No, this is not the typical anti-youth gathering blog post that we’ve become accustomed to throughout these past few years. Nor is it a call for those who put together the LCMS National Youth Gathering to do something better, like say, have more cutting edge speakers. No, not at all. Rather this post is relevant to not just LCMS Lutherans but to all Christians in America. I, as an LCMS pastor, am just using this particular event as a spring board to write about what many would consider to be a pervasive problem amongst the church in America: decline.
In the days during and after the LCMS Youth Gathering in New Orleans I kept on seeing and hearing a number that was indicative of where the church in America is heading: 22,000. That is, 22,000 LCMS youth attended this past summer’s gathering. Now, immediately, we think this is a good thing that this many youth gathered around a theme centered on “In Christ Alone” and it is! But (and this is a big BUT!) if you are familiar with previous gathering attendance numbers that number may have been a bit disturbing. When I first heard that number I thought to myself, “Isn’t that low in comparison to previous gatherings?” For instance, I remembered that the gathering I went to in Atlanta in 1998 had somewhere around 30,000 kids in attendance and had as its cut off age those going into 10th grade (now the cut off age is 9th grade). Also, I was pretty sure that the gathering in NOLA in 2001 had even more than that.
So I decided to look those numbers up and what I found was quite disconcerting.
The years 2001 and 2004 continued the rise in attendance with 2004 being the peak year with 35,000 in attendance. After that attendance continued to drop with the exception of 2013 which had 25,000 in attendance which was 1,000 more than 2010’s 24,000. Now we come to 2016 which had 22,000. In other words, since 2004 the gathering has declined in attendance by about a third. Now, to be fair, I’m sure some are thinking, “What about Higher Things?!” Well, even adding those numbers it still doesn’t look good. For example, in 2011 The LCMS put out a press release about Higher Things (a more conservative gathering with an emphasis on traditional Lutheran worship) and achieving record attendance that year. The record attendance was 2,100. Now, I am unaware of their more recent numbers but their website notes that they are only able to have 1,300 kids at each event they hold which means that at most they will have 3,900 each summer. What’s more, there are some youth groups that go to both events so there is some double dipping and the age range for those who can attend is wider than the national gathering.
Ultimately, 22,000 is simply another reminder of what’s ahead.
I’m sure some may be expecting me to turn the corner at this point and start writing about what we should do to turn it around but that would be incredibly arrogant. I say arrogant because, quite frankly, the LCMS National Youth Gathering is probably the best thing that we do as a church body in terms of quality, production, worship, preaching, teaching, engaging and encouraging our youth in their faith. It’s a positive event and given our church body’s unhealthy love for controversy, fighting and backbiting this is a welcome reprieve if only for 5 days out of every three years.
Stanley Hauerwas once said something along the lines that the church in America dying is probably a good thing. In my not so humble opinion, I think he’s onto something. We Christians in the West have mostly enjoyed a place of privilege when it comes to our faith and our churches. Only until recently has there been much resistance to our way of doing things (and even that’s debatable). In other words, we were the legitimators of the status quo and the supposed binding force of our culture. Even today those vestiges still carry over from an era moving farther and farther away in the rear view mirror when a stranger holds the door for me because I am wearing my clerical collar. In other words, we’ve been in control a good long while and we’re just beginning to learn what it’s like to not be in control and we don’t know what to do with that. And so that control manifests itself in a myriad of ways that aren’t necessarily bad but might reveal a deeper ailment of the church.
Many of the mainline churches, including the LCMS, began to decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No one has been able to stem that decline. All kinds of efforts, programs, gurus, charismatic preachers have been employed to stem this tide and yet it’s only gotten worse. It seems as if there is a new celebrity pastor every few years that many latch onto for the key to making disciples and reaching the lost. From Rick Warren to Bill Hybels to Rob Bell to Mark Driscoll to Tim Keller to Tullian Tchividjian (did I spell that right?) to <insert name here>. Then there are the repristinators in Rome or in the LCMS that are convinced that if we go back to the old days we will be blessed with growth. On the flipside are those who want to forego the past and take Paul’s words to be all things to all people to an almost ridiculous extreme that turns the gospel into nothing more than a consumer product. Despite all of these efforts, despite all of these dollars, despite all of the workaholism under the guise of growing the Church the Eurocentric Church in the West is still dying. What’s more, the youth leave to never to come back again. This sure as heck ain’t your grandfather’s church nor is it your’s and nor is it mine.
And that’s what that 22,000 number is yelling at me. In many regards the LCMS National Youth Gathering showcases the best of the best of the LCMS from preachers to teachers to musicians and yet here we are, continuing the downward trend. Despite our best efforts we continue to decline. That’s scary, isn’t it? But that may be a good thing because it’s teaching us that we are not the ones who are in control. We are so used to having the perspective of the powerful, of the privileged that we forget what it is to be truly helpless, what it is to truly rely upon God. This is why Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor” or “Blessed are the meek” or “Do not be anxious” and rejects the patronage system of the ancient world. Jesus taught continually that greatness comes not from going up but from going down, going in the opposite direction of where the world tells us to go. Yet, we so easily think that by going up we will win more for Jesus, by doing things the right, perfect and best way it’ll bear forth fruit. And yet despite our best efforts, decline continues. That, my friends, should give us pause.
You know, we confess the Cross but do we understand that it was the Cross that was the most cursed and wretched place there was in the ancient world? Do we understand that this is where Jesus goes and the direction to which he bids us to go as well? Are we comfortable losing control the way that Jesus calls us to lose control?