Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lutherans Are Evangelistically Disabled

The most recent issue of The Lutheran Forum magazine (as opposed to the Forum Letter) has a very interesting article by church historian Mark Granquist debunking the myth of "The Boat."  According to accepted wisdom from missional people promoting a new paradigm and purveyors of new forms of church renewal for dying Lutheran congregations, Lutherans are functionally illiterate about evangelism and outreach and theologically disabled when it comes to growing the Church (they are more suited to maintaining it as chaplain/caretakers).  Even in legendary Lake Wobegon the same idea is pretty much a staple of the humor.

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.


Janis Williams said...

From one of those Southerners who was 'converted' from the Baptist ranks, hooray!!

Lutherans who are lifelong, take heed. Those of us who are switching boats don't want change! We come from fundagelicalism; we've been through serious struggles to get out of it. When we finally realize we're Lutheran, we want the most tradional, liturgical, orthodox form it can take.

Be content to be Lutheran! Be confessional (and know what that means)! The growth (or shrinkage) of the LCMS is not dependent upon our evangelism methods. It is dependent upon our Lord Jesus Christ. Be Lutheran, and don't be afraid to tell others of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heather said...

Janis..not being a life long Lutheran myself, I feel the same way you do! Not everyone wants change and not all change is good! I too came into the Lutheran church after a very long spiritual journey from a mix of Baptist, Pentacostal and RC upbringing.. a journey that has brought me to where I am today, a journey that I am most thankful for and I certainly don't want to go backwards now. Blessings to you in Christ!

Anonymous said...

I had a very good experience in the Baptist church but married an ELCA Lutheran. I found them, um, a little too flexible in what they believed and taught. We came to the LCMS and I kinda didn't ask, cuz I might not like the answer for a while. I can't say in my heart I was sold till I read CFW Walther. I love that man's writing. He explains so clearly that I felt so very much better thereafter.

Anonymous said...

In the CTQ January/April 2010, Prof
Richard J. Shuta of Concordia, Ann
Arbor has an interesting article
on Walter A. Maier the radio speaker
for the Lutheran Hour from 1930-50)
Shuta states that Maier's ecumenical
outreach may have led to his ouster
by the LCMS Board of Directors if
his death had not come first.(page 18
I had never read before that Maier
was anything but a great evangelist.
Also some were upset with his
invitation calls at Lutheran Hour
Rallies ala Billy Sunday and Billy
Graham. Is there any substance to
Shuta's analysis???

Anonymous said...

I am sure different regions experienced growth for different reasons. In our part of rural Iowa the church grew mainly because it was habited by large immigrant farm families that became even larger in the post-WW2 era. Our church grew (about 800 members at its peak) while the community itself was beginning to decline. The poplation exodus from rural Iowa has now impacted the church as well, with membership down to around 500. There are six Christian churches in a town of 2700 people and all have experienced similar trends.