By Roger Drinnon
ST. LOUIS — Factors behind the Synod’s overall numerical decline — down about 12 percent in the last decade alone — might not be what you think, in some cases.
The Synod’s Office of National Mission (ONM) hosted Dr. Ryan MacPherson, a professor at Bethany College, Mankato, Minn., and president of “Into Your Hands” consulting, Feb. 3 at the LCMS International Center here. MacPherson outlined some reasons for the Synod’s demographic decline while dispelling myths and offering recommendations for Synod leaders and laity attending his “Generational Generosity” summit.
MacPherson listed several “standard stories” — assumptions Missouri Synod Lutherans might hold to as either causes of or remedies for the decline. He debunked them all, based on his research. Some of these assumptions and MacPherson’s findings included:
- “If only we could evangelize more like the Baptists.”
MacPherson: The Southern Baptist Convention is also in decline and cannot boast of any higher evangelism gains above the LCMS.
- “LCMS is a rural Synod while America is increasingly urban.”
MacPherson: Rural, suburban and urban congregations all are experiencing a decline.
- “If only we weren’t so conservative, more people would come and more would stay.”
MacPherson: Facts show liberal church bodies have declined even faster than conservative ones.
Two major factors account for most of the downward trend in LCMS membership, according to MacPherson’s study. First, the birth rate has been declining for over 50 years for white-Anglo Americans of Northern European descent — a major Synod demographic. His study revealed that rising rates of divorce and non-marital cohabitation among younger people have exacerbated this challenge the Synod now faces.
Second, over the past 20 years, the retention rate of baptized infants as they grow up toward youth confirmation age also has declined.
“Only about half of the children baptized a decade-and-a-half ago were present for confirmation in the past few years,” noted MacPherson.
MacPherson said LCMS preschools and other such schools and childhood centers are commendable, but he cautioned that these are not a panacea for attracting young families.
His study showed that child baptisms plunged 55 percent from 1990 to 2010, a time frame when LCMS childhood centers were growing in number and enrollment.
“Although congregations with schools and elementary schools have tended to have a higher child-retention rate than congregations without schools, the retention advantage conferred by schools has been declining,” he said. “It seems that more and more families connect with a congregation for preschool, but then disengage in the years that follow.”
However, MacPherson emphasized that with half or more of LCMS preschool children being from outside the Synod, early-childhood centers present a significant mission opportunity, noting that programs focused on children often fail to engage the parents for the long term. He posited that more adult-to-adult ministry is needed as well as a holistic approach to young families.
“The family will be a key part of the LCMS’ future strength in sharing the Gospel,” said the Rev. Nathan Meador, assistant coordinator of stewardship for the ONM. “This report serves as a call to come to grips with who we have been, who we are now and then to seize the God-given opportunities to be who God called us to be. There is the idea that we are headed toward being a smaller church body in the future. It is accompanied by the reality that we hold a strong position as a ‘faithful remnant church’ going forward.”
Meador and the Rev. Heath Curtis, ONM stewardship coordinator, brought MacPherson to the International Center for the summit as part of the ONM’s stewardship-ministry efforts.
Roger Drinnon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is manager of Editorial Services for LCMS Communications.
Posted March 3, 2015
Excellent article! Having studied Sociology in college i find the generational shifts very interesting.
Thanks for this and I’m glad we are having these kinds of meetings to address these things. My District of the six New England states has the top five spots of all fifty states for lowest church attendance (somehow Rhode Island messed it up by not making it a complete sweep for New England) – sigh. But my comment is that the three myths that debunked are basically of the nature that everyone else has it as bad as we do — and that doesn’t give me a lot of comfort. Sort of like Homer Simpson in one episode of The Simpsons who said, “Hey, SAT scores last year declined in America at the lowest rate in ten years- isn’t that great !!!!! ” For whatever it counts here’s a debunking from me based on my observations -“LCMS Lutherans contrary to belief are not sad, cold and emotionless people; on the contrary they are wonderful and love Jesus and are faithful and aren’t ready to give up in the slightest !!!!” Thanks.
Your joy in the Gospel is contagious to all who meet you and we could all do a better job of exuding that joy!
I think a part of correcting that glum self-image that many Lutherans have is showing that we are not, in fact, lagging behind other denominations. We should be thankful to God for the good he has given us, and realize that all denominations in America are facing similar trends and troubles. This is a great opportunity for us to learn from others even while we emphasize what we do best – and especially a clear proclamation of the joyous and free Gospel in Christ!
Rev. Heath Curtis
Coordinator for Stewardship, LCMS
Concur with Pres Yeadon. Saddened that our decline is attributed in part to insufficient reproduction. That’s not real growth anyway – that’s simple survival. Saddened more that we lose our younger ones prior to confirmation. At the end of the day, it all comes down to seizing “the God-given opportunities” as stated in the article. I choose to look at the glass as half-full. The harvest is plentiful, especially given New England’s statistics mentioned by Pastor Tim. If… If we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get after it with a relevant ministry anchored in the best (LCMS) articulation of the Gospel!
Pastor Bartell, I’m not sure what you are talking about when you say “That’s not real growth anyway.” If you are referring to the “insufficient reproduction” in your previous sentence, I take great exception to it. “Simple survival?” “Real growth”? I would argue that it is the “realest” growth there is–for it is God-given growth *2* times. First, when the Lord gives the blessing of the child in conception and birth, and second when the Lord gives the Blessing of the 2nd birth in holy Baptism. Is it “better” than reaching out to those who are already born and have not heard Christ’s Gospel so as to receive the gift of faith? Of course not. But “real growth” is real growth–whether it’s a 60-year-old who confesses Christ and is baptized, or a newborn. Remember the very first “evangelism” that took place was the birth of Cain, Abel and Seth, et al. When we give up trying to “control” how successful our evangelism (“natural” or “outreach”) is, and remember that it is all a gift of God, which He gives through our faithful confession of Christ in the vocations He has given us, and simply focus on that confession and those vocations, I strongly suspect we will “outreach evangelize” more courageously and faithfully, and perhaps even, (according to the will and grace of God) more “successfully.” There’s something I seem to recall about how it is “God who gave the increase.”
We believe that approaching our future requires an accurate knowledge of how we got to our present. And the math simply shows that a declining birthrate is a big part of the reason why the MO Synod is shrinking. This is simply a “First Article” fact. What we make of that fact and how we respond to it in faithfulness is another matter – but facts are facts and must be accounted for.
Rev. Heath Curtis
Coordinator for Stewardship, LCMS
May a woman might put in her two cents worth of opinion here? All that you say may be true, and I know those of you working in the field are faithful and dedicated, but you have not addressed the fact that our young families are leaving. I look at my own hard-working congregation and see the absence of those people with small children who were in the pews only a year or two back. They have vanished. This does not appear to be the case for those non-denominational, feel good mega-churches around us. What are they doing to meet family needs that we are not doing? Can we change the way we do business to be more inclusive at all levels? Our denomination has long depended on father-lead, traditional families with strong Euro-ethnic identities to fill the pews. This model is no longer relevant.
Have you noticed that the population of the US is growing?
If we rely on the birthrate of WASPS for growth and don’t reach out to others with the message of salvation in an enthusiastic and joyful way I think our decline will continue.
I know that God grows the church, but doesn’t he use people?
Through the power of the Holy Spirit I choose to believe that God desires His church, the LCMS included, to be far more than a shrinking “faithful remnant church”. The last I checked the Anglo population may be shrinking, but overall population continues to rise… Enough excuses.
I don’t know that any of the above statements were excuses. More of a reflection of true facts. My congregation has sponsored Hispanic Services and Evangelism programs for ten plus years. The same challenges appear in most any ethnic group. We can preach the Word around the world, but the Holy Spirit does the work. We rejoice in those that answer God’s message, but many choose not to by their own volition. All we can do is to continue the work God has given us.
Thanks, Keith: I think that’s right, we are looking for the reasons and causes, without assignment of blame or attempts to make excuses. We believe that understanding the “is” of our current situation will lead us more faithfully to the “should be” of our future.
Rev. Heath Curtis
Coordinator for Stewardship, LCMS
I’m always surprised when people say that the LCMS is a rural denomination. It never has been. Today 77% of LCMS folk live in metropolitan areas of 100,000 or more, and somewhere around half live in metropolitan areas of 1,000,000 or more. And it’s always been that way. Fifty years after the founding of the LCMS, Chicago alone accounted for 5% of the LCMS membership. Similar numbers could be found in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, etc.–in fact, nearly every major city between the trapezoid formed by the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Baltimore, and NYC. Throw in the smaller cities such as Springfield, Peoria, Rockford, Elgin, and Aurora (to name some Illinois cities with old congregations) as well as the suburbs that were starting to sprout 120 years ago and the number swells even higher. Granted, most of the LCMS folk that live in urbanized areas tend to live in the suburbs rather than the central city. But they’re not rural, not by a long shot.
For Part II of our Generational Generosity study we have a demographer looking into just these numbers. His report will not be out for a while, but even his preliminary findings are quite intriguing. Look for more information in about a year’s time.
Rev. Heath Curtis
Coordinator for Stewardship, LCMS
I concur with both President Yeadon and Brother Pfotenhauer. The LCMS possesses a solid theological and historical position within the landscape of American Christianity. As President Yeadon also pointed out we have many energized, faithful pastors and laypeople who spend their days and their energy in faithful service to our Lord and their neighbor. However, there is also the reality is that playing field is changing. This study has helped to quantify what we have been sensing for some time. With this study, and some other work that LCMS Stewardship will be doing, we seek help us embrace and THRIVE in our role as a faithful remnant church. This is not an excuse. It is a call to repentance and faithful action. No one in LCMS Stewardship is content with our Synod being a shrinking violet. We only seek to serve the Church in helping us see where we have been, where we are and highlight the strengths that we have going forward in ministry. I am eagerly looking forward to where the Lord is leading the LCMS.
Not being a ‘diapered’ Lutheran, I come as someone who joined in my 40’s. When I joined your LCMS, you poured grace out of every pew/pulpit and your leaders spoke in an easily understandable language. The past decade, the change has been dramatic. It is almost as if you bludgeon we outsiders with church speak. You may not see the cliques,but they are there. It saddens me but. Until you figure out and face it, you will decline.
The Amish is growing because of big families. They don’t evangelize at all. They meet in homes and speak Pennsylvania German at their church service. We Lutherans have followed the way of the culture and view having children as a liability. I am guilty because we stopped at 2.
i believe a greater issue is demonstrated in the comment section of this article. Instead of collaborating with ideas that might help, the preference is evidently to dissect each other’s groupings of 5 words to argue. Perhaps people don’t want to be a part of a community that tears each other down. Just a thought. I pray we are all led by the spirit of God to a place of mutual love for each other and the giftedness we have each been given by God himself. I know…I’m naive.
how many children and families do we lose between the child’s baptism and age 3 when they should start Sunday school?
It would seem the study is somewhat incomplete for what is reported. What is the birth rate now of the synod versus say 40 years ago, and how does that translate into overall size of the synod? Also for what percentage of children did we lose from birth to confirmation to graduation from high school say 40 years ago versus now. With those adjusted numbers would the Synod still be declining, would she be maintaing, and or would she be growing. Also it seems like this information would helpful to coordinate with the research done by the Rev. Michael Newman and the recent presentation he recently at Concordia Seminary.
Yes, those details (at least most of what you mention) are in the full report presented to Synod leaders (about 50 pages). The birth rate in 2010 is 1/4 of what it was in 1950. Dr. MacPherson focused on “hard facts” – once you have that you can run any number of scenarios in the spreadsheet (what if our birth rate decline was only half what it actually was, and retained 30% more before confirmation than we actually do, etc., etc.).
Rev. Heath Curtis
Coordinator for Stewardship, LCMS
Thank you for helping LCMS with facts. Next steps is to continue preaching and teaching the gospel to all communities as Christ did. That in my eyes is what Christ wants us to continue doing. Christ will grow each church in His time.
Ok, we have the realities of decline accurately noted, Now what? I honestly don’t care about the liberals, the Baptists, or any other denomination. I care about how we proclaim Christ to a multi-ethnic world that is going to hell apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thanks for the HISTORY, now let’s look to the future!
I am very proud to be a baptised and confirmed LCMS Lutheran, now living in England.
It is sad to see numbers declining and the link with changing demographics and family structures. We live in a world where the value of marriage has diminished and children are raised in households taking many different shapes; it is their ‘normal’ as much as married life has been ‘normal’ for older generations. This is compounded by the arguments of an increasingly secular world that discredit the Bible and religion altogether. The controversy around Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek article in December is one example (see: http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html).
My fear is that the America of my children’s generation will be much like England is today–where one study found that nearly 1 in 2 18-24 year-olds identifies as an atheist and only 5% of residents regularly attend religious services in the Church of England (the established Church). The arguments made against the Church are made more convincingly than those for the Church, which has led the Church of England to take logically inconsistent positions as it tries to find its way forward (e.g., accepting women priests but not women bishops). Those logically inconsistent positions simply alienate more people from the Church and reinforce secularism.
This is where, I believe, the LCMS stands strong: I look to the Church for solid, Bible-based arguments for the issues that communities are wrestling with in a way that defends the Bible rather than diluting it. Jeffrey Kloha and Justin Taylor wrote rebuttals to this piece that went some way to responding, though they could have gone further (see:
It would be great to see the Church an even stronger leadership role in rebutting arguments made by critics such as Eichenwald and Prof Bart Ehrman (an evangelical Christian who is now deeply skeptical of the Church). Their criticisms challenge the legitimacy of Biblical texts (translation errors, late additions, etc.) to take on issues such as gay marriage, abortion and the nature (or relevance) of salvation. It would be great to see responses to these arguments which go to their level (e.g., to authorship, context and language) to make the case.
Challenging the societal narrative would help, I believe, reach out to more diverse communities who search for Christ–and fight the forces that are turning American society, in a religious sense, into the more secular world of Western Europe.
As a life-long LCMS Lutheran, a few years ago I was relocated to the Detroit area. Trying to find a new home church for me and my family crystallized to me exactly why the LCMS is on the decline. There were no shortage of churches to try. In fact, the mission was so important to me that I often went to more than one service on Sunday morning to try to find a great fit without spending a year doing it.
So many of the churches were full of older parishioners, but few younger families. Many of the churches were small, dated churches that seemed in a time warp from 50 years ago. Dated liturgies. Dated facilities. Dated styles. Dated leadership. Disproportionately older people. It was a huge disappointment. I generally gravitated to the churches with schools attached because that’s where you found the youth and vitality.
I finally decided on a church that was a 45 minute drive from home. I love the church, the pastors, the parishioners, etc. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be fully integrated into the mid week bible studies and social activities when it’s so far away. I have a Lutheran church two miles from my house, but the experience is like the time warp I’ve explained above. There’s a burgeoning, upper middle class community adjacent to us with nearly 60,000 people but no LCMS church in the community to service them.
The whole experience has painted a very bleak view for me of the state of the LCMS and where it’s headed.
I’ve often believed the LCMS transformation may never happen because our well chronicled stoicism and bullheadedness. But if it does, it will be because we’ve consolidated a lot of dated, crippled churches into fresh and new ones. While the history of the LCMS is chock full of examples of those who resist change, it’s no longer about holding on to beloved past practices. This is about the very survival of the church. Predominantly, the people who fill the pews today won’t be around in ten years. So, the decline described in the article above will only be intensified in a very short period of time unless we have bold leadership, some effective centralized vision and planning, and we are aggressive in carrying out the mission.
I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to serve on a serious, synod-sanctioned effort to begin tackling the issue, as long as the commitment and resources necessary to do so are also available.
South Lyon, MI
Retention rate…wonder why we aren’t retaining them? Below is a link to a Blog that I wrote in February…it’s based on years of observation and experience in the LCMS…Maybe some of the thoughts are worth considering.
Check it out…
Have a reflective day…
Relationships are everything. They hold us together. They connect us to our homes, jobs, and our church. Yet, in this day and age, especially, relationships take less and less precedence over where our time is spent.
God showed us that in the relationship He designed and desires for us and with us… So if our main focus as His children is to #1 Love God and #2 Love people, then, I believe, many more will be touched by faith in the LCMS.
I believe we make ministry much more complicated than it actually is. Without sincere care and relationships being encouraged and modeled there will be no connection for people to be held to a particular church by.
I pray that more people would be having this discussion in their churches and be receptive to the Holy Spirit so that transformation can take place.
Honestly, If our teachings are beloved, then we should be motivated to share them. Just think of how uncomfortable the lives of the disciples were? The Gospel is life-altering. It would be beautiful if we could seek ways to reflect that with real intentionality by pursuing relationships the way God pursues us.
Amen~ (and yet, we fail!)
Jesus said… “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NKJV)
And with God’s living Word and the help of the Holy Spirit lending us to share the love of Jesus Christ, who already redeemed mankind by His precious blood. Therefore we believe and share His (amazing) “grace alone”.
Thank You Heavenly Father for Your free gift of “Faith Alone” to work in the hearts of all people. Help us to Trust in Your “Scripture Alone” to convict the world of sin and bring honor to Your Name.
Anything else is a “stumbling block”!
In reading the article and its responses I find somewhat disconcerting that there is no mention of turning to Scripture for understanding. Disappointing because God’s Word has much to say about this. Local churches and denominations turn to demographic studies and marketing techniques as if church decline were a secular problem and is solvable with programs and Dale Carnegie courses. In the last days the hearts of many will grow cold and many will not endure sound doctrine. It is important to remember God’s standard of success is much different from man’s. He is looking for obedience and faithfulness not numbers. There are currently things we should be doing better. Apologetics for all but particularly our youth. We easily lose 80% of our confirmands after their confirmation service. How many Christians know WHY they believe WHAT they believe? The church is experiencing a spiritual heart problems. Read Revelation and see how the Lord assessed the seven churches.
Is there a way to read the actual report given to this gathering? Also, what credentials led our Synod leaders to seek Dr. McPherson out? I couldn’t find any clients or previous studies listed on his website. The In Your Hands consulting seems to be a legal advocacy group for homeschooling. It feels odd to me that we would look to this group for wisdom on church growth/decline.
Dr. MacPherson is head of the history department at Bethany College and came to our attention through a similar study which he performed for his own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
I live a half hour from our LCMS church. That’s the closest or a small one a half hour north we got married at 12 years ago. That church cant seem to keep a pastor but being conservative is what LCMS is about and I still am a member of a WELS church being from WI. Our church tried doing contemporary service with bands but it didn’t bring in any more younger members. I don’t like bands . Let the Baptists have it. I got our church to do Sat night service for those like me who have to work on Sundays. Its Gods work that should bring and keep the people in not a lot of rah rah songs that don’t have substance not like hymns that are based on Bible verses
A few years back, while teaching at a Lutheran high school, we became “professional church shoppers.” Over a three year period, we attended about 3 dozen churches — most, but not all, LCMS. What we discovered is that, if you are a visitor, you are invisible. The members all talk to each other. So does the pastor. In almost every case, no one spoke to us, other than to hand us a bulletin. Some had greeters that smiled and said hello (but never “I don’t believe we’ve met; can I help you?”) I made it a point to sign the book, or the card (or whatever) — few followed up at all; some sent a form letter; one made a phone call. If a church doesn’t even bother to care about the people that make the effort to show up, what is the chance that it will care for the people in its neighborhood that need to hear about Jesus??
The LCMS we are members at does a good job with visitors. The other Lutheran church across town I sent two emails asking the pastor for info about the church and I never heard a thing from him. Either it’s an outdated email address they have at their website or the pastor just don’t bother to answer emails. I really hope it is the later reason.
Church attendance seem to be suffering in many denominations here in the U.S. But it has also suffered severely in Europe from what I have read. I have been told things like I don’t need to go to church to be close to God and religion is responsible for all the wars and death or I just don’t have time etc. Many people have been “turned off” by the pushy way that some have tried to witness to folks. I just attended a seminar, Joining Jesus on His Mission, How to be an Everyday Missioary, by LCMS Pastor Greg Finke. His book is worth a read at very least for every pastor and lay people of all denominations. The seminar was excellent. It’s a lesson in Missional Living. Foreign missions are necessary but home missions are just as important.
Sarah’s comments and Tom’s comments are succinct and to the point and btw proved right in concregational settings. When we use consultants in our congregation we use them to help us figure out what to do. Sounds like we are diagnosing and not moving toward solutions. Being a faithful remnant in 21st Century America sounds like a loss to me.
“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.” -Pope Francis, Evangelli Gaudium.