David Householder's article on Lutheran decline is causing some stir, probably not so much because of the points he makes, but because of his style in making them. "Lutherans don't have enough babies" is not the way most of our analysts would put it, though that is clearly the essence of the situation.
Or close to it anyway. A few years ago, a well-constructed study indicated that 80% or more of mainline protestant decline was because of lower birthrates. This should not be surprising. With increasing affluence comes lower birthrates. That's true throughout the world.
Mainline protestants were among the first Americans to become generally affluent--probably all that Calvinist influence--and theirs has been the first birthrate to decline. (Evangelical birthrates are likewise showing signs of decline. In a few years, we may be hearing about the perilous state of evangelicalism.)
That's most of it, but there is another, and potent, second factor: increasing antipathy toward all forms of religion. Those who self-identity as "seculars" were once a steady 7% or so of the population. Suddenly, that number has jumped to 15%. Among young people, it's around 25%.
This has been going on "under the radar" for some time, but seemed to "crystallize" on 9.11 when 3000 people were killed in the name of Islam. What happens in one religion affects them all. People start to think that if this is what religion does, then they want to have no part of it.
Plus, it's not like Christianity in America has presented such a sterling image that it can withstand some negative religious publicity. Thirty million people have already left the American Catholic church, mostly because they perceive it as too conservative. American young people consider American Christianity to be "judgmental" and "prejudiced," indeed "unChristian."
They are not wrong to think this. A casual observer of American religion, as presented through the media, would likely conclude that the Christian religion is the stalwart opponent of womens' rights, gay rights, science, and the Enlightenment. Is it any surprise that many people might be down on religion?
The traditionalists will try to attribute the decline to something called "liberal theology," as reflected in the ELCA's vote to roster partnered gays. If that were indeed so, then the arch-conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) should be growing. It's not. Its rate of decline is about the same as that of the ELCA. (Last year in fact, twice as many people went from the LCMS to the ELCA as went from the ELCA to the LCMS.)
The ELCA will get smaller not because our theology is "wrong" or because God is somehow punishing us for being impertinent. We will get smaller mostly because of demographics, and secondly because the cultural climate takes a dim view of religion, particularly--let us be frank--conservative religion.
Long term, the situation may look some different. Who knows? In ninety years, we may look back and say that the ELCA, precisely because it was not conservative, turned out to be one of the few Christian traditions to survive the 21st century.