What It Means to be Lutheran
In one of our previous Interest Time issues, we read the inspiring stories of three Christians who grew up in The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod (LCMS). What a blessing to enjoy a full life in the church, basking in the pure Gospel and never remembering a moment without Christ’s gifts!
But what of those who’ve come to the Lutheran faith later in life? What was the journey like for them? And what drew them into our confession and life together?
The most precious gift
Having grown up with a Lutheran father and Greek Orthodox mother, Rev. Chris Neuendorf simultaneously learned about both faith traditions.
“When my parents were married, my mother required a promise from my father that any children would be raised Greek Orthodox,” shared Neuendorf, an LCMS pastor in Davenport, Iowa. “So, I attended an Orthodox church in Cincinnati, but went to a Lutheran day school associated with my father’s church.”
Neuendorf went through the required Lutheran catechism, but in high school he began diving deeper into the Orthodox faith. He even took a pilgrimage to Constantinople and Jerusalem with his grandmother. Yet, something kept pulling him back to the Lutheran faith.
“When I read the Augsburg Confession, article by article, I realized that I would die to defend each teaching,” said Neuendorf. His father had given him a copy of this fundamental Lutheran Confession.
“In the Augsburg Confession, I found not only the clearest explanation of justification by faith alone, but also the Sacraments,” he explained. “I didn’t have to give up what I loved the most, which was the Sacraments. It was also clear that these confessors loved and adored Jesus and wanted to bring His saving mercy to all poor sinners like me. It wasn’t just a doctrine; it was an ethos that won me over.”
For his part, Neuendorf says he is grateful for his Orthodox upbringing. “The Gospel,” he added, “is alive and well outside of the Lutheran church. But it lives most deeply in the Lutheran church and, in my case, what drew me in was not anything that anyone ever did to try and make it appeal to me. What drew me was the core truth and culture of the authentic Lutheran church. And that is the most precious gift that we Lutherans have.”
Rest and refreshment in the Gospel
Julie Ledford, a member of The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, Ga., agrees with Neuendorf that the Gospel is alive and well outside of Lutheranism. Having grown up in a solid Christian home, church was a regular part of life for Ledford and her family.
“I was raised in a Presbyterian Church – USA congregation,” she said. “I attended the same church from age three on up. It was a great experience. I didn’t do a lot of Bible reading in the home, but church was a part of our lives and I went to youth group through high school.”
In college, Ledford was involved in a Methodist campus ministry, dabbled in non-denominational churches and finally landed in a Presbyterian Church of America congregation when she moved to Atlanta. There, she met and married her husband and they were faithfully involved in the life of the church for years.
Something seemed to be missing, though. They noticed a strong emphasis their church placed on assurance from works. “It was very tiring for us,” Ledford said.
The conversation got interesting when her husband began to read the writings of Luther. He found himself drawn into Lutheran theology.
“I connected with the things he was sharing with me, but I had a lot of apprehension about leaving our church,” said Ledford.
The Ledfords began visiting a local LCMS church, attended membership classes and ended up joining soon after. But it wasn’t easy at first.
“The hardest part for me was the doctrine around Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,” shared Ledford. “But over time, going through membership class and reading books, came the realization that this is how the church operated for a really long time.”
Learning to look only to Christ and His Word, the Ledfords found refreshment in the pure Gospel — which was just what they needed.
“It was obvious I was lost”
Unlike Ledford, Rev. William Weedon did not grow up in the church. His family was, in his words, “nominally Methodist,” and didn’t attend church outside of a couple of special occasions. That changed when he was around 11 years old.
“At a baseball game, two kids asked me if I knew what I needed to know to be saved,” shared Weedon. “They recited the Apostle’s Creed to me. So, I went to my best friend in the world, my World Book Encyclopedia, and I read about Lutherans. Then I asked my mom about Lutherans and found out my neighbors were Lutherans. I decided I should check that out since there was a church close to home.”
The experience was really quite strange for Weedon.
“I didn’t even know which door to go in,” he laughed. “Nothing had prepared me for the beautiful, weird music. I didn’t know how to read a hymn. It was obvious I was lost.”
The church took him in, and it wasn’t long before Weedon was baptized there. All was well until the 1970s when he “fell in with the charismatic movement.” When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Weedon went back to the Lutheran church.
“The liturgy was such a solace to me.”
Weedon then attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to become a pastor. While serving his second parish, Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hamel, Ill., Weedon found himself drifting from the Lutheran faith during a season of turmoil in the denomination. Eventually, Weedon said, he had to face his questions of conscience.
“I knew that I could never be sure of my own actions and emotions on anything,” he said. “I’m absolute toast if my salvation depends on that. While reading Luther, it was obvious. [Salvation] 100% depends on Christ. It again opened up to me such a peace.”
Weedon found that he was newly captivated by what we do have in the Lutheran faith:
“We have this treasure in this Gospel of forgiveness,” he shared. “I rediscovered with great joy our liturgy and hymnody. It’s so rich.”
Still, said Weedon, “There is nothing distinctive about being a Lutheran Christian. It’s just being a Christian. We take joy in the Sacraments. We treasure the Word. We are where Word and Sacrament are both coordinated and meet their home. It’s mere Christianity.”
Never experienced anything like this
For Dr. Gene Edward Veith, who grew up in a mainline Protestant denomination, it was literature that stoked his interest in learning more about the Gospel.
“As a teenager, I read C. S. Lewis, who exposed me to what Christians historically have believed: The Incarnation, the Trinity, the Atonement — things that were never taught in my liberal denomination,” explained Veith.
Then, in graduate school, Veith was introduced to Luther. He saw how the Reformer’s theology could resolve the conflicts he was running into in campus Christianity like Calvinists vs. Arminians; Catholics vs. Protestants; Charismatics vs. Fundamentalists.
Eventually, Veith and his wife decided to visit a small Lutheran congregation.
“We were blown away by the beauty and meaningfulness of the liturgy,” Veith said.
“Both our liberal and our evangelical congregations worshiped very casually. We had never experienced anything like Lutheran worship. We attended the pastor’s class, and I learned that this church still believed what I had read about from Luther in graduate school.”
“As someone who came from the outside, I can say that those other churches that seem so attractive from the outside pale beside Lutheranism, especially when you need the strength of faith the most: in times of trial, in times of suffering, in times of temptation. Lutheranism, … with its theology of the cross, turns those hard times into occasions for genuine growth in faith.”
At home with the Gospel
Whether those in the LCMS were born into it or chose it later in life, one thing seems certain: They are at home, hearing the pure Gospel and receiving the gifts of Christ in His Sacraments, and there’s no place else that they would rather be.