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 !!!