Church in a Risky Environment

Unstable environment

I had the privilege to be a part of a pair of lectures by Diana Butler Bass last weekend at my synod convention which really helped me get a better view of the spiritual climate change going on within the country. There has been a lot of press given to the decline of the mainline denominations, which includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which I am a pastor within, and there have been a number of ‘self-help’ approaches to the problem trying to create better programming, better worship experiences, better outreach, better stewardship and the list can go on and on. It is not that the people doing ministry today are less skilled than people doing ministry in the 1950s and 1960s when many congregations were experiencing their peaks, but the reality is that they are trying to be church in a risky and changing environment. This first post will deal with some of the more depressing information, but be patient-I actually found a lot of hope in the midst of what I learned.

Over the past five decades the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Christian has gone from 97% to 73% with the largest drop being among white Protestant Christians, which have dropped from 66% of the population to 48% between 1960 and 2012. Most people would assume that when you split the Protestants into Mainline Protestants (typically more moderate to liberal including the United Methodist Church (UMC), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ and the Reformed Church USA) and into Evangelical Protestants (which are too numerous to mention but for the purposes of study included groups that identified as Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Charismatic) were declining at the same rate. This seems counterintuitive since there are most mega-churches are evangelical in their leaning, but the reality is that they are predominantly absorbing members from other congregations. Another surprise was the fastest declining denomination was the Southern Baptists, which in the current culture should not be surprising, but nobody has been talking about the Evangelical decline until fairly recently. Catholics are holding steady, primarily because of immigration and black or Hispanic communities of faith are either holding their own or growing as a percentage of the population. This has also been the time where the ‘nones’ which include atheists, agnostics, nothing in particular and spiritual but not religious went from registering as roughly 1% of the population to 20%, 1 in 5.

One of the most common reactions to changes in the environment around any person or group is fear, and fear has definitely been a driving force for many Christian groups in the recent years. There is almost a militant reaction against the current culture by some of the more conservative religious organizations and individuals. Especially after the last Presidential Election Campaign was complete there was a lot of evidence (which I will share in the next presentation) that they no longer were the decisive block that could determine who would remain in power, and as they look at the manner in which their cohort is aging the news gets worse. Sometimes this has even turned to rhetoric claiming that they are being oppressed for their religious viewpoints because not everyone will concede that their viewpoint is correct, when the reality is that they are now one within a much more varied religious landscape where there is no clear majority and no one group has a monopoly on defining religion and spirituality within the current culture. For some people what I have shared today is incredibly bad news, as will be some of the information I share in some upcoming posts, but it also represents an incredible possibility to re-imagine the way we are church in a changing culture and how we have a dialogue about issues of faith in our culture.

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