Congregational Viability and the Future of the Church

I've been a pastor for a whopping 18 months, but have worked in church settings – seminary, congregations, church publishing house – for much of the last ten years.  As I settle into my career and my life as a parent of growing children, I find myself looking ahead.  And as I look ahead, I wonder how different the church will be in 30 or 35 years, when I approach retirement.

I am 35 years old.  Since 1974, when I was born, the percentage of people claiming a strong religious affiliation has declined by several percentage points, from around 39% to about 33%.  Also over that time, those claiming a "not very strong" religious affiliation has declined 10% … the same percentage by which the number of people claiming "no religion" has grown.  The "somewhat strong" crowd has fluctuated, but remains at the high single-digits.  Overall, folks are reporting a lower degree of religious affiliation (data here).

Also, since 1988 when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed, membership and number of congregations have declined, while the number of pastors has actually increased (data here).  Anecdotally, we can all think of congregations that are smaller than they were 35 years ago, with fewer staff, fewer members, fewer ministries.  An ELCA trend report (available here as a PDF) reveals many downward trends, including declines in giving (in dollars adjusted for inflation), membership, average weekly worship attendance, baptisms, and so forth.  The church, as we know it, is in decline.  Even those much-ballyhooed megachurches are showing signs of decline and/or stagnation.

So what's next?  What will the church look like in 30 or 35 years?  If these trends continue – or accelerate, as is altogether possible – the church will be even less of an institution than it is now.  And I use that word "institution" quite intentionally, for I believe that the Word of God and the faith will survive and even thrive, but that the current way many of us Christians gather to nurture that faith – the ways we institutionalize our practice and community as Christians – will necessarily change.  Are our congregations ready for this kind of a change?  Since congregations are experiencing a declining capacity to pay for full-time ministers, are pastors who depend on full-time church employment ready for this kind of change?

I think it would behoove me to read up on my church history, to wrap my head around the varying ways that the Christian community has gathered around Word and Sacrament over the centuries.  I imagine that the way we Lutherans currently organize – with large (and decaying) church buildings, full-time staff, a vast committee structure – is a relatively modern, largely 20th century phenomenon.  Lutherans haven't always "done church" in this way.  Is it time to find a new way to "do church"?  It's a question worth exploring …

Also, I'm continually struck by the things that God does in the world apart from the church.  Just this week I attended a meeting of faith leaders with staff from the county's Department of Human Services to talk about healthy dating relationships and dating violence.  The county has an amazing capacity to impact our kids and is doing good and holy work to promote abundant life and justice for victims of domestic violence.

And then just yesterday my daughter comes home from her first grade classroom with flashcards teaching her basic economics – consumer, producer, opportunity costs, scarcity, needs, wants, income, and so forth.  What she's learning are the essential tools needed to recognize, understand, and work against the forces of poverty and economic injustice in the world, to work on behalf of the "least of these."  And she's learning this stuff at school, in first grade!  Indeed, God is doing good and holy things through our schools …

Recognizing the decline of the church as institution, and seeing God at work in non-church settings, has simultaneously humbled and excited me.  I'm not quite sure why or what it all means, but in these past few weeks my eyes have been opened anew to what God is doing in the church and in the world, and I am seeking faithful ways that I as a leader in Christ's church might together with others faithfully discern the path to which our Lord is calling our church.