The Mainline in Late Modernity: Tradition and Innovation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by Maren Freudenberg
This book attempts to situate the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in the changing landscape of North American Protestantism. Theoretically framed by sociological studies of the changing nature of American religion, it also draws from the author’s extensive field work among pastors, laypeople, bishops, synod staff, and seminary leaders in Wisconsin and Minnesota to [End Page 113] assess ways that different levels of church leadership understood and addressed change. By combining quantitative and qualitative dimensions of research on denominations, a rare thing to attempt in current literature, this book makes an especially important contribution to research on denominations.
Freudenberg argues that Lutheranism’s doctrinal tradition makes it a “cognitive” tradition defined by confessions, rigorous theology, and focus on liturgical worship. She contrasts this theologically based tradition with denominations such as the Vineyard, or communities that claim to be part of the “emerging church” movement that are defined by emotions and subjectivity. But framing that debate neglects the fact that Lutheran doctrine is often designed to promote emotional responses such as trust, fear, or gratitude in the lives of the believers. The book also chooses to frame major divisions among Lutherans not as between “conservative” and “liberal” but rather between “confessionalists” and “pietists.”
The book explores several tensions within the ELCA from both sociological and theological perspectives. She notes an increasing flattening of the leadership structure. Indeed, there are fewer and fewer employees at the ELCA churchwide headquarters and fewer deployed staff. Those of us who have watched the decisions know that they have often been about funding matters more than changes in theological understandings of leadership. So one questions if this is a transformation or a theology born of necessity.
The author notes that change in the ELCA often seems to be driven not by people in the pews (one recent meme I received noted that Lutherans don’t like change), but by pastors and denominational officials. She argues that Lutheranism is becoming less clerical which is to say pastor-driven and instead leans toward lay leadership. She argues that this shift is in response to culture, but seemingly neglects that such a move is deeply embedded in Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Certainly, some congregations are more “pastor-driven” than others, depending on both the pastor and the congregational laity. So overall trends are difficult to define from a sample this small and geographically compact.
The book also explores worship. She mentions innovative ELCA pastors who change liturgical forms, but do so in ways that are both novel but still within confessional frameworks. Pastors allow [End Page 114] tradition to take form in new ways. In the same way, she argues that Lutherans are trying to get parishioners to think more carefully about faith practices in daily life, such as reading the scriptures, prayer, and even being aware of miracles. None of these practices are distinct to Lutheranism but they have not been practiced by many Lutheran laity on a regular basis.
Freudenberg also explores how pastors and communities are trying to find Lutheran ways to practice spirituality in daily life. It is this need to bring what they learn on Sundays into the rest of the week that many Americans seek. She notes that a focus on prayer, asking congregants to look for God’s action in daily life, even amid the miraculous, are crucial parts of this new spirituality.
Freudenberg’s work has methodological limitations. Despite asserting that her sample is representative, those of us who live and work in Lutheran contexts in the United States know that Lutheranism in the upper Midwest is socially and culturally different then Lutheranism in New England or on the West Coast. Innovations in various contexts would probably look different in form and content. She also asserts that urban churches are not representative of overall dynamics in the ELCA but that rural and semi-urban churches do reflect those dynamics. Those who attend major urban parishes might disagree. While it may be too much to ask a sociologist, she often fails to see how shifts in the ELCA are actually deeply rooted in Lutheran theology, and are faithful to the frameworks of a tradition in which they are attempting to innovate.
Durham, North Carolina