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Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?

Dwight Zscheile Cultivate Community, Innovate Faithfully, Shift Ministry Models 27 Comments

New projections forecast just 16,000 in worship across the entire ELCA by 2041. Why is this happening and what can be done?

According to projections from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Office of Research and Evaluation, the whole denomination will have fewer than 67,000 members in 2050, with fewer than 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday by 2041.

That’s right: according to current trends, the church will basically cease to exist within the next generation. 

In some ways, this is old news. Mainline decline has been a reality for over half a century, and the trends are well established. Yet consider how rapidly this future is arriving—well within most of our lifetimes. The ELCA had over five million members when it was launched in 1988. It has only declined since, and the decline has been accelerating.

For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show. That is because the cultural shifts underpinning this decline are largely beyond our control. To the extent to which we’ve tried to fix the church, we’ve failed. I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort. It’s not their fault. The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational system are much bigger. Something deeper is at stake. 

My colleague Michael Binder and I have 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.

In the modern West God isn’t necessary to live a good life. Divine presence and agency seem implausible for many people, even as we are haunted by echoes of transcendence.  We’re all supposed to discover our own meaning, purpose, identity, and community. Faith might help with that for some people, but it’s assumed to be optional, and there are endless options before us.

2) We aren’t clear about what’s distinctive about being Christian.

For a long time, the church has been out of practice at telling a story to its own members and to its neighbors that sets it apart from other organizations. If the point of church is being a social, cultural, or community service organization, people have a lot of other ways of meeting those needs that are far more accessible. It isn’t clear in many local churches what the church’s theological identity or core story really is and how its practices make a distinct difference in people’s lives.

3) For these reasons, church isn’t helping many people make meaning of their lives.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that spirituality and faith fall fourth in the list of sources of meaning for Americans, after family (69%), career (34%), and money (23%). People are turning elsewhere to find meaning, purpose, identity, and community. Faith might be a helpful thing for some to have, but it isn’t the center of life for very many.

Source: Pew Research Center

So what can we do about this?

The institutional shape of the Lutheran and other mainline witness in the U.S. in the future will undoubtedly look quite different than today. Amidst the disintegration and decline, the church has an opportunity to rediscover its identity. Here are some steps to take:

1) Go back to basics.

Too many churches are cluttered with all sorts of programs and activities that aren’t really designed to form Christian identity and practice. Many of these are holdovers from previous eras. They may be meaningful to legacy members but not transferable to newer generations or diverse neighbors. We need to rediscover and reclaim the simple practices that Christians have always done–prayer, scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, hospitality, etc.–and make these the center of congregational life. Such disciplines must be expressed in forms ordinary members can practice in daily life throughout the week as they discern and join God’s leading in their neighborhoods and spheres of influence.

2) Shift from performative to participatory spirituality.

Faith cannot be primarily something performed by clergy or staff for people to watch or consume; it must be something that everyone is equipped to practice in daily life. This means creating pathways for simple, accessible spiritual habits and disciplines that can be adopted by everyone. 

3) Listen.

The church needs to learn how to listen to its own members’ spiritual stories and experiences in order to help connect them with the stories of scripture and the theological tradition. This begins with finding out what keeps people up at night and helping them discover how the Gospel of Jesus makes meaning out of their experience, particularly their suffering.

4) Translate.

Most mainline churches’ language and cultural forms are inaccessible to most people in their neighborhoods. The Reformation involved a lot of vernacular translation. Somehow that got lost along the way. We need to reclaim it.

5) Experiment.

Everything listed above involves innovation, which is simply the adoption of new practices in a community. We don’t know what will work ahead of time. There is so much that needs to be discovered at the grass roots through local experimentation. We need to try a lot of things, learn from failure, and create an environment in which we can take risks together for the sake of the Gospel.

6) Share.

We need to take this journey together, not in isolation. Too many church leaders are lonely today. Most of our inherited church structures aren’t designed for peer sharing and mutual support. We need to figure out how to learn and discern together.

Claiming the Promise

The dismantling of the inherited congregational and denominational structures may be the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the devil, or just the byproduct of the end of the Age of Mobilization (when Americans organized themselves into voluntary societies to get things done) and the rise of the Age of Authenticity (when Americans looked inward to discover and express their true self). Trying to reverse it is pointless. It is better to get clear on what God’s promises in Christ are for us and for our neighbors and find simple ways to make those promises come alive for ordinary people in ways they can understand and embody. 

About the Author

Dwight Zscheile is vice president of innovation and associate professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary. His most recent books are Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America (with Craig Van Gelder) and The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age.

Image credit: Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

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Comments 27

    1. Jon –

      The lines accelerate because the ELCA is a rapidly aging denomination. Barring some sort of medical miracle, the vast majority of current ELCA members will be dead by 2050. Old people don’t have kids, so infant baptisms are plunging, and adult baptism numbers have been effectively zero for decades.

      The only thing left is membership transfers. There are far more conservatives in ELCA pews than liberals in LCMS pews, so that seems likely to continue to be sharply negative as well.

      1. Luke – your data for this is…what? Please present the data or tell us where is can be found. Thank you!

  1. If this is the case – and for the ELCA to have commissioned a study which concluded this way, churchwide must think so – then, we should immediately be about 1) paring down MDiv programs to bare bones – perhaps even closing all the seminaries (it’s irresponsible to encourage people to become pastors, incur huge debt, etc for a profession that is rapidly dying) and 2) urging current pastors to become bivocational – to develop some other skills that they will be able to use in the marketplace when most of their congregations close in the next 20 years. Since the average age of an ELCA pastor is mid-50s, time is of the essence, and Portico should be very nervous. This study shows that there will soon be a huge pool of unemployed church professionals who will still be too young to retire – and guess what! we’ll all be drawing our money out of Portico early just to survive.

    1. Bob I couldn’t agree more that young pastors or people preparing for ministry as a vocation should be thinking bi-vocationally. I don’t think all full-time calls will disappear, but there will probably be far fewer available than today. That said, you should know that seminary is now effectively free for incoming M.Div. students – at least as far as tuition and fees are concerned. Luther kicked it off with a large $23M gift enabling the school to give all incoming students full scholarships. Several others seminaries (maybe all of them by now) have followed suit. Result: no/low student debt for M.Div. students. Also, I’m told the ELCA has a huge clergy shortage at present, full-time and part-time. Many open calls particularly in rural areas, but if a pastor is geographically flexible there are plenty calls to be had. Anyway, just thought you might find that interesting. I’m 53 years old with 21 years of ordained ministry. I wonder what will be left of the ELCA by the time I retire.

      1. Several years ago, being among other young clergy raised and trained in the old church model, we were told that the Pension Fund (of The Episcopal Church) was encouraging us to think about a bi-vocational future. Of course none of us liked the idea and yet most of us could understand where it was coming from. But I also had another thought. I found it absurd that the church would make a decision for the church that would be borne on the backs almost exclusively by the clergy. What seemed like a reasonable individual decision (should I go to seminary or not?) felt like an absurd corporate decision (how are *we* proclaiming the gospel in this?). As Dwight Zscheile has layed it out, without dramatic demographic changes, there will be a lot fewer and smaller communities of faith who will likely need *more* dynamic leadership.

        My point is that the issue is a system-wide one and ought to be dealt with as demanding innovation at every level.

  2. Been thinking about this one. At first so troubling and sad. Then it started to percolate in my head. A couple of the “seven churches in Asia” were on a decline, as I recall, once, according to John’s Revelation. St. Francis of Assissi was called by God to rebuild/repair churches in 12th Century Italy. Churches were pretty empty in the early 1500’s as the downward trend had ominously continued across Europe, I hear. But the Spirit blew and God raised up certain reformers. The atheist Communist government of the Soviet Union turned some churches into swimming pools, but freedom to worship has been re-emerging there in our times. And, of course, one the great miracles of our time is the growth of the church in China even during persecution in recent decades. And it goes on. God has been known to surprise us. The wake-up call can serve as a good splash of water in the face. Awakening and revival cannot be planned, but we can ride the waves and steer some when they come. Come, Holy Spirit!

  3. Rather than quibble about the projections (think of the size of the Baby Boomer generation and how few people will be left in the ELCA after we die) or discuss the effect on pensions of the retired clergy, we should focus on what’s actually in the article.
    How can we adapt as individual congregations? It’s up to each congregation to adapt or die. Headquarters people cannot effect this while remaining in their offices.
    It’s up to each of us to face the inconvenient truth that change is upon us and that we are currently irrelevant. As the authors say, we need to have real discussions with the unchurched and really listen to them.
    Fads don’t get people to come and stay. We need to truly minister to them.
    Lay people need to be involved. Ministers come and go. Each one brings a new direction to the congregation. For change to be sustainable, the members need to participate if not lead the change.
    I highly recommend the LEAD program at waytolead.org. Our church is about to start on a journey with them.
    Our council is very concerned about our future. We have been in decline for decades and see churches around us that are barely alive. We need to do the work to bring the Word of Christ to the non-believers and the unchurched.
    btw, I’m the Church President not a minister.

  4. The more the church goes along with politically correct changes the more the church has those breaking away. The way the Bible is being interpreted has changed and confused. It leaves one to wonder what to believe in. We have a new minister and I have not fully evaluated, but concerned I should leave also. I am not anxious after 65 years in this church to leave now when our funeral pastor is likely.
    Did Rev. Eaton say she doesn’t believe in a Hell as someone told me, what is the Bible talking about then?

    1. Did Rev. Eaton say she doesn’t believe in a Hell as someone told me, what is the Bible talking about then?

      Not exactly. She said that she was not sure that there was. But if there is a hell, she does not believe there is anybody in hell. She said that she believes all thoughts are in Christ and that we worship the same god as our muslim brothers and sisters.

      So did she say that there was no hell. Not exactly. Depends on how you want to understand the words “If there is such a place.”

  5. After reading this blog, my heart sank with sadness.

    There were several seminarians from other countries attending that I found myself in fellowship while attending Luther Seminary. They agreed the major issue for them while at seminar is as follows. Why does ELCA teach the culture vs scripture and God commanding the culture?

    They felt that the ELCA has abandoned the revelation of Christ and Scripture in favor of personal sin as authority. The doctrine of Sin has significantly dropped and was watered down at Luther Seminary. This troubled those that were here in America from Africa training. They were confused. The relationship had already been broken.

    The only relationship was funding and that kept them loyal. Otherwise, they felt it unnecessary to train their congregations and lead them with information from Luther Seminary training. Their main focus was graduation to be able to follow the rules of proclamation and to receive the Episcopal blessing and line which they rejected.

    Their voice has been silenced as a minority in the ELCA which is sad in exchange for minorities that will conform with the new ELCA activism. Which is racist. Conform or die (in the sense of 0 support and voice.)

    I have also found it difficult to believe that the ELCA still hold onto it’s previous polity at the local congregational level.

    Anyhow, if the seminaries cannot teach the doctrine of two kingdoms as well as the doctrine of the fall/sin, there is no reason to continue to believe in a transcendent God. What is the purpose? Sin was all but wiped out during my days at Luther Seminary as being an evil and oppressive white male idea. Sin is up to the individual to decide.

    Yet, I find it interesting that there is such great pride in inclusion and listening to the minorities. The only way it seems one can listen to minorities is to tell them what they must believe and agree. The constant talk and threat is not from the understanding that “inclusion in necessary” but the lack of empathy to “What do you have to say.” It was not uncommon to hear minorities or disagreements to occur, only to hear the oppressive, “You only believe that because of oppression. That is not true, you must be woke and freed.”

    In short, what happens is a massive discipline to indoctrinate that the only answer is correct by individual ideas and thoughts of who God is, and not scripture.

    As Luther Seminary tries to find an answer to the failing works of the ELCA in scripture, they look to culture to adapt and meld into it as correct.

  6. Is it possible to include a link on this blog to Dwight Zscheile’s interview with Bishop Hazelwood? The interview goes into more depth and provides a lot more insight into this study. I will happily provide the link if necessary.

  7. For a different perspective, check out The Myth of the Dying Church by Glenn T. Stanton. While he does concede that mainline churches are dying, evangelical churches are holding their own or growing. People worship where they can be nourished by Scripture, where they can experience the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit, where they can learn how to walk with Jesus in their daily lives. When a church no longer honors the Bible as the Word of God, much is lost.

    1. Carol,
      I often hear this point of view expressed, but it’s more complicated than raw numbers in conservative Protestant denominations might lead one to believe. The largest conservative Protestant denomination in the United States is the S. B. C., the church of Rick Warren, and it has reported a huge drop in the number of baptisms. The reason those membership numbers have stayed up for some denominations is that they have welcomed large numbers of immigrants even while losing their own young people. (See Pew Research Center for statistics.) I served a church next to a Spanish-language Foursquare church that welcomed many immigrants from south of the border. How is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod doing? It’s about the same as the ELCA, but with slightly fewer young members, because it hasn’t joined other conservative church bodies in building large immigrant congregations. My deepest concern when I hear that the answer is simply to be more conservative is that those who give that answer don’t realize that everyone is in the same boat, and we could really benefit from prayerfully joining together in seeking a helpful way forward with the gospel.

  8. My conversation with an elder seemed to be going nowhere for about 45 minutes. She was critical, angry and negative about others, and although I spoke scriptural truth to her, she did not hear. Finally, I started to read to her directly from Scripture. Her eyes cleared, her thoughts changed, she heard truth and she recognized her own shortcomings and judgmental attitude. The Holy Spirit spoke clearly and directly to her heart through the written Word.

    We often underestimate the power of the written Word in the ELCA. We pastors can easily rely on props provided and familiar rituals rather than digging deeply into the richness of the living, written Word of God. We deprive our people of solid, biblical teaching alongside proclamation. We do not quickly turn for answers in God’s written Word when confronted with difficult situations in our congregations. And we do not develop a language of faith and story within God’s people. We neglect to consistently point out the presence and power of the Holy Spirit working among us. And we may not even teach our people what it means to be disciples.

    I was raised as an Evangelical–although back then we didn’t call ourselves that. There were plenty of good reasons to leave that tradition for Lutheranism, but I still miss the fervor with which those folks approach scripture. People who choose the evangelical, non-denominational life are often from mainline denominations. Many are angry because they had to leave their childhood denomination to learn about the Bible.

    It’s worth thinking about!

  9. I do not think it is helpful to slavishly adhere to a theological understanding of God that is thousands of years old.
    God is timeless but our understanding of God can never be.
    A vibrant future will require more than being the ELCA justice league.
    It will also require more than becoming a Bible believing big box church.
    Possibly, we could follow the lead of Paul Tillich and John Robinson and ponder a God who/which/that exists beyond the confines of supernatural mythology.

  10. Reply to 50-year Projection
    Wednesday, September 18, 2019 9:42 PM
    I recognize this is an extrapolation of past trends, but it’s an important wake-up call for the ELCA (and all main-line denominations). The list of “steps that must be taken”
    should include a major transformation of the ELCA hierarchy and an accompanying reallocation of resources. I’ve heard it said that about the time the ELCA was organized in 1988, the organizational structure was already out-dated. Continuation of the national headquarters and the 65 synods as they currently exist is inconsistent with the trend and if anything will accelerate the decline.
    A starting point is to organize a church-wide conference consisting of selected visionary leaders within and outside the ELCA – from the ranks of clergy, business executives and lay people – with a charge to design and recommend a new, leaner and relevant organizational structure informed by the challenges and opportunities inherent in the long-term outlook. The charge will dictate that maintaining the status quo is not an option.
    The recommendations and action plans proposed by the conference will be submitted to the Church-Wide ELCA Assembly for approval, with subsequent implementation by the leadership of the ELCA. Meaningful reallocation of limited financial resources cannot occur without downsizing and reorganization.
    RLG/9-18-19

    1. Or we could rearrange the deck chairs on Titanic.
      I earnestly do not believe that rethinking programs or polity will sustain let alone nurture the church.
      Our theological understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is outdated and unhelpful. Folks do not seem to see their lives as any better for having attended church; Therefore, why bother? It is a valid question that we have been unable to successfully come to terms with.

      1. Dan, I respectfully disagree that our theological understanding of God as revealed in Jesus is outdated and unhelpful. In fact, the chief article of faith (AC #4) happens to be a very timely piece of the puzzle that is helpful in addressing much of what goes on in society today. For much of our problems have to do with idolatry. And idolatry is not cured by the Law!! Only the Gospel, the sacrificial giving of God the Son to justify us, can change a heart and bring it away from those idols.

        And this actually addresses a fundamental flaw in thinking that the church is to “make people’s lives better.” Now, if you are talking about a deep sense of peace, contentment, and fulfillment, then I am right there with you. However, if you are talking about lives where things go well; where racism is gone; where sexism is gone; where the kingdom come (at least my interpretation of the kingdom) because I go to church, then this is simply another repackaging of the prosperity gospel.

  11. I served one small church for 37 years, baptized 400. Then a mission congregation for 2 years. Baptized 20.
    Since I retired 7 years ago, the 37 year church has baptized one person. If that is typical, no wonder our ethnic church is disappearing. We don’t seem to take seriously what we believe! My Southern Baptist friend said, “We’re the Southern Baptist Convention, 15 million strong. Only trouble is you can’t find 9 of them.”
    Every institution is dealing with the same thing. The Lyons club, the Boy Scouts, the newspapers, Its almost like we all want to go back to an earlier time. But Jesus the Christ of God is still Lord of the church and He is leading us to a greater future than we can even conceive.

  12. Don’t discount the fact that the ELCA is alienating many members with its political positions. One example: We have welcomed and encouraged a diverse membership, have given freely time and money to support those most at risk regardless of ethnicity, and now your clergy tells us we have “white privilege” and accuse us of “white supremacy”, even allowing the proponents of these viewpoints to address our youth gathering without balance. Judging a people based on their color is racist. I am white, I am offended, and feel only valued by the ELCA for my money. Membership in a church is voluntary, after 53 years I no longer attend an ELCA church, nor encourage my children to do so. Why would they belong to an organization that doesn’t speak to them?

    People already have political affiliations, what a church should offer is a welcoming place of refuge. We are all sinners. When Jesus was crucified he stretched out his arms to all, and his grace is there for all. The ELCA has demonstrably forgotten this, choosing instead to embrace “identity politics” thereby forgetting its own identity and forgetting the needs of much of it’s membership.

    Many members, especially the senior ones, will continue to attend due to habitat, or to be with old friends, but this doesn’t seem to be a recipe for future growth.

    If a church doesn’t welcome its own family, if it doesn’t address the needs of its members or much of the community, how can it expect to grow? Membership decline seems inevitable.

    1. Spot on. I agree 100% The ELCA has basically endorsed full fledged socialism… which ultimately only harms the poor and down trodden but empowers the few elites that control the socialist strings…. Lutheran Social Services for instance. The ELCA’s political positions are actually some of the most unchristian, self serving positions that they could take. Just a self serving power and money grab wrapped in religious pre-tenses by professional religious bureaucrats.

    2. Jeffery, in response to your comment “the ELCA is alienating many”… the ELCA IS not just “alienating” many, it is also KICKING OUT many retired pastors! I had been retired 3 years, when I responded to a small local Lutheran congregation whose pastor had retired… and within a couple of weeks I received a letter from the bishop that I was to resign immediately!

      Excuse me, “resign”? Just how does a retired pastor “resign”?! I submitted my rebuttal to the synod bishop and council — what I understood as being Called into ministry and being sent by Jesus…. but needless to say, I was notified that I was OFF the ELCA roster and was NOT to preside at ANY ELCA congregation.

      I’ve since had to tell those asking me to supply for an ELCA congregation that I was KICKED OUT of the ELCA; AND I would NEVER ever GO back!!!

      AND, Yes, many ELCA members are learning just how the ELCA treats its pastors! AND a number of them have told me that’s the last straw — and if possible, switching to a NON-ELCA church! Sadly, many are in rural areas with very few options, short of going to a non-Lutheran church, which I know some ARE DOING, rather than stay with the ELCA!

      Soooooo, even in our retirement years the ELCA is still hammering ANYONE who does NOT fall in line — lockstep — with the ELCA! Period! Oh, btw, the small congregation I supplied for was / is a NALC congregation; AND I’m glad to say that I am now their “regular” supply pastor — NALC Supply Pastor 😉

  13. I’ve been an ELCA pastor for 23 years and counting and my first parish was a redevelopment. I have served in rural Minnesota and for 18 years in metro Los Angeles and now the San Francisco Bay Area. These numbers just don’t work. The death rate necessary to accomplish that kind of decline is Plague scale. That said, there is some relatively serious decline happening. I believe the ELCA will be here in a century in some form. It may be noticeably smaller, but it will be here.

    Our church, in many corners, has chased after every last worship trend in the last 40 years, in many, many cases losing our identity and becoming pale reflections of neighboring traditions. Perhaps innovating ourselves into ambiguity. I believe there is a valid question about whether some of our worship innovations of the last generation have been part of the problem . . . losing a sense of what makes us unique (an excellent marketing question). The usually unchallenged assumption is that we need more of this kind of innovation. Please don’t hear this as a desire to return to 1950’s worship. I’m not even 50 years old. However, many paths related to worship took us away from the question that we should always be asking . . . What does it mean to be a sacramental/liturgical tradition in this time and place?

    I also found this recent Op Ed helpful on the overstated case for decline:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/opinion/american-christianity.html

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