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This is the number two question I get, after:
Are there pets in heaven?
Both questions are tough to answer in a simplistic way!
First of all, there is often a “question behind the question.” So, before answering, I counter with “What do you mean by Lutheran?”
Let’s start with Martin Luther (1500′s in Germany). I once was blessed to meet the greatest Luther scholar of the 20th century, in person, Roland Bainton, in the early 80′s after a lecture. I asked him why he never joined a Lutheran Church. His witty response was: “I’ve never seen one. Luther himself, ironically, would not be welcomed in most Lutheran churches today.”
So, are you Lutheran? If you can answer difficult theological questions simplistically, you probably aren’t following Luther’s pattern.
Asked whether there is pre-destination, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we can lose our salvation, Luther answered “yes and no.” Asked if we are basically sinners or totally justified, he answered “yes.” Luther was a Bible teacher, and not a systematic theologian. He loved the (obvious) dramatic tensions in scripture and was OK with just leaving them be. His counterpart, Calvin, seemed to have a high need to cram the Bible into a neat system.
There are parts of Luther’s teaching and personality that I, without reservation, condemn and reject. His bizarrely anti-Semitic view of European Jews was an outrage. His mowing down of the peasant revolt was inexcusable. His eschatology was primitive at best and incomprehensible at worst (He thought Pope Leo was literally THE Antichrist). He had no sense of Christian mission to the majority of the non-Christian world.
But he was spot-on right about the whole Bible revolving around Grace, Faith, and Christ. And he was crazy-courageous in standing up to the whole authority structure of his world (Popes and Emperors) to make it stick. He rediscovered Paul’s “Jesus plus nothing” and remade much of the Western Church around it.
Along with Isaac Newton, he is one of the most mercurial and influential humans ever to walk this planet (Newton, like Luther, had his mega-quirks). By deconstructing the monastic world-view (which had been dominant for centuries), philosophically and practically, Luther helped lay the foundation for the Modern World in which you and I live.
Ironically (I thought of this while walking the ancient stones of the Via Sacra), Luther and Paul were the two greatest historical figures ever to walk the streets of Rome. No one at the time, in that city, even noticed them. Luther and Paul could care less–they just went out and re-made the world. All of the emperors and heroes of Rome amounted to: not much. We name our sons Paul–and our dogs, Nero.
Am I a follower of Paul or Luther? No. So perhaps I’m not a Lutheran, in that sense. Luther didn’t want us to use the term “Lutheran” (see his exact quote at the bottom of this page) and Paul, in 1 Corinthians, was horrified that people would label themselves with his name. I, like Luther and Paul, am a follower of Jesus Christ alone.
But what about faith families? What about denominations? I am totally a product of Lutheran theological-cultural upbringing, and can’t do much about it. It’s like being Jewish, it’s a cultural tattoo which you can’t remove without lasers. Even if I (God forbid) were to become an atheist, I’d be a Lutheran atheist.
If I were to join a Baptist or Catholic congregation, I’d still be a Lutheran member of that church. If you are Jewish or Lutheran, you understand the tribal implications of these labels :-). I’d actually, if I had my ‘druthers, like to be a charismatic Anglican (the Alpha London folks), but I’m too blue-collar Lutheran to pull it off long term.
So, is the church I pastor, Robinwood Church, Lutheran, because I am the primary teacher? Perhaps. We affirm (in our bylaws) the unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Small Catechism, and the ecumenical creeds. We would qualify, thus, for joining the Lutheran World Federation.
But we are non-liturgical. Totally. More than you think. And we are very Pentecostal in our expression. It doesn’t look “Lutheran.” We have no Euro-centric trappings of any kind. We are a California beach church that meets in a warehouse. No Lent. No Advent. No lectionary. No altar table. No permanent cross. I don’t own a clerical collar. There isn’t a single hymnbook in the building. It would be hard to find the word “Lutheran” on our website. I only wear shoes if it’s a cold day. The music is loud.
But if any trained theologian were to visit us for three Sundays, he or she would say:
They sure aren’t Calvinists or Arminians. Not Roman Catholics. Not Southern Baptists. Not Eastern Orthodox. Not liberal North American PC activists. Not Anglicans. By default, they must be Lutherans. Expressive, non-legalistic, missional–but pretty dang Lutheran at the core.
If Luther were to show up at Robinwood Church, I’d probably tell him off (privately) for that goofy Jew-bashing (and a few other things) of his, but we’d pour him a beer (and cut him off at two) and share his love of God’s Word, and the tensions that are simply there in it.
Is Robinwood Church Lutheran? Yes and no
And like Luther and Paul, we don’t care if “important” people don’t notice what we’re up to, we’re busy remaking the world.
For more information:
Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch
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LUTHER’S QUOTE on LUTHERAN LABEL:
“People should not call themselves ‘Lutherans’. ‘What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone . . .How then should I — poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am — come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name?’ Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teachings we hold.”
Who said that?
–from, “A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion 1522”
Church activity levels in North America have always fluctuated.
This is not an essay on the global church, where exciting things have happened.
This is not an essay about Europe, which has its own dynamics vis-a-vis Christian activity.
North America’s ecclesial (church) vitality was always contrasted, in the past, with the “dead” church in Europe. It was also viewed as the “source” of the Global church.
American evangelical Christianity has always been seen as somewhat muscular, with the chiseled face of Billy Graham leading the parade.
It’s too early to tell, but there seems to be a shift in the weather, a change in the climate.
Church attendance appears to be experiencing the biggest drop in recent memory, and the financial climate of the country is contributing to a “perfect storm” which is putting the squeeze on a lot of congregations.
The Christian movement has also been strengthened (both economically and in terms of creativity), in the past, with a robust retail branch: books and music. The changes in technology have crippled these once mighty sectors of publishing, and you’ve certainly seen church bookstores close in your city.
Church leaders are in denial, and as is usually the case in such environments, point to the exceptions. There are big and growing churches all over the place. However, almost all of them are in areas of large population growth and suburban tract house cosnstruction.
National mainline church denominations, brought into being in the late 19th century by easy rail travel, are still holding voting conventions as if air travel and the internet had not yet been invented. Small wonder that the “votes” at these meetings get so much pushback from the grass roots. You can trace the decline curve of these archaic “railroad” organizations as an inverse line to that of air travel and video/TV/computer screens.
Roman Catholics have had their own problems, with the scandals and all. They have also lost huge numbers of young people, especially in the Northeast. Latinos will save the day, you might suggest. But half of the Latino Catholics who immigrate here ditch the RC boat and go Pentecostal or secular.
Evangelicals are the last of the three major groups to feel the pinch. A generation ago, if you had “contemporary worship” and small groups, your church would grow. If your theology was conservative, that helped too. Now, this “recipe” has reached diminishing returns. The church growth movement is over.
Here are some reasons I see. Please add your own to the comments. Let’s figure this out together.
- American Christians of the last generation did not have enough children. They fell in love with the pill. Half as many kids means…
- Many Asian immigrants (there are exceptions) are not Christian–this has diluted Christian cultural monopolies where they once existed.
- African American churches have virtually lost a whole generation of young men–totally unable to capture their imagination.
- Christian Conservatives are the least likely group to be able to dialog with a new generation raised in post-modernity.
- The evangelistic models of the past (e.g. the “bridge” illustration) no longer work in the current cultural climate.
- Contemporary Christian Music has failed, to some extent, to embrace both country and urban music. Most of it sounds very suburban.
- Parent/Child relationships are more strained than in the recent past, because there are less children and there is more “parenting per child.” You are perhaps familiar with the “helicopter parent” syndrome. Christian parents often equal non-Christian kids, for this reason.
- The first decade of the 21st century was hard on churches (and the country), economically.
- Churches have failed to embrace new media. Within a few months, I was able to establish more social media presence than all but a handful of the 20-30 thousand Lutheran pastors out there; with virtually no effort. Culture is being created out there and we are not present. See my essay on Pastors and New Media.
- Many churches are over-theological and resist open spiritual and supernatural practice. This new generation is drawn to the supernatural and we try to discourage it rather than channel it.
I don’t have a lot of answers, but this should set up a good discussion.
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