At the stroke of midnight New Year's Eve, three churches died and another sprang to life, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America legally took life as a merger of three smaller Lutheran bodies.

The formal start of the new church climaxes years of negotiation and effort to bring together under one roof in new Chicago headquarters the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

Washington area Lutherans will celebrate the milestone tomorrow afternoon by installing the Rev. E. Harold Jansen as bishop of the Metropolitan Washington Synod. The service will take place at 3:30 p.m. at St. Pauls Lutheran Church, 36th and Everett streets NW.

Jansen, former bishop of the Eastern District of the American Lutheran Church, was chosen to head the local unit at a convention here last June. Installed with him will be three lay officers of the synod, the 16 members of the Synod Council and six conference deans.

Nationally, church leaders have been winding down the affairs of the merging churches and melding them into the new unit, transferring records and outfitting and staffing the Chicago offices.

The new church, which sprang largely from German and Scandinavian immigrants to this country, has exceeded its own goals in finding blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians to fill staff positions at the new headquarters.

Nonwhites now constitute 13.3 percent of the employes at the Chicago headquarters, including 32 executives and 22 support staff. The church had set a goal of 10 percent nonwhites on staff within its first five years.

Of the new church's staff of 323 persons, 182 are men and 141 women, a church spokesman reported. All but three of the men and 88 of the women hold executive positions, according to a church spokesman.

Not all local congregations of the uniting bodies have gone along with the merger. At least 36 congregations of the American Lutheran Church have moved to dissociate themselves from that body to avoid joining the new church.

But 11 congregations with roots in the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which declined to join in the merger, have taken steps to become part of the new church.

A dozen years ago, a number of theologically moderate churches broke with the more conservative Missouri Synod in a major theological dispute over interpretation of the Bible. These churches formed the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which has become a part of the merged church.