What is to be done? Our congregations are growing older and smaller. At least 40 percent of our congregations have an average weekly worship attendance of 50 or less. ELCA membership decreases by 70,000 people a year, or roughly the loss of a synod per year. Clergy retirements outnumber new candidates for ministry. Financial pressures and building maintenance create stress. There is a dearth of people in their 20s and 30s in our pews. How do we change this? How do we reverse the trends?
These are anxious questions that come from anxious people across this church. We aren’t the only ones asking them—just about every mainline denomination, including the non-Latino population of the Roman Catholic Church, is in the same boat. Even some megachurches are showing signs of plateau or decline. And this is not exclusive to the Christian community. I once attended a national conference of Muslims where one workshop was titled “Un-Mosqued to Mosqued: How to Get the Young Muslim Back to the Masjid.”
Some now see the decline of the church in general, and the ELCA in particular, as inevitable. The response can be to turn our churches into bunkers with our congregations sheltering within the walls or to try every new program that breathlessly promises to attract people to our congregations. Neither is an effective or faithful long-term strategy.
I think we are asking the wrong questions.
The questions we are asking have to do about us: “What can we do?” They express loss and grief and fear—loss and grief for what we were and fear about what we will become. Not only do these questions not lead to productive answers, they also don’t point to hope. It’s as if the church’s one foundation rests on us and our efforts.
I think we need to ask: “What is God up to?”