Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Unnatural church growth. . .

Not long ago in the LCMS, there were howls of laughter when President Harrison pointed out the rate of decline in the LCMS with the decline of the birthrate. noting pointedly that the decline almost exactly matches the membership decline in our church body, state by state and district by district.  Howls of laughter came from the enlightened corners of the Synod who could hardly get their words out -- "Harrison hopes to reverse church decline with more babies."  

Why the ignorance of it all!!!!  We are in decline because of the music we sing or the music we no longer sing.  We are in decline because of the way our pastors preach or don't preach.  We are in decline because we do or do not use the hymnal.  We are in decline because we are not relevant or because we are too relevant.  We are in decline because our worship is boring or because it is too creative.  About the only thing it seems folks can agree upon is that we are in decline probably because of the failure of our leaders.

But the evidence is there.  Our rate of decline matches pretty well the decline in the birthrate wherever it is that we go in the Synod.  We are not in decline only because we are not having babies, we are in the decline because our families are weak and vulnerable, because we are not confident of what we believe and how we live out that faith, and because we are not raising up generations of children (just like nearly every denomination in the USA).

George Hawley’s Demography, Culture, and the Decline Of America’s Christian Denominations notes:
“In those denominations where large families remain common, the future looks bright. Among other denominations where later marriages and small families are the norm, and have been the norm for a generation or more, it is unclear whether they will have a future at all.”
Our lack of babies is not a joke.  It is descriptive of the problems marriage is in within the fabric of our common life within this culture.  Fewer folks are getting married and fewer folks are having children (married or not).  While the answer is not simply to get rid of birth control, the reality is that not having children is not a result of the environment or biology but of choice, pure and simple choice.  We do not have because we do not want children.   No this is not the only problem but it is symptomatic of the other problems that have left us somewhat in a crisis mode when it comes to children and family.

According to Hawley, there are three major factors that determine and make possible an individual  denomination's viability: the personal commitment of its individual members, racial/ethnic diversity, and natural growth (uhhhh, we call this having babies).

Babies or the lack of them is a sign of a larger problem not always as easily identified as a home without kids or a marriage, for that matter.  Christianity has from the get go been a family friendly group.  The loss of the family is not simply a changing cultural or social mores,  It is the weakness of the family and its consequences for a church defined early on as family friendly.  When marriage is on the decline, so are the churches.  When children are no longer central to marriage, we have a problem.  When the numbers of children chosen corresponds to the lowest common denominator, the church will suffer.  Though everyone knows this, we seldom speak of it out loud.  It is an inconvenient truth in a world of choice, where fetuses are disposable, where only perfect children are tolerated, and where marriage is the place where my own happiness comes first.  It is an inconvenient truth in a world where we are no longer sure what it means to be man or woman and where we are not sure children, if they are good, are not a goodness best served up in smaller numbers.  Yes, it is about children but it is first about the desire to marry, the culture in which cohabitation is becoming the norm, where children are disposable, where reproductive technology promises fewer but better children, and where churches find themselves mirroring the vacuous platitudes of political correctness more than proclaiming the Word of the Lord endures forever.

According to the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christian has dropped below 75 percent (from about 90 percent 40 or 50 years ago) and where the fastest growing denomination are the nones (20% and growing) who either claim no religion or a hodgepodge religion of their own making with a laisse faire God.  One of ever four  Americans never go to church (up from 10 % in 1972) and less than a majority, 43% attend at least once a month (down a fifth).  Among those who do attend regularly, one out of every four is over 65  and less than an eighth are people under 30. Christians are losing all quarters but especially the young and the college educated in all racial groups.  It is not only about babies but it surely is about them!


Anonymous said...

The late, great Pastor Guido Merkens of Concordia Lutheran Church
in San Antonio demonstrated the key to LCMS church growth is through
a large number of Adult Confirmands each year. He stressed evangelism
among the unchurched in our commmunities. His parish was among the
leaders each year with 80 to 100 adult confirmands.

Today, pastors sit in front of their computers and blog about the lack
of church growth. We need more pastors who are conducting at least
3 different adult instruction classes each year to prepare the unchurched
to be healthy members of a local parish.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Viewed from a historical perspective, periods of decline and growth in Christianity may also be recorded as a cyclical pattern. The demographics of America, for example, and the birth decline affects the numbers of white Christian families in the churches, but lest we forget, other ethnic groups are filling the void. My daughter attends an inner city Albany NY LCMS church. A majority of the members of the church are immigrants from India, Pakistan, Africa, South and Central America, and other lands, people who were once Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, etc. They do have families with children and many are raising them in the church. So what do we say about all this? What dies it mean? Answer: It means this....God is in charge of His church. At present, Christianity is growing with huge numbers being seen in China, Vietnam, and even in Muslim countries. Even under governments which suppress the faith, there are still small group house churches and conversions going on. I do not think there is much quibbling about the liturgical forms, ceremonial procedures, and theological disputes in these areas, where God works through preachers with the guts and charisma to lead their flocks despite persecution. Remember, while the church may decline in some places in the world, it grows in other areas.....because it is under God's protection and sovereignty.

Anonymous said...

You said: Today, pastors sit in front of their computers and blog about the lack of church growth.

FWIW, if you knew the stats, you would find out that Pastor Peter's congregation does have new member classes at least 3 times a year, has one of the highest numbers of adult new members through adult confirmation, has among the highest numbers of infant baptisms, and a very large percentage of people in the pews under the age of 30. He does what he preaches and it shows. Of course it helps that he is in a growing community. So before you paint a picture of a pastor who sits in front of a computer and talks the talk, you should know that he and the associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church also walk the walk.

A person privileged to be a member of such a growing and solidly confessional Lutheran congregation!

Anonymous said...

Baby boomers thrived because marriage was attractive to a man who could get a $20/hour factory job and provide a house and a middle class life. Those marriages produced lots of children. Those children grew up and were not so appealing for marriage because they were saddled with college debt and a job market that takes care of the wealthy and beautiful, but no one else. (The wealthy still marry and have plenty of children.) I vividly remember visiting the university recruiting office after graduation and seeing only two options: $10/hour shipping company job and volunteer work. They can't afford to buy a house, much less marry, have a middle class life, and lots of very expensive children. Believe me, we don't have a generation that is strangely warped and doesn't want these things. We have simply created a culture that makes such normal aspirations an incredible challenge.

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Dear anonymous, I disagree with you about debts and economic issues being a reason many young couples do not marry. Anecdotally speaking, I know personally of so many couples who are quite well off financially but still avoid marriage, preferring to just cohabit together. Some have children out of wedlock and could care less about being married. A young barber who gave me a haircut recently said his girlfriend has a great paying job, and both consider a marriage license "just a piece of paper." In my view, many in my old generation struggled financially but still married....never even considered "living together," which is immoral. I believe it is a values issue and it corresponds to the decline in morals today, and some will use the financial argument as nothing more than a superficial excuse. In all fairness to both genders, as many women as men today are avoiding marriage as well.

Anonymous said...

The LCMS President Matthew Harrison has remarked several times that
too many pastors are glued to their computer screens and are not actively
reaching out into their communities with the gospel. My opening remarks
on this thread were not directed at Father Peters. Instead it is a clear
call for pastors to be engaged in the Great Commission.

Anonymous said...

Great Commission? There is no such thing in the Bible. At least any Christian ever born before 1900 never heard such a statement.

But if you are referring to Mathew 28, where Jesus instruct His pastors to baptize and teach I am not aware of any pastor who is not doing that in their church.

Anonymous said...

Poor confessional. You have no concept of the priesthood of all believers.
Put the icons away, let the incense smoke clear, and brush up on your Reformation history.

Anonymous said...

Our church made a run at church growth and revitalization, the premise of which is that liturgical, orthodox churches have lost their ability to evangelize and make disciples. Liturgical, orthodox churches are characterized as obtuse and unresponsive to the outsider. We were told these churches, including ours, have curved in on themselves and have lost the ability to reach out to the neighbors outside their walls. They are further characterized as self-satisfied and care next to nothing about the lost. Thus, we needed to do more and do better to show a love for neighbor that we did not have. The first step in the process is to lay a load of guilt on the laity so we felt motivated to do something about our lapse by resolving to reach out to the community and make a difference in our corner of the world. We were then guided in this effort to pray intensely for a vision to cast – which is a concept eisegetically read into Scripture. This disparaging view of the church is wrong on so many levels. After five years of community outreach and service, our membership continued to fall. I cannot recommend the "missional-church growth" approach as an answer to declining membership and attendance.