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As Lutherans, we have a history that dates back to Wittenberg and long

Decline in American Lutheranism: A Study

before; as preachers, teachers and evangelists, we are called to bear witness in the present.

by James Arne Nestigen

T

hank you very much for the delightful invitation The melting pot and the welcome that has gone along with it. It is a From the beginning of trans-Atlantic migration, as joy to actually be in Wittenberg. Europeans began settling in North America, the ChrisBefore beginning, I would like to make a couple of tian Church has faced a particular challenge. In Europe, comments about my method. There are wide spread whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or even radical or perceptions of a decline in American Lutheranism. But left wing, the Church had been able to rely on the coercive perception isn’t necessarily reality. The question is how to power of the State. As Sidney Earl Mead1 pointed out in measure or document the losses. a classic essay some years ago, conWhen I was working on my docditions in America undermined the The ELCA’s problem toral dissertation some years ago, I use of coercion, forcing the Church has been its left wing; became convinced that the health to rely on persuasion. The frontier Missouri’s challenge of the Church could be measured was always close enough to hand so has come from its right, by its use of the Book of Romans. that dissenters faced with coercion Paul’s letter has driven several major which pounces on simply moved, evading attempts to reforms, such as the Lutheran. In silence them. The disestablishment suggestions of variance times of decline, his letter disappears clause of the American Constitution, as proof positive of into the background. So between which prohibits the use of legal coercorruption, to be dealt 1225 and 1275, the high medieval cion to maintain the Church, simply with coercively, with tar ratified the reality geography had reform, there were five or six major commentaries on Romans, including and feathers. imposed. that of Thomas Aquinas. Between Adapting to this new circum1275 and 1450, there was one and that was derivative, a stance, the Church was forced to market itself, developing collection of the comments of the fathers. appeals that would encourage voluntary association, the Evaluating the vitality of American Lutheranism, condition of membership. Already in the early eighteenth instead of using Romans, I am going to look at the way century, preachers such as Jonathan Edwards — a strict the churches have treated Luther. The Confessions have Calvinist — were promoting awakenings, vivid styles of a prior authority; Luther’s authority is less formal, giving preaching and other strategies that sought to move heara wider range of possibility. He has enough standing to ers to an emotional pitch in which they would make demand a reading by Lutherans, but subscription to commitments to the congregations. George Whitfield, Luther’s theology is not formally required. Consequently, one of the great Methodist preachers of this new style, there is a little more range of interpretation. stopped in Philadelphia and visited with Henry Melchior Secondly, like Hermann Sasse, I believe that the Muhlenberg, who had been sent from Halle to minister to Church’s good health requires a balance between the past Lutheran immigrants to the new land. The Great Awakenand the present. As Lutherans, we have a history that ing, as it came to be called, swept across the eastern third dates back to Wittenberg and long before; as preachers, of the country, originally in the eighteenth, then again in teachers and evangelists, we are called to bear witness in the early nineteenth century. Not being able to rely on the the present. This sets up a dialectic in which fidelity to our heritage expresses itself in the willingness to engage pres1 Sidney Earl Mead, The Lively Experiment (New York: Harper and Row, ent cultural challenges. 1963).

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Journal of Lutheran Mission | The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

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Journal of Lutheran Mission | September 2015  

The September 2015 issue of The Journal of Lutheran Mission focuses on the 2015 Reformation celebration. The papers presented in this issue...

Journal of Lutheran Mission | September 2015  

The September 2015 issue of The Journal of Lutheran Mission focuses on the 2015 Reformation celebration. The papers presented in this issue...

Profile for thelcms