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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Tackling membership decline

Losses of the past five years beckon us to reflect, seek renewal

As the Conference of Bishops meeting was drawing to a close, Bishop Richard J. Foss of the Eastern North Dakota Synod asked, "When are we going to deal with the elephant in the room?" He noted that the ELCA had lost 80,000 baptized members in 2005. "That," he poignantly reminded us, "is the equivalent of losing one of our synods." Others noted that ELCA baptized membership has declined by 275,000 in the last five years.

I suggest the conversation about "the elephant" of membership decline belongs throughout this church. Someone, of course, will say that hearing these statistics discourages rather than motivates us. I agree, but I contend that the reality of our decline invites us all into a time of reflection that may in fact lead to spiritual and evangelical renewal in the church.

Our temptation is to explain the membership loss by discussing population trends in the U.S. and the growth of communities where Lutherans historically haven't been present in large numbers. Another approach is to explain that congregations are just doing a better job of "cleaning up membership rolls." Some talk about living in a "post-denominational era." By making our membership losses understandable, we imply they are acceptable.


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