By Mark Blanke
Have you ever wondered why the LCMS has been a shrinking denomination for the last 30 years?
There are a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t be losing members, for instance:
- We have the largest Protestant parochial school system in the nation.
- We have a higher ratio of pastors to members than we did in 1974 (when our membership numbers peaked).
- We have wonderful church and school facilities all across the country, including 10 colleges and universities and two seminaries.
- We take in over $1.2 billion in donations every year.
- We have a doctrine that is Christ-centered and wonderfully built upon the Scriptures.
- When one worships at an LCMS congregation, you are very likely to hear a clear Gospel message from the pulpit and to experience the Sacraments being rightly administered.
- Our members, while slightly older as a group from the general population, are as dedicated to their God as those from any other denomination.
- Pastors are sensitive to making the worship experiences in their congregations relevant and timely.
And yet, we have seen a 15 percent decline in baptized members between 1976 and 2006 — a loss of more than 400,000 individuals. To what might we attribute this loss?
Data does exist to indicate that the key might be found not in our sanctuaries, but in how we build disciples through purposeful parish education.
While attendance in weekly worship at the average LCMS church may be only 35 to 40 percent of total congregational membership, adult education attendance percentages on the same Sunday are closer to 8 percent. Even when one includes the adult attendance in midweek classes in the total, we probably have between 12 and 14 percent of our adult members attending a Bible study. While we have seen a decline in 15 percent of members over the last 30 years, our Sunday religion classes (children and adult) have seen a decline of more than 30 percent.
Author Thom Rainer conducted research for his book Effective Evangelistic Churches into what factors contributed toward being an “evangelistic church” (defined by Rainer as a congregation that exceeded a certain growth and retention rate per member).
Rainer’s research identified three factors that had a strong correlation with evangelistic effectiveness — effective preaching, emphasis on prayer, and a healthy Sunday school (defined as Sunday educational programs aimed at all ages). Rainer states, “we found a direct correlation between evangelistic health and the health of the Sunday school. This relationship proved not only true for the Southern Baptist churches, but for the over 500 other churches in subsequent research.”
A 1990 study by Search Institute indicated that effective Christian education “is the most powerful single influence congregations have on maturity of faith.” The research also pointed to the correlation between effective Christian education and the degree of denominational and congregational loyalty in a congregation — leading researchers to interpret that Christian education has the potential to renew congregational life and reverse downward membership trends.
Having several congregational Bible studies isn’t the key to effective Christian education in a church. The Search study and Rainer’s research showed that the educational experiences had to be “effective,” that is, they had to incorporate strong educational methodology and an intentional, purposeful design.
Designing these type of learning experiences is a difficult task, yet a 2008 study by the Institute for Religious Education at Concordia University Nebraska found that while pastors estimated that they spent almost a quarter of their time in planning and facilitating educational experiences for their congregations, a majority of them had never taken a class on educational methodology outside of the one class on education required in our seminaries.
Developing competent and intentional educational ministries is a difficult task. But instead of looking at the task as being too big a challenge, church leaders can respond by taking small steps toward improvement.
What could be done to better prepare your Sunday school teachers? How might you make your adult education classes more goal-oriented and less lecture-based? How can you move your youth ministry away from an “entertainment” focus to a more educationally focused experience? How can we change how we teach confirmation classes to better fit the development levels of the youth? Each small step we take can enhance what we do — and provide a better foundation for future improvements.
In the Preface of the Small Catechism, Martin Luther said, “But those who refuse to learn are to be told that they are denying Christ and do not belong to Him. They are not to be admitted to the Sacrament, accepted as sponsors at Baptism, or allowed to exercise Christian liberty in any way. They should instead be simply directed back to the pope and his functionaries, yes, even to Satan himself. Moreover, their parents and superiors should refuse them food and drink, telling them that the prince is of a mind to expel such rude persons from his realm, and so on.”
Perhaps Luther’s passion for Christian education influenced his comments to be a bit more antagonistic than what we would say today — but his dedication to Christian education is apparent. He knew the value that Christian education plays in the development of disciples and in the growth and health of Christ’s church.
Perhaps we also need to put more passion and emphasis in those areas of ministry today.
Dr. Mark Blanke is professor of education, DCE program director, and director of Strategic Planning and University Institutes at Concordia University Nebraska, in Seward.
Posted Feb. 24, 2010