“What’s the ELCA?”
It’s a question every Lutheran will be asked at some point, at least outside of Minnesota. The Lutheran tradition is, after all, best analogized with a spilled can of alphabet soup. And for those of us who grew up in different traditions, we all sort of wince when we say, “The EVANGELICAL Lutheran Church in America.”
Evangelical: it’s a weighted term and yet it hangs in the air. It carries with it four decades of right-wing politics and quasi-religious rhetoric which taught the US that God is a Republican who uses hurricanes to punish cities and tells presidential candidates to run for office. It conjures pictures of street preachers confidently assuring angry crowds that…well, almost everyone is going to hell. In the popular imagination, evangelicals are door-to-door Jesus salesmen.
But I’m not selling a brand-name faith with an eternal warranty. So when I explain what the ELCA is, I hesitate. Why oh why couldn’t we have picked a less loaded name?
I could give some long explanation about Lutheran history and denominational mergers or a passionate defense of Luther’s original use of the term, both of which explain why we ended up as the ELCA, but there is more to the story. It’s about our identity as Christians. We are, after all, an apostolic Church, sent out to proclaim the euangelium, or Gospel (and the root word for evangelism).
We tend to think of evangelism as spreading the right knowledge of how a person gets to Heaven, as though we are teaching a secret password to an exclusive club. Knock on a door, share the Good News, and leave knowing that you’ve won another soul for Jesus. One more person out of Hell.
But what if we thought of evangelism as inviting people into right relationship with God and, through God, with our sisters and brothers, our neighbors and our enemies? What if evangelism took longer than the few seconds required to hand out a tract? What if we viewed evangelism as accompanying people on their pilgrimage towards God? And what if the Gospel we proclaimed had implications on Earth as well as in Heaven?
The early Church understood evangelism as accompaniment. New Christians were sponsored through a long initiation process which led to the Font and to the Table. They were accompanied through poverty. They were accompanied through prison and martyrdom. This tradition survives, in text if not in practice, through the baptismal liturgies which ask for the entire assembled Body at worship to affirm, on behalf of the entire Church catholic, that they will “support [the newly baptized] and pray for them in their new life in Christ” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgy for Holy Baptism).
It’s not a simple promise. It requires that we give of ourselves, to offer love unconditionally and forgiveness abundantly. It requires that we feed the hungry, visit the sick and the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and much, much more. It requires that we weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh. That we sow peace where there is anger and violence.
It’s a way of understanding evangelism which builds peace by proclaiming the Gospel of Christ’s Resurrection and acting out of God’s abundant love.
To be evangelical is to be a peacemaker. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is sent out to proclaim the peace of God’s Kingdom. May we be blessed in doing so.
Andrew Lewis is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA. Originally from Georgia, Drew has lived in the Midwest and Germany following his father’s career as a military chaplain. He holds theological degrees from Emory and Lutheran Southern, and is an avid hiker. He and his wife will soon move to Minnesota.