“Will my grandchildren have a place to go to church?”
As I travel around our synod, I am often asked questions like that. WELS members see their local congregation aging and perhaps getting smaller every year. They learn of a WELS church in the next town that had to close its doors and hear rumors another nearby church will soon do the same.
So, naturally, they wonder. When their children or grandchildren are older, will there still be a WELS church in the area that they can attend?
The challenges facing WELS are not unique. American Christianity has been in decline for 60 years. The decline caught up to WELS about 30 years ago.
For the first 140 years of WELS’ existence it grew almost every year, peaking at over 421,000. But since 1990, WELS has lost members almost every year. At the end of 2017, WELS had 359,000 members, a decline of 62,000 souls from WELS’ height.
Also troubling is that the rate of decline is accelerating. In the 90s WELS lost approximately four-tenths of one percent of its members each year. Since 2000, WELS is losing just over one percent of its members annually.
WELS still has almost 1,300 congregations nationwide; however, if nothing changes, in two generations WELS would be down to only about 500 congregations. In just one generation, WELS would lose another 73,000 members.
This isn’t about WELS, however. It is about the gospel. It is about souls.
When a congregation closes, the tragedy is not that a beautiful old building is lost, but that a center for gospel proclamation no longer exists. Moreover, the work WELS does collectively depends upon our synod having a strong backbone of congregations to support those joint efforts: opening new home missions, sending missionaries around the world, and having a strong ministerial education system. If that backbone of congregations crumbles, it adversely affects our worldwide gospel efforts.
As I mentioned, the rate of decline is accelerating. Therefore, the time to act is now.
That is where WELS Congregational Services comes in.
Congregational Services exists to help congregations engage in faithful and fruitful ministry. The six commissions within Congregational Services have worked together to produce an extremely aggressive five-year plan to help WELS congregations meet these challenges. We are calling it For the Generations to Come.
The plan has two components: “open the front door” and “shut the back door.” Let me explain.
We need congregations to more widely “open the front door.” In other words, we need to increase our evangelism efforts. We want to proclaim the gospel to more souls, so that the Holy Spirit might pull more people into the Church. Each of the six commissions is developing resources to aid congregations in that effort.
- The Commissions on Lutheran Schools and Evangelism jointly developed Telling the Next Generation, a program that trains congregations in how to utilize preschools and elementary schools for evangelism.
- The Commission on Congregational Counseling is developing resources to help rural congregations revitalize their ministry, possibly by teaming with other WELS congregations.
- The Commission on Special Ministries is expanding evangelism efforts to those with special needs: the developmentally disabled, the blind, the imprisoned, etc.
- All the commissions are working to produce C18, a synodwide initiative that has the goal of reaching one million souls with the gospel on Christmas Eve 2018.
We also need to “shut the back door.” A “back door loss” is when a member simply slips away from church. Over the past 20 years, WELS has averaged approximately 8,000 back door losses each year, close to a quarter-million members total. Following are some of the efforts to “shut the back door.”
- The Commission on Discipleship is developing programs aimed at increasing family devotional life and the spiritual leadership of fathers, by far the two most influential factors in retaining young Christians.
- The Commission on Worship is producing resources that will help congregations achieve the next level of excellence in their worship.
- The Commission on Congregational Counseling has produced Ministering to Millennials, a program that helps congregations take steps to retain those younger members.
- The Commissions on Evangelism, Discipleship, and Lutheran Schools are jointly working to develop an apologetics curriculum to prepare our young people to face the humanistic worldview they will encounter at secular universities or in the workforce.
These are just a fraction of the initiatives underway in the comprehensive plan to “open the front door” and “close the back door.”
We need your help.
First, we need your prayers. Any increase in faith or statistics is the work of the Holy Spirit; however, the way the Holy Spirit typically works is through believers as they share the gospel. Please pray that Christ Jesus would give us the strength and the courage to increase our gospel efforts.
Second, we need your service. When I talk about increasing our gospel efforts, I am not talking simply about the 1,400 pastors and 2,400 teachers. I’m talking about the 359,000 saints within our church body. We might be down in size, but that is still a formidable spiritual army! We all must strive to do all we can to serve our dying world with the life-giving gospel.
Finally, we need your support. For the Generations to Come includes plans for dozens of programs and initiatives to “open the front door” and “close the back door” over the next five years. These new resources will be disseminated in two ways: through an online resource center we are building and, when necessary, through on-site, one-on-one consultations. To carry out everything we hope to accomplish in that five-year plan, Congregational Services would need an additional one million dollars in gifts. We humbly ask for your help.
A gift to For the Generations to Come is unique in that it has the potential to help your local congregation as it makes use of the programs Congregational Services provides. It would also have a substantially wider impact, helping us in our effort to stabilize that backbone of WELS congregations, which enables us to conduct worldwide gospel ministry.
If the Lord of the Church would bless our increased gospel efforts, it would not take much to reverse things. Just a slight reduction in back-door losses and a slight increase in adult confirmations would mean large, long-term blessings. That is up to the Holy Spirit.
But again, the Spirit does his work through us. So, for the sake of the One who did all he possibly could on the cross for us, let us do all we can with the gospel: nurturing our children and grandchildren and reaching our community with the Savior’s truth and love.
As we do, we have Christ’s promise to be with us. He has been with us in the past. He will be with us for the generations to come.
Director, Commission on Congregational Counseling