Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

It's one of those old truisms that apparently remains true, a declaration by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “We must face the sad fact that at the 11 o’ clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

Although many congregations retain a majority from one ethnic group or another, there have been plenty of movements to bridge the gap over the past 50 years or so. And while much, if not most, of the "mainline" Protestant denominations remain dominated by what one wag called "persons of pallor," The Baltimore Sun informs us that local congregations in two branches of American Lutheranism have been revitalized by the influx of non-white members.

Of course, the Sun was not content to position this as just a church news story -- it had to be tied into the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, triggered by one Martin Luther, after whom King was named.

Creating this tenuous link, of which more in a moment, is but one of the journalism problems afoot here. But start with the headline, "500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity" and this lead-in to the story:

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.
Attendance has dropped since then -- these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.
About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color -- a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

We then are asked to see this as linked to five centuries of Lutheranism:

On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation -- it was half a millennium ago this Tuesday that the theologian Martin Luther is said to have nailed his revolutionary Ninety-Five Theses to a church door, sparking a historic split with the Catholic church -- Schultheis says Emmanuel and other area congregations appear to be in the early stages of a reformation of their own.

"A reformation of their own"? To quote the fictional Inigo Montoya of "The Princess Bride," there's a semantic problem here: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

In the classical sense, after all, the "reformation" begun by Luther and his peers had nothing to do with ethnicity or church-growth theories and everything to do with theology. The Protestant Reformation was centered in Europe, of course, and while churches born out of the Reformation spread globally, that outward movement wasn't to happen for a good 250 or more years after Wittenberg.

Call me a stick in the mud, but it's irksome, at least, to have a valid local news story shoehorned into a current event -- Reformation anniversary stories were all the rage in October and this one appeared on October 30 -- without a good reason. One wonders why the very astute editors at the Sun didn't excise the reference.

Also curious is this assertion:

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center found that the two major branches of Lutheranism in the United States -- the traditionalist Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its more culturally progressive cousin, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- ranked among the least ethnically diverse of the 30 religious groups it studied.

It's true, according to the 2015 Pew data, which was not linked to from the Sun article. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church -- mainline Protestants all -- are also overwhelmingly Caucasian in their ethnic makeup. Why no mention of that detail?

My point -- and I believe I have one -- is also implicitly made in the article itself: The new ethnic diversity in the Maryland Lutheran congregations noted in the story isn't really the result of a determined effort by the respective Lutheran groups. Rather, it appears to be serendipity as much as anything:

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Irvington, founded in 1898, had dwindled to five members when a Liberian immigrant visited the property one Reformation Sunday, met the pastor and joined. It now boasts 50 members, most of them Liberian or Liberian-American.
Nazareth Lutheran Church in Highlandtown added a onetime Venezuelan missionary to its staff last year, and now holds a weekly service in Spanish. It has quickly become the church's most popular service.
Ethiopian immigrants have set up several small Lutheran congregations in greater Baltimore, including one that meets at Emmanuel, and Schultheis has hired an Urdu-speaking assistant pastor to work with the 30 or so Pakistanis in his congregation.

Do you see the pattern? Changing demographics have brought new people to the communities long served by older congregations. A chance visitor or the hiring of clergy who can minister to the newcomers results in new members and a revitalized congregation. Seeing the connections there isn't rocket science.

That's all well and good, and, indeed, it's to be applauded for bringing new life to an old church. But that's hardly the kind of theological "reformation" Luther himself would recognize, and to label it as such does a disservice to history and to the present.

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