- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

The new leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said yesterday that the terrorist attack has deepened the nation's spiritual search, and united his own denomination.

"There's no doubt that the church has come together as well," said Bishop Mark S. Hanson, who Saturday will be installed for a six-year term as head of the 5.1 million-member denomination.

For all Americans, he said: "Those who have been living comfortably, and perhaps unreflectively, are now looking deeper. I hope we can sustain that, but it will be a challenge."

The installation of Bishop Hanson, a Minnesotan and the son of a Lutheran evangelist, will draw national church leaders to the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the nation's fifth-largest church body, is also second largest in the so-called Protestant mainline.

But it also is a "bridge point" in the mainline because it has "full communion" with five other churches that allows them all to exchange ministers and share sacraments.

Together with the ELCA, Bishop Hanson said, mainline Protestants may be better able to attack the challenge of reviving missionary zeal, keeping young people, and increasing black, Hispanic and Asian membership.

At age 54, Bishop Hanson is the youngest presiding bishop of the ELCA, and if re-elected to a second term he would be leading the group through 2013.

"One of my other challenges is leadership development," he said, referring to a clergy shortage. Nearly 20 percent of the 11,000 ELCA congregations lack a full-time pastor.

"My first two years are going to be spent going around the church and listening," he said.

But he also has a national research department he will be "talking to a lot."

The bishop's other priorities will include helping adults rear Christian children and grandchildren in the home, where television and non-Christian culture now compete.

"In the past, we let the culture create Christians for us, but now Lutheran Christians must learn to be more invitational in their faith," he said.

"Our fastest-growing churches are using worship styles that are not traditionally Lutheran," he said.

He is open to that, he said, as long as churches keep the core of "word and sacrament," or Gospel preaching and Holy Communion.

He also hopes the ELCA will expand its already generous charity and relief agency work to think more about America's financial and cultural influence on the developing world.

That interest has grown, he said, as more ELCA congregations have "sister churches" in different parts of the world.

Bishop Hanson was elected with 51 percent of the vote at the August convention, and was viewed as the more liberal candidate.

He said he is fully behind a new four-year ELCA study on participation of homosexuals in the church, but added, "That isn't going to overshadow so many other important goals we have."

Despite his narrow election, he feels great personal support from the church amid the national anxiety and counts on his two years of local visits to build on that base.

Meanwhile, the terrorism crisis has prompted many ELCA congregations to join interfaith events, especially with local Muslims.

"We Christians are being put in a more active interfaith situation," Bishop Hanson said.

"I think this kind of pluralism helps strengthen our own beliefs. Hopefully, we will have an opportunity for a lively exchange."

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