By: LCMS NJ District President Dr. Tony Steinbronn
The New Jersey District comprises forty-eight congregations, organized into six circuits, with 8,732 baptized members, 8,146 communicant members and a total, average weekly worship attendance of 3,495.
We continue to see that the majority of our congregations are growing smaller in terms of both baptized and communicant membership; and that the average age of those who worship is getting older. We also know that this trend has been taking place for many years now, beginning already in the early 1980s (the peak year in terms of baptized membership within the LCMS was 1977).
We are not alone when it comes to experiencing these kinds of shifts in congregational health and membership; for example, in 2018 the median average weekly worship attendance within the 6,000 LCMS congregations was 71 (that is, one-half of all LCMS congregations in the USA had 71 people or less in worship during any given week) compared to a median weekly worship attendance of 100 just eleven years ago in 2007.
The crisis situation in which we find ourselves is this: we no longer live in a churched culture but in an un-churched and de-churched culture. This state of affairs both challenges and invites God’s people to acquire and possess a proper ministry balance between edification and evangelism; and to become everyday missionaries in their posture and orientation toward those who are not Christians.
Pressing Ministry Challenges
Overall I sleep pretty soundly most nights, yet, when I am awake and waiting to enter into the next cycle of REM-filled slumber, these ministry challenges are foremost on my mind as a District President:
Ministry Challenge #1: The diminished number of Seminary candidates available for a first assignment to requesting congregations by the Council of Presidents at its annual April meeting. When I graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1982 there were 128 candidates placed into their first assignment; and our sister Seminary in Fort Wayne placed another 100 candidates. In the spring of 2020, there will be between 70 and 75 candidates available for their first assignment, with approximately 120-140 congregations making application for these candidates.
Ministry Challenge #2; The shortage of ordained pastors who are available to serve a New Jersey District congregation when it experiences a pastoral vacancy -- so how do we provide the needed pastoral care within our NJD congregations until the next pastor is installed?
Ministry Challenge #3: Approximately one-third of New Jersey District congregations are “stand alone” congregations; that is, they are able to fully compensate a pastor and to sufficiently fund their congregational ministry without receiving additional income from “non-member sources.” Consequently, these congregations possess the membership and financial capacity to call a pastor from either another LCMS congregation or from one of our two theological seminaries.
Approximately two-thirds of New Jersey District congregations are experiencing a ministry situation in which it might be prudent to consider one of these ministry partnerships:
Ministry Challenge #4: How do we witness to, and evangelize, people who have built their lives upon non-Christian narratives, especially the growing segment of the population who have “no religious or spiritual preference (31.2% of NJ residents)? And how do we overcome, and speak into, a culture that perceives and judges the Christian faith to be irrelevant in answering the big questions, and dealing with the day-to-day problems that people have, with life?
Ministry Challenge #5: We struggle to teach, and enculturate, the Christian faith in the lives of our children and grandchildren -- this is evidenced in the significant gaps between:
Ministry Challenge #6: We have many ex-neighborhood congregations that were established by Northern European ethnic peoples who were raised within, or were very familiar with, the Lutheran faith; however, most of these ethnic groups no longer reside in the neighborhood in which our congregations are located and we have not been able to minister to, and connect with, our new neighbors in meaningful and impactful ways.
Ministry Challenge #7: How to communicate the Biblical message in oral, print, broadcast and digital culture; and how to use social media effectively for social engagement and ministry in the “public square”?