The maddening fact is that the Missouri Synod has been in a slow numeric decline since about 1970. The last time a district of the Synod had any increase in its number of baptized was in the late nineties. There was a decrease in membership in 1977, due to the break off of the AELC (which became the catalyst in the formation of the ELCA). But the decline since 2000 has been even more pronounced. (We are down 12 percent in the past ten years.) Why the decline?
On my visitations of each district (First Vice-President Mueller and I have divided the number of districts between us and then taken along the regional vice president), I am sharing my statistical findings. We have analyzed the performance of each district over the past decade. Several factors emerge. The trend line for every district is the same: decline. Districts in the most secular areas of the country have declined most rapidly (down 25 percent or more in just ten years).
It is very clear that districts with significant urban populations also tend to have declined significantly. The top-performing district over the past decade is South Dakota, down only 4 percent. Several Midwestern/rural districts follow at declines of 6–7 percent. Even in districts that have had a significant increase over 40 years in the number of congregations (especially Texas and Michigan), there is still significant membership decline. The total number of congregations in the Synod declined slightly since about 2000, rebounded ever so slightly by the end of the past decade and has remained steady.
It is evident to me that historically the greatest source of growth in the Missouri Synod (and especially following WWII) had been procreation. The single most significant factor causing our decline has been that fact that we have largely adopted the prevailing cultural attitudes toward marriage and reproduction. Our young people are marrying later, if at all, and are having far fewer children. (There are today, for instance, only 48 percent of the number of high school youth who were in the Synod in 1980.) Second, we have not reached out to non-Anglo people to make up for the decline in the number of children among our traditionally Anglo constituency. Thus, while Roman Catholics in America have increased 43 percent since 1970, we are down 18 percent.
Why? Because Roman Catholics have benefited greatly by the influx of Spanish-speaking people. Finally, our church planting has not been sufficient. One district president told me recently, “It’s time for repentance. We haven’t started a mission in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood for over 15 years.”
Are we shrinking because of close(d) Communion? Hardly. The places in the Synod that are declining most rapidly are the places one is least likely to find the Synod’s doctrinal position on this matter strictly adhered to. Is the answer simply contemporary worship or more consistent use of the hymnal? I wish it were that easy. Iowa East has few praise bands and much more uniform use of the hymnal. Iowa West is clearly more moderately disposed in these areas. Decline? Both districts are down precisely 12 percent in 10 years. The stats show, I’m convinced, that the reasons we use to beat one another over the head about decline are simply unfounded. They might make us feel good about ourselves or give us the rhetorical advantage, but they are bogus.
How do we compare with other denominations since 1970? Among Christians, the Roman Catholics have fared the best (up 43 percent). The Southern Baptists are up 42 percent. The “old-line” churches have faired the worst: the United Church of Christ, down 48 percent; the Episcopalian Church, down 42 percent; Presbyterian Church USA, down 36 percent; United Methodist Church, down 30 percent; ELCA, down 27 percent. Shockingly, if you believe the numbers for the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and I don’t doubt them), they claim increases of 218 percent and 254 percent, respectively. The Assemblies of God claims an increase since 1970 of 396 percent. Yet, even the Southern Baptists have in recent years begun to decline.
It’s clear to all of us that Christianity in America is in decline. There is theological atrophy in the mainline/old-line churches, which no longer teach that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. There is rank heresy (as usual) in the televangelists who gather their thousands (and millions of dollars!). But there’s no consolation in this for us. What’s the answer?
First, repentance. While it is true that the Lord promises that the masses will follow false christs and prophets in the end times (Mark 13:14), there is plenty for us to repent of as well. If the false gospels of Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (who both deny Christ, the divine Son of God, and the blessed Holy Trinity) motivate their evangelists to hit every door in the country, shouldn’t the full freeing Gospel of the Scriptures—sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus—propel us to become people on a mission? If the cults can canvas a whole town, might we as individuals be able to invite a neighbor who needs Jesus to church?
It’s also time for us to repent of uncharitable language directed toward one another and focus our efforts on speaking about Christ to all around us. Christ tells us that Church will be a “little flock.” Always has been. Always will. But that’s in the mystery of His working, not by our intentions or inventions.
Look to the Gospel. “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). We have Christ’s promises. We have the powerful word of the Gospel. Human nature is the same, but there are times in the history of the world when men close their minds and, like Pharaoh, then God finally closes them for good. We all have the sense that we are entering such a time. Nevertheless, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (Tim. 2:4). And Christ’s blessed mandate to His Church (all of us, pastors and laity) remains: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
Let’s up our game. First, let us encourage one another (1 Thes. 5:11), not tear one another down. Let’s hit the street (i.e., get visiting). Visitation looks different in different circumstances, but it’s the way of Jesus, the way of Paul, Peter, Barnabas and all the apostles. Read Luther’s preface to the “Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony” of 1528 (Luther’s Works, volume 40, pages 269–320). A bishop or pastor is a visitor! He doesn’t go on “walk about” just for fun or the joy of taking a walk, says Luther. He goes to proclaim Christ, to admonish with the Law, to console with the Gospel, to care, to intercede, to pray, to set things in order, to plant, to return to the church planted, to see “how they are” (Acts 15:36). Let’s encourage our laypeople to own the mission, to be certain of their God-pleasing vocations as the context for sharing Christ and inviting folks to church. Let’s get to work on our preaching, pastors. We can all improve. Let’s hold one another accountable for clear, compelling, biblical and Law/Gospel sermons. And let’s plant churches, looking for opportunities among the people whom God has brought right to us.
Finally, after we have done everything, we must confess, “We are unworthy servants.” (Luke 17:10). We know we shall bear the cross in this life, and as Christianity continues to fade from our nation (even as it blossoms elsewhere in the world), the soil will become harder here. But it still remains that God works through means, and He is even now working through us, and the message on our lips, to bring to Himself the full number of the elect. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).