Friday, October 18, 2013

Lutherans: Move Beyond Ethnic Enclaves or Die Out

The following chart shows how many ELCA congregations there are in each state. 25% of all ELCA congregations are in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. 40% of all ELCA congregations are in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin. To be clear, the population of those four states makes up 11% of the U.S. population. Which means 40% of our churches are strategically located to reach just 11% of U.S. citizens.

Another way of saying it is that 40% of our churches are located in 8% of these United States. I live in a state (Arkansas) with 21 ELCA congregations, which means we make up less than .5% of the population of our state, and there are vast regions of Arkansas where you might have to drive 50-100 miles (or more) to get to a church in our denomination. I enjoy being the leaven rather than the lump, but nevertheless our overall distribution as a denomination in a multi-cultural and diversifying and growing nation concerns me.

In some ways, this chart is not surprising. You could overlay it over a history of U.S. immigration in the 19th century and it's a close match. Scandinavians tended to move to Minnesota and Midwestern states where Lutherans are densest. German Lutherans settled in large numbers in Pennsylvania (as did Slovak and other Lutherans albeit in lesser numbers). 

Apparently, the difference is that Lutherans moved into their new ethnic enclaves in the United States and then stayed put. They neither developed strong regional or national missions, nor continued to migrate in significant numbers to other parts of the country. Nor did they do what evangelicals and Roman Catholics and Pentecostals have done much more successfully, which is become indigenous to our country and not tied to specific ethnic communities. 

I think this pattern is replicated by some other ethnic-centered denominations such as the Reformed and Moravians, but I haven't analyzed stats on those denominations.

I don't mean to say that every Lutheran has to move out of Pennsylvania and Minnesota in order to be in mission. God's Spirit calls some but not all to that kind of mission. But certainly I think God calls more of us than are currently taking up the call. 

I also don't mean that we can't connect with ethnic communities different from the ones we originated in only by moving. If you do ministry in any major urban center (or these days even a small town like Postville, Iowa) the opportunities from cross-cultural engagement are immense.

Another Crazy Idea: Orphan Trains

A friend who pastors Kaw Prairie Community Church near Kansas City, Missouri (68 ELCA congregations in MO, definitely more leaven than lump), had this crazy idea lately in our ELCA Clergy group below. I think he gets it at least in part from his engagement with Exponential, a group of evangelical church planters who often inspire their own members to move to new places in the country to which God is calling them to plant new congregations.
Kaw Prairie CC is a committed-to-growth, weekly-communing, contemporary, bi-denom congregation (ELCA and PC-USA). Our vision is "to be a disciple-making, reproducing [ie, satellite-planting] church where the passionate find their purpose, the struggling find support, and the skeptical find their Savior"….all the while having a vibe that’s "casual on the outside, serious on the inside, changing lives with Jesus' love."

Dan wrote: 

Seeing Clint Schnekloth's post on MN v. PA church density reminded me of a curious chapter of American history. Back in the mid-1800's a phenomenon called Orphan Trains carried trainloads of homeless, orphaned and abandoned children from big east coast cities for the west, to give those kids a chance to live and work with families on the prairie who had farms or future prospects but no or few children to help them get there.

I wonder whether there might be ELCA congregations around the country who might likewise prayerfully decide "to send their assets west" in a similar fashion. If there were healthy sister churches close by for their current worshipers to migrate to, struggling but faithful congregations could sell their assets and send them cross-country to more prospect-filled church-plants, or to growing churches with more vision than money. Like the heartbroken parents of the children who went west, who likely still had a holy consolation knowing the future could be brighter for their children somewhere far from home, faithful churches facing long odds could rejoice in knowing their trust in the Resurrection was sufficient to part with their treasure in a long-distance way. The difference would be now the sacrificing donor Christians could watch online as those assets took root and bore fruit in a more numerical way than even their faithful attempts at home could ever bring to bear.

Dan's idea is compelling and practical. I can imagine ELCA congregations also simply sending more of their own members out in mission to new locales, but the church is most church together when it shares not just people but also financial resources. Money is mission, there's no way around it.

For more crazy comments on why Lutherans are dying out, readers may also appreciate reading David Housholder's classic post, Lutherans Sterben Aus (Die Out):


  1. Thanks for posting, Clint. There is converging sociology here. The new link for "The Lutherans Sterben Aus" (which has moved) is >>

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