Declining Churches


That’s the subject of articles authored by Thom Rainer and Alan Danielson. Here are the links: and

Both articles identify a common pattern among churches in decline: an inward focus, to the exclusion of an outward focus. No surprise! Here are some highlights from Rainer’s article:

“Ministries in declining churches are only for the members. Budgeted funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. Times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way.”

“Other symptoms include very few attempts to minister to people in the church’s community. Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires. Members in the congregation are openly critical of the pastor, church staff, and lay leaders in the church.”

“In declining churches, any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance. The past becomes the hero. Culture is seen as the enemy instead of an opportunity for believers to become salt and light. Pastors and other leaders in the church become discouraged and withdraw from effective leadership.”

Danielson adds: “Our churches are not here to make us (the believers) happy, meet our needs, satisfy our desires, or affirm our opinions. Our churches are here to reach people who are desperately far from God. Our churches do not exist for us. Our churches exist for the lost.”

He continues: “We need to ask ourselves some tough questions. What do I not like about my church? What if the very thing I don’t like is the thing that will reach people for Jesus? What do I love most about my church? What if the very thing I like most is the thing that is a barrier to reaching people for Christ? Am I willing to support changes I don’t like? Am I willing to lay down my preferences and opinions for the sake of people who are lost?”

“While our own desires don’t automatically contradict our mission, we must be diligent never to allow our desires to supersede the mission. What should we want more than seeing people come to faith in Christ? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Sound familiar? This syndrome is not uncommon in congregations of the national church body of which I am a member. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is no stranger to decline.

Rainer helps with words of hope: “For those of us in Christ, however, there is always hope—His hope. Times are tough in many churches. Congregations are dying every day. Many church leaders are discouraged. But we serve the God of hope. Decline does not have to be a reality.”

My additional comments are these: There are lots of moving parts in the process of transforming a declining church to a church of health and vitality, many more than can be satisfactorily covered in Perspectives articles. But do not despair. Hope comes in various ways.

If your church is declining, begin now to pray. Respectfully express to your pastor and other church leaders your concern and offer to assist. Consider encouraging him or them to take the step of reaching out to someone who might be able to help. For ideas of where to find such help, contact leaders of a healthy church. If all else fails, let me know.

It’s important to remember what Jesus said about himself: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

+Vernon Dale Gundermann+

vern-gundermannAfter a valiant battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, Rev. Vernon Dale Gundermann left this earthly life on Friday, September 16. He was 78 years, 11 months and 16 days of age.

Vern served for many years as pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. Among other positions, after retirement he also served as Chaplain at the International Center of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

My first contact with Pastor Gundermann was in 1991, when I was elected president of the Texas District of the LCMS. The 41 members of the Council of Presidents met at the International Center, near Concordia, so most of us walked to church for the 8:00 a.m. Sunday service.

We were privileged to receive assurance of God’s love and forgiveness from the heart, head and hands of Vern Gundermann, who had become Senior Pastor at Concordia that same year. He always seemed incredibly sensitive, spiritually mature and pastorally competent.

In addition, the man could preach! I’ve come to describe Vern as one of the best preachers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I never heard a bad sermon from this man and can think of few other preachers, including myself, about whom I can say the same.

Vern was also a sensitive and caring pastor. Particularly during some difficult days as national church president, I received communications from and attended meetings with people who my dear Terry aptly describes as “joy suckers.” They sucked the joy right out of life and ministry.

At such times, Pastor Gundermann had an uncanny, surreal, perhaps even supernatural way of knowing and feeling the struggles we were experiencing. Upon returning from such difficult meetings and encounters, I was almost always greeted with a phone message from Pastor Gundermann, assuring me, and Terry as well, of his prayers, love, support, encouragement.

Vern is survived by his beloved wife Betty, their four children, and 11 grandchildren. Memorial services will be held at Concordia Lutheran Church, Kirkwood, MO, on Sunday, September 25, at 4:00 p.m. and at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Fulda, MN, on Tuesday, September 27, at 1:30 p.m.

Well done, good and faithful servant!

The strife is o’er, the battle done; now is the victor’s triumph won; now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded Thee, from death’s dread sting Thy servants free, that we may live and sing to Thee. Alleluia!

Nine Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship


An online article by Kenny Lamm lists the following reasons people aren’t singing in worship:

  1. We don’t know the songs.
  2. We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing.
  3. We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.
  4. The congregation can’t hear people around them singing.
  5. Worship services become spectator events, building a performance environment.
  6. The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.
  7. We fail to have a common body of hymnody.
  8. Worship leaders ad lib too much.
  9. Worship leaders are not connecting with the congregation.

See the article in its entirety at

While all these statements may not describe worship in your church, some very well might. In my denomination #7 is not a problem, unless we’re talking only about “contemporary” worship services.

The opportunity to sing hymns and songs of worship with heartfelt gusto is one of the most important matters on my mind when I enter the sanctuary. When that objective is frustrated, for the reasons above or for any of many other reasons, I become a bit grouchy on the way home!

Conversely, when the hymns and songs, whether familiar or unfamiliar, are joyfully singable, my spirits are lifted! When that happens, I’m actually friendly on the way home!

I’m not a worship leader and never will be. So I can only imagine the challenges such talented and important artists face, week in and week out. That’s why at every opportunity I go out of my way to express appreciation to worship leaders when their work produces the desired result.

In my simple way of thinking, the role of a worship leader is to enhance the worship experience for the people in the pew in order that God is glorified and the faith of the worshipers is assured and strengthened. When that is achieved, people will sing with joyful hearts.

In an amazing way, that’s what happens at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Tex. When a month has five Sundays the fifth Sunday is “Bluegrass Sunday.” Occasionally we have “Gospel Sunday.” Either way, simple, old time, familiar, easy to sing songs and hymns draw people by the droves. These services are easily the most heavily attended non-festival services of the year.

Here’s to celebrating reasons why people are singing in worship! And bringing glory to God in the process! “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)

Sermon at Zion Walburg – September 11, 2016 – “To the Ends of the Earth”


Acts 13:47-49
This is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and many believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout that region.

Happy Birthday Pastor John! We love you!

This morning’s message will highlight the origin of the growth of the early church “to the ends of the earth” and challenges to the growth of the church today. Before doing so I pray and trust you will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God loves you with an everlasting love, that he sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for the forgiveness of your sin and that he has prepared a place for you in heaven. In a few moments we will celebrate that incredible reality with the miraculous reception of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

I begin with a reminder that today is the 15th anniversary of events that changed life in America and around the world. Most of us vividly remember that day, September 11, 2001, now known worldwide as 9/11. Images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City burning and collapsing are indelibly etched in our minds and hearts. Yet I was recently reminded that today’s freshmen in high school, who were not yet on the ground in 2001, are learning about 9/11 only as history.

Those terrible acts of radical Islamic terrorism occurred only three days after I was installed in St. Louis as 12th president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The events that followed changed my life and ministry. My brief time with you today won’t allow details to be shared. Perhaps I can do so at some point in the future.

Similar motivations were at play 2,000 years ago in what we now call the Holy Land. The man honored by the Christian world as the apostle Paul, arguably the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity, started out as one bad dude! Incredibly, the highlights of his early life reveal violent and aggressive behavior toward followers of Christ.

In Acts 9 we read that this man was called Saul, his Hebrew name. He agreed with and watched the coats of the men who stoned Deacon Stephen in Acts 7-8. Soon after that he began to destroy the church and was now also plotting threats of murder against the Lord’s disciples. For starters, he was planning to haul off to prison in Jerusalem any men or women from Damascus who believed in Jesus. That’s a distance of 135 miles as the crow flies but, believe it or not, 1,800 miles by auto.

Saul’s motivations are not clear, but possibly he believed that Jewish converts to Christ were not sufficiently obedient to Jewish law, or that Jewish converts mingled too freely with Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, thus associating themselves with idolatrous practices.

The young Saul also perhaps rejected the claim that Jesus came back to life after death.

At any rate, Saul resolutely dedicated his life to travelling from synagogue to synagogue, with the blessing of the Jewish High Priest, urging and implementing the imprisonment and punishment of Jewish men and women who accepted Jesus as the messiah.

Saul persecuted the church and those who belonged to the church! But his dastardly deeds were divinely interrupted one day on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.

Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He replied: “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you’ll be told what to do.” For three days Saul was blind and ate or drank nothing. Then the Lord directed a man in Damascus named Ananias to restore Saul’s sight.

After his sight was restored he got up and was baptized, received the Holy Spirit, ate some food, regained his strength, spent several days with the disciples in Damascus and promptly began to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God.

Those who heard him were amazed and asked, “Isn’t this the man who came here to take to prison those who call on Jesus’ name?” But Saul was empowered all the more. Sometime later he changed his name to Paul, the Latin version of his name, because he was a Roman citizen.

It’s almost like the father who said to his wayward son: “Change your life or change your name.” Saul changed both his life and his name.

In Acts 13:42-49, today’s Scripture reading, Paul and Barnabas were preaching in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. Many Jews were persuaded by their message to follow Jesus.

The following Sabbath nearly the whole city gathered to hear Paul preach. But the Jews saw the crowds, were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what Paul was saying.

Then Paul and Barnabas answered the Jews boldly: “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles with the message of Christ. This is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Gentiles were essentially non-Jewish pagans. Some were atheists who didn’t believe in any god. Others worshiped false gods. Yet God had prepared their hearts for Paul’s powerful message.

When the Gentiles heard the message of Christ, they rejoiced and many believed. The word of the Lord spread throughout that region.

Things were going well! Almost reminiscent of the description of the originally small but rapidly growing number of those who followed Jesus just after his resurrection and ascension: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”

However, even at this early time in Christian history, conflict ensued:

The Jews incited the leading religious women and men of the city, who stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out of the region.

Hard to believe that supposedly godly people would act that way. Hard to imagine that folks who considered themselves God’s people would say and do things that caused division in God’s church. Hard to comprehend how people who knew the command of Jesus to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth would do anything to work against his cause, even to the point of driving away from the church people with passion for Christ. But it happened.

Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas, who must have been discouraged, were not dejected but instead energized! They shook the dust off their feet against the Jews and went to Iconium, about 85 miles away.

These disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit!

Amazing that selfish, ungodly behavior toward new believers resulted in a movement that changed the world. Embryonic Christianity, reviled and rejected by the Jewish religious establishment, began to grow among the Gentiles, who became dedicated, devoted Christians and saw as their mission in life to do what Jesus had commanded. They became his witnesses, telling their world who he was and what he had done!

It’s ironic that in the process of moving the primary early church focus from Jews to Gentiles, God used the basic sinful nature of humanity to accomplish his greater purpose. People who called themselves godly were actually self-serving, internally focused, doing things that catalyzed conflict and worked against the spread of the Gospel of Christ. Unthinkable to us Christians in the 21st century, especially to us who comprise Zion Lutheran Church, or is it?

Recently I read an article titled The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches by Thom S. Rainer:

He begins by identifying a common pattern among churches that are already in decline or in danger of beginning to decline: an inward focus. Here’s what he says:

“The ministries of declining churches are focused only on the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way.”

He then identifies several warning symptoms of churches headed toward decline:

  • There are very few attempts to minister to people in the church’s community.
  • Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires.
  • Members in the congregation are openly critical of the pastor, other church staff, and lay leaders in the church.
  • Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.
  • The past becomes the hero.
  • Current culture is seen as the enemy instead of an opportunity for believers to become salt and light.
  • Pastors and other leaders in the church become discouraged and withdraw from effective leadership.

Sound familiar? That’s pretty much what was happening in Paul’s day. The Jews were concerned primarily about themselves. This syndrome is not uncommon also today, even in congregations of the national church body of which Zion is a member. Many congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are in decline.

Let me speak very frankly here. A few years ago Zion fell into a season of decline. There were reasons for that sad reality. But in more recent months there are very positive signs that that brief period of decline is in the past. Especially at a time like this but also at all times, it behooves us as children of God to ensure that we keep the main thing the main thing, remembering why we exist as a Christian congregation.

The people who formed this church over 134 years ago were told by the founding pastor: “The greatest enemy we have to face is German Methodism!” That may have been true in 1882 but it’s not the case today. Our greatest enemies as a congregation in 2016 are the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh! Those enemies produce and thrive on complacency, traditionalism, and a party spirit, all of which are fueled by a pinch of German hard-headedness. Believe me, it takes one to know one!

Is there anyone among us today who believes he or she has an inside track on perfect perception and flawless insight? Is there anyone among us who sometimes thinks and acts self-righteously, judging the motives of other people? It would be dishonest of me not to raise my hand in response to both questions. How about you?

Is there anyone among us who has lost the first century Christian vision of taking the Gospel to people in Walburg, Georgetown, Jarrell, Bartlett, Salado—our own Jerusalem and Judea—and from here to the ends of the earth? Dear friends in Christ, my purpose here is not to throw stones at anyone but to remind us of who we are and why we’re here.

Let me speak even more frankly. As a congregation we are facing decisions that will impact Zion’s influence in this community and beyond, for years to come. What we choose to do as a congregation will result either in God being glorified and his love being proclaimed ever more caringly and boldly or, conversely, in the power and promise of the Gospel being sidelined and sidetracked.

Satan would love nothing more than to distract us from our primary purpose of being a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, shining forth the love of Christ for all to see. Satan would delight in seeing this group of believers divided and diverted from the mission Christ has given us to be his witnesses, to the ends of the earth. We dare not allow that to happen. This week’s letter from Zion’s Board of Elders addresses that challenge.

Whatever you think about the decisions that lie before us, the mandate we all have as followers of Christ is to set aside selfish desire to prevail over those who disagree with us and to figure out, lovingly and responsibly, how to make those decisions in a way that shuns disharmony and shouts solidarity. I believe that applies to each of us here at Zion.

Now let me speak personally. Along with a large number of other Zion members, Bob Greene, Mike Linebrink, and I served on a specific committee to help raise what is now nearly $3.7 million toward Zion’s Invest and Invite Capital Stewardship Campaign. Our preferences are obvious.

We desire to see this congregation continue to do whatever is necessary, like St. Paul said later in life, to become all things to all people so that by any means some might be saved. We, along with the other 216 family units who pledged 3.7 million hard earned dollars to this campaign, believe improving and enhancing Zion’s facilities will help accomplish that objective.

At the same time, we know that some do not agree. We respect their right to express their disagreement. Furthermore, we believe it is incumbent upon Zion’s leaders to hear and to address, as fully as possible, the reasonable, responsible and rational concerns of committed members of Zion who are faithfully worshiping and financially supporting the Lord’s work here on the hilltop.

Building new facilities requires additional expenditures. A decision to do so must be made responsibly and prudently. We should not spend more than we can afford. We must not borrow more than we can repay. We dare not ignore God’s will to give cheerfully, in proportion to what we have received from his bountiful hand.

At the end of the day, if we are serious about our purpose as a church to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, whatever decisions are made must be accepted or, better yet, embraced by a critical mass of Zion’s people.

We all confess the truth of Holy Scripture. We all profess our faith in Jesus Christ, Savior of the world and Lord of the universe. We all have the God given responsibility to spend our lives and our fortunes on influencing the eternal destiny of people who live in the darkness and despair of unbelief, whom the Bible says, without faith in Christ, will not receive eternal life.

If we truly believe there is a heaven and that there is a hell, we can do nothing less than put our individual and collective shoulders to the wheel in working together toward the goal of doing what Jesus commanded and prophesied. The Gospel will be brought to the ends of the earth!

Rainer concludes his article with a word of hope: “For those of us in Christ, there is always hope—His hope. I don’t have my head in the sand. I know times are tough in many churches. I know congregations are declining and that some are even dying every day. I know many church leaders are discouraged. But we serve the God of hope. Decline in our churches does not have to be a reality.” I agree completely and trust that you agree as well.

There are lots of moving parts in the process of becoming and remaining a church of health and vitality, many more than can be satisfactorily addressed in a Sunday morning sermon. It begins by remembering other words of St. Paul to the Corinthian Christians:

The love of Christ constrains us. He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled the world to himself, not counting mankind’s sins against them and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

I trust you will join me in continuing to pray God’s blessing on our endeavors, together, to reconcile people to Christ, to help Zion be not a mere monument to the past but a beacon of light shining brightly on the mission Jesus has given us for the future.

Remember, it was he who said: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring my salvation to the ends of the earth!’”

God grant it, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!

Two Important Opportunities

This Special Edition of Perspectives brings to your attention two important opportunities:

  1. Pastor 360 Summit in San Antonio, Texas – October 11-13, 2016
  2. Reformation Trip with Wendish Territory Option – May 2017

Pastor360 Summit in San Antonio, Texas – October 11-13, 2016

Pastors: Consider how enrolling in the Summit will enhance your life and ministry!

Lay Leaders: Consider encouraging your pastor to attend this important Summit!

Pastor360 was created several years ago by two LCMS pastors and one committed layman. Our coaching staff is comprised of seasoned veteran LCMS pastors with a combined total of more than 160 years of ministry and leadership experience! The objective of Pastor360 is to help pastors make life and ministry better and more effective.

The Summit will focus on numerous topics to accomplish that objective, including:

  • Effective ways to re-energize your ministry and inspire your congregation for mission
  • Effective ways to prepare and deliver sermons that encourage congregational action
  • How to improve physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial health and well being
  • How to avoid and overcome feelings of frustration in tackling ministry challenges
  • How to lead your church with less stress and more balance in your life
  • How to expand leadership qualities and measurable ministry impact

Presenters include Jerry Kieschnick, Bill Tucker, Steve Wagner, Bill Knippa, and Davy Tyburski. Additional presentations from medical and financial professionals, along with Concordia Lutheran Church professional staff, will add value to your life and ministry.

For further information go to

“In the Footsteps of Martin Luther and the Reformation 2017″– May 9-17, 2017

“Wendish Territory” Pre-Tour Option – May 5-9, 2017

This 500th Anniversary of the Reformation tour is hosted by Lutheran Foundation of Texas, which exists to build God’s kingdom by educating people about the joy of planned giving and facilitating gifts that support Christian ministries. Dr. and Mrs. Jerry Kieschnick will serve as on-site tour hosts.Historic towns on the basic Reformation tour itinerary include Berlin, Wittenberg, Halle, Eisleben, Erfurt, Eisenach, Worms, Heidelberg, and Mainz, returning home from Frankfurt.The Pre-Tour Wendish Territory option includes visits to Dresden, Bautzen, Klitten, Weigersdorf, Hoyerswerda, Schleife, Spreewitz, Raddusch, Cottbus and Lubbenau.

Those who have already visited the Reformation sites and thus are interested only in the Wendish portion of the trip may choose that available option.

For an electronic brochure click here.

If you prefer a printed brochure or have specific questions, send your request, including your name and physical mailing address, via email to or via snail mail or phone call to:

Lutheran Foundation of Texas | 7900 East Highway 290 | Austin, TX 78724-2499 | 512.646.4909

Hurricane Katrina and Louisiana Flooding

Baton Rouge Flooding

Credit: John Oubre / The Advocate

This week Monday marked the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on August 29, 2005, in southeast Louisiana. That horrendous storm strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but weakened before making its second landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on August 29 in southeast Louisiana. Wikipedia provides details:

Katrina was the eleventh named storm and fifth hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. It was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. The storm is currently ranked as the third most intense United States land falling tropical cyclone, behind only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and Hurricane Camille in 1969.

Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, making it the deadliest United States hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion, roughly four times the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Katrina caused severe destruction along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge and levee failure. Severe property damage occurred in coastal areas, such as Mississippi beachfront towns; over 90 percent of these were flooded. Boats and casino barges rammed buildings, pushing cars and houses inland; water reached 6–12 miles from the beach.

Over fifty breaches in New Orleans hurricane surge protection were the cause of the majority of the death and destruction during Katrina. Eventually 80% of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters lingered for weeks.

In addition, earlier this month the state of Louisiana suffered heavy flooding from torrential rainfall that caused rivers to overflow their banks, leaving many people homeless. In one part of Livingston Parish, more than 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours.

One Red Cross worker said, “Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost everything they own and need our help now!” Disaster relief folks from numerous congregations and agencies of our church body have responded with volunteers and monetary support, yet many of those affected have no flood insurance. The need is great for human and financial resources!

For more information on how you can help, go to

Although Terry and I have never directly experienced damage and destruction from flooding, my mother’s home in New Braunfels flooded twice in four years. Through her experience we’ve seen up close the heartache and financial burden that result. Thank you and God bless you for responding in any way possible to help those facing this time of personal loss and need!