Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We Better Off

When I instruct new members, I always speak of the drift of Lutherans from a myriad of separate groups divided by language, culture, location, and history into several larger groups (well, basically three or so, the ELCA, LCMS, and WELS).  Of course that is changing now due to the splits off the ELCA and I may have to do some adjusting.  Usually, people are surprised and pleased by the movement from many into several -- evidence of the ecumenical spirit and intensity of Lutheran efforts at reunion, reconciliation, and reorientation.  I usually let it go buy without much comment but lately I am wondering...  Are we better off because of all the mergers and reconfigurations that moved us from many smaller Lutheran church bodies into fewer and larger ones?

Missouri is the anomaly in this since the growth of the LCMS did not come from mergers or wholesale absorptions of existing bodies.  Missouri's growth came from planting congregations and growing them (at least until the late 1960s when the growth slowed, stopped, and then leaks started appearing).

My point is this.  Smaller church bodies, like smaller congregations, are much more adept at keeping track of their people, their programs, and their identity than larger ones.  When I look back to the turn of the twentieth century, Clifford Nelson notes no less than 20-25 different Lutheran church bodies in America.  Sure, many of them were loosely aligned in the General Synod, General Council, or Synodical Conference, but they were fully independent bodies with their own colleges, seminaries, missionaries, publishing arms, etc...  Now we are down to a very few larger bodies and a dozen or so very small bodies (my favorite is named ELF and an elf it is with but a couple of congregations).

Now I do not have access to attendance data from this earlier period in Lutheran history in America and I am not even sure that such information is even available.  My hunch is that in each of these smaller bodies the percentage of those attending the Divine Service (or "dry mass" as was more popular) was substantially higher than the percentage of members in the current bodies.  We speak of the ELCA with 4+ million members but only a relatively small percentage of them are in church on any given Sunday morning -- a million maybe.  Missouri does not fare much differently with something like 800,000 of our 2.4 million counted members actually in worship.

When most of these church bodies established colleges, they did so in order to help prepare people for the work of the kingdom.  The colleges were missions of the church bodies and kept close to the churches both in terms of student recruitment and financial support.  Now most Lutheran colleges are Lutheran in name only and their Lutheranism, like their ethnic background, is a heritage element and not part of their core identity.  The vast majority of students at these Lutheran colleges are not Lutheran and most of them no longer have "church worker" preparation programs.  Those that still do have only a small, small percentage of the student body enrolled in these majors or concentrations.

I could go on but I think it might be worth considering if we are really all that much better off for merging and uniting the many smaller Lutheran bodies into larger ones.  This has surely hastened the path toward a more liberal Lutheran identity in America, it has distanced the national offices further and further from the local parish, and, in many cases, led to great conflicts between the churches on a national level and the parochial one.  Who would disagree that the national scene offers us a distinctly different Lutheran identity today than a hundred years ago -- whether you would argue this was good or bad?  In addition, we have and continue to lose, misplace, or forget about thousands upon thousands every year (just look at the statistical reports published annually by nearly all of these bodies).  Sure there were theological controversies and conflicts but at least people took theology seriously.

So I am not so sure that the move of the Lutheran family from many, smaller, more ethnic and isolated church bodies into larger ones has borne much good fruit...  Makes you wonder about the whole ecumenical mission of one church with one headquarters and one mailing address...

1 comment:

Mark said...

I love this quote at the beginning of a Russell Saltzman column on the First Things website:

"In 1930 there were perhaps twenty to twenty-four Lutheran groups in America. Following nearly seventy years of fervent consolidation and church merger leading to the 1987 formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Lutherans have successfully reduced their synodical groups down to, hmm, some twenty to twenty-four church bodies."