Rev. Jonathan Hein, director of the WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, has overseen a comprehensive demographic survey of WELS over the past two years, and he shared key findings with delegates on Wednesday afternoon.
After peaking in 1990 at more than 420,000 souls, WELS’ baptized membership has decreased by 14 percent. Communicant membership is down 9 percent. Four items were identified as contributing factors to this decline:
- Families today are having fewer children.
- The number of WELS members dying and going to heaven is increasing as the overall population ages.
- It has grown increasingly difficult to retain members, especially younger members. Since 1986, WELS lost between 240,000-260,000 members through removal/excommunication or from those members joining other Christian churches. These are sometimes referred to as “back door losses.”
- Fewer people are living in rural areas, and this is impacting more than 100 churches who now face the “50/60 challenge”—fewer than 50 people worship each week and the average age worshiping is above 60 years old.
As Hein notes, “When you hear numbers like this, it can be easy to grow discouraged. Don’t. Christ is still risen. He still sits on his throne, ruling over everything for the benefit of his church. Through Word and sacrament, he still abides with us.”
Last fall, Hein and the other members of the Congregational Services team met and discussed how to meet these challenges. “Obviously, some of the factors contributing to WELS’ statistical decline are beyond our control—for example, the rising death rate,” says Hein. “However, there are other areas where, by God’s grace and with his aid, we might be able to increase our gospel efforts—evangelism, decreasing back door losses, etc. Congregational Services has put together a five-year strategy that we pray helps congregations as they strive to meet these challenges.”
Highlights of that five-year strategy include:
- Creating a present-day mission emphasis—The Commission on Evangelism is developing a comprehensive evangelism curriculum that congregations can use to offer annual evangelism training and encouragement. Hein reminds us, “The results of increased evangelism efforts are entirely up to the Holy Spirit. However, if he would bless those efforts, it could make a substantial impact.”
- Better capitalizing on WELS’ historic strengths—WELS maintains one of the largest private school systems in the country. The greatest growth in the past 20 years has been in early childhood ministries, which often attract unchurched families. Only a few congregations have seen these families become members of their churches, though. The common factor among these congregations is a “harvest strategy” that includes regular contact with parents and a process of witnessing. The Commissions on Lutheran Schools and Evangelism have jointly developed a program titled “Telling the Next Generation: Utilizing Our Schools for Outreach” that helps congregations develop a zealous harvest strategy.
- Producing resources for Millennial outreach and retention—Several WELS organizations have been studying Millennials and their worldviews. Congregational Services would like to bring those groups together to compile a “best practices” list in reaching this demographic. This task force would develop resources to help congregations retain its young adults and to reach other Millennials within the community.
“This project is a central focus for our synod going forward,” says WELS President Mark Schroeder. “You’ll hear more about specific ideas and overall progress as the plan rolls out. Remember, we have the unchanging gospel . . . and that’s at the core of everything we do.”
Hein agrees. He says, “One of the catch-phrases we use in the Commission on Congregational Counseling goes like this: ‘If we are doing all we can with the gospel, numbers don’t matter.’ The challenges before us provide us with an opportunity to examine if we are indeed ‘doing all we can with the gospel.’ Let us view the challenges facing WELS as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the mission Christ has given us, to trust in the power of his Word and sacraments, and to rejoice in the privilege that God has given us to play a role in his saving work.”
Read Hein’s full report, titled “A demographic study of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” available online. Look for additional details in the November WELS Connection.
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WELS churches and schools featured in their local media.