Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reforming Groups

Recent discussions of youth groups and various other social groups in the church bring to mind the question, “Why?” What is the purpose or goal of today’s youth groups, junior youth groups, Dorcas societies, Ladies’ Aids, LWML, LWMS, LLL, Men’s Clubs, pastors’ wives groups, and so on? The social groups in congregations did have a useful purpose in the past. When children did not regularly attend high school, the church provided good social networking for teenagers. When more women were not working outside their homes, Dorcas, Ladies’ Aid, and the women’s missionary groups provided women who may have been isolated from their fellow women a chance to get together and serve other Christians and the community.

Today, some of these groups seem to exist only for their own proliferation or as a way for everyone to look busy. When someone says that a congregation should have, for example, a junior youth group in addition to a senior youth group or a young women’s group in addition to the traditional Dorcas/Ladies’ Aid, it leads some to ask, again, “Why?” It is also interesting to note who is usually suggesting these groups. It is not those who would participate themselves or, in the case of the youth, their parents. In our experience, it has been those who would have no connection to the group at all.
In a congregation with a Lutheran school, the 5-8th graders most likely to show up for junior youth group are the same group who attend school together during the week. Even in a congregation without a school, the children still likely attend school together and see each other plenty already. Since most congregations have Sunday School programs for this age group and catechism classes, they are already receiving instruction in the Christian faith, and with today’s tendency toward overscheduling this age group’s activities, another meeting during the week or month seems difficult to justify. Yes, of course, we’re in favor of studying God’s Word, but with so many opportunities to do that in the congregation already, maybe it would be better to allow some free time for parents to teach the faith at home.

High school youth groups have more opportunity for service to their congregations and communities because they are slightly older and, at least in theory, more able and responsible than their junior youth counterparts. There are some very good high school youth groups who have done wonderful Christian service for those less fortunate. However, if the youth group exists to go to CCM concerts as an alternative to actual concerts, or for game nights and pizza parties because we don’t trust our youth to keep out of trouble if left with any free time, then we’re not sure they can justify their existence. These groups can turn into pietistic conventicles and participation seen as another level of sanctification, confusing where and when we receive the Means of God’s grace, especially when taught by well-intentioned but theologically illiterate pastors or laypersons.
Something of the same can be said for the women’s groups in a congregation. When a meeting of one of these groups devolves into the same discussion every month (e.g. “Why don’t the young women come and join this organization?”), there is a problem. We are not against the LWML, LWMS, Dorcas society, Ladies’ Aid, etc. We respect and admire those who help the poor and elderly in their communities and help to spread the Gospel and provide Christian charity around the world. Women of the church have always done these things, usually without fanfare or thanks they have carried out their Christian vocations and they should and will continue to do so. However, the Americanized organizations are not a part of the church catholic and that seems to be where the wheels have come off. Preserving an arbitrary organization is not a part of Christian vocation. As for the younger generation of women, we’ve been able to track down and talk to a few of them, so we’ll presume to answer why many don’t attend. First, many more are working outside the home than even in their mothers’ generation. Yes, some of them may be working for less than compelling reasons, but that is still the situation. Second, maybe they just don’t have the desire to attend meetings where they count the organization’s money and eat desserts full of calories they don’t need and complain that more women didn’t come to do the same. Third, church is no longer where they look primarily for entertainment and socialization, and this may be a good thing. Many congregations had previously become little more than social clubs. Perhaps by the more social aspects of the church dying out, the church can be what it actually is: the Church.


elephantschild said...

the children still likely attend school together and see each other plenty already.

Unless, of course, you're a Lutheran homeschooling family. Then you're out of luck if the church's social life revolves around the dayschool, as it does at our church.

One point on the Sunday School, though - you're assuming that parents are actually sending their kids to Sunday school and not skipping it because the kids "get enough" at Lutheran dayschool during the week. (Perhaps that's a topic for the Angry Lutherans to address?)

In our case, I'd love it if there was a mid-week Church School like the old days for first grade through confirmation instruction.

And, I'm one of those younger generation of women who don't attend LWML. I really admire the concept, and the money raised for missions work. (My family was supported on the mission field by the collective efforts of many such groups, after all!) But the meetings are THREE hours long, in the middle of the day. There are no other children for my 6-yr old to play with if I take her along. I can't help but think that the group could be run more loosely. And can we lose the gavel, block and lectern? Please?

rlschultz said...

The groups within a congregation run the risk of being a double-edged sword. If you look at the mega-churches, you will observe this same phenomena. This is a type of splintering of the congregation into special-interest groups. Also with the mega-churches, they may have an orchestra pit and grandiose services, but they still place a tremendous emphasis upon the various "ministries" that they have. These ministries really do become a modern day convecticle. I think that it is easy to see cause and effect. Whenever you lessen the importance of true, liturgical worship, the central focus of the Gospel is lost. Welcome to the 21st century superflous American church. There is an undercurrent of thought which prevails in all of this that is borrowed from Pietism: "If the local congregation just has Sunday morning worship, it is not doing enough". The next logical step would be to assume that the "success" of a local church can be judged not only by its size, but also by its proliferation of "ministries". This is also consistent with the notion that "every Christian is a minister".
I have seen so many lay members burn out on their involvement in the groups. It can be huge time suck to the point of family neglect. Many, like myself, ratchet back our involvement to worship every Sunday and say goodbye to most everything else. No member should be pistol-whipped by the Law and have their faith called into question because others do not see any evidence in the alleged good works of group involvement.

Anonymous Lutheran said...

I assume you are not actually suggesting that all social elements be banished from church life, but one could read this post that way.

What kind of church would you have if everyone came for Divine Service on Sunday morning, possibly private confession at some appointed time such as Saturday afternoon, and there was otherwise no fellowship? Of course everyone would effectively attend in anonymity, and I doubt many people would consider this a good thing.

I am currently considering a move to a smaller parish precisely because the anonymity of one of the largest congregations in the LCMS is proving most unhealthy not only to my social life, but to my spiritual life as well. The Church *needs* to be socially functional to build and maintain a structure of fellowship and accountability.

Now, one could certainly make a case that the existing social functions are, shall we say, dysfunctional. They might be such in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, social functions must point us to Word and Sacrament, or else they have no place in church life.

Furthermore, they must be relevant, because the social sphere (not the Divine Service) is where relevance belongs. You demonstrated in your article how the existing women's organizations seem to be irrelevant to the lives and needs of young women today, and I can tell you from personal experience that the men's and singles' groups in my church are irrelevant to a single father, so that I fall through the cracks in my otherwise fine church.

As I said before, the purpose of a church's social presence must be to point people to Word and Sacrament. That is the answer to your "Why?" question, and the standard to which any social group ought to be held.

Angry Lutherans said...


That is certainly a challenge of homeschooling, and with homeschoolers still a relatively small minority, one that probably isn't going away any time soon.

As for the LWML, I agree. How about a bonfire of gavels, blocks, lecterns, and songbooks?


Angry Lutherans said...




Angry Lutherans said...

Mr. Lutheran,

That certainly should be the answer to "why?", but unfortunately, all too often, it is not. When there get to be so many groups, each fighting for its own importance and existence only for the sake of its own existence, there's a problem.

Fellowship and friendship are not the primary reasons for the existence of the Church. If some people only come for Divine Service and private Absolution, that's a-ok.

I agree that should be the standard used for evaluating the groups but have little hope it will be employed even in my own congregation.


Sr. Kate said...

An excellent article on this topic can be found here:

"Look Busy, Jesus Is Coming"

Angry Lutherans said...

Thanks, Sr. Kate. Is Rev. Berg still alive? He must be ancient by now.


Anonymous said...

Fr. Peter Berg said...

I was dead, but I didn't like it, so I'm back.

Sr. Kate said...

Fr. Berg: Will the new mascot be a phoenix? Or a bad penny?

Anonymous said...

Fr. Berg said...

Sr. Kate, you know me. A bad penny.

Sr. Kate said...

Fr. Berg: I was hoping you'd say that.

josh said...

This has nothing to do with this post, but I'm an LCMS member with some questions for WELS that don't appear on the Q&A. Is there anyone here that can help?

Angry Lutherans said...


We and the readers can certainly try. You can email us at and we will discuss questions here if we can answer them.