Saturday, November 14, 2009

Americanizing Lutheranism

Having just read a discussion of Samuel Simon Schmucker and his impact upon the fledgling Lutheran presence in America, I thought about the idea of localizing a church or a faith. For those who do not know Schmucker (1799-1873), he was a very controversial figure in his day. He sought to redo the Augsburg Confession in order to excise from it such Roman hang-ons as sacramental theology, means of grace, baptismal regeneration (and infant baptism), real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, etc. He was very ecumenical and sought to Americanize Lutheranism to fit the Protestant landscape of America at that time. He was accused (accurately) of not being Lutheran at all but being a Calvinist and Reformed theologian. That is the short story on him.

While serving in NY, I had a friend who was the Pastor of a congregation in which Schmucker's theology had dominated down even to the late 1980's. This congregation used grape juice in the Sacrament and had a thoroughly Reformed understanding of it. I thought it was an anomaly. But maybe not.

It seems that Schmuckerism may not be dead at all or even restricted to a footnote in history. The causes and goals of Schmucker are indeed alive and well within Lutheranism. Part of that is the goal of a truly Americanized version of Lutheranism. In many ways the landscape has changed over the 140 years since Schmucker but the goals of many within Lutheranism remain to Americanize the faith so that its authenticity is rooted more in the American experience than it is in the Confession identity that Lutheranism has had since the 1500's.

Lutherans have had a difficult time on the soil of America. For generations we felt like outsiders and retreated to the ethnic ghettos of the northern plains. Content to live in the ethnic and religious communities distinct from the rest of America, we kept the culture of our homelands alive and felt for a while that we were still in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc. But that is not the only path Lutherans chose. Some, especially those in more urban areas, sought to become more distinctly American. These were quicker to learn English and make it their primary language, to embrace the community and its new culture and the values of democracy. In some cases they went so far as to tear out the altar and replace it with the choir, placing the pulpit down center, and even inserting altar calls and invitations into supposed Lutheran services. Others found an uneasy alliance between the Lutheranism of the homeland and the democracy of America, a useful alliance that justified and sealed the choice to board the boats and buy the land in Perry County (Walther).

That aside, the goal of feeling more comfortable in our American skin continues to plague us. The once strident Calvinistic churches that we thought we needed to emulate have been replaced by the living room venues of an entertainment oriented religion more interested in feel good than means of grace. The idea of going out them to proclaim the Gospel has become the rationale for bringing it what is out there into the church so that those who do not like the church can feel comfortable in it. Americanizing Lutheranism has become the excuse for ditching everything from the liturgy and our hymnody to voters assemblies, boards, and committees. Vestments that once separated the clergy and identified them for who they are have given way to the business casual attire of polos and khakis that make Pastors look like everyone. Ministry has turned from the Office tied to the Word and Sacraments to whatever people feel like doing for Jesus (from dancing to singing). Everyone who is anyone has a ministry and the Church and Pastors have none -- at least that is the way it seems.

The whole idea that in order to reach people we must become like them is a sacred cow in modern day Christianity that can be used to justify jettisoning nearly everything that is distinctly Christian. A Lutheran Church more comfortable in our American skin is not what Lutheranism needs. It will not help us reach people with the Gospel, it will not leave us stronger and more fully rooted in the Gospel and Scripture, and it will not serve Christ faithfully.

Karl Barth (the theologian and not the District President) once said that within the assembly the Church uses her own queer language (jargon) but in the marketplace the Church speaks with the language of everyman. That is what we need to be doing. In the marketplace we speak the language of everyman to communicate the Gospel but when we bring them into the Church we teach them the language and culture of the faith, an otherworldly culture to be sure.

When we make as our goal the Americanization of the Lutheran Church, we forget this distinction between the language and culture of the assembly and the way we speak to the world outside the assembly of believers. We blur that distinction and we end up having nothing to offer the world but a pale imitation of the things we have learned from them. Is it no wonder that youth today find this kind of religion shallow and worthless? What the world is seeking from us is what the world cannot offer -- transcendence, mystery (meaning sacramental presence), redemption (vs happiness), and eternity. What we say in the marketplace must lead people into the assembly where these things are made present in the means of grace, the Word that bestows what it promises, the water that cleanses us clean from within, and the bread and wine that bestow heaven's food and life upon us earthly people.

Schmucker's goal of an Americanized Lutheranism must be abandoned and may his name be lost to us except when we open a jar of jam or jelly. Let us be so fully comfortable in our Lutheran skin that we welcome and bring its message of the Gospel and its source of hope (Word and Sacraments) to those not yet believers... instead of bring their uncertainties into the assembly -- leaving us with a formless substance that offers nothing real to a people who want reality most of all.


Phil said...

"...the idea of localizing a church or a faith."

Taken to the extreme, you get Mormonism/LDS.

Rev. Alan J. Wollenburg said...

Perhaps just a tiny addition to the end of your outstanding blogpost, Pr. Peters: "And may it be that those who do not want to use Schmucker's name but do fully endorse his modus operandi and his goals be frustrated in their attempts to thus change the historic, confessional, Biblical Lutheran faith lest immortal souls be lost for eternity." Thanks for an outstanding piece.

Anonymous said...

"The whole idea that in order to reach people we must become like them..."

If I hear one more person quote St. Paul saying, "I become all things to all men in order to save some.." I'll, well I don't know what I'll do.

St. Paul was speaking about himself as an INDIVIDUAL, not about the Church! The Liturgy is what is Sacred, (not a sacred cow), and we need to learn how to so live our lives that we can accomodate ourselves to our neighbor's needs in order to bring them into that Church which speaks another language.

Carl Vehse said...

For some time there has been a misuse of the various forms of "American" (e.g., "Americanize", "Americanization") as a perjorative description of heterodox (or heretical) influences within the Lutheran Church in the United States. This is particularly noticeable when compared to the lack of similar references to "Germanization" influences of Lutheranism in Germany today or in the last 100 years. The terms "Prussianize" or "Prussianization" carry a different definition than one useful in describing the Prussian Union influences to the Lutheran Church in German in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Furthermore, one could just as well argue a positive meaning of "Americanizing" as referring to the influence of Walther's understanding of the doctrine of church and ministry, which was adopted by the Lutheran churches of the Missouri Synod in America. Until Friedrich Brunn, there was no German Lutheran recognition or acceptance of anything positive in the Missouri Synod and in fact its polity was opposed from the beginning by German Lutherans like Wilhelm Loehe, who was one of the first to misapply the perjorative in his description of the Missouri Synod polity as "American mob-rule."

Such national-based terms are, in fact, too broad a brush to be useful in describing the influences of one particular man along with his followers. Indeed, one does not even hear state-based terms, such as Ohioanize" or "Iowanization" applied to Loehe's heterodox influences in those Lutheran church organizations with which the Missouri Synod fought in the 19th century, and which eventually became part of the E_CA.

It is much better and more definitive to use a form of the person's name (e.g., "Calvinistic," "Zwinglian," "Schmuckerization") in perjoratively describing his particular heterodox influence. In dealing with "American Lutheranism", G. Friedrich Bente had a excellent treatment (coincidentally in his book, American Lutheranism (Vol. I., CPH, St. Louis, 1919):

"As for American Lutheranism, it is not a specific brand of Lutheranism, but simply Lutheranism in America; for doctrinally Lutheranism, like Christianity, with which it is identical, is the same the world over. Neither is the American Lutheran Church a distinct species or variety of the Lutheran Church, but merely the Lutheran Church in America."

"The modified Lutheranism advocated during the middle of the nineteenth century as ‘American Lutheranism’ was a misnomer, for in reality it was neither American nor Lutheran, but a sectarian corruption of both." [pp. v-vi]

Pastor Peters said...

While I understand Carl Vehse's point, I think it is also true that Americanize has become a term both understood and useful for applying diversity of truth, democratic form of government, and leadership by polling the people and this is how I meant it as applied to Lutheranism and its experience in the American landscape