Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Dad Was a Lutheran

A wedding a few days ago and I heard the typical comments for a Lutheran in the South -- "You are Pastor of what church???"  "Where is this Lutherian Church?"  "Now what kind of Christian is a Lutheran?"  "Boy, you don't find many of them down here!"  But my all time favorite:  "My dad [insert family member here] was a Lutheran..."

With so many dads, moms, uncles, aunts, grandparents, nieces and nephews Lutheran, you might think there would be more of us Lutherans.  But the emphasis is on WAS Lutheran.  From the comments I have received over the nearly 20 years in the South, I estimate that 60% of the people in this community have a close family member who WAS Lutheran.

But no more.

It seems that the Lutherans gravitated to Methodist churches more than any other denomination (from my own non-scientific sample).  Perhaps the Lutheran penchant for moderation left them in search of a more strict method.  Perhaps they had sung a gospel song that made their eyes tear up and they left in search of a place where they might hear more of them.  Perhaps they were offended by the Word of God and the Pastor's insistence upon preaching the whole counsel of God's Word (a sword that cuts both ways and incites family against family if you read last Sunday's Gospel).  Perhaps they got tired of going to Communion so often (or, in reality, got tired of acting so darn Catholic).  Whatever the reason, there are a ton of former Lutherans out there -- even in Baptist country.

It seems that nearly as many Lutherans found refuge in a Baptist congregation (again, this is non-scientific hypothesis).  Perhaps they always had issues with infant baptism and the unrealistic stress upon grace alone.  Perhaps they got tired of explaining to the gazillion Baptist neighbors what a Lutheran was/is and decided to go with the flow (at least in the South).  Perhaps they got bored with the same liturgy week after week and the hymns did little to perk up the pace and they sought out a place which puts on a better show (complete with Britney Spears microphones and great cd back up band).  Perhaps they had aspirations for political office or were climbing the economic ladder and figured that Lutherans have no juice in the South so your dreams might require a change of religious address.  Whatever the reason, there are a ton of former Lutherans out there who are fine upstanding Baptists in congregations with names like First, Hilldale, Spring Creek, Little Hope, etc...

A number of Lutherans changed because of marriage.  I had never understood St. Peter and his talk of the weaker vessel until now.  Lutherans, it appears, are the weaker vessel.  We change to conform to our spouses religious preference (confirmation vows notwithstanding).  Till death us do part comes into conflict when you pit the vows of marriage with the vows of a youth confirmed in his/her baptismal faith.  A few even became Roman Catholic (but they are generally pretty quiet about that fact -- both that they were once Lutheran and that they are now Roman Catholic -- you know the South).

In the end it seems that many, perhaps most Lutherans left for no place at all.  They belong to St. Mattress of the Home Church and their religious needs are met by pop gospel Christian music radio and the occasional tune in for Joel Osteen --- ohhhhhh, don't forget their half read copy of The Purpose Driven Life!  As long as you can squeeze the Pledge of Allegiance in there, stand for the National Anthem, and substitute stadium ceremony for religious ritual, you can get by without much churchy stuff (if you were a Lutheran).

It seems that Lutherans have a weak grasp on what they believe so they migrate to other denominations with little trouble... OR they get tired of being the only Lutheran in the room and crave some fellowship with predominate religious groups of the region... OR they gave up and went to church with the husband/wife and let it go at that... OR they took their toys and played at home either because they did not like the people in the playground, the rules of the playground or the playground monitor (Pastor) at the Lutheran congregation...  You can fill in the blank or answer the question "why," I am stuck wondering why we Lutherans have so much trouble keeping our folks.  Perhaps we might tackle this one before we fill the pews with new Lutherans to replace the old -- only to follow them in the drift toward other venues...  Just a thought...


Anonymous said...

Denominational loyalty has been dead
on the American religious scene for
some time. The laity have no regrets
switching parishes because they
believe you are a Christian first
and a member of a denomination second
So we can debate all we want about
the reasons for this fact, but it
will not change anytime soon.

Solution? Try to demonstrate the
truth of Lutheran theology.

Anonymous said...

"I am stuck wondering why we Lutherans have so much trouble keeping our folks."

If you really look at the numbers, I don't think this is accurate. People just have smaller families. So, even if denomination switching were net neutral, there still would be loss. I think the last time I looked at the numbers, the LCMS is doing a better job attracting and keeping new members now than in the 50's and is losing a lower % of kids born into LCMS homes than in the 50's. However, people now have half as many kids to begin with. So, there you go.

"Perhaps they had aspirations for political office or were climbing the economic ladder and figured that Lutherans have no juice in the South so your dreams might require a change of religious address."

This fits with what my friends from the South have told me. Basically it would be suicide for your business not to belong to a church. Every upstanding decent atheist business man in her town showed up to sit in the pew of the Baptist church fairly regularly if not religiously. It is just how things were done. Kind of like being a team player. Supporting the church was the equivalent of community involvement. Some may think this arrangement sad, however it gave many children the opportunity to hear the gospel even if dad was a closet unbeliever.

Anonymous said...

"Try to demonstrate the
truth of Lutheran theology."

As a former Baptist, this makes sense to me. Mindless brand loyalty is lame. It doesn't work and there is no right and honorable reason that it should work. I married into the ELCA church and after ten years would have been happy to go home to the Baptists. Instead we joined the LCMS, which I could tolerate because they would at least say out loud that they believed the Bible and would teach that idea in Sunday school. I can't say I really was wholeheartedly excited to be in the LCMS till I read Walther. His presentation was very easy and clear and seemed very sound to me. Just 2¢.

Janis Williams said...

Agreed, anon. #3. I didn't marry into the LCMS. We came to it through a long, painful path.

Familiarity breeds contempt. What Fr. Peters is writing about in Lutheranism is true for the Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc. Once in my hometown (same as Fr. Peters' current parish) in the 1800s, this area was mostly Anglican. Now, the local Episcopal parish is more than half filled with transplants from elsewhere. (That is taking into account the military presence here, too.)

The solution IS demonstrating the truth of Lutheran theology. I think the onus lies partially on those of us who come to Lutheranism because of that theology. If we truly believe it, let's spread it. If the 'lifer' Lutherans around us are lukewarm, love these neighbors. Encourage them.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

I'm okay with a half read (or less) copy of the Purpose Driven Life.

I'd say that the 'former Lutheran' often finds a home somewhere else simply because they make friends, and are surrounded by a group of people that are more to their liking. I also think the old Adam hungers for pietism-or at any rate more pietism than is usually found in an LCMS congregation and they look for their church experience elswhere.

Ted Badje said...

I have met quite a few Lutherans
who are now Methodists in my wife's church here in TX. It may be
that they were formerly ELCA. I think the LCMS needs to do a better
job in confirmation classes. There
may need to be more of an emphasis of catechism teaching in the seminaries. I would prefer pastors lead confirmation at their congregations, or at least do strong reviews of the people they delegate to do this.

Dixie said...

We live in the South, too. I used to be Lutheran (but only by marriage, not from birth), my husband still is. Just in my little world I see the majority of former Lutherans now Baptists left because..."no one ever taught me that I had to accept Christ as my personal, Savior." Seriously...I have heard this several times. And it is no wonder. At my husband's LCMS church the kids go every year on a mission trip to maintain some kind of Protestant missionary training facilities in Florida where they have entertainment night and close with altar calls and sinners prayers. It is no wonder Southern Lutherans don't understand who they are.

My work place imported a number of ELCA Lutherans from Iowa. In our Southern town the ELCA Church is very closed and half dead. In each and every single case, the ELCAers chose to be Methodist as opposed to joining the LCMS in town. One gal even told me her ELCA pastor in Iowa said it would be better to join a Methodist church than to be come LCMS.

But...Lutherans shouldn't feel alone about their losses in the South. What I find more astounding than Lutherans becoming Baptists are the number of Catholics who have become Baptists. Can't fathom that.

Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that you have a photo depicting a southern Lutheran wedding when it is actually my family who were all catholics and lived in the north in New Bedford, Ma. The married couple were Jean-Paul Audette and his bride Doris Harrison. My grandparents, parents and his brothers and sister are there as well. I think they'd be shocked to find out that they are depicted as Lutheran. I myself am an atheist and I find the whole sham to be hilarious.
Roger Chartier - New Bedford, Ma. -