Three Things About Lutherans that would Surprise Garrison Keillor

Raised in small-town Minnesota, and a somewhat introverted Lutheran of Norwegian descent, I tend to be a huge fan of Garrison Keillor’s homespun, witty and often satirical take on people like me. Just last night, my spouse and I drove to the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul to listen to Mr. Keillor read from his newest book of poetry, “O, What a Luxury.”
I laughed out loud at his poem, “Lutheranism Explained,” which includes the lines:

We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.

I’d like to believe that there’s some truth in this. Perhaps there is a grain or two. But as I’ve lived in different places around the United States, and traveled to places abroad, I’m more and more convinced that Keillor’s brand of Lutheranism is very narrow, focused — as all good writing is — on a particular time and place that can’t fully be captured by the broad term “Lutheranism.”

Here are three things about Lutherans that would surprise Garrison Keillor:

There are more Lutherans in Tanzania and Ethiopia than in all of North America

crowd of people in front of church building
The Rwantege Lutheran Parish in Tanzania holds an auction after worship. Photo by Jonathan Ernst, for LWR

This is a big surprise to most people I meet. But it’s true. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) currently has over 6.1 million members across 20 dioceses. And even though “Lutheran” isn’t in its name, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) has over 5.2 million members.

By comparison, the two largest church bodies in the U.S., the ELCA and the LCMS, have 6.2 million members, combined.

In fact, LWR works directly with Lutherans in Tanzania to fight malaria through the Lutheran Malaria Initiative. We partner with local congregations in the ELCT to teach Sunday School kids about the symptoms, how to prevent, and when to get treatment for malaria. We work with Tanzanian Lutherans to provide community healthcare services. Lutherans in the U.S. support this work, but it is Lutherans in Africa who are on the front lines.

Not all Lutherans sit stoically at the back of the church

people dancing
The pastor and members of the congregation dance during a program about malaria education for the Sunday School in Tanzania. (Photo for LWR by Jonathan Ernst)

I was raised to keep a lid on it,
Guard what you say or do.
A Mighty Fortress is our God
So He must be Lutheran too.

This is another conflation of Upper Midwest, Scandinavian Pietism that only represents one slice of the Lutheran pie. There are Lutherans in Minnesota who sing with the accompaniment of a Cambodian tro. There are Lutherans in Harlem who aren’t afraid of shouting their praise (or lament) during the sermon. And there are Lutherans throughout the world who dance their prayers of invocation. There are Lutherans of every race and stripe.

African American Heritage Hymnal and the Lutheran Book of Worship
The two hymnals used by Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Harlem, New York.

It’s not culture that unites Lutherans, it’s our shared belief in the grace of Christ.

Even though Lutherans don’t need to do anything to earn their salvation, they do a lot of good.

Luther said we’re saved by grace
So we’re good enough just as we are.

Sure, justification by grace through faith is the doctrine that defines Lutherans. We don’t need to do good works to earn salvation. Faith is enough. But from the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Lutherans (following Martin Luther’s example) have not been shy about loving our neighbors.

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” – paraphrase of Martin Luther’s commentary on 1 Peter 1:17

Lutheran Services in America (LSA) — an umbrella organization of over 300 Lutheran service providers — is the single largest charitable organization in the United States. LSA members include everything from large, urban hospitals to small homeless shelters to employment and vocational services.

men loading a train car with quilts
Men from St. Paul's Lutheran, Tescott, Kansas bring quilts to Wichita to be loaded into boxcars in 1961.

In 2012 through Lutheran World Relief, Lutherans helped 7,827,163 people across 189 projects in 35 countries throughout the world. Lutherans help farmers learn better techniques, acquire more effective seeds, and access better services.

people at an open window
Refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, receive supplies. Photo by Jonathan Ernst, for LWR.

Lutherans provide cash and work for people whose communities have been hit by natural disasters. And Lutherans help these communities prepare for future disasters, making them stronger and more resistant.

So whether you identify with Lake Woebegone or not, stand proud and say, “I am a Lutheran.”

What do you identify with (or not) in Garrison Keillor’s version of Lutheranism?