country church under the stars

Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?

Dwight Zscheile Cultivate Community, Innovate Faithfully, Shift Ministry Models 65 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 65

    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. Those calls in rural areas. Maybe there are many to be had, but take one of them, and you and your family will suffer. You will feel very out of place, you will be very underpaid, and your members will show you more suspicion and anger than sympathy or appreciation. Would you truly advise anyone to go through that?

  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 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.”

      1. Fun fact: it was Martin Luther who said the Turks (Muslims) and Christians both prayed to the one true God.

    2. Lowell, I’m responding to your concerns as one of the 16,000 ELCA Lutherans who WILL still be worshipping regularly in 2041, since I was born in 1973 — I’ll be 68 in 2041, God willing.

      What some Lutherans see as “politically correct changes,” I see as a church that is engaged in a healthy but messy and necessary spiritual struggle to return to Christ’s radical message of grace and what that means for us as Christians today. I love what Bishop Eaton said about maybe Hell is empty. I don’t want to support a church that claims to be the Body of Christ while disavowing Christ’s teachings, spending more time and energy telling everyone they are going to Hell instead of telling people to rejoice because Christ died to SAVE them from Hell. I believe in all all-powerful, all-knowing God who desperately loves each and every one of His human children. He loves us enough to have sacrificed His only son to redeem and save us from an eternity in Hell (John 3:14). Jesus told us so, again and again — He said it explicitly, and then again and again through parables to make sure we got the message. God is the shepherd who goes out searching for one lost sheep and rejoices when He finds the sheep and brings him back to the flock. God is the father who runs out to meet and welcome that prodigal son. As Paul tells us in Roman’s 8:38: “…Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow–not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.”

      The details of God’s plan for salvation are way beyond my understanding (“[Jesus] said to them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.'” (Acts 1:7)) but faith calls us to believe that God can and will fulfill His promises, even when our imagination is too small to envision exactly how He is going to do it. Isn’t an empty Hell with the prison gates smashed open precisely what we celebrate on Easter Sunday? How can Christians believe that Hell is still full of sinners after Christ died to atone for the entirety of human sin past, present and future? There is no human sin so great that the blood of Christ can’t wash it clean and there is nothing — NOTHING — beyond the power of our Almighty God. “Not even the powers of Hell can separate us from God’s love,” remember? That’s the Good News that Jesus charged His disciples with spreading throughout the world: “Go everywhere, make disciples, baptize, and teach about me.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

      Bishop Eaton’s statement about Hell wasn’t made in a vacuum. We currently live in a world in which the loudest voices in the media claiming to speak for Christians are often distorting scripture for dubious purposes, pointing fingers at political enemies and insisting that everyone who disagrees with them is “going to Hell.” As the official mouthpiece of the ELCA, it’s our Presiding Bishop’s job to proclaim the true Gospel of Jesus Christ — the Good News of grace, redemption, and our Father’s relentless and unending love, even to the point of ransacking the dungeons of Hell and setting all the sinners free. Mahatma Ghandi once famously said “I like your Christ; I don’t like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Our challenge as a church in 2019 and beyond is to behave less like Christians and more like Christ.

      Lowell, I hope you don’t leave your church. I hope you will stay and engage with your new pastor in Bible study and in worship, asking questions and speaking out when you disagree, yet listening to others with an open mind and an open heart. But even if you do leave, I know that our heavenly Father will move heaven and earth — LITERALLY — to come after you. You are way too precious to lose.

      In His peace,

      1. If everyone is going to heaven, or at least not going to hell, and it doesn’t matter what people believe or do, then it is really too bad someone didn’t tell the disciples, the Apostle Paul, and the early Christians so they didn’t have to suffer terrible deaths to share the Good News.

        Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

        Matthew 10:32-33 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

        Most of us know John 3:16 by heart, but don’t stop there! Only two verses later . . .
        John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

        Those are not just isolated verses! But those who preach universalist doctrine continue unbridled. Have all the bold pastors who recognize universalism as psychobabble already left the ELCA? Are those pastors who are left just counting the days until retirement? Speak up! (Martin Luther spent countless hours translating the Bible so everyone could read it. The Bible is more accessible now than ever before, but too many in the ELCA still think it is boring or beyond them because they are told that it doesn’t mean what it says. Pastors need to teach their parishioners to cherish God’s Word and to read it for themselves–rather than just books about the Bible.)

        As long as the tattooed Lutheran princess remains the poster child of the ELCA, encouraging people to send her their purity rings so they can be melted down and made into a sculpture of a vagina, is it any wonder the ELCA continues to decline? In its lust to become more diverse, in its drive to become more politically correct, in its quest to twist scripture to fit a social theme, the ELCA is pushing out anyone who doesn’t agree with it, and becoming even more exclusive. If everyone is going to heaven, then what’s the point of church, or at least an ELCA church? It has become just a very expensive social club. Barring another re-formation, many devoted Lutherans will continue to find another Lutheran denomination, or cease to be Lutheran and identify solely as Children of God in a Bible-teaching church.

      2. So why did Jesus say that only a FEW people will enter life eternal while MANY/ most will be condemned Matthew 7: 13-14
        “ enter by the NARROW gate ! For wide is the gate and BROAD is the path to DESTRUCTION and many people go that way! But narrow is the gate and narrow is the path to life and FEW people find it!

    3. Could this attitude be part of the problem? If someone with 8th grade education questions a doctor’s order, that’s probably not good. But most congregation members have 8th grade religious education, yet they would EVALUATE their pastors and the interpretation of the Bible! Is this maybe presumptuous?

      1. That’s rather condescending. Also sounds like something a Catholic priest would say. By the way, do you have any evidence to cite to “prove” that Luther said that Christians and Turks (Muslims) pray to the same God? I would love to see that.
        As for the basic question: the Church grew by preaching the Word… and through her faithful witness when persecuted by the world. The ELCA has denied that the Bible is really God’s Word… and has embraced the sinful world, rather than calling it to repentance. It’s no shock that the ELCA is shrinking; they have absolutely nothing to offer to a sinful world. If salvation is universal… then the message of the Gospel becomes meaningless. The gifts of grace (Word and Sacrament) that are offered to us in orthodox churches renew us and strengthen us (in addition to assuring us of the forgiveness of our sins). That makes those churches true “ports in the storm” and a desired destination for repentant sinners. Heretical churches (like the ELCA) have nothing of spiritual value to offer, other than a form of unhelpful therapy for unhappy people: “You’re OK just the way you are.”

      2. And if that sound condescending, and there is no need to respect expertise or authority, what do we need a church for at all? Maybe the decline is in part due to many of our members realizing they have no answer to this question.

      3. Oh please! … Spare us the arrogant thought that only clergy hold the keys to the Kingdom of God and only they can properly interpret the Holy Scriptures for the peasants. The clerical hubris inherent in this kind of attitude is one of the reasons why the ELCA may be gone in a few short years.

        As a graduate of LTSG, (’97) I can attest to the fine theological education I received there. What I did not receive, however, was an equally sound Biblical education. In our courses at the time, we tended to read and study Bible commentaries as “wanna-be scholars” rather the Bible “per se” as practicing Christians and soon to be pastors should be doing. I compare the experience of those Biblical courses at LTSG to a course at Howard Divinity School on the epistle of James. (LTSG and Howard both belonged to a consortium requiring one course from anoither seminary in order to graduate.)

        As a pastor, I quickly learned that people will listen intently to sermons inspired by the Holy Scriptures. They look to the Sacred Story to guide them in their daily walk with the Lord. They want to worship with their hearts and to put Christ in the center of all their relationships. They yawn when you talk about ‘Setz im Leben.’ They will reject non-biblical notions of hell when told it is the imaginative figment of of a superstitious by-gone era. They despise the steady dribble of poorly camouflaged ideologies and political talking points, passed off as the gospel. (The peasants are smarter than you think!)

        Ultimately, the looming failure of the ELCA will be a failure to remain connected to the Holy Scriptures by its incessant habit of cherry-picking the Bible, using what it likes and white-washing the rest. Hear the warning that comes from John of Patmos, “18 … If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev 22:18-19) Care to preach on that? Didn’t think so. So much for Bishop Eaton’s fatuous commentary on hell. Spare us that too.

        Just so you don’t accuse me of being a flaming fundamentalist (a pejorative term used in-house by many ELCA pastors and reserved for those denominations of “a lesser wisdom”), can we at least agree that “hell” is the condition of final and total separation from God’s love and grace? Hell is the result of the unpardonalbe sin–the sin of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” brought about by the willful, deliberate rejection of God’s redemptive love and His gracious promises?

        If so, then isn’t it enough to know that unrepentant sin poses a real, existential threat to one’s soul? (Or don’t we believe in the soul any more?) Is it not sufficient fo preach faithfully about the danger of finding oneself standing in opposition to the great “I AM” on that terrible “Day of the Lord”. (Joel 2:31) If you think this is exaggerated imagery, then look at the panic that this present, paltry pandemic, COVID-19, (paltry compared to past pandemics) has wrought upon the psyche of our nation since March of this year. (“Beware the Ides of March!” Caesar was warned, too.)

        Coupled with that first “sin” is a second “sin,” to wit: the failure of many in the clergy to connect faithfully, respectfully, lovingly, and sincerely with the flock given into their pastoral care. Where is pastoral leadership when a congregation becomes the battlefield in a contest of wills between shepherd and flock? This happens far too frequently, and it is happening in my congregation now.

        Read 2 Samuel 13. What personal, psychogical insight can a pastor gain by the story of Amnon and Tamar? Can we not see how easily love and desire turns to hate and disgust if it is not first grounded in the love of Christ? There is more to this story than the rape of a young woman. One can seen in Tamar the rape of innocence. And if the church is the “Bride of Christ,” is it not possible for pastors to play the role of Amnon because we, too, are filled with the lust of ambition, status, and the advancement of our careers?

        Let’s not get so infatuated with our M.Div. degree. They can pump too much hot air into our heads and make us forget that not one of the apostles graduated from seminary. They did not need to because the Holy Spirit dwelt in their hearts. They listened to His Still, Small Voice, and they relied upon Him to show the way. For a church born from the reaction to the “sins” of an encrusted medieval church separated from the gospel in their own time and place in history, the ELCA must reconnect to the Vine … or die. (John 15:1-2) As the authors aptly point out, it is high tiime for the ELCA to “get back to the basics.” If it can’t, or won’t, then it will most surely die. Moreso, it will deserve to die. For what good is salt that loses its saltiness? (Matthew 5:13)

        Remember Gamaliel’s warning, “38 … if this work [of the ELCA,] be the work of men, it will come to nothing; 39 but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38). The jury on the ELCA’s part in HIS-story is still out. Perhaps, there is still time to correct this current trajectory. If so, we must begin with fervent prayer and follow through with faithful, determined action.

        Echoing Gamaliel, I suppose the proof will be in the pudding … come 2050.

      4. I just want to add my observation that some of the reactionary rantings I read here are not only unhelpful, but bordering on the insane if not the demonic. If this is our witness to what the Gospel does to us, or it is our way of understanding or solving problems, can you blame others for rejecting that same Gospel? Is that what you are trying to accomplish?

      5. BTW, was Luther “rather condescending” when he lamented the German villagers not knowing even a single prayer, calling themselves Christian while they understood nothing? Maybe, but that WAS something a Catholic priest would say. Luther was Catholic priest, and he said it. He blamed the clergy for their teaching negligence, and he was right. It is also right that almost no one in the laity is willing to be taught. The more pertinent question is not whether that’s condescending, but whether it is true. It is obviously true.

    4. Yes, Rev Eaton said that.

      I was born into ALC and then went thru the transition to the ELCA. I left the denomination because there’s no life there! Having been born again in the early 70’s during the great move of the Holy Spirit across Christian denominations, now 63 years old, I can say that God has no room to move because the ELCA religion is SOCIAL JUSTICE, not Jesus. Having a personal friendship with Jesus that draws me together with like believers, the ELCA has no room for a believer like me.

      Run for the hills!!! God will show you where He is inviting you to worship!

  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.

    1. Hello Rev. Mills! Interestingly God has brought some African Christians into my life since I first discovered this dismal trend for ELCA (& other Lutheran bodies) 4 years ago. Their love & joy in the Lord strongly rooted in Gods word is soooo different from many white American & white N European Lutherans I know. Perhaps that explains why Black African Lutheran churches are growing while the white ones are dying. Shouldn’t we be hiring if not begging African Lutherans to come over and help us before it’s too late? Or does ELCA leadership believe our unwillingness to change is too formidable? Think of this as a 21st century “Black man’s burden” similar to a 19th century “White man’s burden” attitude brought to Africa. Except this time it is to truly bless people and not exploit them.

      1. I have suspected that several African Lutheran churches were growing in part because they were missional from the start, while North American Lutheran churches were oriented toward immigrant cultures from the start.

        I venture to suggest avoiding the “white man’s burden” completely. Your intent could easily be misunderstood.

  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.

    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.

      2. Try this on. I am part of church because for some reason (that I don’t even have to know or understand) God has asked me to participate in revealing the world changing love and acceptance I see in Jesus. Pretty straight forward. The institution has one purpose: to be a placeholder to make sure that people get the chance to be a part of that great party. Hope that helps. Don’t give up or give in. God called you, right? Why not others too?

  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.

      1. Indeed. Since the late 1960s. the LCA (ELCA’s predecessor body) moved its center of gravity into the politically correct trends of the times. Their “gospel” mirrored the social preaching of the secular Left: Jesus morphed into a barefoot Marxist. Wealth redistribution, existential philosophies, moral relativism, LGBTQXYZ mania and “Blame America first” become the order of the day. The church hierarchy marched hard Left; congregations responded by marching out the front door. A Theatre of the Absurd relic like Nadia Bolz-Weber would be unthinkable during my youth. But I fear the horse has left the barn, and the ELCA poobahs still fantasize they can lock the door. No sale.

      2. Is this really what we has we come to? Pretentious platitudes from would-be reformers, and angry vitriol from the far right? Religion should make people better. Is it making us worse?

    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:

    1. Hello! Unless we are “unique” why would we appeal to others? “Justification by faith” is barely mentioned these days. Luther’s understanding of Communion is not only correct but it’s very unique among American churches. But communion is meaningless to those who have no concept of sin, repentance, turning to God and Gods gift of salvation. Racism & sexism are both sins which we should strive to erase from our society- but people don’t need to join a Lutheran Church for that when there are many existing groups working towards that goal. Only the Church of Christ offers the Word & the Sacraments. Only the Church has the ministry of reconciling people to their Heavenly Father. If we forget what God expects us to share with people who do not know Him, how are we unique & different from a fine group like the Red Cross? If we are not unique then we’d be better stewards of Gods money by merging with local United Way agencies.

  14. You have pastors and bishops that don’t even believe in a personal God, your seminars teach that the ressurection of Christ is myth, and even your presiding bishop os an agnostic that only use Christian vocabulary as a frame for the socially progressive agenda. Most believers who were in ministry have already been kicked out or voluntarily switched to other denominations. Then you wonder why nobody is showing up at the church. Unless this church goes back to preaching the gospel, it will be gone even quicker then you expect. Cause once the older generation dies, few people will remain, and with the type of theology they are preached, why bother the effort fighting for the church? Seriously, what’s the point fighting for a “lutheran” church that isn’t actually lutheran? What’s the point fighting to keep alive a church that doesn’t teach anything specifically christian? You don’t need a church just to reinforce secular beliefs.

  15. How about preaching the real gospel and seeing the bible as truth and not literary metaphor. Why read it if the elca doesnt see it as truth. How about standing for good and not evil. Stop compromising the gospel and telling people what their ears are itching to hear. All is good under the banner of love and compassion? Gods laws are to help us and are given to us out of love. How about teaching there are rights and wrongs and not bending to what’s hip in culture?

    1. Put the emphasis back onto Law, Sin, and Death??? Maybe dust off your Book of Concord, because that’s what Luther fought so hard to rescue us from! Also, when I hear that we need to talk more about sin, I suspect that a conservative social agenda is not far away.

  16. If your seminaries and leadership have left the Word of God and the redemption of Christ, then it is good that the denomination will be gone. The sooner the better.

    Those of you who are indeed Christians, go and minister elsewhere. Why stay with those who have left God and will only further lead the blind into a ditch?

  17. I attend an ELCA church. The message is too narrow. Please read “Round the Bend” by Nevil Shute to see how the Gospel should be spread. God gave direction to everything man created. All science is God directed. The church is not the military where everything is top down. Bishops and people visiting for the first time have the same rank.

    1. Bishops and first time visitors have the same rank. Yes, in Baptism we are all marked with the same cross of Christ.

      Still, an 8th grade religious training (some didn’t even get that much) does not give you the same expertise as someone with Master’s or PhD training. Too many of us think we are authorities on the Bible and theology, when we never even learned the Small Catechism very well!

      That is PART of the ELCA’s dysfunctionality. People do not want sound teaching, and do not respect authority, but their ears itch to hear their own biases condoned. Unless that changes, the road ahead will be unpleasant for all.

  18. Ive been out of parish ministry for twenty years and an Army Chaplain ever since. Im not advocating abandoning our worship practices BUT……we have to get BEYOND WORSHIP!!!
    The Great Commission calls us to make disciples…not worshippers (Worship only comes afterward not before) In my opinion most congregations espouse a Sunday morning worship model and little more.
    It is possible to worship with the same people for the last fifty years and not truly know them as people (ask me!).
    I’m convinced an individual lost soul will be introduced through ME (or possibly not when I’m having a bad day) and NOT necessarily through a Sunday morning worship service.
    Seminaries that have modeled the 1950s “everyone goes to church” model have done a diservice to new clergy and the parishes they wind up serving.
    An array of social outreach activities is certainly a start (I dont mean potlucks or ice cream socials!) because it gets us outside of our four walls of worship.
    Discipleship is engendered through Christian witness on a person- to- person level.
    Churches that meet one hour per week for a rubric-filled worship service and nothing more risk missing those opportunities….no matter how jazzy and contemprary the music is!
    The ELCA will grow again when it expects things from its members….namely, deeper relationships amongst individuals and small groups at local grass roots levels. It will start with leaders at the family household level who know how to model why this is important.
    Christian discipleship began with meeting Christ or his apostles on the street on a beach in a garden and in an open field not a designated building built for worship purposes.
    The earliest churches had hosts that opened their homes to small neighborhood groups for mutual edification sharing the letters of Paul and hearing first second and third person accounts of Jesus’ ministry and miracles and personal example. A meal was usually shared and worship occurred as a natural response…not a pre-requisite.
    There is hope for us yet!

    Thanks very much for this dialogue here.

    1. Look at the stats from Lutheran World Federation. Legacy churches in Europe are holding their own (some of them). Missionary background churches in Asia and Africa are growing. Immigrant background churches in North America are shrinking, as their immigrant cultures are losing relevance. You can start drawing some conclusions. Maybe do a formal churchwide study seeking recommendations based on more specific evidence. Or we could just quit. Try the first option, please.

  19. This article projecting the decline and apparent dissolution of the ELCA was of interest to me as one who was raised in the LCMS, left it for Evangelical Christianity, and for the past 12 years have melded my intrigue with Messianic Judaism with experiencial Lutheranism. Help for blending this two polar opposites – in part comes from Reform Judaism and its emphasis on social justice. Believe it or not, people can benefit from Hebrew Word Studies.
    My wife is a card-carrying supporter of the ELCA as is her family of origin. I see a lot of arrogance verbalized within the local ELCA church by members, and clergy unwittingly voice disrespect to the disciples and Jewish people of that time for constant failure. Bible translations, RSV, NRSV, EHV, ASV, KJV, NKJV, NLT, too blame the Jews rather than rightly differentiate between the Jews or Jewish religious leadership, See John 20, (for fear of the Jews) as a prime example.

    I assert our faith was born from Judaism, but to my knowledge, Dr. Oskar Skarsaune is the only Lutheran recognizing that in his published works. Seeing Romans 11 as out of place in our Bibles (as one pastor told me) is just within the confines of heressy in my opinion. I will never join a Lutheran church unless the desire to indulge in my favorite sins becomes unbridled. Then, hell, or, separation from God, would result! Sinful pleasure is said to be enjoyable but for a season. But, this is unstated by our Universalist acquaintances.
    Solution: Let the local church die! Instead, turn back to Jewish Christianity while there is time and repent of being an arrogant Christian who knows better than his or her first-century ancestry. Discover what has been given to us instead of how those before us were soooo misguided.
    David C. Russell,
    Waiting For Messiah, Smashwords, 2017

  20. ELCA started to go DOWNHILL following their infamous Statement on Human Sexuality (2009) and continues to follow that path by accepting
    homosexual practice under the words”there are many ways of showing love”. It cannot continue to exist by being competetive to what the
    Bible says and teaches!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. The Bible also says some disturbing things about spousal abuse …and even slavery. But by God’s grace we have crossed some bridges since then. However, the data is clear: the ELCA’s decline was well underway before 2009. To identify specific causes, we need more serious data and analysis. Was the ALC a Trojan Horse which the LCA should have left alone? Is it all about the Culture Wars? Are we just losing relevance, or the ability to be nice? Pick a hypothesis, but DO SOME RESEARCH AND VERIFY YOUR DIAGNOSIS before telling us what we should do.

  21. Zscheile is calliing the ELCA to listen more intently. That’s good advice. How about doing that formally, comprehensively, and with brave and honest logic. We need research and analysis of the decline. Where are people going and why? How do others perceive us? Anecdotes and speculation will not do. We need research and analysis. Yesterday would be a good time to start.

  22. Wow, all of this is what drives people to leave, not join, or shrug their shoulders in confusion or disgust. People see the divisiveness, bitterness and often outright hostility supposed Christians have and turn away. It should not be the wish or focus of continuously rooting for the ELCA (or any other group) to fade. When churches start by proclaiming why they are the only ones with every answer, there’s trouble. (This chart would make a math teacher cry how flawed it is, even if general trend for ALL Lutheran groups in declining numbers (perhaps less the latest off shoot groups formed when they’ve too determined what is “wrong” with other groups) is reality for myriad reasons.

    For far too long there go have been simply too many Lutheran congregations. We should encourage small, struggling churches with others nearby to merge. Would you be enthused by a congregation of 20 worshippers, pastors refusing to change and no life to them? There are older, growing congregations even in areas of stagnant population trends (I know as belong to one). Focusing on proclaiming God’s grace, being welcoming to all (yes, all sinners, people of varied or no former faith tradition) can make a difference. And, gasp, focusing less on what it means to be a (insert Lutheran body here) and instead a faithful Christian, might help too. Many faith bodies will be smaller in decades to come, but I predict we will see more shared ministries too. Would it really be that horrible to embrace shared beliefs more?

    1. Possibly some good ideas, but any diagnosis of the problem needs to be tested against more than just personal observation or anecdotes. Will we have the guts to undertake an extensive churchwide study? Short of that, we are lost.

      The process is: Assess, Diagnose, Plan, Implement, Evaluate. Deviate from that process, and you will likely do more harm than good.

      Until now, we lack an adequate assessment to diagnose the problem. We know we’re declining, but why? Let’s not pretend we know. Where is the data? We don’t have it. We need it. Let’s get it. SOON!

    2. Maybe some good ideas here, but any plan must be based on a diagnosis of the problem, a diagnosis must be based on a thorough assessment. If we deviate from that order, we will likely do more harm than good.

      That’s why we need to a formal churchwide study. It’s a matter of life or death for the Church, so we can’t afford to get this wrong, and we still do not have the data we need to assess and diagnose the problem. Let’s get it. SOON. What do you say

  23. I am not a pastor, merely a member of a small, rural ELCA congregation. There a likely a multitude of reasons fro decline in church participation. However, it does appear to me that one problems Lutherans have had is being too much like a social club rather than a church. The ELCA has been moving further and further to the left in its ideology for decades, and ignoring some pretty clear biblical precepts in the process. That does not enhance faith in young people or anyone else. It would appear “the salt has lost its savor” and therefore what good is it? It would be much better if our ministers thought more about Christ and less about Karl Marx, and also stopped trying to rationalize perversion. If they can’t do that, maybe the ELCA SHOULD waste away.

    1. Your perspective may be worth sharing, but if left leaning ideology were a problem, those leaving the ELCA would surely find their ways to the LCMS, WELS, or other more conservative churches. But very few are going there. So I suspect the problem lies elsewhere. We.should study it.

      I do wonder how often you hear your rural ministers talking about Kark Marx, since Marx was an atheist humanist. I think his family was nominally Lutheran to avoid persecution for their Jewish background. We can’t judge that, obviously, as Jews in Germany had a good chance of being murdered, but that was his only connection with Lutheranism, and it’s a safe bet very few rural Lutheran ministers even know that. I can’t imagine he has become a topic of rural Lutheran sermons. You say that he has?

  24. Once upon a time Lord Elrond told me, “The time of the elves is ending.” I spoke to him like the St. Peter I am and said, “This must never happen.” It is strange how such a story of elves, of great cities, of cultures long since forgotten reveals the truth once again about mortality and the death of all things, for even us Lutherans. My thoughts circle around where we came up with the whole idea that a theological and political dispute wrapped in the Anglo-Western European culture of the past 500 years, which then dispersed across the globe and landed even in North America believes it should hold on until the last Lutheran leaves us. Couldn’t we use our time in a better way? Celebrating life, laughing with joy, working for justice and mercy? Our efforts at all this renewal and rebirth are silly talk and burn people out with disappointment and disillusionment. Look at the mental health of so many of the clergy. The past 30 years have proven that. Evidence of death and decay are only signs of what? The great liar. What are the lies we believe as truth about what it means to be a church, or about God, or about Jesus? Eventually I came to trust Lord Elrond. He is very old, going on 3000 I believe, and has pretty much seen it all. “The time of the Lutherans is ending.” But the King Returned. That was sort of fun.

  25. Liberal Christianity doesn’t see revival, because it doesn’t want revival in the way revival is defined in the Bible. The Bible is read in way that deconstructs the very basic doctrine of Christianity, and therefore the Great Commission is not obeyed. No wonder the denomination doesn’t grow. You don’t need a PhD to see that all the growing denominations in the world are evangelical and conservative in their theology. Therefore, if this denomination doesn’t change its theology to biblical Christianity, it is certain that it will die in its membership meanwhile evangelical denominations are not.

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