Smoky Mountain Reflections #179
As we enter the Lenten season I thought I would talk a little about numbers, our church body and how the demographics of our nation are affecting our church. Most of the information in this reflection comes from an article in the Lutheran Witness back in November titled Numerical Decline in the LCMS by Dr. Ryan MacPherson.
First, the LCMS currently has 6101 congregations with a membership of just over two million souls. On any given Sunday, a little over 36% of our baptized membership attends church. Our church body has seen a significant decline in membership since our peak in 1965. We are however, one of many conservative church bodies who have suffered much less than the more liberal church bodies who have declined even faster. For example the Episcopal and the Presbyterian Church USA, two church bodies that were once twice our size in membership, are now smaller than we are. There are a number of factors that affect this but a declining Lutheran birth rate and a reduced retention rate of baptized infants are a few of them.
Historically and even now God’s church is scoffed at, rejected and persecuted. There is little we can do to combat the ethos of the world we live in but we can and should continue to press on seeking to increase His church members while not being disappointed if that does not happen. We must live our lives in accordance with God’s will and seek to share His Gospel whenever we are able. While we can’t change the world, it is helpful to understand what is behind our dwindling numbers so that we can take some steps, with God’s help, to make God pleasing changes that can help the church remain healthy and grow both in spirit and number.
One of the main factors for our decline was mentioned by President Harrison a few years ago and though scoffed at, the statistics bear out his assertion. It is our birth rate, at 4% in 1956 (4 births for every 100 baptized members) that declined to 2% in the 1970’s and is now just over 1%. Dr. MacPherson suggests that there are seven factors that contribute to this steady four decade decline; delayed marriage, birth control, infertility, divorce, student debt, doctrinal change and vocational confusion.
Dr. MacPherson recommends three things that we might do to help in rebuilding our baptized and confirmed membership;
1. Revive the teaching of biblical and confessional Lutheran understanding of family vocations.
An emphasis on multi- generational ministry; giving young parents good role models and mentors to help them become better parents and spouses.
2. Foster inter-generational models of ministry. Our culture persistently mocks elders and drives youth to their peers for advice. Having events or activities that include the whole family, youth, parents, and grandparents can create a 4th commandment friendly environment.
3. Provide economic and moral support to young families. People are more likely to have and raise more Godly children if they feel the economic or social burden will not be too much and that their community will support them in that endeavor.
There is actually one belief system that believed and taught celibacy for all its members. They believed that others would have children for them to raise. That system did not work very well though and they officially closed their covenant book in 1957. Today they have only two official members and soon the Shakers will be no more.
It has always been the health and support of families that provided a biblical model for healthy congregations. While we here at Saint Paul in Sevierville have seen a steady average 5% increase in membership and attendance over the past 23 years, most of that growth has been retirees transferring to the area. But our congregation has baptized 48 people into God’s church and I have been blessed to conduct 29 of those baptisms over the past 10 years. Wonderfully, 17 of those were children. We can and should be thankful for whatever role we are called to play in God’s church or in our families, loving and serving our neighbors always looking for ways in support and encourage strong healthy families which can be a key factor in a strong healthy congregation.
In Christ Pastor Portier