Analyzing the ELCA’s attendance free-fall

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.

That’s bad.

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:


What’s up?

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.

More on the ELCA’s ‘gay ordination’ struggles

More on the never-ending “gay debate” in mainline denominations…

I mentioned last week the latest ELCA move on the question of ordaining gay clergy: a task force has recommended that a national assembly this summer decide whether congregations and synods (regional bodies) should have the flexibility to choose clergy in monogamous, same-sex relationships.

The task force recommendations are hard to absorb. Here is a summation from Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, head of the Metro NY Synod of the ELCA:


“In brief, the Churchwide Assembly this coming August will decide whether to create “space” for congregations and synods to publically recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons. The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in the church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church-dividing. No congregation or institution will be forced to call a leader they do not wish to call.”


Rimbo also writes in a message to the NY synod:


“There has been a range of emotions – from anticipation to anxiety – surrounding the release of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Now that it is here, it is important to familiarize ourselves with its contents. Most of the statement is a non-controversial, comprehensive, Biblically-based understanding of human sexuality. As mentioned above, theological themes like trust, hope, joy, grace and faith are extraordinarily helpful in our efforts to reflect on healthy human sexual response and behavior.”


Also, the head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — a somewhat smaller and more conservative national Lutheran denomination — has released a statement lamenting the step taken by the ELCA task force.

Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the LC-MS, writes that the ELCA move would “constitute a radical departure from the 2,000-year-long teaching of the Christian tradition that homosexual activity, whether inside or outside of a committed relationship, is contrary to Holy Scripture.”

ELCA task force calls for ‘structured flexibility’ on gay questions

An ELCA task force studying sexuality has determined that…there is no consensus on homosexuality within the 4.7-million-member denomination.

An executive summary states:


It is only within the last decades that this church has begun to understand in new ways the need of same-gender oriented individuals to seek relationships of lifelong companionship and commitment as well as public accountability and legal support for those commitments. This has led to differing understandings about the place of such relationships within the Christian community. Disagreements exist in this church and in the larger Christian community about whether marriage is also the appropriate term to use to describe similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships.

Although at this time this church lacks consensus on this matter, it encourages all people to live out their faith in the local and global community of the baptized with profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor. This church calls for mutual respect and for guidance that seeks the good of all. As we live together with disagreement, the people in this church will continue to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, pastoral care, and mutual respect.


The ELCA’s Metro NY Synod has over 200 churches from NYC up through the Lower Hudson Valley.

Where does the ELCA go from here?

The task force recommends that the denomination consider allowing individual congregations to decide whether to call gays and lesbians in committed relationships as clergy.

It also says that the denomination should consider some basic questions when its biannual conference is held in August in Minneapolis: Does it want to find an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples? Does it want to allow local congregations to call gay clergy?

The process could end with what the task force calls “structured flexibility,” which it describes like this:


  1. Add a new element of structured flexibility to existing candidacy and call policies;
  2. Move from a policy that says a person in such a relationship can never be considered for rostering to a policy that trusts those to whom this church already has given responsibility for these decisions to;
  3. Allow them to act, should they so chose, within their arenas of responsibility;
  4. Using consistent churchwide policies that respect bound consciences; and
  5. Discern whether or not the ministry of Christ may be served best by approving or calling a specific gay or lesbian person who is living in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship.

‘I trust the Giver because of the gift’

Bishop David Olson is just about done serving as acting bishop of the New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

rew_20080516_058.jpgHe took over in February, shortly after Bishop Stephen Bouman departed for a gig with the national denomination in Chicago. On Aug. 1, the synod’s newly elected leader, Bishop Robert Rimbo (pictured), will begin a six-year term.

In Olson’s last weekly commentary, he writes about gratitude:

Gratitude is fundamental to faith. This has been the theme of more than one Thanksgiving sermon, admittedly a tangential occasion to lift up such a crucial theological truth. It is my theme today.

The Scripture is replete with examples: the 10 lepers, the plea Paul makes for offerings, the joy of the woman who found the lost coin, the tears in the eyes of the Waiting Father, Simeon in the temple, even the Eucharist.

I have found myself distributing communion to strangers in synod churches with tears in my eyes. What is in the manner, the hands, the mouths, the eyes of so many communicants that breaks into what seems routine? It is gratitude. It is for them and for me for such a privilege.

The beauty of summer days and nights, the fruits of the earth, the orange full moon appearing low and large behind distant trees on the shore still my soul with reverence, awe, and thanksgiving. Gratitude for a gift given to millions from time immemorial stirs my soul and drives it to search for or presume a Giver. All summer I am a recipient. I trust the Giver because of the gift.

I can still see my seven-year-old daughter (this week 44!) singing in children’s choir: “Good morning, God. This is your world. I am your child. Show me the way.” I think she has more of her mother’s theology than mine. Nancy’s prayers at table are unfailingly grateful. My prayers with another pastor always move to thanks.

One is grateful to be entrusted with something precious. This synod and its people have become precious to me and refreshed my faith by trusting me to be pastor and bishop. This has been a time of great gratitude and renewed faith. A new servant is about to experience the same thing. I believe he is worth your trust and common thanksgiving. Grow together in gratitude and grace.