Saturday, August 31, 2013

Membership Decline in the ELCA

Yes, numbers don't tell the whole story.  Yes, "membership" is not the best or only indicator of congregational vitality, much less faithfulness.  Yes, for some people this is old, old news.  Yet I continue to find people are generally unaware of the decline we are experiencing in my tribe, and those that have a sense of it don't readily have a sense of scale to go with it.  So, let me provide the visual that has haunted and energized me since I first began to attend to it about 10 years ago.

Primary data from Loren Mead, Transforming Congregations for the Future,
with more recent statistics added.
As a percentage of the US population (which has continued to grow year after year) this shows a trend of decline, unbroken for half a century.

However people may parse the causes and debate the responses, it's been clear to me since the get-go that a response is needed.  And given the "inertia" stored in a system with such a long-term shape to it's life (spanning at least two generations) I've always expected that the response will need to be very, very significant if it is to "turn things around" in any meaningful sense.

My own response has been to explore the possibilities for Christian missional community outside the core conventions of congregational life: pastors, property, programs and presentational (large group) worship.  This led me initially to folks in the house church movement, and more recently to those who are focusing on making disciples per se.  

They have a nifty saying: if you plant a church, you may or may not get disciples.  But if you make disciples, the Church will arise.

So, I am now moving my top ministry priority into directly discipling and equipping leaders.  Not just "church leaders" in the typical sense.  Leaders who will directly disciple and train others.  I am learning how to do this from the folks at 3dm, as I have found their material and approach to be excellent, and their theology to be wonderfully lean and hugely resonant with Lutheranism.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your article - I wanted to think out loud and see what you think. I feel lost in my faith somewhat because of seeing the ELCA dwindle in numbers. I know the theme of the elca now is "always being made new". To me, there is nothing more important than the mass. Retracing our Lutheranism through our service and praying the liturgy of the hours is the answer, - I think. Our society will sit and watch a three hour movie called Lord of the Rings or read a trilogy of books about the same. Most of these folks have never been to a traditional service with the chanting of the psalms, a swinging smoking crucible, a ritual using bread and wine. The splendor of our traditional service - with all its elements of chanting the Psalms and the Holy Eucharist is incredibly entertaining. Our traditional mass is a service fit for a real Lord. I imagine sending out a Tweet, a text message, a email with a call to come to prayer. Calling, our entire body of Christ - that calling at these certain times of the day people feel they are not lost and alone, others are praying the very same prayer with them. I think the answer is taking the old and making it new again. I have been studying The Rule of Saint Benedict. There are Benedictine oblates - these are everyday folks that dedicate themselves to living by the Rule of Saint Benedict. You might be familiar with this. I could imagine training 12 lutheran oblates or more - having them process in and assisting with the communion and offering. Having them available to meet visitors at the end of the service. These could be your seeds to plant. There is another Lutheran pastor Jay Denne he has a excellent blog as well called the Benedictine Lutheran. My heart and prayers go out to the you clergy of the elca. I apologize if I have wasted your time - in the daily office I pray one of the prayers begin - Oh Lord open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.

Feral Pastor said...

Richard - thank you for your thoughtful comment and I apologize for the delay in posting it and responding. There are several things I appreciate and agree with in what you said.

As we move from modernity into postmodernity, a renewed desire for and appreciation of mystery and ritual is one of the things we are seeing. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a great example of this in the Lutheran tribe: self described as a "Postmodern gal" and leading a congregation that practices a full, traditional liturgy. (

I'm skeptical though that this will have very broad appeal, or that a focus on the centrality of the mass is going to address the core challenge. My own feeling is that the core issue has more to do with our habit of making the large group worship experience into the centerpiece of our faith and community life. Not that we should do away with it - by any means! But that we are dangerously out of balance in how we prioritize large and small group expressions of faith and community. I'm being pretty terse here so I don't know if the idea is getting across well. I've perhaps explained it better here:, and in my inaugural post, particularly the part where I talk about the food pyramid: