Modern Age

The recent story of Lutheranism is the story of its expansion in Asia and Africa, its relative decline in Europe and North America, and its efforts at unification in North America. In the last four years, the total number of Lutherans worldwide has increased by 250,000 church members. All the growth is in the global south (there were very small increases in France and Romania). There are almost a million new African Lutherans (the greatest increase was in the Congo), and about 26,000 new Asian Lutherans. Numbers remain steady in Latin America.

The Swedish church, the largest Lutheran Church, lost 200,000 members, and Europe as a whole 600,000. Germany lost 160,000 members. In much of northern Europe, Lutheranism is the established religion, and so even these numbers hide greater losses. Many citizens of these countries are nominal Lutherans, but spend little or no time and energy engaged with the Lutheran Church. North America lost about 96,000 church members, half of those from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

In North America there have been many different Lutheran synods, each formed by a wave of immigrants from the various northern European countries. In the 20th century the trend in North America was toward unification, as ethnic tensions between European immigrants eased, and this trend continues today. In 1917 three Norwegian synods merged to form the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, and in 1918 three German synods merged into the United Lutheran Church in America. Mergers continued in the 1960s, with the notable exception of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which objected to the growing presence of historical-critical methods of Bible study in Lutheran seminaries, and moves toward being in fellowship with (worshipping and celebrating sacraments with) Reformed and potentially Catholic churches. The Missouri Synod was originally formed by Lutherans emigrating from Prussia in the wake of the Union of Lutheran and Reformed churches. The issue, then, of communion with Reformed churches has always been a historically sensitive one for them, and they have maintained a tradition of conservatism, especially as it pertains to a literal reading of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. In 1987, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest North American Lutheran denomination, was formed by the merger of three Lutheran synods.

The trend toward unity can be seen on the international level, too. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) was founded in Lund, Sweden in 1947 to coordinate Lutheran activities in the wake of World War II. It now has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Members of the LWF share pulpit and altar fellowship, which means that ministers ordained by bishops in one member synod are recognized as valid and can serve in another member synod. This makes the group fairly ecumenical, as can be seen in its 1999 "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" signed with the Roman Catholic Church. The sharing of altars with ecumenical denominations means that more conservative synods (such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) are not members.

The largest member churches of the LWF are the Church of Sweden, the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the Church of Denmark, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, the Church of Norway, the Protestant Christian Batak Church (Indonesia), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, the Protestant Lutheran Church of Hanover, and the Malagasy Lutheran Church. In general the member churches in the northern hemisphere are shrinking, while those in the southern hemisphere are growing.

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