There are too many who think that being Lutheran is an occasional reference point to a past event or in a present day conversation. Like those who insist they were baptized Lutheran (no such thing, can't be done, and if it is, it means that there is no baptism). Or those who can tell you the pastor who confirmed them and commiserate about how hard it was to stay awake in catechism class but do not attend now. Or those who wax eloquently about being Lutheran but who are so distant from the faith of the catechism or such a stranger to Lutheran Confessions that they would not recognize them if they hit them in the face. Or those who can date their last real time spent in church to a hymnal or two prior to the one currently in the pews. O those who define Gospel as the current issues that concern them or for which they are currently fighting (poverty, women's rights, sexual liberation, etc...).
It was not that long ago that Lutherans knew what to expect from the jurisdictional structures and their churches knew what to expect of those called Lutheran. It was not a perfect era but the Lutheran identity was both stronger and more positive all the way around. Today we struggle in this basic area. Our definition of Lutheranism is broad and shallow and bears little resemblance to the Lutheranism of the Reformers or of our Confessions or our great-grandparents.
So, for example, when I read the second issue of The Living Lutheran I read a young woman describe herself and her Lutheranism in this way --
- she found her faith when she came to college and to the the Lutheran campus ministry where she developed a passion for social justice along side her faith. . .
- her first experience with church was baptism but she did not connect until in her 20s. . .
- she strives for a balance between tradition and progress. . .
- she is fighting for economic security for women and families (access to education and health care, freedom from violence, adequate pay and financial assistance). . .
- she hopes fellow young women will feel empowered to become engaged in issues of social justice. . .
- she sees the church living in spaces differently than it does now -- outside the four walls of a physical sanctuary. . .
- she believes in people and our common humanity. . .
- she is a Lutheran because the church should be a welcoming and inclusive place (like her campus Lutheran church). . .
If we do not know what Lutheranism is or how to explain it to the world (in a way that mirrors our own self-description in catechism and confession), how do we expect to pass this faith on to others? Remember that this column was in the ELCA's denominational journal.
The other day my associate and I spent a couple of ours talking to a young man preparing for baptism as an adult about baptism, the faith, and the church in which he will be joined to Christ's death and resurrection and we never remotely covered anything mentioned above. Instead we spoke of the cross, of Christ's suffering and death, of the means of grace, of the new life born of the baptismal encounter with Christ's death and resurrection, of the liturgy and the shape of a life of worship, of source and summit of Christian faith and life flowing from the liturgy, of the daily repentance that keeps us connected to and confessing of what God did to save us, etc. . . I guess we come down hard on the traditional side of things.
What shocks me most of all about Lutherans are not what others think of us but how we define ourselves both inwardly as a community of faith gathered together and outwardly in witness to those who do not know us or Christ. It is as if the cross were a footnote and the issues of sin and death were fringe to the bigger and better stuff of social justice, personal satisfaction, and our passions in life. This is first of all a sign of bad catechesis. Second it is the fruit of shallow preaching which neglects the Word of God and doctrine. Finally, it is the confusion of a people taught by confused people about what it might just mean to be Lutheran -- the skeptic who is surprised after teaching skepticism that people do not believe much.
It is not rocket science. Try cracking open a Catechism. Try opening the Hymnal. Try reading the Scriptures. We can do this folks and we better or there will be no one who know what Lutherans are. . . and are not. . .