Mark G. Schroeder
It’s January, and that means WELS congregations have tabulated and submitted their statistics for 2017. Those statistics track membership, worship attendance, baptisms, confirmations, members joining and leaving, as well as congregational finances.
It is no secret that total membership in our synod, both baptized and confirmed, has been on a slow but steady decline for more than a decade. A good part of that decline can be attributed to simple demographics, particularly in terms of the number of infant baptisms. WELS mirrors the trend in our society in which young people are marrying at a later age and having fewer children than in previous generations.
Even though WELS membership has declined, our synod has not experienced the large percentage losses of other Christian denominations. We are thankful for that. But the fact that our losses are not as great as others does not remove the concern about the downward trend.
Pastor Jon Hein, director of our WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, has prepared a detailed study of WELS membership trends. In addition to the demographic information mentioned above, the study addressed the “graying” of our synod, the number of adult confirmations, and the reasons why some leave our synod. Last summer he presented the study to the synod convention and outlined plans to help our congregations address these challenges.
Congregations will be given guidance and resources in many areas as they carry out their work of proclaiming the saving gospel. The various commissions of WELS Congregational Services will be working with those congregations to help them plan for the future in a way that will best serve God’s kingdom.
Three areas to be addressed seem to stand out:
● First, demographic changes have brought challenges to many of our rural congregations in the upper Midwest. Added to the fact that there are few young people to begin with, a growing number of young adults in rural congregations are leaving for education and work elsewhere. With decreasing membership, those congregations are finding it increasingly challenging to maintain their ministry.
● Second, the matter of members leaving congregations for various reasons will be addressed. WELS has always experienced this to some degree. Our examination of membership trends leads us to recommit ourselves to addressing this problem. It has always been the case that the greatest number of membership losses occurs with young adults in the years after confirmation. We are convinced that there are many things that congregations and parents can do to keep their young adults connected to and involved with congregational life.
Other “backdoor losses” occur when church members simply stray from regular worship and reception of the Lord’s Supper or when they are attracted to other churches outside of our fellowship. Congregations will be encouraged to take steps to address these losses.
● Finally, congregations will be encouraged to mobilize their members to become even more active in bringing the unchurched to their congregations to hear the saving gospel. Only with the blessing of God can we reverse our membership decline. Currently, it takes about 80 WELS members to produce one adult confirmand. If that could be improved to having one confirmand produced by 40, the downward trend in our synod membership would be reversed.
In the end, it’s not demographics and statistics that should be our focus and interest. Our interest should be in the souls that have been bought by the blood of Christ and in remaining faithful to holding onto and proclaiming the message of the gospel. As we address the challenges together, we look to God for the blessings that only he can give.
Learn more about Pastor Jon Hein’s study at wels.net/ccc.
Mark Schroeder is president of WELS.
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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 105, Number 1
Issue: January 2018
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