Recent news for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a particularly bad kind of bad news. The loss of members has gone on for so many years that members have come to expect it and even accept it. So, the news that we have gone below 5 million members has little shock value. Leaders talk in terms of losses relative to other years and other denominations, but they offer little hope of seeing anything different in the future. Roll cleaning?
This may explain some of the losses in 2003, but it does not change the larger, long-established truth: The ELCA is losing members and significance while the population of the United States grows.
Why? Some offer a theological answer: God is withdrawing blessing from the mainline churches, because of their failure to make the Gospel their first priority. A statement attributed to Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, says it well: “God is killing the church, and we goddamn well deserve it.”
Some offer an answer based on observation as well as theology. Drawing on his career as a respected consultant and observer, Bill Easum wrote in the most recent issue of Net Results: “The further any branch of Christianity moves from its historic roots, the faster it declines. Shouldn’t we learn something from this six-decade-long descent into obsolescence? . . . . God simply will not honor a watered-down version of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” (“The Signs of the Times” in September/October Net Results, p. 27.)
But wait! Against the current of mainline decline there are some who are swimming upstream. Though the measurement of ELCA growth was framed in negative numbers for 2003, a subset defied the trend. As a sports figure’s strength in relation to another’s is suggested by “the tale of the tape,” the strength of WordAlone member congregations is suggested by their growth over against ELCA decline. Simply go to the WordAlone website, download the list of member congregations, and consult their reports for 2003 found on the ELCA website. You will find, as I have, that the net result for these congregations is positive. 129 congregations had current reports accessible. Together they added 804 members in 2003.
They aren’t all mission churches; they aren’t all mega-churches, they aren’t all in areas of growing population; some go back to the 1870s; they aren’t all in Minnesota. What these churches seem to have in common is their insistence on making the Word their priority in time-honored confessional terms. For them the good news of Jesus is not simply one choice on a smorgasbord loaded with others.
Remember, too, that in many more congregations there are WordAlone members and WordAlone chapters who are doing what they can to influence their congregations, but it is not possible to measure their effect, simply because no “tape” exists for this. The overall membership gain of the WordAlone congregations should encourage the rest of us who are not in member congregations to keep being agents for change.
Of course, growth itself is not what validates the ministries of congregations. Churches can grow for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. Nevertheless, the growth of the WordAlone congregations in contrast with the full ELCA is an extremely important datum. It argues the same point made by Hauerwas, Easum, and a growing number of people calling for reform. When a church embraces its orthodox faith heritage, and does not apologize for it, de-emphasize it or bargain it away, the Spirit blesses that church by using it as an instrument for making disciples of Jesus Christ. We rejoice at that, because we understand that to be the reason the church is here.