One of the gifts of summer is the luxury of time for unhurried reading. I want to introduce you to one of the books I’ve read, but first I want to share the context that made it such a powerful read for me.
I am part of the Baby Boomer generation. My automatic image of the church is rooted in experiences of growing up in a congregation within a sturdy Lutheran denomination in the 1950s and ’60s. St. John Lutheran Church in Fremont, Ohio, was at the center of my family’s life, and, along with school, my social life. In those decades, clergy were regarded as civic leaders and seen as trustworthy members of the community even by those who rarely went to religious services. That is no longer the reality in this country.
Today, when we speak about the massive changes confronting our congregations, we are not just describing shifts in worship attendance or the size of the membership rolls. We are also noting deep changes in the culture, attitudes about institutions, and behaviors that are more individualistic than communal.
Fifteen years ago, Phyllis Tickle introduced the image of a huge rummage sale to indicate the scale of change underway in churches. As a church historian, she was naming the phenomenal change in religious structures that occurs about every 500 years, the last being in the 1500’s with the Reformation. Her idea seemed intriguing but not yet pertinent to my own experience of midwestern Lutheranism. I really didn’t get it. Now, in 2023, I see that the “rummage sale” image she used to describe the passage from old ways to new ways of being church is an apt description of so much that is occurring in our congregations. Faith formation practices, seminary education, worship formats and music, stewardship habits, and even what is expected of a church member — all these seem to have changed everywhere and all at once.
This summer I was so ready to encounter a book like Gil Rendle’s Countercultural: Subversive Resistance and the Neighborhood Congregation, the book I invite you to read. Why? Because no matter where I look today, I can’t find that church of my childhood.
Countercultural includes a history of the many forms and structures of American congregations over the past 300 years. Here’s the surprise: we are not living in the first time of massive institutional change and reform. Even more importantly, Rendle presses home the significance of the core work we are called to today as church, including the treasures from the past we are called to pass on to future generations. He points out that often what we look for is consistency in organizational structure, which is different than spotting the truth that shines at the heart of an institution over centuries.
I know many of you have been wondering — and worrying — about the future of the church, too. If we are not going to return to the ways things have long been in the church (and we are not) then what is to become of us and the congregations we love?
I invite you to join others in this synod in wrestling with fundamental questions about your congregation’s purpose and place in the world. As Justin Grimm, our synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, persistently asks: “What is your why?” One exercise Rendle proposes is examining afresh the story your congregation tells about its gifts and values; how it understands itself amid change and challenge.
In my next blog post, I am going to share a biblical story that is helping me reset my own understanding of what it means to be church today. Stay tuned!
Yours in God’s service —
Bishop Patricia Lull
 Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.
 Gil Rendle. Countercultural: Subversive Resistance and the Neighborhood Congregation. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023.