Bishop Rimbo is getting creative. Leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s New York diocese since 2008, Robert Alan Rimbo has seen 20 percent of his flock depart over the last decade. Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports, his churches are advertising with giant crossword puzzles in the subway and touting “interactive art projects involving dye-filled soap bubbles.” One congregation “encourages churchgoers to use paint and clay to tell personal stories and ‘unleash your theological imagination’ as part of a twice-monthly art service.”
And, yes, Bishop Rimbo will conduct his first same-sex union in June, although his “conversion” on the issue occurred long ago in the 1980s. The ELCA voted in 2009 to permit same-sex rites, and although the article doesn’t mention it, ELCA membership losses thereafter accelerated. “The younger demographic wants a religion that won’t divide,” he explains, apparently believing that same-sex unions have been broadly unifying.
Over half of New Yorkers are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the city hosts many thriving immigrant churches, Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic, but Bishop Rimbo’s focusat least in this profileis on the white middle class, the traditional constituency for mainline churches. (The bishop mentions the 2009 vote on same-sex unions that persuaded several conservative Asian congregations to quit the ELCA in New York.)
There are many urban churches in New York and elsewhere successful with that group, especially the young professionals Rimbo thinks will approve of his impending same-sex union. Tim Keller of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is famous for his Redeemer Church in Manhattan, which with its various church plants has attracted thousands of members. He remains conservative on theology and sex while admitting that many of his urban church attenders are socially liberal.
I have noticed this phenomenon in the vibrant churches of Washington, DC that attract young people. The churches, most of them founded over the last decade or so, are conservative, typically Anglican, PCA, Assemblies of God, or Reformed. Many of their young congregants, mostly new to the city and living in hip, newly gentrified neighborhoods, are socially liberal. Yet these young social liberals are not attending the dozens of theologically liberal old line Protestant churches in DC whose beautiful sanctuaries are typically half or more empty with disproportionately old congregants on Sunday morning. These churches tout their openness to same-sex marriage as the supposed siren call for youngsters, largely without effect.
Why? I conjecture that even young social liberals desiring to worship prefer churches with spiritual vitality that profess a transcendent message challenging their own worldly preferences. In other words, these young people aren’t that much different from other spiritual seekers almost everywhere who, consciously or not, cleave to a faith that demands rather than accommodates.
Reaching New Yorkers is far from impossible. In 2010 the Barna Group polling firm found that 46 percent of New York area residents reported attending worship services, up from 31 percent in 2000. Yet differences between churches, in New York and nationally, matter. The Wall Street Journal glosses over this, saying “most Protestant religions” are declining, citing “Anglicans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals and Presbyterians,” which have dropped “drastically since the 1980s.”
The statement is a muddle. Old line Protestants, like Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, have suffered steep decline since the 1960s. Pentecostals, like the Assemblies of God, continue to grow. “Anglicans,” having only emerged as a separate entity over the last decade by quitting the Episcopal Church, are growing. Southern Baptists were growing until the last decade.
So Bishop Rimbo’s crossword puzzles, dye-filled soap bubbles, and paint and clay expressionism are unlikely to revive New York Lutheranism. Ironically, there are some signs here and there that the sort of traditional Protestant liturgicalism that Lutherans once exemplified is increasingly attractiveespecially to urban Evangelicals searching for theological roots deeper than those often found in generic Evangelicalism.
If Bishop Rimbo were willing to postpone his same-sex rite and experiment instead with theological orthodoxy, he might be surprised by the result. He might even preside over a Lutheran revival in New York.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.