30 January 2013

The State of the Lutheran Church

The Lutheran church, generally, and in particular, its predominant mainline denomination, is rapidly shrinking and growing less vital in terms of nominal member participation.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a Protestant denomination, is twenty-five years old in 2013. It was formed through a series of mergers of prior mainline Lutheran denominations. The last phase of the process that gave birth to the ELCA, effective January 1, 1988, merged the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the much smaller Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, each of which had already largely shed an ethnic identity vis-a-vis the larger public. This last component of the merger explains why the denomination which would generally be classified as "mainline" rather than part of the Evangelical Christianity movement in the United States, prominently contains the word "Evangelical."

The three merged denominations, in turn, were the product of mergers involving Lutheran denominations that had been mostly organized along ethnic lines by immigrants who had been members of the established Lutheran churches of their home countries. The ethnically based American immigrant denominations merged, in several steps, when the ethnic identity has faded in successive post-immigration generations. The established churches of Northern Europe, in turn, were successors were established when national churches were formed after these nations churches broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the part of the Protestant Reformation that was led by Martin Luther, a German minister, in the 16th century. The Calvinists, whose successors in the U.S. are mostly Presybeterians, and the Episcopalians (from whom the Methodists and United Church of Christ were ultimate derived as well around the 17th century) who made a less complete break of the Roman Catholic church, were the other two biggest components of the Protestant Reformation.

In many other countries, the merger process of mainline Protestant denominations (that are not Anglican), that are successors to leading European denominations went one step further, to form a single dominant "United" or "Uniting" churches (e.g. the "Protestant Church of the Netherlands"). But, in the United States, the ELCA is accompanied by a number of other major mainline Protestant denominations not organized on an explicitly ethnic basis, such as the United Methodist Church, the Presybeterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Reformed Church in American. All of the Lutheran denominations and Episcopalians and Methodists are grouped together as "liturgical churches", which share an infant baptism tradition and a mode of worship derived from the Latin mass translated into vernacular English and modified somewhat, by the chaplancy of the United States military.

Almost all mainline Christians who are Lutherans in the United States are members of the ELCA. Historically, the other two main Lutheran denominations in the United States, the socially conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans and the smaller and even more conservative Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, include almost all other American Lutherans. There are, however, about a dozen much smaller bodies of Lutheran churches in addition to the big three, including one that some of my relatives have affiliated with that is between the Missouri Synod and the ELCA if the many social issues and theological questions dividing the movements were abstracted down to an oversimplified single left-right dimension. All or almost all of the smaller Lutheran church movements in the United States are more conservative than the ELCA.

I have personal ties to the denomination and hence I am interested in its progress. My mother was raised in one of the pre-merger denominations with mostly Scandinavian Lutherans, while my father was raised in another one of the pre-merger denominatioon with mostly German Lutherans. My mother was an active member of the ELCA from the time it was formed until her death and my father and stepmother have been active members of the ELCA for its entire existence, as do many (but not all) of my blood relatives (some of my relatives are secular or Roman Catholic, a few belong to the national Lutheran church denominations of Finland or German, and a few belong to Lutheran church denominations that have recently left the ELCA over questions such as the relatively progressive stance of the ELCA towards gay rights). I was an active member of the ELCA for a couple of years after the merger before rejecting Christianity, after spending the rest of my childhood as a baptized and then confirmed member of churches in its antecedent denominations).

There are 9,638 ELCA Lutheran congregations with a baptized membership of 4,059,785 and an average worship attendance of 1.1 million on a given Sunday. Thus, 38% of baptized ELCA Lutherans are inactive; 56% of active ELCA Lutherans don't go to church on any given Sunday; about 26% of baptized ELCA Lutherans do go to church on any given Sunday, according to statistics from The Lutheran (January 2013) at page 9.
Nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches reported an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 people in 2010. From 2003 to 2011, average weekley worship attendance dropped 26 percent. And from 2009 to 2010, ELCA membership decreased 5.9 percent, the sharpest decline among mainline denominations according to the National Council of Churches. . . . "Since the inception of the ELCA, we've seen decline every year, and it has accelerated over the last five years," said Elizabeth Eaton bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. "It doesn't matter where a congregation is situated, we have congregational decline in every demographic, every geography" . . . Neary every U.S. Christian denomination has seen membership declines in the last two years, including Southern Baptists, who seemed invincible in the 70s, 80s and 90s . . . . More than 1000 ELCA churches have closed over the past 10 years, some merging with others, some simply shutting their doors and dispersing."
- Nicole Radziszewski, "The Shrinking Church", The Luthern (January 2013) at pages 23-25.
Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson pointed out in a recent open letter about the anniversary year that in this time we've started 435 congregation, ordiained nearly 8,000 pastors, send more than 2,000 missionaries to serve around the world, and contributed more than $350 million to end hunger and poverty.
- Daniel J. Lehmann , Editorial, The Lutheran (January 2013) at page 4.

The number of new congregations in twenty-five year life of the denomination is less than half of the number of congregations that have closed in the last ten years.

On one hand, the state of the ELCA and almost by definition, the state of the organized mainline Lutheran Church movement in the United States, is in a state of rapid decline. On the other, the ELCA is in many respects more vital than many of the established or recently disestablished Lutheran denominations of Europe, where the secularization trend that the United States is starting to experience is far more advanced. But, this discrepency may cease in a few decades.

There is a certain symmetry to the decline of the Lutheran Church. The countries that joined the Lutheran part of the Protestant Reformation were among the last in Europe to be converted to Christianity (initially, to Roman Catholicism). So, it makes a certain amount of sense that areas where Lutheran churches were established last (and hence where there has been the least amount of time for them to become irrevocably embedded in the culture) have been among the first to become highly secular countries.

The decline in mainline Christianity, more generally, leaves a growing void in the American religious landscape between conservative Evangelical Christianity and the non-Christian America.

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