Thursday, December 16, 2010
Lutherans Are Evangelistically Disabled
The only reasons Lutherans have ever grown (and they did) is because the boats came from Europe bringing large numbers of Lutherans (in the form of Scandinavians and Germans) in waves of immigration that ended in the early 20th century. Oh, and, also, because the Lutherans had big families (at least when they were still young immigrants because the longer they were here, the smaller their families became). I have heard this tale from so many people (educated, mission oriented, liturgical, and even unchurched) that I have assumed that it was true -- in part even if not in full.
Granquist explodes the "myth of the boats" by suggesting a couple of surprising things (from such objective sources as membership rosters, census records, etc.). First he suggests that the myth of the boat cannot explain Lutheran growth up to 1960 nor its lack of much growth since then. Since the period of the mass immigration ended in 1920, with the major waves of new people coming during the colonial period and then from 1840-1920, we are left with a big question of why, then, did the number of Lutherans double between between 1935 and 1960? In addition, he ventures that those who came off those boats were not exactly rushing into the Lutheran congregations even though they were actively sought out by those Lutheran Pastors and parishes. He suggests that of the Scandinavians, only about 29% if the Norskies, 17% of the Swedes, and 9% of the Danes actually affiliated with the Lutheran denominations (those darn Danes really were hard to catch). I did not see any solid figures for the Germans, but even if they were a great deal more pious than the Norskies, it still would not distort Granquist's main thesis. Perhaps their first step onto those boats was not only a flight to economic opportunity but also a flight from religious affiliation.
Now there is something in this article which I am still unsure about. That is the suggestion of Granquist that Lutherans were borrowing evangelistic methods and practices from their American counterparts (revival movements like the Second Great Awakening as one example). This may or may not be true but there was no solid evidence presented in his article to support this conclusion.
What is clear is that Pastors, land, and buildings were cheap and readily available and local congregations started other local Lutheran congregations and this was the primary means that evangelism and outreach took place until, say, the later 1960s or so, when the cost of Pastors, land, and buildings went up. It is true that Lutherans grew by moving their franchise into previously sparse Lutheran frontiers like the South, the Southwest, and the West. It is true a culture of evangelism, with its impetus from the national headquarters of the various Lutheran bodies, took over the direction of evangelism and outreach beginning in the 1960s. I would venture that this, in and of itself, may be have somewhat responsible for the decline in results or the lack of success in this period.
It is true, especially among the more "Americanized" Lutherans, that by the 1970s Lutherans had questions about the appropriateness of trying to make Lutherans out of people who were not Lutherans (or anything else). I would call it a Lutheran angst about their identity and a lack of confidence in their "brand" (read that Confessions) that eventually bore the fruit of the confusing situation among Lutherans today. Lutherans as a percentage of the American population has actually declined 40% in the past 50 years.
Let me end with one humble suggestion. We can try something new. We can try simply being Lutheran in identity, confession, and practice. It seems to have helped us grow in this Southern city and, before we would lose our identity, confession, and heritage by looking, acting, and being like every other Americanized version of pop Christianity, I think we owe it to ourselves and our for bearers to give being Lutheran a good try before we abandon our identity and adopt methodologies inconsistent with who we are.