Sunday, April 2, 2017

500 Years After The Reformation, How is the Lutheran Church Doing?

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther launched the Reformation. How is the church that bears his name doing today?

Worldwide, not too bad. According to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the body that represents 145 Lutheran church bodies around the world, there were 74 million Lutherans in 2016, an increase of 2.1 million since 2013.

All of that growth, however is in Africa and Asia. that's where you will find the largest Lutheran churches—in places like Ethiopia, with almost eight million members, and Tanzania, with 6.5 million. 

The Ethiopian and Tanzanian churches have grown by 24 percent and 12 percent since 2013, respectively.

Overall there was an 11 percent increase in Lutheran membership in Africa, bringing the total numbers in the 31 LWF member churches there to just over 23 million. There was also an increase in Asia, where 54 churches saw a ten percent increase to 11.8 million members.

Things were not as positive in North America and Europe, however. 

In Canada and the U.S., the two LWF member churches declined by almost five percent, to 3.9 million. In Europe, there was a 3.8 percent decline to 34.7 million members in the region’s 41 member churches.

Here in Canada, there are two main Lutheran churches: The Lutheran Church in Canada (LCC), which does not belong to the LWF, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), which does.

Statistics released by the LCC in 2015 show that membership has fallen from 60,291 in 2014 to 58,745 in 2015. Membership has been falling since 1999.

Meantime, attendance at worship services has also been declining, with an average of 63 people in each of the church’s 301 congregations on Sundays.

Things are similar for the ELCIC. When it was founded in 1986, the denomination had 202,425 members in 665 congregations. In 2015 it had 111,407 members in 516 churches, with a sharp decline occurring in 2011 after the denomination authorized same-sex marriages.

For Matthew Block, Communications Manager for LCC and editor of its publication the Canadian Lutheran, and Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the ELCIC, the decreases are part of a larger downward religious trend.

“Like many churches in Canada, we are experiencing decline,” says Block. “Our church is smaller, as most denominations are,” adds Johnson.

But while the two regret the decline, they also see hope.  

“There are some positive trends,” says Block. “The face of Lutheranism in Canada is changing through immigration, and the church is growing in developing world. These are sources of growth and rejuvenation.”

The changes show that it’s “not a German thing or a North American thing or a White thing” to be Lutheran, he says. “It’s a gospel thing.”

For Johnson, there may be fewer people in the pews, but she sees “people going deeper into faith. We may have fewer members, but deeper members.”

Like Block, she is encouraged by how the church is growing in Africa and Asia. “It’s amazing how the church has grown and spread worldwide” over the past 500 years, she says.

She is also encouraged by immigrants who are bringing new life and ideas to the church.

“These new immigrants are forming new churches that enrich us,” she says.

And yet, they both acknowledge the challenges facing their denominations, including fewer dollars for various ministries.

“Churches can be stuck in their ways, saying this is the way things always been done, but it may not be the way it needs to continue to be done,” says Block.

Both agree that their denominations need to do better outreach. Churches need to be “more missional, outward focused, engaging the community and the world,” as Johnson puts it.

Looking ahead, Johnson says that her denomination needs to “see how the spirit leads us, we have to be open, pull up our bootstraps, do the best ministry we can.”

“The goal is to be a faithful witness,” says Block. “It’s not just about numbers, but reaching people with the love of Christ.”

For him, “the ideals of the Reformation are still core . . . but the way it is lived out today needs to be changed.”

From the April 1, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

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