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.

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170 thoughts on “What’s Up With Lutherans?”

  1. Curtis says:

    Lutheranism is not a brand to be promoted, and Lutheran pastors to not aspire to be celebrities. I know that may sound strange to evangelicals, who think that branding, marketing and promoting God is the whole point of church. Lutherans believe no such thing. Lutherans are like paper clips. You never hear about them, but they are everywhere. They have a role to play and they serve it faithfully.

    Lutherans remain the fourth most numerous Christian denomination in the U.S., behind Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist, as they have been for decades.

    But no Lutheran would know that, or even care. Unlike many modern-day churches, Lutheranism is not about the numbers. Or the image. Or the hype. Lutheranism is about God’s kingdom, which far exceeds any of our conventional measures.

    Lutheranism is doing just fine, thank you. Lutheranism does not need and does not want your attention or your concern. Make yourself right with your God, Lutherans will still be around doing God’s work until God’s kingdom is fulfilled.

  2. AK says:

    I am a pastor in a Lutheran church that is part of the Association of Free Lutheran Churches. I found your article very interesting and would agree that Lutherans have largely gone missing in todays Christian world. From an insiders perspective I can say that it is because we are so stuck on tradition to the detriment of our church. It’s incredibly ironic though because we are today the exact opposite of what Luther was. His greatest desire was to break free of mindless, unbiblical tradition and make the gospel as accesible to people as possible. However, it seems like almost across the board, the Lutheran church has been fighting to keep it’s traditions and stick to services and ways of doing things that make the gospel incredibly inaccesible to the post-modern mind. I believe with all my heart that Luther would be disgusted with the churches that bear his name not only because of their stubborness with regard to tradition, but mostly because we label ourselves followers of Luther rather than first calling ourselves followers of Christ. Lutherans are the reason that Lutheranism is dying and I for one am not opposed to it’s death despite my ties to this church. I am a huge fan of Luther, but not of what those who bear his name have become.

  3. Mick Lee says:

    I am not going the bad mouth other Lutherans—others took that task to themselves in all its snarky glory. I have been hearing this kind of stuff among Lutherans since I was old enough to catch a vague idea of what the grownups where talking about. (I am 60) Frankly, I’m tired of it.
    One thing Evangelicals need to understand is that since the first Lutherans stepped on American shores, in many ways the larger assortment of American Christians had been hostile to them. Even in this far more tolerant day, in gatherings of Evangelicals both small and large I myself have been greeted by Evangelicals with distrust and seemingly invincible disinterest in what Lutherans theologically have to bring to the table.
    Evangelicals very often regard Lutherans as practically or actually Catholics (true an not true) and closet papists (definitely not true.) During conversations with Evangelicals, unprovoked they will spontaneously speak despairingly of Lutheran worship practices and piety. Frankly, I’m tired of trying to explain myself. The way most Evangelicals act, you’d think I’d been trying to explain why I think the moon is made of green cheese.
    Getting down to brass tacks, when it comes to the historical and deep faultlines in Christian theology, Lutherans and Evangelicals fall on profoundly opposite sides of these questions. More importantly, when it comes to “saved by faith alone” (the doctrine by which the Lutheran Church stands or falls) Lutherans find that almost all Christians (not just Evangelicals; but especially Fundamentalists and Evangelicals) profess rock-bottom belief; but are they are positively allergic to what it actually means.
    You know what? No matter how long you know us, it seems we will always be strange to you. And compared with the task of proclaiming the Gospel, sticking around singing ““Kumbaya” with the Evangelicals is a long way down the list of priorities for Lutherans.

  4. Mark says:

    Your question is interesting and it has to do with the principle of unity of doctrine. Confessional Lutherans have doctrinal differences with both Calvinist (may seem like hair splitting to an outside observer) and Arminian theology. The most conservative confessional Lutheran will only fellowship at group Christian events if there is doctrinal unity. Doctrinal unity not only encompasses questions about election, but can involve the communion. This is why Christians who visit conservative confessional Lutheran churches can’t partake in communion. Persons you have as speakers at your gatherings couldn’t take communion in their churches. There is a long history going far back on this topic, and I can’t write much more, except read their history. They have a distinctive orthodox theology and they want to conserve it.

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  6. Pr. DeYoung;

    There is some truth in numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 of your proposed questions. I will focus specifically on numbers 2, 4, and 5.

    #2 is mainly true for the simple fact that we Lutherans do not wish to be identified with the mainstream evangelical churches, nor with the Great Awakening. We are not going to get on board with evangelicalism because we are not the same type of evangelical as you guys are, much like you are not the same type of evangelical as Steven Furtick is. we are Evangelical Catholic, not Reformed or Baptist.

    #4 is a big one that directly relates to the others. The Sacraments are a huge deal for us. Thus, to deny the plain reading of Scripture regarding baptism is to deny what baptism is, which is also a denial of a pure Gospel promise and a means of grace. To reject the true bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist is nothing short of a Christological heresy (Nestorianism). Thus, we argue that “evangelical” churches do not even have the Lord’s Supper. A picture (memorialism) is not the Eucharist. A spiritual presence where we are raised in faith to the Throne room of God is not the Real Presence either. We do not wish to associate with those who reject these things. Hence, we will not get on board with Reformed evangelicalism. Luther and the other Lutheran Reformers called all of this “enthusiasm” and lumped the Zwinglians, Calvinists, Arminians, Anabaptists, and whoever else into the “radical” category. Yours was not a Reformation of the church catholic, it was a revolt.

    #5 is slightly true. You’re correct that there are tons of liberals out there. But you guys have the exact same thing in Reformed Theology. The ELCA is to us what the PCUSA is to you. It’s a perfect comparison. The second part of #5 is not very valid. Looking around, there are tons of Confessional Lutherans very active out there. But why aren’t we speaking at ecumenical evangelical conferences? Well, because we do not wish to associate with that.



  7. TRT says:

    I know this is an old article, but I find this discussion too important to resist. Even if no one is still active on this string, let this be a record for anyone who stumbles here in the future. I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for 28 years–no big deal. I’m in the free Lutheran movement, AFLC. We are conservative, and hold to all the confessions. Yet even though we don’t agree in particulars on some of the above issues, we still gladly fellowship with other Christians. We have conservative “confessional” elements in our church body, but what makes us distinctive is the evangelical part. They are not contradictory. In fact I believe the exclusivity of these other Lutherans has been a scar on the body of Christ. To my confessional bretheren, I think you are like the four beggars of 2 Kings 7:9. It may not be in your lectionary, but it is there. Maybe you are not quietly working, “doing Lutheran things”, but are, in fact, on the shelf. That’s just me. You can do what you please, and you will, but please don’t claim excusive ownership of Lutheranism.

  8. Jim says:

    Like most denominations, we swim in a wide river. There are the tighter and more closed Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synods, then there are Lutheran Brethern and the Association of Free Lutheran Churches that are perhaps a bit more evangelical. These would be the largest among the conservative streams. Of course the ELCA, like the Methodist, Disciples of Christ, PCUSA, largely runs outside the banks of orthodox Christianity.

    There is something to be said about the “ethnic enclave” statement. I think there are regional strengths to every denomination. Southern Baptist do not have a strong representation in many of the Northern States. Presbyterian church are not as strong in the Midwest as on the East Coast. On the other hand, Lutherans have been weaker to evangelize than other evangelical denominations.

    All in all your comments are good to reflect upon. I think you are asking, what can the conservative Lutheran denominations do to get involved it proclaiming and not just defending the truths of the gospel. If we don’t have the Great Commission embedded in all our activities how can we be pleasing to God.

  9. Hey Pr. DeYoung,

    I’ve only recently come across this blog post of yours from 2011 and perhaps you’ve received all the info you need on this to proceed with an informed position. Still, this compelled a response to such a degree that I dedicated one of my recent broadcasts to this post (please see the link below).

    A Lutheran Pastor and I (a confessional Lutheran layman) tackled this together and we hope it helps you understand better “what’s up with us Lutherans”!

    Grace and Peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
    – Matthew Garnett, host of God Still Speaks Through Jackasses

  10. Paul says:

    Luther did not teach double predestination as your article states. Perhaps that is why you haven’t run into any Lutherans. We dont want to be confused with Calvinists.

  11. Ken Miller says:

    I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping Kevin might still get comment notifications.

    I recently left a “Reformed Baptist” church for Lutheranism and I’ve been really impressed at how involved the AALC Lutherans are in their community. They’re busy, busy, busy in service to each other and their community, and less focused on reading thick theology books. Their sermons are simple and to the point, and they don’t make an effort to preach “earth shattering” sermons. Instead, the preaching of the word is accompanied by the public reading of scripture and the historic catholic confessions, and the Lord’s Supper is central to their services as they believe it is a means of grace.

    Because Luther really sought to keep love of neighbor central in the Christian life, Lutheran’s believe that good works ought to always benefit their neighbors, so the pursuit of active righteousness doesn’t primarily involve studying theology the way that it does in so many Calvinistic circles. Lutheran’s are less cerebral, are more practical. Their sermons are less polemical and more pastoral.

    The Lutheran approach to preaching doesn’t generate the same kind of controversy as a MacArthur sermon would. They don’t open the Bible in order to attack Charismatics. They’re more comfortable with tension, so they don’t try to fit everything into their theological box. They just allow the scriptures to speak and they generally take the position, “sure Calvin made some good points, but so did Arminius.” How are they reconciled? God knows, we don’t need to explain it. Instead, let’s go love our community and reach them with the gospel. It doesn’t sell out big conferences, but it does make a difference in the lives of real people. It doesn’t create a congregation of offensive, proud, knowledge-filled people that want to argue every theological point. Instead, it creates a body of believers who are committed to something greater.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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