Unworthy Servants

The maddening fact is that the Missouri Synod has been in a slow numeric decline since about 1970. The last time a district of the Synod had any increase in its number of baptized was in the late nineties. There was a decrease in membership in 1977, due to the break off of the AELC (which became the catalyst in the formation of the ELCA). But the decline since 2000 has been even more pronounced. (We are down 12 percent in the past ten years.) Why the decline?

On my visitations of each district (First Vice-President Mueller and I have divided the number of districts between us and then taken along the regional vice president), I am sharing my statistical findings. We have analyzed the performance of each district over the past decade. Several factors emerge. The trend line for every district is the same: decline. Districts in the most secular areas of the country have declined most rapidly (down 25 percent or more in just ten years).

It is very clear that districts with significant urban populations also tend to have declined significantly. The top-performing district over the past decade is South Dakota, down only 4 percent. Several Midwestern/rural districts follow at declines of 6–7 percent. Even in districts that have had a significant increase over 40 years in the number of congregations (especially Texas and Michigan), there is still significant membership decline. The total number of congregations in the Synod declined slightly since about 2000, rebounded ever so slightly by the end of the past decade and has remained steady.

It is evident to me that historically the greatest source of growth in the Missouri Synod (and especially following WWII) had been procreation. The single most significant factor causing our decline has been that fact that we have largely adopted the prevailing cultural attitudes toward marriage and reproduction. Our young people are marrying later, if at all, and are having far fewer children. (There are today, for instance, only 48 percent of the number of high school youth who were in the Synod in 1980.) Second, we have not reached out to non-Anglo people to make up for the decline in the number of children among our traditionally Anglo constituency. Thus, while Roman Catholics in America have increased 43 percent since 1970, we are down 18 percent.

Why? Because Roman Catholics have benefited greatly by the influx of Spanish-speaking people. Finally, our church planting has not been sufficient. One district president told me recently, “It’s time for repentance. We haven’t started a mission in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood for over 15 years.”

Are we shrinking because of close(d) Communion? Hardly. The places in the Synod that are declining most rapidly are the places one is least likely to find the Synod’s doctrinal position on this matter strictly adhered to. Is the answer simply contemporary worship or more consistent use of the hymnal? I wish it were that easy. Iowa East has few praise bands and much more uniform use of the hymnal. Iowa West is clearly more moderately disposed in these areas. Decline? Both districts are down precisely 12 percent in 10 years. The stats show, I’m convinced, that the reasons we use to beat one another over the head about decline are simply unfounded. They might make us feel good about ourselves or give us the rhetorical advantage, but they are bogus.

How do we compare with other denominations since 1970? Among Christians, the Roman Catholics have fared the best (up 43 percent). The Southern Baptists are up 42 percent. The “old-line” churches have faired the worst: the United Church of Christ, down 48 percent; the Episcopalian Church, down 42 percent; Presbyterian Church USA, down 36 percent; United Methodist Church, down 30 percent; ELCA, down 27 percent. Shockingly, if you believe the numbers for the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and I don’t doubt them), they claim increases of 218 percent and 254 percent, respectively. The Assemblies of God claims an increase since 1970 of 396 percent. Yet, even the Southern Baptists have in recent years begun to decline.

It’s clear to all of us that Christianity in America is in decline. There is theological atrophy in the mainline/old-line churches, which no longer teach that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. There is rank heresy (as usual) in the televangelists who gather their thousands (and millions of dollars!). But there’s no consolation in this for us. What’s the answer?

First, repentance. While it is true that the Lord promises that the masses will follow false christs and prophets in the end times (Mark 13:14), there is plenty for us to repent of as well. If the false gospels of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (who both deny Christ, the divine Son of God, and the blessed Holy Trinity) motivate their evangelists to hit every door in the country, shouldn’t the full freeing Gospel of the Scriptures—sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus—propel us to become people on a mission? If the cults can canvas a whole town, might we as individuals be able to invite a neighbor who needs Jesus to church?

It’s also time for us to repent of uncharitable language directed toward one another and focus our efforts on speaking about Christ to all around us. Christ tells us that Church will be a “little flock.” Always has been. Always will. But that’s in the mystery of His working, not by our intentions or inventions.

Look to the Gospel. “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). We have Christ’s promises. We have the powerful word of the Gospel. Human nature is the same, but there are times in the history of the world when men close their minds and, like Pharaoh, then God finally closes them for good. We all have the sense that we are entering such a time. Nevertheless, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (Tim. 2:4). And Christ’s blessed mandate to His Church (all of us, pastors and laity) remains: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Let’s up our game. First, let us encourage one another (1 Thes. 5:11), not tear one another down. Let’s hit the street (i.e., get visiting). Visitation looks different in different circumstances, but it’s the way of Jesus, the way of Paul, Peter, Barnabas and all the apostles. Read Luther’s preface to the “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony” of 1528 (Luther’s Works, volume 40, pages 269–320). A bishop or pastor is a visitor! He doesn’t go on “walk about” just for fun or the joy of taking a walk, says Luther. He goes to proclaim Christ, to admonish with the Law, to console with the Gospel, to care, to intercede, to pray, to set things in order, to plant, to return to the church planted, to see “how they are” (Acts 15:36). Let’s encourage our laypeople to own the mission, to be certain of their God-pleasing vocations as the context for sharing Christ and inviting folks to church. Let’s get to work on our preaching, pastors. We can all improve. Let’s hold one another accountable for clear, compelling, biblical and Law/Gospel sermons. And let’s plant churches, looking for opportunities among the people whom God has brought right to us.

Finally, after we have done everything, we must confess, “We are unworthy servants.” (Luke 17:10). We know we shall bear the cross in this life, and as Christianity continues to fade from our nation (even as it blossoms elsewhere in the world), the soil will become harder here. But it still remains that God works through means, and He is even now working through us, and the message on our lips, to bring to Himself the full number of the elect. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

22 thoughts on “Unworthy Servants”

  1. My mom, who is now gone to heaven, placed a little note in my bible for me to find. It took almost thirty years for me to find it but it read as follows. jim I knew you would find this note, I only hope your reading the bible for comfort and not to find fault with others. Our church was founded with a reading from the bible as such. you can not enter the kingdom of heaven by doing good deeds but only by believing in the one true God who is Jesus Christ. Lets quit finding fault with all the other religions, what they do is their business. Believe, Believe just Believe in God, That’s all that matters. our church will grow

  2. Two comments: First, the attendance at Higher Things conferences continues to grow; these youth attendees and their adult chaperones value the Law and Gospel as proclaimed to them in the traditional liturgies of the church. These youth are the future of the LCMS, and they value the truth of what they are taught by pastors and adult leaders at these conferences.

    Second, when an official of one’s district tells a vacant congregation that if it has been doing the same thing for the last 20 years (proclaiming Law and Gospel using traditional liturgies), one must change, something is wrong with the District’s thinking. If the District cannot remain faithful to the Word, how can it expect the members of its congregations to remain faithful?

  3. How can you reach out to care for others when you cannot care for our own? You still have over 800 rostered church workers who don’t have a call. The best you can do is set up a committee of men who have never been on candidate status to talk about how to help them. The elected leaders don’t take the time to call upon and care for the ones entrusted to their spiritual care. How can you expect the lay people to do the same? Lead by example. Care for the Lazarus sitting at your gate.

  4. “We shall confess-he shall build. We shall preach-he shall build. We shall pray to him-he shall build. We do not know his plan. We do not see whether he builds or tears down. It may be that the times, which by human standards are times of collapse, are for him the times of great building. It may be that the times, which by human standards are times of great success, are for him the times to tear down. It is a great comfort that Christ gives to his church: confess, preach, and bear witness to me. I alone will build as it pleases me. Don’t give me orders. Do your job-then you have done enough. You are all right. Don’t seek out reasons and opinions. Don’t keep judging. Don’t keep checking again and again to see if you are secure. Church, remain a church! But, you, church-confess, confess, confess! You have only one Lord-Christ alone. By his grace alone you live. Christ builds.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2005), 80.

  5. First, I want to say to President Harrison that, from down in the trenches, I feel well-lead and encouraged. I think he is making good choices and leading well in this rapidly dying fiercely anti-Christian world.

    I would like to suggest a refinement to what President Harrison said: If part of the approach is to have us rank and file visit our neighbors then we need to “visit” based on sustained prayer for specific individuals, *before* we visit them. We need to ask to be made ready and equipped for the moment when our specific neighbor is ready to be “visited”. We need to wait for the Spirit but we need to be praying to be ready at all times. If the Holy Spirit does not prepare them to receive us and us to visit, visiting is pointless. So we need to be taught how to “visit” that way and directed and encouraged to “visit” that way.

    ( Not my idea; I learned this from an LCMS missionary. )

    So I do need to repent not doing that. I’d like some help getting better at it.



  6. I, Me, Ours, There’s, I feel, I see, We, All of these starts or main points to the comments spoken are a part of the society we live in. This self centeredness in Christian vocabulary in the congregations and pastors seems to be a problem today. When talking to people on the streets about Jesus ,they don’t want to hear I, Me, I think, I believe or personal quips to Gods word . The people God knew were His before the beginning of time want prayer, truth of Gods word and Jesus Is real. God has allowed His word talk to people of all races , demographics, and stations in life. When Jesus love comes across to them with out doubting , and truly caring for there well being God speaks to them. This isn’t a boiler plate evangelism! This is living the Christian life the way God intended it. People on the streets watch facial expression, body language and sincerity. Their lives depend on being able to read these things for there survival. All this to say that Gods Holy Spirit through absolute Faith in Jesus will complete the work the church was called to do. If we as Lutheran’s forget this and follow Luther and the church as it is God will allow our church’s to diminish. But if the lead of Luther’s following Gods prodding to do His will In Jesus is followed God will grow His church in and through His people. I pray for God’s will for His people to be clear and understood for those He has called .

    1. I concur, Michael! The best Mission/Missionary…is the example we as Lutheran Christians lead on the street, in the work place, and everywhere. Sometimes our greatest enemy in mission work is ourselves, by the way we walk, talk, etc. If a person may be searching, i.e., thinking they may want to start going to a church, they sometimes watch the actions of folks that call themselves Christians, and see that the walk, talk, etc. is not always followed!! Sometimes a kind word, a show of concern to a person opens the door for further dialog, which in turn, can lead to an invitation to church. However, we must not water down the Law & Gospel in any of our congregations, either in a new mission church, nor our established churches!! I find it amazing, though…that we seem to be focusing more on International Missions rather than starting new missions here at home.

  7. The “Unworthy Servants” article is very near and dear to my heart. Every day I think about the great truths our church possesses and yet we decline in numbers. In my very own church which once averaged 300 per Sunday is now 120. I can give you many cases on what happened, but it all comes down to what Christ Himself said is the greatest of all and that is Love. We lack in Love of our fellow man, and it shows. This I can also expound on in detail and it gives me great pain. I would drive to St. Louis to talk with Pastor Harrison if that would help! Or at least I could find churches, and I’m sure of Synod could, of churches that are growing. I would assemble a dozen or so of the LCMS Pastors that have a record of church growth where ever they go and find out. It’s the Love they show and the way they lead their congregations in showing that Love in their communities. May God Bless the Pastors and congregations that show this “Love of Christ”. Amen

  8. In my district, startup funds for new church plants only go to the planting of unorthodox churches that result in contemporary or, at best, “blended” services and a blending of denominational teachings. Ultimately, they are non-denominational churches funded by the LCMS. To be quite honest, I don’t see how this could possibly serve to “grow” the shrinking LCMS. Non-denominational churches are a dime a dozen and can be found around every corner. There is no help or support available from the district for traditional churches, except for the type of help that would “revitalize” a traditional church and make it more “relevant.” I ask you, “What could be more relevant than a church focused on God’s pure unaltered Word and our confessions?”

    Traditional, liturgical LCMS churches are few and far between here. Confessional Lutherans often must travel far to attend an orthodox Lutheran church. Sometimes the distance is too great. Many would rather not attend at all rather than attend a non-denominational church funded by the LCMS. After all, we are warned in Scripture to flee false teachers. How can the LCMS expect to grow if they are ashamed of their true identity?

    My family used to attend the only LCMS church in my town. The pastor delivered the same 40 days of purpose sermons as the non-denominational church around the corner. The youth pastor used the same purpose driven curriculum as the non-denominational church around the corner. Needless to say, works righteousness and decision theology were creeping into the church. Purpose driven materials are Baptist after all. Few in that congregation had ever heard of the Book of Concord, and there was certainly no attempt to teach about it.

    We no longer attend the local “LCMS” church but instead drive quite a distance to attend an LCMS church that uses the liturgy as laid out in the hymnal, follows the lectionary, confesses the Creeds and uses CPH materials for Sunday school. The pastor understands the importance of preaching God’s unaltered Word and keeping Christ front and center. He is passionate about teaching and warning the laity of false teachings.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a rant. This is a serious problem in our LCMS. Please, consider this a plea for help. I pray for our leaders daily.

    Lord, have mercy.

  9. One district president told me recently, “It’s time for repentance. We haven’t started a mission in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood for over 15 years.”

    Texas hasn’t started any mission that a confessional Lutheran would attend in over 20 years. In at least one case, where a mission was started by Lutherans, a polo and khaki “vested” pastor was brought in. When the Lutherans asked for one traditional service with the Pastor traditionally dressed, [He knew how; he was a PK] they were asked by a district rep. to leave the congregation, which they did. A little farther down the time line, the mission failed.

    We hear a lot of noise about the “entertainment” mission starts, but “crickets” when they go under. Meanwhile under served areas which would support a traditional pastor are not given the option by the district.

    Could it be that is why Missouri is shrinking? When you are transferred by business in Texas, confessional Lutheran options are thin on the ground. If ELS or WELS comes in (and hasn’t started using “Creative [playthings] for the Parish, yet!) whose fault is it, if that’s the best LCMess Lutherans can find?
    Many will read sermons/hear services on line before they’ll succumb to “5/2” rubbish! But they won’t show up in your statistics that way.

    From down here in the pew, you haven’t “done everything”, as far as we can tell. For confessional Lutheranism in Texas, you haven’t done anything, while the district is doing its best to wipe it out.

    Lord, have mercy on the sheep! Their “shepherds” won’t.

    1. Helen speaks the truth. The Mid-South District is the same. No confessional church plants. However, money is being funneled to these church plants:

      -Lakepoint Church Planting Training Center, Hot Springs
      -New Tribe, Memphis
      -Bridge City, Chattanooga
      -Rhythm City, Nashville

      1. I’ve seen something similar in the MO District. When I attended a Mission Partnership meeting that was discussing their Calling of a new pastor, the District President pulled the “missional” vs. “maintenance” (his own words) argument out of his hat and waved that in front of them.

      2. Check out Messiah in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. A new mission located in one of the fastest growing areas of Arkansas.

      3. Laura,

        I can’t find any info on that church and the Mid-South website/financials don’t indicate any money going to that parish. Perhaps it’s a great church plant, but perhaps the financial support came from somewhere other than the District. I can only go off the data that the district provides. Additionally, I can find a vast amount of boasting on the Mid-South website about the church plants that I listed, but I can find only one reference to Pea Ridge – It was a wonderful confirmation photo.

      4. Hi Randy,
        It was a mission of Faith, Bentonville. It grew fairly fast and didn’t require district assistance. Thanks for commenting. God bless all of our Lutheran churches. Hope you will get to visit Pea Ridge someday!

  10. Would you like to hear from a former Lutheran? I renounced the Lutheran faith as heresy and became Eastern Orthodox 4 years ago. For the past 20 years, I had noticed that the LCMS became more interested in right wing politics than in helping their members develop a relationship with God. Members of the LCMS were more interested in “proving” 6 day creationism than caring for their neighbors.
    If the LCMS continues to worry more about right wing politics than people with real needs, it will continue to decrease in size. Turn yourselves around, and remember that God is not political.

    1. Laura, the LCMS has believed in six-day creationism from the beginning, not just in the last twenty years. If you think that “right-wing” politics, ie. anti-abortion, etc. is wrong, then it is probably a good thing that you left.

      1. Why such hostlity, Tim? Why not share what you know to be true and invite Laura back to an LCMS congregation?

  11. Well said, President Harrison – It is somewhat of a long read for some, but we all know we have been sent by our Savior, but there is always time to dally on the way. It is obvious the Lord didn’t give us a salvation quota or we wouldn’t be Lutherans knowing we can’t work our way into heaven.

    Of all the religions and doctrines in this world our future doesn’t define itself on failure, it defines our future on acceptance of the Lords unchanging word only….

    Consider that Christ sent out the 72, but he was expecting results in a given time – that had to be the case, as his goal was to fulfill prophecy, and or get the job done! He undoubtedly knew the minds of his outreach crew and knew their personal potentials. Witnessing what is in ones heart is not a special person in the congregation’s job, it was given to us all and all confirmed members should know that.

    We do sing, “Here I Am, Lord” but we need to do the song, not just hear it.

  12. I was a field interviewer in a few studies where statistics are gathered regarding religious preference. I would like to see if Catholics’ rise in numbers also bears out in attendance, because I think baptized Catholics as infants are far more likely to say they are Catholic without having entered a church any time afterward. It used to be parents would prioritize by first communion and confirmation, but from the many Millenials and Gen X’ers I have interviewed, that no longer seems to be the case.

    If we are comparing general statistics with our own congregational reporting, it would be like comparing apples and oranges.

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