The decline in membership of Lutheran churches in America is a like a migraine headache. It is always there. We keep explaining it with the same explanations. We keep taking the same medications. The pain continues. What is the right word for that?
In The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the current (March 2017) issue of Reporter carries an extensive page two story, “Reversing LCMS membership decline: not just by having more children.” The article is based in part on a special edition (December 2016, vol. 3. No. 3) of Journal of Lutheran Mission. The article and the journal edition both are well worth your time.
The journal edition contains valuable raw information, hard facts that we need to face. It provides some bright spots of diagnosis and prescription for our migraine. I turned first to part three because of familiarity with the author, Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson. He is an inspiration to me because of his work with catechization and the family altar. His contribution to the journal edition should be read by everyone concerned with membership decline.
One of the most significant observations on the raw data is made by Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison in his “From the President” introduction:
Thus there is no wedge that can be driven between openness to life (family size) and sharing life (evangelism). They are two sides of the same coin. Even down to the congregational level, churches with lots of growing families have lots of adult converts. The two simply go together; they either increase or decline together as these data demonstrate.
This is borne out by the raw demographic data in the report, and it is intuitive. People engaged in catechizing their children are more able and ready to also speak the Gospel to their friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Because of their children, they are fresh on the basics of the faith. Their children’s questions have oiled their jaws. Family does not crowd out evangelism. Family life equips outreach.
President Harrison says, “The retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.” So true. The church is hemorrhaging its own children.
Some good things are happening. The Office of National Mission is implementing “Everyone His Witness,” an outreach program that has a healthy catechism component, just as it should. Pastors and elders, direct yourself to find out about this program and consider it for your congregations.
Overall, we can help the situation by heeding the report, and we should be grateful to the people who put much labor, study, and prayer into it.
But, our prospects will continue to be hindered—the migraine will continue—if we don’t admit two elephants in the middle of the room. There they are … big, fat, and wide, but we don’t talk about them.
- Our husbands do not catechize their wives. Our fathers do not catechize their children.
- Our husbands and wives divorce. Our fathers and mothers divorce. The church remarries them.
“The retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.” Good luck with that, when youth know that religion is for women and children. That’s what we taught them and that’s how they know it. They learned our orthodoxy from our orthopraxy. Kids aren’t stupid. We are. They see what’s going on. They know the truth. We lie. They know that once they no longer are children, religion is not for them. We said so by the way we act.
The demographic study, for all the money spent on it, fails to tell us what share of men catechize their wives. There is no statistic about the percentage of fathers who teach the catechism to their children. We don’t know these things because we don’t care. Don’t claim to care when decade after decade after decade, we never look into it. The migraine continues. We have chosen our pain. We think this migraine is more tolerable than the pain that would be involved in men being manly, in men answering the call of God on their offices as husband and father. We don’t actually believe that husband and father are offices.
It would do no good to have more children. Why not? Because as long as religion is for women and children, as long as husbands are unhusbandly, as long as fathers are unfatherly, having more children would only be procreating to fill hell. The youth still would be falling away for lack of spiritual fathering.
If that weren’t devastating enough, we put another nail in our children’s coffin lid with divorce and remarriage. By these, we fork the tongue of the Law, and we fork the tongue of the Gospel. We fork both. We have no message left. Our children lose faith because we do. Don’t say they are not following in our ways. They are. Our children are a mirror in which we see ourselves.
When do our children hear the church tell their parents to forgive each other? When do they hear the church tell their parents to stay together and be pleasant about it? When do they hear the church tell their parents to obey the Sixth Commandment? When our children see the church remarry their adulterous parents, how many sermons does that shout down? What does that leave them to believe?
Our kids are good kids. They are well behaved. They don’t tell us what they are thinking. They don’t tell us how they hurt. There were not two dollars of the study spent on finding out what the damage of adultery, divorce, and remarriage is on our children. Divorce is discussed only for its demographic impact on the number of children, and not for the knife to their hearts. We are a hateful bunch. We are materialistic and selfish.
Fathers are all over Facebook about the Cardinals and the Packers, and say life is so busy there is no time for the catechism in the home. They say they cannot memorize, but they quote stats. Where are the mothers? Buying jerseys and following their husbands. Men, you are leading them, to hell.
“The retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.” Not going to happen. Not until we are a peculiar people. Here is a picture of the peculiar people we need to be, painted by Dr. Luther in the Large Catechism:
It is the duty of every father of a family to question and examine his children and servants at least once a week and to ascertain what they know of it [the catechism], or are learning, and, if they do not know it, to keep them faithfully at it.
These [the Ten Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer] are the most necessary parts which one should first learn to repeat word for word, and which our children should be accustomed to recite daily when they arise in the morning, when they sit down to their meals, and when they retire at night; and until they repeat them, they should be given neither food nor drink. Likewise every head of a household is obliged to do the same with respect to his domestics, man-servants and maid-servants, and not to keep them in his house if they do not know these things and are unwilling to learn them. For a person who is so rude and unruly as to be unwilling to learn these things is not to be tolerated; for in these three parts everything that we have in the Scriptures is comprehended in short, plain, and simple terms.
This is a part of the confessions that even the confessionals throw out. I am ready to throw it out too. Forget about sending the children to bed without supper if they won’t learn the catechism. How many fathers are even giving their children a shot at it? Send the fathers home without their paychecks instead, until they teach the commandments, creed, prayer, baptism, and communion “In the plain for in which the head of the family shall teach them to his household.” You don’t deserve to eat when you won’t feed your children.
And he will turn
The hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.
(Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17)
 Short Preface of Dr. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, ¶ 4.