If you’ve spent any time in the church over the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard the statistics.
Membership is decreasing. Average weekly worship attendance is plummeting. The only growing religious group in America are the so-called “nones,” those who choose not to identify with any faith tradition at all.
These realities can feel stark—and, indeed, they are. According to Dwight Zscheile ’08 Ph.D., vice president of innovation at Luther Seminary, “The shifts we’re experiencing are more fundamental than just declining engagement with church programs.
People are making meaning out of their lives without any engagement with, or reference to, God. To the extent we’ve used technical fixes to try to respond to such a profound change in the culture, we’ve failed.”
This might seem overly pessimistic, but for Zscheile it doesn’t come from cynicism. “I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort,” he said. “The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational systems are much bigger than a lack of engagement in church programs. Something deeper is at stake.”
The Core Challenge
So what’s causing the decline?
Zscheile and colleague Michael Binder ’17 Ph.D., affiliate faculty member at Luther Seminary, name the root cause with three distinctions:
- We live in a culture that makes it difficult for people to imagine and be led by
- As a church, we aren’t clear about what’s distinctive about being Christian.
- For these reasons, the church isn’t helping many people make meaning of their lives 1
“There’s a lack of deep formation of Christian identity and practice for so many church members and even leaders,” said Binder. “Quite frankly, people aren’t participating in church because they see no compelling reason to be Christians.”
It’s a problem that can’t be adequately addressed with cosmetic changes, like launching a new program or changing up a regular worship style. It requires disruptive innovation—what Associate Professor of Leadership Terri Elton ’98 M.A., ’07 Ph.D. has described as “new ideas and approaches that begin in particular networks, take hold, and dislodge current patterns.”2
Despite the challenges, Zscheile and Binder remain hopeful. “Fundamentally, we believe that the Holy Spirit is moving in the midst of these changes,” Binder said.
“God is bringing forth new life even amid decline and death—that is our core story as the church,” Zscheile added. “Many of the answers are going to come from the grassroots. We want to harvest and share those stories and lessons.”
Binder stressed that despite the overall decline, there are pockets of hope: Christian communities growing and thriving, neighborhoods being transformed by the presence of engaged congregations, and ministries forming faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
“We need to go to those places, discover what God is doing, and help them share their learnings and successes with the entire church,” said Binder. “It’s a lot like crowdsourcing. The Holy Spirit is already at work, raising up communities that are forming deep faith in a 21st- century, North American context. We have to find them and put them in touch with each other.”
A New Digital Platform
That’s where Faith+Lead (pronounced faith lead), Luther Seminary’s new digital platform for ordained and lay leaders, comes in.
“A lot of church leaders feel discouraged, overwhelmed, and lonely,” said Zscheile. “As part of our mission to educate leaders for Christian communities, and our vision to do so by leading faithful innovation for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we want to connect and equip leaders wherever and whenever they need us—and digital media is one of the most effective ways to do that.”
Faith+Lead has three core components:
- The Faith+Leader, a digital publication that features pioneering research, reflections, and resources for leaders in the changing church and world with an emphasis on practical experiments and innovative action steps that can be implemented in
- The Faith+Lead Learning Lab, a private social network for leaders to connect, ask questions, share what’s working, and receive support for what’s
- Digital and in-person courses and events, such as the upcoming Faithful Innovation Summit and an ongoing initiative to create digital courses featuring Luther Seminary faculty and other practitioners in the field.
For Zscheile, Faith+Lead isn’t just a new project, but a new paradigm that places a premium on grassroots connections, information sharing, and cultivating Christian community among leaders in a digitally connected world.
“No one has all the answers, but one congregation has some, and a pastor across the country has another, and a lay leader two states over has another,” said Zscheile. “By connecting leaders to resources and communities exploring how to cultivate Christian faith today, we believe God will teach us how to deepen spiritual formation, form disciples, and create and manage new models of ministry together.”
1 For a deeper dive on these trends and their causes, see Zscheile’s article, “Will the ELCA Be Gone in 30 Years?” at faithlead.luthersem.edu/decline/.
2 See Elton’s article, “Innovation: From Buzzword to Renewal” at faithlead.luthersem.edu/innovation-renewal/.