Monday, February 27, 2006

The Balkanization of American Lutheranism

I just finished reading Mark Noll's 1992 article entitled "The Lutheran Difference", which provides an interesting sociological and historical analysis of American Lutherans. Despite the title, Noll admits that there are few differences between today's Lutherans and other American Protestants, and he concludes that they are "remarkably unremarkable... Lutherans may now and then have their eccentricities, but they are on the whole, and given their place on the immigrant curve, quite ordinarily American." Noll seems disappointed by his own conclusion, because he feels that Lutherans, with their unique theological and cultural heritage, may have a lot to offer Christianity in America. A similar point was made several decades before by Winthrop Hudson in his 1961 book American Protestantism:

The final prospect for a vigorous renewal of Protestant life and witness rests with the Lutheran churches... The Lutheran churches are in the fortunate position of having been, in varying degrees, insulated from American life for a long period of time. As a result they have been less subject to the theological erosion which has so largely stripped other denominations of an awareness of their continuity with a historic Christian tradition. Thus the resources of the Christian past have been more readily available to them, and this fact suggests that they may have an increasingly important role in a Protestant recovery. Among the assets immediately at hand among the Lutherans are a confessional tradition, a surviving liturgical structure, and a sense of community..."

However, as Noll points out, Lutherans can only serve this important role if they "remain authentically Lutheran" and "find out how to speak Lutheranism with an American accent... The task is to steer between the Scylla of assimilation without tradition and the Charybdis of tradition without assimilation."

Fourteen years after these words were written, there's little reason to believe that Lutherans have succeeded in this task. The ELCA, which was supposed to create a more unified and assertive American Lutheranism, suffers from widespread discontent. It's sad to say, but very few thoughtful Lutherans feel completely "at home" in the ELCA, and many now look to groups outside of the church for inspiration and direction. Within the ELCA, there are liberal Protestants that want to emulate the social activism and doctrinal tolerance of the mainline denominations, while evangelical catholics now take their cues from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. These two groups, both dissatisfied with the ELCA but for very different reasons, are increasingly anxious to shed their Lutheran identities and pursue futures in other churches. Meanwhile, a third group, comprised of conservative and confessional Lutherans, advocates a repristination of Lutheran Orthodoxy, perhaps in the mold of the Missouri Synod. However, in their zealous attempt to preserve the purity of Lutheran doctrine, they paradoxically become less Lutheran and more akin to conservative evangelicals. In my opinion, none of these groups, in and of themselves, are faithful to Luther's vision, although each encompasses a part of that vision.

What is to be done? Perhaps nothing. In my pessimistic moments, I often suspect that Lutheranism is no longer viable as a distinct denomination, and that the ELCA will eventually disintegrate as various discontented groups leave to join like-minded souls in other churches. This process may take decades or even centuries, but no one should doubt that the Lutheran Church is currently headed for extinction (in Europe, it's already on its deathbed). But we can take solace from the fact that Lutheran theology will never die, even if it has to live on in non-Lutheran churches. Luther belongs to the entire church, not just to a few denominations. In fact, Luther himself might have approved of this scenario, since he never really wanted a separate church named after him.

I would be curious to know if others agree with my gloomy assessment. Are there signs of a revival in the ELCA that I'm currently missing? If so, please bring them to my attention, because I take no pleasure in what I've said here. I have no home other than the ELCA - the mainline churches leave me cold, the Catholic church is too authoritarian and reactionary, and the LCMS is the worst option of all. So please disagree with my prognosis !!!


Luthsem said...

I'm a ELCA seminary student so you might know what I'm going through. I'm getting alot of Liberation theology now. Sometimes I feel the pull from the LCMC or Eastern Orthodoxy but somehow I hope for a more ecumenical future with the article 4 of Augsburg Confession being the article which the church stands or falls on.

Luthsem said...

Marie Meyer on the Daystar site has an interesting article on the Lutheran difference and on the legalism of the LCMS. I linked it on my site

LutherPunk said...

Good post. I must confess that I think it may be easier to live out the Augsburg Confession somewhere else than in the ELCA. We really have become nothing more than bland American Protestants, absorbing all the worst from mainline Protestant culture. I joined the ELCA, and eventually became a pastor, because I really thought we had something to offer. Instead, I find myself serving a church with no identity.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

While it might be nice to want to preserve Lutheranism, whatever one means by that, ultimately it isn't what we want, or what makes a denomination strong in the eyes of the world that counts, but what God wants to happen that matters.

My opinion is that there is a need for a church which affirms that we are saved by Grace, not by jumping through hoops or by the Purpose of our Life, or by going through liturgy, etc.

Usually a strength has a flip side. In the case of Lutherans it is that if we are saved by grace, then we really can't impose additional rules. At least I can't see how we can make it harder to join the earthly church than to go to heaven. But that stance makes a Lutheran with a deep faith "appear" to be liberal to those who don't understand the concept of grace.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

Ever hear of "The Alliance of Renewal Churches"? or "The Master's Institute Seminary" or "Word Alone Network" If so, what are your thoughts about there being some bright spots in American Lutheranism?

LutheranChik said...

This is perhaps tangential but I hope not completely disconnected from issues of worship/praxis: I personally struggle with what seems to be a lack of interest, in the ELCA, in nuturing adults' spiritual formation. I find it appalling, for instance, that while my Episcopal friends discerning a call to the diaconal ministry or priesthood are required to go through a fairly rigorous program of spiritual discipline/direction, there doesn't seem to be anything equivalent in our denominaton. No one seems to care. Oh, Lisa Dahill at Trinity Sem has a good "beginner's" book on the spiritual disciplines as an adjunct to Sunday worship -- but there's really no "there" there in the ELCA when it comes to spiritual formation/direction. I find it incredibly frustrating (especially as someone studying for the lay ministry) that I have to go out of my denomination to find spiritual direction. Is this a remnant of the Reformation horror of "monkery" (which I doubt, since Luther had a rich, intense prayer practice), or is it a sign of complacency, or is it a symptom of a church body not knowing who it is, so it doesn't have the will or wherewithal to help nuture members in their own faith lives?

P.S. I'm hosting a Lutheran blog carnival themed around Lutheran spirituality; come check it out; submissions welcome.