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A reach to diversify by Evangelical Lutherans

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

RICHMOND, Va. - A woman of quiet faith on most days, Lucille Mills transforms each Sunday into the Rev. CeCee - a foot-stomping 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 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.

The denomination's goals are ambitious and there are many obstacles to overcome. Mills says most blacks tell her they are puzzled by the Lutheran tradition, and often mistake it for Roman Catholicism. Others imagine stuffy services where freewheeling praise is discouraged.

Often, she said, "they think it's inauthentic. They think it's for white people."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) estimates that, of its four million members, just slightly more than 1 percent were African American as of 2005 - dismal, leaders say, considering that blacks constitute more than 12 percent of the population.

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

"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, less than 3 percent of its 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."

Evangelical Lutheran leaders organized Rejoice Lutheran Church in 2001 as the denomination tried to boost its presence in Virginia's Hampton Roads area, said the Rev. Paul Gunsten, a bishop's assistant for the ELCA's Virginia Synod, or district.

Soon after, national church leaders launched a large-scale diversity effort; for 2007, the denomination has planned about two dozen minority-specific campaigns, congregations where membership is intended to come mostly from historically under-represented ethnic groups.

Already ethnically diverse and nestled in a minority-rich area full of potential members, Rejoice Lutheran Church seemed like a good fit for the program. The church will get funding and training in areas such as incorporating music that meshes with the spirit and culture of the worshipers.

Raised in a North Carolina Evangelical Lutheran church, Mills said she enjoyed ethnic staples like hand clapping and rhythmic preaching. She brought those things to Rejoice.

For black visitors, however, it hasn't been enough.

"They came. They said they enjoyed it," she said. "But none of them stayed."

For minorities, the church's heritage - reflected in everything from Sunday services to church dinners - can seem alien.

"We would serve the German sausages," Gunsten said. "Food, like faith understanding, like liturgical practice ... it can be perceived as a barrier."

But segregated Sunday worship may be the biggest hurdle, said Valerie Cooper, a University of Virginia professor who specializes in African American faith. Nearly all churches in the United States serve a single ethnic group.

Cooper, who is black, recalled visiting a white church in North Carolina one Easter.

"Every seat was taken - except the seat next to me," Cooper said, adding that fear of similar experiences may keep blacks at historically black Baptist and other churches, popularized during slavery for their similarities to dynamic, African religious traditions.

She said Lutheran leaders will have to highlight the black churchgoers they already have - both in the pews and at the pulpit - to convince other blacks there's a place for them.