The Lutheran Option

Stewarding a Legacy of Institution-Building

In 1817, Prussia’s Frederick William III sought to solve religious tensions by making one nice, big Protestant church. There were no memes yet, so the Lutherans (i.e. “Saxons”) didn’t have this to post by way of explanation. Instead, they took a couple of decades to get organized, boarded five boats and sailed to America. One of the boats sank, and when the rest of them got here everything went really sideways. Devastating moral failure in their leader ended with the migrants living in horrible conditions mismatched to their skill sets. Somehow, enough of them made it to make it, and that’s how we got The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

But in making the LCMS, as it is affectionately known, what did the Saxons make? The church body occupies a peculiar place in American Christianity. Lutherans are sacerdotal softies; doctrinaire Jesus freaks; acerbic jerks who love you so hecking much because they know God does. They can’t deal with Calvinists’ allergy to mystery, or the pope’s allergy to claiming primacy only by human right. Lutherans have been known to laugh at Baptists and cry at baptisms. Lutherans also punch as much below their weight socially and politically as Presbyterians punch above theirs.

Here’s a theory for this latter phenomenon that accounts for what the Saxons made. The LCMS has historically been a major operator of schools. This necessarily means that its body is composed of a great number of teachers, which has consequences. First, that Lutheran teachers have been less involved in other aspects of public life because the life of the Lutheran teacher has a “public servant” feeling and function built into it, even if its service is not broadly public. Second, that many young Lutherans have turned into Lutheran teachers, so the cycle continues. With so much institutional energy invested internally in education, a smaller external presence and recognition cannot be helped. Furthermore, the development of Lutheran schools both occasioned and supported the simultaneous growth of related structures, particularly financial and media institutions and complex internal social connections. The Saxons made not just a community, but an ecosystem.

This is changing for the LCMS. In the last 14 years, enrollment in LCMS teaching programs has decreased 61%. The decline is steeper than public teacher education enrollment (which is around 30%). There are reasonable explanatory theories here, too. The total technology cost for a Lutheran K-8 school in the 1960s was a typewriter, mimeograph, ditto machine, and maybe an intercom. Schools did not have to manufacture IEPs, employ resource teachers and subject specialists, or field athletic teams worthy of petit-professional athletes. Public schools have swelled into tax supported universes in which education is only one aspect of their total program. Lutheran schools, with their antiquated goal of merely providing a basic education that includes catechesis, struggle to compete in the average or better-funded school districts where they tend to exist.

But Christians in general are no longer operating in the world like they used to, a reality described by Aaron Renn under the heuristic of positive world, neutral world and negative world: when the youngest members of Gen X were born, religious practice entailed social approval; now the opposite is true. A pro-life, narrowly creationist church that only ordains men and holds to a male/female binary is one big hate crime waiting to be prosecuted. Everything the LCMS does and teaches is anathema. The same is true of all comparable Christian traditions and congregations.

We have a precedent for this. Hemmed in on all sides, the Saxons migrate (see also Huguenots, Puritans, etc.). They go where they will be able to establish what is most important to them—orthodox religious practice and community—and build from there. The question is, where are the new Saxons supposed to go?

I don’t think it’s Ethiopia, which one of my regular sources of wisdom suggested. I appreciate the work of those called alarmists on precipitous moral decline, but I am still forced to check it against my own experience. I live in a small town in downstate Illinois (by downstate, I mean south of I-80 and west of Rt. 47). Most of the moral corrosion I encounter is that which I voluntarily bring into my own house by way of the internet. Although my neighbors include lefties with rainbow frames on their Facebook profiles and virtue-signaling yard signs, the problem in my town is not drag queen story hour. It’s how few kids show up for story hour. Local businesses have endured (or not) under Governor J. B. Pritzker’s heavy-handed instrumentalizing of COVID, but one piece of trash underrepresented in our ditches is masks. People in this community love America, and die of diabetes and meth. It’s a place that might allow a career alarmist to get a good night’s sleep, if he could stand living someplace so un-hip.

Against this apparently red state backdrop, my children attend a classical Lutheran school. They have track meets that do not require them to compete with boys pretending to be girls. They don’t even have to compete with followers of the pope or pubic school apparatchiks, so thick are Lutherans regionally. Despite numerical decline in the LCMS, the historical imprint of education specifically and community generally continues to shape American confessional Lutheranism. The school my children attend has operated for 160 years. Its parish church has become a magnet for Lutheran families seeking not only sturdy Sunday mornings, but coreligionists whose shared priorities and piety naturally result in social support.

There are other LCMS congregations with similarly demonstrated pull factors: Redeemer Lutheran in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Good Shepherd Lutheran in Boise, Id.;  Faith Lutheran in Plano, Tex.; Grace Lutheran in Clarksville, Tenn. This kind of place is where the new Saxons have already begun to pilot themselves, with one significant difference: They do not need to build intentional communities from the ground up. Their ancestors did.

The LCMS in its boom years erected an institutional and cultural infrastructure that is now ours to steward. It includes financial and insurance institutions; the biggest Protestant school system in the country; a formal publisher and various media operations; real estate; and numerous auxiliaries concerned with diverse aspects of human care. The question we should frame in words is how to make the most of what has been handed down to us. This will require a realistic and truly synodical perspective. It has already included downsizing. Three Concordia colleges have closed in the past four years (arguably the three least culturally Lutheran), and there have been other closures in recent decades. But downsizing is not collapse. Resourcefulness and perspective, flexibility qualified by wisdom, make the difference between calamity and continuity.

I speak as a descendant of new Saxons, rather than historical ones. My father’s family left theologically drifting Methodism in the 1950s to join a Lutheran church after hearing robust theology from The Lutheran Hour radio show. My mother’s de-churched family, wary of increasing secularism in public schools in the 1960s, was referred to a Lutheran school by a member of the John Birch Society in Rockford. (This stung a relative, who couldn’t understand why, if the Swedish family was going to return to its Lutheran heritage, it would choose “that German church.”) I do not have an ancestor on the manifest of the Saxons’ five brave vessels, but they are surely my spiritual fathers and mothers. They built the churches that have become my family’s home.

This is not to push denomination-hopping. Becoming a Lutheran for the social benefits would be . . . unusual (see the second paragraph above—we’re just not for everyone). But Christians need not feel that acting on the better insights of the Benedict Option means turning their apartments into catacombs, or sniffing out a celebrity pastor who won’t let us down like the last guy. Before resolving to survive the negative world by starting a new church, it would be wise to see what is going on with old ones. It takes perspicacity to envision what an established parish might become if its distinctive features were received as instructive or advantageous, rather than vestigial or bizarre. A congregation with solid dogmatics, real connections to a whole lot of other deep-rooted congregations, and over a century of life is worthy of serious consideration. It has survived complete turnovers of its leadership and membership, while surrounded by external cultural convulsion.

The Saxons were a community without a place. The new Saxons—Christians facing increasing social displacement—must choose between appealing places drained of devout community, or unfamiliar places with existing Christian communities. Leaving a place is no small thing. At the same time, a neighborhood that has changed from friendly to hostile is not the place it used to be. Once, being the only family on the block that went to Trinity Lutheran on Sunday morning was no big deal. Chances are now that the other families aren’t simply attending different churches. They are two generations into attending no church at all; to having children whose moral compass orients to “Be a Nice Human,” and whose deepest mythos is the Mandalorian.

This calls for wisdom. Palliating a declining congregation with one’s own strength and presence may be a form of keeping the 4th commandment. And any congregation that closes leaves a locality in need of Gospel proclamation, which may call for a new church plant. However, Christians whose situation requires or allows resettling should have church as the highest priority, and think carefully about how to secure themselves within a faithful congregation. For their own sake and for the sake of the church, mobile Christians would do well to consider anchored parishes where their own energy can fortify the body. All of life’s variable demands are best met around that center.

As the forces of history act upon Christians, pastors and committed laity will naturally flow toward the country’s strongest regions and congregations. Stable parishes will increasingly stand out as places where faith and virtue resonate through their broader communities, creating a less negative micro-world for practicing Christians. They will be just what new Saxons are looking for. Historically rooted church bodies with advantages of material and social infrastructure, a culture of commitment to the church, and generations of survival without loss of identity have an opportunity here. They have been uniquely equipped by their forbears, whose devotion manifested itself as sacrifice and labor to find and build a positive world for their children. Blessed are we who get to live in it, and follow their example.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Rebekah Curtis

Rebekah Curtis is coauthor of LadyLike (Concordia 2015). Her writing can be found online at The American Conservative, Public Discourse, and First Things, and in print for Chronicles, Touchstone, Modern Reformation, and a variety of Lutheran publications. Her day job is housewife, church lady, and school mom.