As a Lutheran pastor, my life, livelihood, peace of mind, and joy is inextricably bound to the Lutheran Church. It is not merely a part of my life. It is my life. As it goes, so I go to a very large extent. And that goes for the local parish as well as the Lutheran Church at large, even those denominations of which I am not a part. I care about it. I believe in it. I shapes my worldview. It gives life to and it tempers my hopes and expectations.
I suspect the same kind of sentiment is true for pastors in a variety of denominations and even for those disciples who are concerned for the Church beyond occasionally showing up on a Sunday morning. When things are good in the Church, anything is possible. When they are bad, despair always seems close at hand.
Like most mainline denominations, Lutherans have fallen on hard times. Mergers large and small took place over the course of the 20th century which gave the appearance of growth, unity and a bright future. But now, the numbers of Lutherans are in free fall. Where there was once genuine hope that a united Lutheran Church (or as united as Lutherans can be) would be stronger, wealthier and omnipresent, reality has set in that contraction is the norm.
What has become of this once-proud Church? After all, our namesake is the inspiration behind the most important moment in Western History since the Edict of Milan. I would argue that Lutheranism has at least three things going against it.
1) The issue which gave birth to Lutheranism is not the same issue our culture is concerned about. It is hard to imagine now, but there once was a time in history when human beings were concerned about their standing before God, given His holiness and our lowliness and all. Saint Paul, of course, provided the answer to this dilemma in his writings in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians on justification. You might even call his writings on justification the very heart of the Gospel itself.
As that knowledge was obscured by sub-biblical church traditions and practices, it needed to be rediscovered. Thus, the Reformation was born out of a real need to understand the joy of justification through faith alone.
But does the doctrine of justification, the animating force behind the founding of Lutheranism, still speak to us today? Sure, there remain many people who are burdened by their sins and receive the Gospel with glad hearts. But many have a casual attitude towards their evil. Worse, most of us assume, in fact, that we are by nature “good people”, and do not feel the burden of conviction from which only Jesus can free us. Preaching justification to people who are already justified in their minds is like offering a five-course meal to a man who just completed a meal of ten courses. There is no appetite for the historical (and biblical) Lutheran message so long as there is no fear of God.
So unfortunately, we must first convict the world of its sin before the sweetness of the Gospel will make any sense. But so long as Lutherans refuse to do the former, even the best expression of the latter will fall on deaf ears.
2) Lutherans possess neither the clarity of the Calvinists or the enthusiasm of Evangelicals. Protestantism in America generally falls along three lines: Calvinist, Evangelical (Baptist, Non-Denominational usually), and Charismatic. Lutherans have an alternative voice, a voice that might be welcome to many. But we have never had a significant foothold in the American religious landscape and we never will. Lutherans love to mock Calvinists for their logically air-tight arguments, but it is their sound arguments and powerful preachers (Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, etc.) through the centuries that keep them in the middle of the discourse whereas Lutherans are generally kept out.
Evangelicals (a word attributed first to Lutherans, of course) have had no shame in speaking about Jesus, frequently transgressing boundaries that Lutherans feel are safe. Again, all of the great non-Calvinist personalities in the history of American religion were Evangelical or Charismatic. None were Lutheran. Lutherans often attribute enthusiastic preaching of Jesus to emotionally-charged invitations to “accept Jesus” into one’s heart, a theological position that has been untenable since the early days of the Reformation.
That leaves us without much excitement one way or another, either in the logical purity of holiness-driven Calvinism or in the way of Evangelical furor. We look tame by comparison without much to offer.
3) Like it or not, Lutherans in America are here due to immigration, and that culture has defined us for centuries. When the Germans, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes came to America for a better life, they acquired land and got to work. They developed communities, churches, schools, and wonderful lives, often defined by their language and their religion. They stuck to themselves by and large, sometimes refusing to even fellowship with other Lutherans if they were from a different home country!
There was little need for evangelism. Usually the problem for the pastor was keeping up with his demands. My own congregation’s records indicate that any pastor from say 1850-1950 would have conducted all of the normal Sunday services and Bible studies, dozens of weddings, funerals and baptisms to boot, and – one can imagine – an enormous strain of administrative duties. The culture of isolation and never needing to evangelize sunk in and never left. Once we realized that the church was no longer organically growing, it was too late. The inertia had set in.
To be clear, I do not feel that all is lost! But I also do not possess delusions of grandeur when it comes to Lutheranism in America. In a follow-up essay, I will try to offer some more positive thoughts about the future of Lutheranism and be so bold as to offer solutions. But we first need to understand what battles are at hand and why. Hopefully, I have offered an accurate critique and a defense for why Lutheranism either needs to change, or just needs to be better at being Lutheran.