I’ve written a lot over the years about the struggles of mainline Protestant denominations to maintain membership and church attendance.
The ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is now reporting that average church attendance on Sunday at its 10,448 congregations has fallen from 144 people to 131 — since 2002.
The Lutheran — an ELCA national publication — quotes New York’s former ELCA bishop, Stephen Bouman, who is now national director of evangelical outreach for the denomination: “We’ve also lost our evangelizing power [and] that effort to instill the faith and practices of discipleship in our children and today’s emerging generation.”
Bouman also said: “There is a particular connection between vitality and attendance at worship and the connection a congregation has in mission to its community.”
Bouman and other mainline leaders have cited these problems for many years. The problem if figuring out how to fix them.
The current head of the ELCA’s New York Synod, Bishop Robert Rimbo, in his weekly message, notes the attendance free-fall:
This study is alarming. Why would people not come together regularly to worship? Whatever our personal spiritual lives may be, worship for Lutherans is essential, nourishing, connecting. Simply being missed should draw us back together, attract the young to their friends, the old to lifelong comrades, the lonely to kinship, the kids to a new family.
I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.
The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading the Times. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.
When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say “We missed you”?
Pastors tell me it starts when people join, and I have experienced the same reality. Many new members don’t intend to worship weekly. Do they need other options to be together? Could the standard for membership be two gatherings each week? How else could one hope to sustain any relationship? Let us start from the truth that we are members of a Body, not names in a directory. Let us all speak lovingly: we miss each other, we enjoy each other, we long to be together. Then we will depart strengthened, and I’m guessing we will return to be strengthened again.