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This is the conclusion to the conclusion, the final part of my Themes of Healthy Community. Find the rest of the posts here:

Community built on trust, not fear

Community built on discipleship and mission

Community of transformed hearts and souls, growing mature in Christ

Community built on shared leadership

Community built on multiplication and sending

Based on everything I’ve seen, read and heard from Lutheran leaders across the country, I have reached a conclusion. Mainline denominations in general, and the Lutheran church in particular, are circling the drain. Given that dying congregations can persist for years, and sometimes decades, the denomination will likely persist for 20 more years. But that doesn’t change the long-term trajectory.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1988 with the merger of several smaller Lutheran denominations. When I went to a church-wide leaders’ meeting in 2005, I was shocked to learn that the budget hadn’t grown a single dollar in the 17 years since the ELCA was formed. What that means is the denomination has been making do with less each year, living in a world of scarcity, yet preaching the gospel of abundance. In my decade of walking through the halls of leadership in the ELCA, I found this paradigm of scarcity to be widespread, and debilitating.

Somehow we lost the focus on the main thing, Jesus' call to make disciples. Instead of focusing on how to revive discipleship across the denomination, ELCA leaders have instead chosen to fight for the last decade over issues of sexuality, causing a rift within the denomination. I just keep wondering, “What do these arguments, debates and policies do to further discipleship? Isn’t this whole debate focusing on us rather than Jesus?”

I believe a similar fate awaits all the mainline denominations in America today. Similar splits affected the Episcopal church, and the issues are roiling many other tribes as well. This long term emphasis on things other than discipleship has caused us to measure the wrong things.

So, what measures do indicate health and effectiveness in a church?

For years, I heard pastors say, "You can't measure the important things in church." I learned in business that what’s really important is often difficult to measure. So you look for proxies that indicate that the right things are happening. In the words of my friend Dave Daubert, often the proxies chosen are “butts and bucks”--the average worship attendance and the budget. These two may be proxies of health, but not necessarily effectiveness.

The research Willow Creek conducted, resulting in the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, showed that the millions of dollars they invested in programs drew thousands of people into their community. Yet most of these programs did nothing to help people become spiritually mature.

TAKE A MOMENT  How do you measure success in your church? Are these measures good indicators of health and developing spiritual maturity in the flock?

The prevalent evangelism strategy for the last several decades has been what you might call the “in drag” method. Get them in the door, dazzle them, and they will join. This strategy reinforces a culture of consumerism, and research shows that it is no longer working effectively. But it’s what people know. My old church built a new multi-million dollar sanctuary under the premise that, “If we build it, they will come.” Sadly, a couple of years later, the theory didn’t pan out. Almost no one new showed up, and the church is underwater trying to pay off the new building.

If you’re hoping to move your church off a plateau or reverse decline, I propose that you not measure success by simply counting the number of people at worship services and the donations received, but instead go much deeper.

Here are some questions that get to the heart of the matter:

1. How many of your leaders have committed to a spiritual journey into discipleship?

2. How many are in intentional discipleship groups

3. How many have completed a discernment process and claimed their gifts?

4. How many are using their gifts in ministry within the church?

5. How many are using their gifts in service to the community outside the church?

Even better, do the Reveal Survey in your church. It will give a wonderful picture of the spiritual health of your congregation, and provide ample opportunities to consider how to move towards health.

In a recent Gallup survey, only three percent of churchgoers felt their gifts were being fully utilized in their church. Isn’t that a sad state of affairs? So many times, our churches are unable to use the gifts of the members sitting in the pews, and that great potential for service and satisfaction in life (the two are closely related) is being wasted. 

I once attended a lifelong learning seminar for Lutheran pastors and lay leaders. I asked the 25 or so in attendance this question: “What is the purpose of lifelong learning in the church? Is it not discipleship?” The group was wrapped around an axle for more than a day before they could finally come around to endorsing this idea. How did the main thing quit being the main thing?

TAKE A MOMENT  What is the pathway to spiritual maturity in your church? How do you help your people discern their gifts and calling? Where does discipleship happen? Are the spiritually mature also the formal leaders of the church? In what ways are they mentoring and apprenticing others into discipleship?

As I stated earlier, 90% of ELCA Lutheran churches are on plateau or in decline. In most of them, there is no clear vision of the future, nor is there a clear path to discipleship and spiritual maturity. Members are not called out as judgmental elder brothers, nor are they crossing the inflection point where they realize it is not about me. In most of these places, there is no requirement that formal leaders also be spiritual leaders. And, with every major initiative needing to be approved by a majority of the congregation, paralysis is insured.A pastor who comes in and calls the church back to discipleship is likely to find a rocky path forward.

Imagine Moses asking the people to vote in the Sinai about his plans. They would have gone back to Egypt. Imagine Jesus asking the disciples for a vote on whether he should go to the cross. Yet, we expect the majority to confirm every major decision in our churches. So, just like so many of their own spiritual lives, their churches remain stuck and broken.

I heard Mike Breen of 3DM address a group of Lutheran churches in a learning community. He said, “You Lutherans are great at invitation, but find it very difficult to challenge. This confirms my observations across the church. Because so few of these churches offer both invitation and challenge necessary for discipleship, the elder brothers are never called out.

Take a Moment  Are younger brothers welcomed in your church? Are Elder Brothers challenged to repent of their good deeds? How do you create relationships with those outside the faith to let them see the light of faith in your life and church community?

Churches on plateau or in decline are often full of people with no heart for the poor or the unchurched. For post-moderns seeking authentic community, this is a complete turn-off. Until pastors are willing to challenge us about where we put our identity and help us realize that church is about what God wants and not what we want, nothing will change.

But because so many pastors are trained to be chaplains and not leaders, challenge isn’t wired into them. This points back to our process of equipping pastors. The mission at most Lutheran seminaries is to lay a solid theological foundation, rather than to equip pastors to lead or disciple. The reality is seminaries would much rather prepare academic theologians than courageous leaders for Christ.

Luther Seminary is by far the most progressive in my tribe, and the president is a wonderfully missional leader. The challenge is tenure. The faculty has to approve curriculum changes, and they have a strong stake in the status quo. Sadly, even in the most missional organizations, the focus shifts over time from the mission to the preservation of the institution.

According to Mike Breen, the Gospel was designed to be simple but hard. We can thank our theologians for making it complicated but simple. All invitation and no challenge means I can listen to my pastor and not do anything about it, and that’s OK.

TAKE A MOMENT  Are your leaders challenged to model spiritual maturity and to disciple others on the journey? Why not?

In my Lutheran tribe, there are 65 regional synods. Each synod has a bishop and a panel of lay leaders who selects candidates to apply to seminary. So even the seminaries are limited to the subset of Lutherans who have been vetted and approved to apply.

Since 90 percent of ELCA churches are not growing, most of those involved in the candidacy process have never been part of a thriving, growing faith community. Nor have they been part of a church with any real focus on discipleship. Consequently, the candidates they choose lack leadership skills or a commitment to discipleship. The seminary presidents I’ve spoken to about this admit their hands are tied. They have to work with who they get.

Is it any wonder that the pastors produced by this process think of themselves primarily as chaplains? After a decade working on leadership with Lutheran pastors, I’ve drawn the conclusion that only about 10 percent really resonate with the idea of pastor as leader. 90 percent are satisfied to be chaplains, inviting people but not challenging them.

So, by and large, Lutheran pastors don’t have the skills or heart to be catalytic leaders who can disciple others. Nor are they prepared to be change agents who can move churches off the plateau or reverse decline. Sending a chaplain to these churches is really just providing hospice care for the slow death of the congregation.

TAKE A MOMENT  Does Jesus ever shrink from challenging the people he encounters? Does he not model both loving people unconditionally where they are, and challenging them to repent and turn back to God? What would that look like in your life? In your church?

I spent a decade trying to rally leaders in the ELCA around the idea of discipleship and mission. I spent five years doing leadership workshops with my partners in the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, then another five years working to create a three-year leadership learning journey for pastors across the church. It nearly killed me. When I finally crashed and burned, I pulled the plug on my involvement in the Lutheran tribe and moved into my post-denominational phase.

Every organization that launches successfully has a life cycle: birth, rapid growth, maturity, decline and death. We cling to forms, even as the life slips away. I truly believe God is allowing the ossified structures of the mainline denominations to collapse from within. These are systems that have been experiencing entropy since the early ‘60s. As these inflexible structures break apart, the Spirit is released to lead us into new forms that are healthier and appropriate for a new millennium. The resurrection of the ancient/future church of discipleship and mission gives great hope for the future, but only for those who have eyes to see and a  willingness to let go of the past and embrace the invitation and challenge of Jesus as the cornerstone of an abundant life.

Update: In June, David Loce, one of the most respected Lutheran theologians around, posted a piece on his blog entitled- Five Reasons Denominations are Passe. Interesting finding agreement from a theologian at Luther Seminary, the flagship seminary of the ELCA.

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