Thoughts on Demographics, Higher Criticism, and the Future of the LCMS

May 8, 2024

By Joseph D. Klotz

LCMS logo

We members of the LCMS are delusional. I have suspected that for years. Now, however, there is a survey to prove it.

Lyman Stone, an LCMS layman and demographer, conducted a survey last year entitled "The 2023 Lutheran Religious Life Survey." According to the description, the purpose of the survey was to collect information on the attitudes, characteristics, and views of LCMS members. The section "Perceived Congregational Growth" gives some astounding insights.

According to the survey, about half of the approximately 2,000 LCMS members surveyed think that their congregations are staying about the same in terms of growth. Over 30% of LCMS members believe that their congregations are growing. Just under 20% of LCMS members think that their congregations are shrinking (Stone, 2024).

The reality is quite different. Over 70% of LCMS congregations are shrinking, approximately 20% are holding their own, and fewer than 10% are growing (Stone, 2024).

This should be obvious to anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past 40 years. Reports concerning our demographic crisis have even been discussed in convention in 2016.

The fact of the matter is that we have stopped having babies. That may not be the only problem we have where membership is concerned, but it certainly is a significant one. Getting married, starting a family, and having children is the surest way to grow. The other side of that coin is, if our members do not have families, if they do not procreate above the replacement rate, then we will shrink. During the last several generations, the LCMS has imbibed many progressive philosophies from our pagan culture here in the United States. The most destructive one, after the introduction of Higher Criticism and Gospel Reductionism, are the effects of the sexual revolution. We at least attempted to fight against the higher critics hijacking our seminaries. We did not do nearly as well resisting the sexual revolution.

We can see the trends if we look at some other statistics. According to reports published by the LCMS School Ministry between the school years 2014-2015 and 2021-2022, the number of children baptized in Synod increased by a moderate 2.6%.[1] That sounds OK until we look closer. In 2014-2015, 1,756 children were baptized. The number peaks in 2016-2017 at 2,486. From that point onwards, however, the trend is downward, to 1,794 in 2021-2022, the latest available statistics.

Instead of sending the children we did have to Lutheran schools, we sent them to progressive government schools. We thought that having extra-curricular activities in which they could participate was more essential to their formation as a person than keeping Christ at the center of their education. But it turns out that weekly Sunday school and catechism class just is not enough to combat the onslaught of the godless Leftist culture which is offered to them at every opportunity.

Over the past eight years, the number of LCMS schools has declined by approximately 12%.[2] In 2014 there were 2,111 LCMS schools. In the 2021-22 school year there were 1,855 schools. Because of inconsistency in the number of schools reporting statistics each year, the student enrollment data is less straightforward. Overall, the trend was downward from 2015. In 2015, the reported enrollment for LCMS schools was 191,340 with 81% of congregations/schools reporting. By 2021, that number was 162,074 with only 73% of congregations/schools reporting. It is likely that, had the number of congregations that reported statistics for the 2021-22 school year been similar to the 2015-16 school year (approximately 19% non-reporting rate) the decline would be less severe. It would, however, likely still be a decline.

At the government school, they were given a feeling of belonging and purpose. They are, after all, kept there, on average, around eight hours a day, five days a week. They were taught a secular anti-catechism that is a mix of moral relativism, Marxism, sexual perversion, and radical environmentalism. They were taught to worship the planet, to worship the culture, to worship their feelings, to worship themselves. They were taught what to think, to conform, and that such conformity was really tolerance. All the while, we parents were in denial. We told ourselves that stuff might be happening in the big cities or on the coasts. But it is not happening in my hidden little Mayberry, USA.

But it is. It happens anywhere a teacher who was trained at a secular Leftist university is teaching children. They were all trained in progressivism.

And we were surprised that, when our kids returned from college, they no longer confessed Christ and Him crucified as the atonement for the sin of the world and claimed to be the opposite sex. But we should not be surprised when, to paraphrase Voddie Baucham, our kids return to us Romans, after we have sent them to Caesar for their education.

Knowing us, we will grab onto whatever the hottest trend was 20 years ago among American Evangelicals to try and grow our congregations. Iíve seen us do it. We will probably also continue to blame traditional liturgical practices, chanting, vestments, "dead orthodoxy," and not being "loving" (otherwise known as being doctrinally uncompromising). All the while, we will continue to ignore the fact that the Marxist-Leftist-racist-environmentalist religion has also infiltrated our Synod, particularly our Concordia university system, and dismiss those who try to warn about this danger as "mean."

Ironically, the so-called conservative, confessional, and traditional congregations are among the ones actually showing growth (Stone, 2024).

Don't get me wrong: I would bet that the LCMS is less far gone than most of American Christianity. We can probably attribute that to three things many in our Synod also dislike: our theological foundation, which is justification by faith in Christ alone, our high view of the Holy Scriptures as established and protected in the Book of Concord and by theologians such as Walther and Pieper, and our tendency to isolate ourselves from the broader culture because of our "German-ness."

It's just too bad we also have some kind of theological/cultural/academic inferiority complex to go along with all those things.

Since the early to mid-20th Century, our theologians and professors have wanted to be seen in a more favorable light by mainstream American academia. We wanted our schools, universities, and seminaries to be taken seriously and our professors to be accepted as serious scholars. We did not want to be seen as crazy immigrant fundamentalists who ran some backward Bible colleges. And, as we shed the German language and cultural customs, we looked less and less like outsiders. The more we engaged in academic debate, the more the ideas of mainline American academia and Protestantism began to gain traction in the Synod.

Rev. Dr. Scott Murray describes this situation well in his book, "Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism."

Murray explains that the LCMS was seen as old-fashioned by the Lutheran theologians and academics in Germany. They derisively referred to the LCMS repristinators of theology from the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy. When LCMS theologians met with them in the late 1940s, they were surprised that the Germans had little regard for the Book of Concord, except for the Augsburg Confession. They particularly dismissed the Formula of Concord, which they saw as Melanchthonian and a corruption of Luther's theology.

The Luther Renaissance influenced theologians in Germany to focus on Luther and his writings rather than on the Book of Concord. Consequently, the status of the theologians and writings from the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy was diminished. As Murray points out, the problem with this is how do we know which Luther is the real Luther. As is well-known and documented, early Luther was a much different theologian than older Luther. He developed into a Lutheran out of Augustinianism over time. There is a danger that writings from Luther's various periods could be used to support views held by modern theologians but that Luther had grown out of.

The LCMS participated in ecumenical meetings in Germany in 1947-48. This was the LCMS theologians' first significant contact with German Lutherans, who had been heavily influenced by Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Murray says that the LCMS theologians were particularly enamored with Werner Elert. While the LCMS would continue to claim their orthodoxy and so-called repristination theology following the meetings, they did bring back certain existential Lutheran influences. Among those influences, writes Murray, was a distaste for the Third Use of the Law. But that wasn't the only thing.

Existentialism in Lutheranism comes from Soren Kierkegaard. To the existentialist Lutheran, faith is an existential communication between God and man, where man encounters God. Faith is more than just knowing the right doctrines and how to express them using the correct formulas of jargon (Murray, 2002). To them, Murray explains, faith is a subjective experience for each person.

Pieper and Walther were the prime examples of LCMS repristination to the German Lutherans. This was, Murray explains, because they primarily cited sources from the age of Orthodoxy, chief among those sources being the Book of Concord, rather than adding their own insights. Pieper and Walther held the Formula of Concord in high regard. At the Bad Boll meetings in 1947-48, the German Lutherans criticized Pieper and Walter, and accused them of holding Biblical inerrancy as more important than the Doctrine of Justification (Murray, 2002). Here, we see the beginnings of what would develop into Gospel Reductionism in the Missouri Synod in the coming decades.

By 1960, LCMS theologians were criticizing the "dead orthodoxy" of Pieper and Walther. They were moving toward a theology that was "personal and dynamic" (Murray, 2002). This movement, influenced by existentialist thought, leads to a weakening of objective truth. In existentialist theology, only subjective experience is of value. Such thinking, suggests Murray, would eventually lead to abandoning the Third use of the Law (Murray, 2002). It would also develop into Gospel Reductionism.

Gospel Reductionism is a term coined by John Warwick Montgomery in 1966 to describe how theologians in the LCMS were using only "Christ and the Gospel" as the rule for determining doctrine rather than the whole council of the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God as we have it in the Bible (Harmelink, 2024). These professors viewed the Bible through the lens of Higher Criticism. They believed that the Bible, rather than being the Word of God, merely contained the Word of God. Our job was to sort out which bits were God's word and which were not. They reduced everything down to the Gospel. Doctrines that did not impact the Gospel did not need to be kept.

Harmelink explains that Gospel Reductionism abandons divine inspiration, inerrancy, and the authority of Holy Scripture. Instead, doctrine is subject to the Gospel only. This might sound okay on the surface. In reality, it is a way to grant permission not to believe in difficult or troublesome teachings.

Gospel Reductionism makes man the judge of Holy Scripture when it should be the other way around. The Bible is not subject to our reason (the magisterial use of reason); instead, our reason should be subject to the Word of God (the ministerial use of reason).

Gospel Reductionism uses "Christ and the Gospel" to do away with other teachings the Gospel Reductionists see as problematic while keeping the Gospel, or so they claim. Without a divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God as a foundation, as Harmelink says, it is impossible to hold on to the Gospel. The Word of God delivers Christ and the Gospel to us.

Thankfully, with the Walkout of the faculty majority who taught these things from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis 50 years ago this past February and the firm line taken by the faithful and confessional leadership of Synod at the time, Lutheran Orthodoxy decisively won the Battle for the Bible.

But we must realize that, though we may have won the battle, the war is far from over. It will continue as long as Jesus tarries and we live in this fallen creation.

What must we do to stop the theology of the world from regaining a foothold and regaining ground? I do not have the answer. I can tell you what we absolutely must not do, though: drop our Bible and Books of Concord so we can embrace this world's philosophies. The instant we forsake the preaching of Law and Gospel, and the authority of Scripture, we are finished as a church body. We will no longer be part of Christ's body; we will have fallen from grace.

We must realize that this stance might mean some uncomfortable times for the LCMS. We might have to shrink the scope of what our Synod does. We might have to endure some ridicule from the culture at large. We might have to think about our priorities in terms of funding, in terms of where mission work is done, what it looks like, and how we train our pastors. Our institutions may need to get smaller. Maybe our universities are not accredited through secular institutions, and they focus on church work. Maybe we spend more effort encouraging our families to choose the one thing needful and send their children to faithful Lutheran schools instead of the government schools, so that they may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe we should start by encouraging Lutherans to get married and be open to having the number of children that the Lord will bless them with; to be fruitful, and multiply; to fill the earth and subdue it.

Yes, embracing these things may mean rejection and persecution by the world. But it will mean that, if those children we have and raise in the church persevere in the faith, they will receive a crown of life when Christ comes again.

And He is coming soon. ###






Works Cited

Harmelink, D. (2024, February 19). Itís All About the Gospel . . . Isnít It? The Lutheran Witness. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://witness.lcms.org/2024/the-walkout/

Murray, S. R. (2002). Law, Life, and the Living God [Kindle]. Concordia Publishing House. http://books.google.ie/books?id=L3XuNAAACAAJ&dq=Law,+Life,+and+the+Living+God&hl=&cd=1&source=gbs_api

Schmidt, R. (Director). (n.d.). Lutheran School Statistics. In LCMS School Ministry. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://www.lcms.org/school-ministry

Stone, L. (n.d.). Those Who Are Being Saved: Report on the Results of the 2023 Lutheran Religious Life Survey. https://www.lutheranlifesurvey.church/. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://www.lutheranlifesurvey.church/



[1] The statistics that follow in this paragraph are taken from the LCMS School Ministry report summarizing Lutheran school statistics from the 2014-2015 through the 2021-2022 school years.

[2] The statistics that follow in this paragraph are taken from the LCMS School Ministry report summarizing Lutheran school statistics from the 2014-2015 through the 2021-2022 school years.