I’ve seen a number of individuals complain about the racial makeup of the LCMS over the past few months. Some assert that at 98% Caucasian, my denomination is simply too white to be an effective church body in America. Others have gone further, flat out calling it racist. But if a congregation’s or a denomination’s racial demographics don’t match the demographics of the wider community in which it resides, is this really indicative of sin? Is it a failure of mission? Is it racism?
Unfortunately, this line of thinking is all-too-common in contemporary churches. Diversity is a big concern of the world at the moment. It will, therefore, inevitably become a big concern among worldly Christians.
To be sure, the Church catholic is for all nations, tribes, and languages. Nevertheless, no denomination or congregation is identical with the universal Church. It is not God’s Word, but rather the fashions of this age that say every particular institution must be racist if it doesn’t sufficiently resemble American diversity. If we mistakenly presume that our congregations bear such an obligation to be a random representative sample, there is a price to pay: By insisting on the random over the particular, we end up severing ourselves from both our church’s history and its posterity.
After all, if you pause to critically assess it, the expectation that either an LCMS congregation or the LCMS as a whole should be a statistically random sample is patently absurd. LCMS congregations were not founded by random assortments of people. They were founded by people who both possessed and highly valued a specifically Lutheran heritage. Not only that, pretty much any LCMS congregation that’s 50 years old or more was founded by people with a specifically German heritage as well–just as the Synod as a whole was. It wasn’t that long ago that we were still doing services in German.
But while our sampling bias may begin at our origins, it does not end there. The new members our congregations have received over the years were no more random than their founders.
The most important group of people that a congregation receives into membership are its own children. These are the very people most Christians throughout history have personally evangelized. Far more of us have been called to be parents than, say, missionaries and church planters. And quite obviously, children are not demographically random. Sure, some spouses will be brought into the church from the community by marriage and end up diversifying our children somewhat. I, for example, may trace my ancestry back to 12th century Scotland, but I did receive both my Lutheran Heritage and some German ancestry from my mother’s side. Nevertheless, that dynamic does not cause a sudden and massive shift of the congregation’s demographics–especially if you’re only considering extremely broad racial strokes like black and white.
The next largest group brought into church membership are those evangelized or invited in the context of personal relationships. This includes the aforementioned spouses, but also friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and so forth. Will this diversify the congregation to some extent? Absolutely. But our personal and professional relationships are only modestly more random than our children are. The human tendency–across cultures, ironically–is to have these kinds of relationships with people who are demographically similar to ourselves. Ever since Babel, we self-segregate to a large extent. Despite the man-made traditions of today’s woke Pharisees, most of our individual vocations don’t actually demand that we defy this human trait (though there are some exceptions). Once again, the potential for a demographic shift isn’t so profound that it utterly overwrites the old patterns with sheer randomness.
And that’s really where most new Christians come from in established American church bodies like the LCMS–through their relationships with believers in one way or another. Sure, a few people dropped by after attending your bake sale or hearing your radio ad, but not many. God bless those who plant local missionary churches and simply invite the neighborhood, but they are the blessed exception rather than the blessed norm. As a result, there is a demographic gravity to our congregations that is powerful but also benign.
So church bodies large and small are end up in a peculiar position: We offer gifts which transcend any and every demographic category we could invent, but still tend to reside within a limited selection of those categories. Both of those poles are reflected in our culture.
To be sure, the most important service the local congregation provides–Word and Sacrament ministry–transcends culture. The Gospel is for every tribe and nation. The Sacraments are means of grace for everyone. Even the liturgy should transcend the styles of local culture to a profound extent. Many of its historical elements date back well over a thousand years and have been used across countless languages and cultures. So do many of our hymns. It’s pretty hard to take Savior of the Nations, Come (written 1600 years ago by St. Ambrose of Milan) and call it an old German song. Contemporary worship is really the only style we dabble in that’s truly culturally narrow.
At the same time, the organized community that carries out the Divine Service, supports the congregation’s education, provides the venue, facilitates fellowship, and so forth is absolutely going to reflect the congregation’s cultural norms. Outsiders will not always feel comfortable within those structures, and the more different their own heritage, the less comfortable they will feel. But is that really a bad thing in and of itself? There are many different ways these tasks could be carried out, but they’re always going to be carried out in some way. And any given way is going to make more sense to some cultures than to others.
So here, the particular prevents the random. And there’s nothing nefarious about that. By-and-large, the ways that we choose should make the most sense to the people who are actually carrying out those tasks on a day-to-day basis. In other words, they need to make sense to the non-random current membership. This will be true no matter what demographic boxes they check.
That doesn’t mean things should never change–that the LCMS should always do things the way we’ve always done them. Even the simple passage of time should change these things to some extant. The same 10 boards you had in the 1940’s may not be the best way to cover the congregation’s needs today. Robert’s Rules of Order might not be the best way run your meetings. Your phone tree may be obsolete. Your current building might be either too small or a too-big financial anchor around your neck. You may even be failing to educate your children because you mistake your cultural norms for God’s Word.
So it’s good to change and adapt to the present challenges so long as we continue to treasure the riches of God’s Word that we have received. Congregations that fail to do both of these things will die–and many are doing precisely that. Even our simple failure to adapt to the sexual revolution in a fertile way has proven the death knell of many (we are in decline primarily because we didn’t reproduce.) So there’s plenty of room for criticism when it comes to how we preach, how we disciple, and how we live. Nevertheless, we don’t judge ourselves against worldly concerns like diversity quotas.
And one does have to ask: If you’re so cut off from your church body (both your immediate ancestors in the faith and the immediate descendants that the congregation will be welcoming) that you’re actually offended that its heritage isn’t random… is it truly a heritage that you share? After all, to claim a heritage as your own is a matter of particularity rather than randomness. If you’re expecting a random sample, then you have cut ties with your past and are no longer talking about change, but replacement.
Whether inside or outside the Church, if you wish to institute Year Zero in this way, you should actually do the hard work of building something new rather than trying to consume the work of prior generations. And if you’re doing it at the behest of the Spirit of the Age rather than God’s Word, then whatever you create won’t be a church.