It is true, the big story is in Africa. Africa is rapidly becoming the center of world Lutheranism. I count it a privilege to be grafted into it!
How Many Lutherans?
by William W. Schumacher
How many Lutherans are there in the world? According to statistics compiled by the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the answer was 69,757,57o at the end of 2005. That grand total number includes the membership of the 138 LWF member churches, as well as non-LWF churches such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). You can read the detailed report yourself at www.lutheranworld.org.
The question of how many Lutherans there are is certainly interesting, even if any attempt to answer it embroils us in hazards, doubts, and ambiguities. There are hazards because, in the minds of some, the very idea of counting seems theologically objectionable. These enemies of numerical measurement have some Bible passages on their side, of course. (The account of David’s military census in 2 Samuel 24 may be taken as a cautionary tale about such numbering!) But even if we concede that counting the world’s Lutherans is not inherently improper, doubts remain as to whether it is possible. It will always be difficult to know how accurate such statistics are, whether the count was conducted the same way everywhere, and what factors should be taken into consideration as we use the numbers.
We may also wonder who gets counted as a Lutheran. This is not a simple question, and it is not getting any simpler. We may prefer, and even assert, a strictly confessional definition by which those who do not pledge themselves unconditionally to the whole Book of Concord ought not to be counted as Lutheran. But such a definition is unlikely to be convincing to most of those who want to identify themselves as Lutheran, and it is not clear that we can exercise any sort of exclusive proprietary rights over the term. If we want to use—and perhaps even learn from—the statistics published by the LWF, we must bear in mind the definitions they use themselves. That is where the plot begins to thicken.
For many years, we have become accustomed to thinking of European Lutheranism as diminishing in influence and numbers. The state churches and Volkskirchen of the traditionally Lutheran lands of Germany and Scandinavia have lost members, church attendance is notoriously pathetic, and the old systems of state taxation in support of those churches are gradually being dismantled in many places. The pattern of decline in those Lutheran churches makes it all the more surprising that Europe showed a very significant increase in the number of Lutherans during the year 2004. More Lutherans were added in Europe than in any other region of the World! That year, European Lutheranism increased from just under 36 million to about 38.6 million, an increase of about 7.3 percent. What is even more impressive is that most of that increase occurred in the tiny country of the Netherlands. In the Netherlands alone, the LWF counted twice as many new Lutherans in 2004 as in the whole continent of Africa (more about Africa in a moment).
Of course, there has not been an explosion of evangelistic zeal among Dutch Lutherans. The statistical anomaly results from a merger of the tiny Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands with that country’s two largest Reformed bodies, each of which was vastly larger than the Lutheran group. The merged church, known as the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN), is now a member of both the LWF and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Voila! Now we have more than two million new “Lutherans,” at least the way they are being counted these days in Europe.
Elsewhere in the world, the statistics are perhaps less ambiguous. The Western Hemisphere does not fare well. North American Lutheranism has been declining by one or two percent per year, while Latin America is something of a mixed bag, with some gains and some losses, and little or no net change in membership over the last few years. Asian Lutheranism, still small in absolute numbers, is growing, with significant recent gains in Taiwan and Bangladesh. There are now about 7.4 million members of Lutheran churches in Asia.
The big story, however, is in Africa. The number of African Lutherans rose from just under 13 million in 2003 to over 14 million in 2004 and 15 million in 2006—apparently without adopting the European method of redefining millions of Reformed Christians as “members of LWF churches.” There are today almost three times as many Lutherans in Africa as there are in North America. Please stop and read that sentence again, because it is important. There are today almost three times as many Lutherans in Africa as there are in North America.
Africa is rapidly becoming the center of world Lutheranism. The sheer numbers are part of the picture, of course. But the rate of growth is also highly significant; European churches still have many more members than do their African sisters, but the African churches know a good deal more than the Europeans about the business of baptizing and catechizing new converts to the faith. If Lutheran churches sold stock, would you invest in European churches or African ones? Which sort of church do you suppose has a future over the next century or so?
Six out of the seventeen countries with more than half a million Lutherans are African countries (and three are in Asia). Of the twenty-two Lutheran churches which report more than half a million members, six are African churches (and three are in Asia). Three African Lutheran church bodies each have more members than the LCMS (in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Tanzania).
Of course, Africa is not yet the financial center of global Lutheranism. The churches of Europe and North America, although lacking much of the vitality and dynamism of the African churches, still wield enormous economic power, and that power translates into influence in every aspect of the life of the worldwide Lutheran community. There is a tension between the size, growth, and vitality of non-Western (and especially African) churches on the one hand, and the disproportionate financial resources and influence (both theological and political) concentrated in the churches of Europe and North America on the other hand. That tension may become increasingly obvious and important for the relations among those in the world who identify themselves as Lutherans.
What will it mean for us when the “center of gravity” of Lutheranism has moved to Africa? Will that change the way we think about the world, and about our place in it? Perhaps it will convince us that the future of this precious way of confessing and proclaiming the gospel (what we call “Lutheranism”) is very bright, indeed. It is growing and thriving under the bright African sun.
WILLIAM W SCHUMACHER formerly served as missionary to Botswana, Africa, and currently serves as Mission Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Dean of Theological Research and Publication at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. This is an updated version of an article that appeared in Concordia Journal, Volume 31, Number 2, April 2005.
[from LOGIA: A JOURNAL OF LUTHERAN THEOLOGY, Volume XVII, Number 1, pages 7-8]