I remember learning in high school about John D. Rockefeller and how he created a monopoly in the oil business through “vertical integration.” Vertical integration is one of those phrases you have to learn for a vocabulary test and then never have to know again, but I think it’s worth knowing about as we think about where our church has been and where we’re trying to go.
By 1911, Standard Oil controlled 85% of the US Oil industry. Notice: Standard didn’t own 85% of just the oil, but the whole industry… mineral rights, pipelines, refineries, gas stations and every other part of the industry from the beginning of production to the moment a consumer made a purchase. By owning every part of the business, Rockefeller could control supply, driving up demand whenever he felt like it. By being so large, he could squeeze out competition and become “too large to fail” (to use a 21st century term).
There was a time not so long ago when individual churches tried to behave like a vertically integrated monopoly, becoming so large and independent that they wouldn’t need anyone else. Dominate the “religious marketplace” and squeeze out the ‘competition’ as though churches are playing a zero sum game. In this model, ‘membership’ at a church meant you never stepped foot in another church building… unless it was for a funeral or a wedding (maybe).
The religious world has changed a lot in the last 20 years, though. Although still important, the building and the programs have waned in importance. Generation X, Y, millenials and Generation Z don’t care about the denomination name or doctrine as much as how a church’s beliefs shape their actions. Who do you welcome? Who do you serve? Who gets to lead? How can I contribute?
Providing opportunities for hundreds of people to serve, lead or contribute their gifts is a challenge. And to do so, thriving churches in 2018 build and maintain robust partnerships. First Lutheran has been developing partnerships for many years. The most obvious and longstanding is the place we have within the La Crosse Area Synod of the ELCA. Nearly 10% of First Lutheran receipts are passed on to the work of our synod, which passes on 50% of its receipts to the Churchwide Unit of the ELCA. These are monies that support Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (for almost 80 years!), Lutheran Disaster Response, seminaries, missionaries and so much more. But just in the last 10-15 years, First’s role within our synod has changed as we have claimed stronger partnership with our local Campus Ministry that serves UW-L, Viterbo and Western. We are also more closely tied to Sugar Creek Bible Camp and Lutheran Social Services. Serving college kids, summer campers and those who are most vulnerable has always been important to First Lutheran. But in the last decade or so, we have increased our giving and presence within these ministries.
At our annual synod assembly in June our synod formally established a companion relationship with the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, which is in addition to the companion relationship we already have with the Lutheran Church of Peru and the domestic companions we share ministry with in the Southeastern synod of the ELCA, which covers Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee. These invaluable partnerships broaden our understanding of Christ’s presence and work amongst God’s people.
Our First Teen Clothes Closet has partnered locally with what is now the La Crosse Foundation for the last three years so that we can provide shoes, hygiene products and new underwear for youth who need them. We have also been collaborating in important ways with other clothes closets at Trinity on the northside and Our Savior’s downtown. As our lead volunteers assess the status of our clothes closet, they have recommended (which the Vision and Leadership Team approved in June) a move: let’s bring the Teen Clothes Closet to the people who need it rather than asking them to bring themselves to us. The aforementioned Trinity Lutheran has its own kids clothes closet and has the space to spare for our teen clothes as well. Building on this partnership, then, we will be using the next couple of months to relocate our Teen Clothes Closet ministry to Trinity in hopes that more teens will make use of the generosity of our members. Nothing else really will change as our members will still contribute and sort clothes, receive clients and manage the publicity. The only difference will be where it all takes place.
First Lutheran is changing lives, but not just while our members are gathered in our walls. And not just within these walls! Through many partnerships, our work extends into places of need locally, regionally and globally. We won’t even attempt to create an institution that doesn’t need anyone else in order to thrive. Instead, First Lutheran will stand with others who seek to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made and work for justice and peace.”