The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Renew and renovate

The work of the church: ‘It’s not a numbers game, it’s spiritual belief and passion’

Change had come to our little street, and our neighbor wasn’t happy.

Another neighbor had torn down his house to build a bigger one, complete with a porte-cochere and rooms over a separate, spacious garage. We all had lived for years in our quirky, modest houses, close to one another and within walking distance to the village center. 

I watched from my kitchen window as our unhappy middle-aged neighbor looked at the imposing house being built across the street from us. Standing on the street, hands on his hips, he gradually raised his arms toward the sky in outrage at the changes it had brought to the neighborhood.

He had lived on the same street all his life. His house had given him shelter and love. As his mother grew old, he nursed her through illnesses until she died. He was able to live securely and content, safe from unknown elements of the bigger world. 

And now this. What was a porte-cochere anyway? (It’s a roofed structure from a building’s entrance over an adjacent driveway.) And why would you need rooms above a garage when having no garage had suited his family just fine? 

The church is in need of a little renovation of its own.As it attempts to fulfill Christ’s edict to preach the gospel to a changing world, the church finds itself hobbled by a culture where faith communities are often forced to take a back seat to ever-burgeoning materialism and where tradition has little relevance in people’s lives.

Mainline churches are no longer in the mainline and find themselves struggling with declining membership and worship attendance. 

Nearly 30.9 percent of ELCA churches reported an average worship attendance of fewer than 50 people in 2012. From 2002 to 2012, average weekly worship attendance dropped 28.9 percent. And from 2009 to 2012, ELCA membership decreased 14.7 percent, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation. 

Declining membership means doors are often closed to new ideas and, even more important, energy. Church members and ministers watch as attendance decreases and enthusiasm dwindles.

Karen Taylor, an associate in ministry serving St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Lakewood, Calif., observed: “The percentage of every-weekend worshipers is small, and it’s shrinking. Offerings are decreasing as more members retire or die. We operate with a minimal staff, and most of our employees haven’t received a raise in more than five years. The pool of volunteers — ushers, musicians, altar guild, council and committee members, etc. — is drying up.” 

Many of the stalwart, faithful members who remain active are bound by a sense of tradition and duty. Some are more comfortable to continue ministries “the way we’ve always done it.” But here’s the problem: adhering to that tradition and duty formula is a sure-fire way to fizzle faith and fervor.

A study conducted by Dave Daubert, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Elgin, Ill., and author of Living Lutheran: Renewing Your Congregation (Augsburg Fortress, 2007), found that among the 1,000 he surveyed 23 percent of those who had attended church regularly for 30 years were functionally agnostic (someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a deity). Many said they didn’t believe their church had helped them grow spiritually — and they seemed satisfied with that spiritual stagnation.

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