‘Educated’ response to loss
The March commentary by Mark Blanke titled “An ‘educated’ response to membership loss” was a welcomed read. I have thought for a long time now that it is the hours spent in fellowship and Sunday adult Bible study that gives us the confidence to witness to those who are open to a conversation about religion. It’s not how well we can debate, but it’s how confidently we can explain our comfort and confidence in a Christian future in service to those we meet on a daily basis.
John T. Moeller
The commentary on membership loss by Mark Blanke was very interesting. It’s always good to hear ideas about how we can build people up in the faith.
I would like to include another reason for the decline in LCMS membership. When we look at the Synod’s statistics from the past century, they show that there has been a drastic cut in the number of child baptisms from 50 years ago. In 2005 the Synod had around the same number of total members as it had in 1958. Yet in the mid- to late-1950s we were baptizing 80,000 to 90,000 babies per year. In the early 2000s that number was in the low 30,000s. That means that there are around 50,000 fewer children (per year) in church pews and Sunday school classrooms. That adds up.
While better training for pastors and Sunday school teachers is certainly something to aim for, it simply isn’t going to make children appear out of thin air. Those children have to be born first. The fact that there aren’t as many kids in Sunday school, as well as fewer in church in general, I would maintain has at least something to do with the smaller number being born.
Rev Scott Adle
I appreciate Mark Blanke’s article in the March Reporter titled “An ‘educated’ response to membership loss.”
At Ambassadors of Reconciliation, my colleagues and I have made similar observations regarding the correlation between the spiritual maturity/health of congregations and their members’ involvement in adult Bible study. In fact, the one characteristic that is most common among conflicted congregations we work with is that they have a small percentage of people involved in weekly Bible study.
In contrast to our LCMS assertion that we are “people of the Word,” we have found that Lutherans are often unfamiliar with Scripture. Some of our experiences include:
- Meeting with 13 elders of a church, we observed that four of them could not find the Gospel of John when asked to look up a passage. Three elders were searching through the Old Testament, and one was in 1 John.
- In our meeting with a church council and elder board, most struggled to look up Scripture passages from Romans, Hebrews, and other well-known books of the Bible.
- When meeting with individuals of a church, we met with a married couple who told us they had regularly attended worship at this LCMS church for 30 years. Although we had a Bible open to the book of John, they were unable to find a passage because they did not know that the Bible was divided by chapter and verse.
- While teaching our Bible study seminar on peacemaking, if we refer to biblical accounts of King David’s affair with Bathsheba, Moses striking the rock for water rather than speaking to it, conflict between Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen, Jesus’ disciples arguing among themselves, and others, we have learned that we must first tell the stories because many Lutherans do not know them.
- As a guest speaker at a church’s Sunday adult Bible class, I asked the 30 people gathered to look up a Bible passage. No one had their Bible with them, and it took 15 minutes for the pastor and people to find enough Bibles for the class to share.
- We have attended LCMS churches where the people are never asked to use a Bible during Bible study.
- We have to remind church leaders to urge people to bring their Bibles to our teaching events. Otherwise, people show up for our Bible study seminars without Bibles. Apparently, they have developed a culture where it is not expected that they will need a Bible.
I agree with Mark’s assertion that teaching methods could use improvement. In Bible classes, we have witnessed that several instructors rely simply on lecturing style or uncontrolled open discussions. This contrasts with prepared teaching that incorporates various education methodologies to enhance learning and appeal to different learning styles. Limited teaching methodologies, inadequately prepared instruction, and lack of objective-focused planning contribute to lower attendance and reduced learning.
Thankfully, these attributes don’t apply to every congregation. We have also been in churches that have vibrant Christian education courses.
In one congregation with a weekend worship attendance of 900, they had a focus on Christian education during one period where 600 adults and children were attending mid-week Bible classes at the church.
Our traveling staff have seen quality teaching methodology and observed Bible study discussions where people were biblically astute and participated in deep theological discussions. In churches where Bible study is better attended, the church often uses laity gifted in teaching to lead Bible classes, in addition to the professional church workers. It is possible for Lutheran churches to increase Bible study attendance and provide quality education. (By the way, such churches tend to engage Ambassadors of Reconciliation for proactive work in reconciliation as opposed to asking for help with serious conflict.)
However, we find that in many of the churches my colleagues and I visit as we travel, adult Bible class attendance represents a small percentage of the worshipping community. In his article, Mark indicated that about 8 percent of LCMS membership attended adult Sunday School, and perhaps 12 to 14 percent attend Bible class during a week. In conflicted congregations, we have seen a range of 3 percent to 10 percent of adult members that attend Bible class anytime during the week, including Sunday and weekdays. This also reveals that many of their elected lay leaders are not involved in Bible study.
Those who neglect the study of God’s Word sin against the Third Commandment, and they suffer the consequences of starving themselves spiritually. For people whose only contact with God’s Word is in a weekly worship service, one hour per week is perhaps enough spiritual food to keep one barely alive on life support, but it is inadequate to equip one for spiritual battle against the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful flesh.
Sadly, based on our reconciliation work with churches from the U.S. and abroad, we have concluded that too many Lutherans are biblically illiterate. Is it any wonder why many of our churches are declining?
The good news is that there is a cure for biblical illiteracy and spiritual immaturity. Getting people involved in God’s Word feeds them and build them up for Christian service.
What I especially appreciated about Mark’s article is that studies involving several denominations revealed that there is a strong correlation between having a healthy Sunday school (including adult Bible study) and being an effective evangelical church. Should this really be a revelation to a Synod that claims to be “in the Word”?
In a day when church bodies and congregations are looking for ways to address declining membership and worship attendance, we often look to sources from the secular world to improve our “marketing” abilities or learn to meet new needs. And yet, “make disciples … teaching them” (Matt. 28:19-20) continues to be a key factor in churches that are healthy and growing spiritually.
Teaching people God’s Word really is a distinct blessing that the church can provide, and it is a real need that people have. When people realize how relevant the Scriptures are for daily life, and when they are offered opportunities to study through quality learning experiences, they demonstrate a hunger for the Word and take advantage of the opportunities to learn more. As they do, the Spirit blesses His people so that they grow spiritually and bear more fruit. Such churches become stronger as their individual members grow in faith.
In churches that have implemented Ambassadors of Reconciliation recommendations for focusing on adult Bible study, they have realized significant positive impact. Some churches have doubled or tripled Bible class attendance in just six months to a year, and accordingly, they become much healthier congregations that learned to live lifestyles of reconciliation.
God promises that His Word will not return to Him void (Is. 55:11) and that His Word equips the Christian for life and spiritual battles (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 6:10-20). Imagine that! The Bible is proving to be true once again!
My only disappointment in the article is that it was not front-page news. Why? Because I believe that Mark has identified key factors on how we as a Synod can revitalize congregations and improve our ability to reach out to the unchurched.
Thanks for printing Mark’s article. I encourage you to continue to keep this subject in front of us.
Ted Kober is president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation. — Ed.
In his March commentary, Mark Blanke rightly emphasizes getting adults, children, and youth into the Word of God, as a way to turn around church membership losses. I simply would like to add thoughts from my past experience as a parish pastor and with Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ (OAFC), of which I am founder. Some of those experiences also are in Breakthrough, a book that I recently wrote that emphasizes historically tried educational and evangelistic methods that helped our church grow in the past, and I believe can help it grow today.
Following are several of my suggestions in that regard:
- Sunday school should be the top priority for catching and keeping little “fish” (children) who will become future leaders of the church.
When I was a pastor, we had “fishing contests” to see who could “catch” the most fish (children that other children would bring with them to Sunday school). Our Saturday, weekday, and vacation Bible schools also deliberately emphasized outreach in ways that were fun for children.
Going to Sunday school and church ought to be a treat — something youth and children enjoy, rather than a “treatment” they must endure. With that in mind, we used puppets, drama, and children’s songs with evangelistic emphasis. All of this was done so that, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, they would know the simple Gospel message that “Jesus died for my sins.”
- Set goals for Sunday schools. For instance, I know of a church that used the “Sunday School Growth Spiral” resource, primarily based on setting goals related to the number of leaders, outreach participants, contacts, new classes started, and class preparation. They brought in 130 over that year. God used the members and that instrument for the increase.
- Have youth mark and cross-reference fundamental doctrines in a Bible with a youth-friendly translation.
In the congregational setting, we had youth do that, and then asked them where to find certain topics referenced in their Bibles. When they were questioned before their confirmations, they would be asked to find passages they had marked in their Bibles to substantiate what they believe. They and their parents were proud that they could do this.
Later, youth in Ongoing Ambassadors cross-referenced small New Testaments to use when they would witness door-to-door and at other times. A memorable application of this was when about 50 OAFC teams successfully used their marked New Testaments to witness to thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were holding a rally at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
- Provide any opportunity possible for youth to become comfortable in witnessing to their faith.
In our experience, when confirmed youth first came to OAFC weekends, they would be embarrassed in not knowing the answer to the question “Why should God let you into heaven?” But after the weekend of outreach training that includes study and marking Scriptures and door-to-door evangelism calling, literally 100 percent of them knew the answer to that question.
I prayed for years to understand what “revival” was. But God uses youth in outreach through OAFC to put us in the middle of a true revival based on His Word, and not just emotion.
Dr. Kent Hunter once said that OAFC “helped Lutheran youth recognize and internalize the Gospel in a meaningful way — for many, for the first time ever … helping Lutheran youth go beyond intellectual faith and temporal faith, to a fuller comprehension of saving faith.” New trainees often speak about this transformation that they experience through OAFC weekends.
As I look back at the years before our Synod’s membership declines began, we can learn some things that helped the church grow.
I was privileged to meet and be “discipled” by Dr. Ted Raedeke. During the time of his leadership in LCMS outreach, he had men, women, youth, seminary students, anyone in the church out witnessing door-to-door. The LCMS grew and was a truly evangelical church!
There are those who contend that door-to-door calling isn’t the most effective way of winning the lost, but it has helped accomplish several important things. It has helped a lot of youth come to saving faith that keeps them in the church. It prepares many church workers, including strong lay workers loyal to Jesus and to the LCMS. It makes sharing Christ a way of life. It prepares people for the ultimate work of the church — being used by God to bring others to saving faith in Jesus and eternal life in heaven. It finds many unchurched people who, with follow-up, become new members of our churches.
LCMS President Dr. J.A.O. Preus once asked me, “Why is OAFC the best-kept secret in the Synod?” Now the secret is out. God has indeed used OAFC so that our youth will not be church dropouts, but are trained to be His missionaries.
And now there is not only OAFC, but also a shorter version, family e