Growing in a Time of Decline

Pastor's Monthly Newsletter Article for July, 2013

In his June 17 edition of "Sightings," Dr. Martin Marty addresses the numerical decline that many U.S. Christian denominations (including the ELCA) are experiencing. His comments are based, in part, on the fact that these denominations grew in their early years through immigration, and in their middle years through expanding families. However, recent demographic studies indicate that more white Americans are now dying than being born, and a majority of births in the U.S. are now to Hispanic, black and Asian mothers. If denominations are to thrive — even survive — they will need to depend on something other than immigration and childbirth.

In light of these demographic changes, and considering factors such as fewer lasting marriages, shifting norms in the workplace and increased mobility, Dr. Marty writes, “all of these factors [are] at odds with the traditional, habitual, reflexive identification of a people with a religious membership or involvement.”

"Traditional, habitual, reflexive identification" once was enough to keep denominations strong in the U.S. Those who grew up within a particular denomination tended to seek out a congregation of that denomination, even when moving across country. (Our own ELCA used to provide a member relocation service — congregations could sign up to be notified whenever Lutherans from another part of the country moved into their zip code…)

This is no longer the case. Familiar patterns that many of us knew as children are gone. People are managing pressures and balancing opportunities that our parents couldn’t have imagined. These days thriving denominations will be the ones who respond to these changes in creative and faithful ways. They will come to understand the new realities that surround them, and explore how their traditional strengths and emerging ministries can proclaim the Gospel in a new language. They will discover how to reach out beyond themselves in a way that invites newcomers to become involved.

The same is true at the congregational level. Where our denomination once was thriving from the influx of northern European immigrants, many of our congregations in the West and South-West once were thriving from the influx of Lutherans from the Mid-West and North-East. That no longer will be sufficient to keep us strong. Congregational leaders now also have to identify what unique opportunities their neighborhoods offer, what existing congregational strengths exist, what emerging ministries are necessary, and how this can be promoted in a way that invites newcomers to become involved.

How shall we do that at Saint Peter? What is unique about Greenwood Village and the neighborhoods where our participants live? Readers from a distance: how will you do that in your congregation? How might we learn from one another? Drop me a line; let me know what you see.

God’s peace to you all,

Pastor Dave

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