Growing Up Lutheran

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Being Lutheran includes being part of a unique subculture that shouldn’t really exist. I say it shouldn’t exist because it’s a denomination founded by a rebel against the Roman Catholic Church, and yet good Lutherans really don’t like rocking the boat (link is to a Garrison Keillor sketch from “A Prairie Home Companion”; non-Lutherans probably won’t get most of the jokes). Especially anachronistic is the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), the particular subset of Lutherans I mostly grew up in. Go to a LCMS church and talk loudly, and you might get talked about for years to come.

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But being Lutheran also meant learning about the faith, including some of the messy parts.
Confirmation is essentially a three year study where kids 11-13 learn about Luther’s Catechism, biblical underpinnings from the beliefs in it, and other things about the difference between being Lutheran and a different denomination. Some of it includes memorization (like the 10 Commandments and books of the Bible), but that’s in the first year. After that, questions were welcomed and we got into the awkward beliefs of the LCMS specifically.

I have to admit that this process is what kept me believing even after I stopped going to church regularly. Because I knew just enough about the Bible to use it as a reference, I felt I could lean on it for support. Mostly in discussions with other Christians, I could point to why I believed what I believed. Many of them couldn’t. For the people who were really skeptical, I had learned that conceding some points was the best way to make them go away. They might have felt they had made a point, but really it was lost on deaf ears.

The most valuable thing I learned in confirmation was how to get along with people who had different views. To be fair, it was mostly directed at getting along with other Christians. If I could characterize Lutheranism, I’d have to say it’s a very practical faith that addresses some criticisms quite well. At any rate, I was fortunate to have taken this ability to get along with people and apply it to others (though I’m not always successful).

It’s not all wine and roses, however.
At age 11, I was not a very good critical thinker. The next two years weren’t great, either. Yes, I did fairly well in school, but I wasn’t prepared for full scholarship at that time. As a result, my opportunity to ask the biggest questions of the faith came at a time when I was least prepared to ask them.

If that’s not bad enough, then it’s positively awful that this opportunity to question Christianity in general and Lutheranism specifically came when I really couldn’t be an independent thinker. Not many adolescents are able to manage their lives at that age, let alone bravely tell their parents they think their faith is nonsense. Personally, if I’d have done that, there’s a good chance some awful things might have been done to me in an effort to get me to at least say I believed.

With ignorance and fear in hand, I vowed in front of a church that I believed Jesus died for my sins. I got some wine and a wafer as a reward. It wasn’t a fair trade, especially since I damn near broke myself trying to keep my end of the promise.

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Another weird thing is that I don’t get a chance to meet many former Lutherans.
This sometimes makes me feel isolated, because not many atheists I meet understand the quiet persuasion going on in an LCMS church. Things are done quietly, but it’s an effective structure at getting people to heel. Everything goes on in the background, and fear of just being noticed is enough to keep someone quiet and in line. Most likely it’s that fear which keeps me anonymous here.

In some ways, growing up in a LCMS church made me exactly who I am now. I don’t think it would have been the same if I was Baptist or Presbyterian or even a Methodist or Catholic. Those faiths would have been easier to break, because their transparent exercise of authority is something I never would have understood. It took finesse to keep me believing.

I must say, though, that the best part of growing up Lutheran for me now is the ability to look forward to the day where I just won’t have to put up with any of it. It’s allowed me to appreciate some things I might not have otherwise appreciated. I really hope it counts for something.

7 thoughts on “Growing Up Lutheran

    • It has been, but the seeds of being able to critique religion were also sown while I grew up in that faith. Lutheranism probably wouldn’t be as bad if it took that last step and questioned everything. The LCMS in particular will never do that, though.


  1. We Presbyterians sit in the back too so we can rush home at moment service ends. Besides we are very educated and know more about theology than the minister and don’t have to listen from up front. Unfortunately we must have grape juice at communion not wine. The Baptists sing too loud, the Methodists pray too long and I heard the Episcopalians serve martinis at communion.

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  2. Here in Finland we have the state Lutheran church. While something like 72 % of Finns are members of it, the majority of them attend church only a couple of times in their entire lives. At Christenings and the confirmation, wich typically takes place after a couple of weeks in what is basicly a summer camp where they talk about Jesus. There are some small really religious conservative groups within Lutheranism, that most others call the “hihhulit” (a rather degratory term for godbotherers), but who themselves refer to various smaller group identities of being a movement of the awoken, or something to that end.

    Yet, the head of Finnish Lutheran church, the archibishop Kari Mäkinen, an educated and moral man who supports women priests, marriage equality and freedom of movement ie. immigration (and for those issues has earned my respect) had the audacity to say, that all Finns are Lutherans at least in part, even if they are atheists. He propably meant, that all Finns have the same cultural heritage, wich includes Lutheranism, but I think his statement was in very poor taste. Had he said, that all Finns are Lutherans even if they are Orthodoxes, Catholics, or Muslims he might have understood it himself how stupid his comment was. Alas, he did not choose to say anyting like that. I as a third generation atheist refuse to be any bit Lutheran, though I do recognize the Lutheran cultural heritage and our past history, wich includes witch hunts by the early Lutheran church, and our participation in the 30 years war in Europe where a disproportionate amount of Finnish soldiers served for the Swedish king who was carving an empire for himself under the pretext of protecting German Lutherans. Why he had to attack Lithuania and Poland to protect the German Lutherans from German Catholics was never really explained.

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  3. I grew up Presbyterian, and my church was a pretty liberal place. There wasn’t any thunderous hellfire and damnation preaching, we specifically didn’t hold to a biblical literalism, and there was a lot of “let’s feed the poor and have a potluck, and sing some more songs about love.” That’s probably what kept me in it all the way through high school – we were kept so busy with music and retreats and other activities that there wasn’t really any time that we sat down and thought about the problem of evil, or what happens to good people in other religions, or how awful large parts of the bible were. It was just too nice, so there wasn’t any need for intense thought. But that also means that I didn’t have any big trauma associated with leaving. I just kept believing less and less of it until I finally realized that I didn’t believe any of it at all.

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