What’s Wrong with LCMS Congregations?

Nothing is “wrong” with 99% of the congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod! That means one of out of a hundred might have a significant problem. Nothing is “wrong” with 98% of the pastors that serve this church! That means one out of fifty pastors might have a significant problem. These are my observations after nearly thirty years in the LCMS pastoral ministry. Those are actually pretty good percentages, compared to any other industry or institution. Yet ever since I have been in the ministry, we have been led to believe by some synodical “leaders” that something is “wrong” with nearly all of our congregations, because most aren’t “growing.”

When the laymen in LCMS congregations hear these synodical leaders, or the recommended consultants, and then do some “navel-gazing,” they conclude it can’t be their fault, so it must be their pastor—and out he goes! I have witnessed far too many situations like this. And the results are predictable. The next pastor either proves to be just like the previous, which is no “improvement—and out he goes. Or the new guy “turns over all the apple carts” and scares away the best and the brightest laymen in his congregation, with the net result being real decline—and out he goes too, soon enough.

More and more LCMS congregations are seeing “revolving door ministries,” i.e., pastors who only stay a year or two because they don’t “grow their church,” which only aggravates the decline in membership. The Lutheran way of being the church requires pastors with long tenure in the parish, since the chief pastoral function of privatseelsorge requires years of getting to know people and earning their trust. The bad counsel of some synodical “leaders” is, in fact, accelerating the numerical decline of our congregations and is the direct cause of bad morale all around.

What, then, is the true story about numerical decline and what’s “wrong” with LCMS congregations?

The June 2012 issue of Christianity Today has a short article titled “Mainline Conservative’s Dilemma” (see page 7). It reports on a study conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The study proves that in the matter of growth “it’s the denomination’s theology that tends to matter, not the congregation’s. Churches in evangelical [i.e., conservative] denominations are more than twice as likely to grow as churches in mainline [i.e., liberal] denominations, but within those denominations theological orientation doesn’t have much effect.” This presents a dilemma for conservative congregations and conservative pastors who are members of liberal denominations; but is encouraging news for churches like the LCMS. It also confirms the results of the 1970’s study by Dean M. Kelly titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is a conservative denomination and is defined by many as an “evangelical” one. Why, then, as Gerald Kieschnick argued, has it “experienced a slow but steady decline in numbers of members of our 6,160 congregations” (Gerald Kieschnick, Waking the Sleeping Giant: The Birth, Growth, Decline, and Rebirth of an American Church [St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009], 16)? The causes are complex, and cannot be reduced to one or two factors. But, let me say up front, there is nothing “wrong” with 99% of our LCMS congregations, in spite of what our so-called “church growth” experts tell us. Those “experts” are simply wrong and/or incompetent.

LCMS “church growth” experts will typically point to the change in baptized membership in the LCMS from 1971 to the present (latest statistics are from 2010). In 1971 we had 2,886,207 baptized, the highest number for that statistic on record, and in 2010 we had 2,278,586 baptized. That is a loss of 607,621 members in about 40 years. It is a loss of 21% of the members we had in 1971; or a loss of about half of one percent per year. That is a significant figure, but numbers don’t give explanations for why these things happen. Let me give just four factors that explain this decline; admitting that there are many more that could be considered.

The first, and most obvious, explanation for this statistic is that LCMS membership peaked in 1971, because that was the last year of the United States’ demographic “baby boom.” One way of explaining LCMS growth from 1947 (1,567,453 members) to 1971 (2,886,207 members) was that it was caused by the abnormal “baby boom.” Once the “baby boom” stopped, the denomination started shrinking back to its “normal size,” due to normal and unavoidable factors of attrition.

The second, and usually unmentioned, explanation for the 1971-2010 decline statistic is that the LCMS was hurt significantly by the “Seminex” walkout and the resulting exit of congregations and pastors into the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) in the late 1970s. The AELC consisted of 680 pastors, 279 congregations, and 112,169 baptized members. Although that membership loss is only 18% of the 1971-2010 decline statistic, it also included a disproportionate number of young and middle-aged adults in child-bearing years. The AELC also had a disproportionate number of large and wealthy urban and suburban congregations. Over the years, the LCMS had invested much of its resources into these large and wealthy congregations, so that their transfer into the AELC was more of a blow to the LCMS than mere numbers can tell.

The third, and never mentioned, explanation for the 1971-2010 decline statistic is that the LCMS’ outreach to youth and young adults was dealt a mortal blow by the controversies in the 1960s and 1970s. The Junior Walther League (for high school students), the Senior Walther League (for college age people), the Gamma Delta Fraternity (for college and graduate students), as well as full-time and part-time campus ministries were a BIG part of LCMS mission and ministry, until it all came to a screeching halt. The Walther League was banned by most congregations, because of its political activism in the 1960s. Nothing of significant size or impact replaced it at the local congregational level. Campus ministry went “on the back burner” of priorities in districts and is still there, as witnessed by the recent case of the Minnesota South Board of Directors’ actions against University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis.

All this down-sizing of youth and young adult ministry in the LCMS happened at the same time that the evangelical and conservative churches were up-sizing their youth and young adult ministries. Thomas E. Berger in his “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” Christianity Today 56 #6 (June 2012):18-24, rightly credits the youth ministries of the Evangelicals for some of the growth of Evangelical churches in the last forty years. He states “Some of the growth of conservative churches over the subsequent decades [post-1960s] would come from this expertise in recruiting and retaining young people. . . . The white evangelical churches that are growing the fastest in America are the ones that look most like the successful youth ministries of the 1950s and 1960s” (pp. 22-23). The purpose of Berger’s article is to point out how this success has resulted in spiritual immaturity in those Evangelical churches; nevertheless, they are the churches that everyone points to as examples of “success.”

I am not saying or even implying that the LCMS should imitate these Evangelical churches by providing an “informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music.” (Berger, p. 23). Certainly not! Berger doesn’t recommend that approach either. I am saying that the lack of effective, local youth ministry in LCMS congregations led many LCMS youth to leave the Lutheran church in the period in question. This has had a double or triple impact on membership statistics, since the same young people who left soon had children, and now some of them have grandchildren. Youth ministry and campus ministry of a Lutheran sort needs to get back on the front burner of priorities, folks, and it needs to come back at the local and congregational level, not just the national or regional level!

Finally, the LCMS decline has been partially due to national demographic shifts, because the LCMS is not equally distributed across the United States. Something like 85% of the baptized membership of the LCMS is located in an area bounded on the west by the 105th parallel, on the north by the Canadian border, on the east by the 80th parallel, and on the south by the Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers. This same area is designated, with slightly different boundaries, the “Midlands” by Colin Woodard in his recent book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Viking, 2011). The “Midlands,” where Germans, Scandinavians, and Central Europeans once settled, are the one region in the US that has seen significant population decline in the last forty years. And that region may not see a recovery in population, for a variety of reasons, for many years.

Where people live and settle is determined by where they can make a living. LCMS leaders can’t change that. What they can do is look at demographic studies, both locally and nationally, and plant new congregations where the population growth is happening. No great rocket science there and the LCMS leaders are doing that! But if the LCMS leaders are smart, they will also study the “Regional Cultures” described by Woodard (read his book, guys!). It will help them understand the regional history and cultures of the areas they are trying to serve. Dividing the LCMS into five regions was, perhaps, a good idea, but it is only half-baked. The resulting boundaries don’t match the American cultural boundaries, because the regional division was done for political purposes, not for mission and evangelism purposes.

In closing, there is nothing “wrong” with LCMS congregations. Let’s get over the “guilt trip” and “fear” that “leaders” use to exploit us and our pocketbooks. Instead let’s work on improving what we have in our local congregations. There’s always room for improvement, enough to keep us busy until our Lord calls us home.

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