Where have all the Christians gone?

The data are clear: American Christianity is in decline, and every major church body — including the LCMS — is feeling the pinch.

America is becoming less Christian, more secular, and more unbelieving — and the rate of this change is rapid. The Pew Research Center reports that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who say they are Christian fell from 78 to 71 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who say they are atheist, agnostic or non-religious rose from 16 to 23 percent.

Losses in membership are now the norm for U.S. denominations of nearly every stripe. The United Methodist Church lost 18 percent of its worshipers from 1974 to 2012. The Southern Baptist Convention reports that it has lost over one million members in the past 10 years and that baptisms stand at a 70-year low. In a mere seven-year span ending in 2014, the Roman Catholic Church lost three million adherents in the United States.

Our own denomination has not been immune to these national trends among U.S. Christians. Every one of the Synod’s 35 districts has experienced decline over the past decade. From 2001-2010 Synod membership fell 10.3 percent. That pace of a nearly 10 percent decline per decade appears to be continuing in the current decade as well.

The last time the LCMS saw a year-to-year gain in baptized membership (2000–2001), the Supreme Court was deciding Bush v. Gore, and A. L. Barry sat behind the desk in Kirkwood.

What’s going on?

When students of American religion attempt to sum up the cause of the decline of Christianity in America, they often use the word “secularization.” It’s a broad term, but that’s because the threats and challenges to the Church are wide ranging. A more secular worldview in the culture at large, pushed by cultural leaders in media, government and education, has had a large impact. For example, every denomination’s membership comes from the same sources. The vast majority of a church body’s membership is made up of the children of yesterday’s members. This is the “natural growth” path to a denomination’s rate of growth or decline. Then of course there is outreach, as new adults and families hear the message and join the Church.

Each of these sources of a church’s membership is under attack by secularization in America today. Dr. George Hawley of the University of Alabama reports that there is a strong connection between faith and family, and that the “causal arrow” works in both directions. That is, people with a strong Christian worldview tend to form families earlier and have more children. And people who form families and have children, even if they start off outside the Church, tend to gravitate toward a religious worldview. The secular war on biblical marriage and the family has aspects that are both subtle (ease of no-fault divorce for unbiblical reasons, decline of the family wage and rising cost of single-family dwelling space) and overt (gay marriage, transgenderism, anti-family rhetoric). The results of this are undeniable even if tracing out precise causality is tricky. Across denominational lines, marriage rates fall, divorce rates rise, family size declines and kids split time between households, all of which puts downward pressure on natural growth, the number one source of every single denomination’s membership.

More than one-third of LCMS Lutherans come to the faith as adults, which underscores the importance of outreach and evangelism. LCMS Lutherans retain their youth at a rate on par with Baptists and second only to Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox in America — thus highlighting the importance of retention rate. Secularization has a large impact on these sources of denominational growth as well. This can be seen, for example, in the constant drumbeat in the media and the public schools attacking the reliability of the Bible, especially the biblical account of the origins of creation and mankind, miracles and the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Television shows have never been afraid to push a secular agenda. Who can doubt that the growing acceptance and normalization of homosexuality and every form of sexual perversion, especially by younger Americans, is directly tied to a constant barrage of propaganda in sitcoms, dramas and reality shows favorably depicting anti-bibical sexual ethics and lifestyles?

In short: From a young age Americans are indoctrinated by their televisions and their schools to have an anti-biblical worldview on the origins of life, the meaning of the human condition, sexuality and a hundred other topics. This puts up barriers to the Word in evangelism that must be torn down. And even more insidiously, this is an attack on the hearts and minds of Lutheran youth, alienating them from the faith.

What about our Church in particular?

As was stated above, our Synod has not escaped from these cultural forces. Today we baptize only about one-fourth the number of children we did in the 1960s. In fact, for several years now the LCMS has actually had more adult conversions each year than infant baptisms. This is largely a reflection of the graying of our church body (and the strength of Lutheran evangelism — see below). Whereas folks in their family formation years make up about 20 percent of America, the corresponding number for the Synod is 11 percent. So even though census data tells us that LCMS families are larger than average (second only to Mormon and Assemblies of God families and outpacing both non-denominational Christians and Roman Catholics), we simply have far fewer families with children than one would expect given the size of our church.

Like most other denominations in America, our Synod faced a one-two punch in the 1970s and 1980s: fewer baptisms and a lower rate of retaining the baptized through the life stages of confirmation and family formation. This underscores the importance of membership retention: supporting young people as they transition from the cradle roll, to the Sunday School, to the youth group, to college, to forming their own families in young adulthood.

In many ways, Lutheran evangelism is a bright spot. For decades our Synod has put out excellent evangelism learning tools (like Dialog Evangelism and now Every One His Witness). We know that the Holy Spirit promises to work when and where He pleases as the Word is shared with our neighbors. And research does indicate that the LCMS has an adult conversion rate that compares favorably with our peer denominations. For example, in the Southern Baptist Convention, one adult convert joins each year for every 47 adult members in the church. The LCMS sees more adult converts per capita: 1:44. Given the massive resources they expend on outreach, it is unsurprising that the Mormons have the best ratio in this regard, but you may be surprised to find that it is only 1:40. It would appear that the law of diminishing returns applies to outreach programs too!

Be encouraged — and put your hand to the plow

We are living through a rough time for the Church at large in America. If your congregation, circuit and district are shrinking despite your best efforts, you are not alone, you are not crazy and you are not (necessarily) a “bad” pastor, congregation, district president or district. All 35 districts are contracting in membership. It’s something the whole Synod and all of American Christianity are facing for a host of complicated reasons.

For the Church of Jesus Christ the answer to every challenge always boils down to this: Be faithful. Be faithful to the Lord, faithful to the vocations He has given us, faithful to one another in love. Of course, this general truth needs to be applied specifically to different challenges and difficulties. So what does being faithful look like in the current circumstances?

You need to be ready to learn about your context and make a plan. Where do you serve? An area in decline or one experiencing growth? Your plans, expectations and goals need to match that context. In the LCMS Stewardship office where I serve, we help congregational and school leaders understand the world around them, encourage a faithful response and make a plan for ministry that fits their specific context. One key tool we encourage every congregation or school to use is a MissionInsite report, which is usually free from your district office. This report will tell you about your community in great detail and help you plan to effectively marshal your congregation’s resources for ministry.

Despite the challenges the Church in America is facing, there is no doubt that the Lord has placed you and your congregation where you are for a reason, for His purposes, for the blessing of the people of God and for the spreading of the Gospel.

So be faithful, pray and put your hand to the plow. The Lord will bless the effort.

For more information 

  • Contact your district office for resources, including a MissionInsite report.
  • Email stewardship@lcms.org to inquire about our church planning workshops.
  • Learn more about the Every One His Witness evangelism program at cph.org/everyonehiswitness.
  • Watch upcoming issues of the Reporter newspaper to read inspiring stories of congregations and schools who are serving their members and communities well in all sorts of demographic circumstances — from congregations effectively coping with a declining rural population, to inner city congregations learning what it means to be a good neighbor in a changing neighborhood, to areas of rapid demographic growth where congregations face the challenge of fields ripe for the harvest.

The Rev. Heath R. Curtis is pastor of Trinity and Zion Lutheran Churches in Worden and Carpenter, Ill., and the coordinator for stewardship for the LCMS. He travels regularly around the Synod conducting workshops on congregational planning, stewardship and the demographic challenge facing the American church.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 print edition of The Lutheran Witness

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