If success is based on numbers, then the Church is failing. I don’t mean just Zion. It’s more than just the LCMS. The Christian Church in America is getting smaller. Every mainline denomination is facing the same frustrating problem. Each year seems to have fewer people in our pews and on our membership roles than the year before.
This is a complete reversal for us. The Church in America until recently had enjoyed persistent growth for several centuries before our peak around 1973. It makes sense. Many of our American ancestors left Europe and came to America for the free practice of religion, among other things. But now in these last days, everything has changed.
The point of this brief article is not to unpack this change. If you’re interested, you can read the full report from the Journal of Lutheran Mission in their December 2016 edition. It is readily available on the Internet.
The question I want to ask is the same Christians have been asking for the last 40 years: What do we do about it? What do we do about the abandonment of the Christian Faith in the heart and soul of our people?
Every Christian Church in America and in the west has struggled with this question. Each denomination, depending on their church tradition, has tried different answers to it.
Some, who think the Church should be completely separate from culture, have tried to double down on their separation.
Others, who think the Church should conform to the culture to be appealing to it, have done so to the point of removing almost all distinctly Christian beliefs. Such churches now look and feel no different than a rock concert with an inspirational speech.
Still others, who think that the Church should once again rule over culture something as she did in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, have increased their political activity and calls for political and policy reform.
And yet still others, who think that the Church should transform our culture along the lines of the New England Puritans have tried to offer Christian alternatives to secular activities such as movies and music.
Sometimes a new idea seems to work for a while. But research suggests that the “work” accomplished is often not much more than shuffling of God’s people from one congregation to another. And yet the problem remains. Even as the Church frantically rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic, there are still fewer total people in Church.
The challenge is that our culture and its demands are constantly yelling in our ears, trying to catch our attention. And they have it. We exhaust ourselves in keeping up with everyone else around us. And churches don’t help. In many ways, the programs and busyness and activity just adds to the cacophony.
Here is the terrifying Lutheran answer to the impossible question of what to do about the long, slow decline of Christianity: We do nothing. Nothing? Yes, nothing. Because what can we do? It’s Christ’s Church. And Faith is His business. Isn’t that what we confess in the 3rd Article of the Apostles Creed? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him…”
But here’s something. Jesus has promised to “call us by the Gospel, to enlighten us with His gifts, to sanctify and keep us in the true Faith.” Do we believe that?
We do believe that. And that frees us from joining the spirit of our age in tearing apart all sense of truth, from putting our pastors in skinny jeans (thanks be to God!) and serving fair-trade coffee during our church services. Instead, we be faithful. We trust our Lord to keep His promises. We don’t put our hope in our government or our programs or our own efforts to be Christian. Instead, we live knowing that it’s all in God’s hands. We serve our families and serve our church and serve our community, always being prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within us. And we repent of our sin, and WE forgive the sins of those who sin against us.
And you know what? I think we’re doing ok. Did you know that among the LCMS, South Dakota is losing the least amount of members per year? And compared to more “contemporary” denominations, the LCMS is losing among the least per year, even in spite of all the flashy new programs we see other churches doing all the time?
It’s because, as far as it depends on us, we keep Jesus at the center. Our district and our Church body and sometimes even our congregation may get a little smaller, but our Lord Jesus is faithful, and He has already won the victory. We can’t lose!