As president of the Lutheran World Foundation and Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mark Hanson travels the world and meets countless people on a daily basis. He knows that the face of the world is changing, and is made up of an inexhaustible range of cultures and ideologies. Hanson wants his faith to represent that face.
"Our numbers our dropping and continue to drop," said Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "It's not something we're proud of … we currently have 4.86 million members — they are 10 years older than the average age of the U.S. population and 97 percent of them are white. If we don't look at ourselves and say 'what are we not doing and who are we not becoming?' we are making a mistake."
On Sunday, Oct. 15, Bishop Hanson visited the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean. Hanson was invited to give the congregation a "State of the Church" address as part of its 50th Anniversary celebration. He discussed challenges facing the Lutheran Church today, including diversity and the difficulties of leading a public church in a time of privatized spirituality. Hanson also highlighted the church's fight against poverty and led the 1200 members of the Redeemer Church in a coordinated "STAND UP" effort against global poverty.
Hanson said that his contact with religious and political leaders around the world has only strengthened his resolve to promote interfaith relations as a means for advancing peace and humanitarian actions.
"We have got to be in conversation with each other and I think the U.S. needs to take on a much stronger role," said Hanson.
The Rev. Robert Driver-Bishop, senior pastor at McLean's Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, said he was thrilled with the huge turnout for Hanson's visit.
"It gave people an opportunity to meet this important leader — not only in our church, but in the world — and catch a glimpse of some of the many ministries which we are involved in," said Driver-Bishop, who has known Hanson for many years. "In today's world, it's easy for a church to focus on itself and its own ministries."
HANSON said that he believes American Lutherans must make an effort to have a congregation as diverse as the population of their country.
"I think Lutherans got lazy and we waited for the culture to produce Christians for us," said Hanson. "If Lutherans want to be viable, we don't want to look only like our white European ancestors … we are less than whole when we are 97 percent white."
Hanson added that diversity of backgrounds and beliefs strengthens a congregation.
"We can disagree with each other civilly," said Hanson. "Most Christians only talk to people who think like they do, about people who are not in the room that they think are heretics … I want to be in dynamic congregations that are signs of hope … the task is to see how our diversity enriches us, not divides us."
Hanson emphasized that the pursuit of a diverse congregation is by no means a road to the loss of the Lutheran identity — or "what makes Lutherans, Lutherans." He describes this identity as one that is grounded in the belief that humans are not saved by what they do, but by a merciful and loving God. It is also an identity that is not steeped in Biblical fundamentalism, but rather interprets the Bible in the context of today, and applies those interpretations accordingly. The Lutheran identity is also defined by its pursuit of knowledge.
"As a Lutheran, I have an unrelenting curiosity that never gets satisfied," said Hanson. "We have 28 colleges and universities because we believe to be people of faith is to be curious."
It is for this reason that Hanson will never find himself in the company of fundamentalists.
"They offer a certainty that I just can't get to," said Hanson. "I don't think we should spend time reacting to fundamentalists, I think they've peaked."
Driver-Bishop said Hanson's visit seemed to have a positive impact on the Redeemer congregation.
"It's one thing to see someone on TV, but to actually meet someone and find them so engaging, and so thoughtful, and actually competent and skilled in what they're doing — it instilled a sense of pride in everyone," said Driver-Bishop. "This is a congregation that embraces many of the things he was talking about."
As the new senior pastor Driver-Bishop said that he plans to focus on growth in membership and growth in faith.
"I want the church to continue to do effective ministries in this community and work hard to be a hospitable congregation," said Driver-Bishop.