A glimpse into the past (and future?) of the LCMS

Note: This blog is a portion of a larger essay I am giving at the LCMS Nebraska District Convention on June 9, 2012.

My colleagues and I at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, have a variety of good-natured debates over lunch. One of the re-occurring ones is whether or not the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) used the German language too much, for too long in our history. What would our history have been like if the 2nd or 3rd generation of LCMS Lutherans had converted to English and began to do evangelism in America among other English speakers? I find that our historians (especially Will Schumacher) make a convincing argument that it was fine for the LCMS to proclaim the Gospel primarily in German for four generations. For the next three to four generations, the number of German immigrants coming to the USA was remarkable. To find comfortable cultural surroundings in this new country, especially language, most certainly aided in spreading the Gospel, in baptizing children, in leading to the growth and spread of congregations throughout, especially, the Great Lakes and Midwest regions.  It is hard to argue with success. Within 80 years, from 1840 to 1920, the Holy Spirit called and gathered 1,000,000 confessional Lutherans who affiliated with the LCMS.

Then the American pressure to speak English became heavier.  WWI and WWII led to very understandable anti-German sentiment and LCMS congregations sought to fit into the milieu.   Plus the German immigrants stopped coming, at least in the huge numbers of before, so the internal reasons to continue speaking the Gospel in that language decreased.  At an earthly level one would think that the growth of the LCMS might have plateaued at that million mark of the 1920’s. But thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit continued to call and gather more and more to hear the Word and be baptized in this denomination we call the LCMS.  We grew to more than 2.7 million in the next 50 years from 1920-1970, more than 3 million if you count the LCMS congregations in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina who the Holy Spirit eventually gathered into their own synods between 1980-91.  But, for simplicity, let’s stick with the 2.7 million LCMSers in the USA. What led to this rather remarkable growth between 1920-70?

I took the time a couple years ago to begin a research study about the population growth of the LCMS between 1918 to 2008. The data I used were simply reported in the LCMS Statistical Yearbooks and Lutheran Annuals for those years.  We have averaged about 53,700 child baptisms per year over the past century. The number of those baptisms has not been evenly distributed. Let me show you a graph:

It is remarkable to see the infant baptism growth that happened within the LCMS during what we call “the Baby Boomers” generation.  Those of you who are in your 70s, 80s, and 90s now began, as a group, as a cohort, having babies in record numbers. Improvements in medical care also likely meant that the babies being born in these decades, my cohort, were surviving at much greater rates than in earlier decades. My wife works in the research department at Concordia Historical Institute. She has shown me church records from the late 1800s in which infant deaths and burials are recorded in numbers nearly as high as the older adult deaths and burials. I’m sure many of those infants were baptized and recorded as such, but the counting of them was not as systematic as it became after WWI.

(Note: The data were collected differently starting in 2000 by the Office of Roster and Statistics. Prior to that some sort of estimated data were included for several categories. After 2000 only reported data were included. The change in data collection led to a 20-25% reduction on various categories. What is difficult to determine is if the pre-2000 strategy was a serious overestimate or if the post-2000 strategy is a serious underestimate of what is happening in congregations.  The post-2000 declines should be interpreted with that in mind.)

The average adult confirmation/baptism rate for the LCMS over the past century has been about 21,300 per year.  Our two growth columns, infant baptisms and adult conversions, add up to an increase of 75,000 new members on average each year. About 72% of our growth was due to infant births and baptisms, about 28% from adult conversions (I’m not counting adult transfers from other synods or denominations).  During those years of high infant birth and baptism rates, the generation before us was also getting better at adult catechesis and conversion.

Notice where this line starts.  While we applaud and thank our 19th and early 20th century LCMS forbearers for the evangelism work among German speaking immigrants, and for clinging to a confessional Lutheran theology which they have given to us, their heirs, to be honest, do not appear to have been very good at adult conversions. Again, I assume this was because they were Germans reaching out to other Germans who were Lutheran at some level before they arrived in the USA, and because their English speaking neighbors were unlikely to convert both in language and theology.  But once English became the more common language of the LCMS, they slowly started getting more adult conversions until we see a post-WWII spike which continued into the early 1960s. I don’t have a statistical way to prove this, but my guess is that much of this adult conversion growth was from marriage conversions. As intermarriage with other Christians became more acceptable, the Lutheran spouse often convinced the non-Lutheran spouse to become catechized and confirmed into the LCMS. At least I know that my grandfather’s adult confirmation was about here (1931) and my father’s confirmation was here (1962).

I’d like to show you one more graph. It is the average number of adult confirmations per congregation. Be aware that congregation size (baptized membership) has stayed relatively constant, growing from an average in the low 300s early in the 20th century, to the low 400s throughout the last half of the century but trending down into the high 300s in the last few years. We often hear that half of our congregations have only 0 or 1 adult confirmands per year. That may be true, but this graph reveals higher averages:

In the past century we have averaged nearly 4 adult conversions per year per congregation, but again that has not been distributed evenly over time.  We were weak at it through WWII, got better at it through the 1950s, then dropped back into an average of about 4 again from the late 60s through the 1990s.  This drop below 3 in the past decade is probably a real drop, but remember that the Office of Statistics stopped including any estimated numbers in 2000, so we are probably slightly underestimating the true average, which may still be 3-3.5 per congregation. And remember that congregations smaller than 400 would likely have averaged fewer adult confirmands; larger congregations would obviously have averaged more.  Basically, the average over the past century has been about one new adult conversion per year for every 100 baptized members.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s we averaged well over 80,000 infant baptisms per year.  At the same time we averaged over 30,000 adult conversions. If we had maintained the birth/infant baptism rate we had then, by my calculations we would have approximately 1.1 million more members in the LCMS, or a total of about 3.4 million. If we had maintained the adult conversion rate we had in the 50s and 60s, we would have another 150,000 members, or a total of both over 3.5 million.  But that is not reality, only a wishful “what if.” We did not continue those rates.

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  1. Jaime Nava June 18, 2012

    It’s interesting to see the numbers posted above. On an earthly level, as Dr. Marrs mentioned, numbers may reveal much. But I wonder, to what extent do we consider the numbers? I may be wrong but I feel the dialog behind the conversation between moving from German to English and and the number of baptisms and confirmations is similar to the dialog we have regarding communication of the Church to the culture of the United States. Or, to put it another way, is the Church communicating with our culture? I have my own thoughts but I am curious to hear if I am even close to the running dialog that sparked the conversation in the first place.

  2. The Rev. BT Ball June 18, 2012

    thanks so much for doing the legwork here. Is is really helpful stuff.

    I would say the numerical decline of infant baptisms has much to do with the culture communicating to the church and the church taking it in wholesale. That is, LCMS Lutherans began and still do make use of contraception and there so were and are now fewer people born and baptized.

  3. Rick Marrs June 20, 2012

    Thank you Revs. Nava and Ball for your comments, as well as to the pastor who called me this week. If anyone is interested in reading the fuller context of this blog, the Nebraska District has posted the written version of both my essays at http://www.ndlcms.org/news/convention/final12.html. There I was asked to speak about reconciliation and renewal/revitalization issues. The blog above was part of the second essay. In that essay I did emphasize that the calling and gathering of the Church is all the work of the Holy Spirit, but that there are sometimes socio-cultural factors that He works through (like German immigration and post-WWII birth rates). I did posit socio-cultural factors that I think our generation needs to work faithfully with, namely reinvigorating the faith life of men (See David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going to Church), reaching out to the new Christian immigrants to the USA (which I know Rev. Nava has some special gifts for), and reaching out to young post-evangelicals who are looking for authentic congregations who are less political and more sacramental than their parents’ churches are.

    I also concur with Rev. Ball. There was considerable cultural pressure in the 1970s to 90s to have smaller families for “the sake of the planet.” Many Christians in my age cohort (I’m 53) bought into that pressure. I am glad that younger Christian families are at least now feeling greater freedom to have whatever size of family they believe is faithful to their vocations. The new immigrant families that I hope we in the LCMS are effective at reaching out to in the next generation tend to have larger family sizes than do many with Anglo-Germanic heritage.

  4. JOel June 25, 2012

    Any comparisons with other denominations? Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist etc?

    Simply by changing the language to English, I would not have expected that baptisms, and confirmations to increase or at least difficult for me to draw the same conclusion.
    But, what if we were to adopt Spanish now? Would we be positioning ourselves ahead of the curve as the demographic of the US continues to change? 😉

    It would be interesting to find materials or discussion from those time periods which you point to as shifting from German service to English service. what kinds of debate went on? were there dividing lines? what did they look like? or was it more subtle?

    thanks for the demographic overview, and providing it for discussion on the web.

  5. Sean Green July 25, 2012

    As a layman, I found this post to be pretty interesting. I understand that we can’t quanitfy the work of the Holy Spirit nor are we to focus on numbers. But what seems to be the case as I look at this (and correct me if I’m wrong in my thinking) is that our Lutheran fathers placed a big role on making disciples, evangelism, etc when they came here and through the early 1900’s then a shift became more of a generational discipleship where the emphasis was less on reaching the loss but more of expecting a family member to be baptized, get confirmed, get married, baptize their kids in that same church and years later have their funeral service at the same church?

    I’ve heard various pastors say this and we can look at a number of our older churches where the largest percentage of demograhics are over the age of 60. They grew years ago, many members joined, then there was a plateau for a quite a few years and then they start passing away with little growth to the church.

    I’m 30 and actually to my knowledge, have never met anyone in any of the Lutheran churches I’ve been a member of that have been converted to the Christian faith (and I’m also not discounting infant baptism) but rather there’s more lateral growth from the older generation seeking a more conservative church or people from different denominations joining the Lutheran church.

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