The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Getting to what really matters

All our work flows from being a church first, foremost

When I served a parish in Ashtabula, Ohio, I had the opportunity to be part of a bond issue campaign for the school system. Those of you who have served in a similar capacity know the bruising intensity of local school politics. The French Revolution pales in comparison.

On our first try the bond issue failed by a narrow margin. On our second try we had our heads handed to us. We decided to hire a consultant.

At a strategy meeting the consultant asked us what we thought was the one thing we needed to do in order to pass the bond issue. We had all kinds of ideas: better campaign literature, more radio ads, more coverage in the local paper, compelling photos of adorable but underserved children, puppies. The consultant listened until we ran out of ideas. “No,” he said. “The one thing you need to do to pass the bond issue is to have one more vote than the opposition.”

The main thing is the main thing. 

All of the ideas we had come up with (well, maybe not the puppies) were means to pass the bond issue. If advertising or publicity became our primary focus we would be distracted from our goal. Stating the simple fact that all we needed to do was to get one more vote than the opposition brought clarity to the campaign.

We do many wonderful and important things together as the ELCA. We alleviate hunger, we’re stopping malaria, we give voice to the most vulnerable in our society, we shelter the homeless, we heal the sick, we rebuild communities after disaster strikes, we work for justice. I am not suggesting that we stop doing any of this. But we must be clear that we are church first. We aren’t a non-governmental organization. We aren’t the government. We aren’t the American Cancer Society.

Baptism makes a difference and makes us different. We are in Christ. Baptism means the death of our old self. This implies sacrifice. It should also mean that we as church do not fit in with the surrounding culture. There are many socially conscious, kindhearted, generous, morally upright, compassionate atheists in the world. How are we distinguishable from them? If our life together consists primarily of being affirmed by God’s unconditional love and doing works of justice and charity without understanding that God has brought about the transformation of justified sinners through the costly grace of the crucified Christ, then we are not church.

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