Last month’s Lutheran Witness had a slate of articles that I was slightly shocked at. I want to explore some of that shock and some of the theology underlying it.
Here is a chart that basically spells out the problem (the chart is my compilation, pastors usually aren’t great at numbers and synodocrats don’t like publishing clear data)….
What you can see is that births per 1000 women in the US (I’ve looked at white, non-Hispanic because that is what most of the LCMS was/is) took a dramatic swing down from 1960 to 1980. Somewhere around 1970 it went below the magic “replacement rate”. What that means is that the white, non-Hispanic population of the US is shrinking. It will be smaller in the future than it is today. Communicant Membership is roughly a 10 year stagger. The LCMS by-and-large starts communion around the 12 years old. So the highest birthrate in 1960 leads to the highest communicant membership in 1970. It has been downhill since then.
That downhill slope hasn’t been that dramatic because of the other fact of our modern world – we live longer. Less kids in at the base gets mitigated by less deaths than might have been expected. The population gets older. But we can only extend those years out so far. We have more late 70’s and more 80’s and maybe even a few 90’s, but barring a major scientific breakthrough in longevity (which could happen, remember those ages in Genesis, we could find the genetic switches and a treatment), barring that breakthrough we can’t really extend that. What happens is what we currently see – a cliff. People are go-go, until they don’t go. Eventually that last major birth cohort casts off this mortal coil and we have a smaller church in a short number of years.
From the viewpoint of the church universal (the one, holy, catholic and apostolic) this might not be much of a problem. The church shrinks in the west and grows in Africa, Asia and South America. Just because whites stopped having kids doesn’t mean everybody did. From the viewpoint of American denominations this is disaster. From the viewpoint of a denominational pastor it is troubling. What that chart means is a vicious funnel for pulpits – barring a couple of things I’ll look at in this series. I can see myself about age 55-60 with churches closing left and right begging for that job at Wal-Mart or on the used car lot (because let’s face it, after 20 years in the parish at that age what would I be able to get?) and the retirement fund of the denomination that I’ve paid into for 20 years saying “sorry, we’re broke, thanks for paying for the retirement of the generation before you who caused the mess.”
Now to start setting up the problems. The first answer to any such problem could be evangelism. If we have this problem we could solve it through committed and concentrated evangelism of those who don’t look like us right now. But there is a problem with that. Those who don’t look like us, or who weren’t raised within a particular tradition, often have novel and interesting ways of carrying on the tradition. That fight that my grand-dad started, and left it to my Dad who bequeathed the vendetta to me just doesn’t carry the passion for a convert. If we were smart we’d learn from that, but we are not. Instead we moan that the newbies aren’t “confessional” enough. They obviously don’t have the pure doctrine because look at what they sing in worship, pray, hold their hands, etc. Unless you are committed to adapting your traditions to a new context, you just won’t convert enough. And if you aren’t, you compound the problem with internal doctrine wars. Which is exactly what we have seen since 1970 – the battle for the bible, worship wars, the battle for the liturgy, church growth “heresy”, missional.
Right now in the LCMS a strongly confessional faction is in political power. They got elected largely campaigning on being “your grandfather’s church”. Now smartly when they say such things they are adding they are grand-dad’s in the vein of doctrine and theology – not larger social things. Nobody likes to think that doctrine changes or theology changes. And some parts of it – like the creeds – don’t. That is what the Roman Catholic Church calls the deposit of faith. But if I take a look at the “doctrines” that my grand-dad followed: no usury, no life insurance, no birth control, no women in any leadership positions, no official women teachers, questions if English was a possible language, questions over just how kosher this democracy thing is, the list could go on… God the Father is still the maker of all things visible and invisible, God the son is still born of the virgin Mary and ruling from the right hand of the Father, God the Holy Spirit is still active in the Christian church and the communion of saints. The end note here is that churches tend to hold way too much as inviolate doctrine that is really just expression not of Christian identity but LCMS or Denominational identity. As the old joke goes – the seminarian leaves the home church loving Jesus and comes back loving the church.
So, faced with an inability to adapt practices to a new people due to “confessional/doctrinal” reasons, those in power must come up with some “solution” to the problem or at least appear to offer something. Enter the Lutheran Witness issue. Quoting from President Harrison,
Our LCMS birth rate mirrors that of the broader population of the US which is at an all-time low. So, how do we best encourage our young people to treasure marriage and have children? How do we make the point in a freeing and Gospel-oriented way? How do we encourage those capable of having more children to do so? How do we take concrete action in our congregations to care for children and encourage young parents…be fruitful and multiply. It can be a God-pleasing act to have a large, loving orthodox Lutheran family…
I think you can see what the correct doctrine and solution being offered is (hint, it looks like your grand-mothers existence). So, what I want to do in this series is look at some of the theology (which isn’t all crazy) behind the baby push. Now I’m the father of a very traditional family of three (ok, compared to what they are talking about we are slackers), so I do want to support it where I can as a true option, but I also want to look at some of the theological ugly side (i.e. if babies are gifts, and you aren’t having them, what does that mean), and I want to look at how that might not be the case.
Warning note, this series is me thinking out loud. I’m highly likely to be inflammatory and inconsiderate and make everyone mad. Because this is the true fault line in our culture, and I won’t agree with the LW expression enough for the confessional to feel comfortable, but I’ll be too natalist (especially in one area) for moderns to take. I’d love to hear your comments through-out this series, because it is in the living were this doctrine takes form.