The LCMS February Reporter wrestles with the fall off of membership of the Synod. It states that between 1971 and 2010 membership declined by 500,000. Child baptisms are down 70 per cent and adults received into membership have shrunk 47 percent. (Reporter, 2-28-2017).
President Harrison provided six observations concerning the decline.
- The demographic decline is not only an LCMS problem
- The retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus
- The [Synod’s] persistent, long term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms. . . and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts
- The number of child baptisms and adult converts have decreased together in a remarkably similar pattern
- Thus, there is no wedge that can be driven between openness to life (family size) and sharing life (evangelism)
- These reports don’t only share difficult data; they also point out what the Synod does well and what strengths we can build on. . . The key here is to build a strong Lutheran self-identity among the membership (Reporter, 2-28-2017)
While the Synod somewhat defensively agonizes about its future, a younger generation is asking themselves the question why they dropped out of church and have little desire to participate in church activities. In an article entitled “59 Percent of Millennials Raised in Church have Dropped Out — And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why” Sam Eaton focuses on some reasons why. Some of his most salient points are:
- Nobody is Listening to Us – (When a church forges ahead without ever asking for our input we get the message, “Nobody cares what we think.”)
- We are Sick and Tired Hearing About Values and Mission Statements – (what about loving the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself)
- Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority (compare the time spent in Bible classes, social functions, planning meetings, with actual help for the poor)
- We Are Tired of You Blaming the Culture (perhaps it is easier to focus on how terrible the world is out there than actually address the mess within)
- Distrust & Misallocation of Resources (we don’t trust institutions for we have witnessed over and over how corrupt and self-serving they can be)
- We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues Because No One Else Is (people in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions in their lives. We need someone to speak the truth in those areas)
- You Are Failing to Adapt (The bottom line-you just are not reaching Millennials, we need to intentionally move toward this generation that is terrifyingly anti-church) (http://faithit.com12-reasons-milennials-over-church-sam-eaton/ Accessed Feb 21, 2017)
A closer examination of these two viewpoints reveal that both are vitally concerned that churches as we know them can with insight and effort again appeal to a generation that has largely left the church. In a few cases they may be right. But a quick look at Europe where several generations have left the church, never to return, indicates that American churches will suffer the same fate. Yes, congregations, as we know them, will continue but will get smaller and have fewer resources. Many will close. Seminaries will carry on but struggle to stay afloat. Meanwhile, a generation, set adrift from the church, faces a daunting future with huge questions. Some will turn to political activism, others will turn in upon themselves seeking escape from the challenges they face.
A New Tribe?
To pastors locked into their aging and dwindling flock, the future looks grim. But to some returning from the mission field, the Millennial Generation is a veritable “New Tribe” that needs to be discovered, explored, understood, and evangelized. On the mission field there is always a sense of excitement in planning to move into a new area. What are the people there like? Will we first need to learn their language? What are their core beliefs? Are there any bridges between their longings and all that the Gospel has to offer? Then come the practical questions, who shall we send to begin the work? How can we tell of the good news that they will understand within their culture? What might be the best form of organization? How might their leaders be equipped?
Coming from the outside of the tribe, it is easy to make preliminary judgments and they are usually wrong. It takes time to observe, ask questions, listen intently, and slowly begin to learn the language. It is only when you get to know the faces of the people and despite the tremendous differences in appearance, they actually begin to look like people you know so well. Some of their problems are obvious, too far from water and no medical help. Others are less apparent, like shame, and deep anxiety. What is the best way to bring the good news to this tribe whose culture is so different from ours?
Who Shall We Send?
St. Paul was an ideal missionary in that he was an orthodox, yes, even pharisaical Jew, deeply steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. At the same time he was a Roman citizen, at home in Greek, and acquainted with their philosophy. Culturally he could move from synagogue to the debating arena at Mars hill. Not well supported, he made tents when necessary and took the opportunity in the market place to tell of God’s mercy in Christ.
Do we have potential missionaries like Paul, messengers well versed in the Scriptures and at home on Facebook, texting relevant messages, and meeting friends at Starbucks and bars? To “fit in” could they live on donations and support themselves if they must? Would they have time to listen, to learn the language, to make some real friends? Would they have the freedom not make reports or justify their ministry? Yes, they might start at church with potential church drop outs, and because of their anti-church friends, feel the church’s hostility and leave. Then joining with other drop-outs continue conversations about common concerns and beginning to share love, love for each other and love from Jesus, that other church outcast.
Millennials are gathering all the time, demonstrating to save migrants from deportation, protesting environmental destruction, making signs for both pro-life and pro-choice marches. They gather at sports events, parties, and are linked in interwoven networks. Where is a gathering open to a discussion about job choice, sex, meaning, and the purpose of life? One-time events are never enough to cover the subjects. Can they meet again next week, in preparation for working in a charity or heading for a demonstration? Who has the word of encouragement, yes, a prayer?
Out of loneliness comes the desire for acceptance, recognition, and something worth living for, struggling for, even dying for. Can we start again? Begin all over? Yes, remember our baptism or prepared to be baptized? Would that young messenger do it? But then he urges us to baptize others who also want to begin again and be joined to the Jesus who loves and accepts us the way we are. He is the Jesus who has the same concerns we do of feeding the hungry, helping cloth the homeless, visiting the sick, and welcoming the refugees.
But that stuff is tiring, trying to make a living, sometimes taking care of kids, and doing what needs to be done, protesting the wrongs in the world, helping wherever we can. We feel inadequate, and wish we had the strength to keep going. Then the messenger invites us to a supper and invites us to rest awhile. After a simple meal he tells us about how Jesus fed his disciples the last time he ate with them and told them to partake of his body and blood for forgiveness and the strength to keep on working. He then shares the bread and we all drink the wine. The messenger has other places to visit, other gatherings to attend. Lydia volunteers her apartment for next week’s meeting. She will prepare the meal and bless the bread and wine that we might meet Jesus again. The messenger will tweet the meeting in her house and suggest a Bible chapter to live by. They get out their Bible app and read together the words of comfort and challenge.
Would such a gathering be church? Would it be a Lutheran church? Maybe that is the wrong question, a little like asking St. Paul if the church at Lydia’s house was more like that of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Essenes. But, if Luther is important on this 500th anniversary, perhaps we should read again what he wrote after describing the Formula Missae and the Deutsche Messe. He says:
The third kind of service which a truly Evangelical Church Order should have would not be held in a public place for all sorts of people, but for those who mean to be real Christians and profess the Gospel hand and mouth. They would record their names on a list and meet by themselves in some house in order to pray, read, baptize, receive the sacrament and do other Christian works. In this manner those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, reclaimed, cast out, excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew XVIII. Here one could also establish a common benevolent fund among the Christians, which should be willingly given and distributed among the poor, according to the example of St. Paul, II Corinthians IX. The many and elaborate chants would be unnecessary. There could be a short, appropriate Order for Baptism and the Sacrament and everything centered on the Word and Prayer and Love. There would be need of a good brief catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father. (Luther, Works, VI, Holman,1932. p. 173)
But, what about doctrine, correct teaching, and a godly life? Paul did not fear to bless (ordain?) elders in those new small gatherings (Acts 14:23) many of whom were new to the faith. He kept in touch, now even more convenient with text messages, email, and webinars.
Linked in provides networks where questions are asked and resources provided. Now as young people themselves are the teachers and the learners, the application of the good news to this new tribe takes on an acute relevance. How will they address the most challenging questions of terrorism, war, torture, a warming world, gay sex, massive famines, robotics, economic disparities, and health care?
There has to be more than the daily grind, more than just politics, more than crowd following, or keeping up with gadgets. There has to be an ultimate Love, an ultimate Lord, who frees us from our shortcomings and gives us the freedom to fix the world as we find it and have great joy in doing it.
*Dr. Robert Schmidt was a missionary to Nigeria and later taught future missionaries of the LCMS, ALC, and LCA in a mission school under the aegis of the Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA) in the early ’70s.