The Future of the Missouri Synod

The Missouri Synod will have a convention this summer, and that raises an important question. The question that hits me and should be on the mind of everyone in the Missouri Synod is this: What is the future of the Missouri Synod in the United States? And that is part of a larger question: What is the future of confessional Lutheranism in the United States? There are other Lutheran church bodies working in the U.S., and that second question also pertains to them as well. Here I will focus on the first question with an eye toward the second question.

Right now, the future of the Missouri Synod in the U.S. does not look very promising. Our numbers are down. I remember when our total number was at 3 million, but now it is at 1.7 million. And we all know that typically at least 50% of a total number is inactive. So the real number is probably more like 800,000 active Missouri Synod Lutherans. Our number of congregations is down from 6000 to 5700. I heard that 25% of our congregations worship fewer than 25 persons on an average Sunday. (If that is inaccurate, I am happy to stand corrected.) We are facing a huge clergy shortage and teacher shortage and church worker shortage, and it will get worse if the present trends continue. The makeup of the Missouri Synod is getting older and grayer. The future of the Missouri Synod in the United States does not look very promising.

The current Synodical demographics do not correspond well with today’s demographics in the United States. The Synod is fairly strong in the middle of the country, but most of the country lives on the two coasts and in the South. Synodical congregations and schools are generally located in suburbia and small towns, but 50% of the United States lives in crowded urban areas. The Synod can fairly be described as middle class, but a lot of the country is lower income. Most of our members are of Germanic or Norwegian ancestry, but today 20% of the country is Latino, 12% is African American, 7% is Asian American, and many other ethnic people groups.

We are a small shrinking church body, and there is a mismatch between our Synodical demographics and the country’s demographics. Given the current status quo, the future of the Missouri Synod does not look good. What does this mean? It means that instead of resignation the people of the Missouri Synod should put on their expansionistic glasses and think in innovative ways about how to expand our presence, how to bring confessional Lutheranism to the masses of people throughout the United States according to today’s demographics. There is nothing sinful about being middle class and of Germanic or Norwegian heritage. But the good people of the Missouri Synod do need to ask how to reach Americans of lower income and in urban areas and people of different ethnic backgrounds. And the good people of the Missouri Synod cannot expect the clergy to do all the work. The laypeople have to step up and take some ownership of the future of the Missouri Synod in the United States. The rank-and-file Missouri Synod Lutherans have to put on their expansionistic glasses.

Here we need to think theologically. Confessional Lutheranism is simply about the preservation and spread of orthodox Christianity, nothing more. The mission is about bringing the pure marks of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church to the masses of people in the United States: the pure gospel regularly preached, baptism taught and practiced according the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper taught and practiced according to the Scriptures, the Sacred Scriptures including all 66 books taught in their truth and purity, and the Trinitarian Faith as confessed rightly by the ancient ecumenical creeds.

It seems to me that the people of the Missouri Synod gathered in convention this summer should be continually engaged in the question of expanding. We all need more confidence in the causative power of the pure gospel, the causative power of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the causative power of the Scriptures, the causative power of the creedal Faith to produce hearers who love the pure gospel, who love baptism and the Lord’s Supper, who love the Scriptures, who love the one true Trinitarian Faith. We all need more confidence in the causative power of the Holy Spirit through the Word to work on the hearts and minds and lives of all kinds of people today in the United States living in different places and of different income levels and with different ethnic backgrounds.

Certainly, the United States today presents an extremely challenging and complicated context for the Missouri Synod and in fact for all confessional Lutherans. Nevertheless, the people of the Synod should reject resignation to our shrinking status quo. Now is not the time for hunkering down and circling the wagons. The people of the Missouri Synod in convention this summer instead should put on their expansionistic glasses and ask how to bring the truth of God to the masses of the United States according to today’s demographics with confidence in the causative power of the Word.

Frankly, we adults can learn from the Sunday School kids. The Sunday School kids have it right: “This little gospel light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Hide it under a bushel? No! Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine all the time (and everywhere), let it shine.”

Dr. Paul R. Raabe

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25 Comments

  1. Robert July 6, 2023
    Reply

    The Missouri Synod has no widespread TV presence to teach the mission about bringing the pure marks of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church to the masses of people in the United States. Narrow-casts online and radio are fine but a mass TV media presence is needed. New channels with sub-channels are appearing constantly. So, someone is watching these channels otherwise they wouldn’t be launched. At the end of each Missouri Synod TV program should be an invitation: ‘to find out more, please visit a local LCMS congregation in your area’.

    • Chris July 26, 2023

      Hardly anyone under age 65 watches TV anymore

    • Sue P Wilson January 13, 2024

      I agree with another post that young people are not glued to the television anymore and those who would watch a Lutheran channel are generally over 80 and confined to home.
      We at Gloria Dei, Urbandale, IA have found that contrary to television visibility, simulcasting worship and studies; providing up to date weekly podcasts and video bible lessons do work. During the pandemic we averaged 1,100 watching complete simulcast services. As the pandemic slowed we welcomed 189 new members due to our presence on multiple social media options.

    • Robert January 14, 2024

      65-plus is a growing demographic.

  2. Justin July 7, 2023
    Reply

    This is an incredibly despairing article. It recounts the decline in members without any reflection, and then proceeds to regurgitate the talking points of the “Woke ideology” it purports to reject in delivering the message that the future of the LCMS is not with those who are in it but in those who are wholly different than those who are in it. And this is the irony of ending with a reference to our Sunday school kids who are not the right demographic for our expansionist interests.

    “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children.” Psalm 13:22

    And what is that inheritance that a good man leaves if not the faith of orthodox Christianity? I seem to recall we did a study on this, and when LCMS members can be bothered to have children, they fail at keeping them in the faith of orthodox Christianity (let alone in the LCMS). The sorrow of those “older and grayer” members when they recount that their children and grandchildren are not in the faith is heart wrenching, and their hope that they will return is admirable. Yet, I don’t see the synod focusing on those members, those lost sheep, or even the little Sunday school sheep we have. Much more is spent (both in words and resources) on missions somewhere else to someone else.

    Do not lose hope for those 50% who are inactive or those thousands of lost sheep within our own families. Demand that our synod and churches do more to find those lost sheep and keep the sheep we have. But no, a fervor for expansion to different demographics because we are resigned to the loss of what we have and had is not the answer.

    • George P Zehnder 27 days ago

      The LCMS is still selling ‘Heaven Insurance” instead feeding the Sheep.

  3. Susan Patterson July 7, 2023
    Reply

    Great article! We receive the gifts of God, and we should take those gifts and reach out all around us to freely give them away!

  4. Dr. Mark J Schreiber July 7, 2023
    Reply

    I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit and tone of Dr. Raabe’s blog especially the following statement:
    “Given the current status quo, the future of the Missouri Synod does not look good. What does this mean? It means that instead of resignation the people of the Missouri Synod should put on their expansionistic glasses and think in innovative ways about how to expand our presence, how to bring confessional Lutheranism to the masses of people throughout the United States according to today’s demographics.”
    I offer the following “novel” response for the new “expansionistic glasses” and “innovative ways” we should think about missions:
    Build a new seminary completely devoted to evangelism within the LCMS as a parallel vocational path equivalent to the pastoral office. The gift of the evangelist is clearly listed as a separate gift in Eph. 4:11 and is not subsumed under the pastoral office. In the curriculum of such a seminary the missio Dei would be studied and applied fervently to reach every demographic group in the US. Imagine if the Synod could crank out 50, 75, or 100 graduates per year to work hand in hand with local churches across the US to reach a generation of Americans lost in drugs, booze, narcissism, wokeism, virulent atheism and agnostic agendas. The average LCMS pastor does not have the time to combat the darkness of these cultural sins let alone penetrate the darkness while he is simultaneously taking care of his own God-given flock. Penetrating this darkness is a full-time effort, that is why a full-time fully trained confessional Lutheran army let loose on the streets of our cities, our plains, our suburbs and every other venue you can think of could be the beginning of a tsunami of righteousness and salvation for this nation (and the world). There is no honest interpretation of Eph. 4:11 that can dismiss the office of evangelist as an office only intended for the early church and not for the church in every generation. The only question left to the church is how highly we rate this office and implement it vis-a-vis the missio Dei. Dare we be brave, courageous and innovative walking arm in arm creating an army of evangelists in synch with the missio Dei?
    The LCMS is in desperate straits. We are losing our membership and our Concordias. Without a new evangelism vision born from God’s Spirit the LCMS within a decade will be as irrelevant to the US culture as the Amish community that surrounds the Fort Wayne seminary, if we haven’t arrived there already. May the Lord of the church grant us such a vision and the will to implement it.

    • Rebecca Epple July 13, 2023

      Absolutely love this idea!! Also ways to reach out to youth. Bring back the international youth tally! Make it strong!

  5. Larry Vogel July 10, 2023
    Reply

    Thank you, Dr. Raabe, for reminding us not only of some sobering realities regarding LCMS membership, but especially for reminding us of “the causative power” of the Gospel. That is a central aspect of the beautiful theology of our confessions. In the 16th Century our fathers took courage from the Holy Spirit to confess before kings. Today, we need courage to confess before the nations. As you put it: “We all need more confidence in the causative power of the Holy Spirit through the Word to work on the hearts and minds and lives of all kinds of people today in the United States living in different places and of different income levels and with different ethnic backgrounds.” Thank you once again.

  6. Eloy González July 10, 2023
    Reply

    Dear Dr. Raabe – may the Lord increase your tribe. There are places where I’ve seen us do somewhat well in mission work, at least compared to the past. But by and large – you nailed it with your observations. My sense is that, in so many ways, we as a denomination seem to be more concerned with form rather than function. We’re also deeply divided, perhaps more than what seems the irredeemable divisions that afflict our body politic. At this summers convention my fear is that we will have arguments and conflict over matters that will make our demographic dilemma even more challenging in the years to come – and not only with the growing ethic communities, but also with the younger generations that make up substantial portions of our overall national demographic mix. May your words of wisdom go from your “pen” to God’s ears, and back to our synodical, district, and congregational pastors and lay leaders! I’m grateful for your thoughts, brother!

  7. Rev. Toby Byrd July 11, 2023
    Reply

    Mission, mission, mission, but mission for the LCMS clergy and laity does not mean to bow to the altar of unionism with synergists, which seems to be the primary focus of most mission work in the LCMS today. In the guise of “Church Growth” we see an alarming desire to focus on what the heterodox evangelicals are doing. We send so called evangelism teams to conferences comprised solely of synergists, to those who deny the efficacy of the Sacraments and focus on their free-will or works righteousness, so they can create “coffee shop churches.” Churches without altars, without pulpits, without lecterns, without communion rails; all replaced with praise bands and sing-along tv monitors. No hymnals, no Lutheran hymnody, no traditional liturgy . . . and yet we think we’re preserving Lutheran orthodoxy? Foolish. If we truly want to add to the Church catholic, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, then let’s focus on what we believe, confess, and teach. Let’s focus on our rich traditional worship with Divine Services, chants, Lutheran hymns, every Sunday communion, real preaching of Law and Gospel, real preaching of the “Theology of the Cross.” Stop trying to build “new” congregations with sorry, worn-out heterdox forms of worship followed by the synergists which neither proclaim Law or Gospel. Let us return to our roots and find the foundation of our faith.

    • Eloy Gonzalez July 12, 2023

      Rev. Byrd – perhaps these paragraphs in Dr. Raabe’s reflection eluded your consideration: “Here we need to think theologically. Confessional Lutheranism is simply about the preservation and spread of orthodox Christianity, nothing more. The mission is about bringing the pure marks of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church to the masses of people in the United States: the pure gospel regularly preached, baptism taught and practiced according the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper taught and practiced according to the Scriptures, the Sacred Scriptures including all 66 books taught in their truth and purity, and the Trinitarian Faith as confessed rightly by the ancient ecumenical creeds. It seems to me that the people of the Missouri Synod gathered in convention this summer should be continually engaged in the question of expanding. We all need more confidence in the causative power of the pure gospel, the causative power of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the causative power of the Scriptures, the causative power of the creedal Faith to produce hearers who love the pure gospel, who love baptism and the Lord’s Supper, who love the Scriptures, who love the one true Trinitarian Faith. We all need more confidence in the causative power of the Holy Spirit through the Word to work on the hearts and minds and lives of all kinds of people today in the United States living in different places and of different income levels and with different ethnic backgrounds.”

      Dr. Raabe advocates no departure from biblically orthodox Lutheranism. What he is advocating is taking that biblically orthodox Lutheranism beyond the demographic we have become accustomed to serving. That this may be done in ways that seem different to folks that have become used to doing this in the formalized setting of nice congregations, with padded pews and air conditioning, altar railings and appropriate chancel decorum, takes no power away from the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Table. I’ve seen faithful Lutheran pastors preach and teach in cardboard shacks with pews consisting of planks across upside-down five-gallon buckets. Hopefully that is not something that offends our sensabilities, but rather elicits praises to the living God for taking the Gospel beyond what our own, often self-imposed limitations, would allow. At the end of the day, Dr. Raabe is simply advocating for us to engage the what our Lord commanded in Matthew 28:16-20.

  8. roo_ster July 11, 2023
    Reply

    Dr. Paul R. Raabe prescribes the same medicine taken by the Boy Scouts of America the last decade or so. (BSA also saw a decline in its enrollment and was under attack by the ruling class for a its morality out of tune with the morality of the ruling class.) BTDT and all my old BSA T-shirts have been worn such that my wife tossed them into the rag bin.

    Step 1: Gradually accommodate the organization to ever-degenerating ruling-class norms (gov’t, mega corps, academia).
    This keeps BSA/LCMS on cordial terms with the ruling class (and its lawfare practitioners/money-men/donations/etc.), but accelerates the flight of the lower-case “O” orthodox out of BSA/LCMS and toward organizations that are less likely to sacrifice orthodoxy for good relations with the current rulers.

    Step 2: The organization goes beyond accommodation and inculcates the morality of the ruling class as its own, forsaking orthodoxy & the remaining orthodox members in its policy, bylaws, etc.
    Though pockets of traditional BSA/LCMS practice and organization remain (churches, troops, packs), the upper echelons have made ruling class morality their own new morality. Deviation form the new morality is punished. Yet more orthodox members leave. This is where the Mormons, long a huge component of BSA) checked out of BSA. The Mormons were 20% of the members of BSA, but provided nigh 40% of the volunteers.

    Step 3: In the face of an accelerating decline in membership, corporate leadership seeks new members more in line with ruling-class & corporate sensibilities (instead of re-dedicating itself to orthodoxy and its members & former members’ children–all of whom still exist outside BSA/LCMS).
    Here is where the wheels come off. The remaining orthodox had held their nose at the smell coming from on high. Also, THEIR local leadership (troop/pack leaders, church ministers) had deftly steered through the turbulence of membership decline and corporate accomodation of contemporary mores. The remaining orthodox set to the new task and quickly burn out because there are so few orthodox left (the orthodox disproportionately volunteer) and the new targets of corporate leadership are much less inclined to volunteer, once members. For example, the large local end-of-school BSA event where I regularly volunteered is less than 1/3 the size now. The constraint is not lack of the shiny new preferred target demographic, but the number of volunteers available to make it happen. The Mormon volunteers are gone, the evangelical volunteers are gone, and the orthodox Lutheran volunteers are gone. There is not enough ruling-class cash to hire enough workers to fill the void. Besides, the ruling-class objective regarding BSA has been attained.

    Dr. Paul R. Raabe’s prescription has been tried and found ineffective, save as a palliative as the organization dies around its leadership.

  9. Benjamin Ball July 12, 2023
    Reply

    Dr. Raabe-
    Our Sunday School kids in Hamel sing Lutheran Hymns, this past Sunday they all sang “Come Follow Me, The Savior Spake”. It is no surprise that as we have lost Lutheran piety, fortified by Lutheran Doctrine, we have lost Lutherans.

  10. Renato Hoerlle July 12, 2023
    Reply

    Dr. Raabe, thank you very much for this reflection. I translated it into Portuguese and have already shared it with pastors and leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil.

  11. Rev. Toby Byrd July 12, 2023
    Reply

    Rev Gonzalez, what you say is true to a point, but the issue is WHERE IS THE CONCORD? Many mission efforts in the LCMS shy away from orthodox Lutheranism. Much is Lutheran reductionism. A classic case is “virtual communion.” But that was only one anomality is a lax communion practice that is wider than we want to admit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that much of the mission effort is a partnership with synergist. By seeking their “church growth” evangelism methods, the message conveyed to the Lutheran in the pew and the potential new member is what the synergists do and say is okay. This is contrary to Lutheran doctrine, confession, and the LCMS constitution. If we want to grow the LCMS, then let’s get back to confessional Lutheranism. Presently we have a divided church: the confessionals and the not so confessionals. If we truly want to grow the LCMS, we need to repair this divide. How we do that has yet to be determined. But from all appearances we have a Formula of Concord situation that rather than being addressed, is being allowed to fester. It will not have a happy outcome.

  12. Rev. John Hohe July 13, 2023
    Reply

    Thank you Dr. Raabe! I am heartened when theologians of our Synod see and speak to this issue. For me, I am reminded of the statement “when there is a let up, there is a letdown.” Certainly, there are demographic factors (aging population and fewer children born) but I sense that at times too many of our churches and perhaps nationally have “let up” when it comes to outreach. When I entered the ministry of the LCMS 40 years there was a much desire and emphasis on getting God’s message of salvation out into the community. I sense since then there is a let up. May we all pray that God’s word would not be fettered but be joyfully proclaim more widely so that more would come to trust in God’s saving message.

  13. Paul Raabe July 19, 2023
    Reply

    The Church has the twofold task of preserving the true Faith and spreading the true Faith. Both preserving and spreading need to take place at the same time.
    With the New Testament epistles the apostles were preserving the Faith while in the process of spreading the Faith,
    and while spreading the Faith new theological questions came up. My hunch is that before Corinth the apostle Paul never had to deal with the question of
    whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. Both preserving and spreading the Faith should happen simultaneously, and both require theologians and theological thinking.

  14. Tracy July 21, 2023
    Reply

    Well said Dr. Raabe. The busy Lutheran Churches near me reflect the historical immigration of Lutherans to this area, and the traditions continued by their descendants. That will only continue if the theology also reflects the needs and considerations of the wider society, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ teachings, to serve others consistently and diligently. We cannot expect only our own needs to be met then wonder why new people are not included. As for labels like ‘woke’ being used cynically as criticism and mockery “…strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” comes to mind, Christianity *is* social justice and kindness, Jesus was both progressive and a radical. Do we trust fully the strength of our faith to make people welcome and share our communities or do we want them to shrink as the older people are gone and younger people go to the non-denominational churches or find their own niches where they can be heard?

    Christianity will go on, but not necessarily all denominations.

  15. Chris July 26, 2023
    Reply

    Why is the goal to pull in new demographics first, rather than try to get back the ones who have fallen away. Jesus came to the Jews first, and the Lutheran church should try to win back its congregants first before giving up on them on pursuit of worldly DEI initiatives.

  16. Matt November 25, 2023
    Reply

    The church has clung so tightly to tradition it has failed to adapt to the current culture it finds itself in. This has nothing at all to do with the biblical soundness of the teaching but simply the presentation. The focus on keeping schools running and not simply to reach our community with the good news of Jesus has in many cases shifted the focus inward and to a scarcity mindset for far to long in my view. You will find many examples of growing churches in the USA to learn from. I pray you can before it’s to late. After 35 years In the church body I attend a different church that differs only in style, but still send my 4 kids to the school.

  17. Robert December 21, 2023
    Reply

    “2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

    I’m under 40 and considering joining the LCMS because it hasn’t changed. Most other denominations have lost their traditional roots with mega screens, rock bands, and unbiblical doctrine. If the LCMS wants to grow stay true to the Gospel, preach it, and pray.

    For an example of what not to do you can look at the Episcopal Church/ACC. Oh how I wish we still had the church of CS Lewis.

    • Justin December 22, 2023

      As a member of an LCMS congregation, I would certainly encourage you to join the LCMS. But I would also caution that you do so for the right reasons. A mistaken belief that it hasn’t changed is not a good reason. The LCMS certainly has changed in its history, and quite a bit since the 60s. And some congregations have changed more than others. No church or church body will be perfect, and what is needed is good men to steer them in the right direction, which is sometimes to correct some of the errors from changes over time. What gives me hope for the LCMS is not a mistaken belief that they have somehow avoided the errors of other church bodies, but that there are many younger men coming up in the LCMS that don’t just want to join what is already in place, but put the work in to make it better than what was received.

  18. Rev. George P Zehnder 27 days ago
    Reply

    The LCMS is dying; that God’s judgement for not caring about all people. The 2 Concordia Seminaries are to “make Theologians, not Pastors! ”
    ” Theologians are judged by their words; Pastor’s are judged by their Life!

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