[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.While circuit riders were mostly the domain of Methodists, those who are looking back to this icon of the American frontier are not just Methodists. In fact the so-called 7 Sisters of Old Line American Protestantism are all finding themselves in need of creative ways to deal with declining fortunes. What these denominations have in common is that their yesterday was brighter than their today and tomorrow. The United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are all bleeding off members and a shell of their former selves. Between a third and half of their membership is no more and those who remain are graying faster than America. That has left congregations selling off buildings, closing their doors, and searching for ways to keep the lights on a little longer.
What is so strange here is that you would never know about this by reading the media or listening to the news. While you might hear about a resurrection of the old circuit rider idea, what is not in the story is why things are in such tough shape. Perhaps it is because the news media does not know or it might just be that the news media is sympathetic to the liberal and progressive stands taken by these declining churches and so they refuse to connect the dots. In either case the media is hiding the most significant story in American religion. The big story is what is emptying these churches -- a full embrace of the most radical social positions on everything from climate change to globalism to GLBTQ+ agendas to gender fluidity to population control while at the same time distancing themselves more and more from Biblical truth, the reliability of the text, and their own historic confessions.
Now to be sure, holding the line on the faith against the pressure of cultural change does not guarantee success but it has slowed the decline. In the LCMS our decline has largely mirrored the trends in the population around them. That is not an excuse or justification for sitting on our hands but what it does do is remind us that much of the problem has been caused by us. Among the causes, the failure to effectively teach the faith to our children, to properly catechize those new to the faith, to hold up marriage and children as godly and good, to equip our people to give witness to the hope within them, and to strive for and sacrifice for excellence in all we do (starting with Sunday morning!). It is an uphill battle but it is not a lost cause. We are not preaching a hollow message with a mythological gospel. We have the Word through which God works. Perhaps we need to believe it more. And perhaps those 7 sisters need to reconsider how they have distorted and diluted the faith in order to appear more in step with the times. Otherwise all the creative approaches you can come up with will only prolong the inevitable.
Not mentioned above, Jason and Jess Felici are pastor and pastrix of the XXXA.
Also not mentioned is that the Missouri Synod has a history of circuit riders, including one of its founders, F.C.D. Wyneken, as discussed by Robert E. Smith in his 1999 article, "Wyneken as Missionary."
According to the Christian Cyclopedia, the Missouri Synod used circuit riders from 1884–1935, when it grew from 348,182 to 1,288,950 baptized members, faster than the population growth rate to around 1900 and approximately the same rate as the population growth during 1900–35.
Today the Missouri Synod has pastors who serve two or more small congregations and sometimes travel hundereds of miles every week to tend to these flocks.
LCMS pastors are serving two congregations and are also bi-vocational.
It is frankly absurd to notice that some "dual-parish" congregations consist of congregations no more than a 20 minute drive apart, and yet, due to stubborn refusal to face the music, they insist on making a pastor serve them both, when the congregations should have merged long ago. Where there is a REAL need, sure...dual point/triple point parishes are fine, but in many cases, it is just a ridiculous waste of of resources. The Roman Catholics just close down a parish and merge it with another, all the hand-wringing and pining for the old days notwithstanding.
Having been in the LCMS for many years, I think one thing which has contributed to our decline is a failure to focus on preaching and the sermon. I have heard too many bad sermons by hip pastors who treated sermons like a monologue, filled with references to their own lives, their own experiences, and superficial religiosity. Instead of solid Biblical based preaching, we hear a casual message geared to an audience with a limited attention span. We also have contemporary services, some of which seem like a rock concert with worldly trappings and lacking the liturgy. Despite our best efforts, many people leave the church, and the numbers grow smaller. Too many believe that faith in Christ is not necessary, considering themselves self reliant, and prosperous on their own efforts. This is the same huge mistake made by the Israelites, and God eventually brings judgment. Perhaps, in America, we will eventually see many more fall away, and only a remnant will be left. Nevertheless, even a smaller LCMS is better than a larger one which is divided and losing the spiritual war in our land.
"I have heard too many bad sermons by hip pastors who treated sermons like a monologue, filled with references to their own lives, their own experiences, and superficial religiosity. Instead of solid Biblical based preaching, we hear a casual message geared to an audience with a limited attention span. We also have contemporary services, some of which seem like a rock concert with worldly trappings and lacking the liturgy."
But the LCMS has two seminaries dedicated to training and testing future pastors on "solid Biblical based preaching." Every District has Circuit Visitors, who are trained to visit District churches and verify that pastors do have "solid Biblical based preaching." The District President has the responsibility and authority of ecclesiastical suprvision to counsel pastors who have been found to not have "solid Biblical based preaching," so that they can be corrected. And the Synod President has the ecclesiastical supervision authority to counsel any District President who is lax in letting pastors get by with "sermons...filled with references to their own lives, their own experiences, and superficial religiosity."
What could go wrong?!?
Dear Readers of Pastoral Meanderings,
I appreciate Pastor Peters thought-provoking article here. I can't put much of those thoughts in a blog comment, but will give a few for what they are worth.
In response to "Carl Vehse," the challenge in the LCMS this time is not "from the top," but "from the bottom." In other words, this time the synod president, district presidents, seminaries, and circuit visitors are not "to blame." Certainly both seminaries are doing an excellent job in homiletics and worship training.
It is easy to blame the hierarchy (seminaries, synod and district presidents, circuit visitors), because Carl and I saw many LCMS seminary and college professors in the 1960s attempting to ape the most prestigious divinity schools in America and Europe, thus scuttling God's Word in order to gain reputation among the "big boys."
It is easy to blame the hierarchy, because Carl and I saw some LCMS church synod presidents and district presidents in the 1960s attempting to ape the ecumenically-oriented, high-society denominations, thus scuttling Lutheran identity in order to gain reputation among the "big boys."
This time the challenge is "from below." It is a movement of the people, mostly younger people, away from the forms of the Christian religion that older generations were used to, and comfortable with. The younger people who have moved this way don't want preaching based on Scripture, but rather religious pep talks. They don't want hymns they can sing, but music they can tap their foot or shake their booty to. They don't want "boring" prayer, but "uplifting" prayer. The old denominational divisions don't make a difference to most of these folks, so they move to the biggest church with the most program offerings. They choose their church for the same reasons that they choose their favorite shopping mall.
The result is a "dumbing-down" of the preaching, teaching, prayer, and worship that these people experience. They usually end up with a less cohesive social network than the smaller parishes they came from. At some point, the pep talks and praise songs all start sounding the same, and are as boring as before. With no social network in their church to keep them connected, they fall out of the habit of church-going. This has created the "nones," i.e., a large percentage of the US population who grew-up Christian, but presently don't go to church. How do I know this? I have a lot of friends from high school, and from high school-and-college church youth groups, which this describes.
This phenomenon has affected all Christian churches in America, except maybe for the Pentecostals whose statistics are the reverse of everyone else. I think the Pentecostals have this sort of "success" because their worship produces a physical addiction in those who accept it. I saw this in the "Jesus freaks" charismatics that I knew in the 1970s who would get "high on Jesus."
The decline in the "Seven Sisters" mainline denominations is MUCH worse than other denominations because of their abandonment of their original denominational distinctives and their aggressive adoption of the LGBTQ agenda. Here Pastor Peters article is "spot on." By some calculations, e.g., the ELCA has lost 36% of its membership since 1988, a period of 21 years.
The decline in the Roman Catholic church is LESS than other denominations, because their loss is offset by immigration from Central and South America. Immigration is not helping the input of other denominations to any great degree, as far as I know.
Pastor Peters' analysis is helpful, in that it shows us that decline in church-going in the USA today is NOT equal for all denominations. What is more difficult to determine is "why some and not others." I hope that these comments give some reasonable explanation for the differences.
Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland
Hello Dr Noland
Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written post.
"It is a movement of the people, mostly younger people, away from the forms of the Christian religion that older generations were used to, and comfortable with. The younger people who have moved this way don't want preaching based on Scripture, but rather religious pep talks. They don't want hymns they can sing, but music they can tap their foot or shake their booty to".
The Lutheran Church has existed for 500 years, that would be about 15 generations. It seems that the prior 14 generations were ok with the historical forms of worship. What do you believe is different in this generation to account for the falling away?
Thanks for the kind words. It is not true that the prior 14 generations were okay with the historical forms of worship. There have been significant changes over the years.
Luther Reed in his "The Lutheran Liturgy," chapter VII documents how, each in their own way, Pietism and Rationalism destroyed the old Lutheran forms of worship. The recovery of distinctive Lutheran worship was due to the confessional revival in 19th century Germany, and to a lesser extent, due to the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism. These liturgical revivals affected all the Lutheran synods in America, with the result being the Common Service Book of the ULCA and the TLH of the LCMS/WELS/ELS.
That is the Lutheran story, anyway.
What is happening among the present generation has happened before, because Evangelicalism (and Pentecostalism) are present-day forms of Pietism. Pietism has many forms, but its essence is that worship is about me and my experience, instead of God and his means of grace.
All for now!
Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland
How did the Oxford Movement and its eventual climax in a return to Rome benefit Lutheran worship forms?
Anonymous on October 24, 2019 at 10:40 AM: It is frankly absurd to notice that some "dual-parish" congregations consist of congregations no more than a 20 minute drive apart, and yet, due to stubborn refusal to face the music, they insist on making a pastor serve them both, when the congregations should have merged long ago.
Such a claim about the "stubborn" motivation of congregations no more than a 20-minute-drive apart maintaining a dual parish is unsubstantiated. There are LCMS congregations, under 20 miles apart, which have combined. For example, Holy Cross Lutheran Church and Family of Christ Lutheran Church,both in Rochester, MN. More will probably do so in the future, but it is not ALWAYS the case that those who do not combine have a "stubborn" motivation for keeping a dual parish.
In rural areas, a 20-minute drive means approximately 20 miles apart. And members of one church might even be another 20 miles or more from the other church. If these congregations consist largely of older members, they could find it more difficult or impossible to deal with the additional distances, road conditions, and weather conditions (especially in winter) to go to the more distant church.
Post a Comment