congregations. I also laugh at this because to my mind Lutherans are an ethnic denomination, with the predominant ethnicities being German and Scandinavian...just as Catholics are an ethnic denomination, with the predominant ethnicities being Irish, Italian, and Hispanic. It is what it is. Much more than that, I knew that coming in. What I liked about Lutherans was how they were different from what I had grown up with. You were diverse by being part of the variety that was available to me.

But this gets me away from what I really wanted to say.

As I thought about this whole thing a little more, I found myself wondering if groups like the Greek Orthodox, definitely an ethnic church, are sitting there wringing their hands about how to get more people in their doors, and what their future looks like; or if they're satisfied with understanding that they're an ethnic denomination that does things in a certain way, and that way isn't necessarily for everyone.

Quite frankly, I don't want the ELCA to become more like the Baptists. That's one of the places I came from (besides, the LCMS already does that quite nicely, thank you very much). If you become like the people I left, then where will I go?

Hmm...now that you've got me thinking, I think I need to write a letter to the Greek Orthodox to see if this is even an issue for them, or if they'll just laugh when they get my letter.

Barbara Fletcher

Barbara Fletcher

Posted at 10:08 am (U.S. Eastern) 5/31/2013

Bruce Roberts

Bruce Roberts

Posted at 1:50 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/1/2013

Given our "Disappearing Church" I fail to see why we must nit-pick over the minutia of Tom's arguements that our social and technological environments are changing.  Somehow we must find a broad-based forum to share ideas and listen thoughtfully to the trials of others that work (and that don't work).   Yes, human needs for each other and for a meaningful spirituality are just as true now as in yesteryear, but the dynamics of "what works" to get us there are different across our congregations and across time.  Tom offered a number of practical ways that we can reframe the ways that we connect with each other and with God;  can we continue that conversation together -- somehow?


Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

Posted at 8:18 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/1/2013

It is interesting as I prepare to head to church this morning that I know I need to be fairly early or I won't get a seat; every Sunday it is standing room only. I attend church in an embassy and only holders of foreign passports are allowed. The English services at local churches are also filled as are the services in Chinese. 

In the not too distant past, during my lifetime, Christians here were heavily persecuted and some killed for their faith. Today, although freedom of religion is in the constitution, being a Christian can still severly limit ones career potential, particularly if one has an "iron rice bowl" job with the government.

Religious music is not allowed to be sung in open public forums, but is currently tolerated at university auditoriums. We hear rumors that singers in foreign choirs may be required to hold at least a BA in music. 

I am not ready to give up on a bricks-and-mortar church for two primary reasons. One is that occasionally I need to be in the physical presence of a large group of other human beings who are worshiping and singing and praying together, where I can shake hands and look in to eyes and feel their physical presence. Further I love choral music and would hate to see it leave the realm of worship to be reduced to only the performance of a museum piece in a concert hall.

Conversely, I am a part of the new ways of being church through some international online communities and a small contemplative prayer group that meets in an apartment. I meet my spiritual director, who is in the States, on Skype. The new technology certainly expands our sense of community.

In these times I think we need both and -- both the bricks-and-mortar and new ways of being in community and doing church.

Maybe one of the differences between packed churches in China and empty churches in America is that going to church here is not something to be taken for granted, it is highly valued for both the expatriates and the Chinese.

Note: Martin Johnson edited this post at 8:22 pm on 6/1/2013.

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 10:50 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/2/2013

But Bruce, I don't see myself as nit-picking over minutae. I see myself more as being Mark Twain saying that the rumors of his death are highly exaggerated.

In many cases, our "disappearing church" is really a "correction" to a generation of overbuilding because of a statistical blip after WWII. I'm certain that if you looked at the numbers (both raw and percentage) for church attendance before the war and now, you'd see that they were pretty close.

In fact, now that I've mentioned it, I need to hunt down those numbers.

Bruce Roberts

Bruce Roberts

Posted at 3:25 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/4/2013

Hello Keith,

Actually, I was not particularly thinking of your comment as I wrote the words "minutae".   But I am very interested in your forthcoming statistics about church attendance.   I am interested in the "facts" here as we trumpet "growth" or "disappearance" or "flat lines".  


Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 11:08 am (U.S. Eastern) 6/5/2013

Bruce, why don't you give me your email address so I can send this to you when I finally find it. I heard about it from our pastor, who quoted it from a book he read last summer.

Bruce Roberts

Bruce Roberts

Posted at 9:15 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/5/2013

Hi Keith,

It is roberts@stolaf.edu

I look forward to the "facts".


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