In the Face of Decline

There is something about the cold, dark tundra that gets to you in January. You can feel it in your bones and in your mood sometimes. Seasonal Affective Disorder they call it. Quite an acronym there – SAD! That is how I feel today with the decline of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on my mind.

The decline begins close to home. The Minnesota South District dropped from 127,679 baptized members in 2010 to 116,277 in 2016.  That is a decline of 9% in just six years. With the planting of new churches we have been able to maintain the number of congregations in the district. Yet increasingly we see churches struggling to make it. In the MNS District, 25% of our churches now worship less than 50.

At the synodical level, across 35 districts nationally, membership dropped from 2,780,000 in 1970 to 2,280,000 in 2010. That’s a decline of 500,000 in 40 years. Some projections expect another decline of 500,000 in just the next 10-15 years. We are not alone. Far more severe are the losses in the ELCA. In 1987, the ECLA had 5,288,230 members. In 2013, the membership was 3,863,133, a decline of 27%. While Roman Catholics in America have increased 43% since 1970, due largely to the increase in the Hispanic population, we in the LCMS are down 18%.

Is it getting colder and darker in here? Meanwhile, the non-Christian Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim increases of 218% and 254%, respectively, since 1970. The Assemblies of God claims an increase since 1970 of 396%. Yet, in recent years, even the Southern Baptists have begun to decline. Truthfully, Christianity is in decline in the United States of America. It is that simple and that SAD.

So what shall we do? Laments come easy. Excuses do, too. Sure, it’s the lower birth rate, but it is so much more than that. The decline speaks to every Christian in America who has never invited an unchurched friend or relative to worship with them. The decline speaks to every pastor who fails to put himself in secular settings where he can begin a relationship with a non-Christian. It speaks to congregations who are not known for mercy and service but are unknown to their community because they don’t look for feet to wash. The decline speaks to every church which cannot recall a single new ministry begun in the last ten years. It speaks to many pastors who cannot see the doors God has opened for ministry outside the walls of their churches. It speaks to apathy, convenience, deference, consumerism, and self-absorption.

In the face of decline, we must repent. It starts there. Lord, have mercy. True repentance will show itself to be real. We will plant new churches. We will train laity as evangelists. We will begin new ministries of service in our communities. One by one, we will place ourselves intentionally with pre-Christians. We will volunteer in the community. We will train pastors in the fine art of building relationships. We will provide a warm welcome to those who visit our churches. We will hear sermons rooted in the Word and pointing to Christ with clear application for our lives.

Another way to look at all of this, as Christianity declines in America, is to say, “Look! Our mission field is only getting larger! What an opportunity!” On a cold, dark day in January, I invite you to affirm with me that Jesus Christ is still the light of the world (John 8:12), and so are we (Matthew 5:14)! 

Well, look at that! I think it’s getting brighter!