“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.”
– Genesis 45: 7
With the decline of Christendom and ever-dwindling numbers of people in the pews, many of us lament what we perceive is the deterioration of our position of influence in the world. There is a lot of anxiety about the future of the Church; both on the congregational and denominational level. We gaze at aging buildings with looming mortgages, we crunch the numbers, we worry about what is next. How will the church survive? What will become of us?
I feel this strain too. It is very real for me. As I await call as a pastor, I am troubled by a nagging fear that I have chained myself to an institution that is essentially a botched experiment.
And in reality?
The institution of the church is imploding. And I could spend time in this piece outlining my thoughts on how exactly that happened, or conducting an (albeit slightly premature) post-mortem. But to be honest that has been done. And I’m bored.
Instead, I would rather focus my energy on the future of the church that is not really the future at all. It is the present. It is the past. Like so many mystical, holy things, it is now and soon and has been, all at once. All throughout history, even and especially in the bleakest of moments, God has lifted up for us witnesses to God’s timeless power breaking in through the here and now.
There is no future church. Because it is already here. It is now. The future church will continue to be found in the places where the most faithful remnant has always been – on the outside. We do not, as Official Church People ™, have to create it or strategize to make it happen. We do not have to figure it out and spell out the plan. If we want to see where the Right Now of the Church is in this moment, all we have to do is look to the places where the Spirit is already at work.
In the anarchist mutual-aid group.
In the self-defense collective of Black trans women reimagining safety.
In the multiplying love of the polycule.
In the children baptized in the fire hydrants of the streets in the heatwave.
In those dancing on the grave of How-Its-Always-Been, singing freedom songs.
These groups might not call themselves the church. So maybe we shouldn’t either. But places like these are the best expressions of God’s liberating love that we have. They are resilient, creative people. People who the world has tried to stamp out and yet God has delivered, as a remnant.
They are not a fantasy of the future. They are here and now, in flesh and blood, in grit and glitter, in pain and in power.
If we want to know what God is up to, if the Church wants to move into the future, that’s where we should cast our lot.
Image Description: A Photo of Elle Dowd smiling against a brick wall, with the ELM logo along with the words: Future Church
Elle Dowd (she/her/hers) is a bi-furious recent graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Elle has pieces of her heart in Sierra Leone, where her two children were born, and in St. Louis where she learned from the radical, queer, Black leadership during the Ferguson Uprising.
She was formerly a co-conspirator with the movement to #decolonizeLutheranism and currently serves as a board member of the Euro-Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, does community organizing in her city as a board member of SOUL, serves on the Clergy Advocacy Board for Planned Parenthood, writes regularly as part of the vision team for the Disrupt Worship Project, and facilitates workshops in both secular conferences and Christian spaces. She is publishing a book with Broadleaf, Baptized in Teargas, about her conversion from a white moderate to an abolitionist which will be released on August 10 and is available for pre-order now.
Elle loves spending time with the people she loves and on weekends when there isn’t a global pandemic, she tours the city of Chicago in search of the best brunch.
To get in touch with Elle and to keep up with updates, you can visit her website www.elledowd.com and subscribe to her newsletter.
You can also see her online ministry via Facebook.com/elledowdministry
or follow her on Twitter/SnapChat/Insta @hownowbrowndowd
or on TikTok @elledowdministry
And pre-order her book Baptized in Teargas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist here https://bit.ly/2YICjBf
|Rev. Drew Stever, they/he|
I had top surgery four years ago.
It was three months after the US presidential election and four months after I came out as transgender.
I gathered the required letters from all my doctors. I was approved for a surgery that would drastically improve my well-being.
This was in a time when “gender-affirming surgeries” were still considered to be “cosmetic” by many major insurance companies. Thankfully, my insurance covered over half of the bill.
But I was still responsible for over $6,000.
I am not Beyonce, nor am I Lizzo. I could not afford even $1,000.
I was frantic. I did not want the hospital to come after me because I could not pay a bill for something that I needed.
A mentor of mine suggested I do something that sounded so simple, but in practice, felt so uncomfortable: ask for help.
“Tell your story,” they said. Be vulnerable.
I mulled it over for a while and quickly decided I didn’t have any other option. I danced the Carlton dance from Fresh Prince (badly.) I lip-synced to Whitney Houston (badly.) I got coffee with people I love, but hadn’t seen in a long time. I asked for help.
My people are not executives, nor are they international royalty.
Support came in amounts of 5, 10, and 100 dollars. They came from all over the world.
Slowly, we made our goal of over $6,000.
There was no capital campaign. There was no major celebrity spokesperson. There was no feature on the news.
Everything I needed was right in front of me – in my relationships.
Dear Church: Everything we need is right in front of us.
Who we know. Who we love. Who we spend our time with.
The scarcity mentality of the church is one that is rooted in the inability to be creative. It is rooted in empire, white supremacy, heteronormativity, capitalism and ableism.
We have come to believe that we are alone in our own liberation from that which separates us from God – be it depression, addiction, privilege, racism, internalized homo-/transphobia, anxiety. You name it. We believe we have to do this ourselves.
Author and activist adrienne marie brown writes, “E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G—is connected. The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component…Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free,” (Emergent Strategy).
To think that we are alone is to think something that is entirely false. It is to think something that goes against all of God’s creation.
The future of the church is not one that is rooted in “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” but rather, a church, a people that takes off our boots and says, “Hey. I have a huge blister and it’s been there for a while. Could you take a look at it?”
It is risking the challenge of being vulnerable about our deepest needs as a community and as people.
What would happen if we just believed that we had everything we could possibly need right in front of us?
Image Description: A Photo of Drew’s eye and the ELM logo with the words: Future Church
Rev. Drew Stever(they/he) serves as Lead Pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Hollywood, California. Drew likes to take strolls – not too fast, and not too slow. He is a novice front yard bird watcher and is a big fan of Mary Oliver.
CW: song contains strong language
At 15, I was having a real doozy of a time learning to express my unique and authentic self: I was a bicurious young Lutheran navigating the cliques of straight-laced, almost exclusively white youth in the aggressively heteronormative Mennonite high school I attended. You couldn’t wear tank tops or short skirts, and you were not permitted to dance. Questioning the teachings of the Church or of Scripture was out, as was cursing or considering sex before marriage.
It was suffocating.
In these walls, which brought me spiritual darkness, a few works of art and passages of the Bible hammered through the barriers to let some light in. One of these artworks was a pop song that came through these walls like a battering ram: Meredith Brooks’ Bitch.
I’m a bitch, I’m a lover
I’m a child, I’m a mother
I’m a sinner, I’m a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I’m your hell, I’m your dream
I’m nothing in between
You know you wouldn’t want it any other way
On the surface, it was wonderful to loudly sing a curse word–I didn’t get to hear many provocative expletives at that time–but then I also realized how liberating it was to own the idea that I could sometimes be rebellious, even mutinous, toward the status quo and still be a sinner-saint child of God. (By the way, I’m convinced that if Martin Luther had been around in 1997, he’d have loved this song). I could question God like the psalmists did, and I could stand apart from some Mennonite customs and not be an awful person or an anti-Christian.
I’m 39 now, and I recently remembered Bitch and have been regularly rocking out to it. It reminds me that God didn’t make a mistake when I was created: I am an adventurous, boat-rocking queer minister who loves to not only pray and worship but also to examine, question, and disobey when called to do so. And I hope God wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bio: Melissa May (she/her) is a pastor who served for five years in the wilds of northern Canada and western Alaska, and is now taking some time away to rest and work part-time as she interviews for possible new congregational calls. She lives with family and her very well-traveled cat, Mia, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she’s looking forward to in-person Trivia Nights and Dungeons and Dragons sessions eventually resuming.
“He was a son. He was a brother. He was an uncle. He was a father. He was a grandson. He was so much more, and he did not deserve this at all….I need everybody to know that he is much more than this…..He had a smile that was angelic. He lit up the room. He was funny. He played. He was an amazing son. And I can never get that back.” – Katie Wright, Daunte’s mother
Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries denounces and laments the murder this week of Daunte Wright by Brooklyn Center law enforcement, and the murder of Anthony J. Thompson, Jr. by Knoxville law enforcement, along with the lives of the at least 33 Black people and 23 other people of color killed by law enforcement so far this year. Every time Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives are ruthlessly taken by the hands of white authority, the wounds of the world grow deeper and their cries resound in God’s ears.
In the Gospel, Jesus names the love of God as central for the work of justice, and teaches that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. By linking love of self, love of neighbor, and love for God, Jesus calls us to refuse a self-love that is rooted in supremacy and death. The white members of ELM’s board and staff name our own culpability in the ways we have not lived up to this Gospel call to uphold Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives as not only beloved of God – but also made in God’s image and worthy of life in abundance. We join our voice in naming and repenting of those ways we have clung to dehumanizing systemic powers that offer security for some while producing death and suffering for many. We renounce the idols of white supremacy, the demonic forces of racism, and the death-dealing violence that come as a result.
ELM recommits to an anti-racist identity at every level of the organization and implores white members of Proclaim, those who support ELM’s mission, and predominantly white communities of faith to the following calls to action:
Donate to BIPOC activists on the ground in Minnesota and Knoxville:
*Check in with and care for your siblings of color. DO SOMETHING: call them, send them a care package, pay for their dinner/groceries. Make specific offers to redistribute resources and ask what support they need.
Commit to reparations in the ELCA: Click on the following link to make a contribution through Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seattle to the 66th Synod fund. The 66th Synod Fund is named in memory of the Alpha Synod and Jehu Jones and is devoted to helping elderly Black ministers survive after years of serving congregations without the ability to have adequately paid their pastors. The endowment is led by a Board of Black women in the ELCA.
Sign up for and take action in the Movement for Black Lives: https://m4bl.org/Movement
Get mobilized on the nearly 300 local and state pending bills designed to keep black and brown people from the polls: track them through the Brennan Center, support the ACLU’s work, and get involved with the League of Women Voters’ efforts.
We pray for Black, Indigenous, People of Color experiencing relentless racialized trauma, and its ensuing exhaustion and grief, especially for those who are also LGBTQ2SIA+, disabled, or members of other marginalized communities. We pray fervently for the families of Daunte Wright and Anthony J. Thompson, Jr. and their communities. We, the white members of the board of directors and staff of ELM, ask God to give us the strength and wisdom we are lacking to start removing the sin of white supremacist thinking and ways of life from our hearts and minds. We, the BIPOC members of the board of directors and staff of ELM, pray that white people do more – stand up stronger, fight harder, and find the mettle to scream at the top of their lungs that Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian and POC Lives Matter, and are beloved. We pray that the sacred divinity of Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies be given the honor and reverence that our Christian faith demands.
Image Description: Over a black background, the scripture verse from Jeremiah 6:14- They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.