Becoming Less Fruitful:
A Demographic History of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 1928-2008
A Research Report Submitted by Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D. to the President of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod
February 25, 2010
- Total baptized membership peaked in 1995 at 22,371.
- Membership increases have resulted primarily from the surplus of births over deaths.
- Persistent “back door” losses have exceeded evangelism gains.
- “Net evangelism” has been negative: the synod’s membership would not have grown were it not for a high birth rate that offset both deaths and “net evangelism” losses.
- A sudden and sustained drop in the birth rate during the 1960s has resulted in a birth rate that today is less than 50% of its pre-1960 average.
- Meanwhile, the death rate has increased since the early 1990s as the population ages.
- Baptized membership has declined 12% since its 1995 peak and may plausibly be projected to continue declining, likely at an accelerating rate, unless:
- the birth rate increases, tending back toward its pre-1960 level; and/or
- “net evangelism” becomes positive (new members exceed “back door” losses).
- Recent and impending membership declines present financial implications that likely will reinforce current trends toward bi-vocational ministry and intensify current failures to place vicars and seminary graduates; unless one or both factors identified in Item 7, above, are reversed, similar pressure to “downsize” could impact missions, Lutheran elementary schools, and Bethany Lutheran College.
- A higher birth rate may be encouraged by addressing one or more of the factors that have conditioned a sustained drop in the birth rate—and the attitudes behind them:
- delayed marriage;
- birth control.
- Efforts to increase “net evangelism” may prudently be focused on these two issues:
- How can pastors and the people assisting them draw new members into the church through the Means of Grace?
- How can pastors and the people assisting them guard existing members against the devil, the world, and their own sinful fleshes that would separate them from the Means of Grace?
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