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“Be willing to do something you never thought you could,” David Lose advises church leaders

mp3 file of the presentation

mp3 file of the presentation

Download the Resource Day slides (in a single pdf file)

The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) president spent Ministry Resource Day discussing challenges and opportunities facing congregations in today’s world

Here’s a glimpse of highlights of the September 17 Ministry Resource Day presentations by LTSP President David Lose on “Digital Pluralism and the Death and Resurrection of the Church.”

The first of his two 90-minute lectures focused on “Where have all the people gone?” The second (afternoon) presentation focused on “What do we do now?”

The second annual Ministry Resource Day was free of charge and made possible by cosponsors LTSP, the Philadelphia Theological Institute, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the seminary’s parent denomination. There were over 180 persons registered for the day.

Lose began by describing a research project he was a part of five or six years ago in which alumni of seminaries from a half-dozen traditions described their understanding of vocation of all the baptized as tied to the principles of their theological understanding. However, people filling their pews did not identify their work (vocation) as a calling of God. By the end of the year the as a whole at “lost confidence in what we were doing.” The result was what he described as a “fruitful vocational crisis…No one knows how we will be called to be faithful over the next 10 years,” Lose said. “In this very room,” he noted, “we are blessed with sufficient grace and experience to find ways to give testimonial” to our faith.

He described an anecdotal experience of former seminary colleague (Luther Seminary) Roland Martinson, who once asked an airline passenger seated next to him about whether he goes to church. The passenger said he did, but that his family had been discussing whether it was worth it. They were overcommitted with challenges at home, work and church, so they held a family council, making a list of all their activities to decide what was worth their time. After 90 minutes of review, the man told Martinson, “The church did not make the cut. We decided we were not getting much out of it.”

All Christian denominations experienced an attendance decline in the first decade of the new century, Lose said, with Lutherans declining slower than anybody. “This decline,” he said, “is not your fault, not a measure of the faithfulness of leaders. Our leaders are no less faithful or hard working than generations before. The whole world has changed in a short time.”

Drawing on illustrations from the world of advertising and marketing, Lose made the point that our perceptions greatly influence what reality is when it comes to purchases we make, and the resulting decisions are frequently NOT based upon price. That leads to the importance of telling authentic stories in a low trust world to have impact.

In the world where we make decisions on stuff we choose to buy, “the stuff only makes sense in the form of story,” he said. “Jesus stuff only makes sense in the form of story, but the problem is we don’t know our story very well anymore.” Lose took note of the power of logos and emblems as a form of story, noting that emblems can make a promise about the quality of life for the kind of person you are. He said the emblems “can give us an identity stronger than our religious identity.” Lose said that if we don’t know our biblical story we are not able to shape our identities as Christians, and thus “scripture loses the capacity to furnish us with stories of reference to help us share our lives with each other and make our experiences concrete and shareable.”

He noted that people “tell stories all the time” and develop their favorites, but that they usually don’t tell biblical stories relating their faith understanding to daily life in such a way as to make them part of everyday conversation. “If we spend Sunday telling Bible stories without thinking of how they apply to the rest of the week, why would I come back?” Lose said in reference to church visitors. “What goes on at church itself comes to make less and less sense.”

These problems don’t come to light, he said, because of our culture of politeness. “No one wants to look stupid talking about it, and many people are simply used to not understanding church,” he said. “Stuff only makes sense in story, and the problem the church has is it does not know what is its story.”

Lose noted there have been three revolutionary communication developments over history — the development of writing, which made possible durable communication with depth; movable type, which offered affordable information with breadth and accessibility, and more recently digital communication affording instantaneous access with its “exponential proliferation” and a level of saturation, access, and influence which can be overwhelming. “Every five years the amount of information accessible to us increases 10-fold,” he said.

“We have moved from a single mass media culture to a multiple culture,” he said. “We have moved from a culture of duty and obligation to an age of discretion. (What can I get out of this?). We have moved to unlimited choices about what information shapes our individual stories — about careers, relationships, transportation, politics, and religion. We have a culture of abundance and a scarcity of time.”

While many will agree that God is worthy to be praised, the current climate has produced what Lose called “a clash of generations…People will only go to church if it helps them make sense of their lives.”

Lose added that in recent decades people have moved from a time when their identities were “received” to a time when they need to construct their identity. There was a time, he said, when the vocational options for women were limited. “We have moved now to a time of unbelievable choices that are unending when it comes to making sense of lives.”

Lose noted that we have also moved from a culture that values tradition to one today that highly prizes experience with an accompanying loss of confidence in institutions that is part of an instant access world.

In the world, he said, we have moved from a coherent sense of identity to a segmented one in which the whole person is involved with work, school, civic understanding, knowledge of the world. Home was once a refuge, but now every time one expresses oneself on social media “tons of people are watching with different realities we tell of ourselves. It is hard to hold the sum of all our relationships together.”

The culture has also moved people from being consumers of information, he said, “to being producers of information to the culture. The way we react to a story makes us authorities of what we are saying. Collaboration and participation are everything,” Lose said, except for Sunday morning, when our parts become scripted. “In a digitally mediated world of limitless choices,” Lose said, “the church is just one option.”

“How have we missed all of these changes?” he said. “Church leaders value their (sense of) duty and they just carry on,” he said. “The church works just well enough so that people ignore the crisis. And it is difficult to trade what you know for what we don’t know.”

The result is consequences, often unintended, that we need to reckon with, he said.

“Christianity was once embedded in the culture, and we became dependent on the support of the culture,” Lose noted. Schools and Andy Williams on television at Christmas taught of Christianity in the culture. “Today’s culture is not against Christianity,” he said, “just indifferent to it.” The professionalization of today’s clergy  and the expertise thus in the culture has sometimes created the sense that the laity are simply “amateur dabblers,” he said. He added that the church takes the practice of worship “really seriously.” In some ways, he said, that is positive, but a consequence can be that worship becomes a performance, a “game of the day” which is across a bridge from everyday life. There becomes a chasm between our church world and the real world. “We may pray for Sunday School teachers and congregation council members, and we should,” Lose said. “But how often do we pray for the CPAs who give real order to our lives. Our practices can tend to devalue everyday life.

“Have we trained people to expect to see beauty anywhere other than where it is expected to be?” he asked. “Have we trained people to detect God other than where God is expected to be? If so, what kind of future can we (in the church) expect or deserve?”

In the afternoon Lose addressed, “What do we do?” He spoke of the three “Bs” of church growth in America — Boats and immigration the number one growth factor in years past; Bank accounts, where it once made sense for those with wealth and power to move one rung up the ladder to join mainline churches; and Babies once a social trend more favoring mainline churches.

“What about beliefs? How much have they mattered?” Lose asked. As the world became more pluralistic, Lose said mainline churches and evangelicals made different choices. “Mainline churches were more cosmopolitan and welcomed diversity, tolerance (acceptance), using the means of education,” he said. “They taught about different religions and how to respect them. In the crowded marketplace of stories we did not focus on our stories and devoted more energy to the stories of others. We thought our children would just pick up on our stories. It was not the case.” Evangelicals saw pluralism as threatening and isolationist. Their four spirit laws produced a strict code of beliefs and what not to believe. For example, Evangelicals have a clear belief in the baptism of adults and cite scripture regarding the practice. We lost because of a different approach, Lose said.

“We need to have some reconsiderations, a reframing, to be able to step back,” Lose said. He referenced the concept of Gestalt pictures, which feature two images, only one of which can be seen at a time. We need to be open to both images.

Lose discussed three phases of institutional growth — the emergent/inventive phase where an organization is open to experimentation, loose affiliations, fluid identity, not knowing where one is going; the performative phase with competent performance, defined partnerships, regulatory structures, a stable identity, and steady growth; and the reactive phase where things are not working as well despite efforts to work harder and do better with an attendant desire to go back to the core of things and what used to work. “In this phase you don’t worry about partnerships and regulation,” he said. “You get a defensive identity and nostalgia. You define yourself by what you are not and with it comes declining growth. We become led by fear. There is danger in nostalgia and longing for a past that never really happened, comparing the past to the present unfavorably.”

When churches enter the reactive phase, Lose said the only real choice “is to give up what you are doing and go back to being experimental. You have to be willing to fail. The idea of failure is frightening because it means moving beyond the lines and boundaries.”

He used the illustration of “Moneyball,” where in the world of baseball, inventive general manager Billy Bean used alternative thinking in an unfair baseball marketplace to bring success to a small market baseball team.

“Consider saying, ‘I don’t know…’” Lose ventured. ”Issue an invitation, ‘What do you think?’” to people around you in your church and community. The inability of leaders to comment that they don’t know deprives people of a chance to learn. We need to ask (our neighbors) ‘What do you need from the church? What might we do to equip you to live your lives better?’ We need to get outside of our churches and ask others what we can do together. We need to be talking to shopkeepers and school principals, asking ‘What can we do? What is it that the community needs that if the church closed you could really miss what we might have done together? Our dream is having you as a partner.’” Lose mentioned that many potential community partners or groups “might kill to have available to them your church space that otherwise stands empty during the week.”

Lose said church leaders may need to reconsider the problem. “For most, God is no longer the primary actor in the story of their lives. They may believe in God,” Lose said, “but they do not see God as the primary actor.” In such a reconsideration, Lose said leaders need to be ready and willing to cultivate biblical imagination using such ideas as “Be subject to one another.”

“Such imagining takes practice,” he said. The phrase in the 23rd Psalm, “I shall not want,” can be used imaginatively to counter the world’s advertising “that makes you want to want 24 hours a day, makes you think you don’t have enough when we have more than enough for us and around us.”

A key question is to consider what such biblical passages look like in connection with real, everyday life.

“The bad news is there is no playbook for this entrepreneurial approach to doing church,” Lose said. “The good news is there is no playbook. You do not need to conform to the models that have been passed onto you. You are free to color outside the lines.”

He urged pastoral and other leaders in the audience to discourage being judged by how well they themselves perform, rather focusing on “how much better off your congregation is by how you have served it, perhaps doing something you never thought you could do as a church. Be willing to stand back and give thanks to God for what happens, and remember our faith has taught us no matter what happens death does not have the last word.”

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