Jun

23

2011

Kevin DeYoung|6:42 am CT

What’s Up With Lutherans?

This isn’t meant to be a snarky rhetorical post. It’s a genuine question.

What up with Lutherans?

More to the point: where are they? I’m looking for help from those of you out there who know the Lutheran world better than I do. I look around at what’s seem vibrant in evangelicalism and see lots of Baptists and Presbyterians. I see a lot of Free Church folks and a growing number of Anglicans. I see non-denominational guys aplenty. The Pentecostal world is a little outside my circles, but I certainly see continuationists and charismatics in conservative evangelical circles. But I don’t see many Lutherans.

I don’t know of Lutherans speaking at the leading conferences. I don’t know of many popular books written by Lutherans. I don’t know of church planting movements among Lutherans. I know lots of people who look up to Martin Luther, but I don’t see the influence of Lutherans.

I’m genuinely curious to know why the big tent of conservative, confessional evangelicalism doesn’t have more Lutherans. I understand that the Calvinist soteriology of TGC and T4G types doesn’t fit with Methodism or parts of the Holiness traditions, but Luther’s doctrine of predestination was Calvinist before there was Calvin.

I know Gene Veith is Lutheran. So is Doug Sweeney. White Horse Inn has worked hard to include the confessional wing of Lutheranism. But after that, I’m drawing a blank to come up with contemporary Lutheran leaders/theologians/pastors I know or read. I’m not blaming anyone–Lutherans or the Young, Restless, Reformed movement or the blogosphere or Sarah Palin. It’s just something I’ve thought about from time to time: Where have all the Lutherans gone? I know you exist outside of Lake Wobegon.

So which of the statements below best explains why quandry?

1. I’m ignorant. This is, no doubt, a  big part of the explanation. I’m sure there are thousands of good Lutheran churches and pastors. I just don’t know all the good they are doing and saying. And there may be thinkers and authors I like who are simply Lutheran without my knowing it.

2. With their high church, confessional tradition, Lutheranism has always been a little out of place with the sometimes rootless, low church expressions of evangelicalism. They never got on board with evangelicalism after the Great Awakening. This may be part of it, but evangelicalism has been influenced by many Anglican theologians and preachers, hasn’t it?

3. Lutherans are content to remain in ethnic enclaves. Again, that could be part of the issue, but then how do you explain the influence of the Dutch Reformed on evangelicalism?

4. The Lutheran view of the sacraments is a bridge too far for many evangelicals, and the faddish nature of evangelicalism is a bridge too far for many Lutherans.

5. Lutheranism in America has bigger problems and less influence than many people realize. The bulk of Lutherans have gone liberal and the rest have gone into bunker mode.

I’ll read the comments more carefully than usual. I blog so that I might understand. Help me out, especially if you are part of the tribe: What’s up with Lutherans?

Update

Thanks to all those who took the time to leave a thoughtful comment on the state of the Lutheran church. Just to be clear, I was not trying to suggest in anyway that there are no Lutherans in the country (there are millions!), nor that these Lutherans are not doing faithful ministry. My central question was about the place of Lutherans in the big tent of evangelicalism. Along those lines, I thought the point about closed communion was helpful. I had forgotten about that reality. Many thanks for the good insights and the good stories of good Lutherans. Special blessings on those Lutherans trying to stay faithful in a mainline context. I feel your pain.

161 Comments

  1. [...] essay, “The Lutheran Difference,” published in 1992 in First Things. But, unfortunately, as Kevin DeYoung admitted last summer, Luther and the Lutheran tradition remain virtually unknown to [...]

  2. [...] What’s Up With Lutherans? – Kevin DeYoung. [...]

  3. [...] to contribute this article followed a conversation with Kevin DeYoung, who asked the question, "What's Up with Lutherans?" Kevin invited me to write about things people may misunderstand about [...]

  4. [...] contribute this article followed a conversation with Kevin DeYoung, who asked the question, “What’s Up with Lutherans?” Kevin invited me to write about things people may misunderstand about [...]

  5. Lutheranism is not a brand to be promoted, and Lutheran pastors to not aspire to be celebrities. I know that may sound strange to evangelicals, who think that branding, marketing and promoting God is the whole point of church. Lutherans believe no such thing. Lutherans are like paper clips. You never hear about them, but they are everywhere. They have a role to play and they serve it faithfully.

    Lutherans remain the fourth most numerous Christian denomination in the U.S., behind Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist, as they have been for decades.

    But no Lutheran would know that, or even care. Unlike many modern-day churches, Lutheranism is not about the numbers. Or the image. Or the hype. Lutheranism is about God’s kingdom, which far exceeds any of our conventional measures.

    Lutheranism is doing just fine, thank you. Lutheranism does not need and does not want your attention or your concern. Make yourself right with your God, Lutherans will still be around doing God’s work until God’s kingdom is fulfilled.

  6. [...] Back in June of 2011, Kevin DeYoung asked a simple question: What’s up with Lutherans? [...]

  7. I am a pastor in a Lutheran church that is part of the Association of Free Lutheran Churches. I found your article very interesting and would agree that Lutherans have largely gone missing in todays Christian world. From an insiders perspective I can say that it is because we are so stuck on tradition to the detriment of our church. It’s incredibly ironic though because we are today the exact opposite of what Luther was. His greatest desire was to break free of mindless, unbiblical tradition and make the gospel as accesible to people as possible. However, it seems like almost across the board, the Lutheran church has been fighting to keep it’s traditions and stick to services and ways of doing things that make the gospel incredibly inaccesible to the post-modern mind. I believe with all my heart that Luther would be disgusted with the churches that bear his name not only because of their stubborness with regard to tradition, but mostly because we label ourselves followers of Luther rather than first calling ourselves followers of Christ. Lutherans are the reason that Lutheranism is dying and I for one am not opposed to it’s death despite my ties to this church. I am a huge fan of Luther, but not of what those who bear his name have become.

  8. I am not going the bad mouth other Lutherans—others took that task to themselves in all its snarky glory. I have been hearing this kind of stuff among Lutherans since I was old enough to catch a vague idea of what the grownups where talking about. (I am 60) Frankly, I’m tired of it.
    One thing Evangelicals need to understand is that since the first Lutherans stepped on American shores, in many ways the larger assortment of American Christians had been hostile to them. Even in this far more tolerant day, in gatherings of Evangelicals both small and large I myself have been greeted by Evangelicals with distrust and seemingly invincible disinterest in what Lutherans theologically have to bring to the table.
    Evangelicals very often regard Lutherans as practically or actually Catholics (true an not true) and closet papists (definitely not true.) During conversations with Evangelicals, unprovoked they will spontaneously speak despairingly of Lutheran worship practices and piety. Frankly, I’m tired of trying to explain myself. The way most Evangelicals act, you’d think I’d been trying to explain why I think the moon is made of green cheese.
    Getting down to brass tacks, when it comes to the historical and deep faultlines in Christian theology, Lutherans and Evangelicals fall on profoundly opposite sides of these questions. More importantly, when it comes to “saved by faith alone” (the doctrine by which the Lutheran Church stands or falls) Lutherans find that almost all Christians (not just Evangelicals; but especially Fundamentalists and Evangelicals) profess rock-bottom belief; but are they are positively allergic to what it actually means.
    You know what? No matter how long you know us, it seems we will always be strange to you. And compared with the task of proclaiming the Gospel, sticking around singing ““Kumbaya” with the Evangelicals is a long way down the list of priorities for Lutherans.

  9. Your question is interesting and it has to do with the principle of unity of doctrine. Confessional Lutherans have doctrinal differences with both Calvinist (may seem like hair splitting to an outside observer) and Arminian theology. The most conservative confessional Lutheran will only fellowship at group Christian events if there is doctrinal unity. Doctrinal unity not only encompasses questions about election, but can involve the communion. This is why Christians who visit conservative confessional Lutheran churches can’t partake in communion. Persons you have as speakers at your gatherings couldn’t take communion in their churches. There is a long history going far back on this topic, and I can’t write much more, except read their history. They have a distinctive orthodox theology and they want to conserve it.

  10. […] 2011 Kevin DeYoung asked, “What’s Up with Lutherans?” His question was simply a conversation starter and brought about an excellent response by Paul T. […]

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