Monday, October 8, 2012

The large number of very small congregations...

Somewhere it was pointed out that the average Protestant congregation has less than 75 members and an attendance of something between 30-50.  Even if those figures are off by a little, they are not off by much.  In the LCMS we have 1500-2000 parishes that come close to these numbers.  In other words, we have almost one third of our total congregations that fit this scenario.  Again, my point is not the numbers but the overall concern.

Some try to approach this from the vantage point of the top down.  Some voices have been raised to say that some, perhaps many, should be closed.  Period.  In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Milwaukee there is talk of closing half of their parishes and consolidating them because of a priest shortage and too many parishes too close together.  Others have been more blunt.  The excess capacity is NOT due simply to bad real estate (location, location, location) but to the fact that Mass attendance hovers around 20-25% of Roman Catholics.  The issue is not how big or where our buildings are but how few are attending regularly.  In this respect, we Lutherans share the same problem with Rome.

I am not an advocate of closing parishes (at least in general).  Neither am I an advocate of serving them with some sort of bandaid approach to ministry (read that deacons) until the last person in the building turns out the lights as they leave.  I think that the radical alternative is to renew these parishes.  Sure, some of them are in places where population declines have literally swept their potential community out from under them.  Funny, though, some of those who should be dying aren't and some who should not, are.  Statistics don't tell us everything.  The last thing I would advocate is giving up being Lutheran to emulate some other denomination or confession in their values and methodologies.  We will not rescue anything by betraying our confession to add a couple more bodies to the pews.  Either we will grow as Lutherans who confidently confess and live out that confession or we should simply leave and become the kind of Christians we envy so.  Common sense added to our courageous and confident confession will accomplish God's purpose.  Period.

One Roman Catholic has put together a set of questions for those who complain about dying congregations or closed churches: One may also ask the parishes that will be closed or clustered, a few questions, and these questions teach, even as they ask:
1. When did you start to notice a significant decline in membership?
2. What response was made to that decline?
3. Did the pastor and people work to evangelize?
4. Were drifting members ever contacted and encouraged to return?
5. How did the older members of the congregation fail to hand on the faith effectively to their children?
6. How did the Pastor and catechetical staff fail to hand on the faith effectively to the next generation?
7. What sort of financial plan was developed to secure the Parish’s ability to pay its bills?
8. When was the last time there was a vocation from this parish?
9. What is done to foster vocations?
10. Has the parish carefully maintained its buildings, or are they in disrepair?
11. How open is the parish to the wider community in which it exists?
12. Has the parish simply depended on [others] for vocations and monetary shortfalls or has it been carrying its load?
13. Did the pastor ever really level with his people as to how critical the problems were becoming in both the parish and the [District]?
14. How did things get this bad?

Although it is tempting to think that the solution lies with methodologies or with staff, I am not so sure.  I think that much of our problem is that we act like the defeated who cannot hope for anything better, that we have come to believe that we have nothing to offer the community and are here only to serve ourselves, and that our Lutheran identity just does not "sell" in the current market.  We do not need a marketing guru.  We do not need to clone praise band members.  We do not need to mirror the malls in church design.  We do not need to mimic the preaching of America's pulpit sweetheart Joel Osteen.  We simply need to be who we are.

There is just simply no avoiding the fact that, nationwide, only 20-25% of Lutherans are in Church on Sunday morning. Perhaps we are a church body not of 2.3 million members but of 800,000 or so who are actually in Church on Sunday morning.  Family sizes, birthrates, cohabitation -- these all contribute to the lack of Lutherans there but they do not explain why our kids are marrying outside and joining other churches or why the children we have are not there or why we are virtually invisible to the community around us. Financially, we Lutherans put 1-2% of our income in the plates.  These smaller parishes might be more viable if we gave more and what a tailwind it might be if we could turn our attention from paying the bills to speaking the Gospel in our neighborhoods and communities.

I am NOT ready to give up.  I am NOT ready to settle for makeshift ministers to simply prolong the agony.  I am NOT willing to exchange our theological integrity for a flash in the pan solution that betrays who we are.  I do believe that we possess the seeds of our success -- they are and always have been the means of grace.  Our confidence in these is key.  Our application of this preached and visible Word should be without embarrassment or apology.  A robust ministry begins with a robust Divine Service (speaking here not of all the bells and whistles but of the attention and priority given to the Sunday service -- source and summit of our faith and endeavors).  

Recently my District's church planting committee reported that they are focusing on planting congregations primarily in communities of 30,000 or more, that can be expected to "worship" (hate that phrase) 500 or more, that grow primarily through conversion (not transfer or renewal of lapsed Christians)... This in a District that has more than a third of our parishes which the church growth experts see as dying or no longer viable.  What might happen if we were able to invest and support and turn around even half these smaller congregations?  As we sat in convention listening to this, many of the delegates sitting at the tables came to the sober conclusion that this mission strategy has effectively written them off.  We can do better.


Paul said...

As long as the oligarchy runs the church plantintg show, we can expect the status quo ante for the duration. What does "Lutheran" matter when you can "worship" 500 or more at a shot?

Anonymous said...

How many do you worship? What a dumb question. Christians worship one - the one true God. Pagans and polytheists worship many.

Anonymous said...

I attend a church with a membership of 1000. I'd much rather attend a smaller church half that size or less. Bigger is NOT better.

Steve Bricker said...

A district committee planning the demise of local churches? The priorities are skewed.