It was just last week that the Central Lutheran Church of Dallas celebrated its 100th anniversary. The congregation, which recently merged with 70-year-old Bethany Lutheran Church of Dallas, is starting to reckon with the decline in attendance and membership that is plaguing mainline traditions across the U.S.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had seen a steady decline long before outbreaks of COVID-19 closed church doors. In North Texas, that fact is evident in ELCA congregations. According to data from the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, one of 65 synods under the ELCA, the pandemic has closed three congregations since 2019. Since 2013, the synod lost 6 congregations.
The synod’s Bishop Erik Gronberg explained that though there has been significant decline overall, other demographics have seen significant growth.
“We’re actually seeing growth in congregations of color and in languages other than English,” Gronberg said. “But in our Anglo congregations, which are the majority of Lutherans, those congregations have been in decline, frankly, for 20-plus years.”
According to projections from the ELCA’s Research and Evaluation, the whole denomination will have fewer than 67,000 members in 2050, with fewer than 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday in 2041.
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On Nov. 22, 1970, Elizabeth Platz was ordained as the first woman to serve in the Lutheran Church of America, a church that later formed with others to create the ELCA.
ELCA was created in 1988 by the merging of the 2.85 million-member Lutheran Church in America, the 2.25 million-member American Lutheran Church and the 100,000-member Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Today it only has 3.14 million members.
At the 1991 church-wide assembly, the church affirmed those with same sex attraction as “individuals created by God.” In 2009, at a church-wide assembly, delegates approved a resolution that allowed people in monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as official ministers. Following the decision, 200 congregations left ELCA, leading to a loss of half a million members by 2011. In 2021, the church elected its first openly transgender bishop.
The synod currently has six Spanish language congregations.
Younger demographics are harder to come by for the ELCA. According to the last survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, 61% of members of the church were age 50 and up. In Dallas, however, Gronberg noted that the emerging membership for younger demographics is among the Hispanic population.
Gronberg said the rise of different denominations in the 1990s has played a role in membership decline within Lutheran churches.
Both Central and Bethany were planted by those migrating from northern parts of the U.S. But with limited membership resources for both congregations, their proximity for the last 20 years proved to be difficult.
The Rev. Robert Smith began serving as a “bridge pastor” during the pandemic through his focus on aiding the churches with the transition — he cited financial realities as the driving force.
“One of the challenges faced by many of our congregations is the cost of maintaining their buildings,” Smith said. “So when you see these trends of decline, the overhead cost of maintaining our structures just remains steady no matter what your income is.”
According to Smith, neither congregation recorded how many congregants from Bethany merged with Central, but it is clear that not all of them transitioned. Synod data recorded 50 active participants at Bethany in a January 2022 report.
Smith, who will be leaving to teach history at the University of North Texas, said this is not solely a Lutheran or North Texas problem.
“COVID has hastened trends that we were seeing before COVID,” he said. “So that — and I’m again not speaking solely about the ELCA in northern Texas — that this is a national reality.”
Online worship among all religious traditions was ushered in during the pandemic and has transformed how many people interact with their faith.
“I think that the move to online worship, to hybrid worship — you know, it gave people a different pattern of life,” Smith explained. “For what perhaps before was a normal Sunday morning attendance process, and now we see that people are finding other ways to use their time. And many churches have not been very responsive and creative in how to respond to the challenges and COVID.”
Smith thinks Lutherans need to respond to the moment.
“If you’re driven primarily by visions of the past, by a nostalgia, then you’re not looking forward to the future and recognizing that the society itself around us has changed,” he said. “And so we need to be responding to the present reality rather than to our good memories of some time in the before-time before COVID.”
Historically, Dallas Lutherans relied on new arrivals from the northern U.S. to fill their pews.
“When Dallas grew, and people moved here from Ohio, and back in the day, they would look for a Lutheran church,” Gronberg said. “And now, they don’t. People don’t look for the church. First, they look for the soccer team, or they look for a school.”
Gronberg said that Lutheran churches often thought of themselves as attractions, that the converted would come to find them — he said that thinking must change:
“I think the reality of evangelism has been a challenge as well. Are folks talking about their faith and why their church matters to them, and teaching them why it’s important to invite people to church?”
Evangelicals do well because they publicly talk about their faith — something Gronberg suggested that Lutherans need to embrace to survive.
“We’re trying to teach them about what it means to be disciples of Jesus, and in so doing, that involves sharing your faith with others,” Gronberg said. “And, you know, one of the things I keep asking our congregations is, ‘Why are you here?’”
But that’s not the only challenge Lutherans face in North Texas.
“And then the other part is, we as Lutherans made some commitments to inclusion,” Gronberg said, “particularly inclusion of LGBTQIA+ folks. We’ve made commitments to the role of women in our church, that in a more conservative climate such as Texas are not always positions that have rendered us growth.”
Central has a call committee composed of lay members from both Central and Bethany working to find the next pastor. Smith could not say more about the process, but his hope is that the selection will happen soon.
“The congregations came together,” Gronberg said, “in this situation, in some ways out of necessity to be stronger because both of them had been in decline. And then COVID made that even more dramatic, and they realized that running two facilities was not a good decision — that’s not a faithful stewardship decision.”
On a national level, the ELCA will gather for a church-wide assembly in early August in Columbus, Ohio, to elect a new vice president and vote on budget proposals for the upcoming years.
This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
BeLynn Hollers is an editorial fellow for the Dallas Morning News. Before joining the board, she covered religion, women’s health, and politics for the News. She graduated from the University of Dallas with a bachelor’s in politics.