ELCA In Peril – A Lesson From Stained Glass Windows

A few months ago, I saw on The Lutheran’s website a plea or challenge to offer up new, creative and effective evangelism techniques and strategies. The first thing that came to mind was stained glass windows.

Have you noticed that from the inside, stained glass windows are beautiful, bright, colorful and majestic? Yet, from the outside they are dull, drab, flat and, well, kinda boring.

What is interesting to me about stained glass windows is that they always face inward, almost never do they face out. You have to be on the inside of a church to recognize the beauty and majesty of stained glass, to be able to read the story they are trying to tell. Do you think that maybe, when it comes to evangelism, that we should be finding ways to make our stained glass face outward? (or maybe get rid of the stained glass altogether)

One of my favorite passages from scripture is “The Parable of the 99” from Luke 15:1-7. You know the story. It is the one where one sheep gets lost and the shepherd leaves the 99 to go and find the one. As I re-read the text, I was struck by the latter part when it says that they all rejoiced when the lost sheep was returned.

When it comes to evangelism we as a church, as a congregation, as a group of believers need to take a close look at the 99 and ask ourselves if we truly rejoice as they do in the text. Do we really focus on the one? Are we actually joyful when we focus on the one who is not with ‘us’, the one who is lost?

Take a look at these statistics found from various reports offered by both the Evangelical-LCA and the U.S. Census Bureau:


5,288,048        Evangelical-LCA membership (founding year)

242,288,918    U.S. population

2.18%              Percentage of ELCA members to US population


4,709,956        ELCA membership

295,285,075    U.S. population

1.60%              Percentage of Evangelical-LCA members to US population

In plain English, while the population of the United States of America grew by roughly 53 million people, the Evangelical-LCA actually lost nearly 600,000 members.

It appears that our stained glass windows are continually facing inward, that we (the 99) are not focusing on the lost (the one). It is safe to say that ‘evangelism’ is not our strong suit. The Evangelical-LCA is not very evangelical.

We need to start asking ourselves if we are an ‘evangelical church’, as reflected in our name (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) or if we are a Christian club that exists mostly for those who are already members. For whom do we exist?!?

Bringing back the parable of the 99, think about these thoughts:

Do we as a church really rejoice when the 1 returns to the flock?

Do we support our shepherd when she/he leaves the 99 to look for the lost?

Do we feel left out when the shepherd leaves us behind?

Do we feel jealous when there isn’t a party (rejoicing) for us?

Just ponder that for a while…

While pondering, keeping those questions fresh in your mind, add to them the following concepts in the Lutheran church.



Worship Styles

Job Descriptions


Stained Glass

Worship Books



Parish Nurses

It may or may not have dawned on you that most of our energies and money (as a church) are spent on the 99 and not the 1. Our organs, our hymnals, and our stained glass windows represent hundreds of thousands of dollars; dollars that are spent on the comfort of and ministry to those who have already heard the Good News, people who are already Lutheran Christians, people who are already a part of the flock, the 99.

I was recently surfing church websites. I was looking for former seminary classmates, browsing through staff lists and I noticed something. I noticed an employment/ministry position that is a part of many church leadership teams…the Parish Nurse. In light of the lost sheep, who benefits from the duties of this ministry position? Do they offer service to the community at large? Or only to church members? How is their time spent and who is it spent on?

My point is this. When I read in The Lutheran that someone was interested in tips and programs that “work” for evangelism… I lost it. We need to face the cold, harsh reality that Lutherans are not very good at evangelism. Take a look at the budget, staffing, mission statement, job descriptions, and strategic plan of your church. For whom are most of your energies and resources spent?

We spend most of our money on pleasing (okay, ministering to) people that already go to church, people that already have heard the gospel. We spend time and money on hymnals that only mean something to people who grew up in the Lutheran church. We spend money on organs and organists to provide music for people who most likely already go to church and therefore have already heard the Good News. Tell the truth, if you were tasked with spreading the Gospel to the un-churched, how many of you would make your second biggest expense an organ (your building is probably #1)? Is this a music tool that will assist in fostering a relationship with Jesus among those who do not yet know Him? How about the hymnals?

PLEASE don’t get me wrong! Tradition, Heritage, Identity, History, Customs, and Music are incredibly important things. I am a classically trained musician. I love the organ when it is played well. However, that instrument isn’t the only one that can bring glory to God. Hymnody isn’t the only musical style that God or God’s people favor. And in order to go away from the 99 to find the 1, maybe we should find new ways to make our stained glass windows face outward to the world and tell the story to those who do not yet know the love of God.

If we don’t, the very tradition that we are so clearly trying to save, will most certainly die along with our unique perspective on the Gospel. Christianity however, will go on without us.

2 thoughts on “ELCA In Peril – A Lesson From Stained Glass Windows

  1. Dear Rob,
    You have hit a nerve with me that runs from my brain to my heart. I feel as you do. I am an LC-MS Lutheran and we have a similar problem with loss of membership. However, it is not anything to do with ornate windows or altars is it. It is the rampant apathy that runs throughout Christianity. The churches that express more emphasis on “the theology of glory” than “the theology of the cross” seemingly are thriving and the later is suffering. Well, I content that this is because the enthusiasm for the cross of Christ has waned. We have become a church of Laodceans. We are about to be vomited out of the mouth of Jesus (Rev. 3:21). We Lutheran’s are so concerned with our own piety and religious habits and traditions that our vision is clouded. We only see those that come in the front door with wonderment and curiousity. We question, “who is that?” Or we surmise, “that must be so and so’s cousin”. We never initiate conversation and especially if the “visitor” is not dressed in “Sunday go to meetin'”clothes. We have allowed evangelizing to become “too embarassing” or awkward to perform. We have let our feelings for ourselves set precidence for our actions. How does the visitor feel? Or, how does your neighbor feel about your display of your belief? That is the questions that should surface first, but they do not! We allow visitation through the front door, but like an unwanted and surprise visit from a long lost relative, we are axious for the awkward moment to be over. Only to lose the folks to another church, hopefully, but normally lost to the secular folks.

    Our front doors seem to open and maybe even delightfully welcoming. But what about our back doors. There are folks out there that are simply not familiar with church or are embarrassed or fearful of approaching a church no matter how inviting the appearance may be at the entrance. We need to make our churches more inviting. Like our home is to a friend. We allow our friends to become aquainted with our house. Enough so that they are comfortable to enter at either door. To make the back door as attractive as the front we must first have methods of building a relationship. We must introduce ourselves to folks. Not by thumping a bible over their heads. Not by false flattery or by extending a handshake. This is all presumptuous and frankly transparent. If anything is to be transparent, it should be our love of our fellow man and our love for Christ. Do we extend our helping hand enough? Do we do it because we feel moved or do we do it because we feel obligatged by some other churches gifts? Or, worse yet, do we neglect the situation all together?

    A method I find very refreshing and easy to do is to see a home in disrepair in my neighborhood. I will knock on the door, introduce myself as a handyman and that I am willing, free of charge, to fix that fence gate, or that drooping garage door. Maybe you can offer to rake the lawn or mow it. Maybe you can bring some annuals to plant in a flower garden for them. Something simple, costing little and forget the fact that you go to this or that church “here in town”. Let that be another time or let the folks themselves bring that up. Then comes the follow-up. This can be done with a simple thank you card for allowing you to help out. It can be a simple phone call asking how the flowers are doing or if there may be something else you could do for them. Let God work through you and not because of you. Let God lead the sheep to still waters, you can guide them after God has done his work in the Holy Spirit. Nothing turns off people more than forceful piety and false flattery. Do not place yourself in a position that can cause some sort of philosophical or stigmantic reaction. You know, “So you are one of those?” of “I’ve seen your kind before.” If we truly want people to come to Christ we must display a Christ-like life. Christ did not tell people what was wrong with them. He did not display His diety forcefully or outwardly. He was always gracious, kind, and gentle to those who sought Him. If he would have been tyrannical or overbearing, he would have sided with the Pharisees whom he criticized. Christians are, by definition, “little Christs”. We are all called as ministers of Christ to bring the goodness of God and the mysteries of God into the light of the world.

    Your comment on traditions and such is spot-on. Although important, it is not so important that we lose perspective. Jesus used different signs for different events and people. His tact was not in his miracles as such, but in the fact that he made people aware of his ability to adapt to any situation in the same traditions of kindness, love, and mercy. His power to heal, gain sight, bring the water and manna, was manifested in His ability to show his traditional side yet achieve what was needed by different methodology. He taught in metaphors and hyperbole. Sometimes he spoke to crowds and sometimes to individuals. Sometimes he became angry and sometimes he was not. Sometimes He called on scripture and sometimes he made scripture. Jesus adapted to each situation and became a Savior through the grace of His Father. That grace is what needs to shine as the light of our life. We need to remain humble, gentle, and gracious for what God has bestowed on us as gifts and abundance. Every person on the earth is a creator of God. We are all equalin His eyes.

    One note of adice when attempting to evangelize. Despite your greatest efforts, sometimes you are the bug and sometimes you are the winshield. Don’t be offended if you do not find some folks welcoming. Just pray for them and know that God is at work in all places and in all circumstances.

    So, Rob, how do we get this attitude of apathy thwarted and start an enthusiam for Christ that will rival that enthusiasm America has for, let’s say, money or the fanaticism that exists in sports. Do you think Christians could do that? I do, but it is going to take some innovation and humbleness from the ivory towers in which the clergy and laity live on Sunday mornings. Thanks and May the Triune God grant you His grace and peace always, Steve


  2. great metaphor Rob. We have inside out view of being the church. Instead enjoying community as the byproduct being in the body of Christ whose work is for the sake of the world we think the body of Christ is for our sake.


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