The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) envisions a world experiencing the difference that God’s grace and love in Christ make for all people and creation. And yet, overall, the ELCA continues in a pattern of macro decline, with aging members and a membership profile that does not reflect the diversity of the United States. As ministry challenges and opportunities only become increasingly complex, congregations must be grounded in Lutheran faith practices and be equipped and inspired to adapt and innovate for the future -- not just to survive, but so that their communities may thrive. In collaboration with strategic partners, including four ELCA synods, and through a congregational team cohort model, the ELCA churchwide organization seeks to unleash and harness the collective genius of congregations as they discover new and useful ministry innovations for the sake of this world God so loves, sparking the ELCA “innovation denomination” movement. By the end of this project, more new, young, and diverse people will know about life in Christ through the bold, faithful, courageous witness of these congregations — so that all might “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).
This grant gives 12 congregations an opportunity to explore how congregational storytelling might become a renewing force by connecting directly to persons searching for meaning and the revelation of Jesus Christ. This grant discovers how congregations can accompany people in narrating, interpreting, and integrating their direct encounters with the living Christ. Storytelling, Luther Seminary believes, creates encounters that shift the congregation’s identity from resource-provider to a community of discernment and meaning-making. The learning takes place as 12 congregations engage in a process of experimenting with identity- and community-forming practices and reflecting on the Christian narrative in a secular age. Luther Seminary hopes to embed a small group of thinkers and scholars among these 12 congregations. They will foster theological reflection in and through the stories that come from each congregation about each congregation, but also reflect on the stories shared by the distinct persons in these communities, exploring the concrete marks of peoples’ encounters with God and how they are making meaning in their day-to-day lives.
What will a thriving congregation look like after a global pandemic? Closer to home, what will a thriving congregation look like in a city that’s just witnessed the unconscionable killing of George Floyd at the hands of police; a state with one of the highest opportunity disparities across people of different races? We believe the initiative works to address these questions, as well as the Lutheran catechism question, “What does it mean to love God and neighbor today?” We are excited to invite a select group of congregations to wrestle deeply with this question. In each two-year phase of our proposed initiative, 15 churches will be selected to participate. One congregational cohort will include five “like-sized” congregations, another will include five “like-mission” congregations, and the third, five ELCA and African Methodist Episcopal congregations serving “adjacent neighborhoods.” Each of the congregations will be represented by five leaders. Thus, 75 congregational leaders will be trained during each phase, 150 over four years. Cohort groups will learn faith practices and neighboring practices from experts and each other. The groups will be well coached, committed to meet monthly, and given the tools to immediately teach the practices they are learning to their own congregations. We will partner with the Center for Leadership and Neighborhood Engagement (a new organization birthed by four congregations, the synod, and two social service organizations). In addition, we will partner with the Christensen Center for Vocation at Augsburg University, not only for their models of public church, but to co-host the summit for our congregations at the end of each two-year cycle.
St Olaf College, a residential liberal arts institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), hears in the Thriving Congregations initiative a call to accompany congregations in a process of vocational discernment, guided by a series of "high-impact" learning experiences that will engage them with their distinctive theological commitments and faith practices, with their changing communities, and with both their "deep gladness" and their "deep sadness" in a time none of us could have imagined. Our Nourishing Vocation program will serve four learning communities of approximately seven congregations each. Two communities will be drawn from the Southeastern Minnesota ELCA Synod; St Olaf's ELCA student congregation will be one of the participants, and the remainder will be selected in partnership with the bishop of the synod. The remaining two learning communities will be ecumenical, selected from a national pool in consultation with the National Council of Churches and ELCA Churchwide. Guided by the paradigm of high-impact educational practices, these learning communities will participate in a Quo Vadis ("Where Are You Going?") curriculum of collaborative activities; draw on a Quo Vadis Online compendium of curated resources supporting the curriculum; engage in a community partnership project designed to advance their re-imagined congregational vocation and the mission of their partners; participate in the St Olaf Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts; and complete a Quo Vadis congregational portfolio to support their vocational learning, reflection, and planning. Some congregations will also host a student Congregational Fellow who will serve as a young adult companion on their vocational journey. In partnership with the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities, St Olaf will also convene a concurrent learning community of other colleges and universities seeking to support congregational thriving, to share insights and strategies on programming and evaluation.