Along with many mainline denominations, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has seen a gradual, but persistent, decline in membership in recent decades. One exception to this trend in the LCMS has been the Texas District, where membership has remained more or less steady over the last decade. I recently sat down with Rev. Ken Hennings, president of the Texas District of the LCMS to discuss what accounts for its different experience. (I should note that I am a lay representative on the District’s Board of Directors.)
It’s a sign of the times for the LCMS that one can be excited about a district merely not shrinking over a decade. Still, the Texas District is the LCMS’s second largest district (after Michigan), having around 360 congregations, with a baptized membership of approximately 133,000.
Given its size, some of the trends in the district might be of broader interest. Around 20 percent of the district’s churches (or “Word and Sacrament” ministries in Lutheranese) have started since 2004. Approximately half of these—or 10 percent of the total number of churches in the district—worship in a language other than English or have predominantly non-Anglo memberships (or perhaps more accurately, do not have predominantly German memberships). The members of these churches are largely Hispanic, African, or Asian.
The district’s goal is to increase the current number of total churches by another 40 percent in the next four years, with an expectation that at that time 25 percent of the churches in the district would worship in a language other than English or would have congregations composed predominantly of non-Europeans.
I asked Hennings whether the recent growth was a function of the district’s “aggressive outreach,” or whether it resulted from the movement of LCMS members from other parts of the country into Texas, following the significant migration into Texas from both coasts.
Hennings said, “It’s probably some of both. . . . It’s a combination of maybe 60 percent from LCMS backgrounds, 40 percent from other [religious] backgrounds or no background at all.”
My own home church—Holy Cross in College Station, Texas—might serve as a case in point. Only about 40 percent of its membership grew up in the LCMS; 60 percent grew up in other traditions or were non-religious. The experience of Holy Cross is mirrored in other district churches.
Hennings mentioned Crosspoint Community church in Katy, Texas. “Sixty percent of the people joining their congregation during the first five years of its existence had no church background. They were able somehow to reach that population. . . . And now they’re worshipping about two thousand people a week.”
Hennings underscored church plants in the district now focus on the entire local community, not just LCMS people in those communities:
LCMS people are of course welcomed. But they need to understand that the purpose and the vision [of the district] is to reach new communities and new people with the Gospel. That has been a healthy thing.
We have a lot of LCMS congregations in Texas who are very much connected with what’s going on in the community. Especially with those who are poor and those who are struggling. And so they very much encourage their people to be a part of that.
You know because of your prison ministry, now we have the Missouri Synod talking about trying to put a seminary into a prison, to teach people theology who are behind bars perhaps for the rest of their lives. The aim is to raise pastors within prison to be pastors to people who are within prison. . . . That’s not saying that we’re going to keep everything to ourselves, but it is saying that ‘we can engage’ as churches.
Ironically, Hennings argues that the burst of new church plants came as a result of the district getting out of the church-planting business.
Hennings initially joined the district staff in 1991 as their mission coordinator. At this time, as Hennings styles it, the district planted churches “the old way”:
The district would decide where the “hot spots” were. The district would go out and buy land before there even was a church there. And then the district would call a mission planter and drop him into that place.
What forced the [old model] to unravel was the cost of buying land, building buildings, and paying for a full-time worker. That was our only way of doing it [at the time].
Soon after Hennings joined the district staff, the district convention adopted a resolution setting the goal of starting ten new missions a year. Hennings notes that under the old model, the district got close to meeting their goal during only one year when it managed to plant nine churches. “It became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to maintain planting ten new churches [each year] paying the salary of the full-time worker, buying the land, and all of that stuff.”
The shift to a new model came in two moves. The first move entailed decentralizing the level at which church planting occurred. Local churches planted new churches instead of the district. This dramatically increased the information available to church planters about the local community and its needs. Still, this first move simply decentralized the old model. The district still provided the funds for land, for salary, etc.
The second move came in 2004. As a result of a Synodical initiative, the district set the goal of planting two hundred churches by 2017. Hennings says, “That was a real challenge. Texas couldn’t even make it to the [earlier] goal of planting 100 churches” using the old model. But it also “was a blessing,” he adds. “It gave us the focus of saying ‘we have to change’ if we’re going to be able to reach that goal.”
The change was a dramatic one. “The [District’s] Board of Mission Administration told everyone that you need to come off financial assistance” from the district. All of the ministries with open-ended commitments for support from the District were given six year to develop their own independent support.
The response was to “tweak” an idea borrowed from the Association of Related Churches (ARC). The district began funding new church starts where the funded churches agreed after they were on their feet to pay back some or all of the district’s original support, with those returned funds then channeled into yet newer church plants. Many of these new church plants also begin with “worker-priests” serving as pastors, and without permanent buildings. This has dramatically decreased the net cost of new ministries from amounts that could top one million dollars in the past to amounts now ranging from thirty-six to fifty-six thousand dollars.
It is, of course, not all about the money, or leveraging money. Nonetheless, the “old model” of church planting served as a constraint to the mission activity that Hennings notes has been part of the DNA of the Texas District since it formed in the early 1900s. Under the new funding model, the district is around one-third of the way toward realizing its goal of planting two hundred “Word and Sacrament” ministries by 2014. While it remains to be seen whether the district achieves its ambitious goals, it is most certainly true that continuing under the old model would have dramatically slowed what progress they have seen.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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