We are not the first generation to be concerned about the future of the church. Five centuries ago, during the last of the “great rummage sale” eras as voiced by Phyllis Tickel, leaders in the Lutheran Reformation also wrestled with profound questions of ecclesiology and good church order.
In 1539 Martin Luther addressed the question, “Where can the true church be found?” in a treatise he wrote on the historic councils that had shaped the Church as it was known in those days. Luther did not equate the church with buildings or institutional structures but instead focused on what God accomplishes through the life-changing work of the gospel in the lives of a “holy Christian people.”
The seven marks of church, which Luther named – the word of God; the sacrament of Baptism; the sacrament of Holy Communion; the practice of forgiveness; the office of public ministry; prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God; and a shared experience of suffering – remain a helpful guide in our own time of change and ecclesiastical housecleaning. They also point to an important distinction between the work of the church and the institutional structure of the church that Gil Rendle makes in the book that prompted my response in these recent blogs.
As I continue to meditate on an image in Luke 12:16-21 of being rich toward God, I’ve wondered how that phrase might also help us stay focused on our calling as church leaders in this time of fast-paced change in our culture.
Let me speak personally and practically. For 20 years of my adult life I did not need to think about what congregation I would join. I served two congregations — one in Michigan and one in Ohio — and transferred my membership to each because they had called me to be their pastor. However, in 1999, I accepted a call to serve in specialized ministry through the Churchwide Office of the ELCA and moved to Chicago. I was still a pastor but where would I find a community of faith that would be that next congregational home for me? I knew I needed the support of other Christians but finding a congregation is not an easy quest when one moves to a new location.
I was fortunate that a colleague at work sent me a note, inviting me to worship at the congregation where he belonged and included a hand drawn map of how to drive there from the apartment complex where I lived. Ascension Lutheran Church in Riverside became my church home for the two years I lived in Chicago. Although I was on the road many weekends for my work, I appreciated the welcome I received on Sunday morning. To my ear, the music was excellent for congregational singing, the preaching was well prepared (even through a long interim in pastoral leadership), and the prayers were spacious enough to stretch my own understanding of God’s world. When my work schedule allowed, I volunteered to prepare food for a community meal the congregation helped sponsor.
When I moved to St. Paul in early 2001, I again needed to look for a congregation in a city where I knew few people and where there were hundreds of Lutheran congregations. I was working at Luther Seminary, which had daily chapel, but that is different than belonging to a congregation. Fortunately, a colleague again invited me to visit his congregation and I did so. The next week I received a phone call from a church insurance agent, who had received my change of address. He wondered if I needed more insurance. I did not but I asked where he went to church. He eagerly spoke about his congregation, which was Gloria Dei on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. I was new enough that I asked him “Where is Snelling Avenue?” I visited the following Sunday. Worship was a communal experience with hymns and prayers. The sermon was thoughtful and tied to the Biblical text. I don’t remember being greeted by others, but the pastor took time to say how grateful she was that I had come. I decided to keep worshipping there through Lent that year and remain a member 22 years later.
What does it mean for a congregation to be rich toward God? Is your congregation that for you? For the hesitant newcomer at worship? For neighbors who see a building but don’t know that the church is a living gathering of the Body of Christ?
Being rich toward God is not a new criterion that replaces the seven marks of the church Luther described. Being rich toward God describes a quality that is revealed in word and sacrament in worship, in the practices of forgiveness and prayer, in the attitudes of pastors and deacons (and bishops!), and in the way the vast suffering in our world is addressed as a vital concern of the church. Your congregation’s style in all of these is unique to your context and the gifts of a particular community of faith. Being rich toward God means pointing to God’s work, God’s presence as the defining grace of a congregation’s identity. It is not about a building or an institutional structure.
In this era of profound change and cultural shifts, being rich toward God characterizes the way church folk show up in the world. If we were to have branded t-shirts for this, I’d suggest something like “the church has left the building” to proclaim that what we do beyond the church walls defines us as much as what we do when we gather inside the walls.
And one last thought from this summer’s reading. I have never belonged to a perfect church — including the ones I served as a pastor. Even in the Saint Paul Area Synod there are no perfect congregations. However, there are thousands of vibrant, living, “rich toward God” examples in this synod and beyond. Why not invite someone you work with, or a neighbor, or a friend to come with you to a service event, a community vigil, or to worship? You might even give them a map.
Bishop Patricia Lull
 Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.
 Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church (1539),” Luther’s Works 41, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966) 4–178. I used Luther’s teaching to frame a contemporary response in an article I wrote three years ago. Patricia Lull, “Church at Its Best”, Word and World, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter 2020.
 Gil Rendle. Countercultural: Subversive Resistance and the Neighborhood Congregation. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023, pages 6-7, 54-59.