Cream and sugar, hold the Jesus please
July 29, 2006 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Advice for an agnostic amongst Evangelical Lutherans...

My wife and sons are Evangelical Lutherans. I am an agnostic (I say "maybe" an awful lot). An EL church has just opened down the street, and we're going to check it out, for attending services and sunday school for the boys. I think the idea of Jesus is nice and all, but don't accept the notion of his divinity. The core principles I'm mostly OK with (summary cribbed from another MeFite's post IIRC):

- Throwing the money changers out of the temple
- Praying in secret
- Giving to charity in modesty and secret
- Never judging others - only God is allowed to judge
- Let those who are without sin cast the first stone...
- The meek shall inherit the earth
- It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God
- Turn the other cheek
- The parable of the good samaritan - a parable that, above all else, teaches that deeds are more important than any kind of professed religion
- The emphasis on forgiveness
- The emphasis on respecting the outsiders and sinners, not the religous authorities

and have no problem exposing the kids to the ELC version of it. I have taught my oldest son that the whole matter is for the individual to decide.

Will the Lutherans accept a guy like me into the community as is?
It seems like a nice relaxed group, and I like the singing and the coffee, but worry that being friendly and open minded isn't going to cut it. Advice appreciated, extra credit awarded for humorous, tension-defusing one-liners.
posted by Scoo to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I attend an evangelical Lutheran church (ELCA, right?), and I, for one, don't quiz all the people I go to church with on their personal religious beliefs. I assume that they believe what the church teaches, and would be surprised if they said they didn't believe Jesus was divine, but would probably shrug it off as, oh well, not really my business to change his mind. Our group sounds like the one you describe- we have fun singing in the choir, eating snacks after the service, etc. I say, go!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:31 PM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do you plan on sharing your beliefs about Jesus with the people you go to church with? With the pastor?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:33 PM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Hey Scoo - I have nothing humorous (or even important) to say. But here's an observation: If by "agnostic" you mean that you believe that God can't be known (which is the actual definition of the word) then I think you would have some trouble hanging out with these people and they might have a bit of trouble with you. On the other hand, if you are just saying that you don't know God (which is the often used colloquial definition of the word "agnostic") then I think your search would be both enjoyable for you and acceptable to them. I'm not an ELC, but the ones I've known have understood and accepted "the search". If you're a true agnostic, however, it may be hard for you to all get along (on both sides).
posted by crapples at 12:35 PM on July 29, 2006

Best answer: Why would they know? I'm not familiar with the ELCA liturgy, but I rather doubt that there's a part in which members of the congregation are invited to stand up and proclaim their doubts and try to get others to agree with them. It's not like you'd need to hide it or lie to people, but there's precious little reason to beat people over the head with it either.

Unless they're weird, they'll accept you. If nothing else, as one of many, many boyfriends / husbands who aren't particularly believing and show up because it pleases their favorite lady.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2006

It probably depends a lot on the particular church you're going to. I know someone who has fond memories of going to a Methodist church that was very welcoming. So she was surprised to hear about other people's experiences with more closed-minded Methodists. As with most places, the community is a lot more important than this or that belief.

As for attending the church of a religion you don't belong to, it can be nice to at least try it and see what it's like. I once went to a Shabbat service at a local synagogue even though I'm a gentile. And, even though it's not really the same thing, at the Catholic school I used to go to, there were two Protestants in our class, and no one seemed to mind them coming to church with the rest of us. I don't know for sure, but I would suspect that most religious congregations would welcome such a situation as an opportunity to recruit new members.

As long as you're respectful of their beliefs, you'll probably be fine at most churches.
posted by magodesky at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2006

I'm a Jew and I've attended Catholic mass a few times, but I didn't think it was right for me to take communion.
posted by brujita at 1:58 PM on July 29, 2006

Best answer: Speaking as a United Methodist pastor, I have to say that I think that the whole "church as a community of people who have made a profession of faith" think is a bit poorly implemented. In fact, I am not sure professing faith in Christ (which is the ultimate goal), needs to be a prerequisite for church membership.

The disciples did not "believe in Jesus" when they left their nets and followed him. They were just searchers willing to say, "Let's, as a community, follow this guy for a while and see what he is all about."

That said, I am willing to bet there are many in the church with your same feelings, who may be sorting all this stuff out, and who just believe the inside is the best way to do so.
posted by 4ster at 2:00 PM on July 29, 2006 [3 favorites]

brujita makes a good point- most churches clearly state that communion is for those who already believe. Depending on how they distribute communion (they might pass it around, or you might go up to get up), you might feel ackward if you're the only one who refuses.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:12 PM on July 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think it's fairly safe to say that no one is going to stand up during the service, point at you, and scream "Unbeliever!" My experience with various churches/synagoges has been that they contain a wide spectrum of people - there will be jerks and non-jerks. If you are of the non-jerk variety, you'll be fine.

Of course, here is Texas, we've got some (to me) bizarre mega-churches. Prosperity theology anyone? Jesus wants you to be rich. If you're poor, it's because you're a sinner. (Sorry, judgemental of me)
posted by jsteward at 2:25 PM on July 29, 2006

Re communion: when I was a churchgoer (C of E) only those who'd been confirmed could take communion, so there was always a fair number of people who remained seated during the flesh and blood fest. It was understood and not at all a problem that not everyone at a service would be confirmed.

I don't know whether that would apply with Evangelical Lutherans, though.
posted by Decani at 2:35 PM on July 29, 2006

crapples: Both uses of the term are valid, and date back to the late 19th century when agnosticism was first coined. Huxley's claim was "Nobody knows at this time." Spencer was a bit stronger is his claim.

Scoo: My experience is that most churches are very fond of friendly persuasion. Anybody is encouraged to show up for service, coffee, and the monthly festival of mayonnaise. It is very easy to "pass" as long as you don't make a big deal out of challenging others on your beliefs. People may or may not notice if you don't take communion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:36 PM on July 29, 2006

ELCA is pretty liberal. We (a UCC church) regularly send 'spiritual seekers' to our neighboring ELCA church if they want a more traditional service.
I would be flabbergasted if anyone confronted you about this. Especially given that it's an ELCA church.

However... from some of your points...
Praying in secret, wealth and the kingdom of heaven, and giving judgement over to God... doesn't sound like you're entirely agnostic. After all, these statements are pretty declarative regarding the nature of God.

FYI - the senior minister at my church doesn't believe in the virgin birth or physical resurrection of Christ. You're definitely not alone. In other's probably mostly in your head. :D no pun intended.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:36 PM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: you might feel ackward if you're the only one who refuses

That is the sort of thing that makes me feel a little bit self conscious. I don't plan on volunteering my position, nor hiding it if asked. I have to keep reminding myself that the whole reason I'm willing to give this a try in the first place is that the ELCA isn't populated by the fire and brimstone types I occasionally run into (and away from) here in the Atlanta area.

Crapples, interesting point re: the definition of agnostic, I was unaware that it meant no one could truly know god. I guess (see? there it is again) you could say I'm an agnostic with a "small a". I honestly have no idea myself, but I don't presume that it's impossible to know. "Life, the universe and everything" confuses the hell out of me, but it's not a personally disorienting or unpleasant experience :).

Thanks for the reassurance and insights gang, some very good stuff here.
posted by Scoo at 2:46 PM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: However... from some of your points...
Praying in secret, wealth and the kingdom of heaven, and giving judgement over to God... doesn't sound like you're entirely agnostic. After all, these statements are pretty declarative regarding the nature of God.

One of my all time favorite movie moments is in the original The Razors Edge with Tyrone Power. He's having a drink with his friend, a "unfrocked priest", who declares something to the effect of "I believe you are a very religious man who does not believe in God".

Thanks for aiding me in the quest for self understanding, Turner Classic Movies!
posted by Scoo at 2:58 PM on July 29, 2006

I'm a Jew and I've attended Catholic mass a few times, but I didn't think it was right for me to take communion.

Hm, I was raised Lutheran and am now an atheist, but since my wife is Catholic and I live in Ireland, I've had to face this situation a number of times.

The thing is, even a Catholic will skip communion if (1) he is strict and (2) he has not been to confession since his last communion. At least that's the way I understand it. There's nothing wrong with skipping communion, and it doesn't even necessarily spotlight you as an outsider. If it's a situation where everyone goes up front to get communion, you just walk out to the aisle, stay there and let the others pass you, then return to your seat.
posted by McIntaggart at 3:15 PM on July 29, 2006

ELCA practices open communion; any baptized Christian can take communion. Nobody is going to question you about degrees of belief or doubts about this and that. If you think you believe enough to take communion, you believe enough to take communion.

Though no doubt there's at least one pastor somewhere in ELCA that would be a jackass about it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:43 PM on July 29, 2006

Before they died, my parents were members of an ELCA congregation about 40 miles from the town where they lived (closest ELCA to their home). It's a nice congregation, and they went every Sunday, as long as they were able, but in the last years of their life, most Sundays they started going to a little Episcopalian church in their town, because of the drive.

I wound up going to a few services with them at both of these churches over the years. There were some minor liturgical differences, but the one I noted most, was that at the Episcopalian congregation, communion was explicitly acknowledged as a "celebration and sharing of the Eucharist, and all are encouraged to come with a glad heart" whereas at the ELCA church, communion was celebrated without that explicit invitation. But I think there would have been no objection to any person taking communion there, as there traditionally has been at Missouri Synod congregations, where close communion is still the policy. Unlike the LCMS where the rulebook is fixed, and everybody is expected to know it, the ELCA in my experience is pretty broad minded when it comes to doctrine and order of service, but they have a greater expectation of evangelical practice -- De Colores and other evangelical movements make for a more emotional fellowship experience. LCMS congregations tend to a drier kind of fellowship, that you might recognize if you dropped in on the 'dark' Lutherans in Garrison Keilor's fictional Lake Woebegone. Lake Woebegone Lutherans apparently come in two stripes, the 'dark' Lutherans who are concerned with sin and death and the avoidance by strict practice of otherwise certian Hell fire, and the 'light' Lutherans to whom Pastor Ingqvist generally ministers, who harbor deep doctrinal doubts but have better Christmas and Easter celebrations.
posted by paulsc at 4:11 PM on July 29, 2006

I came to agnosticism through growing up Lutheran. Developing beliefs outside of Christianity was a breeze among these gentle-hearted people. Now, I may have been lucky in my congregation - the most active members were mellow old hippies who knew how to play about five instruments apiece.

I don't recall any strange rules about communion. I took it through confirmation class, I took it before being baptised. Sometimes, folks sat it out. If the busybodies ever caused a stink about this, I never caught a whiff of it.

I never felt pressured to believe harder. When I stopped attending, the pastor visited me at my parents house. We had a great time talking about comic books and who would come out on top if Jesus and the Mighty Thor ever threw down. Ever since then, they've been nothing but friendly to me when I've attended with my parents during the holidays.

Do you have the measure of these people yet? Lutherans have a reputation for being low-key, but that "Evangelical" part of this church's title makes me a little nervous. Have you looked into what public works they engage in? Are they the type of folks who volunteer at food banks or the type that picket clinics and funerals? You can learn a lot about their priorities by examining their activities.

Attend a service or two, chat up a couple folks and start feeling them out. As for tension diffusing one-liners ... uhm ... when offered communion wine, you could always say "I'm trying to cut back" or "thanks, but I've gotta drive later."
posted by EatTheWeak at 5:07 PM on July 29, 2006

Every congregation is different. I have belonged to ELCA congregations which were very traditional and those which were very contemporary. You may feel more comfortable in one congregation over another, even if they are in the same town. The conservative people who don't think women should be pastors end up at one congregation, and the liberal people who spend weeks overseas doing missionary work are in another. That may seem like a gross generalization but in my experience it is the truth. (For me it's mostly the other congregants who end up ruining church. It's a human institution.)
However... if you are steadied in your ways of agnosticism I do not believe you need to attend church. Does that sound weird?
Why are you going? You're right--the basic tenets of Jesus that you mentioned in your original post are universal to being a kind, considerate person. So I am wondering why you would be spending time in church if you are not convinced that Jesus was the son of God whom God sacrificed for your sins. While you may have a hard time believing some things or disagree with some decisions the church has made in modern times, the basic tenet is that Jesus's life was given so that you would avoid eternity in hell. If you can't /don't agree with that or won't/can't believe it, why would you spend time and go through the motions of church?
If you are going as part of a family activity I think that is great. My dad skipped church--I'm not sure exactly why--for the first 15 years of my life. I always wanted him there when I was singing or had special events. My husband is Catholic and will not take communion anywhere but his Catholic church. So any time he attends services with me, he just sits there. He can't carry a tune in a bucket so he literally just sits there the entire time. But he does it to support me. It's very nice of him.
posted by FergieBelle at 5:44 PM on July 29, 2006

Just say "Hey, how about that Garrison Keillor, huh?"

Sure-fire winner.
posted by Bud Dickman at 6:09 PM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: If you can't /don't agree with that or won't/can't believe it, why would you spend time and go through the motions of church?
If you are going as part of a family activity I think that is great.

It is largely going to be a family activity, and there are other benefits:

• Fellowship
• The aforementioned snacks
• I'd like my family to fully experience the culture we live in, which, like it or not, is very much steeped in Christian tradition
• Ask MetaFilter can only handle 99.5% of the questions I might think of, I'm hedging my bets
posted by Scoo at 6:49 PM on July 29, 2006

My church background is Lutheran. I was baptized in a LCMS church, but I have also attended numerous services at WELS churches (both of which, particularly WELS, are considerably more conservative than the ELCA church you plan on attending).

At neither LCMS nor WELS churches have I ever felt singled out for not taking communion (I was never confirmed). I know my mother does not take communion, but she has always enjoyed the singing and the simple church rituals - the candles and the call-and-response prayers.

One thing I like about Lutheranism is that one isn't confirmed until the age of about 14, and one has to do some fairly rigorous studying beforehand. I feel like this gives kids more authority over their decision to be confirmed, as they are old enough to make their own choice.

However, paulsc does mention above the "dark" Lutherans, concerned with "sin and death" and so on. I have attended services like this, that talked about hellfire and brimstone and the Apocalypse - at Easter, which if I understand correctly is one of the most joyous times of the year in Christianity.

Because of my grandparents' strong beliefs, my parents chose to hold their wedding in a Lutheran church as well as to baptize their two children. Both times they were harshly questioned about their own lack of commitment to the principles of the religion. It doesn't sound like you will come across this in an ELCA church, but I'm just throwing it out there. I think if they were to do it all over again, they might have opted for the Unitarian Universalist route, or just bypassed church altogether.
posted by anjamu at 7:12 PM on July 29, 2006

Of course, if you're still uncomfortable with the idea, maybe you could try setting up a meeting with the church's pastor to talk to him about it. Just a thought.

As for the rules regarding communion, it's my understanding that Catholics don't necessarily have to go to confession each time. But they do need to be in a "state of grace," meaning that they have no mortal sins. This might mean needing to confess your sins beforehand, but not always. And this is after receiving First Holy Communion, which you usually need to go through certain preparations for.

I believe that Catholics are also required to attend Mass every week and to take part in Communion when they are able. Although, that might be an older rule that isn't followed any more. I'm not sure. It's certainly not something a lot of Catholics do in reality, I can tell you that much.

Unfortunately, I don't know much about Lutheran rules concerning Communion. You'll probably want to look into that since, as you can see, there can be quite a bit that goes into it. It's not usually about singling people out. It's just about what's considered appropriate for the ritual. I doubt too many people will give you a hard time about it. But brujita has a good point. To be on the safe side, you should probably forgo the Communion for now.
posted by magodesky at 8:09 PM on July 29, 2006

Again, ELCA practices open communion. If you are baptized, you can take communion.

More specifically, if you are baptized and come forward believing, you can take communion. But nobody is going to double-check somehow to make sure that you're believing enough.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:13 PM on July 29, 2006

Browse this site.
Ol' Martin was a guy just like you. I bet he'd buy you a beer and advise you to sin boldly.
posted by Ohdemah at 12:32 AM on July 30, 2006

Oh yeah, and the background for sin boldly, written by Luther to Philip Melanchthon on August 1, 1521:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God's glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly--you too are a mighty sinner.
posted by Ohdemah at 12:38 AM on July 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

My parents are ELCA pastors. The “evangelical” label really confuses people, since “evangelical” implies many things in contemporary America, ELCA is not part of the “religious right” (though, of course, some ELCA members support that movement).

The ELCA was only formed in 1987, as a unification of many prior, often ethnically defined, Lutheran churches. Although many deplore this, Lutherans can be shy about evangelizing (even in some good way in which your evangelism is reflected in the way you live your life). And not to put too fine a point on it, but LCMS and WELS are very, very different in the current American context. Especially since they feel pressured as Lutherans by the largest Lutheran body (the ELCA) being, for them, intolerably liberal and ecumenical.

Personally, I moved away from Lutheranism and Christianity because I did not like justifying my ideas with the Bible and Christian faith. But the upbringing remains with me. Mark me down as some sort of heterodox atheist Lutheran Marxist or something :-) (sort of Shaw's “Church of England Atheist”).
posted by Gnatcho at 3:51 PM on July 30, 2006

The ELCA seems to have made it a mission to practice an active kind of ecumenism; they share full communion with the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the UCC, and a few other similarly progressive protestant denominations. They've gone out of their way to reach out to other denominations and religions as well. It's very much in keeping with the tradition of Luther himself to challenge church doctrine, to try to evolve religiously, and most of the Lutherans I know -- this list includes many of the people who actually run the ELCA -- welcome theological dissent and discussion.

I think you'll find that Lutherans (at least, ELCA Lutherans) are largely friendly and easygoing. I don't really go to church much anymore, but on the rare occasion that I do, I usually bring my Jewish fiancée, the people there are nothing but friendly and welcoming to both of us. Obviously, she sits out for communion, and sometimes I sit with her, and sometimes I go and have communion, and nobody could care less about what we do. They're just happy to say hello.

Theologically, I'm kind of in the same place as you are, but the majority of my extended family are employees or clergy of ELCA. Everybody is supportive of my religious choices, as are all of the other Lutherans who I know. ELCA Lutherans hold religion to be deeply personal, and respect the beliefs of others. Plus, Lutherans believe it impolite to intrude on such personal matters, and will not ask about this kind of information unless you volunteer it.

You might want to read My Conversations With Martin Luther, which is a nice little book that does a pretty good job of outlining the basic beliefs of modern Lutherans. (Disclaimer: It was written by my late uncle, so my recommendation is not 100% unbiased.) They probably have it in the church library.

ps. If you do not listen to A Prairie Home Companion, you'd better start now. If you're aware of PHC but don't like it, you should probably find some other kind of church, maybe Episcopalian. You probably think I'm joking, but I am so freakin' not.
posted by dseaton at 8:28 PM on July 30, 2006

I'm pretty sure you'll be invited whole heartedly into the Church. Lutherans are pretty low key in general, but seem to take great pains to make sure that all are made to feel welcome in their house of worship.

I say "pretty sure" because you'll always find a few congregations that defy the norm and insist on being more staunch about certain issues.

I grew up Presbyterian, but ended up going to a Lutheran University and then working all through college at an Episcopalian Church. I liked each for different reasons (honestly, I have yet to find a massive difference between the feeling of Presbyterian Churches and that of most ELCA Lutheran Congregations), but have stayed with the Lutheran tradition due to the amazing acceptance I seem to find where ever I go. Plus they love to sing and eat like no other.

If you want some conversation starters when you end up at the after service coffee and refreshment social hour (and you will, make no mistake), I second dropping Garrison Keillor name. Depending geographically where this church is, there is a high probability that most of the church members have Norwegian roots. If this is the case, mentioning leftsa, lutefisk, or uttering "Uff Da!" as an exclamation will make you instantly popular. *Warning* If anyone actually ever offers you lutefisk, run the other way. Leftsa though, is very enjoyable.
posted by Smarson at 8:08 AM on August 1, 2006

He's in Georgia, people. I don't think the Prairie Home Companion crap is going to really get him anything.
posted by graventy at 5:00 PM on August 6, 2006

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