Lutheran churches in America have an ethnic origin–they were usually started by communities of German, Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian immigrants–and that has definitely shaped the culture of local congregations, sometimes putting off new people who want to join. I remember marveling at the Germanness of our congregation in Wisconsin, with its Men’s Club singing “Sie Leben Hoh” on birthdays and drinking beer and eating cannibal sandwiches while playing Sheepshead, after an extremely brief devotion from Herr Pastor. This didn’t bother me–I got a kick out of it and actually liked it–though I was highly conscious that I was an outsider.
The distinguished sociologist of religion Peter Berger, an ELCA Lutheran, writes about this phenomenon, though he concludes that today the ethnic identity stuff is largely absent from American Lutheranism. It is still a factor, he says, in American Orthodoxy. Also, I would add, in the various ethnic Catholic parishes and in black churches. I would further add that cultural identity is a factor in distinctly “American” churches too, with the upper class WASP Episcopalians and obviously southern Southern Baptists. There is also the distinct culture of middle class white suburbanites in the megachurches of the land.
Is this a problem, or not? Or are churches preserving something precious, something distinctly “cultural” in our current society that is actually “anti-cultural”? Do you agree with Berger that ethnic identity is mostly gone from Lutheran congregations, or can you still see it, and, if so, where? Where it persists, are there ways congregations can help newcomers navigate these cultural shoals?
What Peter Berger says, after the jump. His article will also serve as a map for people trying to figure out the Lutheran landscape. [Read more…]