The Challenges of Church Growth and Decline

Martin NolandWhen my wife Karla and I were first married, over twenty years ago, I invited her to join me for the banquet at our annual LCMS district pastor’s conference. The food was great, but the banquet speaker was not. His topic was on “church growth,” how the Missouri Synod is in decline, and how if we don’t do something about it—like being more ecumenical, having women elders and lectors, having women pastors, and introducing contemporary worship—we won’t have a church to pass on to our grand kids.

Karla has a lot of common sense and is a good judgment of character. Till that point she had never heard a “church growth” speech. Her evaluation of the banquet on our way home that evening was something like, “Do you pastors have to listen to that sort of speech all the time? I don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about.” I had to agree.

Everyone knows that the number of people who claim to be members of mainline churches in America is suffering a significant decline. Even more significant is the fact that the number of people who claim to be “Evangelical” is enjoying numerical growth. The Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that these two general trends continue to hold true (see Religious Landscape Study, Chapter 1, pp. 17-18 here). The same survey reported that, among American Protestant denominations, the Missouri Synod is now among the top ten in membership and is ranked at #7 overall (see ibid., Chapter 1, p. 16).

More to the point of that banquet speech twenty years ago: How are we Lutherans doing in retaining our children in our churches when they become adults? The same survey reported that the best faiths in the category of retention rate are the Hindus (84%), Jews (76%), Eastern Orthodox (73%), Mormons (70%), and Catholics (68%) (see ibid., Chapter 2, p. 30 here:.). Lutherans are among the top three Protestant Religious groups, when it comes to child-to-adult retention rates, with Baptists at 60%, Adventists at 59%, and Lutherans at 59% (see ibid., Chapter 2, p. 31). I think our LCMS dedication to children’s ministry, with parochial schools, high schools, Sunday School, and catechism class, has a lot to do with that, though I would like to see how we compare to the ELCA on that score.

I think this should put at ease most fears that our grandchildren won’t have a Lutheran church to attend. After all, after twenty years, many of those grandchildren are already attending our churches. 

Still it is true that most congregations are faced with issues that are a result of decline in membership at their place. There are not as many volunteers to staff Sunday School, committees, guilds, and service groups as there used to be. Some congregations are eliminating an extra service on Sunday. Some congregations have had to close their school or form a multi-parish school. Some congregations have to “downsize” their staff. Some congregations have even closed permanently. All congregations are feeling the “pinch” due to the recession.

What should we do about this decline? Blame the preacher? That is the natural response, I think. I have been reading: Durwood Dunn, Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community 1818-1937 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988). Chapter 4 is titled “Religion and the Churches,” and it tells the stories of the three congregations that were in Cades Cove, now part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These were a Methodist, Missionary Baptist, and Primitive Baptist church. One of my distant relatives was a vacancy preacher at the latter church before the Civil War, which is how I became interested in these churches.

Dunn points out how the Primitive Baptist congregations had an independent-congregational polity. The tendency was to blame the preacher for any problem in the congregation; and the solution to that problem was always to fire the poor guy and find a new one. Since the preachers were illiterate, held other jobs, and were rarely paid, finding another illiterate guy who already had a paying job was not that difficult. Not surprisingly, with this sort of system, few preachers had a long tenure. Not surprisingly, the real root problems in the church and community were never addressed. Not surprisingly, Cades Cove and its churches remained a living stereotype of backwards illiterate “hillbillies” until the National Park service bought up the properties in 1937.

What should we do about decline, where it exists in our congregations? Blame the lay leaders? That doesn’t do any good either. Pastors and lay leaders need to face their problems together. Our pastors who have an M.Div. degree–even the guys straight out of the seminary–have lots of knowledge that is useful to a congregation, not just about theology and the Bible. All our pastors have practical classes not only in worship and preaching, but also in evangelism, counseling, religious education, missions, administration, organizational management, and religious pluralism. They have also been taught how to analyze community situations in order to determine the best ways to minister and deliver the Gospel.

Lay leaders have the advantage of knowing “the lay of the land” in a community. They have connections to community leaders and organizations. They know who is the best person or company to turn to for help or contracts. They know how communication actually works locally; and how the religious history of the community affects the work of their congregation. In addition to these critical matters of local wisdom, lay leaders also bring their talents and strengths to bear through volunteer service, work on boards, as officers, etc.

We don’t need to “be more ecumenical, have women elders and lectors, have women pastors, and introduce contemporary worship” in order to hold our own, or even grow. Compared to our fellow Protestants we are already holding our own, and in fact, passing up other mainline churches in total membership! Could we be doing better? Of course.

I think the biggest improvements that we could make at the present time is for: 1) pastors and lay leaders to stop blaming each other for problems in their congregation, and start working together on them; 2) congregations stop being so independent, or even hostile, to their fellow LCMS Lutherans, and start working together for their common good. An outward-focused congregation that works together to serve its own members, as well as non-members in the community, will always survive the hard-times and grow in the good times, because that is the sort of congregation that most people want to join.

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