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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Lutheranism 101

Culture or confession?

 What does it mean to be Lutheran? For many in the ELCA who’ve grown up Lutheran, religious identity is intertwined with a sense of family and cultural traditions: beer and brats for some, lefse and lutefisk for others, familiar liturgy and hymns for all. But the shape of Lutheranism is changing.

While the majority of Lutherans worldwide still live in Northern Europe, Lutheranism is growing rapidly in other parts of the world, according to the Lutheran World Federation. Today there are almost as many Lutherans in Asia and the Middle East (7.4 million) as there are in North America (8.1 million), and there are more Lutherans in Africa (15 million) than there are in Germany (13 million).

So what does it mean to be Lutheran, beyond cultural heritage or geographical location?

During the 16th century, Martin Luther challenged the teachings, practices and structures of the Roman Catholic Church. He insisted that the central message of Christianity is the good news that sinners become reconciled to God by grace through faith because of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

It’s important to remember that Luther didn’t intend to start a new church. He wanted to reform the existing church so the gospel message was communicated clearly and so the life of the church reflected that gospel center. Lutherans organized into a separate church only after the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly rejected Luther’s views.


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