My Grandfather’s Church

(from Pr. Preus) Apparently I’m not the only one who wants to see my grandfather’s church when I go to services on Sunday morning. Reginald Bibby does too. Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. For almost 40 years he has been monitoring social trends in Canada through a series of well-known national surveys of adults and young people. We trust that our friends to the north are not too different from those who live in the United States.


Bibby says, “A common impression about the attendance drop-off in the post 1960s is that it was associated with millions of Canadians jettisoning their respective religious groups….To use the language of the market model, those who wanted to have their religious spiritual needs met were said to be spending time browsing in an array of ‘meaning malls’ and ‘spiritual marketplaces.’ Allegedly their consumer choices were determined primarily by their personal tastes and whims. In such an environment, people were seen as having little or no regard for the religions of their parents and grandparents. Those, after all, were the ‘old time religions.’ This was a new day – a day of individualism, freedom and post denominationalism. Bring on the competition, New movements, New age, and all” (Reginald Bibby, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (Novalis/St. Paul University Toronto, 2004) 34.).


In order to meet the felt needs of these disillusioned dechurched masses the mainline churches and their church growth gurus (Bibby names Lyle Schaller and Robert Wuthnow) began to “propagate the idea that there has been a sharp decline in the importance being given to religious group loyalties. People are said to be abandoning allegiance to individual Protestant denominations and even to broader religious families such as Protestantism and Catholicism. Congregational gurus tell us that North Americans who continue to want to participate in religious groups are commonly gravitating toward churches that are in touch with their needs and they are showing little concern for denominational and religious family labels” (Bibby, p. 39).


So your grandfather’s church has been changed in deference to these wayward Christians in the hopes that they will like churches without the ecclesiastical accoutrements of their grandparents’ church. Traditional liturgies, vestments, crucifixes, pastors with collars, hymns and even the name Lutheran are abandoned in favor of praise bands, projection screens, congregations named “Living Waters” or “The Alley.” God forbid that people might think that they have entered into a traditional Lutheran church.


But Bibby continues, “The unquestioned eagerness with which religious leaders have bought into such masochistic thinking is quite bewildering” (p. 39).   He then goes on to show statistically that the vast majority of people strongly identify with the church of their parents even if they have left that church. To be specific, 90% of Roman Catholics, 80% of mainline Protestants and 70% of Conservative Protestants (Bibby’s designation of Evangelicals) identify so strongly with their parents’ church that “switching almost amounts to a form of deviant behaviour” (p. 39). Rather, “most are reluctant to wander very far from their religious homes” (p. 35).


So what is the LCMS doing with this data? We are changing our churches to look nothing like our grandfathers’ or parents’ church, virtually guaranteeing that when the dechurched Lutherans return they will not recognize it. By so doing we “fail to capitalize on our advantage, in large part because we fail to realize we have it” (p. 36).


We need to return and look like our grandfathers’ church not just because it was a God-pleasing, vibrant and biblical church but because both the data and a commonsense marketing strategy suggest it.

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