LCMS Members’ Commitment to the Means of Grace

LCMS Members’ Commitment to the Means of Grace May 17, 2024

A defining tenet of Lutheranism is the belief that the Word of God, Baptism, and Holy Communion are “means of grace.”  That is, that God conveys the gospel of Christ and creates faith by these physical means.

But to what extent do members of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod really believe that?  Is there a difference between the views of pastors, teachers, and laypeople?  Is style of worship a factor?  How about age?

The 2023 Lutheran Religious Life Survey, a study of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod conducted by Lyman Stone that we have been blogging about, examines those questions.  And, as they say in online clickbait, the answers may surprise you.

(You can read the report online here or download it  here.)

Stone did not just ask rote questions to see if the respondents remembered their catechism.  He devised a battery of fairly open questions designed to elicit their actual perspectives.  Respondents had a range of answers that could be scored according to the extent that they did or did not prioritize the means of grace.  Some questions were subtle and could be interpreted in different ways, so Stone stressed the importance of multiple measures.  (See p. 32 of the report for the questions and how they were scored.)

“In general, higher scores on this index of beliefs about the means of grace point towards an individual who puts a greater priority on the visible means of grace in terms of how they believe humans receive eternal salvation,” Stone explained. “Lower scores identify an individual who puts much less of a priority on visible means, and believes salvation may more frequently occur apart from or detached from visible means.”

Here is what he found:

On the whole, 50% of pastors gave a means-prioritizing answer to all 7 questions, vs. 26% of laypeople and 22% of other church workers. Almost 75% of pastors gave the equivalent of a means-prioritizing answer to all but one question, compared to 51% of laypeople and 41% of other church workers. Less than 3% of all groups gave reliably non-means-prioritizing answers.

So half of all the pastors gave the Lutheran “right answer” to all the questions, with three-quarters of them “missing” only one, which as Stone emphasizes can be due to a perceived ambiguity in the question.  So LCMS pastors can mostly be relied upon to emphasize the Word and Sacraments.  I was pretty impressed with the laity, with 26% getting the perfect score, and over half missing only one.  This was actually slightly higher than the “other church workers”–that is to say, parochial school teachers, Directors of Christian Education, Deaconesses–of whom 22% scored the highest on all questions and 41% missed only one.  Most importantly, only a miniscule number of LCMS members, 3%, were clearly non-sacramental.

Is there a difference in prioritizing the Word and Sacraments between “Confessional” congregations who follow the “traditional” liturgy and “Missional” congregations who use contemporary worship?  Sadly, yes.  “About 33% of “Confessional and Traditional” LCMS members selected uniformly means-prioritizing answers, and 59% did so all but once; for other LCMS members the shares were 16% and 40%.”

What about lifelong Lutherans as compared to the “converts”?  Now here is where it gets interesting:

For lifelong Lutherans, 25% select uniformly means-prioritizing answers, and 51% select almost-entirely such answers. For converts from other Lutheran traditions, the values are similar at 24% and 47% (though an elevated rate, 4%, select uniformly non-means-prioritizing answers). But 33% converts from outside of Lutheranism select uniformly means-prioritizing answers and 58% select such answers all but once, and 47% of converts from outside of Christianity report uniform means-prioritizing answers, and 60% report such answers all but once. Thus, converts from more distant traditions have somewhat more means-prioritizing beliefs than lifelong Lutherans, LCMS or otherwise.

So those who come to Lutheranism from other churches have a higher emphasis on the means of grace than lifelong Lutherans.  But the ones who have the highest emphasis on the sacraments are the non-Christians who came to Christ through a Lutheran church!  Their scores rival that of pastors!  Which shows that they are being well-catechized by those pastors and that sacramental Christianity can greatly appeal to the “Nones” who respond to the Gospel.

What about age?  Surely we elderly Lutherans have a greater understanding and appreciation of the sacraments than all these messed-up young people.  But the evidence shows the contrary!  Adding up the scores, so that 12 indicated a “means-prioritzing” answer in at least five and usually six of the seven questions, Stone found these startling facts:

LCMS members under age 30 all average index scores over 13, and those under 18 (a small sample) average scores over 14. Meanwhile, older Lutherans, especially those 60 and older, have rather low averages: around 10. Thus, the younger generations of LCMS members have stronger agreement with means-prioritizing statements.

You should look at the graph on p. 36 of the report.  The lowest score, about 9, was for the oldest demographic, the Lutherans 85 and older.  The youngest cohorts had the highest views of the sacraments:  In first place were Lutherans under 18.  A close second was Lutherans aged 18-24.  They both have higher average scores than the pastors!  In third place are the 25-29 year olds who are pretty much tied with the pastors.

This bodes extremely well for the future of the LCMS.  Stone concludes his report with this:

Finally, there is a generational change ongoing within the LCMS. Younger LCMS members espouse much greater emphasis on the visible means of grace than older LCMS members, a trait shared in common with “Confessional and Traditional” LCMS members. This generational change is consistent with the conversion and growth data cited above: virtually all available evidence points to the notion that, in 30 years, the LCMS will be a more liturgically traditional church than it is today, with doctrinal positions more differentiated from the Protestant mainstream than it has today. To the extent that doctrinal differentiation is associated with growth and conversion, this statement could point to the possibility that, by the latter 21st century, the LCMS could experience an appreciable improvement in net conversion rates, though this is more speculation than forecast.

How do you account for all of this?




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