RANCHO PENASQUITOS, Calif. Alarmed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decade-long progression to the left, Peñasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, Calif. voted in July to leave the denominationweeks before its leadership voted Aug. 21 to allow practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy.
"We wanted to make our separation known in advance of the convention so they would see this wasn't just a knee-jerk decision over one issue, one experience," said senior pastor Jerald Borgie. "There was a whole series of things building over time."
The spiritual head of a congregation that numbers 800 in weekend attendance said the withdrawal from the denomination began more than 10 years ago when he said church structure and ideology began to supplant Scripture.
"It's just relentless, push, push, push," the pastor said.
The latest ECLA decision, approved by a vote of 559-451, still allows each congregation to choose for itself whether to call a gay pastor.
Although the issue of homosexuality has been a major issue in recent years, Borgie said many pastors became alarmed as early as 1996 when the denomination entered a covenant agreement with the Episcopal Church. Other concerns include ecumenical agreements not in accord with the Word, the decline in global missions and new church starts, and the influence of universalism.
"We needed to get together and plan what we were going to do in a united front," Borgie said of the launching of WordAlone, a network of like-minded congregations whose desire was to work toward what Borgie described as the "refreshing and renewing of the church that we thought was pretty much going downhill in turning to the left."
When those efforts failed to materialize, the conservative church leaders decided to align in a more formal manner to provide accountability and support. The birth of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, he said, offered the Bible-believing churches an opportunity for dual affiliation.
The LCMC now numbers more than 200 congregations, some still affiliated with the ELCA. More are expected to join in the wake of the ELCA's recent decisions.
"Congregations are now making these decisions every month," he said, adding that other churches in the region have sought his expertise in how they might proceed in leaving the denomination.
"There is great interest in our (LCMC's) October convention," he said.
Although the defection numbers are small compared to the national numbers, Borgie said that the largest congregation in each of six states, including the western states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico, have revoked their affiliation with ELCA Minnesota has 24 congregations that have joined LCMC.
"It's not just rural, small churches," he said.
According to denominational numbers released in mid-August, baptized members in the ECLA dropped by 76,069 for a total of 4,633,887, with 10,396 congregations, 52 fewer than the year before. The numbers mirror a consistent drop since the denomination was founded in 1988 with the merger of Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Statistics compiled by the denomination's Office of the Secretary show that membership has dropped 12.37 percent since its founding membership of 5,288,048, with losses in each year but two.
It's also lost churches. With its start in 1988 the church had 11,133 congregations, while the 2008 numbers show just 10,721, a decrease of 3.7 percent.
The San Diego pastor said he believes many Lutherans don't understand the wide-sweeping concerns over the proper place of Scripture among conservatives. Many Lutherans, he said, are simply not involved in denominational issues.
"All they know about what's going on at the national level depends on the pastor and what he would tell them," he said. "In many ways the pastors are the gatekeepers. Some are reluctant (to leave). They don't agree with the direction the church is going, but think it's too much work, too much of a hassle."
Some exiting churches will have issues about property ownership if they leave the denomination, but Borgie said the Rancho Peñasquitos church has maintained ownership of its own property since before the ELCA merger.
Over the years, Borgie said he's shared his heart with the congregation and is excited that extra layers of administration that govern the ELCA synods has been eliminated, saying there is freedom in the lack of hierarchy, while still maintaining accountability. He also said there is better stewardship, which is opening up more resources for global church outreach, a personal passion that the pastor said has been lost as church leaders push other agendas.
In establishing the LCMC, Borgie said the organization deliberately left out the words American and United States in its name because its focus is on the global church. Member congregations include churches in Russia, Cambodia and Vietnam, among others.
His own church has caught that vision, he said, with members recently doing short-term work in Jamaica, Honduras, Cambodia, India and Baja California. The church is also in the process of launching a satellite congregation in San Diego that is located in the "shadow of a new mosque."
"There has been a wave of excitement in the past 18 months," he said. "Missions has jumped to the forefront.
"I think we are just the tip of the Spirit here. I think a lot of good things are going to happen. I think the Holy Spirit was saying to us, 'I am making something new. We are not going to put new wine in old skins.'"
For more information on to Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ go to www.lcmc.net