The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


10 trends to watch

Churchgoers will want to take note and keep up

Walking into Come2Go, you might notice the hip vibe of this 400-seat music venue. You might notice people socializing, food and drink in hand, waiting for the show to start. During the concert, you might notice the high-quality sound and lighting system.

You probably wouldn't notice that it is also an ELCA worshiping community.

This ELCA ministry in Fort Wayne, Ind., was the idea of pastor developer Mark Minnick, who intended to reach people with little religious background. "Music is a universal approach," he said. Come2Go's original design was to "create community and get people into the building," he added.

Following trends in the U.S. census,
Following trends in the U.S. census, worship attendance at Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Irving, Texas, has grown 75 percent to 2,100 in the past year.

Come2Go's approach responds to several trends affecting American religious life and congregational work in faith formation, said John Roberto, author and speaker on Christian faith formation.

After compiling current research on American religious life and social and cultural trends, Roberto, president of LifelongFaith Associates, Naugatuck, Conn., identified trends to which he believes congregations need to pay attention.

"We asked ourselves, 'What are the greatest uncertainties? Will people over the next decade be more receptive or less to organized religion? Will people be more or less open to God?' " he said.

As Roberto examined this research, his concern grew to a point of urgency. "We need to do something now and not wait around," he said.

ELCA congregational leaders, teachers and theologians offered their perspectives on these 10 interconnected trends as they relate to faith formation in ELCA congregations. To be clear, not all these trends are negative. Many present significant opportunities for ministry. Regardless, the message is clear: the world is changing; we need to take note and keep up.

1. Declining church participation.

Who comes to church? According to the General Social Survey, the flagship poll of the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, fewer Americans are attending worship services. Weekly or more frequent attendance declined from 35 percent of the population in 1972 to 26 percent in 2008. At the same time, the number of Americans reporting that they never attend worship increased from 9 percent to 21 percent.

This trend has Roberto worried. "If you look at it generationally, the most loyal, the most engaged people are those 60 and older," he said. As that generation passes, they are followed by generations with "very low brand loyalty. In this next decade, we're going to see it in declining participation," he added.

Average worship attendance in the ELCA is 125 people, said Kenneth Inskeep, ELCA executive for research and evaluation. "I'm predicting that by 2020, it will be down around 100 [in worship attendance] if the present trends continue," he said. At that size, he noted, most congregations can't afford a full-time pastor.

But Inskeep argues that we miss the bigger issue if we only look at numbers. "Lutherans have a particularly important tradition to represent, which is ... that God is a gracious God. It's not about attendance ... it's about having a voice ... with enough people to speak and be heard in the broader culture," he said.

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