Thursday, January 18, 2018

Babies and Church Growth. . .

According to headlines, children are almost an immoral choice:
  •  “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them.” (NBC)
  • “Want to Slow Global Warming? Researchers Look to Family Planning.” (NPR)
  • “Having Children Brings High Carbon Impact.”  (New York Times)
  • “Having children is one of the most destructive things you can do to the environment, say researchers.” (The Independent)
  • “The climate crisis is a reproductive crisis” (Conceivable Future)
 It is no wonder, then, that people of child-bearing age are having fewer of them.  Including Lutherans.  This is a simple fact.  To say this is not to suggest that our only problems are a lack of children but to ignore this is to be deliberately blind to the challenges that face our church body.  This only days away from the anniversary of legalized abortion and its shameful decision to make it possible to discard the child in the womb as if it were merely a choice and not a life!

To his credit, President Harrison has been upfront about the state of Missouri Synod Lutheranism.  We are losing people, not quite as fast as the ELCA, but still bleeding off members at an alarming rate.  This has not gone unnoticed among our leaders although the discussion has become less than salutary.  Harrison is absolutely correct in saying that we are having fewer children as LCMS people and that this has been the trend for quite some time.  The obvious truth of this is lost on no one.  In part this means that our membership is aging -- who isn't!  What this really means is that absent the natural church growth of children to counter the trend of people living longer, our average age is increasing more quickly than it did in the past.  Again, everyone knows this even if we need to actually say it out loud every now and then just so that it does not get forgotten.

But some are intent upon playing this out politically.  Visit the website called congregationsmatter.org and you will find articles that ridicule this information as a way of blaming women for the decline in Missouri.  Really?  Is the mere fact that identifying such things as couples of child-bearing age having fewer children and people marrying later or not marrying at all a slap against anyone?  Apparently the writers of this web site believe that it is offensive to admit the obvious.  Who is playing the blame game here?

Harrison also reminds us that much of our growth in the past was fueled by the children born to LCMS parents, baptized in LCMS congregations, confirmed in LCMS congregations, and then themselves married in LCMS congregations.  Again, this is not rocket science.  Of course it was.  We would expect faithful folks in the pews to bring their children to baptism, Sunday school, catechism classes, etc...  No one is saying that outreach did not bring people into the church but rather that a significant disconnect between the past and today in our church body is the fact that baptisms and confirmation of youth are down very substantially.

The demographic studies also point to the changing status of marriage and the many factors pressing against marriage (from the high rate of divorce to the high rate of cohabitation and many other things).  The fact that we as a church must face up to the challenges placed before us and figure out how to strengthen marriages and the family is an important goal.  It is not the means to ending the downward trend in membership but it is key to helping our people deal with the stresses and challenges laid before them as husbands and wives by the changing culture and values of that culture on daily basis.  Again, the website in question presumes that Harrison or anyone is saying that if our people married earlier, stayed married longer, and had more children while married, all our problems as a church body would be over.  I don't hear him or anyone from Synod suggesting that at all.

In fact, at the very beginning of the Journal of Lutheran Mission issue in which the demographic studies and other articles address the topic of our Synod's health and future, Harrison has these bulleted points:
  • This demographic decline is not only an LCMS problem.  It is a problem for all the historic American denominational groups. The LCMS decline has actually been far less than the declines experienced by the ELCA, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church–USA and the like.
  • In fact, all denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
  • The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms(down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s). Indeed, the number of child baptisms and adult converts have decreased together in a remarkably similar pattern.
  • 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.
It is clear that the whole thrust of the article lies on both the decline of natural church growth through children born into LCMS families and raised in the faith AND adult converts (evangelism and outreach).  Both are responsible and our future lies in both strengthening the family (all marriages, of all our people, at all stages of their lives) AND doing a better job of approaching those not yet of the Kingdom with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fully one third or more of all the current members of the LCMS entered the church not as infants or youth but as adult converts.  Though the numbers of infants baptized has dropped, the good news is that there are more new members are coming from the outside than from the baptism of infants.


I have heard people from our Synod's national staff speak on this many times and they are blunt both in the causes for our decline and in what we need to do on all fronts to address that decline in the hope of reversing our membership losses -- not for the sake of institutional survival but for the sake of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen and our call to be faithful in preaching and teaching this Gospel in church, home, and work in our primary vocation as the baptized people of God. 

There is, however, a false enemy of growth and a false means to growth being promoted by some in our church body.  Some presume that our interest in doctrine and doctrinal unity is an enemy of church growth and  some presume that abandoning our liturgical identity on Sunday morning will promote church growth.  These are the ones who have politicized the issue and these are the ones who are pitting faithfulness against mission in ways that our own history proves wrong.  

TIME Magazine in 1958 recognized Lutheran growth in America and suggested it was due to the fact that Lutherans were not afraid of the questions being asked and were confident of the answers from Scripture and confessed in their Book of Concord.  It identified the liturgical identity of Lutherans that made it possible to enter nearly any Lutheran congregation on Sunday morning and find the same liturgy, hear the same lessons read, and sing many of the same hymns (as a positive aspect of their confessional identity before the world).  It recognized their use of technology (from The Lutheran Hour to This Is the Life) and their willingness to use this technology to proclaim the Gospel.  It also identified their vibrant sacramental focus on the Christ who is present concretely in His Church through the means of grace.  Finally, it recognized the mission focus of Lutherans both nationally and throughout the world.

Yes, the families have changed, the birth rate is lower among our people, and we are bringing in fewer people from outside the church.  But it occurs to me that perhaps the very things that TIME noted as our strengths in 1958 have become weaknesses.  Are we still as confident in the message of the Scriptures and the living testament to that faith in our Confessions or are we unsure what we stand for and what we believe?  Do we have a common liturgical identity anymore or are we so diverse on Sunday morning as to have no real common liturgical face for what we believe?  Are we on top of technology and using it to proclaim unequivocally the unchanging Christ for a changing world or are we hesitant to use that technology to speak the Gospel boldly?  Do we have a focus on the Christ among us in the means of grace or have we turned our attention from forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation to personal happiness and success in the present moment?

Harrison is falsely accused of blaming women or naively thinking that simply having more babies will fix what is wrong in our church body but there are those who are responsible for falsely blaming doctrine, liturgy, and the hymnal for our decline.  Such things should be beneath us as we pursue our best for His glory but it seems that no crisis is immune from politicization -- even in the Church.  For that we are all the poorer.

6 comments:

Carl Vehse said...

In addition to declining birth rates in the US, a recent article, "40 Percent Of Kids Now Born To Single Moms—Up 700 Percent Since 1960," notes:

"A recent report from the Social Capital Project reveals that the American family is disintegrating, fast. Fully 40 percent of mothers are currently unmarried.

"This is bad news, because good families depend on good marriages. Marriage is the moral glue that binds them. It’s the stabilizing agent. There’s a reason that children from married couples do better in school, and are less likely to end up in jail as compared to children of unmarried mothers, known as 'fragile families.'"

The original Social Capital Project report is Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing, prepared by the Vice Chairman’s Staff of the Joint Economic Committee at the request of Senator Mike Lee, December 2017. The report states:

"One important way in which family life has weakened in America is reflected in the increasing share of births that occur to unmarried couples. This trend has left fewer children in families mutually planned by parents with the intention of permanence, and more children in the care of parents unconstrained by the commitments of marriage. The share of births to unwed mothers stands at 40 percent—up from 5 percent in 1960. We estimate that nearly half of births start as an unwed pregnancy, including two-thirds of first births to women under 30."

"This report explores the rise in unwed childbearing over the past 60 years, examining trends that have interacted to accelerate the unwed share of births."

John J. Flanagan said...

You have presented a great deal of information in this article, and the facts speak for themselves. As I was born in 1945, most families in my little town on Long Island had 4 to 7 children. Most went to church with their parents. Looking back, it was a good time. Life seemed so ordered, so simple, and today it is not so. Fewer people attend church, fewer couples get married....preferring to cohabitate instead. Fewer have children. The demographics can predict what will happen in the future, and the lack of morals speaks ill of America's spiritual state.

Anonymous said...

The Shakers fit right into this scenario... all three of them.

Anonymous said...

Congregations Matter! ***Cheers and Applause*** (congregationsmatter.org) sounds good. Who can deny the LCMS tradition of autonomous congregations going back to the Reformation? Luther and the Reformers moved church governance away from the top-down Roman model of hierarchy and a presbyterian polity.
What happens, though, when congregations go off the rails? What if liberated Lutheran congregations forget their roots (ELCA) and turn to social justice as the chief article of faith? What happens when members of a Lutheran congregation vote their social consciences shaped by the culture instead of their confessional ones shaped by Scripture? What happens when the agendas of Feminism (abortion) and LGBT (sexual sin) and climate change (in deference to pseudo-science) settle in to the mindset of autonomous congregations? Resisting ecclesiastical oversight is an admirable notion in the proper context, but what of congregations that want carte blanche to vote into being their own idealistic utopia and realities, whatever shape they may take? Is there no hope for a balance between ecclesiastical supervision and unchecked autonomy?
Is it true that Congregations Matter will attempt to revise the history of the Synod for its own political gain? It seems determined to “restore the Synod to its historic role” and prevent it from “concentrating all authority, direction, and control in St. Louis” through popular support and Overtures at convention. Will this restoration of Synod’s historical role be a revision? Will it be a nuanced half-truth that is employed to gain popularity and adherents? Is their agenda only to obtain license to evade and escape the “confines” of Confessional Lutheran[ism] so they can flout Synod and all the while receive advice, encouragement, and resources from the same? If Pastor Peters’ post is any indication of this organization’s unbiased devotion to accuracy and truth, I’d say it bears watching very closely.

Carl Vehse said...

What happens, though, when congregations go off the rails?

In principle, a Missouri Synod congregation (or pastor or district president) that goes "off the rails" is counselled via Mt 18, and then ecclesiastical suprvision is applied. Unless in repentance they return to the rails, they are removed from the Synod roster. But that system has been pretty much hamstrung, especially since the Adjudication system was trashed in 1992.

BTW, the so-called "Congregations Matter" site is more aptly called "District Presidents Matter."

Anonymous said...

LCMS parishes need a passion and zeal to reach the unchurched
in their communities. One way to measure this: How many Adult
Confirmands did your parish have in 2017? Over 50 percent of
Americans are unchurched so we have a large number to reach with
the Good News of Jesus Christ.