Lutheranism 101: What Growing up in a Small Rural Church Taught Me

Last week, I had a meeting with the Assistant to our Synodical Bishop.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s a Synodical Bishop?”  And I realize to explain that, I’d have to explain what a Synod is….which would lead to an explanation of how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is organized….which would lead to an explanation on what a bishop is in our church….which would lead to another explanation of how leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are organized.

You get my drift?  CONFUSING!

But, I will say this from our meeting: He asked me what it means to be Lutheran in the 21st Century.  I have to say, it’s a pretty important question, especially since I’m out here in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where Lutherans aren’t very numerous.

So I thought I’d start a series over this summer called “Lutheranism 101.”  And rather than the usual information about the church: What we believe, What our ministry is about, our stance on social issues, how we worship, etc., I’m going to take a different stance.

I’m going to tell you about how we experience things.  But that’s exactly how we understand this whole being a Christian thing.  It’s a relationship we have with God in Christ.  It’s about sharing God’s grace and love with the world.  It’s about living knowing we’re justified by that grace daily.  It’s about being the church.

It’s about the experience with they holy, the divine in our lives here on earth – the experience of God.

Lutheranism 101 starts for me in a small “Little White Church on the Hill” in Bartlett Township, Todd Country, in Central Minnesota.  It’s smack in the middle of farm country.


And it’s the church I grew up in.

I’m sure there’s a lot of similarity to how our small little church worked to every other rural church in America, regardless of denomination or tradition.  But there is something about Balsamlund Lutheran Church that made it distinctly “Lutheran.”

Participation wasn’t optional.  But Perfection wasn’t required.

I think you only experience grace in community – in relationship with other living, breathing people, created by God just the same as you.  And if you’re going experience community, you have to participate in it.  That’s how it was in our church – there weren’t a whole lot of sign up sheets (unless it was for making bars for after church or the canoe trip).  You just showed up.  You helped mow and clean the yard and cemetery.  You helped clean the church.  You sang (even if you couldn’t sing!), you brought something for a potluck. If the worship assistants didn’t show up that Sunday, then someone else simply got up and did it.

And that brings me to the second point: Perfection wasn’t a requirement for participation.

If that was the case, then none of us would have qualified – none of us were expert singers, readers, writers, or even thinkers.  Just a bunch of folk some working in town, most of us farmers.  I can’t remember how many times names and words in the Bible were mispronounced, communion assistants stood on the wrong side or said the wrong thing.  I can’t remember the countless potluck dishes that were brought and you simply took the smallest portion you could, because it was bad and you didn’t want their feelings to be hurt.  If I could take you out to the church today, I’d show you all the crooked holes, uneven cement stairs, and mistakes that were made in our construction and repair projects.

But in those imperfections are the very persons who dedicated themselves to those tasks.  It is their sweat, their commitment, their love….all poured into this imperfect task and product.  It is their offering – their participation demanded of them by themselves, and their imperfection written into it.

That’s the Lutheranism 101 lesson for today: the experience of being church as the experience of God’s grace.  Grace is a hard thing to define.  But I think we can clearly point it out when we experience it.  When we experience the death of Christ on the cross, we experience what love is that gives itself completely away for our sake, so that we might be freed from sin and separation from God.  It’s the same with the church – we experience grace when the church community gives itself completely away for the sake of the other, an offering of ourselves, demanded, but imperfect.

That is the cross – Christ offering himself for the world. Christ’s life was demanded of him.  The cross was not an option because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  Yet the cross is a moment of suffering; a moment of weakness; a moment of death.  A moment of imperfection.

The church of my youth, that “Little White Church on the Hill” reminds me what the church is all about.  And as a pastor today, my hope is that in my proclamation, witness, and leadership to my two churches, and honestly in everything I do, I’m communicating and passing that lesson on to those in my congregation: God demands your participation – in your work, in your relationships, in service to others, in the church, and in life.  But perfection isn’t required in order to participate.  To demand perfection is to demand proof of worthiness (righteousness) through our works.  To allow imperfection is to experience Grace – God’s grace.

So that’s your first lesson on what being “Lutheran” is (see, it’s about experience again!).  God’s Grace experienced through participation and imperfection.  Until next time…..



Filed under Missional Thinking & The Church

2 responses to “Lutheranism 101: What Growing up in a Small Rural Church Taught Me

  1. Excellent, Aaron! What a great way to start a discussion about what it means to be Lutheran here and now. I look forward to the rest of the series!

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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