- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007


A woman of quiet faith on most days, Lucille Mills transforms each Sunday into the Rev. CeCee — a foot-stompin’ minister who can match hallelujahs with the best Southern preachers.

Like black ministers across Virginia, she aims to tap the energy of her church and direct it toward worship. But she’s an Evangelical Lutheran, and her tiny Chesapeake church is part of an effort to diversify the overwhelmingly white denomination, so closely identified with its German and Scandinavian roots.

Faced with shrinking membership, the denomination is changing the culture of some of its congregations to attract other ethnicities. In the case of Rejoice Lutheran Church, that means soul revivals and free car washes, urban mentoring programs and vibrant, gospel-infused services.

Miss Mills says most blacks tell her they’re puzzled by the Lutheran tradition. Others imagine stuffy services where freewheeling praise is discouraged. Often, she said, “they think it’s inauthentic — they think it’s for white people.”

Among more than 4 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) estimates that just 1.12 percent of its congregants were black as of 2005 — dismal, leaders say, considering blacks comprise more than 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Overall, membership in the Chicago-based denomination is declining. Between 2004 and 2005, the church lost another 79,000 members around the country, down to 4.85 million. To reverse the trend, leaders have created five outreach plans broken down by ethnicity: African-American, Asian, Latino , American Indian and Mideast/Arab ministries.

“All of the strategies are aimed at making the church reflective of our society,” explained Everett Flanigan, who handles black outreach for the ELCA. “If American society has about 12 percent African-Americans, our goal is that the church will reflect that also.”

Separately, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the ELCA’s conservative cousin, wants to double its modest black membership of 70,000 out of a total of 2.5 million congregants.

“It’s time for us to not just be satisfied with the status quo,” said the Rev. Donald Anthony, who heads black ministries for the Missouri Synod. “The other reality is that if we don’t do something, we will continue to see numbers decline.”

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