calendar May 10, 2010 in Assembly, Bishop messages

The FACE of the future


Bishop Claire Burkat challenged the 2101 Synod Assembly to see how the four directions launched at last year’s assembly can lead the synod to embrace five trends that she sees emerging on the missional horizon. Represented by the acronym FACE, the directions are: Faith formation, faith in Action, Connecting and Communicating, and Equipping for evangelical outreach.

Burkat highlighted the current reality created by the recession which has meant an increase in unemployment and growing programs to address hunger and poverty.  Philadelphia, for example, had 25 food banks in 1985; today there are more than 700. 

The recession has also created a crisis for the synod’s financial status. Partnership support is down to levels given in 1985 and the synod has been forced to deal with this decline in revenue.  Despite the seriousness of this situation, the bishop chose to focus not on last year, but the future.

“A crisis is also an opportunity, and taking a hard look at our finances gives us an opportunity to re-think how we apply our time and energy and dollars in a new century,” she said.

She referred to this juncture as a “time of tension and promise,” and identified five emerging trends affecting ministry in the future.

“This year’s assembly theme, Inbreaking/Outpouring: The Living Word, is our effort at celebrating and embracing the Word of God as a treasure of the faith given to bless and support us in every aspect of our lives,” said Burkat. “It addresses all four FACE directions.”

#1 — Newly Shifting Demographics

Approximately one-third of the population of our five-county area is under age 25. This generation is more diverse than previous generations with more young people of color and mixed races than ever before. This new reality challenges the church to minister in new and engaging ways, like the collaborative ecumenical effort called Turning Point in Northeast Philadelphia where a center has been opened to invite teens to participate in a variety of social, educational, and service gatherings. This is the new Luther League, a youth ministry program of a previous generation, to welcome youth into the church.

“Our Lutheran heritage of reading scripture through the lens of the Gospel, care for our neighbors, and our embrace of paradox gives us tools to form the faith of new generations who are not looking for simple answers, who are seeking relevance in their faith an life, and who want to make a difference in the world, “ said Burkat. “How is your congregation adjusting to these shifting demographics?”

#2 — New Technological Advances

The rise of social media has given us the opportunity to connect and communicate in new ways but also challenges us to use these tools effectively.

“Congregations eager to jump into this pool need to understand that in today’s social media culture, people want authenticity, not overtly marketed messages, or gimmicks,” she said. “They want to hear real stories about our faith from real people.”

In 2009, the synod held a communications boot camp to equip congregations to tell God’s story in the digital age and Bob Fisher, Assistant to the Bishop for Mission Interpretation, conducted a seminar to assist church presidents and vice-presidents to embrace and utilize these new technologies.

“Embracing new communications technologies is part of Lutheran DNA, it started in the sixteenth century,” said Burkat. “What is your congregation doing to connect with people who think, communicate and view the world differently?”

#3 — New Ways to Collaborate

New technologies have offered the opportunity for an increase in collaborative ministries like the Sebastian Kolowa University College in Tanzania which is supported by Lutheran partners both here and in Europe. There are also local efforts such as the development of a cooperative parish nurse program in the Palisades Cluster of the Upper Bucks conference and the Northeast Lutheran conference has a Strategy Initiative which involves twelve congregations gathered to develop mission and ministry resources in Northeast Philadelphia.

“Our scriptural story tells us that we are all interconnected, and the cooperation is healthier than competition, said Burkat.  “Where might your congregation do more by forming a collaborative effort with a Lutheran church or agency, social service agency, or ecumenical partner?”

#4 — New Focus on Spirituality

In his book, Spiritual but Not Religious, Understanding Unchurched America, Robert Fuller says there is a resistance to identify with a specific denomination, creed, or congregation. Spirituality is now more connected to a desire for personal growth rather than institutional connections.

Burkat pointed out that many people are now going on the third generation of no religious education of any kind yet they seek a variety of spiritual practices, an area in which the church of Jesus Christ has a lot to offer.

“This assembly’s emphasis on God’s Word is one way we are addressing the hunger for faith practices, including prayer, meditation, and dwelling in the Word, either alone or in small groups and spiritual retreats,” she said. She also expressed the hope that congregations will explore the opportunity to offer spiritual retreats and resources for both fledgling Christians and those who have grown up in the faith.

“Is there a way, you could collaborate with other congregations, both Lutheran and ecumenical partners to make such opportunities available to a wider range of people in your parish? “ Burkat asked.

#5 — New Interest in Ecumenism

While the word “ecumenism” is derived from a Greek word which means “the inhabited world,” today it describes a new emphasis on respectful collaboration and dialog and the dream of Christian unity of churches once separated by doctrine and practice.

She highlighted the Philadelphia Religious Leaders Council, a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslim faith leaders, which she co-convenes along with Zones for Peace, an interfaith collaborative effort to make houses of worship places of safety and sanctuary.  The Philadelphia Area Ecumenical Resource Network is an emerging network to connect churches with resource people, especially coaches, consultants, and spiritual directors, across denominational lines. It is an effort that is becoming a model for the whole church.

“Our Lutheran ability to understand polarities, and to live with differences in piety and practice, is allowing the ELCA to bridge ecumenical gulfs between historically divided churches, said Burkat.  “What services are needed in your community, and what issues need to be managed, that your congregation could bring other people of faith together to address?”

A time of rethinking

She indicated while this is a time of transition and rethinking for us as the church it is also a time of opportunity as we discern how God is calling us to “make disciples with or without money.”

“None of us know where this journey will end,” she said. “But the faithful thing to do is to trust God and follow. For we do know this:  God is on a mission. God calls us to be part of that mission.  And what God purposes to do, God will accomplish, with us or without us.”