Optimism literally projected on screen at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh running from August 12-17, 2013, cannot ultimately hide the membership decline that has accompanied this denomination since its origins in 1987. Although much heralded 25 years ago as a unification of American Lutherans, the ELCA’s anniversary slogan of “Always Being Made New: 25 Years Together in Christ” on display at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center rings bitterly ironic in light of ECLA’s dwindling, aging congregants and sinking contributions. Liberal theology and politics in America’s so-called Mainline Protestant denominations apparently just gets older and older.
ELCA’s slogan, taken from 2 Corinthians 5:17, is present throughout the convention hall, including a slide show highlighting ELCA milestones on a large screen during assembly breaks. As the ELCA website explains, the denomination resulted from the January 1, 1988, merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America following a 1987 conference in Columbus, Ohio. ELCA’s founding “was a heady time, producing the successful merger of two-thirds of America’s Lutherans gathered under one denomination,” wrote Pastor Russell E. Saltzman in 2011 at First Things after having broken away from ELCA with other conservative Lutherans to form the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). “Lutherans had finally achieved part of the dream, all Lutherans in America in one Evangelical Lutheran Church.”
Yet since the launch of ELCA its course has been permanently downward. The ELCA’s own statistics show that after 5,288,048 Lutherans came together in 1987 to form the denomination, only 4,059,785 remained in ELCA in 2011, the latest year of available data. In all, this is a “staggering loss of over 1.2 million members, or 23% of their membership,” Rev. Kevin Vogts of the conservative Lutheran lay organization Steadfast Lutherans notes. The number of ELCA congregations has also dropped from 11,138 at the 1987 founding to 9,638 in 2911, a loss of about 13%. “As they ‘celebrate’ this year the 25th anniversary of the ELCA,” Vogts observes, “the fact is that during that time they have lost more members and congregations than make up many entire denominations!”