The first time my husband went to church with me, he made two comments. He said, “It’s just like the Catholic Church, except your priest is a woman” and “Everyone at your church is tall and blonde.”
Well, yes, the Lutheran Church can feel a lot like the Roman Catholic Church these days, but one of the big differences is that we’ve been ordaining women for over 40 years.
As for the other remark, I’m only 5’6”–so no, not every Lutheran is tall and blonde, but I understand why he would say that. Not only is he short and dark, but he’s Roman Catholic and the Roman Catholic Church tends to have a lot more ethnic, racial, and socio-economic diversity than what we find in most Lutheran congregations. Besides, most Lutherans in the US trace their heritage to northern Europe and so on average, we probably are a little taller and a little blonder than other Christians. In fact, we look like Mormons, but with smaller families.
These observations aside, my husband is now more Lutheran than I am. Like so many lapsed Catholics before him, he found the traditional Lutheran liturgy similar to the one he grew up hearing, and he really got into this idea that we are saved by grace and that no sin is ever too great to be forgiven. Now, he listens to Prairie Home Companion every week and knows the first verse of Silent Night in German.
When we moved to our current home, we found a wonderful congregation and we were both very involved in the Church. That lasted for four and a half years and then, something happened and we quit going.
I’m not going into the details about what exactly happened. I will say that I miss my church friends tremendously. I did not have a falling out with the pastor—people tend to assume that I did when I say we’ve stopped going to our church, but that is simply not true. Something happened. Leave it at that.
So, we stopped going to church, and my mother-in-law fell, and my father-in-law died—all within a few months. I think it qualifies 2012 as the most horrific year of our lives.
For a while, after my mother-in-law fell, we went to the services in the chapel at the nursing home where she was temporarily staying. We were the ONLY young-ish family in attendance. Our children were the ONLY children in the chapel, and everyone loved them. Everyone wanted to talk with them, see them, and touch them. Old people do love children, and my children like being the center of attention. It was a win-win.
Then, my mother-in-law left the nursing home and we were back to being churchless. A year passed. Personally, I agree that being in a church doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than being in a garage makes a person a car, but I like that sense of community one gets from gathering with other Believers. Furthermore, I feel—no, I KNOW–my children are missing out on something by not being in a church. To be churchless for an entire year means that as a parent, I am negligent.
So, three weeks ago, on Reformation Sunday, I unearthed my herringbone suit—the only church-friendly, non-summery outfit that still fits me—and I began my church-search. I’ve now been to three Lutheran Churches—all within a twenty mile radius of my house. I’m very open. I tell people that yes, I am visiting. I AM church-shopping. I ask about youth involvement, community service, and Christian education (aka Sunday School). While my experience with each congregation has been pleasant enough, none of them has really wowed me, and I find myself asking, “How important is it to me to be Lutheran?”
On one level, it’s not very important at all. I see Christianity as a religion, and Lutheranism—like Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Anglicism, and Pentecostalism—is just a set of traditions that goes with Christianity. A denomination is NOT a religion. Non-denominationalism is NOT a religion.
On another level, I just like being Lutheran. I like claiming Bach and Bonhoeffer and Kant—and Dr. Suess! I was raised Lutheran and I imagine that some ancestor of mine made the choice to convert from Roman Catholicism in the 16th Century. I don’t want to break that chain. While many in my family are no longer practicing Lutherans, we were all raised in the Lutheran Church, and no matter where life takes us—no matter what we currently believe, I feel that we at least have that one thing in common. So, culturally and historically, being Lutheran is a link to the past for me–and as a good historian, I hold onto the past with both hands.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice that as I drove 10, 15, and then 20 miles to the nearest Lutheran Churches, I passed a lot of other churches along the way. My children noticed, too. “Are we almost there? Why don’t go to that church, the one we just passed?” and “Mom, we must be lost. We’ve already passed so many churches and we aren’t there, yet. Are you sure you know where we are going?”
In just three Sundays, it’s become a bit of a game to them—counting the churches on our way to the church we are visiting/shopping. Drive just ten miles from my house in any direction and you will pass a Roman Catholic Church, an Episcopal Church, and at least three Methodist Churches, and so, yes, why don’t we just go to one of those? Well, we just might.
Here’s the catch: I believe it is indeed right and salutary to have Holy Communion (aka the Lord’s Supper and Eucharist) every Sunday. I’m not interested in attending a church that doesn’t do that. Also, I’m a big believer in open communion. Yeah, I know, these are my sticking points when it comes to Christian theology. I’ll let the rest of the world quibble over other issues—like whether it’s “transgressions” or “sins” in the Lord’s Prayer. For me, the sacrament of Holy Communion is the deal breaker. It has to be every Sunday. It has to be open to all Christians.
So, the Roman Catholic Church—and even the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church—are out. They celebrate a closed Communion. Maybe Pope Francis I will change that. He seems very Lutheran to me.
And it’s my understanding that most Methodist congregations do Holy Communion just once a month. A lot of other Protestants do it even less often.
So, where does that leave me? Driving a ga-zillion miles to a Lutheran Church (ELCA, not the above mentioned Missouri Synod) or checking out one of the many Episcopal Churches that are all a lot closer.
I’ve been to an Episcopal Church. I was once a member of a very small Episcopal congregation, and so I know that from a theological point-of-view, there really isn’t much that separates Lutherans and Episcopalians. I am weary of those signs that say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” In my experience, the only thing colder than a Lutheran in a pew is an Episcopalian in a pew. Oh, what can I say? Large groups of middle-class white people aren’t friendly—even to their own. Yeah, I can’t believe I just typed that either, and yet, I’m not going to edit it out. I’d love to be proven wrong next Sunday.
I’m going to be open-minded about this. It’s important to me to find the right congregation.