John 3:21

John 3:21
"It is the nature of all hypocrites and false prophets to create a conscience where there is none, and to cause conscience to disappear where it does exist." Martin Luther

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A look at the declining membership of the ELCA of

A look at the declining membership of the ELCA

The ELCA released a news report this morning regarding the annual membership census. The data for 2007 shows “a decline in membership of 64,247 and a decrease of 22 congregations from 2006″. As this table shows, membership in the ELCA has been in steady decline since it was created in late 1980s.

Looking at tables is all well and good, but I’m a visual learner, so I decided to make a couple of graphs to put things into perspective. Using the data from the aforementioned table, the first graph shows the total “baptized membership” of the ELCA from 1987 to 2007.

You can clearly see a significant decline in membership over the last twenty years — but keep in mind that in the same time frame the ELCA also lost 685 congregations. If you lose churches, you’re going to be losing members. At the same time, I certainly don’t believe that the 685 fewer churches account for the entire loss of membership during these years.

The second graph shows the yearly change in membership as a bar graph.

The 1990s were up and down in terms of membership, but since 1999 — and even more so since 2002 — the ELCA has been losing lots and lots of members.

I can speculate as to why this is (and I certainly wouldn’t be the first), but I’d like to hear your opinions. Does the data surprise you? Why or why not? Leave a comment below!

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Comments (15)

one of the things i've noticed is a decrease in "brand loyalty" amongst the younger generation - their parents might have stayed in the denomination because that's just what you do but there is less of that sense of loyalty in their progeny.
Mak: Good observation... I agree with you on that.
As an Episcopalian, I'm not surprised. We're in the same boat.
Well, I wonder what the denominational memberships are doing across the board, what non-affiliated house churches are doing, and where the defecting people/churches are going.

Are the churches closing their doors? Staying open and un-affiliating themselves with the ELCA? Are the individuals who are leaving moving to another active church?

Also, given that our church has a membership over 400 and probably only about 175 active individuals, membership numbers don't mean can be quite misleading.

I have lots of ideas why denominations are failing, mostly centered around lack of mission and/or a robust ecclesiology.

Maybe I'll say more later.
Arg, I should proofread my comments.
Part of it may have to do with people feeling less loyal to denominations, and what UnChristian discusses may as well. Mainline denominations have been in decline for years so this isn't necessarily news.

It may also be due to where many of the churches are located, take for instance the United Methodist Church, many of their churches are in rural areas which are declining in population, maybe the same is true with the ELCA.

Also perhaps the ELCA needs to look at why they are in decline (along with other denominations like United Methodist, and the Episcopal Church) and other denominations are not. The Evangelical Free Church is growing, not every church mind you, but they haven't expereinced overall decline. Much of that may be due to aggressive church planting, effective evangelism and disciplemaking, but also they haven't had the theological controversies that other denominations have had either.

You could say the same for Christian & Missionary Alliance and Baptist General Conference. Southern Baptists once could say that, but now they are experiencing decline... much of that is due to ideological split. I could add a Baptist joke here, but I'll resist.

Anyway, I'm sure there are many reasons and no silver bullet.
Matt: Good thoughts... I wonder a lot of the same things. I think also that it's a combination of a lack of robust ecclesiology and a failure in praxis as well.

Shane: No silver bullet indeed.
Jake, it's as though you were eaves-dropping on my family reunion a few weeks ago! There are 5 ELCA pastors in my family (one is a synodical bishop), so most of our time together centers around church-talk.

My feeling is that there are three main categories the loss of membership falls into:

1. Folding Church - a church that closes its doors and ceases to exist. Most often, these churches are (A) in small dying towns, or (B) in a part of the city that used to thriving, but over time have become more economically depressed. (See - Central Lutheran on Des Moines' east side.)

2. Cleaning the Roster - a church desires to have a true count of "active" members, so they send a letter to all inactive people and ask them to either start coming to church once a year (which is the membership requirement in most ELCA congregations) or indicate that they no longer desire to be a member of the congregation.

3. Leaving Mother Church - churches that have left the ELCA for theological, political, and / or practical reasons. (See Lutheran Church of the Cross, Altoona) This reason is the one that, naturally, generates the majority of the discourse.

Like most Christians, ELCA Lutherans tend to find themselves fighting over homosexuality and abortion. The ELCA is taking its sweet time addressing the current Sexuality Statement, which does not permit the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of openly gay pastors. The fact that this is even being discussed has offended many people, who claim that the Bible is clear on this topic and there is no room for conversation about it. Others are frustrated that the ELCA has not changed its stance on this issue and have left the church.

The other big reason congregations are leaving has to do with the Call to Common Mission, an agreement that permits Lutheran pastors to preside over the sacraments (Baptism and Communion) in Episcopalian churches; and vise versa. The ELCA has similar agreements with other similar denominations, but what made the one with the Episcopalians so touchy is that the ELCA had to agree to installing bishops into the "historic episcopate"...something I don't fully understand. The job description / authority / responsibility of being a bishop didn't change, but they had to agree to the "historic episcopate". (It also didn't help that shortly after CCM was passed, the Episcopalians installed an openly gay bishop.)

Blah, blah, blah...nobody is reading at this point.

Those three causes of membership decline don't even take into account this PATHETIC number -- 28% of ELCA members attend worship at least once a month. My belief is that the ELCA is seen as "my parent's church"...and their parents are unable to articulate why they go to the young people join a non-denominational church that appears more relevant and authentic.

That's enough for now. Sorry for taking up so much space!!!
Greg Lawson's avatar

Greg Lawson· 46 weeks ago

I think there are a lot of good points here. For me, it comes down to Identity.

I think we've got members of ELCA congregations who don't know that there is a larger ELCA -- or at least don't really know what that means.

Are there denominations that aren't worried about their membership? My guess is that they're the ones who have a strong identity. I have friends who are Catholic who don't really know the first thing about the Catholic church, but identify strongly with their Catholicism.

Does the same thing happen with ELCA Lutherans?

I'm not saying that there aren't Lutherans who identify strongly with this church, but I'm not sure it happens to the same extent...

And like folks here have already said, there are a lot of reasons that contribute to the current state of ELCA identity - taking our time on social statements, a different attitude in younger generations etc.

I did have a chance to hear Bishop Hansen speak at an ELCA communicator's conference recently. One of the things I heard the Bishop say (let's hope I got it right!) was that he doesn't want to become too focused on our declining membership. The idea (paraphrasing here) is that if we have a firm in our understanding of the bible (the 'first language of faith') and as a church, really *do* God's work with our hands, then we really solidify our identity as a church - which, in turn, energizes and attracts membership.

That made sense to me.
I absolutely agree with Greg's thoughts on our lack of "identity". Dave Daubert, in his book "Living Lutheran", would argue that we need to establish a PURPOSE for our congregations (and denomination).

Our church staff and council have enjoyed reading this book. It's a quick read, and has the potential to bring about a real renewal among ELCA churches who actually give a damn.
Eric's avatar

Eric· 44 weeks ago

In our community (Minnesta suburb)Baptist & Non-denominational are growing. Our ELCA church isn't. The focus of the ELCA seems to be politcs, homosexuality, global warming, etc. Maybe the ELCA should focus on growing membership & faith instead! Salvation through the cross will bring people in.
juls's avatar

juls· 31 weeks ago

The reason the ELCA is losing members is because it has abandoned the Christian principles that have been in place for 2000 years under Hansen's leadership. He is pushing for a left wing agenda, and if you open the Lutheran magazine published monthly, you will see immediate evidence of this. I am a former Catholic that converted to be a Lutheran, the same religion as my husband. After 12 years, I now regret becoming a Lutheran and if I had a full understanding in my early 20s of their stand, or lack thereof, on fundamental social issues such as abortion, I would have never become a Lutheran. They need to decide where they stand on social issues and be done with it and stop with these "talks" and ongoing dialogue that is just pure nonsense and prolonging the misery felt by members such as myself.
4294967295 replies · active 8 weeks ago
Jules - I think you might want to consider doing some additional research into some of the accusations you're making.

Your suggestion that left-wing politics is anti-Christian is absurd to me. Are you claiming that anyone who considers themself a "liberal" or a "leftist" isn't Christian? If so, you may want to consider reading your Bible a little more fully, and not just pick out the verses that support your politics. "Left-wing" ideals such as caring for those who are sick, in prison, or homeless are taken directly from the mouth of Jesus. While I don't believe that "Jesus was a Liberal", I certainly don't think that all Christians have to be "Conservative".

That aside, the ELCA has no affiliation with any political agenda - left or right wing. What evidence can you offer to support your claim that the Lutheran Magazine promotes a left-wing agenda?

Bishop Hansen was elected to lead and guide the ELCA, but he wields very little power in his role as Bishop. He can't make any decisions on policy or practice without the approval of the Churchwide Council, or, in most cases, a 2/3 vote by the Churchwide Assembly. Perhaps your confusing Bishop Hansen's call with the call of the Pope in your former denomination. The Pope calls a lot of the shots in the Roman Catholic church...Lutheran Bishops do not.

Also - Lutherans and Catholics are the same RELIGION (Christianity), just different denominations within that religion.

You might want to take a closer look at the ELCA Social Statement on Abortion. I think you'll find that they have a lot to say about this very important issue. You might disagree with the church's position, but I don't think you can argue that they don't "take a stand".

In terms of "unnecessary dialogue", I'm not sure what you mean. All churches have ongoing discussion on the issues facing the people in the church. Perhaps you are not interested in discussing things like human sexuality, but I know a lot of church bodies that think it's important to talk about. Martin Luther believed that the church should "always reform" - and true reform doesn't happen without prayer, study, and discussion.

There are lots of things contributing to the declining membership in the ELCA - Bishop Hansen, the Lutheran Magazine, and the fictitious "left-wing agenda" are not among them.
Mark's avatar

Mark· 16 weeks ago

There is no reason to "discuss" or do "studies" on sexuality as it is a mute point. Sex is to be had between men and women who are married for purposes of loving each other and making babies. End of story. Luther said marriage is between a man and a woman. The entire Missouri Synod opted out of the merger in 1986 because they got wind of what was indeed a homosexual agenda. The ELCA should pray to God I never win the lottery as I will sue them to extract what used to be the ALC out of them. We would never have voted for this merger had we known the hidden agenda behind it. We were 2.5 million of the 4.5 million to become the ELCA. I will always be a Luteran but I wont be attending any ELCA church any more. I am in an Evangelical mega church that holds that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and if you don't like it, there is the door!
1 reply · active 6 weeks ago
I agree. I love my ELCA church family but they vote on the "Human Sexuality: Gift & Trust" this August. If they approve it, we'll have to leave.

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