I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that conversations about our church or denomination often have to begin with simply explaining what Lutheranism “is.” Because Lutherans have come to the United States from many countries of origin, and since arriving here have periodically split into smaller groups (or merged into larger ones), there are a LOT of Lutheran flavors.
There’s really only one Lutheran group in the United States that comes close to my denomination, the ELCA, in size, and that’s the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). In Arkansas, if people have encountered Lutherans, more than likely it has been LCMS.
But the truth is, our local congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, not only isn’t like most of the Lutheran churches in those other denominations, it isn’t even like many of the Lutheran churches in our own denomination. Although we’re a denomination, we’re also very congregational as a polity, which means the local church is free to be itself without having to imprint too strongly the denomination to which it is affiliated.
Some of the outward markers of the kind of Christian we are as a church and denomination are obvious, and are representative across our church. We ordain women as pastors. This aligns us with mainline Protestants more than the LCMS. We practice open communion, and host it weekly (now remotely in each household during COVID-19), which aligns us more with the Episcopalians. We have a liturgy, which makes us “Catholic Lite.” We preach from the Bible and are Jesus-centric, which aligns us more with Christianity than with other progressive religious movements which, on another level, we share common cause (like Unitarian Universalists).
But then there are the things that make us quite distinct, and make me wonder whether it’s right to call us Lutheran at all. For one, we practice full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church, including in leadership, and so far this year I’ve officiated four same-gender weddings. This distinguishes us even from many ELCA congregations.
But it’s more than just welcome. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our life together as a Christian community is our commitment to offering open space for doubts and exploration. That is to say, an atheist or an agnostic would not feel out of place in our congregation, even a Buddhist or someone raised in Hindu traditions, and in fact many such folks belong here. Belief and doctrine are not gates for entry, but furniture to try out.
Which is not at all to say that belief and doctrine are unimportant. Far from it. A good rug really ties the room together. Everyone loves a comfy couch. But the system of belief that we host among us is subject to inquiry and challenge. It’s okay not to believe everything. And it certainly isn’t an expectation to conform to specific behavioral patterns or types of “decency.” We’re quite busy trying to be less and less bourgeoise, even if our denomination and urban context tips that direction.
And then there’s one more thing, and maybe this is the central thing.
The center for us as a community of faith is reminding each other that Jesus is the subaltern.
That’s a fancy (Spivak) word, but it’s helpful. The subaltern is the marginal one, the one on the edges. You know, like the beatitudes–blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, which then gets expanded in Scripture to include the Gentiles, the eunuch, refugees, and so on.
Then we remind ourselves that we are the body of Christ in the world. So we are the subaltern. Living as a Christian community means living as the subaltern, with a deep sensitivity to Christ’s solidarity with subaltern communities of all types.
This is why we’re committed, sometimes at a cost, to speaking up and with specific communities–#blacklivesmatter, the Transgender network, Latinx, refugees, immigrants, our Marshallese neighbors, workers of all types.
Of course as a community of faith, we still carry all the markers of our historical origins also. Our worship still looks on some levels like a Lutheran worship formed in the crucible of the 1950s. We host potlucks, play handbells, sing hymns. Every Christian community is always an amalgam of its history and culture.
But we are also free to indigenize, perhaps more than other rigid types of Lutheran. Our worship has Ozark elements. Our leadership includes folks formally excluded from other Christian communions. We are free to join other movements and share common cause with them.
And increasingly, we catalyze ministries that we ourselves do not own or possess. We’re free enough in Christ to trust that we can initiate things without possessing them, encourage others even when we don’t earn credit. In fact, that’s precisely one of the most profound ways Jesus Christ was both God and human.
As Son of God, he didn’t consider that sonship as something to be grasped, but released himself fully in the world to be the subaltern.
This has been a very long explanation, but I post it as response to those with questions. It’s my way of saying, if you’re an atheist, or gay, or exhausted by culture Christianity that equates faith with nationalism, or just a plain old person in the world curious about an alternative form of life together with others that is making an attempt to live as the embodiment of Jesus the subaltern in the world… maybe give us a shot.
There’s so much good in the world to be done that happens when those of common cause come together. You don’t have to do it alone, and we may very well be better together.