Lutherans Revolutionizing Identity Amid Membership Decline

Evangelical Lutherans announced plans to revolutionize the way they communicate their identity to the public as a denomination.

In an effort to turn the tide on shrinking membership, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) – the nation's largest Lutheran denomination – is slated to unveil next month a branding campaign that will run ads in newspapers, billboards, bus shelters and websites with the tagline "God's Work. Our Hands."

"We've seen a decline in membership and in average worship attendance. We, together, intend to reverse these trends not by becoming something we are not but by revolutionizing the way we communicate who we are," said the Rev. Mark Hanson, ELCA's presiding bishop, at the Aug. 6-11 Churchwide Assembly in Chicago, according to the ELCA News Service.

Hanson, who was re-elected to serve a second term, is confident that simple and powerful communication will help grow ELCA's evangelical outreach and help the denomination "step forward as a public church."

Each ELCA leader is also being urged to have at least one mentor and to serve as a mentor to at least one other person by 2012 – the year of ELCA's 25th anniversary – in hopes of growing membership in the 4.8 million-member denomination.

The ELCA is also moving forward in its Evangelism Strategy – a vision for the new century that was adopted in 2003. The strategy includes 172 new congregation starts – 53 percent of which are among people of color and/or people with primary languages other than English.

Continuing efforts to diversify the pre-dominantly white church, Hanson called leaders to double the number of ethnic persons and those whose primary language is other than English in the next five years. The latest call to diversify aims toward increasing ethnic membership to at least 10 percent of the denomination, which is about 97 percent Caucasian.

"The church's failure to become multicultural in our increasingly diverse society means we are not heeding God's call to be a sent church," said Hanson.

Ahead of the growth initiatives, ELCA is first pointing Lutherans back to the Bible.

Tackling the issue of biblical illiteracy, the churchwide assembly adopted a five-year initiative, titled "Book of Faith: Lutherans Read the Bible," to boost Scripture reading and studying throughout the denomination.

Hanson called on the church to become one that shows "growing evidence that [its] members are becoming fluent in the first language of our faith, the language of Scripture," he said Wednesday, according to the ELCA News Service. "How are we going to lead a church sent to be about God's mission in a multi-religious world if we do not know our sacred story?"

The "Book of Faith" is "designed to remind us of the power of God's Word. Join the conversation that God initiates," explained the Rev. Stanley N. Olson, executive director of the Vocation and Education unit.

The 2007 biennial Churchwide Assembly is being held at Navy Pier's Festival Hall with about 2,000 people, including more than 1,000 voting members. This year's theme is "Living in God's Amazing Grace: Thanks be to God!" and participants will acknowledge ELCA's 20th anniversary.

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