The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.
The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.
The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:
Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.
Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.
The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:
Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.
This feature -- which clocks in at just under 1,600 words -- presents the reader with a slew of facts and opinions about Lutherans, almost exclusively the ELCA variety. (The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, the country's second-largest Lutheran denomination, gets one paragraph of statistics in the article. But, despite having 169,000 members in Minnesota, the LCMS is otherwise absent -- no members or leaders are quoted. Perhaps the phone lines at LCMS Central were down when the story was written.)
The story thus bypasses certain journalistic conventions, such as presenting context for why and how the ELCA came to its current state, or comment from "detached" sources such as scholars/thinkers outside denominational officialdom.
Also, there are no dissenting voices within the ELCA ranks represented here: if there's anyone who disagrees with the direction in which the denomination is going, the Star-Tribune apparently made zero effort to include those voices. All those people who have hit the church exits? There is no need to find any of the groups that speak for them.
The Roman Catholic Church -- or, for that matter, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- should be so lucky. Ditto for the Southern Baptists. Putting dissenting voices in any major story about these groups, among others, is mandatory these days (with good cause). Why does this rule vanish when covering the doctrinal left? Perhaps this is ecclesiastical Kellerism at work?
Towards the end of this report, readers are treated to this paradoxical discussion. It's long, even as abridged here, but also worth reading, I believe:
The ELCA has a solid history to build on, Lutheran leaders say. It's long provided and advocated for education, health care and anti-poverty initiatives. It's long welcomed immigrants and refugees. Women have been ordained pastors as far back as the 1970s, gays and lesbians since 2009.
The future of the Lutheran church, say church leaders, has many faces. It's niche churches such as an assembly of millennials who meet Sunday nights at an art house in St. Paul. It's the urban church offering its space to Swahili-speaking neighbors. It's a megachurch in a fast-growing suburb that meets the spiritual and social needs of hundreds of families. ...
Church leaders will also have to look less like each other. The Rev. Justin Grimm, who oversees church development for the St. Paul Area Synod, said a theology degree alone can't guarantee an effective leader of the future. ...
All this poses risks, said Lutheran leaders, including alienation of current members, failed attempts at outreach, and more financial strain.
Two elements could benefit from explanation here: One, if women were ordained as pastors "as far back as the 1970s," that was more than a decade before the ELCA was formed. It means a predecessor group led the way. Why not mention this and detail that history?
The mention of ordination for gays and lesbians beginning in 2009 also begs a question: What was the reaction of the constituency at large? If ELCA membership fell "from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million" in 2017, did this latter ordination change play any part? From the Star-Tribune readers hear nothing; the article reflects no reporting to answer that question.
I wonder, too, whether there's anyone out there who could explain the ELCA's paradoxes, especially the membership decline. Someone at the Institute for Religion and Democracy, perhaps, or some scholar somewhere? Any takers?
One other slightly befuddling detail missing from this story was a name of the reporter (or the names of the reporters) involved. There's no byline to be found on the web version, and I didn't have access to a print copy.
While we at GetReligion try not to personalize analysis, in this instance, knowing who reported this story and their background might have put the piece in a sharper focus.