why I support #decolonizeLutheranism (and why you should pay more attention to people other than me)
If you don't know what #decolonizeLutheranism is, the first thing to do is head over to their website and check out their beliefs section, at the very least. Even better would be to read a few of the listed articles to get a sense of how the leaders want to reach the goals they've laid out.
That's a necessary prerequisite for the conversation because part of colonization's fallout is that white, male voices are typically given more privilege than the voices of women and the voices of people of color (POC). I'm an advocate for #decolonizeLutheranism, but I'm not a leader. I'm following the lead of those whose opportunities to lead have been inhibited by the legacy of colonization. That's the first lesson in why I support #decolonizeLutheranism: We need the leadership perspectives of all sorts of people in the Body of Christ, not just white dudes. If there's neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, then we need to stop affording places of privilege primarily (if not solely) to people from typical places of power.
Of course, you might suggest that part of this is due to Lutheranism's origins in Germany. You're right! However, the cultural origins of a particular movement doesn't mean that it should remain captive to that culture. Western Lutheranism often views our denomination as one with a primarily white, European cultural location. Yet, there are as many Lutherans in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as there are in Europe and North America. Further, the faith is growing in the Global South as it shrinks in the Western world. The cultural importance of Lutheranism now far exceeds its Northern European origins. We need #deconolizeLutheranism because millions of the world's Lutherans would consider Namibia the center of Lutheran power, not Germany, nor Minnesota.
Reasons to support don't end there, though. In fact, the movement's Lutheran character is just downright, well, right! The focus begins with justification - Luther wrote just a bit about that - and the focus that, before God, we're all equally justified. The movement recognizes the story of Lutheranism began with Martin Luther but has been shared, amended, and lived out in myriad ways that reveal a rich tapestry of faith that simply can't be contained by a single cultural location.
Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful commitment is that #decolonizeLutheranism supports an evangelistic fervor, believing that the story of Jesus still needs to be told! In their words, they're working on "rapturously reclaiming the apostolic mantle from the clutches of White European dominance, [so that] we may then return to the world with the same zeal as the Apostles." Rather than see colonization's sordid use of missionary's as a reason to avoid evangelism, #decolonizeLutheranism sees a deep value in our call as witnesses to the story of Jesus Christ, not as a disembodied tale secluded to a text written thousands of years ago, but as an incarnational narrative of a life God revealed first in Jesus and now lives through each of us in our varied cultural positions. As we witness, we witness to a Jesus comes to our tables and doesn't just eat lutefisk, but also chows on pozole, matzah, chakalakah, and bibingka. We witness to a Jesus who doesn't just speak German, but the native tongues of all our peoples. We witness to a Jesus who might look nothing like us and yet came to love us just the same. The Gospel story shouldn't be ruined by cultural appropriation, but instead frees us to see how God remains active across all nations, redeeming all of creation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the heart of #decolonizeLutheranism isn't to supplant the assumption of one dominant culture with the assumption of another dominant culture. The leaders come from varying cultural backgrounds, varying racial makeups, and varying histories in the ELCA. This isn't about making a Black Lutheranism, or a Latino Lutheranism, or a LGBTQ+ Lutheranism, because there's already many Lutherans who are African American, African, Latino, Hispanic, LGTBQ+, as well as Filipino and Indian and Native American and all sorts of other varying national, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities. The beauty I see in #decolonizeLutheranism is the desire to lift up the various ways that our shared faith is lived out in unique ways across our nation, across our world, and across our church.
That's a cause worth supporting because these people, our friends in Jesus, our siblings in Christ, are worth supporting.
At a conference a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Shawn Lovejoy, a pastor who now serves as a consultant and coach for other pastors. Even as we come from quite different church backgrounds, or perhaps because of that fact, I found Shawn's personality and acute sense of purpose compelling. It may also have been the catchy title of his book: Be Mean About the Vision.
Like any good marketer, the title is meant to catch your eye and make you read rather than inspire cruel behavior around the vision of your ministry. Instead, Shawn draws on a more ancient meaning of the word mean, namely, intent. Be intentional about the vision. Mean what you say, and defend it. Be clear about what vision God has placed on your community and don't allow distractions to detract from that purpose.
At Christ Lutheran Church, our mission is to be a fellowship living and sharing the love of God through worship, service, wellness, and hospitality. We discerned this vision together over a year ago, doing the hard work of drafting and editing, of discerning and developing, until we finally felt God lead us to this place of mission. We voted unanimously to accept. We had it!
Then, we let it sit untouched for almost a year. Oops.
That's not entirely true. We began to organize our committee reports around that mission. As a council, we made decisions about new activities based in whether they fit that mission. Yet, we didn't focus upon it. Shawn's teaching, and now his book, have convinced me that needs to change.
I want to be mean, to be intentional and clear, about the vision because God gifted us with a passion to be together as an intentional fellowship, a passion to not just live God's love, but to share it with others through our gifts of worship, service, wellness, and hospitality. For us, this means that we're taking a few steps to make this vision more prominent in our life together as a congregation.
+ First, I've begun a preaching series on the core aspects so that it receives the pride of place from the pulpit.
+ Along with that, we've begun saying the mission statement together during worship so that we internalize it.
+ We're also putting it more prominently in our materials, including websites, bulletins, letterheads, and business cards so that it becomes clear to others that this is the core of our ministry.
+ We're doubling down on this as a plumb line for ministry, so that all that we do together as a congregation expresses this core identity. This means that we intentionally let go of all other things, even good things, because God doesn't call us to everything, but to certain thing at certain times for certain people.
Now, not everyone needs to focus on their mission in these particular ways, but I'm increasingly aware of the power of this defined core of who God calls us to be. For instance, many of my colleagues find resistance to preaching and teaching inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community, but because service and hospitality stand clear as part of God's mission in this place, we're blessed with a number of LGBTQ+ members and friends. Others find race to be a difficult topic in their context, and while there isn't universal agreement among us about how to address issues of race, privilege, and power, we're able to talk about them openly because of a deep commitment to be a true fellowship and to have fellowship with people not like us, who bring different gifts and share different parts of God's image with us. This clarity of vision doesn't necessarily make these things easy, but it allows us to have these conversations in meaningful ways that promote active change in our lives as well.
For instance, the South Carolina Synod of the ELCA has been hosting viewings of the movie Selma across the state. These events, led by African American people, introduce conversation and holy listening into congregations that opens up honesty and authenticity around issues of race. We at Christ Lutheran, as a part of our commitment to service and wellness, have developed a Faith and Film event that shows popular films (recent titles include Big Hero 6 and Mr. Holmes) and connects their themes to our beliefs and practices as people of faith. Our desire is to use the Faith and Film platform to coordinate an event, similar to those hosted by the South Carolina Synod, that includes a viewing of Selma and conversation led by our African American ministry partners here in Radford. Our hope to do this comes from a growing sense that our mission doesn't just allow us to seek active opportunities for reconciliation, but requires us to do so.
This is already happening here because we've got a small sense that this mission is meaningful to our lives here as God's people at Christ Lutheran Church. As we continue to focus on and grow in this mission, we see a chance for these opportunities for meaningful, inclusive ministries to multiply. Shawn reminded me of what was already happening in my own congregation: when the vision catches hold, it bears wonderful fruit. Being mean about the vision can help our congregation to grow not just in knowledge of our mission, but in truly activating that Gospel-centered identity within our entire community.
In the Lutheran world, Nadia Bolz-Weber's reached a sort of demi-iconic status. The combination of a tattooed Cross Fit physique, a shockingly engaging public persona, an unapolgetic social liberalism and a devout Lutheran identity enters the perfect storm of post-modern religious searches in the 21st century such that she's now known to millions of people as Nadia. Say that name in an ELCA context and you'll likely hear a hundred opinions, most of which represent a constant groundswell of support.
Reading her most recent book, Accidental Saints, was a powerful experience for many of my friends. This is built for all people of faith, not just pastors. This is true of her reflections on worship life and sermons as well, though as I pastor I'm sure they speak to me in different ways than they speak to others. No better, no worse, just different perspectives on the wisdom Nadia shares.
With her star continuing to shine in the Lutheran world, there's a temptation for congregants and pastors alike to want pastoral leadership to look more like Nadia. No one wants this less than Nadia, I imagine. You can find many of her sermons for her congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints, here. We're not called to be Nadia, or C.F.W. Walther, or Richard Lischer, or Elizabeth Eaton, or Will Herzfeld. This Lutheran legends of varied backgrounds were best when they faithfully embodied the Gospel through their God-given identities as the particular reflections of God. What we can learn from Nadia, and from all these other saints in the tradition, is how to become more fully alive as people created in God's image.
How shouldn't we preach like Nadia?
We shouldn't try to be Nadia. We shouldn't cuss just because some people think it's cool that she uses expletives. She's in a particular place and a particular culture that appreciates that language, and many of us are in very different places. The same goes for dressing like her, or getting tattoos like her. God didn't call us to be Nadia, but called us to be pastors. Nadia is good at that in large part because she's authentically herself in joy and tears and success and scars.
How should we preach like Nadia?
We should struggle with the weighty responsibility that we have to share the Gospel. Last week the Revised Common Lectionary brought me one of my favorite images in all the Bible: the forever opened gates of the heavenly city in Revelation 21 & 22. What I've found, though, is that I love this so much that I'm just not quite sure what to say about it. Over and again, Nadia reveals how a holy tension exists in the giving of a sermon, where any confidence that we might have doesn't come from us, or our perceived coolness, but instead the life, gifts, and wisdom give to us by God. That's not an excuse for poor or incomplete sermon preparation, but an encouragement to dive in even deeper. To edit and reedit. To research outside typical sources. To seek the leading of God's Spirit. This takes time, and energy, and sometimes tears. We should prepare and preach like this.
Perhaps more to the point, we should bring all of ourselves into the sermon process, not as an act of ego, but instead as a commitment to the incarnational reality of preaching. God encounters our people through the sermons we preach, so we ought to simultaneously be fully ourselves and pointing to God's work through us. In this way, through both our successes and our scars, congregations can see God actively at work through not just what is preached, but through the preacher as well.
So, yes, learn from other excellent preachers, but do so in a way that makes your sermons more authentically yours and in ways that more vibrantly point to Christ. That's how we best follow the lead of good preachers and best serve the needs of the congregations that call us to preach.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.