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

Print article

Share This

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.

8 thoughts on “The Lutheran Option

  1. Great article! We attend Good Shephard-Boise, along with our 2 married children, their spouses, and their kids. We don’t just attend church together, our friendships are here, we go camping together, the men hunt together, etc. it’s a community.

  2. Yes, the Benedict Option must be about building Christian elementary schools, middle schools, home-school co-ops, high schools, and congregating in communities centered around such institutions. It is not about dropping out of society and becoming hermits, as it is often mischaracterized. The example of the LCMS is inspiring.

  3. There are other LCMS congregations with the pull factor but without classical schools. As a pastor of one such congregation, and where a classical Lutheran school is an unlikely outcome, what alternatives do you suggest?

  4. Why are Missouri Synod schools in decline? It isn’t money; Christian schools generalliy are booming, aren’t they? Is there a lack of energy, or an inward looking, ethnic, attitude ? Is liberalism infiltrating, as with the conservative PCA presyberians ?

  5. Thank you for this article, Rebecca. It helps to address the one permissible obsession for all Americans, LCMS Lutherans included, and that is the education of our children. To get our sons and daughters into, you know, that amazing (woke) university (with anti-Christian policies), we forfeit any commitment to Church or our parochial Christian education. It has to stop. Making disciples of the world’s rightful King is far, far more important than getting into an Ivy.

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    I enjoyed reading your article. I grew up in a small town in Illinois north of Bloomington-Normal, in a large Lutheran family that had several cousins study and become ordained as LCMS pastors. I am 30 years old now and studying to be a pastor at Lincoln Christian University, but I left the LCMS at age 20 for reasons that weren’t entirely clear at the time. I have spent the past decade trying to understand why I, as the most devout member of my family by far, am really the only one to ever leave the LCMS, and the answer is a distressing one but one that I must share.

    In short, it is that the Lutheran church (and, to be fair, most American churches of every denomination – I simply have no experience in those other churches to be able to provide a sound analysis of them) has so neglected to teach the truth about sanctification for fear of being accused of preaching works-righteousness that virtually no Lutherans that I know work towards their own salvation with fear and trembling. I have tried and tried to explain this to my Lutheran relatives, to explain that you aren’t saved by your work, but you absolutely have to do it to inherit eternal life, and the response I get that ends the conversation is this: John 3:16, and “I believe in Jesus, therefore I am saved, so don’t worry about me.”

    And this is false, because “believe” at the time the gospels were written NEVER meant an intellectual acknowledgement of His deity and resurrection, although that was, of course, a required component of belief then just as it is now. If somebody told you that the world would end in 5 minutes, but that they could save you, then if you believed them, would you not do whatever they said without question? To believe in Jesus was to study as your first priority everything He said and did, and to conform your actions so that you say and do it too.

    In order to see this for yourself, look at Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as you Heavenly Father is perfect.” Lutheran teachings say that Jesus here is using hyperbole, because He would not be telling us to do something that is impossible for us to do; in other words, Jesus is emphasizing the inability for mankind to keep God’s perfect law. But this is wrong, and it is from this incorrect understanding that the entire concept of sanctification is ignored in Lutheran and, again, most Christian churches – and it is the neglect of sanctification that has brought about the hypocrisy and corruption in these churches that is resulting in declining membership. We don’t act like Jesus, and we justify this by saying we cannot do so and that we are saved regardless – and this is a heretical perversion of the gospel that will lead us to hell if we do not come to our senses.

    That word, perfect, translates as teleios in Greek, and though it did indeed mean “morally perfect” in Greek society, this is not what it meant, nor how it was used, in Jewish society (remember, Matthew’s gospel was written for the Jews). This can be seen by the layman by the fact that there was no such thing as moral perfection in Jewish society. It could not mean this because that would have made no sense to the listeners and then to the readers of Matthew’s Gospel.

    But, what it does mean, and how it is used throughout the rest of the New Testament, is something like “spiritually mature” “whole” or “complete”. When understood in this way, we find that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are not impossible-to-follow law that exist to point to Him on the cross, but a description of what following Jesus looks like.

    For example, Matthew 5:48 concludes a selection of passages called the Antitheses (“You’ve heard it said…but I tell you…”) which, in most churches are taught as similar hyperbolic statements designed to show the impossibility of man to follow the law. However, when we read them in the correct context, they teach us something that Jesus’ followers had literally never heard before, because the very idea had never existed in society prior to this point: God’s law was to extend to the heart. The final Antithesis, “You’ve heard love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you love your enemy…” extends his law in yet another way, from friend to foe.

    And it is following these two extensions that Matthew summarizes the teachings in a single verse: “Therefore, be spiritually mature, as your Heavenly Father is.” This is entirely possible for us to do thanks to Jesus, and He even tells us how to do it: forgive unconditionally.

    What are the implications of this, how does it relate to sanctification, and why is it this concept that is driving out young people from Christian community? Because when one begins to reach and practice this level of spiritual maturity, they become a member of the Kingdom of Heaven, for we are like our Father in the only respect we MUST be in order to participate in His Kingdom. It is this state which produces a peace we cannot understand. And it is this state which, if we are living in, our external actions DO begin to look like His.

    But when we misread this verse, we lose all of this. Christianity becomes one dimensional, and it loses it’s life-changing properties. This is why so many “Christians” live unchanged lives – they have bought into a heretical version of Christianity that the church, through mis-education, is responsible for propagating.

    This message is not new, it has simply been neglected by pastors because they themselves were taught incorrectly. Sometime in the past, people began to neglect sanctification in favor of a version of Christianity that allowed them to continue to live sinful lives and justify doing so, and when they were confronted with the Bible regarding this perversion, they simply perverted the Bible’s teachings to conform to what they say.

    I say this to you on an open forum and with love, because it is a hard truth, but God prevented me from sleeping despite my exhaustion and then called me to this website I’d never even heard of until tonight, and then redirected me to this article, all because somebody needs to hear this message.

    You can test all of this yourself via scripture, and I love talking about this more than anything, so please feel free to contact me to continue the conversation. But do test it yourself…if I am wrong, the loving thing to do for you would be to gently correct me…if I am right, then the loving thing for you to do would be to spread the message yourself. Eternal lives depend on us either way – will you do this?

Disclaimer: The comments section is a public platform. The views expressed in the comments section belong to the individual commenters and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the site or its authors. The site and its authors disclaim any liability for the comments posted.

Keep the comment section civil, focussed and respectful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *