Great Stuff — Special mission journal explores LCMS membership decline

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Researchers dissecting the decline in LCMS membership have come to one conclusion: The standard reasons offered for why the LCMS isn’t growing — everything from “If only we weren’t so conservative” to “We need more early childhood centers to attract young families” — don’t have anything to do with the steady drop in numbers.

In the special December issue of the Journal of Lutheran Mission, several demographic reports explain the major reason behind patterns in decline and offer suggestions on how the LCMS can reverse the trend. The reports also touch on how issues like delayed marriage, birth control, divorce, student debt and others have impacted the Synod.

Observations from the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and the Rev. Heath Curtis, coordinator of LCMS Stewardship, also are included.

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About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Great Stuff — Special mission journal explores LCMS membership decline — 17 Comments

  1. Dear BJS bloggers,

    Thanks to Norm for again finding the “best stuff on the web”.!!!

    This is truly the most significant statistical study on LCMS membership data I have ever seen. I took Sociology and learned about statistics in high school, college (Pete Becker at CU-River Forest), and sem (Al Schmidt at CTS-FW), so I know when the methods and data are sound.

    Download the issue and read it for yourself (file format for pdf, issu, and scene). Our laymen in particular need to at least hear about the conclusions, if they are not willing to read it. This is your “wake up call”–LCMS–ignore it at your own peril!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  2. Worth noting:

    “Many assume that youth prefer more entertaining, contemporary music and a less formal liturgy. However, Wuthnow also demonstrated that this stereo-type is not validated by survey data. In fact, contemporary worship music was considerably more popular among people in their forties than people in their twenties. Of all age cohorts, people under the age of thirty were the least likely to say they want their congregation to adopt contemporary music.” p.34

  3. There are many explanations for the decline of various Protestant denominations — growing secularism in society, a failure among churches to remain relevant in the modern world, and an inability to connect with certain demographic groups. While these factors may play a role in declining church membership and attendance, this paper examines one of the most important causes of the LCMS’s decline: low fertility among its adherents.

    Several years ago, David Goldman (who writes under the pen name “Spengler”) wrote How Civilizations Die. He makes a good case that we’re in the fourth great collapse of Western Civilization, following the pre-Greek/Minoans, the classical Greeks, and the Roman Empire. In each case the cause is the same: wealth and prosperity causes a collapse in population numbers due to declining childbirth rates (due to an acceptance of homosexuality, failure to marry and increased abortion), and the barbarians are invited in to do the work that the native populations won’t (or can’t) do. In the Roman Empire, we famously had the “new women”, massive limitation of family sizes by abortion and exposure of infants, and the Germanic tribes invited across the Rhine to hold the borders. Not so different from today.

    If the LCMS really wants to be “relevant” it needs to – in addition to preaching the Gospel and holding to the traditional liturgy – encourage its members to form families and forgo personal satisfaction in the form of career and “freedom”. The Synod needs to be preparing for possible calamity and the probability that we will be picking up the pieces of Western Civilization – again.

  4. This is an interesting study. On page 100 there is a section titled, ‘Doctrinal Changes’. How the thinking concerning birth control changed from wrong to okay within 50 years is fascinating. I was born in 1950. I never heard a sermon, Bible class – youth or adult or any other discussion denouncing contraception. Is Synod now saying birth control is a sin?

  5. Dear Diane,

    The LCMS has not taken an official position regarding contraception or birth control. Just because one theologian takes a position pro or con on a matter does not make it official position of the LCMS as a whole.

    The LCMS has strongly objected to drugs and procedures that are used to take the lives of unborn children (see 1979 LCMS convention Res. 3-02A; 2001 LCMS convention Res. 6-02A; and 2004 LCMS convention Res. 6-10). So the condemnation of abortion is clearly stated multiple times by the convention and is our official position.

    LCMS has also produced resources for study on the matters related to procreation here: ;; ; and .

    These CTCR documents are not “official position” of the synod-as-a-whole, but they do offer reasoning and statements in congruence with our theology. They are in harmony with the “pronatalist” position advocated in the recent issue of Journal of Lutheran Mission, which encourages married couples to have children–if they are physically able–but does not condemn the use of contraception in general.

    I hope this helps a bit.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  6. Thank you Dr. Noland. I understand that there really is not an official position by Synod. I’ve heard pastors on ‘Issues,etc’ specfically use the phrase concerning contraception, ‘It is not God pleasing’. The Issues,etc. episode was a few years ago with Pastor Heath Curtis and Pastor Walther. It just seems a bit confusing to the average layperson.


  7. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    You should not get the impression from my previous comment #5 that this issue of Journal of Lutheran Mission is all about a pro-natalist policy (i.e., “let’s all have more kids”). Far from that. That is just one of the many, many recommendations that are a natural response to the FACTS this study (with three articles) reveals.

    There are recommendations for: church-planting, congregational evangelism, missions to ethnic groups in the USA, higher education (i.e., CUS), congregational stewardship, Lutheran elementary schools, early childhood education, congregational worship, congregational P.R. and advertisements, church worker salaries, etc., etc. The recommendations are wide-ranging, well-considered, and badly needed.

    By the way, I am not an editor, contributing editor, or in any way connected to the Journal of Lutheran Mission, but I have to say that I have been very impressed with its material so far. To download all issues of JLM, see:

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  8. I’m a baby boomer born in 1955. In my experience most of my generation have left the lcms even if we grew up in large families and were raised in the church. So I don’t see having larger families as a solution at all. As long as we cannot keep our members in the synod after they grow up we will be losing members.

  9. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    In response to comment #8, “membership retention” is also one of the concerns to which recommendations are directed in the JLM issue. Like I said, the articles in this issue are “wide-ranging.”

    For a number of years, I have said on this blog (and other publications) that we need to look at the problem of membership decline in terms of multiple factors, not just one factor or one “key factor.” Where you have multiple factors in a problem, you need to have solutions that address each factor, which is the approach followed in this new JLM issue. I believe all three articles say something like there is no “panacea”, i.e., one quick, simple solution for the problem.

    This insight is also found in the new book: Powell, Mulder, and Griffin, Growing Young (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), p. 279: “Myth #1: there is a single, silver bullet.” Notice that the authors say that the notion that there is a single factor or a single solution is a “myth.” I agree.

    If you want a quick look at some of the pertinent basic data regarding LCMS stats, look at this article from Pastor Kiessling in LCMS Youth Ministry:

    I hope this helps a bit.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  10. I suppose I could be wrong, but the fact that nobody has even questioned #3 on the implication that immigrants are ‘barbarians’ might be part of the problem the synod is having. When LCMS members do things like casually imply that other groups of people are some how less-than, it exposes those members as hypocrites. When members of the LCMS tolerate this sort of talk, then in exposes the synod as hypocrites. You are right- people aren’t leaving over contemporary worship. They are leaving because LCMS members are constantly preaching that we should love our neighbors during the Gospel reading and then casually badmouthing them while chatting in the parking lot.

  11. Read the post carefully, and I advise reading the book. Nowhere did I say that we should treat (legal) immigrants as “less than”. The problem is that the citizens of Western Civ are no longer interested in maintaining that civilization, and are relying on immigrants to do things, like having the next generation, that we should be doing ourselves. The reference to “barbarians” is, of course, from the Roman Empire where – literally – the barbarians (non-Greek speakers) were at the gates.

    One important point that Goldman makes in the book is that an important facet of the collapses of Western Civilization is in the loss of faith. Faith in something beyond ourselves – not necessarily a Christian faith – plays an important part in convincing women to have children and men to provide and protect them. When people start worshiping themselves, putting their own pleasures ahead of maintaining the society, that society is doomed.

  12. I’m guessing lower numbers of congregation members and congregation closings is a bad thing or is it a winnowing? Has the rain fallen in those areas for a time and now moved on?

    Is there a guarantee that all who are pastors will remain pastors will full-time salaries and benefits?

    Is there a transformational cycle away from synodical offices and some recognized service organizations (RSO) as the funding of them will no longer be what is was?

    Was the mid-20th century ‘heyday’ of American Lutheranism filled with evangelistic Christians or were there many going through the motions of belonging to a church because culturally that was the thing to do then in the visible church?

    Will Lutherans have to experience life in America the way the early Lutheran forefathers did for a period of time?

    I don’t have concrete answers to all these questions. I do know that if we continue to offer Word and Sacrament and Law and Gospel that the Lord will provide as He sees fit.

  13. @RK #12

    Is there a guarantee that all who are pastors will remain pastors will full-time salaries and benefits?

    No, but non-pastoral “administrative” salaries continue to go up despite lower numbers in the pews!

    You really didn’t think all this “concern” was for the welfare of the parish pastor, did you!? 🙁

  14. @helen #14

    Spot on, Helen. While there is much good in the study, I couldn’t help but notice that the phraseology is oriented toward the success of the Synod– not congregations. It also refuses to acknowledge the Synod’s complicity with general Protestantism’s embrace of Margaret Sanger’s Eugenics movement… whose most socially palatable aspect was wide spread birth control. While Dr. Noland is correct that the problem of Synodical decline is multifaceted, the largest single impact as demonstrated by the data (and observed at least anecdotally for years) is the declining birth rate.

    But of course, due to the political nature of the Synod and fear of risking the ire (or contributions) of those who are still the unwitting devotees of Planned Parenthood’s social goals, I seriously doubt they will proclaim anything meaningful on this topic.

  15. Dear BJS Bloggers,

    As to the question of whether these studies pertain to the synod or congregations, that is a false dichotomy. The congregations of the synod are the synod. People have gotten into a bad habit of talking about the national offices or district offices as if they are the “synod.” They are not. If anything is the “synod” in a concrete way besides the sum total of the congregations, it is the “synod in convention.”

    On the matter of the ethics of birth control, please see the CTCR documents I have linked to in comment #5 above.

    I cannot speak for anyone at the national offices and I am not part of the editorial group of the JLM journal, but I don’t see how the articles speak to the “vested interests” of persons in the journal or in national or district offices. The articles simply speak to the issues of “propagating the true Christian doctrine among unbelievers,” which CFW Walther included among “A Congregation’s Duty to Do Its Share that the Church in General May Be Established and Promoted,” tr. J.T. Mueller(see The Form of a Christian Congregation [St. Louis: CPH, 1963], 185-191).

    Walther quotes Veit Ludwig von Seckendorf (1626-92): “Every congregation which has the opportunity is in duty bound to care for the propagation of the true Christian doctrine among unbelievers. . . . Those communities [of Christians] which have the means and opportunity to bring the Christian faith to such lands in a proper, blameless, and good way, commit a sin if they neglect it, whether this stems from carelessness and indolence [i.e., habitual laziness] or from the desire to save the money which it requires. This [neglect] also proves that the true zeal of Christian love is lacking, for this should move us, among other things, to seek every opportunity to promote the honor and glory of God, to spread His truth, and to enlarge his church.” Then Walther quotes from Conrad Dannhauer (1603-66) who at length describes the “dove call,” that is, the work of laymen in propagating the Gospel by 1) example; 2) written Word; 3) witnessing; 4) prayer (ibid., 186-191).

    Most (though not all) of the congregations and church-workers of our Missouri Synod and our Lutheran kin (WELS, ELS, etc.) have since the beginning taken these duties seriously. It was easy for congregations to thrive and grow in the 19th century, up until shortly after World War I, when immigration from German-speaking lands was curtailed. Then, as these articles demonstrate, it was easy for our congregations to grow through natural growth of families, until the advent of effective birth control in 1960, which silenced the “baby boom.”

    Now we in the LC-MS can no longer depend on the growth and loyalty of families, as we once did. Congregations will have to become more focused on their evangelistic duties, in whatever way that works for them.

    Nobody is really to blame here. Our lack of knowledge about our own demographics occurs because we in the LC-MS are decentralized. Congregations that don’t want to participate in studies, or turn in their statistical reports, cannot be penalized, like they can be in centralized church bodies. So except for studies like the present one, national and district officers really don’t know what is going on.

    Proper diagnosis is the key to any cure, otherwise you are always just treating symptoms. These articles in December 2016 JLM move us all forward in a positive direction, with real knowledge about what is happening to our congregations and those around us.

    As I said before, you can help by making sure that the lay leadership in your congregation gets a copy of this journal and by encouraging them to read it. That just might make a big difference for your congregation!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  16. It’s very easy to know why. Female Acolytes and accepting hospice and contemporary service and not teaching what Luther taught. Try looking up Cultural Marxism. That Ideology that destroyed Russia from 1920 to 1990. Its here now. And only a handful speak of it. See Pastor Herman Otten or Pastor Mark Dankoff–both Lutherans. And read–THE CRIME OF OUR AGE, by Dr Ludwig A Fritsch 1948.

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