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.

A Bold Church in an Age of Terrorism—Part II

— By Fredrik Sidenvall

Translated By Bror Erickson

Kyrka och Folk Nr. 37 Sept 10 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part installment. The first part may be found here: Part I

The Basis for a Bold Church

Let us return to the besieged Jerusalem during the time of King Hezekiah. Two events made it so that Hezekiah and his friends could not push the accusing words of the Assyrians away from them, namely the tangible truth of the vast military advantage of the Assyrians and that their consciences were stung by the realization that they had placed their faith and trust in Egypt rather than the Lord. In this setting King Hezekiah responds in a manner that is in complete accord with the handbook for victims of temptation; he does not flee from the Lord in despair, but seeks the presence of the Lord in the temple; he doesn’t make excuses for himself but goes and confesses his sin, he speaks to God from out his distress in prayers, and he asks for the word of the Lord. And what does the Lord say? Yes, the Lord speaks through his prophet Isaiah concerning the overpowering enemy:  “he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” (Isaiah 37:34–35 ESV)

We encounter the gospel in these words, the good and joyous message that is addressed to both areas that the kakangelium previously attacked, the truth and the conscience. The truth that is revealed is that the Lord shall intervene. The revealed truth will soon become the apparent truth when 185,000 Assyrians die in camp and the overpowering army was pressed into a retreat. But to timid consciences who do not think they have any right to demand or expect any help from the Lord, the Lord says that he shall help for his own sake and the sake of his servant. They should not look within themselves for any basis for grace, but in God’s heart and for his servant’s sake. Hezekiah who was disheartened and went through the deepest agony which was the fruit of Sennacherib, the prince of the world’s kakangelium, was through Isaiah’s gospel a living member in a bold church and could say with newly awakened courage: “The Lord will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the Lord.” (Isaiah 38:20 ESV)

The basis for a bold church is the same today: grace and truth. When the church becomes the mother of ravaged street children like Europe was after the Migration Period and the cultural unity of the Middle Ages grew forth from the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas day in the year 800, then it is shown that the power of truth is not dependent upon blood ties and territory, that it doesn’t grow up from below, but is given from above. The separated people and tribes were united before Christ in the body and blood of the altar and in a common adoration of the Agnus Dei. But for the church of the Middle Ages truth was not only liturgical and turned in, it reached out to all of the known world. Thomas Aquinas wanted to put everything and everyone into the context of truth. Certainly it wasn’t some lifeless pedantry that drove him, but instead the desire that the truth should make God’s people free and bold. We know that the kakangelium could penetrate the church’s holy city for various reasons. The people on the walls reached by the harassing word and the law of God and man accuse the consciences of people and the boldness was turned to anxiety and painful uncertainty again in the medieval church. He who was then sent to the beleaguered and anxious Zion in the footsteps of Isaiah was Martin Luther and his disciples. With newly acquired ability to read the original languages of Scripture he rediscovered that the Lord’s promise of help was not based upon the righteousness of man or hindered by man’s sin, but has its basis in God’s grace and righteousness. In the Greater Galatians Commentary, Luther uses the telling expression monstrum incertitudinis (the monster of uncertainty) for the spiritual powers that are both behind the kakangelium, and are also its fruit. Yet Luther found the effective counter measure in the pure and clear gospel of the justification of the sinner through faith alone. Luther writes: “may we also thank God that we are freed from this behemoth of uncertainty, and can now be certain that the Holy Spirit cries, and his ineffable sigh proceeds and enters our hearts:  and the basis is this: the gospel commands us to consider not our good deeds, and our perfection, but God himself who gives the promise and Christ himself, the Mediator. However, the Pope wanted one to direct his eyes, not to God in his promise, not to the High Priest Christ, but to our works and our merit. If uncertainty and despair necessarily follow from this, then certainty and joy in the Spirit necessarily follow when you cling to God who cannot lie. He says: ‘Behold I give my son into death for you so that he may redeem you from sin and death with his blood’.”[1]

Nothing in life and death can bestow such a boldness as this gospel. We find one of the most radical expressions of the gospel’s boldness in 1 John 4:17: “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:17 ESV) This gospel is the basis for the bold church. We are now offered this foundation not though our own spiritual performance or strength or pious feelings, but through hands on things like the plain and clear gospel and through the real Sacrament. 

The Pastor and Doctor Tom G A Hardt, who was a congenial disciple of Hermann Sasse, who as early as between 1930 and 1976 gave many genuine contributions to confessional theology and church life in Sweden and  the world at large, writes in an essay on the Lord’s Supper, “It would be much better if the useless fear of Catholicism that is guilty of such erroneous and unhealthy excesses in its attacks against the teaching of Transubstantiation, would instead want to explain the Lutheran content . . . It is instructive to note that there is often great ignorance concerning the battle lines that actually run here. Even churchly Protestants accept the common notion that the reformation loosed the ties between the means of grace and spiritual forgiveness, and that faith means that the importance of an individual replaced the importance the priest and the means of grace had earlier. One such description disfigures the most essential difference between Rome and Lutheranism in such a manner that the opponents change sides. If it is at all possible to give a simple, summary of the question then it can be said of the reformation- nota bene the Lutheran Reformation- offered a real forgiveness of sins through the means of grace to men, who through all the years before had used the means of grace in the conviction that these did not give the forgiveness of sins with certainty. This was the true nature of the medieval theology’s monstrum incertitudinis; the spiritual monster of uncertainty that commanded, and today still do command, that no one may apply the promise of the gospel and the sacraments to himself with full certainty." (Hardt, Tom G. A. The Sacrament of the Altar s. 37, art. Övers)[2]

To be continued . . . 

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

[1] Greater Galatians Commentary, pg. 323 (WA pg. 589)

[2] Tom G. A. Hardt, The Sacrament of the Altar s. 37, art. Övers