by Robert Benne
In the Halcyon days of the 1950s, Lutherans were considered by church historians and Lutherans themselves to be importantly different from both mainline Protestants and Evangelicals. They had, Robert Handy remarked in the 1950s, a stronger doctrinal base than Methodists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists while they were more churchly—both liturgically and in appreciation of the whole scope of church history—than Evangelicals. They were expanding in numbers and influence. They had impressive leadership: Franklin Clark Fry, the President of the United Lutheran Church in America, appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the caption: “Mr. Protestant.” Exceptionally positioned as they were, mainstream Lutherans were expected to provide renewed Protestant vitality in America.
Ah, but it was not to be. While the two most conservative—the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods—bodies remained aloof from other Lutherans and from American life in general, the main body of Lutherans participated in mergers that seemed for a time to make them stronger. Many smaller ethnic churches joined into two new major churches in the early 1960s—the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church. Like most American denominations, membership in all the Lutheran churches peaked at about 1965. Optimism about the future of Lutheranism in America abounded. That is, until the last merger produced the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.
Its foundation was characterized by a strong attempt by radicals to start a “new church.” Slogans such as “This is not the church your parents knew,” or pictures with a Native American—or African-American or Asian—claiming that “I am the ELCA” certainly gave that impression. (Can you imagine a white male asserting that “I am the ELCA?”) Theologians and Bishops—then mostly white males—were marginalized from the formal and informal guidance system of the church. Quotas—very unpopular at the time— were imposed on all working and decision-making bodies. Though the church had at best 2% minority membership, 10% quotas for “people of color and language other than English” were enacted. Likewise, 50% quotas for women and laypeople were legislated. The whole point was to usher “many voices” into the conversation to undercut the authority of the old white male elites. In that the ELCA was inordinately successful, for it mixed things up enough to prevent any authoritative orthodox guidance system from emerging.
But there is always some theology that wends its way into such a situation, disguised though it may be. Increasingly the theology of Protestant liberalism crept in in three key areas—the nature of salvation itself; the decisiveness and uniqueness of Christ as Savior; and the familiar sexuality issues. One need do nothing to be saved, for God loves you unconditionally, just as you are, by virtue of your creation. Repentance and amendment of life are beside the point. Christianity and the other great religions are on different tracks to the same destination; evangelism is replaced by dialogue. Christian moral requirements in sexual life are outdated and need sharp revision. Inclusivism, universalism, and revisionism became the leit-motifs of the ELCA at its elite levels. Slowly they have filtered down to the parish level.
The trouble is, such a lax vision hardly inspires one to become a serious member of the church.* If God loves you just the way you are and all will be saved, why bother? Enjoy cultural libertarianism rather than struggle with difficult moral standards. Join the quasi-religious social movements such as militant environmentalism directly rather than filter ones concerns through the church. So the young are drawn to the culture rather than the church. Alarmed intense believers go to other churches or join dissident Lutheran bodies. Many in the local parishes that remain in the ELCA try to seal themselves off from the controversies provoked by the ascendance of liberal theology and ethics.
The results have been devastating. Rather than being exceptional in their promise for renewing American Protestantism, mainstream Lutherans have become exceptional in the rapidity and extensity of their decline. The National Council of Churches reports that the ELCA has “the sharpest rate of membership decline” among all mainline Protestant denominations.
At its inception in 1988 the ELCA it had about 5.3 million members in 11,133 churches. Every year but two has marked decline in membership; every year has marked a loss of congregations. In 2010 and 2011 after the decisions of 2009 in which gay blessings and ordinations were approved, the ELCA lost 710 congregations. Now two break-off churches—Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the North American Lutheran Church—account for about 1100 congregations. In 2011 the ELCA listed 4,059,785 members and 9,638 congregations. By 2013 there is little doubt it has fallen below 4,000,000. From 2003-2011 weekly attendance dropped by 26% across the church. There is decline in every demographic, every geographic area.
Liberal Lutherans in Canada have suffered even more losses, if that can be imagined. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has followed closely in the liberal steps of the ELCA, with similar results. Founded in 1986 it has dropped from 262,000 members to 139,000. Fifty-four congregations have closed with 64 more likely to follow. Thirty-five have departed for other Lutheran bodies, 19 to the new North American Lutheran Church.
*The standard reason offered for the decline of the mainline denominations is that they are diminished by weak demographics. But that just begs the question: there is a strong correlation between religious intensity and higher birth rates. Even among mainstream Protestants weekly observance correlates with higher birth-rates than those of more sporadic attendance.
The number of missionaries—especially ministers of the Gospel—have precipitously declined in both denominations. African churches are breaking fellowship with them over sexuality issues. The ELCA’s most distinguished theologians—Robert Jenson, Carl Braaten, James Nestingen, David Yeago—are all now persona non grata within that church and are speaking writing in different churches and venues. The last mentioned, David Yeago, was released at the height of his career from Southern Lutheran Seminary, presumably for not being compliant enough with ELCA orthodoxy.
In spite of all this, the Presiding Bishops of both churches seem unworried. Speaking of the recent 25th anniversary of the ELCA, Bishop Hanson exulted: “Yet the host of relationships that were formed in 1988 is only a glimmer of the newness that has been arriving in our midst. I absolutely am convinced that this is a great time to give a Lutheran evangelical witness to the gospel.” He has emphasized that the church really knows who it is now that the conflicts have subsided and the pesky orthodox have departed. A wag might agree by suggesting it is now a clearly liberal Protestant church.
The Canadian Presiding Bishop, Susan Johnson, is perhaps a bit worried but clueless. This crisis, she opines, is an opportunity to “define what our core mission is and how we best can accomplish it.” Struggling to define that core mission, she further asserts that “God is calling us, and indeed all the churches in North America and much of Europe, to a new thing. What’s hard is that we don’t know what that new thing is going to be.” Again, seeing how obsessed the bishops are with newness, one could argue that what is new is precipitous decline.
To be fair, it must be admitted that most denominations are in decline; it is a difficult time to be the church. But, with regard to the extent of decline, it can truly be said that mainstream Lutherans in the USA and Canada are exceptional.