When I was growing up there was an educational computer game called “Where in the Word is Carmen San Diego”. Sometimes I wonder if you could play that game with me, “Where in the World is Jay Winters”? Today I’m writing from St. Louis as I’m attending our National Youth Ministry Symposium, an event that looks at big ideas that concern how we reach out to younger people with the love of Christ.
This Symposium’s topic is the “Retention of Lutheran Millennials”. It is the sharing of a study of people born in the Millennial generation (roughly people 19 to 32) who had been confirmed in LCMS churches, asking them questions about how they viewed the churches that they were confirmed in and the church bodies around them. An important question that the study asked was simply this: are you still connected to the church (or church body) that you were confirmed in? The answer that came back was that approximately 1/3 of students confirmed in an LCMS church are still connected to their home church or home church body.
The other 2/3rds of Millennials that were confirmed in LCMS churches are a part of another church body or identify as atheist or agnostic. It’s hard to tell where the 2/3rds are because they don’t always let their whereabouts (or “believeabouts”) be known, but of the people that responded to the study, 16% identify as atheist or agnostic. That’s a big deal. It’s not academically or statistically right to say that 16% of all people confirmed in LCMS churches are now agnostic or atheist – but it is a possibility that the number isn’t too far off. Additionally, about 14% of people who have been confirmed in an LCMS church currently still identify as Christian (and often Lutheran) but do not attend worship on a regular basis.
These numbers are mirrored to some degree in every Christian church body in America. The LCMS is no different from the ELCA, from the Presbyterians, the non-denominational churches, etc etc. We share this great opportunity that is revealed by this study – the opportunity to follow Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, the parable where the shepherd of the sheep leaves the 99 and chases after the one sheep who is lost.
But here is the thing that we need to keep in mind: when we read this parable, the parable is talking about Jesus chasing after the one, leaving the 99 behind. And who is Jesus? We are. We are the Body of Christ. We are Jesus, peopled. Baptized, forgiven, and commissioned – given the opportunity to leave the 99 and to go for the one.
Because if anything in my 85 page document on this study screams out, it is simply this: If we are going to communicate the Gospel with lapsed confirmands or people who have never stepped into a church – we are going to need to do it not with professional church workers, but with ordinary Christians who know the impact of the Gospel in their own lives. We are going to have to ask the 99 to leave themselves, to deny themselves and to bear the cross of concern for the one.
Our annual focus this year, “We are the Body” is no accident. It is a return to an understanding of the church that identifies with Jesus, and in thanksgiving for the identity that He gave us, we seek to share His never-depleted gift of the Gospel that is as powerful for the one as it is for the 99. Let us join as that Body, and let us take this opportunity together so that we celebrate the one who has been lost, but now is found, and let us do it one by one.