The year is 2150, and the LCMS is gone… Almost…
It’s Sunday morning and an old man walks into a beautiful sanctuary adorned with stained glass, gorgeous iconography, and a large cross. He lights the Christ candle, and takes a seat in the front row as he speaks the words of matins to himself and sings the words of his favorite Hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This man is the last member of the Missouri Synod. After spending much time in prayer and singing a few more hymns, the man quietly leaves the sanctuary in peace, wondering to himself, “If God truly is our mighty fortress, how in the world did it get this bad?” It’s not that Christianity had gone away, globally it was on the rise and even in America, the nondenominational branch was growing.
What went wrong? How did this happen? What can we learn? What can we do? What does the evidence show us today?
Our kids fell through the cracks.
Current research trends show that nearly 80% of the kids baptized in the LCMS leave by the age of 20. The denomination’s very name points to a man who wanted the word of God to go out to the people, and who deeply embraced the most cutting-edge advanced technology at the time (the printing press) to help parents catechize their kids (think small catechism). It’s profoundly tragic that this denomination has a majority of their funding, man hours, and time all pushing for traditional media instead of experimentally committing to new forms of media platforms that kids and families are already on. In fact, even the creative things we do to help engage our youth and young adults like the National Youth Gathering are looked upon by some with deep skepticism, theological hesitation, and fear over what kind of disciples they will create, instead of recognizing that many of them are drifting away from becoming disciples at all.
What would it look like for us to shift from a position of theological hesitation to a position of theological proclamation in digital places we haven’t really ventured as a church body? Can Christian catechesis take place on TikTok? Can we better re-engage how we train our parents in their efforts to raise their kids in the faith? Can we give flexibility and permission to people in these spaces as they try new things and experiment, instead of dog-piling on any mistake they might make while learning?
We have married many of our methods at the cost of our mission.
The mission Jesus gives to the church is to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” For nearly 2000 years, that mission has not changed, but the expressions of what it looks like have changed. From love feasts and house gatherings to cathedrals and churches the mission has continued to go out and draw more and more in. Things have changed over the centuries.
In Paul’s day, there was no established seminary, there was no higher education. There was simply personal mentorship with accountability and follow-up to establish a church leader. Today in our church body, most of our roots to ordination require a bachelor's degree along with educational requirements of a master's tied to it. This process has helped create brilliantly smart pastors. But from an economic perspective, it’s also created a bottleneck for those who wish to enter ministry. What this means is that we have more of a demand for pastors in our churches than our current system’s ability to supply them with pastors, so hundreds of churches do not have a called pastor serving them.
This is an enormous problem. And surprisingly enough, this isn’t the first time we have historically faced this problem. When the founder of our synod C. F. W. Walther ran across a shortage of pastors in his day, he helped start the practical seminary in Ft. Wayne. The purpose of the seminary was to churn out well-formed and educated pastors as fast as possible. He was so convinced that the shortage of pastors was a problem that he ended up sending most of the first students out into congregations before they even started their second year. He saw the bottleneck and did what it took to overcome it.
See there’s a whole part of this bottleneck conversation we aren’t having. We aren’t raising up enough pastors to meet the demand just to equip our current churches with pastors. Unfortunately, this also means that we DEFINITELY are not raising enough pastors to start new churches and preaching stations. If pastors were currency, we could say that we aren’t raising enough money just to pay our bills, let alone to start investing in our future. Which means we need to ask an important question as we walk together.
What methods are we comfortable changing for the sake of the mission?
Are we comfortable embracing digital learning paths so that we can solve our pastoral shortage? Are we comfortable investing in new media formats so kids and parents can be catechized where they are at? Are we willing to have a conversation on where we want to go moving forward to better equip the saints for ministry? These things matter deeply…
Why? Because when 2150 comes, we want that church to be filled. We want our children’s children and many more to sing together through the work of Jesus “The Kingdom’s Ours Forever.”
Want to learn more about the future of the LCMS? Check out Joe’s presentation at bpm “Will the LCMS be gone by 2041?”