Saturday, July 29, 2023

Sobering Thoughts. . .


As the gathering of delegates and staff for the 68th Regular Convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod begins in downtown Milwaukee, we look around to see that as many congregations as we have in total membership are now exiting the United Methodist Church as that denomination begins a planned split.  We saw the same thing happen to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, though fewer people and parishes left to join either the NALC or the LCMC.  We saw the same thing happen in the Episcopal Church when the ACNA was formed -- though, again, less numbers departing than the Methodist numbers.  Looking at the breakdown of states, the division within the UMC mirrors the social, political, and cultural divisions within America.  While it explains a few things, it does not provide much comfort for us going forward.

The LCMS is facing its own divide.  Our once solid urban presence has been decimated over time until the large and once stable congregations located in the cities of America are now pretty much mission stations, barely surviving.  Our strong presence in the suburbs is less dismal but by no means secure.  Our rural presence is declining as the total numbers of the populations there also drop year after year.  We have a clear issues within those divides over matters of doctrine and practice -- everything from what happens on Sunday morning to the discipline of the Lord's Table.  We are facing grave questions about what can be done with our once lauded systems of colleges and universities.  We have empty rooms in both of our seminaries.  We are facing a clergy shortage over the next 5-10 years that may means many congregations will go without a pastor.  The cultural divisions between the saltwater regions of our nation and the Midwest where we have the largest number of congregations are felt within our districts and in Synod as a whole.

Worse than division is the great apathy that is also underneath all of this bad news.  Many of the United Methodists will depart not to other congregations but simply drop out of church entirely.  That is what happened when the ELCA bled out so many people -- virtually the size of Missouri since the merger that created this church body happened in 1988.  The drop in numbers has not translated into membership in other Lutheran churches or even other non-Lutheran churches.  They have disappeared.  That has also been the case for nearly every other denomination over the past 40 years or more -- and not always nor particularly tied to conflict and dispute.  

Clearly we must do a better job of retaining our people.  Membership is not a matter of a name on a piece of paper or a computer database but of an active presence and life together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  The strength of a denomination is in the strength of the individual parish and the strength of the parish is the strength of the Christian home.  While much of the news has been about divisions within Christianity, the real news is what we do not want to admit.  We have not done a great job of catechesis.  We have not done a great job encouraging regular and weekly worship or holding our people accountable for that.  We have not done a great job when our mobile population moves so that they know and can find a Lutheran parish to serve as their church home at their new address.  While some focus on how we have failed our youth, I think the problem lies deeper.  We have not done the faithful job God has called us to do to teach the faith, hold our people accountable to their faith and promises upon baptism, confirmation, and membership, or work to equip the home to be center not simply of the family but of the faith itself.

Looking at the news from the United Methodists is to look in the mirror and see what could be our future unless we renew our efforts to be in the Word, united in doctrine, one in witness, regular in worship, faithful in receiving the Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood, and diligent about teaching and passing on this faith in the home. 


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