If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.
It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.
Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.
You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.
So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.
Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:
* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).
* Indeed, 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). They are two sides of the same coin. Even down to the congregational level, churches with lots of growing families have lots of adult converts. The two simply go together; they either increase or decline together as these data demonstrate.
Why are those issues linked? That's where the debates start (and reporters should get out their notebooks and audio recorders).
Now here is what is interesting. Many, but not all, of those issues surfaced in that recent Religion News Service article that I wrote about in a post entitled, "This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth."
That story focused on efforts, at a North Carolina congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to bounce back after some years of decline, division and malaise. Leaders at Christ the King Church have decided to reach out to the young by being more openly liberal on issues of theology and sexual morality. Check out the YouTube at the top of this post.
All of that is not surprising. Liberal Protestant leaders, as I noted in my post, have been pushing those kinds of strategies, along with a kind of heaven-and-hell-neutral evangelism, for several decades. I covered my first liberal evangelism conference in the mid-1980s.
However, I was struck by the fact that many of the practical issues facing this ELCA church resemble some -- repeat "some" -- of the issues being discussed in the conservative Missouri Synod. Both sides are, to be blunt, having trouble then it comes to making converts and, well, inspiring people to have children.
Demographics is destiny. But how about doctrine? Is doctrine linked to demographics and, thus, destiny?
Yes, there's evidence that elite liberal folks have smaller families and they don't want to thump Bibles and talk about salvation. What was it that former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori told The New York Times a decade or so ago?
How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?
About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.
Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?
No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.
OK, that makes some sense from an oldline, liberal point of view.
But why would conservative Lutherans be having trouble addressing evangelism and family-size questions?
I don't know. Maybe they are simply acting like millions of other ordinary people in their surrounding culture? You think?
Maybe it's time to have discussions -- on left and right -- of this classic Lutheran work on faith and culture, written in the wake of cultural earthquakes in the mid-20th Century, in Germany. Can you say "Niebuhr"?