Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A sad day in San Antonio

One of our fellow San Antonio congregations closed this week. The Express-News article about Zion closing is available online:


This is sad event. The Lutheran Church is losing a strong urban presence in San Antonio. I pray for those touched by Zion’s ministry that they might continue to be fed by ministry of word and sacrament. I also pray for the neighborhood surrounding Zion.

Rather than simply lament the loss of a “Golden Age of Lutheran Worship,” I also pray that Zion’s closing can be a wakeup call for other congregations in how we think about evangelism, culture, and location.

Zion’s closing did not happen overnight. It was a process that began decades ago. One of the many factors was the vast suburbanization that has occurred in countless American cities over the past fifty years. Middle class white people have been moving away from the center of cities, and toward the suburban fringe. The difficult challenge is in adapting to this changing demographic.

I say this as a pastor of a congregation that began as a mission start in the early 1980s. We were a very rural congregation, but now the exurban sprawl is developing around us. Many of the founding families of my congregation transferred here from urban congregations like Zion.

The vast majority of new members my congregation has received in the past year have been people transferring from other Lutheran congregations. We’ve been doing more flip-flopping Lutherans and less reaching out to new people. I don’t have easy answers to any of this.

It’s also high time to address and acknowledge our own continual institutional racism in the ELCA. We need to remember that what makes us Lutheran is a theology of grace, not what type of casserole we bring to a potluck or what color hymnal we use (if we even use hymnals).

I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to come to Texas was that I was passionate about bilingual, urban, and multicultural ministry. It still saddens me that San Antonio does not have a vibrant Hispanic ELCA presence. To illustrate, at a recent theological conference here in San Antonio, the theme was Hispanic spirituality, and the worship opportunities included the bilingual setting from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal. You would think that San Antonio would have some wonderful musicians who could lead this music in salsa, plena, and norteƱo styles. No! Instead, an ensemble was flown here from Madison, Wisconsin. They were indeed talented and creative, and from a congregation with whom I am very familiar, but it just doesn’t make sense that Lutherans in Texas would need to fly in people from Wisconsin to lead multicultural worship.

I think of the hymn “Marching to Zion.” As Zion Lutheran Church closes, God’s people still march to Zion, not the church building, but the metaphorical Zion. The work of God still continues. The ELW services for closing a congregation includes this prayer:

May the witness of the people who have ministered in the name of Jesus Christ through Zion be undiminished and continue as they leave this place. Amen.

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