President Matthew Harrison of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod speaks about 40 years of declining membership in the synod. In his President’s Report, 2016 Convention Workbook, pp. 2-3, he presents information from several demographic studies. As he says, the demographic information dispels myths with facts.
An important piece of the demographic information is that Missouri Lutherans do not have children at even the replacement rate of 2.1 per family. Marriage is delayed. Having children is delayed. The number of children is reduced. He mentions prioritization of education, the expenses of having children, and the strain of debt among the contributing factors.
Some have criticized President Harrison’s use of this kind of information saying, for example, that it is just an excuse. I am not in that camp. These facts are real, and we need to change them.
But once I have said that this demographic analysis has validity (not necessarily to the exclusion of other complementary analyses), then I must realize what goes along with that. I must face what is part and parcel of ascribing validity to the low birth rate. I must face the other demographic fact, our high death rate. Low birth rate, and high death rate.
Our high death rate is not marked by the number of funerals in the synod. Our high death rate goes unmarked.
Three pastors got together for coffee one day and found all their churches had bat-infestation problems. “I got so mad,” said one, “I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling, but did nothing to the bats.” “I tried trapping them alive,” said the second. “Then I drove 50 miles before releasing them, but they beat me back to the church.” “I haven’t had any more problems,” said the third. “What did you do?” asked the others, amazed. “I simply baptized and confirmed them,” he replied. “I haven’t seen them since.” Reader’s Digest, July, 1994, p. 64.
We do not retain our own children in the faith at a sufficient rate to even go sideways, let alone ahead, and we don’t count the deaths by apostasy.
I see nothing reported from the demographic studies about the number of children we confirm who then depart the faith. In the 6 points of concentration to address our losses mentioned in President Harrison’s report, I don’t see one that addresses the internal weakness of defections by our offspring.
Don’t inject tone into these declarations that I did not put there. I support everything President Harrison said in the report about this. I just want to see one more thing added.
Strong outreach is dependent on strong inreach. We can’t give away what we don’t have. The shortest and simplest confession of our Christian faith is the six chief parts of Christian doctrine in the Small Catechism. If we do not have a grip on this in the family and in the congregation, our outreach to the community will be weak.
The one thing I want added is to strengthen our inreach with the Catechism in the family and in the congregation for their own sakes, and then for the sake of outreach to the community.
What man who cannot so much as read the Ten Commandments and Dr. Luther’s explanation of them to his 7 and 9 year old children is likely to be outgoing to his coworkers, neighbors, and friends when his vocation presents him with opportunity to give an account of the reason for the hope that lies within him? Sure, some here and some there might, but how many are likely to do so?
What’s the hang-up? Why can’t he read that to them? Are his children so intimidating? Is the material so complex? Has he too little time for something that takes about 3.5 minutes to read? Are his coworkers, neighbors, and friends less intimidating for a religious conversation than his children are? Would the discussion with adults be less complex than with children? Does he have more time for them than he has for his children?
Why don’t we know the rate of heads of families who teach the Catechism in the home? Where are our demographics on that?
How do our children view the Catechism? For that matter, how do our adults view it? Was it a stage we had to get through to be confirmed? Is it something for children, but not adults? Is it information, not a confession and not a prayer?
Unless we think outreach should begin with saying something outside the six chief parts of Christian doctrine, outreach should share what the Small Catechism teaches. When we are vague and faint on the Catechism, that debilitates outreach.
We are vague and faint on it because heads of families are not teaching it at home in sufficient numbers. We are vague and faint on it because at the church, we give the appearance that after a class of confirmands is confirmed, stick a fork in those potatoes, they’re done.
There are bright spots. For example, my former pastor used the Small Catechism as responsive reading during the Divine Service. It is remarkably suitable as a responsive reading. This showed everyone that the Catechism is for all ages, and can be confessed as an act of worship.
For another example, my current pastor, upon his arrival, immediately instituted Catechism review class on Wednesday evenings.
For another example, on Palm Sunday this year I visited at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Pensacola, Florida and attended the adult class between the services. The class was studying through Acts. Although the class material for that Sunday was in a chapter of Acts, after the Invocation and opening prayer, the class began with the pastor leading everyone reading aloud one of the six chief parts of Christian doctrine from copies of the Catechism that were placed on the tables at every seat.
There are lots of things like that we can do for inreach with the Catechism in the congregation. If we have strong inreach in the congregation and strong inreach in the family at home, two things can happen:
- We can become convinced that the Small Catechism is a prime tool for outreach to the community.
- Being strong in the Catechism, we can be strong in outreach.
The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod needs to get more in gear in evangelism and outreach. While much of this is done through the pastoral office, pastoral preaching and teaching, the Divine Service, and the Sacraments, a necessary part of this belongs to lay Christians in their vocations.
For lay outreach, we have a tremendous advantage. Unlike so many Christian denominations, Lutherans have this outstanding tool, this gift Christ gave to us through Dr. Luther, his Small Catechism. This Catechism has so many virtues that distinguish it from any other catechism. These virtues make it effective everywhere. It is effective in the home. It is effective in the congregation. It is effective in the community.
Look how simple and unifying using the Catechism everywhere could be. Want inreach in the home? Small Catechism. Want inreach in the congregation? Small Catechism. Want outreach to the community? Small Catechism.
Yes, to be sure, there are other resources. Many of them have virtues. Many of them can be effective. But let’s face it. If we can’t be strong with the Catechism, how likely are we to be strong with additional things? If we want to use additional things, first be strong in the Catechism, and then, fine, use those other things too. But why give up the advantage of a simple, unifying approach?
How long should it be before that coworker I invited to my church encounters the Small Catechism? How long should he continue his exploratory attendance before he is presented the six chief parts of Christian doctrine?
For outreach, we need to get the Small Catechism woven into everything we are doing.