A Geographical Mismatch

In this short piece my point is simple: there is a geographical mismatch between our church body and the population of the United States. Most of the congregations and schools of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) are located in the middle of the country and in rural areas, but most of the population lives along the two coasts and in large metro areas. The obvious question is:  How will that geographical mismatch change?

By speaking of a geographical mismatch, I am simply belaboring the obvious, an obvious realization that needs to be openly and honestly admitted to ourselves. The mismatch is nobody’s fault. No one needs to get defensive. It is understandable in terms of history. The history of the LCMS has principally taken place in the middle of the country. Therefore St. Louis is the home for the LCMS headquarters and one of our seminaries, while our other seminary is not far away in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Most of the Synod’s colleges and universities are clustered in the upper Midwest.

Yet, if the history of the situation is understandable, today’s geography poses the conundrum. The demographic data are readily available. California and the New York metro area together comprise over 18% of the country. The ten largest metro areas are: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore-DC, San Francisco Bay, Boston, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, and Miami. Lutheran congregations and schools are not very numerous in these large metro areas except for Chicago.

How will this geographical mismatch change? There is no easy solution, no magic wand. To be sure, we as a church body want to continue to be strong in the middle of the country and become even stronger. But we also need to find ways to start hundreds of churches and schools in other parts of the country. It will take more pastors, a lot more pastors. This year our seminaries had to leave calls unfilled. It will also take a lot of money targeted toward the two coasts and the biggest metro areas. Maybe we need a new non-geographical district whose sole charter is to begin additional new churches and ministries and schools in the largest metro areas.

I’m sure there are better ideas out there. Facing the challenge will require creative, out-of-the-box thinking and planning. People in their 20s and 30s should be recruited to participate in this discussion as they understand today and tomorrow better than anyone. By the way, the slogan “Wir bleiben beim Alten” does not refer to polity or ecclesiastical organization.

As biblical, creedal, confessional Lutherans, we face many challenges in the United States of 2017 and beyond. Underlying many of these challenges is simply the geographical mismatch between the location of our churches and schools and the population of the country. The more that challenge is on the radar screen the better. In 2017 and into the future, LCMS churches and schools have to be there where the masses of humanity are. Any ideas or suggestions?





22 responses to “A Geographical Mismatch”

  1. Micah Schmidt Avatar

    Thank you for this post. As someone who fits your 20-30 year-old description, and who grew up in a city on the West Coast (Tacoma), it’s nice to hear someone even mention this.

  2. Patrick Rooney Avatar

    I love the power of our current, predominant residential experience for seminary. But what if we had “satellite campuses” at our Concordia Universities? Not unlike the CMC at Irvine, but certainly doesn’t have to be that ‘narrow’ of a focus. Would allow for more feasible access by more potential seminarians, not to mention the opportunities to ‘contextualize’ the experience. Of course, we don’t have a Concordia in every metro area (why not?), but it could be a good start if there are facilities and/or faculty readily available. But perhaps professors at both current seminaries could be utilized as well, so that the curriculum was a hybrid of residential and virtual classes and experiences.

  3. Tim Avatar

    As our country becomes more and more fragmented, I believe we need to view the U.S. like we do most foreign missions. That is, we need to specifically train people for a geographic location. We are not as homogeneous as we think we are. There are significant differences from one area of the U.S. to another. We need to take these differences seriously. Just placing pastors anywhere in the lower 48 and expecting them to survive is not very viable at the moment. At least, not without specific training for the region they are being placed in. I’m in Nebraska, and the District here is diligently working to do this type of specific training. However, we’re always reactionary, only training after a pastor has been placed. We need to be much more proactive in this area. This is not a silver bullet to the issue, but I believe it is a realistic way to start addressing a serious problem.

    1. Paul Raabe Avatar
      Paul Raabe


      Good observation. Into some areas that have not been worked previously, missionaries will have to be sent to figure things out from scratch.
      Then they can train others on how to work in those areas. U.S. missionaries can learn from foreign missionaries on how to enter into an area
      for the first time. There is no quick fix.

    2. Stormy Greer Avatar

      I agree Tim! When the Rocky Mountain District (RMD) – LCMS decided about 5 years ago that their mission efforts in the RMD were not effective so the mission efforts were pushed into the circuits under the banner of “Gospel Gaps”. The Denver Northwest circuit took this challenge and after evaluating several geographic possibilities, we settled upon placing a pastor in mission in Arvada (plus NW Denver), even though there are 3 LCMS churches in Arvada already. Why? Because we looked at the claimed membership of all the Arvada churches (not just LCMS) verses the total population of Arvada – it was less than 25 percent. The pastor was from a local congregation but could not do effective mission work due to demands of the congregation (which I suspect would be the case in almost all of our congregations), but for the last three years has been able to do outreach in northwest Denver. In addition to his own mission work, he has been able to minister to vacant local LCMS churches with the purpose to help them with their outreach. Praise God that the Holy Spirit has blessed his efforts!

  4. George Zehnder Avatar
    George Zehnder

    It’s positive to hear the problems facing my beloved LCMS. I grew up in metropolitan Cleveland went to a primary Lutheran Schools and Lutheran West. My grandfather taught in the city and was an organist in the largest Lutheran school in the 1920’s in synod. We reached out with missions in store front churches to the German immigrants working the steel mills and grew. In the sixty’s and seventies the district mission executives started missions in the suburbs for racial reasons. Race was and is an issue in the LCMS body. I served inner city congregations and was looked down by my peers. Districts and Synod offices abandoned the cities to follow the money moving out into the suburbs as did most mainline denominations. In the last 10 years, 98% suburban and rural LCMS churches are declining. The Lutheran churches in the city are large dinosaurs. Ironically, my children and moving back into the urban center. The central city the is hottest growing real-estate and the LCMS hierarchy abandoned it. We already have 2 non-geographical districts; why do we need another? The problems facing our church body were caused by our church body. Don’t we teach that death leads rebirth, LCMS has to accept it’s death to be reborn.

  5. Aaron Smith Avatar

    “Facing the challenge will require creative, out-of-the-box thinking and planning.” I think you’re right here, Dr. Raabe. Sadly, creative, out-of-the-box thinking is often not valued. Even worse, some equate creative, out-of-the-box thinking with Lutheran unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness, I think, would be a refusal to see the vast sea of people on the coast without faith in Jesus as those whom Jesus seeks to redeem. Supporting, equipping, cheering, and praying for the people of God on the coasts to be creative in reaching that vast sea of people would be welcome to many of us on the coasts. I would welcome this, rather than the suspicious eye I feel we often get. I am thankful for those who do support, equip, cheer, and pray for us; I pray God softens my heart toward those who don’t.

  6. Rev. Jonathan P. Priest Avatar

    From my study of religious bodies in Brooklyn, NY and Seattle, WA. I have come to believe that the two governing factors which dictate the presence of the church are migration patterns and the cost of real estate. Churches grow in size and wealth when their core population grows in size and wealth. They decline when their core population relocates or declines in wealth. The growth of pentecostal churches in Brooklyn correlated with the rise in immigration of Hispanic populations. Likewise, AME and Baptist churches increased when African American populations grew after WWII. Of note, like a fast moving wildfire, there was a large muslim population 1 mile away for 10 years. Then it vanished when the bulk of that ethnic group relocated to queens. As these populations come and go, they will influence and catechize outsiders by proximity and frequency of interaction.
    A helpful resource which studied these trends in gentrifying communities in the past decade and in which my former congregation is cited is Ecologies of Faith in NYC: The Evolution of Religious Institutions, edited by Richard P. Cimino, Nadia A. Mian, Weishan Huang.
    The core populations which comprise the LC-MS are either suburban or rural lower middle class Caucasians with the largest percentage coming from the Midwest. Although my evidence is anecdotal, I believe there is a growing trend of temporary migration to the large metropolitan coastal areas for this group while they are single or dual-income with no kids. In short, young midwestern LC-MS college graduates relocate to urban centers to get a leg up in their chosen field of work. After three to seven years they desire to have families, but because the cost of living is too high they relocate to more affordable urban areas. These are smaller-tier Midwestern cities which are conveniently much closer to their extended families.
    One strategy which is often proposed is to “have more children.” I agree (read Mary Eberstadt’s “How the West Really God”.) But factors apart from sexual desire often determine where those who value being middle class will want to have and raise children. Migration and real estate dictate where that numerical growth is most likely to happen which is much less likely in urban coastal areas due to cost of living and available space.
    So what can Missouri do to become more present in urban areas given coastal urban costs and the migration patterns of its largest component population?

    1. Existing congregations which receive LCMS ‘transients’ and who discuss these factors up front can help them discover a vocation to serve as short-term missionaries for their local church. They make friendships with other recent migrants more quickly than settled populations. Their friendships tend to be more diverse economically and ethnically and even across generations. These friendship become places of intersection with the Gospel through which God converts from unbelief to faith in His grace.
    2. Existing urban congregations should prioritize keeping a social and physical presence in urban areas the scope of which is proportionate to their assets. Some churches will be able to leverage their assets through collaboration with other corporate groups. In effect they act as landlords who maintain their property through lease agreements, etc. Other churches may choose to divest their assets and rent space. Some urban churches will reconstitute themselves together as one church with three locations (cheaper healthcare!). Again staff and property costs will determine feasibility.
    3. New and old congregations could be planted or re-invigorated financially by getting into the housing market. Many churches in gentrifying neighborhoods are sold and turned into luxury apartments, their presence erased. Congregations remain and could redevelop their property with assistance from LCEF to create mixes of affordable housing and luxury housing with worship space built in the center. This has been done in areas of urban blight as well. Lutheran examples include: The Nehemiah Houses in Brooklyn, Better Living Communities, St. Louis. Most recently an ELCA Lutheran and famous travel writer Rick Steves has shown how one person can leverage their Retirement Nest-Egg to create affordable housing: https://www.ricksteves.com/about-rick/trinity-place

    These objective of these three strategies is the same: to create and fund a space which enables Christians to live and love in coastal urban areas. It assumes that Christians will corporately worship the Lord, give witness to unbelievers, and serve their neighbors in love. The strategies are simply means to enable the church to be church in coastal gentrified urban areas. The paradigm change is that in urban areas Christians will need to engage in a collective tent-making task as opposed to the suburban model of pooling the wealth from their personal tent-makings.

    Rev. Jonathan P. Priest

  7. Mark B. Avatar

    I put my longer reply here – http://www.saintmarkslutheran.org/2017/05/06/vanity-of-vanities-a-reply-to-a-note-about-the-lcms/

    Shorter, there are a bunch of hard truths that the LCMS would need to confront before such a moonshot could even be attempted.

    1. Paul Raabe Avatar
      Paul Raabe

      I hope readers will read your longer reply. What will younger pastors do who are frustrated with the system? One option would be to leave and start their own church body. “Oh boy, that would make 21 Lutheran church bodies in the U.S.” Pardon my sarcasm but starting another Lutheran church body in the U.S. would be just plain weird. Another option would be for the pastor to ignore the church body and just do his own thing. But then, why even have a church body? Maybe that question needs attention. A third option is to work within the system to make things better. I want to encourage that option. By the way, what triggered my blog was not seminary enrollment but the sem’s recent call service. Again this year almost all the calls for the graduates are to the middle of the country, almost none to the coasts.

  8. Jeff Gibbs Avatar
    Jeff Gibbs

    Any number of Lutherans could begin to make a personal sort of impact by transferring their memberships to an urban congregation, and belonging to God’s assembly in Christ there. Not everyone could do that, of course, but more than a few faithful church members who current belong to suburban congregations could do it. And, if more people would, then resources would move into the ministries of those urban congregations, and good things might happen closer to where more people are.

    1. David Lewis Avatar

      As one who accepted the call and the challenge to serve in an urban setting after 25 years of being in a suburban context I’m often asked what by suburban churches and leaders what would be the greatest impact. My answer is always the same 2, 3, 4 or more families who would commit to becoming a part of our congregation, serving, loving and being present in our neighborhood and community for a period of three to five years. If able and willing, moving back to the city would make their presence even more effective. In our current revitalization/rebirth situation the resource that is most needed and takes the longest to develop is spiritually mature equipped leaders who can help mentor and raise up indigenous leaders

    2. Jason Taber Avatar
      Jason Taber

      I respect you and your thoughts, but I don’t know about this–at least if moving membership does not also include physically moving oneself to the neighborhood. In my short experience in my Brooklyn neighborhood (Jonathan Priest, whose comments above and below are excellent, preceded me) I’ve found that my neighbors are heavily guarded toward people–even the Pastor!–acting in (or upon) the neighborhood who are not incarnationally a part of it. Partly that is influenced by the experience of gentrification, often expressed as someone else “taking over our neighborhood,” but also it seems to be due to a real sense of “we can take care of ourselves.” I agree with David’s comment below: long-term presence and commitment, along with resources, is what is needed.

  9. Rev. Jonathan P. Priest Avatar

    Dr. Raabe, encouraged me to add additional examples of restablishing a base for ministry, based on my service in Brooklyn and now Seattle. However, all of the following can be reduced to one element: a group of believers who commit to live and love together in close proximity with nonbelievers in a specific location through sacrificial offering of time and money. Think monasteries.

    For example, Dr. Gibbs idea has been modeled by many church planters. In particular, Williamsburg Brooklyn saw an influx of church plants which adopted this specific model. I developed friendships with several of the lead church planting pastors.

    Williamsburg Church, a non-denominational church with a Presbyterian heritage, was planted by a core group of young adults (20’s – 30’s) who relocated from a southern state, procured employment, and rented apartments. Their intention was to pool the resources from their individual vocations to start a new church. I believe they were also subsidized by some home congregations initially. While it has weathered several changes since its inception, it has maintained a steady congregational presence for a decade. It has also been successful not merely in attracting those 20-30 year olds who might have fallen away but also receiving adult converts to the faith.

    Another example, an Atlantic district deacon and I were able to establish a foothold in a Spanish speaking neighborhood by gathering former members of an LCMS congregation, parterning with Lutheran Social Services of NY to start a local Foodbank, holding Saturday ESL classes, and most importantly celebrating the Divine Service on Saturdays. At one point we had approximately 20-30 regular attendees (not huge, but after 0!). After about 2011, this project was brought under the supervision of a congregation closer in proximity than my own.

    A third example, An ELCA congregation, St. Lydia’s was planted in Prospect Park through the leadership of Rev. Emily Scott. She collaborated with members of other ELCA congregations, a community organizer, several artists and musicians, and began a church with the goal of socializing newcomers around the dinner. Her ‘dinner church’ expanded from a service in an apartment to two well attended weeknight services.

    A historical example but which bears out the same pattern: My Brooklyn congregation St. John’s was actually a new congregation start in 1952, by the former assistant pastor of the white-flight congregation which moved to Glendale Queens. Rev. Richard Klopf organized the remaining members and passionately canvased the African American population moving into the projects. By the time Rev. Richard John Neuhaus arrived in 1961, the congregation was small but healthy and growing. By God’s grace a few who relocated to Brooklyn from the South had strong LCMS backgrounds (the brother of Rev. Richard C. Dickinson) and helped form the core of the kat leadership. In addition, young activist LCMS college students from the Midwest relocated to live side by side during the Civil Rights movement.

    I continued this pattern of seeking college students to help as interns in developing ministry with the congregation although on a much smaller scale. Part of this pattern meant redeveloping the church parsonage into multiple apartments. As a result, we were able to house in succession an intern, a vicar, a CRM pastor and his wife (who found a call as a result), and a deaconness.

    In urban areas (poor or gentrified), space is at a premium. It is an essential asset to making intersections with the neighborhood population. In Brooklyn, we redeveloped our church basement into a center for housing workshops, a meal program, an afterschool program. In Seattle, we use our church lawn to throw three large neighborhood meals (we provide the food, entertainment, and kids activities). No fundraising-no direct evangelism. The intent is to meet and talk with our neighbors about life and for them to talk with each other (you’d be surprised how little that happens).

    As one can see from the examples above, even churches who do not articulate the Gospel as clearly as we do, can plant. They do so through small groups of believers (lay, commissioned, ordained) who commit to the task. As I have written there is a growing sense in my mind that we do not have as many church plants for three simple reasons:

    1. I don’t want to be poor so I won’t give or move or commit.
    2. I can’t be rich enough to live there.
    3. I never knew that we had permission to take steps to start a new congregation where we live.

    Rev. Jonathan P. Priest

  10. Skip Vogel Avatar

    Political or non-political, these are the facts and the questions are the rights ones. Their answers are critical.

  11. Bill Hartley Avatar

    * I noticed at the call ceremonies at both St. Louis and Ft. Worth how few of our new pastors were sent to larger population centers. About half were sent to be associates. It seems to me that meeting the felt needs of who we already are is more important to us than mobilizing a missional church to reach the lost.

    * Luther said of seminarians in his time … “Why do they not rather go into the cities … and confess and support their doctrine there before evil princes,…and theologians in the universities, as we have done by the grace of God? These…are not willing to take any chances but move into places where the Gospel has already established itself and where they can live without danger and in great tranquility.”

    * I’m thankful for our current leaders in our urban areas. They have big hearts and visions to reach the cities – but the laborers are few. Let’s pray with them that the Lord of the harvest will raise up the needed workers.

  12. Deus Reva-Latte' - Wir sind alle bloggers Avatar

    I am born and raised in the LCMS Northwest District. I have lived in three of the 4 states in the district, served a parish in Alaska and currently Oregon and I am proud to be from here.
    That being said, going to seminary in the Midwest was a harsh and cruel awakening for someone who had been raised atheist in an extremely pluralistic society. As somebody who arrived in St. Louis already “knowing everything I needed to know about Pastoral ministry” I was given a very cold glass of water right in the face. I was bombarded with something new… a Christ-centered Gospel that didn’t care for my business model view of Church. The Seminary didn’t attempt to waste my time by trying to teach me fresh and innovative ways to engage the culture. No. Men like Dr. Feuerhahn, Dr. Nagel, Dr. Rosin, Dr. Oschwald, Dean Rockemann, Dr. Saleska, Dr. Maxwell, Dr. Biermann, Dr. Raj, Dr. Peter, Dr. Brighton and Dr. Weiss decided to spend their time teaching me what we believe, teach and confess. Midwest Lutheranism is a vital component is preparing Pastors for ministry in ANY setting. That is really all a Seminary should do.
    Translating the ministry is going to fall on the Pastors. Regardless of the setting, a humble pastor with a sincere desire for true Word and Sacrament ministry is already equipped for any situation because their primary call is to bring good things to sinners.

    Now, a lot of people want satellite seminaries in my salt water region. A place where they will immediately attempt to “contextualize” everything. In the end, we’ll have a vital part of the Seminary experience lost. A part that says “you may need to leave your own context for a little while in order to better address it”. If that could be maintained in the salt water regions, I would completely sign on. For now, I am rightfully skeptical but also cautiously hopeful.

    Rev. Brandt Hoffman
    Pastor and School Director – Christ Lutheran Church and School
    Coos Bay, Oregon

    1. Patrick Rooney Avatar

      Thank you for your perspective, Brandt. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way – removal from the context in order to better appreciate/address/serve it. That was certainly of value for me (from CA, now in OR), though I had yet to put my finger on it.

  13. Scott Avatar

    Years ago I mentioned the online seminary. Nobody wanted it. I asked about a local/regional “seminary” possibility, with local clergy as the instructors. The person i asked about it responded as though i suggested something evil. I get it. The LCMS has no stomach for independent, imaginative reflection, unless it’s highly controlled.

    1. Deus Reva-Latte' - Wir sind alle bloggers Avatar

      Perhaps they didn’t think it was “evil” per se, but more of a misunderstanding of Seminary. Rather than just a knowledge bank (as an online option provides), Seminary is a place for koinonia and formation. Something bigger than knowing many facts, At least that was the experience I and many others have reported having.

      Rev. Brandt Hoffman
      Pastor and School Director – Christ Lutheran Church and School
      Coos Bay, Oregon

  14. Scott Avatar

    It was a very vehement reply as though I had no right to bring it up. I get it.

    1. Deus Reva-Latte' - Wir sind alle bloggers Avatar

      In the scheme of things, I am a big NOBODY, but in my opinion, it is a conversation that needs to be discussed. I think it is wrong to say or do anything that would imply you had no right to bring it up. I utilized partial online learning to get my bachelor’s degree and I have a different degree in Computer Science (Emphasis on Web Development and Database Development). I don’t personally fear technology, but I also know where it can find limits in the human experience.

      Rev. Brandt Hoffman
      Pastor and School Director – Christ Lutheran Church and School
      Coos Bay, Oregon

Leave a Reply