Christian Hope Amidst Numerical Decline

By Evan Scamman

At the rebuilding of the temple following the Babylonian captivity, Scripture records that many of the older generation wept aloud (Ezra 3:12). They had seen the first temple and remembered its former glory, now lost forever.

Such is the case for many within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod today. The older saints among us reminisce about a time when there was standing room only on Easter morning. They remember confirmation classes of 30 or more. They speak with fondness tinged with sorrow of how the parish used to hum with activity throughout the week. But no longer. Today, the church building is in disrepair, the old-timers have gone on to heaven, and the younger folks have moved away. Those who remain feel the sense of loss acutely even as they worry about the future of their beloved church.

If any of this strikes a chord within your heart, I would like to offer some words of Christian comfort. In the first place, remember that the church does not, in fact, belong to us. We are members of the body, yes. But our Head is Christ. He is the church’s Builder and Maker. You may have labored long in the fields of the Lord, but never forget that they are His fields. He will ensure the harvest. One man plants, another waters, but God alone brings the increase, where and when He pleases. Remember, it’s not your business to make the church grow, however much you wish to see your local parish thrive. Instead, your task is to remain faithful to Christ and His Word.

Jesus has promised to build His church, and so He does. The church cannot fail! But this promise does not mean that Grace Lutheran Church in Plainsville, Iowa, will continue forever. Nor, for that matter, will The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Congregations have a natural lifespan. Buildings eventually crumble into dust. Institutions drift away from their purpose. Where is the First Church of Jerusalem, founded by Christ through the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost? That congregation no longer exists. And yet, the one Church of Christ continues today, stronger and greater than ever before.

Consider this: You are part of the Church Militant. And what is your job? To be faithful unto death, until you are transferred to the Church Triumphant. For all the hand wringing about numerical decline within our Synod, the Church Triumphant only ever grows! Every time we hold a funeral, the church grows. Even should your little parish bury its last living member and then close its doors forever, the church of God grows!

On December 18, 2022, we held our final service at First Lutheran Church in Greenwich, Conn. For 80 years, the saints had gathered there to hear the words of Christ and receive the Sacraments. For the past 10, First Lutheran had been part of a dual parish; but now the two parishes were about to become one. We stripped the altar, as on Maundy Thursday, removing every sacred object and utensil from the chancel. Then, following the processional cross, the entire congregation, including the sole surviving charter member, processed out, singing, “Built on the Rock the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling…” We locked the doors with the final stanza. It was profoundly moving. Many were openly weeping — even some who had only been worshiping there for a few years.

Was this closing of our doors a failure? By no means. For 80 years Christ stood among the people of First Lutheran as they gathered around His Words. Hundreds who came through those doors have now been transferred from this vale of tears to join the Church Triumphant. This is no failure. This is mission accomplished! And now the mission of God continues in another place and another time until the last of the saints has been safely ushered home.

Many of our congregations have difficult choices to make in the years ahead. Some will be given a way forward, as was the case in Greenwich, where two struggling congregations merged to form a single, stable parish. Others will have no choice but to close their doors. But this is not cause for panic. It is not reason, as we have sometimes done, to discard our hymnody and liturgy or to employ desperate and cringeworthy gimmicks. Yes, it is understandable to grieve at the closing of a parish; but remember that every church building on earth, however beloved it may be, is a temporary haven. Our true home is in heaven, and our true membership is with the Church Triumphant.

But as long as we remain on earth, take comfort in this: Where two or three are gathered in His name, there Christ stands among us, as He has promised. Where the Word of God is preached in truth and purity and where the Sacraments are rightly administered, there is the true church on earth. And no matter how feeble or small she may appear to mortal eyes, the church that our Lord has built stands glorious and terrible throughout the ages.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

16 thoughts on “Christian Hope Amidst Numerical Decline”

  1. Dear Gabriel, I keep forgetting that arguing with strangers online is pointless. Please forgive any sinful words I used against you, and good luck to you in your search for a church you like.

  2. Scott Larry Strohkirch

    I grew up in a LCMS church in the 60s – mid 80s. Though there were times in those years when I declined to go to any church, but that was not the fault of the church. When I returned to the church in which I was confirmed, all the young people I had gone through confirmation and youth group had all left for college, or had families of their own. The congregation was now full of our aging parents and grandparents. I was a single in my early 20s seeking to have fellowship with others of my age. My mother, who was also in Bible Study Fellowship at the time suggested I attend a Covenant Church where her BSF group met. I was also part of a IVCF at a Community College. I took her up on her advice and started attending the Covenant Church. They were a big congregation compared to what I was used to growing up. I soon became a member and was part of the Singles ministry there. Skip ahead about 6 years and I was now married and had a child, I left the Covenant church and became a member of a Community Church and for the purposes of becoming a member was baptized again (though I now regret it and hold to my infant baptism in Oct 1961).

    It took me almost 15 years in the American Evangelical movement to realize I didn’t belong there. I belonged in the Lutheran Church. I filtered back in through the ELCA, but that was temporary and then to the LCMS. Along the way, I learned that Traditional Divine Services and the Office services were more fulfilling as vehicles of worship that I had been attending in those American Evangelical years. I became interested in doing mission work, but found my real interest was in becoming a Pastor. I went to the Seminary in Fort Wayne beginning in 2006 and graduated in Nov. 2010. Unfortunately, my first marriage didn’t survive the seminary experience, but I took the necessary 2-year sabbatical and came back to do another vicarage in preparation for ordination and service. I have also now left the LC-MS and belong to The American Association of Lutheran Churches.

    I see now the shallowness of the Contemporary Worship in any church body. Lutherans don’t do a very good job of it and it often feels like something that was done in the 70s. The music itself is not conducive to good worship and it’s hard to find a contemporary song that is in line with the lectionary readings and thus any sermon you write. I much prefer the Hymnal and choosing the Hymn of the day to accompany the message God has placed on my conscience to share with the people of my congregation. The number of people in the pews is not something I worry about. My job (I hate that word) is to proclaim Christ to them and give them his word in Law and Gospel. After that, it’s the Holy Spirit that does the rest. As the original article says, we are here to prepare people for the Church Triumphant. That’s the church we all want to join.

  3. As an outsider, you have the same problem that the Catholics do. I shouldn’t have to research the church I’m about to visit to see how reverent your liturgy is. The “traditional” and “confessional” Lutheran churches near me have altar girls, a versus populum confection, crosses and not crucifixes, “and also with you”, etc. Your worship space and aesthetic is about as bland and stale as a Novus Ordo mass.

    There seems to be no sense of reverence or sacredness. The churches are sterile and austere. If someone didn’t tell you it was a Lutheran church, you couldn’t tell the difference between a Lutheran church, a Presbyterian church, or a Methodist church.

    Your faith is very elegant on paper, but in practice, it’s a free-for-all. There is no way to enforce orthodoxy, apart from maybe peer pressure because every congregation is an entity unto itself. “You aren’t keeping to the confessions.” “Yep. We don’t care.”

    I can go to any Orthodox church and almost every time I’ll know 99.9% of what to expect. Lutherans? You might get this:

    Or you might get this:

    Or you might get this:

    1. Having a crucifix versus a cross, which way the presiding minister faces, and the like are human traditions only. You are teaching as doctrines the commandments of men, which Jesus himself called vain worship. True worship is faith in the Gospel, and I would pit the Gospel teaching in our Lutheran churches against that of your so-called Orthodox churches any day of the week. So stay in your lane and mind your own business, Mr. “Orthodox.”

      1. I’m not Orthodox, Mr. Bad-At-Evangelizing. I’m exploring Lutheranism so I’ll assume that you’re a boomer who doesn’t know how to internet.

        These are the traditions of the church. The traditions that St. Paul tells you to hold fast to in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

        True worship is faith in the Gospel? That’s all? No Book of Concord? No Small Catechism? How wonderful. You should email the Pope and Patriarchs of the world and tell them you’ve solved the millenium-old schism with an overly simplistic slogan.

        You all need to visit an Anglican Catholic church to see what a proper liturgy is supposed to look like.

  4. By God’s grace, some congregations have reversed their decline by turning away from a habitual inward focus and looking outward with renewed zeal, creatively and thoughtfully considering how they might be a blessing to their community, and then organizing their energies very deliberately to act on the most fitting opportunities, personally encouraging one another to participate in deeds of love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and experiencing shared joy along the way.

    In my own involvement in congregational leadership, I have benefited simply from an internet search of the term, “church life cycle.” A variety of related articles shed light on some common patterns and how leaders might lead most helpfully as circumstances change.

    Adapting to save souls can be God-pleasing indeed and personally fulfilling besides. The Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:22b-23 ESV). And Jesus said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7 ESV).

    “But test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21 ESV).

  5. We live in a country of ~350 million people. Is it reasonable to expect the Holy Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to work where and when he please through the visible church of Christ on Earth (the Evangelical Lutheran Church of which the LC-MS is the world leader for the ILC)–is it reasonable to expect the Spirit of Christ to add 1 person per LC-MS congregation per year (net) by conversion, transfer from another LC-MS congregation, or adult confirmation of a Christian from a non-visible church of Christ on Earth that is deficient in its theology?

    At Shepherd, Scottsdale, we joyfully expect our congregation to grow by no less than 20% of our worshiping population each year. Why? Because deficient, conflicted churches are closing all around us and Christians want a place to find Jesus. Because we ask all of our preschool families on their application, “Is your child baptized? Would you like to have him/her baptized or find out more?” Because every time a visitor walks into weekend worship services, we make every effort to grab a phone number and one of us pastors personally and immediately makes it our priority to follow up on Monday morning and invite them to grab breakfast, lunch, or coffee. Because every Monday morning the staff meets and looks at all the people who are in the pipeline of affiliating with the visible church of Christ on Earth located and embodied by Shepherd. Persistence in a relational ministry centered on repentance and transformation through the Gospel provides the seedbed for the Holy Spirit’s work. Anyone in any congregation in America today can do that.

    If we believe the LC-MS is the visible church of Christ on Earth because of its confession, and if we are not living in the Jerusalem of the Middle Ages being marauded by Moorish conquerors, why are we not seeing industrious pastors and parishioners making every effort to find one person in their locale who might possibly benefit from a caring conversation centered in Christ’s reconciliation?

    We can do better Missouri. The Holy Spirit expects nothing less.

    1. The author wrote: “It is not reason, as we have sometimes done, to discard our hymnody and liturgy or to employ desperate and cringeworthy gimmicks.”

      So…. the solution to church decline is to promote praise bands and small groups. If I were to walk into Shepherd Of The Desert Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, would the books and dvds used in small groups and in adult Sunday school be the very same found in the local non-denominational mega-church found across town? Would the pastor then begin preaching sermons from the small group leader guides endorsed by pop-Evangelical groups such as Saddleback and Hillsong? I have personally belonged to such an LCMS congregation. And yes, I have spoken to the lead pastor. His response to me was that these things must be done in the LCMS to reverse decline and to grow the church.

      “Missional” or “confessional” leanings notwithstanding, Lutherans are very passionate about their theology and will defend their theology to the death. That trait is hardwired into the LCMS (and WELS) DNA and is a blessing and a curse. I have learned the hard way that you will be subject to persecution in an LCMS congregation if you dare question leadership respectfully or assume a leadership position. By all means, DO NOT question the pop-Evangelical theology of the small group materials in an LCMS congregation!

      I am sure that the fellowship in your congregation is wonderful, but that assumes you are not the subject of gossip and slander from the wives of small group leaders, from one or two disgruntled elders, and/or from people “with the right last names” who will immediately pounce on you if they feel you are saying or doing something not to their liking – no matter how minor. American Lutherans do love “to eat their own”, you know. Adding dozens of small group leaders just makes the problem exponentially worse.

      We then decided to visit an large, suburban LCMS congregation that is indistinguishable form the local non-denom except for a couple of key differences: They baptize babies, the praise band looks and sounds like a ragtag teenage garage band, and the coffee is still grandma’s Folgers or Sanka “Ersatzkaffee”. My family decided it was a bad copy of what the non-denominationals were doing. In other words, why bother?

      We recently attended a local non-denominational mega-church as a family. The main attraction is that no one is arguing nonstop about theology and what it means to be non-denominational Christian. Sure, they pressure each other to give personal testimonies, but these actions do not trigger arguing nor persecution. They truly act as if nothing else in life matters but engaging in fellowship and in serving your neighbor. I can therefore visit a non-denominational congregation without feeling judged. The coffee and praise bands are also superior to those found in our local “cool, hip, and contemporary” LCMS congregation.

      The reason why we won’t be back to the non-denominational church anytime soon is that my teenage son refuses to attend a contemporary church service featuring a praise band. He told me that the people stand around and watch the band give a concert, the pastor gives a “Ted talk” sermon, and then the band resumes the concert. He told me he got nothing out of it. Imagine that! Is my son an exception to the rule, or is he part of a growing cohort of “under age 40” people that yearns for the historic Lutheran church that was so common prior to 1945?

  6. Thank God for the streaming of our LCMS Pastor’s messages. But when LCMS church’s close, and we are unable to receive holy communion, baptism, confirmation it certainly gives me profound sadness for my grandchildren.

  7. As much as it is the Lord’s work to make the Church grow, yet He has commanded us to “make disciples”. Why are the Lutheran Churches declining while others are numerically growing? We must come out of our comfort zone and re-evaluate our mission. It is mere escapism by justifying the decline on this basis. Look out what is happening in the Lutheran fraternity; hegemony, doctrinal promiscuity, bureaucracy, ecclesiastical bigotry and lack of love for the neighbor. The RCC keeps growing and their liturgical symmetry is a global phenomenon.

    As much as the Church is the Lord’s, we must strive to “reach out” so that the plenty harvest in the field is harnessed into the barn.

  8. The writing is on the wall.
    Christianity in America is shrinking.
    It very well might be God’s judgement against a culture living by the blood of the unwanted, and the remnant of Christians might just get caught up in the crossfire.
    That being said, we will need more and more stories like these to encourage us as the bottom is no where in sight.

  9. Your article was much appreciated and timely in light of change we see occurring in the LCMS. Your message was comporting and unifying right up to your unfortunate criticism of the many churches who choose non-traditional worship styles. Worship that is Christ-centered and containing word and sacrament is divine worship. I am a church musician and retired teacher in the LCMS and have lead my students and parishioners in both traditional and non-traditional worship styles with both giving glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. With that being said, I do appreciate your mostly successful attempt at comforting our church body during these trying times. God’s blessings to you and your church body.

  10. “Christian Hope Amidst Numerical Decline”
    I left a comment in regards to the above article, is there a place that I can see that comment was received and do you respond to comments that are made? I’d like a copy of my comment if possible.
    Thank you,

    1. Keith, Apologies, we have no record of your comment. It must not have gone through. If you submit the comment we will post it.

  11. “It is not reason, as we have sometimes done, to discard our hymnody and liturgy or to employ desperate and cringeworthy gimmicks.”

    I’m glad you said, “… have sometimes done, …” because innovative additions to worship services do not automatically equate with, “…desperate and cringeworthy gimmicks.”

    How would you evaluate Luther’s German Mass?
    He changed thousand years old liturgical settings and singing.

    1. Luther’s German Mass was a thoughtful correction of theological abuses, not a attempt to reach more people or cause the church to grow. The Lutheran principle of reform is to hold to the traditions we have received unless they are contrary to the Gospel. We would do well to keep this principle in mind today.

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