When you read this, I will most likely be in the air on the way back to Northwest Arkansas from Minneapolis, Minnesota. This has been, by every measure, a very "Lutheran" week for me. Last Sunday, our congregation hosted the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as guest preacher. This was his first visit to Arkansas in his eleven years as bishop of the ELCA. Wednesday I preached at the chapel of one of the great Lutheran institutions of higher learning, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Then for two days I led workshops at the Annual Consultation on the Missional Church at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Why, you ask, am I telling you all of this? Well, if the census bureau data I have reviewed for Northwest Arkansas is any indication, it is my guess that most of you reading this are not Lutheran. Some readers may not even know quite what a Lutheran is. It may then come as some surprise to know that in other parts of the United States, and especially in the Holy Land of Minnesota, there are sometimes actually more Lutherans than people. By the time I get back to Arkansas, I will have been thoroughly immersed, almost drowned, in Lutheran culture, and I will, in addition, be quite happy to get back to this place I love, where I have the opportunity to be a minority religious tradition and try, as best I can, to represent Lutheranism among those for whom it is quite unfamiliar.
This still doesn't answer your, by this time very fair question--why does this matter to me? Here is why. Although you may not be Lutheran, I am guessing you do have a particular faith tradition, or way of thinking about being religious, in which you have been formed and that is peculiar to you as a unique human being. Furthermore, your particular faith might be lived out in community with others of similar faith, temperament, and vision. You may even ask yourself, from time to time, "What do my neighbors think of us? If our tradition were to disappear completely from Northwest Arkansas, what would be missed?"
To be honest, when I tell people I'm Lutheran, I'm not even always sure myself what that means. Some days it is probably just a designation I employ from long habit. I was born and baptized into this, have been and always will be Lutheran, world without end, amen. Lutheranism has also, at times, been unfortunately wedded to specific ethnicities (think of Prairie Home Companion, or the recent popularity of the play Church Basement Ladies in Little Rock, Arkansas, if you need an example).
On my better days, I know what is unique about us. So what is unique about our tradition? What is the gift we bring, not in the sense of us thinking we own that part of Christian faith, but in the sense that we especially emphasize and celebrate it and bring it as a gift to the wider faith community?
First, I can tell you that the ELCA is in full communion agreements with more denominations than any other denomination in the United States. We are intentionally and broadly ecumenical. We try to figure out how we can have full table fellowship with as many other Christian communities as possible. We are incredibly interested in and committed to the cause of Christian unity.
Second, Lutherans emphasize, in as many ways as possible, the freedom we have in Christ. Our denomination just recently adopted a mission statement I quite like, "We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God's grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person — questions, complexities and all. Join us as we do God's work in Christ's name for the life of the world." We tend to think that the incredible grace extended to us in Christ set's us free to serve our neighbors. We also tend to think this freedom means we can be welcoming and affirming of all people, inviting them to join us in this journey of faith.
Which means, finally, that Lutherans have a tendency to get really involved in and focused on service in the world. Lutheran Services in America is, for example, in terms of revenue, the largest single non-profit charitable organization in America. Lutherans start hospitals, serve refugees and immigrants, fight malaria, feed the poor, and care for the least and the lost. Our own congregation has been instrumental in forming Community Emergency Outreach, makes Love Bears for children in the local hospitals, supports Single Parent Scholarship Fund, sends groups on service trips, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, and in a wide variety of ways strives to be of service to our neighbors in need.
I bet if you asked a cross-section of the members of my congregation what it means to be Lutheran, you would get all kinds of answers. And they would be right also. We are a denomination that extends considerable freedom and latitude to our people to live out their Christian freedom in the world. It's a hallmark of who we are.
Oh, one other thing. Sometimes Lutherans tend to be kind of humble, almost quietist. You might have a neighbor or co-worker who is Lutheran, and they haven't told you. They may be more likely to ask you, "What does your faith tradition mean to you?" Which is just another hallmark of Lutherans. They're often really good listeners. Seriously, we're all ears. If you can, find one of us and tell us what your tradition means to you.