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'Evangelical' = proclaiming

Good News

—ELCA numbers keep dropping; are we evangelical?

by William K. Drew (WordAlone board member, Spokane, WA)

News: August 29, 2006

The ELCA News Service released an article on Aug. 1 summarizing Evangelical Lutheran Church in America membership figures for 2005 showing that membership in the ELCA declined, from 2004 to 2005, by 1.6 percent.

The article lists the changes in various categories of increases and decreases in membership that led to the net decline. photo of Bill DrewThe last sentence of the article gives the location on the ELCA website of a table summarizing the annual statistical reports of the ELCA.

This table presents a sorry picture.

In 1987, the ELCA had 5,288,048 members and 11,133 congregations. In 2005, the ELCA had 4,850,776 members in 10,549 congregations--a decline of 437,272 baptized members and 573 congregations. The string of annual declines in the number of members and of congregations is very nearly unbroken. Only twice (in 1990 and 1991) did the number of members increase (by .04 percent and .08 percent, respectively). The number of congregations increased in 1990--only by 20 congregations, or .18 percent.

Even more disturbing, more than half of the decline in members since 1987 occurred in the years 2002 through 2005. In 2002, the ELCA made a change in its method of determining the membership numbers for the year. That undoubtedly resulted in a larger decrease for 2002 from 2001 than would have been the case otherwise. But, the overall trend is clear. Before 2002, the ELCA never had an annual decrease in membership of 1 percent or more. Indeed, most years before that, the decrease was less than .5 percent.

Since 2002, however, the annual net decrease in baptized membership has exceeded 1 percent each year, and the size of the decrease, in absolute numbers and as a percentage of total membership, has increased each year from 2003 through 2005. In 2003, the decrease was 1.05 percent, the 2004 decline was 1.09 percent. The drop in 2005 was 1.62 percent.

Even these grim figures, however, do not tell the whole story of the current condition of the ELCA. In 2005, the confirmed membership of the ELCA dropped by 49,039 to 3,636,948. The number of communing and contributing members--a strong indicator of the level of active participation--dropped by 48,276 in 2005 to 2,256,700.

In 1999, the year that the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly approved Called to Common Mission, the full-communion agreement with the Episcopal Church, the ELCA reported a membership of 5,149,668. Since then, the ELCA has been losing members at a rapidly increasing rate. CCM has not been the only reason for the loss in membership (the ELCA's sexuality study was a factor). But, it would be hard to deny that CCM has been a factor. CCM is a symptom of the ELCA's problems.

CCM imposes meaningless rituals as a condition for unity, while glossing over serious theological issues. CCM requires rituals without requiring belief in those rituals. It is questionable whether, under CCM, adherence to anything other than ritual is necessary.

In addition to CCM, the activities of the ELCA in recent years have included authorization of a sexuality study in 2001 that seems aimed at undermining Biblical authority on moral questions and political involvement that often seems more partisan than spiritual. As a result, more and more Lutherans are feeling alienated from the ELCA.

The life of a church is not strictly a numbers game. In a broken and sinful world, we are called to proclaim the Word of God purely and to administer the sacraments rightly, rather than simply "grow" the church for the sake of growth. Nonetheless, the decline of the ELCA must be taken seriously. When the membership situation gets worse and worse at an increasing rate, we must step back and examine what we are doing and how we are doing it.

As Christians, we have received the immeasurable gift of God's love and salvation. We must not continue to become ever more ineffective and irrelevant in proclaiming the Good News.