I keep remembering a conversation some years ago with the Canon to the Ordinary of the Episcopal diocese of St. Louis. (Episcopalians are a little more Shakespearean than we are. We call these humble servants "assistants to the bishop".)
He spoke of what he called "the pains of diminishment," and said that Episcopalians had been dealing with this pain for the past few decades. These pains manifested in various ways--resignation, low energy, general grousing, to name a few.
We are experiencing these same "pains of diminishment" in our denomination. We've been in numerical decline since the early 1960's. This continued unabated for about 40 years. We'd grown used to it, and, frankly, it didn't affect anyone very much. As long as it dinked along at 10,000 people or so a year, we didn't concern ourselves.
Back in the late 1990's, the topic of membership decline came up in a conversation with former Presiding Bishop, H. George Anderson. His only remark was to say that "as an historian," he could say that "present trends never continue." (I remember thinking at the time that, if that's all the thought we've put into this so far, we're a long ways behind the curve.)
He was right, after a fashion. Sometimes, present trends don't continue. Sometimes, they get worse. As we moved into the 21st century, bigger chunks started breaking off, not 10,000 per year, but something on the order of 50,000 or 60,000.
Why was this happening? What are we doing wrong? We've done everything we've been told and taught, and the Lord does not seem to be blessing us! Oh, the "pains of diminishment"!
There is both more--and less--here than meets the eye. No, it has nothing to do with God turning his back on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), nor are we being punished for something or other.
Most of it is very simple: The past three or four generations of Lutherans haven't had enough babies. Some studies of mainline protestant membership loss attribute up to 80% of it to birthrate. That is no less true in our case. Once, Rudy and Helga had six or seven children. Their grandchildren, Biff and Buffy, may not have any.
One of the broadest social trends of the past several decades is that affluence leads to lower birthrates. That's true for nations, and it's true for churches as well. Since mainline protestants were the first to gain affluence in the United States, they were also the first to see lower birthrates and the first to see decline.
Southern Baptists and evangelicals are catching up. Lower birthrates have likewise led to several years of membership loss in the Southern Baptist Convention. Good figures aren't available for evangelicals, but they have typically had higher birthrates than the United States population as a whole. This seems to be changing for them as well. (Few have noticed yet. Look for articles on "evangelical decline" to start popping up.)
So birthrate is one factor, and it accounts for a lot. It's not the only factor, however. In the past dozen years, our small rate of decline has accelerated. Instead of losing 10,000 people each year, that loss jumped to 50,000 or 60,000. The ELCA is about 15% smaller in 2013 than we were in 2001.
2001 is when 9.11 happened. That's when a group of religious fanatics blew up the World Trade Center in the name of God. Evil can be subtle, and, when it is, people accommodate to it more easily than they think. Blatant evil, however, causes people to recoil in horror, and that's what they did after 9.11. If religion leads to things like 9.11, they figure they can do without religion.
Religion has been somewhat on the defensive since the late 1960's. Before then, it was rare to hear religion criticized. During the 60's, organized religion came in for its share of grief along with everyone else. The culture was down on the establishment, and the establishment churches felt the pinch.
9.11 provided a slingshot effect. It accelerated the already-brewing discontent with religion, and broke it out into the open. "Spiritual, but not religious" has been an attitude that floated under the surface for a couple of decades. It has come to the fore in the years after 9.11.
True, it wasn't our religion that was responsible for 9.11, and some drew comfort from making that distinction. The clergy child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church was not something that happened in another religion, however. That one happened in ours. Where 9.11 opened a "religious wound" in the body politic, the clergy sex abuse scandal poured salt in it.
This third factor, which had also been building for some time, was reaction against the religious right. When people looked at the public face of the Christian faith in the United States, they saw a whole lot of things they didn't like--partisan politics, nutty theology, grim-faced scolds, obsession with sex, and somebody always bashing somebody else.
If all you knew about Christianity was what you heard or saw through the mainstream media, you would have thought that the Christian faith was hopelessly hidebound and out-of-date. Its preachers were fulminating on social issues that the rest of the public had long ago accommodated or ignored. If the public face of Christianity was Pat Robertson, or even avuncular Rick Warren, millions wanted no part of it.
Considering just those three factors, it should not be surprising that many people have left the church. If that's what we have to offer--violence, rape, lunacy--anybody with two brain cells to rub together would flee, and should flee.
That's the downside. There is also, however, a very significant upside. In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided that rostered gay clergy could also be in a relationship. It cost us about 5% of our congregations, and 5-10% of the members of most of our churches.
Made matters worse, right? Wrong. That decision made a valuable witness to the culture as a whole. Not to put too fine a point on it, it said that not all Christians were gay-bashers. I personally know a few people who were rather shocked by the ELCA's action. They were under the impression that all Christians were obsessed with recreating the cultural and social ethos of the 1950's.
That decision put us on a path that makes it possible for our tradition to survive this century. Conservative religion can't and won't get there until it jettisons fundamentalism. Since it is unwilling to do so, it's hard to see what kind of future it has other than hunkering down with the revanchists and trying to ride out modernism.
I like where we are. Sure, we're in numerical decline, and we're going to decline some more. Any program that promises to turn things around is bogus, and so are all the exhortations to get out there and be evangelists. (We've never done this well, and aren't about to start now.)
The thing is, though, that since cultural approval and promotion of religion has died out, that means that the people who attend our churches want to be there. They don't get any business out of it. They don't get social approval or reward. They don't get to be thought of as "holy" by their neighbors--or, if they do, it's not a compliment. They're there for no good reason except that they want to be there, and want to participate in the mission of God in the world.
Some years ago now, one of the leaders of our church said that he had a weird hobby: he liked to read old church bulletins. He had many from the 1920's and 1930's when, he said, the average church paid a preacher (barely) and the light bill (if they had rural electrification). That's it. They didn't do much else.
Nowadays, about a third of our churches are involved in some way with Habitat for Humanity. The vast majority of them have food banks or clothing banks. They lead mission trips or urban immersions. They sponsor Scout troops, or recovery groups, or English as Second Language classes. In fact, it would be hard to find an ELCA church that isn't doing something in their community.
We are in decline numerically, and for a host of understandable reasons. We are not in decline as a body of Christians involved in mission. In fact, on that score, you could argue that we are better than ever.