Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 24 Apr 04:

Word Alone: Lutheran evangelical renewal movement unwilling to go it alone

By Martha Sawyer Allen
Star Tribune

The Word Alone evangelical renewal movement within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is stretching its muscles, as it approaches the tender age of five, and is trying to decide how to enhance its influence.

At Word Alone's annual convention starting Sunday in Roseville, more than 500 people will listen to debates on the denomination's human sexuality study and whether to form a nongeographic synod within the church.

These are relatively new issues for the movement, which was formed because it knew what it was against -- the ordination of ELCA clergy in the historic episcopate as demanded by agreements with the Episcopal Church USA. The ELCA, which counts more than 850,000 adherents in Minnesota, changed its policy to allow for ordinations of clergy outside the episcopate. But Word Alone isn't a single-issue group anymore, and it wants to remain the loyal opposition within the denomination on various topics.

As the Rev. Mark Chavez, director of Word Alone, based in the Twin Cities, said, "It is premature to give up on the ELCA, and there are reasons to be hopeful."

Word Alone considers itself a renewal movement, leaning to orthodoxy in its theology, similar to groups in most of the other mainline denominations, including the United Methodists, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ.

Much of its leadership is in the Upper Midwest, but its adherents are scattered around the country. It grew from a few proponents to a national roster that now includes 5,500 individual members, and 215 congregations representing 45 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

The Rev. Randy Freund, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Hutchinson, Minn., and a member of the Word Alone board, said, "There are people in the movement who are asking, 'Do we need to have something more than a communication network? What are the possibilities of a nongeographic synod?' No one has a clue... but we think it merits discussion."

The Rev. Lowell Almen, ELCA national secretary, said the only way a nongeographic synod could be created is by amendment to the ELCA constitution and bylaws. That requires a two-thirds vote of the churchwide assembly.

Chavez said, "I believe what we always confess, that the church isn't a national headquarters or a structure, but it's the gathering of believers to hear the gospel and receive the sacraments.... It's for the sake of the ELCA that we work from within."

While the nongeographic synod will take up some of the convention's time, most will be spent discussing and debating the ELCA's new human sexuality study. The study comes before the national assembly in 2007, but in 2005 the assembly is expected to vote on whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians to the clergy. It is an issue that has already caused deep divisions within the church and many fear people will leave the 5.2 million-member denomination.

"Lutherans haven't always been very smart institutionally," said the Rev. Marc Kolden, professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. "We create these new church bodies without adequate checks and balances [to assure that the] institution doesn't become an end in itself.... Some denominations have been a little bit more successful in figuring out some of this."

Kolden is presenting a paper at Word Alone favoring the traditional view of ordination, and he says most of the three-day meeting will center on the sexuality issues. He says that many people will be suspicious because Word Alone has been identified with more conservative views on sexuality issues in the church. But he says the meetings "are not a stacked deck. It's an even-handed presentation." But he believes the meetings are important to educate people about the issues. "It's coming up at every synod assembly this spring. The conversation is probably more meaningful this time, but the issue isn't finished."

Chavez said, "I'm hoping that people on both sides of the fence of the sexuality issue truly learn something about the issue and are much better informed regardless of where they stand on the issue.

"It has become such a hot-button issue that most people are not talking about it, and it would be an even worse disaster for the churchwide assembly to make a decision and most of the church not participating in the discussion before. I hope people come away from our meeting with a better understanding of what's at stake."

While Chavez and others believe that the current ELCA human sexuality task force study is an improvement over the one in the mid-1990s, he still says, "I don't think they have done as good a job as they could have in keeping their work within the confessional, Lutheran and biblical understanding of the faith."

Kolden added, "Four years ago who had ever used the word gay marriage in daily conversation? All of a sudden it's a huge issue. It certainly raises the awareness among people who may not have tried to be involved. I think one of the challenges this weekend is to be somehow respectful of each other -- and those not there -- as we talk, otherwise we don't become any kind of renewal in the church, but just a special interest group."

If the National Assembly votes in 2005 to ordain gays and lesbians Chavez said he would be disappointed. "I would have to take some time to sort things out," he said. "I would have to take a much stronger confessional stand over and against the ELCA, personally, but I would still be looking to take that stand within the ELCA."