It’s no secret that in America the Church across denominational lines is shrinking. The LCMS is no different. We, of course, are not without hope. God’s kingdom will have the ultimate victory. That doesn’t mean we say, “Oh, well,” to our young adults leaving and never consider why they’re leaving; we need to examine our retention. A few months ago, I wrote a post which used empirical data from the LCMS young-adults study to offer hypotheticals to explain the departure of many young people. This post will not do the same. Instead, in this post, I’ll take a qualitative approach to the question “Why do some people stay in the LCMS from childhood through their entire lives?”
If you are not involved with an LCMS church or are from a different denomination, this insight may still be helpful to your ministry as well.
The participants in this informal qualitative study were found through several groups I was involved with in college. As a young adult LCMS member who did not grow up in any church, I cannot draw from my own experience but instead rely on people who I’ve interacted with and know. I asked them over a text message to explain what driving forces and factors have kept them in LCMS churches.
Before I go any further, I’ll note that the main reason everyone cited for staying in the LCMS was Jesus; but it was also agreement with and understanding of LCMS theology. That agreement with and understanding of the Lutheran view of Baptism, Communion, and other important doctrinal stances kept them in our denomination. One stated, “I love how literally and verbatim we understand God’s Word and His expectations.” Many respondents also acknowledged that they have not had the chance to delve into the beliefs of other denominations and, consequently, have never sought other churches. Some mentioned that they didn’t always agree with LCMS stances, referencing their local church’s responses to infertility, evangelism, and other societal issues.
Several of the participants had parents who were on staff at their churches growing up. The breakdown was five pastor’s kids, two kids of youth ministry workers, and one child of a church secretary. The breakdown for other participants included five children of LCMS members and one whose parents have no LCMS affiliation but were lifelong Lutherans due to other familial ties. For participants whose parents were involved in the LCMS, their parents encouraging them to discuss their faith was vital. While all said that having family bringing them to church was part of why they continued in their faith, many pointed to their parents’ willingness to speak on difficult topics in the faith. For one participant’s family, topics of faith were a constant at the dinner table. “Having family conversations around the dinner table provided a space for these conversations to surface and to be discussed among the entire family,” one participant said. They could sift through the harder parts of faith in the place where they were the most comfortable.
For one of the children of youth ministry workers, the fact that her parents were so involved with her and her peers’ faith life led to a stronger faith. “What caused me to look deeper into my faith was my parents. They really made me think about my faith.” Having her parents as part of her youth ministry allowed her to be open with her parents like her peers were. “We always used to watch a lot of faith-based movies but would pause at certain parts and talk about God and the people in the movies that were going through good and bad.” Using media to teach biblical responses to life was successful for this participant and happened through her parents’ involvement in her faith life.
Several participants cited involvement with various levels of youth gatherings. “I probably wouldn’t be a Christian without NYG,” one participant stated. This participant discussed one session that impacted him. The session on shame and guilt was where he truly realized/learned that forgiveness was possible at the foot of the cross. Experiencing this knowledge with his close friends over a week of sustained study and worship of God’s Word led this participant back to understanding God’s work in his life. A different participant echoed the previous one; her experiences at NYG left her with a new understanding of God’s love as permanent. “I learned that God loves us no matter what and that love is real.” She went on to say that she knew these things but had never really felt like it was true before her NYG experience.
Another participant spoke of the importance of her district youth gatherings. “It was the only time I ever experienced other people who were my age being active in their faith.” It was important for her faith to know that there were many other youth her age that were not just going through the motions but were on fire for Christ. She continued to speak of these youth as influential role models: “They didn’t doubt the stories and testimonies they heard about God … it was the best thing for my faith.” These findings about the impact of both the national and district youth gatherings are consistent with previous data from the LCMS study.
Finding a group of friends that worship Christ together was brought up frequently as well. “I was very much ready to abandon my faith until college—at college, I made Christ-centered friendships.” Friends who shared their same religion and encouraged them to participate in religious activities (such as Sunday worship, Bible study, or other church-sponsored events) helped these participants grow deeper in their LCMS beliefs—during a time when many people fall away from their faith. Having peers to walk with through questions and doubts allowed participants to lean on one another. More participants echoed this, one emphasizing that he “probably would have walked away from faith in college if it wasn’t for my friends.”
While this wasn’t a real representative study of the LCMS and young-adult retention, I hope it still gives some important insights. Youth and young adults are influenced by the communities they participate in. They find community in their homes, churches, and peers. Keeping them connected to faith in all three of these realms is important. Make sure that even when they move on to a different experience, they are strongly connected to other believers. Relationships are key; the participants all said they stayed in the LCMS because of God’s work through others.
In our homes, creating time for spiritual conversations is crucial. As individual churches, you can support sending youth to youth gatherings and summer camps. Additionally, you can stay connected to young adults by sending them care packages while they’re in college to remind them of their place in your community. Getting new college students plugged in with another LCMS church in their college’s area will be important. Take some time to research churches in the area and reach out to the pastor and help these students to find a new local church community. And as for peers, this can happen by supporting youth ministry efforts and through sending your children to events where they will grow in Christ with their peers. This isn’t just helpful for retention but for how we think about evangelism—we can’t just convert and abandon, we must walk alongside. God uses us to influence those around us.