If you were to have a conversation about the state of the church in America you would almost certainly end up discussing demographics to some degree. As we wrestle with the factors that have contributed to and continue to influence the decline of congregations, demographic information is sliced, diced, and collated in many and various ways. Given all of the attention (and blame) that demographic information is receiving, one might think that demographics are the root cause of the challenges that we face. However, like the proverbial details, we may well find that the devil is in the demographics.
There are some good and salutary uses for demographics. The story that they tell is a story to which we should pay attention. Ignoring or dismissing the tough realities in the demographics that reflect our church body and our society will only extend the decline of our congregations, districts, and synod. But making demographics the center and focus of our response to the challenges that we face in the spiritual landscape of contemporary America would be even more disastrous. So, Satan would love to have us be a church body that looks to demographics to guide its future.
When we get down to it, demographics can only report what God already knows. Whatever insights we may gain from the information that is gathered, processed, analyzed, and published, there has never been and never will be demographic information that informs the Lord. But more than fully knowing what the information is, God is fully in control of the situation that the demographics are reporting. The church is shaped by Christ. Demographics can only picture what He has formed.
From a secular perspective, the LCMS is burdened with some very undesirable demographics. Our membership is aging and made up largely of people of European descent. Over one-half of our congregations are in rural areas and small towns in a society that has migrated (and continues to migrate) to urban centers. Demographically speaking, the future is bleak for the LCMS. And that is the future that the devil would have us believe.
There’s no disputing these statistics and we’d be foolish to ignore them. But we’d be even more foolish to let them discourage us. There’s another way of looking at the demographics of the LCMS; one that is more faithful to our calling to be the church where we are in this time – and one that is far more encouraging. In this view of things we see the church, not as something misshaped and at the mercy of demographics, but as the body of Christ shaped for the mission to which He has called us.
Could it be that the shape of the church is precisely the shape it is meant to be in order to carry out the work that God intends for us? 1 Corinthians 12:18 certainly indicates that this is the case: “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose.” Just as the shape of a person’s body guides that person to pursue certain goals and endeavors, the shape of the church should guide us to pursue particular ministries through which we can carry out our call to be salt and light in this dark and dying world. True, we are aging. But that means we have a vast number of members who, in retirement, have skills, experience, knowledge, and time with which to serve our communities in a vast array of engaging ministries. True, we are mostly of European descent. But we live in an age in which many racial and ethnic barriers have dissipated and, by and large, the people of the generations we need to reach are far more concerned about justice, mercy, and authenticity than they are about heritage. And true, we are most strongly present in rural and small town settings. But millions of unsaved people are living in and moving to these communities – our communities. We are perfectly positioned to welcome them into our communities and introduce them to Jesus and His church.
Demographics are what they are. In and of themselves, they are neither good nor evil. How we make use of them, however, is a matter of sinfulness or faithfulness. If we let the devil be in the demographics, then we are certain to lose heart. But if we are convinced that Jesus is Lord of all, including the mix of people who currently make up the LCMS, then we will find in our demographics the vision, inspiration, and the resources to faithfully respond to His call to make disciples of people in every demographic category.
Questions to consider:
- What strengths and opportunities are there in the demographic make-up of our congregation?
- In what ways are the demographics of our community different than those of our congregation? How do these differences speak to our need to change the ways that we are currently engaging our community?
- How could we make better use of the demographic make-up of our congregation in planning our mission emphases and activities?