Ways to be Lutheran: New churches experiment with polity

American Lutherans became a full part of American Protestantism just in time to participate in its decline. From its high of more than 9 million members in 1965, the total number of American Lutherans declined to just over 7 million in 2013, representing about 2 percent of the American population. Though Lutheran numbers generally plateaued through the 1970s and 1980s, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod have declined markedly over the past 25 years. The ELCA went from 5.2 million members in 1988 to 3.9 million in 2013; the LCMS declined less severely, from 2.7 million members in 1988 to 2.3 million in 2013. The decline in giving to the national programs and offices of these two denominations is also fairly dramatic, though more pronounced in the ELCA.

Besides suffering from the same negative demographic trends facing other mainline Protestant denominations in this period—aging membership and an inability to retain younger members—the ELCA since 2000 has witnessed the departure of nearly 500,000 members who have coalesced into two new and distinct centrist Lutheran denominations: the Lutheran Congre­ga­tions in Mission for Christ (2001) and the North American Luth­eran Church (2010). Though the scale of these departures is noteworthy in itself, this development is all the more interesting for the new patterns and new directions that these denominations are attempting to develop. Their rejection of the ELCA (and implicitly the LCMS) has forced them to experiment with new ways of being Lutheran Christians in the American context, and they are actively exploring these possibilities.

The older and larger of these two new denominations is the Lutheran Congre­gations in Mission for Christ, which had its beginnings in 2001 and now numbers more than 350,000 members in over 700 congregations in the United States. This group has its roots in the Lutherans who were troubled by the ecumenical agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in 1999, “Called to Common Mission.” Already disaffected within the ELCA, these Lutheran dissidents resisted the adoption of the agreement because they believed that it took the ELCA further in a centralized and clericalized direction. Losing this fight was the proverbial “last straw” for them, and many began the difficult and complicated process of formally leaving the ELCA.