Today’s question, the 3rd in
our sermon series “8 Questions from the Pews,” is one the demographers have had
their eye on pretty intensely for at least as long as I’ve been alive—though in
these last few years the question has become more pressing.
The question is: “Why are there fewer
people in Church? All over the place, not just here.”
In the last quarter century the ELCA
has shed a million and a half members.
So too the Episcopal Church… The UCC
has plummeted from 2 million members at it’s inception to under a million now…
the Methodist church sheds 1,000 members a week and church attendance in the
Roman Catholic Church has fallen from 77% in 1950 to 45% today.
In the last seven years 8% of Americans
have stopped identifying as Christian and 7% more identify as non-religious.
So, it’s not the questioner’s
imagination, in general we’re shrinking…. And yes, “all over the place, not
There are many reasons for it, but I’ll
talk a bit about three of them, the 3D’s—
I like Samuel—not the man so much, but
the idea, that he represents—where he sits vis a vis the history of God
and God’s people.
On one side of him is the period of
God’s history known for Bands of Prophets and Tribal Judges—for a loose league
of tribes, a decentralized way of worshipping and leading.
On the other side of Samuel, is a
period of time centered on a single monarch and a lone temple—a centralized
structure of both religion and politics.
Yes, it is as God said, “See, I am
about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it
tingle.” Such change surely made the ears of many burn.
The Israel that existed before Samuel
is unrecognizable to the Israel that exited after him. It was a mixed bag and a
time when the Levitical Priests outside of Jerusalem starved to death,
time of prosperity and of unsettling change.
So too we are experiencing a sea change
in our religious life.
are experiencing the Disestablishment
of the Church, the Decentralization
of all things, and a shift of both ethnic and economic demographics.
1. We are experiencing the
Disestablishment of the Church… there was a time when being a Good American
Citizen and being a Good Christian were seen
as the same. No more.
Now it’s assumed Soccer Practice, or
Pop Warner, or Reading the New York Times on Sunday Morning will make a good
citizen just as well as Sunday School, Confirmation, or Church Attendance.
Fostering faith is no longer seen as a
societal good. Social pressure will no longer regularly be put behind the
We are also experiencing extensive decentralization—that
a small group of people without anyone in charge can now influence the world.
as an example, of the two things that have shaped American life in the first
decade of the 21st century—Terrorist and the Internet.
On 9/11 19 men dispersed among 4
groups, loosely connected, were able to kill nearly 3,000 people and radically
change American domestic and foreign policy to this very day.
Or for that matter, think of the
internet. A group of people, each working on their own for no pay, were able to
create Wikipedia, a continually expanding online encyclopedia that dwarfs
anything in print, and is available for free to anyone with an internet
Compared to these things the Church can
be a hulking unwieldy thing…
Decentralization fosters radical
individuality and undercuts all centralizing authorities. All of a sudden every
viewpoint is expressed, no matter how far out, and all of a sudden no viewpoint
needs to be listened to. Everything becomes polarized and individualized.
Anything claiming to have, or be, a
center, will not hold
authority has authority
Finally, we are confronted by changing
ethnic and economic demographics in America.
One of the reasons people came to
Church, especially Lutheran and Catholic Churches
to be with people who spoke the same language and came to America from the same
sort of a victim of our own success) This is no longer something the average
Lutheran seeks in a Church. For that matter, there are no new Lutherans coming
from “The Old Country” to refill our pews.
Additionally, the ELCA tends to draw
members from the “middle class”—but in the last two—maybe the last four—decades
what it means to be middle class—the demographic realities of that, have changed.
There are few good manufacturing jobs, people
are accruing massive student debt in order to get into the middle class, and
there is a necessity of two incomes just to stay in the middle class.
squeezed the middle class and it’s squeezed the Church.
average person is now both time and money poor—so too the church.
Now, like the Israelite Exiles in Babylon, we too feel lost. It can feel like
this Demographically different, Decentralized nation that we have been
Disestablished from, is a strange land. We may weep when we remember the
good old days
change, even positive change, involves a loss
But that’s not the whole story
ought to be shouts of joy mixed with our earnest weeping. Like those returning
from the Exile we can rightly weep when looking at the shrunken shroud of what
once was a vibrant house of God.
At the same time, like them, we ought
to shout for joy because the foundation of the House of the Lord is laid!
Yes, because of Disestablishment “The
Game” might start before church finishes,
can now buy things on Sunday,
won’t regularly get a pat on the head from civic leaders, unless, you know, we
actually do something special,
at some point we’ll probably have to start paying property tax on the Church
and the Parsonage.
Maybe being taxed will shock us into
thinking about the difference between community and building, people and
Maybe the church will be freed from the
shackles of respectability… because
we no longer expect that pat on our head from society for upholding social
For example a clergyman more
conservative than I, recently found out that Pub Theology meets in a bar, and
he said to me, “Next thing you know you’ll be talking to Prostitutes about
Jesus won’t you? What do your neighbor’s think?” And I responded, “Isn’t that
what Jesus was accused of doing?” Shedding societal respectability to bring the
Gospel to Sinners. “If I’m following Jesus why should I worry what the
Yes, Decentralization undercuts our
authority, denominational loyalty, and fosters radical individualism.
this decentralized, semi-anonymous, depersonalized internet age
with crabby and hurtful people (no really
look at any comments section of any page on the internet),
this age could use the highly person community of the church as balm for its
tired and hurting soul.
Lutherans, the tradition that harnessed the Guttenberg press to spread the Word
of God, can harness new technology for the same!
the church is in fact a small group of people, who can influence the world,
and therefore an era of decentralization is an exciting time to be Christian!
Yes, Demographic shifts have us on the
ropes, being a tradition tied to an ethnic identity no longer does us any
favors, and being a middle class church just doesn’t mean what it used to.
we should consider that of the five countries with the most Lutherans in the
world, two of them are African and one is Asian—and we need to get ready for
the immigration of our sisters and brothers from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and
this breaking of ethnic identity and religious identity will focus us on what
makes us Lutheran
I swear to God, Lutheranism offers so much more than Lutfisk and blond braids
or Bratwurst and Lederhosen
For that matter, maybe the new economic
reality we face will allow us to hear the cries of the poor more fully. Maybe
this little bite of poverty we
experience will point us to the mauling
our brothers and sisters in poverty are experiencing.
3 In closing, ours is to be faithful,
following after our Lord, Baptizing and making Disciples.
so in whatever world we find ourselves.
so whatever our relationship to wider society.
so in large groups together or in small groups dispersed.
so whatever our ethnic and economic composition.
Yes—doing so, this very day.
Baptizing little Ryan into Christ right
that God is with him no matter what
him in this day of his Baptism,
the morning of his life and noontime and evening.