Interesting stuff. This is written from an ELCA perspective. The ElCA has ecumenical yearnings to be again in communion with Rome, which I can understand but do not share. Not least because parts of the Lutheran church has done a better job of preserving what we believe than almost anybody else. Still, there’s a lot to learn here, and not just for Lutherans. All of our western churches are seeing similar things. Gene Veith of Cranach did a wonderful job of excerpting Sarah Hinlicky Wilson’s article, so rather than trying to do better, I’ll simply credit him.
. . .There are 4 million Lutherans in otherwise very Hindu India and another 5.7 million Lutherans in otherwise very Muslim Indonesia. There are nearly 20 million Lutherans in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Madagascar combined. Far more modest numbers are found in the Americas, and of course all kinds of Lutherans are spangled across Europe, from the ponderous folk churches of Scandinavia to the tiny but resilient minority churches in Slovakia, Serbia, and Romania.
But it’s another thing to see the global face of Lutheranism in person, and in Wittenberg. Every November since 2009 my German colleague Theodor Dieter and I have taught a two-week seminar titled Studying Luther in Wittenberg, which collects the “diaspora” of Lutheranism for a high-octane fellowship of study. . . .
What we encountered was an enthusiastic reception far beyond anything we’d dared to let ourselves dream. We’ve spent time at the seminar table with an Inuit pastor from Greenland who told us how she has to order a whole year’s supply of communion wine because the ice prevents imports ten months of the year. And with a Senegalese pastor who, as an observant Muslim high schooler, read through a Finnish missionary’s entire library before finally being granted access to the Bible—on the conclusion of which reading, he said to himself, “The Qur’an tells how to save yourself; the Bible tells how God saves you.” And with a third-generation Lutheran pastor from Myanmar who was ecstatic to eat sauerkraut and sausages as well as to talk theology all day. Brazilian scholars laboring to translate Luther’s works into Portuguese and a Taiwanese pastor seeing unflattering parallels between 16th-century Christian practice in Europe and 21st-century Taoist practice in China.
Luther has traveled far indeed, and the farther he goes, the warmer his reception. The Africans and Asians we’ve worked with have found in this late medieval friar’s writings on faith and grace, sin and law, left-hand and right-hand kingdoms the answers to the questions plaguing their churches, their people, and their societies. The western and northern Europeans are generally slower to warm up, a little bored with the theologian who taught the ubiquity of Christ but inadvertently became ubiquitous himself. By the end we could usually bring them around. Still, I postulate a Law of Luther Reception: there is an inverse relationship between Luther’s cultural importance and that culture’s ability to hear him.
Which brings us to the question of Luther reception in our own equally exotic, if all too familiar, United States of America.
One thing she comments on, I think is worthy of note.
And then, right at the moment exotic foreigner Lutherans hit their cultural stride, got their church presidents on the cover of Time, and eagerly started building bigger barns, the winds shifted. Whether aggravated by their own choices or obediently following the way of all mainline Protestants, the growth transmuted into a free fall and has kept on falling ever since.
That is very true for the ELCA, the Episcopal Church, and even the Roman Catholic Church. It is not nearly as true for the LCMS, there has been a decline, a pretty big one, but if one was to look at baptism and confirmation statistics (around 13 in our churches) it has pretty much reflected the birth rate, which peaked around 1960. More here. Incidentally, there is a study floating around that says the UK was happier in 1959 than at any time before or since. Connected? Maybe.
She deals with whether the reformation is over, and with Luther’s aversion to Rabbinic Judaism, although he loved the Old Testament. perhaps more than the New, and with several other things.
Her article is well worth your time.