Why The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Its Kin Have Declined in Membership and What to Do About It

By Martin R. Noland

Lutheran church leaders have been trying to explain the slow-but-sure decline in Lutheran church membership in America since the 1980s. Explanation for the decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)[1] is straight-forward and obvious. A constant focus by the ELCA on “social justice,” church fellowship with non-Lutherans, and adoption of the gay-lesbian agenda at its 2009 convention has led many of its former members to drop out, join other denominations, or start new synods, such as the North American Lutheran Church (NALC)[2] and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC)[3].

Explanation for the much slower decline in membership of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS)[4] and its kin—the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)[5] and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS)[6]—is less obvious and is, in fact, puzzling. From about 1973 to the present time, church-going Evangelical Protestants have consistently out-numbered church-going mainline Protestants in the United States. Today the church-going Evangelicals outnumber church-going mainline Protestants nearly four to one.[7] In the four key beliefs that define Evangelicalism, the LCMS and its kin are aligned with Evangelicals, not mainline Protestants.[8] So in this period, why haven’t the “confessional Lutherans,” i.e., the LCMS and its kin, enjoyed the same, or similar, membership growth that Evangelicals have seen?

In my opinion, the “confessional Lutherans” have not seen growth primarily because of four factors. These four factors are things that the Evangelicals have done, and we confessional Lutherans have refused to do. The confessional Lutheran refusal to follow Evangelical practices in these matters is commendable. I would not have these synods do otherwise. The LCMS, WELS, and ELS have been faithful to their beliefs, their confessions, and the Scriptures by refusing to do these four things.

The first factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to participate in unionistic worship services, revivals, and other unionistic religious work. American Evangelicalism really began with the Second Great Awakening, which was led by Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist ministers as a self-consciously unionistic enterprise.[9] Evangelicalism has been unionistic ever since. Unionism, or religious cooperation between people of contrary beliefs, is a key component of Evangelicalism’s popularity and its great “success.” The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, have been strictly anti-unionistic, as were their orthodox Lutheran predecessors going back to the sixteenth century.

The second factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to accept the theology and practices of the charismatic movement. Although the early leaders of modern Evangelicalism in the post-war period were not Pentecostal or charismatic, the tide has changed. Charismatics, who are usually classified as Evangelicals, now are a majority among “born again” Evangelicals in America.[10] Charismatics are also a key component in Evangelicalism’s growth. This has led to some conflict with non-charismatic Evangelical leaders.[11] The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, though buffeted by charismatics for a time, have resisted the siren song of tongues-speech, bogus healings, speculative prophecies, and related manic practices. 

The third factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to “sheep-steal.” The twenty-second paragraph of the Preface to the Book of Concord elaborates the Lutheran belief that there are many pious Christians “who err ingenuously and who do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word” (Tappert, 11) in non-Lutheran Christian churches. This belief is the reason that, as a rule, Lutherans do not consider members of other Christian churches to be a focus of their evangelism efforts. Evangelism is properly directed to the non-churched, the unbeliever, and to people of other religions. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have grown in numbers in large part due to their willingness to proselytize their fellow church-going Christians. Although some Evangelicals have criticized this practice,[12] it is a common practice defended by “church growth” gurus.[13] Since confessional Lutherans hold to the same key beliefs as Evangelicals, our youth and young people have been “easy pickings” for Evangelicals.

The fourth factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to identify with American Evangelical politics and political organizations. A recent pastoral letter by President Matthew Harrison reminds pastors of the LCMS that, though we have a few issues of concern for the body politic like abortion and same-sex marriage, neither the pastors nor the synod should tell people how to vote or whom to vote for.[14] 

This is in stark contrast to the Evangelical common practice of making political statements, persuading public officials, and telling the Evangelical flock how to vote and for whom to vote. Of modern Evangelicals, 62% believe that religious organizations should persuade senators and elected officials on legislative matters, which compares to 40% of Liberal Protestants, 47% of Roman Catholics, 37% of non-Christian religious people, and 28% of secularists.[15] This is a big change from the conservative Protestants in the 1950s and 1960s who believed that they should not be political involved.[16] The heavy involvement of modern Evangelicals in politics since the 1970s has been well-documented and analyzed.[17] One might conclude that many people joined the Evangelical churches since the 1970s out of political convictions, instead of spiritual ones. In the present political season (i.e., early 2016), the political convictions of Evangelicals seem to be “Trumping” their spiritual convictions.[18]

What should the “confessional Lutherans” do about this? Imitating Evangelical worship practices, sheep-stealing, accepting charismatic or unionistic practices, or any other Evangelical practices or theology will only further erode the membership of “confessional Lutheran” churches. These are not options for us.

In my opinion, in the present climate, we “confessional Lutherans” should concentrate on our strengths, not on our weaknesses. We should tell people that in regard to the four key beliefs of Evangelicals, we are Evangelicals—Dr. Gene Edward Veith has been saying this since 1999, if not before[19]—and we have so much more to offer than what is found in Evangelicalism. 

Our preaching is permeated with the constant grace and love of God, because we believe that the Gospel should predominate in preaching and teaching, not the Law. We have a doctrine of sanctification that allows for failure, because it recognizes we are always sinners and saints, and that Jesus forgives anyone who repents. We have a solid hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible that has been tested by five hundred years of theological debate. We have a time-tested theology in the Book of Concord, which our pastors are expected to follow and which keeps them from idiosyncratic teaching and church-fights over doctrine. 

We have a congregational polity, which keeps our pastors “in check,” prevents abuse of power by “bishops,” avoids problems of pastoral succession, and which recognizes the ecclesial role of the laymen in exercising their own “priesthood.” We have a liturgy and hymnody that sings the praises of God, not of ourselves. We have sacraments in Baptism and Absolution that actually give the Holy Spirit, faith, and forgiveness to those who receive them. We recognize that reason and the arts are a gift of God, unlike many Evangelicals who are anti-intellectual or who despise science and the arts. As a rule, we avoid political involvements, since we recognize the left-hand of God at work in rulers, and we have learned by historical experience that political engagement corrupts the church, and vice versa. 

  Finally, we confess that “Christ . . . in His Supper, engages with us in a blessed exchange whereby he unites himself with us through his holy flesh and blood so that, by his power, he may continually crucify and kill the old Adam more and more. And thus we all become one body in Christ, where each member is to love, honor, and support the other. . . He who finds that he is weak in faith has in the Lord’s Supper a blessed, powerful antidote to strengthen faith.”[20] 

These are just some of our strengths, which we should be happy to confess before the world in the coming 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation.

[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_in_America#Statistics ; also see http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/elca-has-lost-half-a-million-members ; accessed March 4, 2016, as were all other web pages in this article.

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Lutheran_Church.

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Congregations_in_Mission_for_Christ.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Church%E2%80%93Missouri_Synod#Membership_and_demographics.

[5] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership.

[6] For current statistics, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership. Statistics for 1991 indicate 21,347 baptized members in the ELS; in John F. Brug, et.al., WELS and Other Lutherans (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1995), 104.

[7] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/14/in-a-dramatic-shift-the-american-church-is-more-evangelical-than-ever.

[8] The four key beliefs of Evangelicals are explained here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/defining-evangelicals-in-election-year.html. The beliefs are defined by the authors with the following statements used in surveys: 1) “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”; 2) “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”; 3) “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin”; and 4) “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

[9] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening ; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_Ridge,_Kentucky.

[10] See https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-charismatic#.Vtnw-Ob3yzM.

[11] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._MacArthur#Cessationism ; and http://www.christianpost.com/news/strange-fire-conference-john-macarthur-calls-out-charismatic-movement-as-unfaithful.

[12] For example, see: William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).

[13] See Donald McGavran, “Sheep Stealing and Church Growth,” in Win Arn, ed., The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth Press, 1979), 15–18.

[14] See http://blogs.lcms.org/2016/president-harrison-provides-a-lutheran-view-of-church-and-state.

[15] See James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 115–16.

[16] See Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 116.

[17] See Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (New York: Harper One, 2008); Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[18] See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/the-demise-of-conservative-christian-political-prominence/471093

[19] See Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, 2nd ed. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010). The first edition of this book was in 1999.

[20] See Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae, Church Order for Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel , 1569 edition, tr. Jacob Corzine, Matthew Harrison, and Andrew Smith, ed. Jacob Corzine and Matthew Carver (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 63.

Convention Notes from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

Editor's Note: This information has been compiled from official information and reports coming out of the WELS convention. The reporter was not on site to observe the convention.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) held its biennial convention on the week of July 29–August 1. The convention was held at Martin Luther College, the synod's pre-seminary and teacher training college in New Ulm, Minnesota. The convention establishes programs, fiscal policies and goals, and broadly directs the synod's ministry and outreach plans.

According to pre-convention memoranda and news, this convention has several major issues before it in addition to its regular business and duties, but by far the issue that has generated the most interest and discussion is on the matter of which English Bible translation—if any—should be adopted for use by the synod particularly in its publications and educational resources.

The NIV 1984, the official Bible translation currently used in WELS publications, is being phased out and replaced with a new version, the "NIV 2011." A WELS' "Translation Evaluation Committee" (TEV) was created to research the NIV 2011. The same committee has also researched many other versions, including the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

In the report it prepared for the convention, the TEV outlined two options that it sees for deciding which Bible translation to use in WELS publications going forward. Option 1: WELS adopts NIV 2011 for use in materials produced by Northwestern Publishing House. Option 2: WELS does not adopt a single Bible version for use in its publications at this time. NPH uses whichever version of these three (ESV, HCSB, NIV 2011) seems best for the passage cited and the publication in which the biblical text will appear ("eclectic approach").

The 2011 convention also resolved that, as a possible alternative, the synod should consider producing a new translation by Lutherans. A "Translation Feasibility Committee" (TFC) was created to research the legal, technical, and economic feasibility of WELS creating a confessional Lutheran translation of the Bible and/or producing a study Bible with notes to accompany the translation that WELS chooses to use in its publications.

The report that the TFC submitted for the 2013 convention concludes, "Perhaps the question should not be, 'Can we do it?' but, 'Must we do it?' If the people of our synod believe that there is no existing translation of the Bible that can serve our preaching, teaching, and publishing needs, then we'd trust that the Lord would help us find the resources and overcome the obstacles to carry out what is sure to be a very challenging project. But if an existing translation or translations can serve our needs, it would save the time and expense, not to mention the potential disruption to our ministerial education system, to use an existing translation."