Robert Benne tells the story of the decline and decay of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA provides a glimpse into the future of a new generation of progressive evangelicals who are wandering down the same treacherous paths.
Like most American denominations, membership in all the Lutheran churches peaked at about 1965. Optimism about the future of Lutheranism in America abounded. That is, until the last merger produced the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.
Its foundation was characterized by a strong attempt by radicals to start a “new church.”
Increasingly the theology of Protestant liberalism crept in in three key areas—the nature of salvation itself; the decisiveness and uniqueness of Christ as Savior; and the familiar sexuality issues. One need do nothing to be saved, for God loves you unconditionally, just as you are, by virtue of your creation. Repentance and amendment of life are beside the point. Christianity and the other great religions are on different tracks to the same destination; evangelism is replaced by dialogue. Christian moral requirements in sexual life are outdated and need sharp revision. Inclusivism, universalism, and revisionism became the leit-motifs of the ELCA at its elite levels. Slowly they have filtered down to the parish level.
The trouble is, such a lax vision hardly inspires one to become a serious member of the church.* If God loves you just the way you are and all will be saved, why bother? Enjoy cultural libertarianism rather than struggle with difficult moral standards. Join the quasi-religious social movements such as militant environmentalism directly rather than filter ones concerns through the church. So the young are drawn to the culture rather than the church. Alarmed intense believers go to other churches or join dissident Lutheran bodies. Many in the local parishes that remain in the ELCA try to seal themselves off from the controversies provoked by the ascendance of liberal theology and ethics.
The results have been devastating. Rather than being exceptional in their promise for renewing American Protestantism, mainstream Lutherans have become exceptional in the rapidity and extensity of their decline. The National Council of Churches reports that the ELCA has “the sharpest rate of membership decline” among all mainline Protestant denominations.