“What was Daddy’s sermon about?” my dad asked as my younger brother Erik and I piled into his black Blazer covered in dust from the rural Minnesota farm roads. It was Sunday, Garrison Keillor was giving us the latest news from Lake Wobegon, and we were on our way to McDonald’s post-church.
I watched as the white country church disappeared amongst the rows of corn and soybeans, and after a while I answered, “Jesus and stuff.” Even at age thirteen I was well on my way to becoming a keen biblical scholar (I’m being sarcastic, of course).
Over ten years later and halfway through my Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary I hope that my answer to my dad’s question might be a little more sophisticated than “Jesus and stuff,” especially as I write from Oxford, England – or as I like to call it, Academic Disneyland. There are no easy answers here, especially when theology is involved. An aggressive atheism and intellectual elitism drips from every rain-drenched pub canopy, and I cannot help but get wet as I splash along the European cobblestone roads.
Needless to say, it has been hard to leave Minnesota. So much of who I am was fed by the warm potlucks of the quaint Minnesota Lutheran church culture where I spent the first 24 years of my life. Without that culture this past year in England I have suffered a spiritual identity crisis, and I have not been alone.
Back home it seems as if the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is suffering right there with me. We are losing members by the hundreds. The white country churches like the one my dad served are quickly becoming a part of the graveyards that surround them. The type of Garrison Keillor Lutheranism that existed for so many years is dying, and many of us are not sure what the future church will look like.
We’re suffering an identity crisis, which means for some that the quest to define church is done in opposition to the other – I am what you are not. To define church in this way not only creates a system of insiders and outsiders, but also limits the practices of church to local culture. In other words, when a church defines itself as “us and not them,” it excludes on the basis of what fits neighborhood narratives, not on the basis of doctrine.
I lived this type of cultural exclusion last Sunday. I attended an Evangelical Free church in Oxford, and ten minutes into the service it became evident that I was an outsider. I had not brought by hard copy Bible with me, I pronounced everything with a heavy northern Minnesota accent, and I asked for coffee when they only served tea. Much more, I missed half the sermon because I did not know where Shotover Den, Filchampstead, or South Hinksey are or what lockets, zebra crossings, or Lucozade is. Though on paper I knew our theological confessions considerably overlap, I did not belong at their church because I was an outsider to their culture, which had come to define their practice of church.
Now please do not get me wrong; I realize that local culture is what often brings many of us to church. I suspect on some level all of us wants to belong to a community where we share a language, history, and customs that make us unique. In my church life, that language is that of the Norwegian farmer and the custom of the warm Minnesota potluck. I never feel more at home than when I dig my spoon into a pile of wriggling green Jello and can ask how the crops are doing this year. As I named earlier, however, that brand of culture-based Lutheranism is dying and with its slow exit we are beginning to see that maybe it was more inherently exclusive than we originally thought.
As an emerging religious leader I hope that I can work with others to help define the future church as a place where local culture is celebrated but is not solely definitive. I suspect the success of this future church will rest in its flexibility and its openness to those who have been historical outsiders.
Interfaith work then is absolutely crucial, and as a Lutheran I could not be more committed to this dialogue. One of the primary tenets of my faith is that I am free to love and serve my neighbors, which challenges me to go beyond my local culture and hear the stories of those outside, to meet new people (yes, even non-Lutherans!) and learn from them. I believe life is an exquisite gift as are the people who are a part of my story. So while I have ultimately learned that my spiritual identity is not synonymous with Minnesota culture, perhaps there’s room for a new potluck where everyone’s dish is welcome.