What’s Up With Lutherans?

I was sent this blog post recently, written by Kevin DeYoung over at the Gospel Coalition.  You can find the link here.  It’s a blog post that got me thinking about the place of Lutherans in the larger church.  Enjoy Food for thought.

What’s Up With Lutherans? by Kevin DeYoung

This isn’t meant to be a snarky rhetorical post. It’s a genuine question.

What up with Lutherans?

More to the point: where are they? I’m looking for help from those of you out there who know the Lutheran world better than I do. I look around at what’s seem vibrant in evangelicalism and see lots of Baptists and Presbyterians. I see a lot of Free Church folks and a growing number of Anglicans. I see non-denominational guys aplenty. The Pentecostal world is a little outside my circles, but I certainly see continuationists and charismatics in conservative evangelical circles. But I don’t see many Lutherans.

I don’t know of Lutherans speaking at the leading conferences. I don’t know of many popular books written by Lutherans. I don’t know of church planting movements among Lutherans. I know lots of people who look up to Martin Luther, but I don’t see the influence of Lutherans.

I’m genuinely curious to know why the big tent of conservative, confessional evangelicalism doesn’t have more Lutherans. I understand that the Calvinist soteriology of TGC and T4G types doesn’t fit with Methodism or parts of the Holiness traditions, but Luther’s doctrine of predestination was Calvinist before there was Calvin.

I know Gene Veith is Lutheran. So is Doug Sweeney. White Horse Inn has worked hard to include the confessional wing of Lutheranism. But after that, I’m drawing a blank to come up with contemporary Lutheran leaders/theologians/pastors I know or read. I’m not blaming anyone–Lutherans or the Young, Restless, Reformed movement or the blogosphere or Sarah Palin. It’s just something I’ve thought about from time to time: Where have all the Lutherans gone? I know you exist outside of Lake Wobegon.

So which of the statements below best explains why quandry?

1. I’m ignorant. This is, no doubt, a  big part of the explanation. I’m sure there are thousands of good Lutheran churches and pastors. I just don’t know all the good they are doing and saying. And there may be thinkers and authors I like who are simply Lutheran without my knowing it.

2. With their high church, confessional tradition, Lutheranism has always been a little out of place with the sometimes rootless, low church expressions of evangelicalism. They never got on board with evangelicalism after the Great Awakening. This may be part of it, but evangelicalism has been influenced by many Anglican theologians and preachers, hasn’t it?

3. Lutherans are content to remain in ethnic enclaves. Again, that could be part of the issue, but then how do you explain the influence of the Dutch Reformed on evangelicalism?

4. The Lutheran view of the sacraments is a bridge too far for many evangelicals, and the faddish nature of evangelicalism is a bridge too far for many Lutherans.

5. Lutheranism in America has bigger problems and less influence than many people realize. The bulk of Lutherans have gone liberal and the rest have gone into bunker mode.

I’ll read the comments more carefully than usual. I blog so that I might understand. Help me out, especially if you are part of the tribe: What’s up with Lutherans?


Thanks to all those who took the time to leave a thoughtful comment on the state of the Lutheran church. Just to be clear, I was not trying to suggest in anyway that there are no Lutherans in the country (there are millions!), nor that these Lutherans are not doing faithful ministry. My central question was about the place of Lutherans in the big tent of evangelicalism. Along those lines, I thought the point about closed communion was helpful. I had forgotten about that reality. Many thanks for the good insights and the good stories of good Lutherans. Special blessings on those Lutherans trying to stay faithful in a mainline context. I feel your pain.


14 Responses to What’s Up With Lutherans?

  1. Elaine Sauer says:

    I don’t mean to be snarky either but we are too busy fighting about sexuality and morality, congregationalism and structural renewal to have time for mission and evangelism. Our synod has partnered with the Lutheran church in Cameroon so that we might do evangelism better. It’s on the edge of the what we consider “Lutheran” but it is making a difference in our own thinking about how we do and live church. If we can’t equip people to use their faith to inform their lives then we are in trouble denominationally. We have a wonderful theology of vocation and our baptismal call to go and make disciples. We need to teach it more effectively.

    People need to talk about their faith in order for others to know God is present and how God IS present in their lives.

    We do have Lutherans who are leading the church, teaching in the church and sharing their resources with others in the wider church:
    Kelly Fryer
    Terry Boggs
    Craig van Gelder
    Norma Cook Everist
    Craig Nessan
    Cam Harder
    We have had more conversation about mission and evangelism than sexuality and structural renewal in our synod. I am very appreciative of the leadership here who see that God is calling us to do things differently than we’ve done before.

    Very good food for thought from Kevin.

  2. Preston says:

    Good words! Your sentiment resonates with me, too. We ought to have a church planting movement, for example, yet resolutions about contentious issues may see more churches split or leave then grow and reach out.
    I also think Lutherans DO have much to contribute, but we are embroiled in some tough controversy that has, apparently, been part of the Lutheran narrative for some time. How do we start anew? How do we get to a healthy place where we become a driving force for evangelism, mission, vibrant leadership, and discipleship? We CAN make it happen!

  3. Greg Anderson says:

    “Special blessings on those Lutherans trying to stay faithful in a mainline context. I feel your pain.” And there it is. It is difficult to engage in a conversation with those who dismiss sisters and brothers in the Christ outside the accepted fold.

  4. Preston says:

    Greg, that’s insightful. Could you expand more on that? I have had some great conversational experiences with friends from over a dozens of Canadian denominations. I actually find that I have a lot of common ground with many of them, so there is hope for fruitful relationships even when presuppositions may be an initial barrier to trust.

  5. Erik says:

    Well… I have to admit this post from Kevin DeYoung was difficult to read. I am the first to admit Lutherans have lots of problems, and certainly when it comes to mission.


    The things that Kevin says Lutherans are absent from makes me glad to hear. Big Tent Evangelicals are tied too closely with the American politics and more deeply nation worship. Luther’s doctrine on predestination is not Calvinist… nor important to the core of our Lutheran view of justification.

    There are even more Lutheran authors or folks writing about Luther that I would add to the list:

    David Lose and all the folks at workingpreacher.org
    which in my view is perhaps the most important website on preaching and mission. Period.

    Working Preacher is such a huge collaborative website, one look at the contributors page makes me wonder how Kevin DeYoung could miss it.

    • Elaine Sauer says:

      good point, Erik. I did miss workingpreacher.com. and not just for David Lose but Rolf Jacobson and others. We had Rolf in MNO two years ago. People still talk about his presentations. We have invited David Lose and are waiting for a confirmation. He has some pretty imaginative stuff for mission and evangelism and he is one of the best prophetic voices we have in the Lutheran church right now.
      Who else do you have on your list? We are always looking for presenters as synod events and it seems our people are ripe for the engagement of theological reflection.

  6. Preston says:

    Thanks for bringing up workingpreacher.org, helpful resource. I always like to distinguish between American Evangelicalism and Classic Evangelicalism. The former may be judged to be too close to politics (although I know a lot of great American Evangelicals who would balk at being considered supporters of Fox News or the Iraq War), while the later comes out of a series of historical movements such as European Pietism, Methodism, and produced some fine Christian spiritual leaders such as Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield. Far from being all talk and no action, Evangelicals such as Wilberforce abolished slavery while hundreds of missionary societies preached the Gospel and brought aid to all corners of the globe. This is the evangelicalism I celebrate. Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, cool name, but do we know what it means? In my view, it’s potent.

  7. Brian Rude says:

    For the past year, we’ve been introducing restorative justice within the prison system in El Salvador, building on 16 years of intense involvement with inmates and the entire national prison system. This feels very evangelical, very Gospel-oriented to me. We have a 15-year Lutheran director of chaplaincy for Corrections Canada as one source of inspiration. There are pockets of interest, support and enthusiasm in Canada, but perhaps this doesn’t qualify as “evangelism” for most.

  8. Preston says:

    Brian, That sounds very evangelical – being the presence of Jesus – good work! I believe that evangelism involves a certain level of “caring candor.” We love other people by living graciously and demonstrating a long-term commitment to their wellbeing, and it’s out of that love that we can be candid and forthright with them. A relationship that is caring without the candor (or vice-versa) is not healthy, but a relationship built on “caring candor” most certainly is one that will grow and thrive. How do we instill a spirit of “caring candor” in the work we do as a church? How do we carefully, and lovingly, help people see that it’s only in Jesus that we can find hope and life? Being a caring and candid evangelist is hard because it requires relationship – that is why I celebrate long-term missionaries, they are committed to fostering those beautiful and transformative relationships. May God richly bless the work you are doing! P

  9. Steve says:

    How many Lutherans have been invited to these Big-tent evangelical meetings?? I know for a fact that Kevin DeYoung is aware of some of the confessional Lutheran media-related ministries such as Pirate Christian Radio and Issues etc and Fighting for the Faith or Johnathan Fisk’s ministry; Worldview Everlasting on Youtube (Which BTW has a great response to DeYoung’s article BTW). Has he invited any of them to these events?

    As far as David Lose or any of the WorkingPreacher.org crowd coming to these events; considering that Lose wrote an article for the Huffington Post recently dismissing the destructive nature of some of the assertions put forth in Rob Bell’s latest book, I really don’t think he would fit in very well at these events.

  10. Preston says:

    Good point on being invited to Big Tent Evangelical meetings! So how do we, as Lutherans, get in on the action in the broader church? Do we have something to contribute? I think we do and should be part of the conversation. I regularly attend non-Lutheran evangelical events (Church Planting Canada, Missions-Fest, even other denominations annual general conferences!) I am often a rare Lutheran in the mix, but now I get invited back and am welcomed to share my thoughts. If we show interest in being part of the larger conversation, we’ll be invited.

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  13. Kirk says:

    Interesting article. Kevin’s point is well taken. But perhaps he needs to step outside his “evangelical tent” to see the good things that God is doing in the “liberal” mainline churches. I hope there is some room in the evangelical tent for me – I’ll save a spot for Kevin in ours!
    My question is this: The theology of the cross is always less popular than the theology of glory. Will a missional attitude that seeks to walk in the way of the cross alongside the marginalized of our society be any different? When was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty….? Isn’t this a living out the good news?
    Bravo to the work that Brian Rude has been doing for what seems like forever in El Salvador – why you aren’t invited to speak at more events when you are in Canada boggles my mind.

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