A few months ago, I came across a powerpoint slide that Beth Lewis, CEO of Augsburg Fortress Publishers had used as a presentation to a group of pastors at a conference in Florida. (Thanks to Beth Lewis for the slide!)
When I saw the numbers, in all honesty, it took my breath away.
The slide presented a twenty year trend line for the number of children enrolled in Sunday School in ELCA congregations between 1990 and 2010. The slide also showed the differential during the same time period in enrollment in Vacation Bible School.
Here’s the data in a nutshell: During this twenty year period, the number of children enrolled in our Sunday School ministries decreased from 1,007,774 to 400,375. That is roughly 61%.
61% fewer young people were enrolled in Sunday School in ELCA congregations in 2010 than were in 1990.
Perhaps I’m overreacting. But my gut instinct is that this is a pretty big deal. No…it’s a really big deal. We’ve heard talk about the shrinking church for years, but reading these numbers creates (at least within me) a new level of reality and immediacy.
Perhaps this just mirrors the membership trend in the ELCA? Looking at ELCA data from the same source, membership over roughly the same time period decreased from 5.2 million to around 4.2 million. Substantial…but roughly a 20% decrease. Worship attendance over that period decreased by roughly 53%, much closer (but still less than) the church school numbers.
Interestingly, the numbers of young people enrolled in Vacation Bible School have remained more stable than the numbers in Sunday School, decreasing “only” somewhere between 35% and 40%. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s interesting that those numbers have not declined nearly as quickly as Sunday School or worship attendance.
But if these trends continue…we’re on a course towards ecclesiastical irrelevance (at best) and extinction (at worst). Sure, we roll our eyes when we hear people say that children and youth are the church of tomorrow, knowing that they are the church today. But we’ve got to be honest: they also are the church of tomorrow. And trends like this make it clear that our church is at risk. I fear that the slogan of the future might be “God’s Work – No Hands.”
What most alarms me? There is no broader conversation about this. The conversation is taking place in isolated pockets…at seminaries…in local networks…at the Extravaganza…but why isn’t this a part of a larger churchwide conversation? Why is there not a sense of urgency about these numbers? The ELCA responds well to crisis. When a tornado or hurricane strikes, the ELCA is present with the promise that we will accompany those victims for the long haul.
A 61% decline in young people participating in one of our foundational faith formation ministries is a crisis. I’m not advocating that we continue on the same path we have been on. Clearly our problem has been “business as usual”. And the solution is more than just adopting a different model…or a new program. I believe that the problem lies within our church’s very understanding of faith formation; it lies in our very DNA.
I don’t have a quick solution. I’m not sure one exists. But whatever the future looks like, wherever God is calling this church, we need to take on this crisis with the same level of urgency and commitment that we do when a storm hits. And don’t get me wrong. I do believe there is a solution. I believe God is calling us to something new, something powerful and dynamic. And I believe God has given us the gifts to figure this out.
I am hopeful that these conversations will move from the periphery to the center of our church. We are committed to push for, and to create space for these conversations.
Please join us.
Networked in Christ,