When Joyce Gibbs began attending Zion Lutheran in Phillipsburg, Kan., in 1954, the congregation had to set up extra chairs in the aisle during worship services. In 1964 a new building was constructed to accommodate the rapidly growing congregation.
“We were really a thriving congregation. We had good attendance, an active junior and senior Luther League, a couples group ...,” said Gibbs, who lives in rural Phillipsburg, with a population of about 2,500.
Today, Zion's average attendance has dwindled to about 50 and Sunday school is now a one-room class with a handful of mixed-aged youth. Lorna Paulus, the pastor who divides her time between Zion and nearby St. John Lutheran Church in Kensington, Kan., attributes the decline to several factors, including the loss of industry in the town, elderly members who have died and lack of young families coming up behind them.
Now, Zion is in conversation with three other rural congregations about merging. "I think for all of us we see it as necessary to our future," said Paulus, who has served Zion for 15 years. "If we don't do something, we won't be here in another generation."
Zion's story is one that echoes across the country as ELCA congregations look for ways to deal with declines in membership and participation.
Nearly 30 percent of ELCA churches reported an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 people in 2010. From 2003 to 2011, average weekly worship attendance dropped 26 percent. And from 2009 to 2010, ELCA membership decreased 5.9 percent, the sharpest rate of decline among mainline denominations, according to theNational Council of Churches.
"Since the inception of the ELCA, we've seen decline every year, and it has accelerated over the last five years," said Elizabeth Eaton, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. "It doesn't matter where a congregation is situated, we have congregational decline in every demographic, every geography."
It's no news flash that the ELCA is shrinking. But where is everyone going? And more importantly, where do we go from here?
Losing our religion
What we're seeing is not just a backlash against hymnals and potlucks. Nearly every U.S. Christian denomination has seen membership declines in the past two years, including Southern Baptists, who seemed invincible in the '70s, '80s and '90s.
And in 2012 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported for the first time that the number of Americans identifying as Protestant dipped below half, to 48 percent. Only Roman Catholics seem to be hanging on, which experts attribute to a growing Latino population.
When it comes to actively practicing religion, which includes worship attendance, the numbers are down across the board. "Of every measure or religious tradition or practice we track in surveys, none of them is going up," said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.
"Part of the story is changes in family demographics. The main group that attends church is traditional families and older people. People are marrying later, having fewer kids or having no kids at all. That means the demographic subgroup that typically attends church is a smaller subgroup of the population," he said.
Fifty years ago not only were traditional families more plentiful, but organized religion had more clout.
"It used to be a cultural expectation to say you were going to church. We didn't have to do anything. We could just sort of coast," Eaton observed. "But we're not part of the establishment anymore. The rug has been pulled out under us."
Robert C. Johnson, pastor of Norwood Park Lutheran in Chicago has experienced this within the congregation. "People have allowed Sunday mornings to be crowded with many other things, such as children's sports. Even when activities don't take place on Sundays, people are so tired from Saturdays that on Sundays they just want to stay home and sleep," said Johnson, who sees an average of 30 people in worship, according to ELCA statistics.
Eaton added: "Eighteen- to 35-year-olds aren't seeing church as really relevant to what they need to get done. They want meaning in their lives but don't necessarily see the church as providing that."
Lutherans also face a challenge because of the church's central and northern European roots. When many ELCA congregations were planted, Scandinavians and Germans were migrating to the U.S. in droves. Now, Lars and Gretchen have scattered and neighborhoods have become more ethnically diverse. Meanwhile, churches are still catering to their charter members.
Neil Harrison, director for Renewed Evangelizing Congregations, said, "Too often not only are people out of relationship with each other, but especially congregations are out of relationship with their neighbors and community."
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© 2015 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers