The steep decline that so many mainline churches are experiencing today was the subject of my book I published earlier this year What Happened to our Churches. In this first compilation of 26 blogs, we examined the rapid decline that so many mainline churches are faced with today.
This now well-recognized withering is especially widespread among mainline Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. We are church bodies that value our Reformation heritage and share the background of being state-sponsored churches back in Europe. This heritage places us at a great disadvantage in the current American culture. These blogs about the work of the Holy Spirit went out in weekly e-mailings over the first half of 2019.
I have now just written and published a second book, Encourage Adventures in Step with the Spirit. We need to embrace new ministry practices. I advocate that the most basic change is to give more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in our personal and church lives. What that looks like and how to do so is the emphasis in this second set of blogs.
The basic issue is the current low level of Spiritual energy in many congregations, especially in mainline churches. In recent decades, many congregations modeled themselves after the various social organizations in our country. That approach worked for a while. But now lodges, veteran groups, country clubs, bowling leagues and other social organizations also find themselves in steep decline.
Churches need to reclaim their unique identity as a body of Christ and a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God’s empowering presence. Only by recognizing and opening ourselves to the Spirit of Christ will we regain the vital Spiritual energy and impact necessary to do well in the current American culture.
Leaders of many mainline church bodies bought into assumptions that question the authority of Scriptures and even doubt whether God is an active supernatural force in the world today. The handy descriptive term is that they “went liberal.” However, finding a source of authority for how to live their lives in community remains a high need even of the youngest generation. “Liberal” churches have little to offer and will continue to decline. Poor leadership has consequences.
In my writing, you will see a conservative perspective that respects the biblical authority of the inspired Word of God. I believe that paying more attention to the teachings of Jesus and Paul and the earliest churches will show the way forward toward regaining Spiritual energy.
I have been shaped by the conservative community of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We also are declining at about the same rate as the other mainline churches. Our problem, however, is that we are captive to our traditions that have turned into a barrier of traditionalism in church life and practice. We need to learn how to keep our Lutheran substance but be willing to change our ministry styles to be more effective.
New on the American scene in recent decades are non-denominational community churches. They appear to be growing, some swiftly. Since they don’t report their statistics in any collective form, we don’t know their impact. With few exceptions, they all present a conservative biblical message. National research reports a growing percentage of American “nones,” those who claim no religious identity. But I believe the percentage of serious Christians remains high, even among Millennials. Most of those young adults missing in mainline churches are not lost – they have found their way to other churches that better serve their needs. Most of those are community churches.
Leaders of traditional churches should consider exploring the innovative ministries of those community churches.
Marilyn L Weitzel says
You said, “Our problem, however, is that we are captive to our traditions that have turned into a barrier of traditionalism in church life and practice.” WOW! This is as clear as you can say it 🙂
The apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NKJV) the following:
“5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, ” Oh that we were to take our thoughts and keep them captive for Christ and not our own ideas, customs and traditions!
John records the words of Jesus in John 16: 12-15
“12 I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Dear Lord, help us to focus our thoughts on you through your Holy Spirit, in Your name, Amen.
David Luecke says
Thanks, Marilyn. I keep thinking of Jesus riddle ‘He who would save his life will lose it. He who is willing to lose his life for my sake will save it.” That applies to churches, too. We are in the process of watching our church body lose its traditional life by hanging on so tightly. The action is back at the congregational level with pastors and believers willing to keep looking for Effective Lutheran Ministries. Watch for my new newsletter on that topic.
John Sproul says
Dave, this is timely. I started a new series last Sunday called “Asking For a Friend,” and this Sunday the focus is on where our young adults have gone (our Millennials). The question that some people ask “for a friend” is: “Proverbs 22 tells us: ‘train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it,’ and we thought we DID train our children in the way they should go… but they have departed. Why?” It’s a complex issue. We’re using the Luke 15 story of the prodigal to illustrate how we are to be ready for and welcome home those who have “departed,” but the “what” and “how” of that is the key that I’m still shaping to fit the lock. I’d welcome input from others about this question.
David Luecke says
Your are right. The big question is what to do with the missing young adults? Most churches have a few, who are probably children of older participants. They were well trained. But we are not meeting the need of most young adults. I don’t think we “elders” can have much impact on the new generation. Change will happen by supporting young Christians who do have the drive to witness to others like them. This includes tolerating church practices that depart from the old.
My new book Encourage Adventures in Step with the Spirit is on the website. Look at the back cover. If you want a copy of the hard copy I will be glad to sent that to you.
Rev Dr John says
Why, thank you; I’d love that, David.
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David Luecke says
It’s on the way.
I don’t think the problem in the LCMS is that we are “captive to our traditions” as much as I think we fail to provide the reason why those traditions are important. The traditional setting provides ample opportunity to teach these basics to the “Lutheran curious” as well as refresh long-time members. The urge to “do something” seems to always have a negative impact rather than trusting that the Holy Spirit will do His part through Word and Sacrament.
David Luecke says
Charlie, I know you commitment to Word and sacraments. But you assume people “out there” are curious. Maybe a few. How are you going to gather those who are willing to be taught. I have written about Spiritual temperaments. Those with the temperament for symbols and ritual are out there. But there aren’t many. You are right to trust the Spirit. That includes trusting the Spirit to find more effective ways of teaching and applying the Gospel. Look around. What practices are being effective today. You will find clues in the growing community church movement.
David Briese says
I am reminded of a Bible passage that I learned a long time ago. “In vain they worship me, teaching FOR DOCTRIONE the commandments of men. (Emphasis mine)
David Luecke says
Thanks Dave. A favorite term is doctrine and practice. That is parallel to theory and application. The theory is biblical truths. The applications are church practices. We need to keep emphasizing the biblical teachings about God and life with him, while looking for better practices in communities where change is constant.
I agree with the need for the holy spirit in our worship. However, the problem stems from the fact that pastors and clergy in general hardly ever mention the term. Most of our kids today have no real concept of who or what the spirit does. There are no real sermons on who or what the spirit does. The term is used in passing, but seems to have little relevance to the general population. Unless churches are willing to talk about the spirit’s role in our lives, nothing will change. Unfortunately, you are fighting an uphill battle.
David Luecke says
By the power of the Spirit can be just a cliche with little deep thought behind it. How do you get believers and their preachers and teachers to pay more attention? First, keep asking the question of how that works. Look for and talk about evidence for the Spirit’s work within your faith community. Pray that the Spirit come and make specific requests for what he will do. As Jesus said in Luke 11, As earthly fathers know how to give good things to their children, so the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. him Challenge your preachers and teachers.
Kenneth Kerr says
David Luecke says
Lee Larsen says
Spot on, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I know you have heard me share this before, but one of the major blessings that come routinely doing P.A.C.K. (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness) out in busy public places in our home town is the coming to life of the Holy Spirit. The giving of a simple practical gift or the doing of a helpful service makes it easy to interact with people as you reach to anyone and everyone that the Holy Spirit sends your way (you will initially think you are choosing the recipients or that it is mere randomness) that is until you witness firsthand the awesome power and love of God working through the Spirit! From a person you would never imagine and at a timing you just won’t believe will come a powerful testimony of a serious crisis that the recipient of your kindness is squarely in the midst of leaving you with absolutely no doubt as to His divine presence! These moments are so powerful that you never can forget them and they serve to boost one’s faith level through the roof! I have been a part of doing monthly P.A.C.K. events for over 20 years and have witness countless “God moments” that I can replay like they happened yesterday and I am sure you can have the same experience. At a minimum you and your group are out reminding countless people that God in Jesus loves them so very much and letting them know what your church is doing to serve the Lord right in their own community. Your Connect Card delivers God’s message as well as an invite to come to your church/school/youth activity where they can learn more about the love that Jesus has for them. P.A.C.K. is now at work in 109 countries and the program is totally free. Download it at: http://www.acts18.org. God bless!
David Luecke says
As I have said before, I am a big fan of Planned Acts of Christian Kindness. The issue is motivation. How do you motivate believers to give without receiving? Duty may be a motivator for several such acts. But to make it a lifestyle involves an inner change. Our Servant Saturdays are still going strong. Doing something with fellow believers is a good motivator.
Hello Pastor Luecke. One part of your article struck me:
“But now lodges, veteran groups, country clubs, bowling leagues and other social organizations also find themselves in steep decline.”
The implication is that this decline of participation in social groups is not a phenomenon restricted to the Church. I could not help but think, if this is the case, could there be some broader explanation for this occurrence? If we cannot attribute this to “liberalization” of churches as you referred to it, or a general social disinterest in church life in general, can we identify a systemic causality to account for the ubiquity of the phenomenon?
Perhaps there are economic factors, or cultural, or social phenomena which can account for this. For example, the middle class in the country was much stronger in the Post WW II era, until about the eighties, when we start to see income inequality really take off, and the middle class begin its dwindling. Perhaps these different social institutions, including the church, benefitted from the general prosperity of Americans. So we could then infer that social participation has an economic component.
Just something for you to consider and this is purely speculative. God bless you and thank you for sharing your thoughts.
David Luecke says
Yes, there are broader factors at work. They were best described by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. Bowling is still popular but few are joining leagues. They don’t want the obligation. Social relationships of all sort are in decline. This is true especially among Millennials. In general, we want to have friends but are not willing to spend the time to be a friend to someone else.
The decades after WW II were unusual, especially in the great out migration to the suburbs. 12 million had served in the military and confronted the basic question of death. There was a high interest in religion. Families had a high need for relations with others as they found themselves in new neighborhoods.
I am not ready to buy into an economic explanation. Despite the political rhetoric, I think middle America is strong and growing. In general Christianity has been a middle-class preoccupation. I think the need is being met by growing community churches.
Whoever you are, thanks for your deeper level of thinking.
jeanne menich says
sorry for another reply, but i have been thinking about this article and other things we have talked about in class, and i have another thought. many of the kids, who go to church, if you ask them, they say they like the tradition. they feel connected to it. what i have found that so many kids want and need is somebody to tell them right from wrong. unfortunately, so many churches are afraid they will lose people if they do that in their sermons. instead, they are willing to give a “milked down” version of sin and its repercussions. despite what kids say, people say, they are really looking for churches to give them spiritual guidance. They do not want to be told that society is going in the right direction because in their “heart of hearts” they know better. They know abortion is wrong, they know that the sexual impropriety they are being taught is wrong, and they want to know that their church is a place they can go to hear the truth
David Luecke says
Well said. I believe those fundamental needs are out there. The challenge is how to say it in a way teens and young adults will accept. The pressures in high school and college are so strong. The primary step is to show that we care for them and live out what we preach. From what I read, teens have little toleration for hypocrisy.
Joe Meyer says
Pastor Luecke et. al,
I don’t normally respond to these because I’m not sure it does any good…but alas, I’m passionate about the subject and so here I am. I do not agree that our attachment to traditional worship in the LCMS is our problem. In fact, you should do some searching…there a lot of Millennials that actually crave traditional/heritage styles right alongside those that want what the community churches are offering. I have four Millennials in my home and they are four very different worshippers. I would argue, if you want to go down the “worship style” avenue, that what is lacking is “variety” in our worship “offerings”. I know of what I speak…I am Lead Pastor of a very large and rapidly growing LCMS congregation. We have five services…all distinct…but if you put a label on them, three are contemporary and two are traditional. Interestingly, our traditional service at 9a is the largest by double. Oh…and lots of the Millennials (those with kids now) go to that service…but we have lots of Millennials in the others too.
Besides the “variety of worship” suggestion, however, there are two other things that would fall under a “do it well or don’t do it at all” heading. Millennials want authentic and deep…I would suggest the problem for us in the LCMS is that often we’re robotic and shallow. Our services and our sermons are both that way. I’m not going to spend time here discussing the fixes to our services…but I do want to challenge my brother-pastors about their sermons. When I say “robotic and shallow” in regard to the sermons, I am concerned that we are preaching “Jesus loves me this I know” sermons to a crowd that can handle much more. While the Gospel remains and always will be the power of God unto salvation, and I would argue, sanctification as well, we must take our people into the Word of God and truly and deeply teach them the Scriptures and furthermore challenge them to live for Jesus through the same deep dive into the Scriptures. It’s time. Again, I know of what I speak…our messages are 28-30 minutes long and they are Bible based, almost Bible-study in nature. Our people crave it and I’d suggest here, desperately need it. People want to and need to know the Bible…and we’ve proven it…can I say it again, our congregation is very LCMS and yet, we are thriving and growing by as many as 120-150 new members a year.
I have written way to much so I will stop. But I would suggest taking a look at how we are doing worship services and not just what we are offering. I think there is a link.
Many blessings to all as we seek to be the best that we can be so that God’s people and those yet to be may hear the Gospel, come to faith and take up their cross and follow Jesus…Joe
David Luecke says
It is a pleasure to correspond with a pastor who is on the front lines in a suburban community that is still growing rapidly. Gloria Dei and Royal Redeemer are about the same size. You are already doing what I am trying to promote–a variety of services. We have six–three in the sanctuary and three in the Activity Center. About a third of the membership worships in the Sanctuary, where the main service is sort-of contemporary. Your suburb is still growing and attracting young professionals. We have lots of young families because of our large pre-school and grade school (which is only 20 years old). It took about 15 years for our contemporary worship teams to get really good.
It took courage for then-senior Pastor Jim Martin to set out in the direction of innovation.
I don’t know what millennials want. I suspect it is a variety. What they don’t have is loyalty to their family church, and therefore they need to be attracted by something “authentic.” When I worked with new members, what they liked about contemporary was the informality with opportunity for spontaneity.
I agree about sermons. I do think people today want a source of authority by which to live their life. Call it a hunger. The answer is the Word of God. Preaching is basic but I think it also needs to be affirmation from fellow believers. I think the traditional deductive style of seminary-taught preaching needs to be challenged. Attached are two blogs on contemporary worship and contemporary preaching that I wrote but have not used yet. I would be interested in your thoughts.
I am open to any thoughts you have about sharing passions. We just had our Ohio District Pastoral Conference. Not a word was said about innovations. There is great fear out there.