Define: Lutheran

Our church held worship outside this evening. The atmosphere was casual, liturgy was relatively conversational, music was somewhat contemporary…a rather “traditional” Saturday night worship, except for the setting. As I was putting away my lawn chairs, I overheard a couple people uttering a naughty phrase — “Lutheran Church of Hope“.

For those of you who are unaware, Lutheran Church of Hope is one of the fastest growing AND largest ELCA congregations in the country. They just completed their 3rd building renovation / expansion project in the last 10 years. This church currently ranks a close second behind Shawn Johnson in terms of city-wide chatter. Regardless of denomination, religion, or belief…just about everyone knows about Lutheran Church of Hope.

So back to my eaves dropping session tonight after church. The people were talking about how their neighbor goes to “that church” and went on to complain that “from what I’ve heard it’s not very Lutheran”. I would have been somewhat surprised if that was the first time I had heard that observation…but it wasn’t. Most staunch ELCA Lutherans (including most pastors) believe that Lutheran Church of Hope has grown because it has abandoned its Lutheran theological roots, and functioned more like a (gasp!) non-denominational church.

All of this gets me to the one unanswerable question at the root of this conversation:

“What does it mean to be Lutheran?”

For some it’s a style of worship — organ music, hymns found in large books, pastors in robes, preaching from pulpits, liturgy and prayers that are pre-printed, and bulletins that map out every detail of the service.

For others, it’s about perceived notions of how Lutherans are supposed to function. Lutherans aren’t supposed to be flashy. They don’t draw attention to themselves. They don’t talk about God outside of church…or even inside of church. They sit in the back 1/3 of the sanctuary. They keep their personal lives private. They dress up for worship…but not too fancy as to draw attention to themselves. They have opinions, which are kept to themselves. They do good things in the community, but rarely while envoking the name of God or Jesus. They are good, modest folk that know what they like and don’t like. But is that what makes them Lutheran?

Pastors, bishops, professors, and scholars would argue that the definition of what it means to be Lutheran is found in our confessions (500 years old, never changed or modified) and our social statements (no more than 20 years old, regularly debated and amended). But if the church is truly “the people”, what portion of the church really knows / cares about these cerebral things? 2%? 5%?

Even I have a hard time coming up with what it means to be Lutheran…and I’ve been deeply immersed in Lutheranism my entire life. So what do you think? What is Lutheran? What isn’t Lutheran? Maybe we can come up with something together!

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2 Responses to Define: Lutheran

  1. PS says:

    Well Luther wanted to change the way things were done and some Lutheran groups these days want things to stay the same way they’ve always been.
    Luther questioned the status quo. Some modern Lutherans say that anything that isn’t the way things have always been done is straight from hell [I actually saw that on a Lutheran blog.]

    I’m sure not automatically backing anything new or flashy. But I sure wouldn’t condemn it just because it is different. After all, the Spirit still is at work, and God still gives gifts to today’s Christians.

    And, yes, I do understand the arguments against the consumer driven types of churches.

    Lutherans are people who live in the tensions. You can post about that!

  2. Ryan Houts says:

    A Lutheran is a Grace Theologian. It’s about what God has done for us, not about what we do to gain God’s favor or a decision we make to be saved.

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