First off, what is a Lutheran church? Lutheranism is a branch of Protestant Christianity which traces its beginnings to Martin Luther, a German monk in the Roman Catholic Church who sought a married clergy (priests), worship conducted in the local language instead of Latin, and an end to the selling of indulgences (paying now on Earth one’s debt to God caused by sinfulness, rather than after one dies). Luther’s big theological statement was that we are saved by faith in Jesus alone (sola fide is the technical term) rather than by any merit from works performed. In 1517, Luther made a laundry list of issues he had with the Church and posted it on the community notice board (i.e. church door) in Wittenberg, Germany. This list has become known as the 95 theses. Eventually Luther was driven out of the church and today Lutheranism is a separate branch of Christianity with about 70 million adherents worldwide and 6 million adherents in the US. Today Lutheranism is prominent in Germany, Scandinavia, and those parts of the U.S. where German and Scandinavian immigrants settled (like Minnesota). Today there are two major Lutheran denominations in the US: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod which tends to be more theologically conservative, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) which is the denomination to which Mt. Olivet belongs.
With 13,000 members, Mt. Olivet is the largest Lutheran church in the world and maintains two campuses, a camp, a retreat center, and several care homes. I attended their Minneapolis campus, which features an English Gothic Revival church dating from the 1920’s. The church interior was rather traditional, with parallel rows of pews facing an altar, in the center of which was a white cross standing in front of a red backdrop beneath a stained-glass window with an image of Jesus. Like most protestant churches, there were no statues. The building has been expanded several times, but felt unified, if huge, the church can seat nearly 2,000 people at once (my usual church seats about 200).
In many ways the service resembled the Catholic Mass I’m used to, with the largest difference being the lack of any Eucharistic celebration (i.e. no communion.) The pastor who led the service began the service “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we confessed our sins, recited the Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) and the Gloria (Hymn of Praise), and professed the Apostles’ Creed, all of which are components of a traditional Catholic Mass. As a Catholic, I was at first surprised to hear Lutherans professing belief in “the holy catholic Church.” Then I realized that, regardless of denomination, Christians view the Church (the community of all believers) as catholic, meaning universal. (When spelled with a capital C, “Catholic” refers to the church which regards the Pope as its spiritual leader.)
At the beginning of the service six pastors processed in (along with a hundred middle school choir girls) but I didn’t see four of the pastors again until they processed out at the end of the service. Not sure where they went… The service was led by a woman pastor with an inviting manner I could sense 30 yards away. (The ELCA, along with several other Protestant churches, welcome women as pastors while the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has an all-male clergy.) The presiding pastor alternated between facing the congregation when speaking to the congregation, and facing the same direction as the congregation when speaking with the congregation. There were no prayers offered by attendees and community announcements were given very briefly at the start of the sermon. Two readings from the New Testament were given and each had a brief paragraph in the worship guide explaining the biblical context of the reading (I really liked this idea). The sermon, which was built around the idea of Veterans’ Day and broadcast on the radio, was the only part delivered by a different pastor (a man). Everything about the service, from the processional and hymns, to the prayers and the sermon moved at a rather brisk pace and lasted about 50 minutes. I guess with 13,000 people to minister to, one must move quickly.
As I left Mt. Olivet, I decided to take the “scenic tour” out of the church. This lead me past a lounge, a library, an information desk with a receptionist, half a dozen offices, several classrooms, hallways leading to more classrooms, and a fellowship hall. (By the way, they’re currently expanding their building.) Although Mt. Olivet is huge, it still felt welcoming, and offers its parishioners plenty of engagement opportunities from mens’/womens’ groups and summer camps, to service projects and lutefisk dinners. It opened my eyes to how effectively large parishes can touch the lives of its members.
Until next time, peace.