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Fargo Lutheran gathering may draw unhappy members

FARGO -- Fargo will be ground zero for the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ annual gathering, and some of those attending may use it as a way to find a new church that reflects their values.

Of the 600 people registered for the event, which starts Sunday at Atonement Lutheran Church in Fargo, 37 percent are non-members.

Atonement Senior Pastor Dale Wolf said nearly all of those visitors will be from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The LCMC church coalition's gathering comes at a tumultuous point for the ELCA. Last month, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., voted to allow its congregations to call non-celibate gays to serve in the clergy. It also approved a social statement on human sexuality that some see as betraying Biblical teaching against homosexual relationships.

Those decisions led some ELCA members to question if they want to be a part of the denomination's changing philosophies.

The number signed up for the LCMC gathering suggests people could be thinking of making a change.

"We'll have double anything we've had in the past" in terms of total attendance, Wolf said. "That's very telling, especially since nearly 40 percent of them are visitors."

The LCMC describes itself as "an association of confessional evangelical Lutheran congregations." The LCMC was born in 2001 out of the WordAlone Network, an organization that works to bring reform and renewal to the ELCA. Wolf was on the WordAlone board when the LCMC was created. The LCMC now has 226 congregations in nine countries, according to information on its Web site. Congregations can be simultaneously affiliated with the LCMC and ELCA.

LCMC service coordinator Bill Sullivan said "certainly in my lifetime, in my experience in the Lutheran church, there's not been anything like" the upheaval going on in the ELCA since the Churchwide Assembly.

He said before the assembly, if the LCMC Web site had 125 first-time visitors in a week "that was a lot." They now it gets about 2,000 a day, he said.

The leadership of the ELCA "absolutely disregarded ... the clear teaching of Scripture," Sullivan said. "And they disregarded the vast majority of the members of their congregations.

"And now from my perspective and from what I'm seeing and from what I'm hearing and from what I'm observing around the country, it's coming apart at the seams," he said.

The LCMC gathering in Fargo comes less than two weeks after a historic meeting of Lutheran CORE, a group created to work for reform in the ELCA. At its late-September meeting, Lutheran CORE Director Mark Chavez said the group adopted a constitution and took the first step toward creating a free-standing Lutheran synod.

Whether these actions signal a large-scale exodus or are simply a blip on the radar isn't clear at this point.

"What I would say is that congregations are critically taking a look at their denominational affiliation to make sure that they can continue to walk together and still be faithful," Eastern North Dakota Bishop Bill Rindy said when asked if the ELCA was in crisis as a result of the assembly's decisions. "And my sense is that as long as congregations are willing to ask the right questions, they're not in crisis."

The theme of the LCMC gathering will be "The Invitation." The four-day event includes Bible studies, music, a business meeting and speakers.

Among the speakers is Walt Kallestad, senior pastor at Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., and a graduate of Concordia College. His 6,800-member congregation, which was the 10th-largest denomination in the ELCA, recently voted to leave the ELCA.

Also speaking will be Marilee Pierce Dunker, daughter of the founder of the World Vision relief organization. Author Walter Wangerin, Jr. is also scheduled to speak.

The LCMC gathering isn't strictly focused on what's going on in the ELCA. Wolf and Sullivan agree that the LCMC isn't trying to be something separate from the ELCA.

"That's not what we're about. What we're about is we're a like-minded group of Lutheran Christians who are committed to rekindling a passion for the great commission that Jesus gave to his church," Sullivan said. "(W)e've been for something since we started. We've never been a bunch of Lutherans who've been against something."