The congregations of the once-dominant Protestant established mainline church bodies (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Reformed) are losing effectiveness in American culture today. The result is the forty-year decline in our memberships and influence. Mainline churches are becoming old-line, old fashioned churches. The driving question today is how we can regain the health and spiritual energy we used to have?
My purpose is to offer some new insights and ways to help the Holy Spirit’s work of calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying believers through the fellowship of an individual congregation.
How did we get so out of favor in current American culture? My basic answer is that the church cultures of mainline churches are centuries old, going back to the Reformation. In Germany, the prince of the hundred or so German principalities chose between Catholic or Lutheran and that became your faith, too. If you did not want to be a Lutheran, you were committing treason against the prince and could be executed. King Henry VIII replaced the Roman Catholic Church with the Protestant Church of England. Queen Mary Tudor changed it back to Roman Catholic in her five years on the throne. Queen Elizabeth made it Protestant again. Lots of executions happened for clergy and nobles who were caught on the wrong side of the reigning sovereign.
Since the 1500s up through the end of the 19th century, eighty to ninety percent of the population in most countries lived in rural small towns and villages. The culture was shaped by village norms and expectations. Much of that ethnic village culture still worked well even in the 20th century immigrant neighborhoods of a big city. But the move to the suburbs after WWII brought change.
The first-generation suburbanites carried their old church loyalties and built great suburban sanctuaries like their old church in the city. The second generation still carried their family’s church loyalties. By the third generation, those denominational loyalties were mostly gone. Why hunt out a declining Lutheran or Presbyterian congregation when there is a more visible non-denominational community church nearby that is exciting and still growing?
Ask anybody today who grew up in a small town what the experience was like. Usually, the first comment is that everybody knows you and talks about what you are doing. There is strong pressure toward social conformity, doing what everyone else is doing. The saying is, the nail that sticks its head up will get hammered down. Villages don’t have much tolerance for people with unusual or especially pious behavior.
How Village Norms Shaped the Parish Church
In the village whoever has an unusual spiritual experience receives little encouragement and may even feel shunned. The emphasis was on living faithfully to your confirmation vows. Personal spiritual growth is nice but not necessary. And keep your personal prayer life “in the closet” lest you intimidate others.
The pastor’s main responsibility was to avoid conflict. Church members didn’t have the option of going to a different parish church perhaps a four-hour walk away. Pastors were assigned by the prince’s rector, with the requirement that he have a university education. Very few in the village had any education beyond primary. So, villagers willingly accepted somebody with a superior education. This avoided the conflict that would occur if a village church leader claimed the lofty “office” of pastor.
A hundred years ago mainline church ministries still paid little attention to spiritual growth practices and to fellowship-building. Fellowship in a village was taken for granted because they already knew each other. Evangelistic outreach typically was not high on their ministry agenda. Near the top was guarding and expanding their theological and cultural heritage.
The old strategy for survival and growth emphasized replacing members by training church-going children. Mission-minded leaders in mainline churches are now discovering that most new members are now drawn in through personal relationships with participants. But older members typically don’t have many unchurched friends and don’t know how to talk about personal spiritual concerns even within the congregation, let alone with strangers.
But everyone can be taught to identify and share personal spiritual experiences. Then they can have something to share with others. Check out my 2014 book, How to Spot the Spirit’s Work in Your Life.
Lee Larsen says
It is critical that the Spirit comes to life within our hearts as well as in our minds. To witness firsthand our amazing God at work so we feel His presence and know with growing certainty that He is real and therefore His words are most definitely true! At that moment everything changes.
I am the Ministry Coordinator for Acts 1:8 Ministry. For the past 20 years we have been doing monthly P.A.C.K. (Planned Acts of Christian Kindness) events every month in our community. Some target those with at least perceived physical needs but the most powerful faith building moments come when you just put yourself out in busy public places (permission needed in some cases) and just do or give to everyone that the Holy Spirit sends your way. It is in those who you would least expect and at a timing you just won’t believe that God will orchestrate the most perfect moment. A terrible crisis hidden deep within the recipient’s heart, the power of the Holy Spirit which is able to bring it to light in a heartbeat, and God’s loving touch providing comfort and peace at a time that only He knew was so desperately needed. Truly amazing to witness and one that you will be compelled to joyfully share with everyone! The program also uses a “Connect Card” that delivers God’s message of love & grace for the recipient through His Son Jesus. A reminder that these gifts of the Spirit are a little like the act of kindness you just received as neither can be earned or bought at any price. On the back of the card you provide them with a warm invite to come to your place of worship/school/youth program and so on where they can learn more of the uniquely special love that Jesus has for them. PACK was so successful right from the start that Acts 1:8 Ministry was called into existence so that all believers may be blessed by this faith & Kingdom building experience. To truly make it available for all Christians and to serve as a reminder that we cannot earn our way into His good graces the P.A.C.K. program is totally FREE with absolutely no catch. Our ministry runs on donations from individual donors who see the importance of a deeper faith and planting the seeds of the Spirit in the hearts of all people. Let no barrier interfere with this process and with its ease & effectiveness P.A.C.K. serves to break down the barriers (excuses) we have already constructed. Every heart in every community is in desperate need of Jesus but until the Holy Spirit can begin the seeds must be sown. What better way to do this than through loving acts of kindness giving all the credit and glory to Jesus Christ. P.A.C.K. has now been downloaded many times over in 104 countries around the world. Simply go to: http://www.acts18.org/christian-kindness-program and sign up. The link to the program download will be immediately provided. God bless your service to His glorious Kingdom!
David Luecke says
Great ministry. Let’s hope others read your story from the posting I am doing with my response
John Sproul says
David, I appreciate the insight you offer about our European cradle and village-formation which is still easily seen in congregational life. In our formation “conformity” is important, as you point out, and those who sought expression of greater spiritual depth are suspect. When I was going through university and seminary in the 80’s, Pietism was our synod’s favorite whipping-boy: whatever was perceived to be amiss (e.g. Church Growth, congregations actually growing so they must be doing something wrong) was because of Pietism. The sustainers of Lutheran culture in the villages of Europe shunned it; the village of our LCMS still does.
Tom Sharpe says
John the need for conformity can be idolatry. Social conformity can offer security for many. Christ and Gospel brings security. The problem happens when we seek it in other places. The differences should be looked at the with spiritual discernment. Yet, we all seek security in other places. The goal of sanctification is letting go of our old Adam.
Tom Ahlersmeyer says
Dave — Your village-frontier metaphor for churches written a number of years ago in Evangelical Style, Lutheran Substance still remains a very insightful and heuristic way to understand church life. Thank you for your continued analysis . . . very helpful as we work to make sense of what’s happening to Christian churches in these challenging times. God’s continued blessings be with you and your work!
You said, “If you did not want to be a Lutheran, you were committing treason against the prince and could be executed.”
Can you give me an example of someone who was executed for refusing to become Lutheran?
Thank you for your time.
David-Paul Zimmerman says
Thank you for your insights. Though part of the LCMS parish mindset, we have intentionally focused on serving others by creating a globally recognized Lutheran school that is being redesigned to be at the center of a new urban development model. We are, at the moment, the only K-12 Microsoft Flagship School in the United States and will be building a new campus on the second floor of a 7 story residential community. The ground floor will contain European style shops. The developer feels that a world-recognized school that serves 27 ethnic groups from 12 faith traditions can reinvigorate the model that do successfully created community. But that has required our congregation of 15 focusing on emerging technology and unashamedly integrating Lutheran theology at the center of all we do. Having had representatives from over 17 countries visit our campus and students has brought about endless opportunities to share the truth of the Gospel. We believe the center of a community in the urban Seattle Metropolitan area that unites the diversity of peoples under one roof is a Christ-centered education designed to prepare students to engage joyfully with the community and to excel to the extent that God draws people to us to simply give us an opportunity to proclaim Jesus is Lord.
Elaine Schomaker says
Good morning, Dave. I felt as though I were back in the villages of the people you described in your article. As you said, they did what they always knew and took it for granted and it was “enough” to “feed” them. Now spiritual hunger is very apparent in today’s world and many don’t know how to identify it. Thank you, so much, for bringing to light the need for the spiritual “awakening” in our Lutheran churches today. Your book “How to Spot the Spirit ‘s Work in your Life” is a wonderful in that it gives ways to identify the Spirit and to act upon the “prompting”.
Dr Bonner says
Your email was interesting and I think you Waltz around the issue. The main thing is to fulfill the Great Commission in Matthew 28 verses 18 to 20. First off let me tell you I’m not a Protestant I’m a Baptist. We have built churches to preaching the gospel going out and inviting people into church discipling people training people and teaching people. You don’t get too far becoming politically correct and kowtowing down to the left-wing liberals. We still preach the gospel and give an old fashioned altar call. We teach the Bible & not from a book of Creed’s & denominational ideology. I have many sermons from old Presbyterians of 200 years ago and they got up and preach the gospel! They preach the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and urge people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior! The power of the Holy Spirit does not come from manipulation nor trying to figure out how I can help the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works do individuals who are yielded to the Lord dedicated to the Lord. First off they must be saved and biblically baptized. Do not find the sprinkling of babies in the Bible you do not find other things that the Presbyterian Church follows that somewhat resembles Catholicism. Preaching the gospel reaching souls for Jesus Christ preaching repentance. Those things will get you somewhere. Then when folks accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior we need to disciple them encouraged them teach them how to live every day in this world and do so through biblical values and by preaching and teaching the Bible. So much more I could say but when one digs in the Bible and studies the Bible we can find so many choose to help people through everyday life. Just thinking out loud.
Delwyn Campbell says
The “Altar call” is a heretical innovation, not Biblical. You don’t believe that baptism actually does anything, but 1 Peter 3:21 tells us that “baptism now saves you.” You restrict baptism on the basis of age and knowledge (so-called “believer’s baptism”), but Jesus said, “Permit the little children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” You and your enthusiasm are no different than the Papal AntiChrist that Dr. Luther and the Reformers resisted by the power of the Spirit, leading to the Reformation that you so disparage. Repent of your enthusiasm, and return to the pure Gospel from which you have strayed.
Was that clear enough for you?
David Luecke says
The “Altar call” is a heretical innovation, not Biblical. I have never done one. You don’t believe that baptism actually does anything, but 1 Peter 3:21 tells us that “baptism now saves you.” It’s not having been sprinkled by water that saves you; it is the assurance that in Christ God came to you and accepted you into his family. You restrict baptism on the basis of age and knowledge (so-called “believer’s baptism”), but Jesus said, “Permit the little children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I prefer Matt 18 3, Unless you become like a child you will not enter the kingdom. You and your enthusiasm are no different than the Papal AntiChrist that Dr. Luther and the Reformers resisted by the power of the Spirit, leading to the Reformation that you so disparage. I love the Reformation and am trying to clarify its teaching on the Spirit. There is more in the Bible than the Reformers developed as they faced the issues of their time. Repent of your enthusiasm, and return to the pure Gospel from which you have strayed. I believe there are two forms of the Gospel. In Christ we are saved by grace for eternity. But also as a grace gift from God the Spirit produces fruit like more love, joy and peace in our current life, bringing us a more abundant life now, too.
Was that clear enough for you?
Casey Smith says
I grew up and was catechized among the fellowship of St. Mark’s Lutheran (LCMS) in Claremont North Carolina under the shepherding of the late Stanley Stiver. One of the books pastor Stiver recommended 37 years ago to me was John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. As a teaching elder at Covenant Reformed Baptist, here in Shelby NC, I recently shared some thoughts from the book in light of what matters most – our Biblical application. I trust the connection to the subject matter at hand in your post will be helpful and encouraging.
In the book, the Wicket Gate is a symbol for entrance into the Christian life. There, the main character, Christian, encounters the gatekeeper, Good-Will. Their encounter, like the rest of the book, is filled with layers of meaning to which modern pilgrims would do well to pay attention: So when the pilgrim was fully inside, Good Will asked him, “Who directed you to come this way?”
CHRISTIAN: Evangelist exhorted me to come this way and knock at the Gate, just as I did. He further told me that you, sir, would tell me what I must do next.
GOOD-WILL: An open door is set before you, and no man can shut it.
CHRISTIAN: Now I begin to reap the benefits of my hazards.
GOOD-WILL: But how is it that you have come alone?
CHRISTIAN: Because none of my neighbors saw their danger as I saw mine.
As pilgrims on this journey to the Celestial City, we must recognize the fact that coming to faith in Christ is the end of our enmity with God, but it is not an end of warfare. Obstinate, Pliable, the Slough of Despond, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman had all been obstacles on Christian’s journey to the Wicket Gate. However, in many ways, the worst still lay ahead. Similarly, our battle with the world, the flesh, and the Devil only intensifies once we have crossed from death unto life.
Old patterns of thinking, cultural trends, and the constant bombardment of images and ideas can obscure the path to the Celestial City. Entering the Wicket Gate is not the end of the matter. The world may no longer be our “home,” but it is still where we live. And as pilgrims, we must recognize our need to renew our minds constantly (Rom. 12:2), crucify the flesh (Gal 5:24), and resist the Devil (James 4:7).
Like Christian, we must war with Apollion and fight to stay on the “straight and narrow path.” Then, of course, there is the temptation of Vanity Fair. And the worst thing that can happen there is not to forfeit one’s life, but to lose one’s witness.Jesus said “ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) and our witness for Christ should shine that much brighter in the darkness of the culture we find ourselves in, but I’m afraid our collective witness has flickered out with compromise and contempt.
To your point about being “out of favour” in American culture; remember that Jesus says to us, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19). We will always be out of favour with the culture until the Lord Jesus makes all things new when He returns. Until then, we press on looking unto Him.
The danger to the pilgrim comes when he takes his eyes off of Jesus. Danger turns into disaster when the pilgrim grows to love something, anything, more than one loves the Lord our God with all his heart, all his soul, all his might and therefore loses sight of the Celestial City. The ordinary means of grace become more important as time goes by. The preaching of the Word, the feast and fellowship of the Lord’s Table: these are the priceless jewels that remind us of the fading glory of the things we know in our American culture, and cause us to echo the Apostle’s cry: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).
And yet, it’s impossible for a pilgrim to stand before the Wicket Gate without thinking about his friends, neighbors, and family members who have not made it. This is what Paul experienced in Romans 10:1 when he wrote, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Every man, woman, and child on his or her way to the Celestial City has felt this same yearning. Yet we must journey on.
For Christian, there is the constant tension between the call of the Celestial City and his love for friends and family who have not seen their danger as he saw his. And he, like all pilgrims, must recognize that leaving the path is not only unthinkable from the standpoint of his calling, but also catastrophic for those whom he desperately yearns to join him. The only way to commend the path to others is to STAY ON IT – not to compromise or water down the message to be more palatable for this ungodly generation even if it contains those we know and love who are unsaved.
This post-Christian culture in America would have us believe that the only way to bear witness to Christ effectively is to “contextualize” in a way that essentially leaves the path. We must walk like, talk like, dress like, live like, and love like the world in order to win the world. However, the opposite is actually true. It is, in fact, the straight and narrow path to the Celestial City that conforms us to the image of Christ. The path is where we learn the very truth to which we bear witness. And our desire is to have others join us on the path, not distract us from it.
As Christian pilgrims, we must realize that the journey we are on is long and fraught with difficulty. The gatekeeper did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). And again; lest we fail to remember the point I made earlier, He promises that we will be hated by the world (John 15:18; 17:14). The Pope, representative of the world, hated Luther because, in truth, he hated Christ just as it was in keeping with his father, the devil. The same truth exists today whether it is Roman Catholicism, secular humanism, communism or the many other “isms” – they all hate our Redeemer and when we reflect Christ, that hatred is further stoked pushing us all the more out of favour – to God’s glory! In that, I don’t regret but rather REJOICE!
Nevertheless, you and I are no better than the world that hates us. The only difference is the grace we have received, as God’s elect. As such, we have no room to boast (Rom. 3:27), but we have much more cause to rejoice and a message to share with a world full of neighbors who simply have yet to see their danger as we saw ours. Pray for the Body of Christ! Never forget that our heavenly Father has a remnant still among the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Reformed Brethren you alluded to. Pray for them without ceasing! Amen.
David Briese says
Some years ago my children went to a Lutheran School. In that school was a crippled boy. Since the classrooms were on three different floors this boy needed help with the stairs. Several of the larger boys literally carried him to his classes and took care of him in other ways also. What a powerful message. Someone cares. In our society today no one seems to care anymore. What have we lost? It seems to me that we have lost the fundamental God message—caring. We have lost it in many ways. We have not taught our children. Knowledge of the Bible among the younger people in our society is almost nonexistent. We have not cared for the “least of these” in our world. Our churches have taught us to put our careers and finances and positions above our relationship with our Creator. We have abandoned our children by not showing them their Savior by the way we live our lives. I think the basic cause is that our own selfishness has overcome. I am reminded of the old joke about the old couple who were driving along and the wife commented that we used to sit closer together. Husband’s response was: I ain’t moved. God is still there and His message has not changed. We need to study that message, teach that message, and live that message. The Spirit does the rest.