FiveTwo, the shadow Synod hiving out of the LCMS, likes to say that church planters must “start new to reach new”. The inference is that FiveTwo will succeed where the LCMS is failing because it knows how to “unlock communities” to receive the Gospel in a modern world.
Distilled to its essence, FiveTwo is simply a marketing strategy built around delivering watered down Lutheran theology without clericals and the traditional liturgy. Put another way, there is a gap in the market for praise band churches that are not cravenly synergistic. Think Rick Warren with a degree from Concordia Seminary rather than Fuller Theological Seminary.
That led us to analyze data on churches directly affiliated with FiveTwo in order to test a hunch that they cleave to a tight demographic that mirrors evangelical mega church profiles.
We examined 34 churches that are openly connected with FiveTwo via its “find a local” reference page. We then matched each church’s zip code with census tract data to provide a fine-grained picture of the “community” each church is “planted” in.
The results are not without a degree of error – some churches are located in poor tracts but draw from very wealthy tracts right next door; and vice versa. But the aggregate results smooth out most of the problems, and absent actual member data, can be regarded as reliable. Whilst 34 churches is a small sample to draw larger conclusions for the LCMS, we consider it sufficiently representative of the overall church growth faction within the Synod. Most of that faction is very sympathetic to FiveTwo in praxis and doctrine if not affiliation.
The data reveals that FiveTwo “communities” are:
- Significantly affluent with large incomes and asset bases.
- Mostly suburban.
- Mostly early middle-aged.
- Mostly white.
- Mostly insulated from poverty and unemployment.
A typical FiveTwo church looks like this:
This is a long way from the innovation and diversity aura FiveTwo likes to project. Poor, rural or inner city congregations are the exception, leaving the LCMS far more diverse than FiveTwo in nearly every respect. FiveTwo network churches are actually very similar in character and appearance to any evangelical mega church in any large city in the world. This movement and its churches are clearly a cultural rather than a Gospel phenomenon.
It is reasonable to conclude that the FiveTwo model has limited (if not fatal) application beyond wealthy suburban neighborhoods in big cities. In the long run, FiveTwo is most likely softening up Lutheran congregations to defect to American evangelicalism either through attrition or choice.
This is partly good news because it means that FiveTwo cannot succeed in its goal of establishing one million sacramental communities by 2044 without cannibalizing its evangelical cousins. However, the larger danger is that FiveTwo’s concentrated marketing could strip away the affluent congregations that the LCMS requires to subsidize the rest of the Synod, and which would destabilize its long term security. Likewise, if the LCMS loses those churches to Liberalism, its profile would shift significantly with a large hole in the suburban areas of major cities. It would be very difficult to plug those gaps.
Figure 1: Income and Home Value Variance to State Medians
Very few communities have a lower median income than their state median income, or have home values below the state median. Notably, where incomes or home values are lower, the corresponding home values and incomes are generally offsetting. When compared with national medians, the FiveTwo communities are even better off and move deeper into the desirable top-right quadrant.
Figure 2: Age and Median Income Compared with National Medians
As expected when income and assets are significant, there is a corresponding higher age profile for FiveTwo communities. Where communities are younger than the national median, it is notable how wealthy they are. There is only one outlier in the group which is very young and comparably poor.
Figure 3: Unemployment Rate and Poverty Level Compared with National Medians
Not one of the communities has an unemployment rate above the national median although three have higher poverty levels; one of them extreme. The clustering of communities is indicative of a strategy dependent on congregants having incomes and assets.
Figure 4: Income and Home Values Compared with National Medians
It would not be unkind to say that Figure 4 reflects an elitist movement. The data points are well above the national medians. Where home prices are lower, incomes are higher to make up for it.
Figure 5: Race and Poverty Compared with National Medians
There is little evidence of reaching new by starting new in this chart.
Figure 6: Density and Median Income Compared with National Medians
FiveTwo clearly flourishes best in low density high income communities.