What’s happening in Minnesota and around the country to Lutherans and others today is what is happening to SBC churches tomorrow.
Most Americans still report that they are Christian, but the worshipers in the pews on Sunday increasingly have gray or white hair. The median age is older than 50 for nearly all mainline Protestant denominations, according to the Pew Research Center, a national polling and research group in Washington, D.C. For Catholics, it’s age 49.
“It’s just a matter of time before many congregations won’t exist,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which has examined religious life for three decades. “In the next 20 years, you’ll have half as many open congregations as now. It could be more devastating for certain denominations.”
Church attendance has been declining for decades nationally, but the pace appears to be accelerating. Since 1990, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and United Church of Christ have lost nearly half their national members. The ELCA has lost a third. The Catholic church still shows membership growth, but has 2,000 fewer parishes today, according to Catholic studies.
A record one in five Americans now report no religious affiliation, according to Pew. But membership doesn’t always translate into people abandoning Sunday morning coffee to attend worship. Catholic and Lutheran surveys indicate about one in four church members actually show up each week.
Not every denomination or church is fragile. Some smaller evangelical denominations in Minnesota, such as Assemblies of God, and some megachurches report continued growth. But as a whole, even membership in the evangelical churches has plateaued, according to the Hartford Institute and other studies. “There’s not a lot of good news in all these numbers,” said Kenneth Inskeep, the national ELCA’s longtime statistician. “The model we have used — a church, a pastor and a commitment by people to support the enterprise — is getting harder and harder to maintain.”
Every Church member who makes a habit of staying home, of not participating, of not contributing, of not working, of not witnessing, of not praying, is voting to close the church they attend. And it will happen sooner rather than later.