At the 2019 Synod convention, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod voted on and passed a new Synod emphasis for the next three years. That emphasis is called Making Disciples for Life, and one of its four main components is church planting.
Church planting is known to result in the making of new disciples. Church plants also often reach a diverse group of people as we seek to make disciples of “all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Sixty percent of new church starts are multi-ethnic or cross cultural.
And, speaking of new starts, rather than thinking immediately in terms of buildings and salaries, consider this: A new start is defined as a gathering of people who meet for worship and/or Bible study with the intent of becoming a chartered congregation.
Even as many churches are declining in membership, church planting actually brings revitalization and health, rather than being a drain to the church at large. And yet, across denominations, 93 percent of churches are not actively engaged in starting new missions.
With this in mind, a think tank recently convened in Wheaton, Ill., comprised of national denominational/network leaders in church planting, brought together by the Send Institute at the Billy Graham Center. I was one of the invitees.
Planning ahead for 2050
The question was raised to us, “What would it mean for a society if only 7 percent of the people who could were bearing children?” Surely it would have a devastating impact if that was the case.
And so, the think tank set about brainstorming ideas on how to build and equip the Church with an eye on the year 2050 — to increase church planting activity, in comparison to the overall increase in a diversifying population. To see more mother congregations birthing daughters.
One of our assignments was to plan ahead for a challenging future in 2050. Here was a bit of a hypothetical worst-case scenario that we were given:
Religious “nones” become nearly 40 percent of the population by 2050.
A decade prior, federal laws were passed removing all tax benefits from religious groups and clergy unwilling to comply with the new declaration on human rights (gender, sexuality, etc.). That decade then saw the largest closure rates of both evangelical and mainline churches.
Very few churches could afford the property taxes in affluent areas and were forced to sell their properties. North America no longer has a majority ethnic group, which has dramatically changed the demographics of a population that went from 309 million to 400 million from 2010 to 2050.
To maintain the ratio of people to churches, given the population increase, would mean to net 1,900 new churches/year.
As a point of reference, in 2014, according to LifeWay research, there were 4,000 churches planted and 3,700 closed, which meant a net of 300 churches added — significantly less than 1,900.
Consider also that the generation leading that future church has not yet even been born, and they carry the mantle of what we have left for them.
Another note is that the “decline narrative” did not motivate or mobilize church planting in previous years; in other words, a “call to action” based on shrinking membership did not result in more churches being planted.
One suggestion the group made for that potential future was what was called the “Arrival narrative.” The idea was named after a science fiction movie by the name “Arrival,” in which aliens from another planet come to Earth to bring us new advanced technology.
But they give us this technology not only to help us thrive, but because one day it will be needed for us to go to rescue them. Many see the same thing happening regarding the Gospel.
While it is true that the world is coming to our doorsteps through immigration, and that Africa may soon have the largest population of Christians in the world, perhaps we should not think in terms of how we will bring the Gospel to the nations gathering at our doorstep, but instead how people from around the world are bringing the Gospel to the U.S.
To be sure, the West has sent missionaries around the world through the years, and even we in the LCMS have close to 90 countries in which we partner around the globe. But now these global partners are seeing the U.S., with the 3rd largest population of the unchurched, as being the mission field.
So when we hear Jesus give His new command that they will know us because we love one another as He has loved us, and hear Him asking the Father that we might be one as He is one with the Father and the Spirit … this has missiological implications.
People of all walks of life, political affiliations and ethnic backgrounds will become one Body, many grains of the same loaf, one cup of the many grapes.
And the world will recognize this. They will see this and know that this is the Kingdom, because it can only be ruled over by the Prince of Peace who has united them in His Kingdom.
Yes, even the growing group of “nones” will recognize this unity among us. And no doubt the crucible that will bring this about will be the cross, the persecution of the Church that will also crush together like a winepress.
Bold witnesses in a hostile culture
So we were asked, “What will have happened by 2050 in an extremely secularized nation, that will bring about new mission work?”
Quite simply, it will take heroic action: bold and sacrificial. It is interesting that so many protagonists in movies and shows created by the entertainment industry today are the villains or those identified as evil.
And the typical heroes in movies and TV shows are being exposed as frauds, just a façade of the glory they seem to have.
And to be sure, in our society we see much of what God has condemned now being considered a new set of family values. Light called dark, dark called light … and hearts that have grown cold and merciless.
I had an article from Christianity Today on my mind as we went about our assignment on what would be done between now and 2050. It was called “The Early Church Thrived Amid Secularism and Shows How We Can, Too.”
It spoke of how the pre-Christendom church managed to avoid both isolationism and accommodationism. The idea of the article was that we should not become so accommodating to secular culture that we become unrecognizable, nor should we isolate ourselves from the culture so much so that we become invisible.
Instead, this third way of making no compromises while still engaging a hostile culture will take bold witnesses willing to suffer — heroes. In the past, heroes were larger-than-life figures, role models, like the many martyrs who have died for the faith before us.
Soldiers of the cross
So before we shy away from the good works of mercy and bearing witness in the public square in an effort to avoid some pietistic notion of goodness, or fatalistic notion of doing good as merely a social justice, we remember it is not us, but Christ in us.
It gains us no merit and is nothing to boast of, but it is heroic nonetheless.
In large part, this is a task of bringing those who are of the world into that which is otherworldly, which for us is the Divine Service, which offers holiness and true peace, through God’s Word and Sacraments.
These heroes will be highly trained soldiers of the cross, catechized and winsome — winsome not in some treasonous surrender to the enemy, but in an ability to conquer in spiritual warfare through truth and love.
No doubt, it will be an elite fighting force, this Church militant in the decades to come, those who will ask, “Where is the beachhead in this apocalyptic war of the ages?”, and will say, “Send me.”
Like Gideon’s small band of soldiers, these disciples will ask, “If God is for us then who can stand against us?” And we will be more than conquerors, even if it is masked in persecution and suffering for the cross.
But still this may all seem futile in an increasingly secularized world. And if we are unable to change a culture by earthly means, we may lose heart, and wonder why we should make the investment if no one wants to hear the Gospel.
A message of repentance and forgiveness
Still we recall God calling Jonah to Nineveh, a metropolis at complete odds with the God-fearing prophet. We know that Jonah was sent, if for no other reason than that there were just so many, so many lost souls in the big city of Nineveh.
If anything will transform a culture, it will only be the message of repentance and forgiveness.
Then we remember also the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15–24), when we consider all the rejections of our invitations to the feast.
At the end of the age, the master of the house will become angry and will send his servants into the streets and alleys of the city, to invite the poor, lame, deaf and blind.
Who do these people represent? The most marginalized, and therefore those considered the greatest of sinners.
This is who is invited to the great feast as the Pharisees will see tax collectors and sinners go before them into Heaven.
So when we say there is no one willing to listen to the Gospel, perhaps we can think in these unconventional terms.
- What of the lonely widow who has no visitors at the nursing home?
- What of the child who is functionally homeless as he is passed on from relative to relative?
- What of the new American who has immigrated here and lives in isolation and fear?
- What of the broken incarcerated sinner who thinks God’s grace is not for them?
- What of the person on their deathbed who is convinced that God will be pleased to see them spend eternity in Hell as their deeds have deserved?
- What of the disabled person who considers their disability a curse from God?
- What of the prodigal college student who is coming to their senses, seeing that they have been living in the pig pen rather than the Father’s house?
- Or what of the addict living in the shanty town at the edge of town who feels they have been left for dead?
Certainly, no matter what decade it might be, there will be those who need and are willing to hear the Gospel. And faith comes by hearing.
Stand on the Word of God
And yet to get the Gospel to them might also be unconventional. It may require new collaborations and partnerships to reach into the margins.
It may require using technology to find a platform to bring the invitation to the master’s wedding feast. It may require sending pioneers into new frontiers in urban and ethnic mission fields. It may take great sacrifices and outpouring of gifts to bring about new mission work.
And it may seem like a very large-scale task, be it a group of national leaders all wrestling with the same issues facing Christendom, or a whole Synod coming together to prepare for the future.
But don’t be afraid to think small.
How can my circuit reach new people in new places or support work going on the margins?
How can my church start a new mission to the unreached people group in our community?
Who knows, maybe you don’t just pass by that homeless guy on the corner or turn a blind eye to the homeless family that you heard about?
Maybe you can bring words of comfort to someone grieving or struggling?
Maybe it is your church establishing a preaching station or you witnessing to your neighbor.
And maybe it starts with something as small as giving a cold cup of water, but, by the year 2050 it will take bold confessors of the faith who are willing to get into the mix, to bear their crosses, and who will not back down, but will stand on the Word of God.
Because not even the gates of Hell will prevail against the Church, and God will reign forever.
This is the state of church planting in America as we look ahead with hope and joy.