By Roger Drinnon
The collapse of Christianity in the post-modern West, ramifications of America’s changing demographics and challenges faced by some international partner churches were among somber topics presented during the LCMS Mission Summit, Nov. 20-21 in Garden Grove, Calif.
Themed “The Changing Face of Global Christianity,” the summit brought together Synod experts on a range of subjects examining the state of Christianity worldwide while looking at the latest trends affecting the future of the Synod and Christianity overall. The summit’s participants also included the Synod’s Council of Presidents, invited clergy and other church leaders as well as representatives from partner churches in Ethiopia and Siberia.
Being God’s people in a strange new world
The Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR), spoke on challenges and opportunities for the church in North America in an increasingly secularized and even hostile culture.
Christians, noted Lehenbauer, are no longer “in control” as the primary “movers, shakers and shapers” of America’s social, political and cultural identity, ideals and values. He said this leaves Christians who are committed to biblical teachings and values feeling more and more alienated in modern American society.
The Rev. Larry Vogel, associate executive director of the CTCR, followed Lehenbauer with a presentation on America’s changing demographics, with statistics showing the U.S. is experiencing a dramatic demographic transition.
Vogel said white-Anglo Americans of Northern European descent – the primary Synod demographic – are on the cusp of population decline due largely to birth rates below the level of population replacement. Hispanic birth rates are significantly higher than replacement level, while the rate for blacks remains stable. He said overall, the U.S. population would be in decline if not for immigrant birth rates.
As the LCMS birth rate reflects the national trend for non-Hispanic whites, the Synod’s population is aging significantly, with ever-smaller numbers of members who are of child-bearing age – now and for the foreseeable future. He said much of the Synod’s overall numerical decline (12 percent in the last decade) can be attributed to non-Latino white America’s low birth rates and where LCMS congregations are concentrated geographically. The LCMS also is losing a significant number of members who are in their 30s and younger, Vogel noted.
Searching for an everyday faith
The Rev. Dr. Tony Cook, associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, talked about outreach in a time when many no longer value being active members of Christian churches.
His data show 59 percent of “millennial” American Christians (18- to 29-year-olds) have stopped attending church, and he described 37 percent of America’s adult populace as “post-Christian” – people that typically identify themselves as atheist or agnostic; reject the importance of faith in their lives; reject the Bible’s accuracy; and cease participation in congregational worship and life. Despite this, Cook said there is hope and opportunity.
“It would be easy to look at the statistics and bemoan the state of the church, but I have never been more hopeful. It is our time – time to embody our faith, time to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and time to be Lutheran,” he said. “The Lutheran church has much to offer the spiritually-seeking. Let us pursue harmony within our church, live our daily lives faithfully before God, catechize our children in the faith and allow the Gospel to predominate.”
As post-modern, secular philosophy remains a catalyst to the decline of Christianity in the West, the Rev. Dr. Tony Steinbronn, president and mission executive of the LCMS New Jersey District, gave a historical overview of Friedrich Nietzsche’s humanist doctrine and its effect on Western society. As Nietzsche’s atheist ideology was embraced by the so-called intellectuals of the day, his ideas made their way into European society and then into American social norms.
Seven megatrends shaping mission
The Rev. Dr. Albert Collver III, LCMS director of Church Relations and director of Regional Operations for the Office of International Mission, gave an overview and some commentary on the book World Missions: A Missiology for the 21st Century, by Timothy Tennent.
In this book, the author cites seven “megatrends” affecting today’s mission environment. These megatrends call attention to notable ongoing movements in global Christianity including: the collapse of Christendom in the West; the rise of post-modernism; the collapse of the “West reaches the rest” mission paradigm; the church moving to the global South and East; the emergence of the “fourth branch” of Christianity – churches that are increasingly independent of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions; globalization; and a deeper ecumenism.
The Rev. Alexey Streltsov, rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Novosibirsk, Russia, in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church, an LCMS partner church, spoke about the challenges his church faced during Soviet-era Russia and just after its decline, as some local government officials held to Soviet-era attitudes toward Christian churches for some time afterward.
EECMY’s growth, challenges
President of the Central Ethiopian Synod (CES) of the Evangelical Ethiopian Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) Rev. Abraham Mengesha Mitku provided a comprehensive historical overview of the establishment and growth of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia.
“Mekane Yesus, officially established 55 years ago as the National Lutheran Church, has flourished by the grace of Our Lord and Savior,” said Mitku. “According to the 2013 statistics, it has grown to 6.7 million baptized members, 3.5 million communicant members that are organized in 7,823 congregations and 3,403 preaching places.”
He said the church still faces some challenges, especially in the area of mission.
“Despite the religious freedom we are experiencing in Ethiopia today, the church is facing potential challenges both within and without,” said Mitku. “For us, persecution is an inevitable phenomenon as we step up for mission in new territories.”
The Rev. Dr. Klaus Detlev Schulz, professor and chairman of Pastoral Ministry and Missions, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., followed Mitku with an additional historical perspective on the EECMY. Schulz also addressed challenges now affecting missionary efforts with the Ethiopian church which involve deeper ecumenism and urbanization.
“Today we must re-conceptualize the mission field. What it means for our missionaries is to communicate and proclaim the Gospel in a holistic way in order to address the complex challenges of urban life and experience,” said Schulz.
Roger Drinnon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is manager of Editorial Services for LCMS Communications.
Posted Jan. 6, 2015