Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Former Lutherans Outnumber the Active Ones

Someone once said that 1 of every 100 Americans WAS a Lutheran.  Probably a goodly number of them, ex-LCMSes.  If only we were more cult like we could merit a web site and support group for all those former Lutherans!  But, alas, they just leave via the back door, side door, or for a brave few, the front door.

The landscape of Republican candidates is populated with former Lutherans.  Ron Paul was raised Lutheran (has a couple of brothers who are Lutheran Pastors, I hear) and is currently Baptist.  We all know of Michele Bachmann's hastened exit from the Wisconsin Synod for non-denominational land.  Newt Gingrich was raised in the LCMS and departed for the Southern Baptists before rediscovering his liturgical roots and ending up in Rome.  Although no one ever heard of him, Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, was briefly a GOP presidential candidate and is a non-practicing Lutheran (code for no longer Lutheran). Vern Wuensche, a name I had never heard before, was, apparently, a declared GOP presidential candidate and is Lutheran (wow, practicing, too, but who ever heard of him?).  This is typical of what we find in the world around us.  A non-Lutheran with Lutheran connections is Jon Huntsman, who, though a Mormon, went to a Lutheran school in Los Angeles.

I was shopping the other day and in the midst of a conversation the gentleman explaining something to me asked me what I did for a living.  Short end of the conversation -- he was a former Lutheran, former LCMS, and from a parish I knew, not far from the one I served in NY.  You cannot throw a stone without hitting a dozen or so former, ex, or non-practicing Lutherans.  If we had kept them all, we just might be the second largest block of Christians in America.  But we have not...

Why have we lost so many?  There are the standard answers.  The change from ethnic church to American, the upward mobility of immigrant Lutherans, the move from ethnic neighborhoods or rural areas to suburbs, the squabbles along the way, the mergers which compromised history and integrity for the sake of unity, the divergent social stands amid social change, the tears and rips in the fabric of the American family, culture, and political life, etc...  We have gotten quite adept at explaining why so many are no longer Lutheran.  But I still do not get it?

How is it possible to exchange the theological vibrancy of an efficacious Word for one that is theoretically without error but powerless to do what it claims?  How is it possible to give up the sacramental presence of a God located among us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist for one largely absent until called upon and then only vaguely present when we bid Him come?  How is it possible to forget the unforgettable Lutheran hymns that sing the faith into our hearts, minds, and memories for the sentimental songs of Gospel harmony or the repeated but shallow choruses of contemporary Christian music?  How is it possible to choose the veiled presence of the Pastor (himself a means for the means of grace) for a church in which the preacher is the star and the worship service warm up for the prince of the pulpit?  How is it possible to grow frustrated with a church that takes what we believe, confess, and teach so seriously that we debate and argue about it as if it were the most important thing in life (which it is, isn't it?)?  How is it that people can make a geographical move in which they exchange a church home in which they were Sunday school teachers, choir singing, ushers, counters, greeters, council members, and fully invested to go shopping for a church as if they were buying a new TV?

I can only think of a couple of reasons.... a lack of catechesis and the failure to believe what it is that we confess and teach.  Too many have left in ignorance -- not knowing what it is that Lutherans believe and confess.  It is partly to blame on both sides of the rail -- Pastors who failed to teach passionately the faith confessed in creed and lived in liturgy on Sunday morning and people whose itching hears were not listening.  Too many have assumed that Lutheranism was an ethnicity instead of a Church, a choice instead of a confession, an intellectual point of view instead of a way of worshiping and living.  There is plenty of blame to go around here but my point is not to blame (too late for that).  The other is that we have forgotten to hear what we say and sing, to believe what we confess and teach, and to give to this life as a child of God within the Church the priority that is due.  Perhaps we as Pastors have too frequently confessed our own doubts and fears instead of concentrating on the kerygma in our preaching and teaching.  Perhaps we have listened too closely to the doubts and fears of our culture and let the growing confusion about who we are as Americans confuse and confound our faith.  Whatever the reason, the Church ceased to be about the Truth that transforms everything and become the domain of feelings and opinions as individual as the taste of diet or dress.

We cannot afford to keep on making these same mistakes.  The numbers of former Lutherans or non-practicing Lutherans already outnumbers the tally of active Lutherans.  But this is not the reason or rationale for why or who we are.  We are people of the Word and Sacraments, the means of grace that deliver that of which they speak and do what they promise.  This is the essence of Lutheran identity.  The Word and the Sacraments are not a stairway to God (as Rome often speaks) but the means by which the hidden and distant God comes to us to deliver what we dare not ask and know we do not deserve.  These delightful and priceless gifts of grace bestow the Spirit as well as the blessings of the cross and empty tomb and enable us to receive and respond to God's bidding.  They compel us with love to the community in which the Word and Table of the Lord are central and the font is entrance gate.  It is here that we understand communion is not only nor primarily vertical but horizontal -- not in a vague spiritual sense but in the concrete mercy and service meant for others as Christ has shown mercy and served us.

Faith is not intellectual assent to propositional truth or an experience resulting in certain feelings but an identity thrust upon us as God has literally ripped us up from one kingdom to plant us in His kingdom, by baptism and faith.  Faith is not a quest for answers that rationalize or organize the loose ends of all the whys or whats of our curiosity but God's impetus in confronting us with the mystery of who He is and what He has done for us.  Grace is not just a word for us but the taste of bread and wine which is Christ's body and blood.  It is the personal word of absolution that confronts and compels us as sinners to honesty and then surprises us with the embrace of the waiting Father loving, forgiving, and welcoming back His prodigal children.  Mercy is not one sided or one dimensional for us.  What we receive, we must give -- not out of duty or obligation but as the joyful privilege of those who have known grace first hand.  It is quiet work in which the attention is not upon us but upon those to whom this mercy is shown and the God from whence this mercy comes.

I admit to having no secret method to keeping Lutherans and preventing the peeling off of Lutherans to other churches or, more importantly, to no church at all.  But our confession and faith is primarily positive.  We are not here because we fear hell (though we do).  We are here because of the joy that calls us and creates us a people of joy, who cannot get over the fact that God loves us and has accomplished for us what we could not do -- saving us from our sin, death, and selves to be His own, to live under Him in His kingdom both now and forever, the recipients of His gracious favor whose privilege it is to respond with praise, thanksgiving, and love.  We who are Pastors have a marvelous opportunity every Sunday to remind Lutherans of this blessed truth -- and not for us only, but for the life of the world!  We who are in the pew are those who make known this blessed truth in the words and deeds of faith that fulfill our baptismal vocation in the world.  What marvelous opportunity, indeed!


vern wuensche said...

Yes I am a Presidential Candidate and a practicing Missouri Synod Lutheran. I was an Elder in two of churchs for 21 years. No one has heard of me much as no one has ever heard of any entrepreneur until he is successful although I have had some success: In 2008 when I ran I placed 10th in both Iowa and New Hampshire among serious candidates who ran in both states. This year I am probably about 8th. A MSLutheran from birth I believe that all scripture is written by inspiration of God and everything flows from that.
Thank you for all you do to promote God's Word . . . and of course if you have any Lutheran friends in Iowa let them know about me!

Vern Wuensche
Republican Candidate for President 2012

Ariel said...

Well, what do you think is bigger, the number of former Lutherans or the number of former ("non-practicing") Catholics? I don't think our problem is unique.

Lee said...

I am on my Android phone and far from spell-check, but here it goes.

I appreciate this article for many reasons, but mainly because you speak truth about where Lutherans are without blame and without apology for what is truly Lutheran, which is often the scapegoat of the church growth gurus for why we are "failing".

I am not a cultural Lutheran. None of my family roots can be traced back to traditionally Lutheran countries for at least 300 years. My father was Roman Catholic and my mother was Southern Baptist. It was not until I was eleven that my non-practicing parents were invited by my dad's boss to attend little Faith Lutheran Church in Yuma, Az, an LCA parish at the time. I was soon the first baptized Lutheran in the family.

The pastor was Elsworth Campbell. The service was LBW setting one every Sunday, Holy Communion every Sunday and full vestments on the pastor. Even us poor acolytes had these red cassocks and white surplices that seemed cruel at the time in the heat of Yuma.

But what was most important was a pastor who actually taught his confirmation students about the creeds, confessions, sacraments, liturgy and how they all flow from the Bible. He also taught this to my parents and took the time to be a pastor rather than a social worker.

Two pastors and an AIM came from our confirmation group, and many who are still in Yuma still attend faith or the other Lutheran church that has since be built.

When I moved to Tucson for college, I was shocked that the local Lutheran church nearest my dorm did not have Holy Communion every Sunday and that the liturgy was a hodge-podge mess.

When I went to seminary, social justice trumped everything. Scripture, creeds, confessions, sacraments, all supposedly important, but not primary and could and should be pushed aside when they got in the way. (To be fair, it was much more the students than the professors at the time; although, I know some of those students are now professors).

I guess my point is that so often what life-long, cultural Lutheran often see as getting in the way are the very things that often attract non-Lutherans. In fear of becoming cultural irrelevant, we have become that and have also lost the core of who we are as Lutheran Christians.

Paul said...

Some I have read (Puritans) say the blame lies partly in an unconverted clergy, which has been a problem for centuries. The flock will follow the shepherd, after all. And so the only answer I have thought of is to pray daily for every Pastor and his wife in my circuit and beyond that I think of, by name, daily. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

Steve said...

Fr. P,
I wonder how many of us are now in our church who weren't born Lutheran but came when we saw it to be the truth. What you have said about the beauty and joy in the Gospel given to us is absolutely true. I came to the Lutheran (LCMS) as fast as I could after the Baptist/Bible church folks had just about demoralized me beyond hope.

Peace in Christ (the only way to get peace by the way),

Judy said...

Pastor Peters, What exactly do you say or do when someone does leave the church? Do you find it is more personal than theological ? Of the ones I know that left were all personality misunderstandings.

Prodigal Lutheran said...

I'll speak for Pr Peters. I fell away largely by unlearning the habit of worship and learning to fill my Sunday with other stuff. What drew me back were the persistent contacts from church members -- how are you, we miss you, what can we do to help you find your way back, etc. That was accompanied by letters or notes at holiday times. Finally, I decided to brave the "where have you beens" of people making light of my absence and just come back. What compelled me to return was one woman who I knew a bit. Her hug and her whisper in my ear that she had been praying for this day helped all my objections and excuses to melt away. I'll tell you one more thing. It sure helped that when I returned I found the familiar liturgy and hymns and did not feel like the church had passed me by while I was away. Just a few words from one thirty something who took a four year hiatus from church.

Dr.D said...

I can speak as a former Lutheran, former member of LCMS. I came to Lutheranism as an adult convert from Methodism, and I was looking for particular things in worship that I found in Lutheranism in the mid-1960s. By the mid-1980s, Lutheranism was changing, and in particular the LCMS was discarding TLH. I moved to the WELS who were retaining TLH at that time. I hold strongly to the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi - the law of praying is the law of believing. When CPH began to foist new hymnals on the parishes, the theology of the Church was being changed in subtle ways.

I ultimately was led to make the jump to Continuing Anglicanism and the Book of Common Prayer 1928 where I am very much at home. Now I no longer worry about anyone forcing liturgical change on me as when I was a Lutheran.

Fr. D
Continuing Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

The only important question is this:

CHRISTIANS? We need to get over
the idea that the one with the most
Lutherans wins. Christ is looking
for Christians who trust in Him for
eternal salvation and follow Him
each day.

Move to Minnesota, one out of five
adults is Lutheran.

BrotherBoris said...

I used to live in Minnesota, I'd say the state is probably at least 40% Lutheran overall, in some areas it is over 50%.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand Christianity is growing in places like Africa. I am ashamed when I think that some Africans literally walk miles to attend Catholic or Protestant services.

May we all repent lest the Lord remove our lampstand as he did at the church at Ephesus

Janis Williams said...

A Christian is a Christian..... "Christ is looking for Christians..."

One, Christ is not 'looking' for Christians, he is MAKING them.

Two, I hear ya, Steve, I'm one too.

Three, Baptists and Lutherans cannot both be right, Anonymus. They may both be Christians, but one flavor HAS to be wrong, wrong, wrong. If you are a Lutheran, go read the Confessions again. When people complain that Lutherans believe they're the only ones who are right....do you want us to be wrong? Or are you promoting a logical fallacy?

Anonymous said...

I can only think of a couple of reasons.... a lack of catechesis and the failure to believe what it is that we confess and teach.  Too many have left in ignorance -- not knowing what it is that Lutherans believe and confess. 

I am the only one of four brothers who continues to attend an LCMS church (the others left and do not go anywhere). They fell away even before the LCMS started to embrace contemporary worship and the Church Growth Movement. We all had studied the catechism in order to become church members.

My brothers, and many others like them, left after their faith slowly atrophied. I almost left as well. Sure, the services were always traditional: TLH, and later, LW. It was always the same hymns, and the same orders of service, week after week. Somehow, the predictability, the rigidity, and the mindless repetition made it feel as if we were blindly going through the motions.

As former LCMSers, my brothers gradually forgot what they were once taught in catechism class. Was such training reinforced after Confirmation Sunday. Was there ever an obvious connection (obvious to the laymen, anyway) between worship and study materials. How can such "ancient" materials be viewed as living and breathing documents that can be applied to our daily, modern lives.

I detest Church Growth Movement materials and the attempts by many misguided pastors to turn the LCMS into a "hip" denomination that has obvious relevance in the modern world. Rather than research ways to make the Book of Concord, the hymnal, and traditional service more relevant, applicable, and appealing to the 18-35 year old demographic, these pastors want to dump them all. Not knowing what Lutherans should believe and confess has now been institutionalized by the LCMS.

In the first case, people leave because they forget or never truly understood how to apply traditional Lutheran doctrine. Learning how to appreciate traditional worship also takes considerable time and patience. In the second case, Lutheran doctrine is viewed as the problem and is replaced by publications promoted by the Willow Creek Association and by TCN. Contemporary worship is easy to understand, but it lacks any meaningful content. It also promotes a Theology of Glory. Why remain a Lutheran if the church morphs into a bad copy of the non-denominational seeker church down the street.

By the way, Lutherans have always been strong on doctrine, but weak regarding fellowship. Conversely, non-denominational churches have always been weak on doctrine, but strong regarding fellowship. For many people, the desire for fellowship trumps the need to believe in sound doctrine. The traditional community no longer exists. How else can we recreate Mayberry?

LCMS officials are too timid to admit that the Church Growth Movement has been an abysmal failure. Where is the surge in new members that was promised? People are still leaving the church in droves. Where are the audits of such programs. How many more viable campus religious centers will need to be sold before LCMS officials understand that the young people are still not remaining in the church. How long will the denial of the real problems regarding why people leave the LCMS continue?


Cafeteria Lutheran

Brian Yamabe said...

Cafeteria Lutheran,
What was your parents involvement in your catechesis? Did you have any home devotions or Bible study? I ask this because I am the father of two young girls and I hope to prevent the seemingly inevitable drift. When I run across people with your story I'm always interested in any correlation to parental involvement. FYI, I went to a LCMS day school and drifted away for a time until God called me back to His good gifts.


Anonymous said...


We all attended LCMS day school, from Kindergarden to 8th grade. We spend 7th and 8th grade studying the catechism. It was intense. Perhaps you also remember memorizing the answers to 200+ questions.

Mom used to take us to church. Dad was proud to be unchurched. He tolerated our religious upbringing. He used to enjoy making fun of my mom for going to Thursday night choir practice. Nope, in such an abusive environment, there was no room for anything like home Bible study.

To graduate means to finish. Too often, Confirmation Sunday resembles a graduation ceremony INSTEAD of what it should be: An initiation. I blame the Church for encouraging such a perception.

Anonymous said...

Why isn't the LCMS doing this?


Gary said...

Want to make the Lutheran Church stronger?

Here are my suggestions:

Pastors: Make your sermons relevant. The social gospel is important but feed the people's souls with the personal gospel of Jesus Christ. How can Christ make a difference in their lives?

Second: Don't try to copy the non-dnominational mega-churches worship style. Lutheran liturgy is beautiful and historic. Don't change it.

Third: People want to know that someone cares about them. The early church looked out for it's members spiritual and physical/emotional well-being. The Mormons have latched onto this concept with great success. We Lutherans need to pick it up again.

clh said...

This was a very telling article by the Pastor. I had no idea that the Lutheran "drop-out" rate was that rampant.
A little about my relationship with Lutheranism: I was a Lutheran for several years and received my higher education through the LC-MS system. I was studying to be a Lutheran Pastor in the LC-MS through Concordia Seminary. I was Lutheran for about 10 years before I officially left. I would say that my Faith in Lutheran Doctrine/Theology began to erode after about 3-4 years into it. I wanted my belief system to be consistent and certain. I started to perceive problems in the Lutheran interpretation and overall dogmatic system which served as some of the bases for my departure from Lutheranism.

What strikes me about this article is that it doesn't really consider that the problem might be in Lutheranism itself-- in its Theology/Doctrine. Is Sola Scriptura really that reliable? Are we really justified by faith alone? Is prayer to saints really idolatry? Should we emphasize personal faith as clinging to the Promises of Christ and not His Person? Is Amillenialism the way to go? Isn't it a little quick to ignore texts that place Israel in a future role before the end of history (cf. Rom. 11:25; Acts 1:8ff)? How about the doctrine of Judgment and Hell? Is it truly just to send unbelievers to ETERNAL damnation?!? How come Hell is not in the Old Testament? Some of you will say it is in the Aramaic, Sheol. But they are not the same. Virtually all of Judaism believes that Sheol is a state of death; the realm of the after-life that does not involve eternal punishment. If Hell is not in the Old Testament, then that suggests some real questions and problems pertaining to God, the Bible, and the Religion as a whole. What kind of God or Religion would not warn people of eternal perdition for over 1 Millenium?!?
I can take a wild guess as to why people are bailing out of Lutheranism. We are living in a time of dramatic re-interpretation. People are re-interpreting the major infrastructures of Life: Medicine, Media, Politics, Education and of course Religion. We are finding out more and more the flaws and failures to all these institutions. People are preferring Private and Home Education to Public Ed. People are decreasingly tuning into popular media (NBC; MSNBC; CNN) and turning to localized alternative Media. People are tired of the 2 Party System and prefer a Third Variable. We are finding out more and more about the greedy schemes behind Pharmaceuticals and Medicine; and conversely learning that we can take care of ourselves through proper diet and natural medicine. The reinterpretation goes on and on. People are waking up in droves to the infrastructural system (a Matrix, if you will) around us and seeing their inherent flaws. Among this vast movement of reinterpretation and revelation, there remains the lowly stubborn asshole few who remain immune to growth and revelation... these are the Lutherans. This article represents this. "How could people leave us....?!?!" The utter amazement in the writer nearly amazes myself! He is basically saying that there is something wrong with the departed and does not really suggest that there might be some real problems in Lutheranism. There is a huge wake-up call happening around the world, and the Lutherans need to get ready because they are also on the menu for intellectual and spiritual upheaval. The problem might be you guys... dumbasses!

Anonymous said...

"I can only think of a couple of reasons.... a lack of catechesis and the failure to believe what it is that we confess and teach."

Sooner or later, Lutherans will work out this that reasoning is not the right one. It is often repeated as a mantra to "save" Lutheranism but it doesn't seem to actually work. There's plenty of catechized faithful who still leave the Lutheran Churches.

The answer is relationship, spiritual growth and finding meaning in God- spiritual formation. These are the things that Pietist movement aimed for, never intending to be at the expense of orthodoxy.

Lutherans need to again find their heart for God, not just get their doctrine right. I ought to know, being an orthodox Lutheran seminarian almost destroyed my faith completely. Right belief just isn't enough. You need to be on fire for and in love with God, and this is a work of the Spirit, nothing more.

I think Spener was right.

* Rev. H. Parish Priest

Anonymous said...

Funny but no one mentioned that a person might leave grow in the Scriptures. That the sermons are always on the Synoptic Gospels and more emphasis was on Lutheran authors than on studying the Bible. That's why I left.

Penny dreadful said...

Consider that many have left because they have issue with the LCMS articles of faith no matter what style of worship the LCMS offers.

Jordon said...

I agree with Desert Rat. I'll say the reason why I stuck around for starters as the thoughtful in depth care taken by the teaching at the little LCMS church in Odessa, WA that I went to. Our pastor tried hard to make sure we understood what was being taught in confirmation and I've had the fortune of having good adult bible study classes there and since. Not classes that repeat verbatim from a small booklet but ones who's leaders take the time to prepare the material before Sunday morning and are good enough teachers to know they need to be prepared to field our questions. As the onslaught of our society came at me, these little retreats of God's word have helped keep my faith intact thereby keeping me coming back. Like Penny there, for me the music doesn't mean anywhere near as much as the content although I am quite partial to the articles of faith.

I have one question for Mr. Wuensche, when the man you ran into told you he was a former Lutheran did you ask him why he left? Taking the time to find these reasons why rather than speculate on culture I think would help our cause. Having the compassion to approach, ask and listen is of the utmost importance for this situation.

Lastly I'm going to quote John Warwick Montgomery, the Lutheran apologist. I've heard him say one of the worst thing to happen to a church is that it becomes a cultural phenomenon. I have much respect for the German founders of our church but they didn't found it because they were German, it was because they were Spreading God's word. I've sat in coffee hours where I've seen the uncomfortable eyes of new members(Italian, East Indian, and other) dart around the room as the Good German roots discussions take over. I think it's something we need to be careful with. Thank you for writing the article.

Kurt Poeppel said...

"I am a poor miserable sinner deserving nothing but temporal and eternal punishment."

I can't see why anyone would want to get away from that. :-)