Ken Wieding is a self-taught organist with a high view of worship. From his bench in the loft at Christ Lutheran Church of Elm Creek in central Texas, he’s played hymns for more than 50 years.
To stay on cue, he props a rearview mirror on the oak console and aims it at the congregation below. “There were times when we just went along,” said Wieding, 75, who has noticed a new movement, a new spirit among worshipers at the church, located near Seguin. “It’s been exciting to see it come back again.”
About 130 worship at Christ Lutheran, up 43 percent from 91 people in 2000. Wieding said it’s helped to have a burst of new energy from the church’s mentor group, which pairs older members with confirmands. But “you really can’t put your finger on any one thing that’s causing it,” he said. “I guess I can’t be any more specific than to say it’s the Holy Spirit at work.”
The increased attendance at Christ Lutheran is unusual, especially for a small, country congregation. Nationally, only three in 10 ELCA congregations gained worshipers between 2000 and 2005, said Kenneth Inskeep, director of ELCA Research and Evaluation. What’s more, among churches with 150 people or fewer in worship—a segment that represents about 70 percent of the denomination’s 10,500 congregations—three out of four dipped or held steady.
All told, an estimated 3,000 ELCA churches are growing. They’re in towns where the population is increasing, but they’re also in out-of-the-way places that you’d least expect. Big congregations, for the most part, are getting bigger. Churches that stretch beyond Sunday morning, especially ones with active youth programs, are most likely to thrive.
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