Faithfulness and Church Decline

From an ELCA press release entitled ELCA Council Hears Presiding Bishop’s Call to Moral Deliberation:

Referencing a loss of nearly 80,000 baptized ELCA members in 2005 and some 275,000 members since he became presiding bishop in 2001, [ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark] Hanson said he wonders if the church has become ambivalent or suspicious about numerical growth.

"It doesn’t seem to be a scandal in this church," Hanson said of the membership losses.  He said some people try to explain the losses by blaming changing demographics or simply cleaning membership rolls.  Others say it’s "admirable," blaming "consumptive consumer-oriented churches" that sell out the gospel, he said.  Some even suggest that a faithful church is a declining church, Hanson told the council.

"I know congregations that are faithful to the gospel and to a cruciform life of discipleship and worship centered around the means of grace (that) are growing in membership and don’t hold up decline as evidence of faithfulness.  We need to ask ourselves: ‘Have we become a church of low expectations?’  I don’t think we expect much from the Holy Spirit.  I really don’t," Hanson said.

He also said he doesn’t believe the church expects its members to invite others to church and it doesn’t expect pastors to "be evangelical leaders of congregations in mission." Many congregations are not prepared to receive such leaders, he added.

This reminds me of a recent Sunday School lesson.  The teacher was leading a 5th grade class, and they were singing a playful song about fishing.  When he asked the kids, "Who are we trying to catch?" the kids answered, "God," and "Jesus," the typical Sunday School answers to Sunday School questions.  "No," he replied, "God catches us.  But, we’re trying to catch . . ."  He pauses and looks to the kids once more, giving them every chance to get the right answer.  But they don’t.  They can’t.  Why not?  Because at home and in their years of Sunday School they have not learned one of the most basic elements of the Christian faith – that faith is something to be shared, the story of Jesus is something to be proclaimed, that the Good News is something to be given to others.

"But these were just 5th graders," you say.  Hogwash, I say.  Children are, as my mother often told me, a reflection of their parents and elders.  Much of what children know and don’t know is up to us.  And indeed, the children in our churches do know a lot.  These children know that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross, that Adam and Eve were the first people, that Noah had lots of animals in the ark, that God loves us, that God is love, that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, that . . . Children, even 5th graders, can learn what we want to teach them about the faith and our tradition.  And even if they are not yet experienced practitioners of evangelism, it seems that they are capable of knowing that the Christian faith is meant to be shared, to be spread, to be given to the world.  But they can’t know anything we’re not willing to teach them.

From Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates . . .

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Faithfulness and Church Decline

  1. Yes, you are right: we don’t expect “evangelism” and we don’t expect “inviting” and we don’t teach it or model it. And, perhaps, our church leaders, pastors, don’t model it either. (I was an adult and in a mixed Bible study before I ever encountered people talking about their faith, praying without reading a prayer, and inviting others to join a faith group. As a dyed in the wool Lutheran, that means I could list many, many teachers and pastors who didn’t model many things to me.
    In contrast, a particular Baptist church that I am aware of, expects and teaches the inviting and telling from the youngest children on up. They have contests and points. That may seem crass, but it works to get the kids to think about the DOING of the inviting. And practice among friends leads to confidence to do this with strangers.
    Another thing, regarding church attendance, not membership, that I’ve never seen mentioned elsewhere: everytime CHURCH people go to a restaurant, a store, a gas station, etc. on a Sunday, we are contributing to the necessity of a worker to be there, and thereby, not in worship. Have we thought about this? Do we provide alternative worship times? Attendance can lead to membership. I would assume that lack of attendance leads to dropping of membership.

  2. Way to use the poignant text from Deuteronomy. It is called The Ve’ahavta and it is a central prayer in the Jewish world. Jewish educators often use part of this prayer to underscore the obligation to teach these words to the children.
    I may be a little off about this, but it would seem that 5th graders may not be developmentally ready to display their faith the same way an adult or teenager might. They need those basics of faith before they can go deeper. That’s all for now. Shabbat Shalom!

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