A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s “What’s Up With Lutherans?” (Featured July 13, 2011 as “What’s up with Lutherans Indeed” on Lutheran Forum)

(You can also find this article, along with comments, at http://www.lutheranforum.org)

Read Kevin DeYoung’s Post,

“What’s Up With Lutherans?” June 23, 2011. Here:

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/06/23/whats-up-with-lutherans/

Recently a Reformed blogger named Kevin DeYoung                                                               called the Evangelical world’s attention to the absence of Lutherans from the wider American Christian conversation. Well, at least someone noticed we’re here! Kevin,               here is my response.

You proposed five reasons for our absence—and I think all of them are right.

1. Ignorance about Lutherans. There are lots of Lutherans out there. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has about 4.5 million people in around 10,000 congregations, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has about 2.5 million in about 6,700 congregations. There are many other smaller groups doing ministry as well carrying the name of Luther boldly.

2. Lutherans Out of Place. Lutherans have not entered mainstream American Evangelical Christianity, though we do work in many ecumenical circles. Lutherans have really not fit the same molds as Mainline, Evangelical, or Catholic Christians in this country. At our best we would probably say we are all three. More and more we are part of declining “Mainline” Protestantism.

3. Lutherans in Ethnic Enclaves. Until the last century we Lutherans have really kept to ourselves, building congregations, schools, colleges, social agencies among our own immigrant and settled populations. While our people have integrated completely, in practice many of our congregations still assume we can sustain ourselves in the old ways—marrying people into the fold, having babies, and being multigenerational communities. Since our people, like many Americans, are mobile, marrying later (or not at all), and having fewer kids, we have a deep need to rethink how we “do” evangelism and outreach. Many other denominational Mainline churches face similar challenges.

4. Lutherans and Sacraments. Lutherans do have a unique view of the sacraments. We hold them very dear and are a huge part of our theology and practice. We differ from most other Protestants just as we differ from Roman Catholics. We like to hold the tension in the middle—so if you ask me if Holy Communion is true bread or true body, my answer is, “Yes it is.” We’re goofy like that—but if you are a Lutheran, it makes perfect sense.

5. Lutherans in Trouble. You are very right to say that Lutherans in America have more trouble than people realize. Lutherans have problems; deep nasty, problems. If you want a good recent book to help you answer “What’s up with Lutherans?” I’d suggest Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod by James C. Burkee. As one who spent childhood in both the ELCA and LCMS, I think Burkee is correct: we are still reaping the aftermath of what happened in the 1960s-1970s well into the 21st Century.

Now a little more history. Lutherans were coming together by the mid 20th century, and at one time there were three roughly similar sized groups: the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and the American Lutheran Church (ALC). At the time of social upheaval, growing use of historical-critical methods in biblical understanding and scholarship renewed ecumenism post-Vatican II, but the LCMS grew more conservative. The moderates were forced out and a new interim church called the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) was formed which brokered a merger with the LCA and ALC to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1987. Since that time Lutheranism has been in flux. The ELCA continues to move to the left as the LCMS moves to the right. Even with time the wounds are still deep, and as our culture continues to move faster and faster it appears we are bleeding out faster than we can heal. In the ELCA at least, in 1987 we had 5.28 million members compared to 4.54 million in 2009. (http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Communication-Services/News/Resources/Stats.aspx) Like I said, we have problems.

I’ll answer your original question by reframing it, because “What’s up with Lutherans?”     is really a secondary question. The primary question is, “What’s next for Lutherans?”          It seems we are currently stuck between two unsustainable paradigms: looking inward as we continue to fight amongst ourselves or looking outward as we abandon our Lutheran identity for other things. In both cases we’ve become about other “isms”: schism, ecumenism, liberalism, conservativism, social-acticivism, but in a rare case Lutheranism.

As an outsider, walking into what could be considered an orthodox Lutheran church on Sunday morning, you would receive hymns/songs where the words mattered as much as the melodies, preaching rooted in the law/gospel paradigm of proclaiming Jesus Christ “for you,” and a treatment of the sacraments that believed God was at work in what was happening. Today you’ll be just as likely to walk into a Lutheran church and hear sermons rooted in the many “isms” that still plague us, music with more style than substance and self-aggrandizing of our denominational efforts that somehow assume we have gotten it right. Pushed to the margins by these other agendas, many have gone into “bunker mode,” as you suggest.

We live in a time when the systems around us appear to be collapsing or at the very least giving way to emerging models. In other words things are a mess. Ideologies and institutions feel like they are under fire from every direction (even from within), which is why we’ve entered the bunker. Lutherans have a great way of talking about the mess.       We live in the mess.  Christ comes in the midst of the mess.

John Calvin did the Protestant movement a favor when he systematized Reformed thinking into his Institutes on the Christian Religion in the generation that followed Martin Luther. Its counter-point, the Council of Trent also helped to systematize Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in response to the reformers and the churches they led. Christians have been in dialogue with both Calvin and Trent ever since. (If you don’t think so, ask a small group of Christians what they think about Predestination or Transubstantiation some time.)

While having a confessional heritage of our own, Lutherans as a whole have always been a little more comfortable with the mess than any real sense of order. Luther found Christ in a messy manger among barn animals and saw salvation on a cross. He saw faith being lived not in the monastery or churches, but where parents changed babies diapers, merchants dealt with good and services, the community provided help for those in need, believers comforted one another in times of loss, and where schools taught boys (and girls, novel for his time) not only churchly things, but worldly things as well, so they could one day be better parents, workers, merchants, politicians, teachers, musicians, and for some, pastors. It is messy business placing faith in the world supported by the church rather than the church standing against the world or society supporting the church. Yet is it this mess called life where we truly see Christ. Luther called it Christian vocation. The word of God is living and active, and makes us alive to truly live.

If the church is going to be renewed for our time, and if Lutherans are going to be part of that renewal, we are going to need to climb out of the bunker, and start calling the mess what it is—a real world, with a real Christ risen from the dead. It is not going to be easy. Lutherans, like so many others, like our padded bunkers. But Christ is out in the mess of his world as much as he is in these bunkers called churches. We need to stop being so timid, stop seeking relevance in the latest “ism” de jour, and name Christ where we see him, out in the mess, out in the places people are. This is not a matter of calling people to decide to come to church, it is matter of truth telling, of naming the mess and naming the savior who comes into the mess—into the business world, the classroom, the unemployment office, the nursing home, the hospital, the police and fire department, the coffee shop, our city or town offices, down the street, with our neighbors, in our homes, wherever two or three are gathered, and to the loneliest of lonely that everyone else seems to have forgotten. It will require of us preaching, teaching, training and equipping our congregations toward Christ and life lived outside the walls of the church as much as in them. But if we preach, teach, train and equip living stones, our churches will find new vibrancy too.

Lutherans offer neither a holiness movement nor a church growth strategy, but rather a call to see Christ at work in all of the daily work we do; everywhere, redeeming the world, from a cross, and freeing us to live. No clichés. No cheap slogans. No more “isms.”

The crucified and risen Christ is here among us calling us out of the bunker.                     The mess will do just fine.

God bless you Kevin,

Geoff Sinibaldo

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About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
This entry was posted in Church & Mission, Church by Perception, Martin Luther & those strange Lutherans. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s “What’s Up With Lutherans?” (Featured July 13, 2011 as “What’s up with Lutherans Indeed” on Lutheran Forum)

  1. Greg Koenig says:

    Brilliantly put. I’ve been saying the same things–no, EXACTLY the same things–for about 4 or 5 years. Re: the idea about our deep need to rethink how we “do” evangelism and outreach, seems to me that if Lutherans can actually get there from here and then the church (pick your Lutheran flavor–LCMS, ELCA, WELS, etc….) actually grows, what it will be will NOT be what it was. We LCMS Lutherans, for example, cannot expect to make traditional German Lutherans out of 21st-century Americans responding to our outreach efforts; we need to embrace the reality that from that point on, we will be an American church.

    • Thanks for the feedback and for your partnership in ministry. It is a new landscape out there and it will take all of us to articulate the gospel clearly into a changing context we have taken for granted for too long. Peace, G

  2. Joshua Radetski says:

    Part of the issue (not a problem, just a fact) is that Lutherans don’t tend to stand around and blow their own horn. Generations of being taught to stand humbly before God have ingrained in our collective psyche to just put our heads down and do the work that God has given us.

    I’ve been Lutheran since birth and it wasn’t until working at a Lutheran social services agency that I realized all that Lutherans do! We see headlines and hear about the work of Catholic Charities, American Red Cross and the United Way, but does anyone out there in the pews know that the member agencies of Lutheran Services of America (a partnership! between the ELCA and LCMS) combine to almost DOUBLE the total dollars of charity that the three big charities listed combined [CC:$4.3 billion, Red Cross: $4.7 billion, United Way: $109 million —- LSA: $16.6 billion!!!]

    We’re dealing with the outside mess quite impressively. Imagine what we could do if the inside mess didn’t keep distracting us!

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