Three Flavors of Lutheranism in Alaska – 9/27/14

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther objected to issues promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. One was the sale of indulgences, freeing the holder from purgatory, and his belief the merits of the saints were without gospel foundation. From this bold beginning sprang the Protestant Reformation. Following Luther, John Calvin, a French theologian added his thoughts and ideas strengthening the Reformation. Lutheranism and Calvinism sprang from them.

Earlier reformers in the 15th Century had pressed for reform in the Roman Catholic Church, but didn’t have the success of Luther and Calvin. Luther attempted to reform the church from within but was ultimately unsuccessful, being excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor presided to hear Luther’s case. Luther was ordered to appear. The result of the trial was Charles V declared Luther an outlaw, his literature banned, and arrest ordered.

Before Luther’s death in 1546 there were additional diets, wars, and agitation. Luther translated the Bible from Greek to German. Lutheranism became distinct after the Diet of Augsburg and the Augsburg Confession.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. In the intervening years, and after doctrinal, disputes three major distinct groupings of Lutherans emerged, each with a presence in Alaska.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

According to the ELCA, it had a U.S. membership of 3.9 million in 2013, making it the fifth-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

ELCA’s Alaska Synod is headed up by Bishop Shelly Wickstrom. Comprised of 30 congregations and two new worshipping communities, the synod classifies ELCA churches in five clusters. The Anchorage area is part of the Southcentral Cluster including Anchorage, Soldotna, Dillingham, and Seward. I’ve worshiped in most of the churches in this cluster and have blogged generally favorable comments about my experiences with them. I’ve enjoyed Amazing Grace’s friendly services, sense of community, and meaningful communion. Christ Our Savior Lutheran offers innovative worships, extemporaneous messages, and an involved congregation. Their recent Beer and Hymns fundraiser added over $6,000 to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska’s coffers. Pastors of Christ Our Savior Lutheran, Lutheran Church of Hope, and Joy Lutheran collaborate on a weekly, innovative 10-minute downloadable worship called 10W. Offering a brief liturgical service with beginning and ending music, 10W provides a unique and viable way to stay connected with worship. Anyone can listen to 10W and be rewarded by the experience.

ELCA churches are the only Lutheran churches with women pastors. They also share full communion with various groups including, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church. Each full communion relationship has some differences. Most include pulpit exchanges; all include sharing communion.

Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

U.S. membership is 2.2 million members making them the eighth-largest Protestant denomination.

In Alaska, there are 14 LCMS churches with 10 of them in the Southcentral area. I’ve visited several of LCMS congregations but have blogged only one visit, Anchorage Lutheran. They’ve transitioned to a more contemporary, praise music format with their 11 a.m. service. Recently, I revisited them, observing the transition is going better. This visit will appear separately on my blog and Alaska Dispatch News mirror site, Anchorage Lutheran always gives me extremely warm greetings during visits. Their new music format seems uneven. I feel the projection screen disrupts the sightlines in this beautiful sanctuary. During my recent visit, the assistant pastor delivered a wonderful sermon dealing with a series on the gospel, “The Story” Using selections from the NIV version of the Bible, this guided study marches through the Bible offering scriptural insights.

Many congregations aspire to solving worship attendance problems by adjusting formats. More electronics, lighting systems, different music, screens, for example, attempt to replace the substance of worship. A future column will address this thorny issue in the worship wars. While Anchorage Lutheran still offers a traditional service at 8:30 a.m., worshipers may not want to attend this early.

LCMS churches in Alaska fall under their Northwest District office in Portland Oregon. This district oversees LCMS churches in Alaska, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

Most recent data available places overall WELS membership nationally at 380,000.

Eight WELS churches are in Alaska though with 10 congregations, since Faith Lutheran in Anchorage has Hispanic, and Hmong congregations. Recently I visited Faith Lutheran for the 11 a.m. service. My greeting consisted of being handed a bulletin at the sanctuary door. The service, very traditional, worked for me. The homily was given by the assistant pastor in a refreshing manner. When communion time arrived, he stressed it was only for confirmed WELS members. For the very first time in all my many church visits, a man came up to me during the service and whisperingly asked if I intended to partake. I told him no. Strange business! I would never partake of communion I was not qualified to receive. This visit will also be blogged.

I tend to think of the ELCA as progressive, LCMS as conservative, and WELS as ultra-conservative. Despite the razzing Lutherans get on “A Prairie Home Companion,” I enjoy Lutheran fellowship. Visits to Lutheran churches can be rewarding experiences, a real tie to church history. Lutheran contributions to religious faith are substantial.

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