When he looks at the research, Bishop Herbert Chilstro believes he sees a reason for the decline in the membership of mainstream Protestant churches in the United States.
"Various studies tell us that young and middle-aged people are no longer quite as dedicated to one denomination all their lives," said Chilstrom, the Chicago-based national leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "They tend to go shopping. So we can't assume that someone confirmed at 14 will stay in one church his whole life. We have to make our church as vital as possible."
Making the ELCA more vital for current and prospective members will be among the items on the agenda this week at the fourth annual assembly of the church's Delaware-Maryland Synod.
The assembly takes place today through Saturday at Loyola College. The theme of the gathering, "Calling and Caring," underscores the church's desire to recruit new members and to renew the spirit of current congregants.
The Rev. John Savage, a United Methodist minister from Columbus, Ohio, will give the keynote address and conduct a workshop on evangelistic techniques.
About 500 delegates, representing the 191 congregations and 101,000 church members in Delaware and Maryland, will discuss and vote on synod business, including the election of a successor to Bishop Morris Zumbrun.
Zumbrun, 69, will retire in late August after four years as the synod's spiritual and administrative leader. His successor as bishop is expected to be chosen during Saturday's session. To date, no clear favorite has emerged, say church observers.
The local synod is one of 65 geographical units in the ELCA, the nation's fifth-largest Protestant denomination with 5.2 million members. The ELCA was formed 3 1/2 years ago by a merger of the largely Eastern and urban Lutheran Church in America, the mostly Midwestern and rural American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
Since the merger, the national church has been operating at a deficit, Chilstrom said. However, he said the ELCA hopes to balance its budget this year after seeing church income increase by 8 percent in 1990.
Locally, the synod also is struggling with the administrative and financial aftershocks of the merger, Zumbrun said.
"Just like other denominations across the country, we've been fighting the effects of the recession," he said. "We're working with a very tight budget, and we're still ironing out the wrinkles in the synod's administrative machinery. We're only 4 years old, so we still have quite a ways to go to become a strong single, working synod."
"One thing we need to work toward is inclusiveness, where we cut across cultures and races and ethnic groups and bring in all types of people," Zumbrun said. "We've had some black members and we've been involved in ministry in black communities."