The Office of Research and Evaluation of a major mainline church denomination just released their projections of decline in membership and attendance. From 5 million in 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can expect fewer than 67,000 members thirty years from now. Average attendance will be less than 16,000 in about twenty years. This projection means that thirty years from now this denomination will have membership less than two percent of what it was thirty years ago.
What interests me is understanding why this already-40-year decline is continuing among mainline denominations—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopal. The real issue is what these institutional churches can do to have a brighter future.
Dwight Zscheile and Michael Binder* from Luther Seminary propose three ways of naming the root cause.
1. We live in a culture that makes it hard for people to imagine and be led by God.
2. We aren’t clear about what’s distinctive about being Christian.
3. Church isn’t helping many people make meaning of their lives.
Church leaders cannot do much about the rapid change in our American culture. But they can certainly work out what is distinctive about being a Christian and how better to help participants find meaning in their lives.
It is difficult to describe mainline denominations without using the distinction between liberal and conservative theological assumptions. And each of these denominations has plenty of member congregations that respect the authority of Scriptures for defining beliefs and Christian living. But the agenda at the national level has been set by leaders who are skeptical of a special inspiration of biblical writers and who seem to let behavioral language and causes set their priorities. For many, the cause of promoting peace and justice has become a form of piety hard to distinguish from a political cause.
What has been distinctive of Christians over the centuries is their conviction they were created by God for a purpose, humans are sinful, salvation for eternity is through Christ alone, and the Gospel needs to be shared with others. In today’s discourse, these priorities are called evangelical. Many mainline churches seem to work with the assumption that love for others means accepting them as they are without asking them to take on distinctive Christian beliefs. That’s a sure formula for shrinking to two percent of their membership over sixty years.
According to Zscheile and Binder, the third cause for decline is that churches are not helping many people make meaning of their lives.
Christian churches used to do that by holding out assurance for a better future in heaven. That, of course, is still true. But in many ways daily life in America today is a lot easier now. Getting a better life in the next world is not as motivating as it was generations ago. Many churches tried to offer meaning by involving participants in their community life, and in the process they became like other social organizations, which are now in a comparable decline. That has not worked.
“People have a deep psychological need for direction in their lives. This need is more basic than their craving for social power or their desire for material possessions. Having a clear path forward is basic to life,” according to church observer Peter Steinke. Clearly churches in steep decline are not offering that.
Many Christian churches around the world are bursting with growth and energy. If you look closely at those that are growing well in this country, you will see a much greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the inner experiences God can produce in believers who know what they are looking for.
Meaning and direction in life come from a relationship with God through Christ in a life transformed by Christ’s Spirit.
How do you turn around decline in mainline churches? Get back to the biblical basics and learn better how to cultivate the Spirit’s work in a congregation.