Monday, November 24, 2008

East Versus West

I grew up in New Mexico, and my closest connections in the Lutheran church are in New Mexico and California. So it was a bit of a shock to move to the East Coast, as you might expect. The weather hasn't actually been that big a transition, nor the landscape. Sure, there are differences, but they are overwhelming.

The biggest difference I've noticed—and granted, this is as a seminary student, so it's kind of a unique change that I'm adjusting to—is the difference between East Coast and West Coast Lutheranism. The vast majority of my fellow students are from this area, or from such far-flung locales as North Carolina and Ohio. There's actually only one student I can think of who's from further west than the Midwest—he's from Colorado (there's also one person from North Dakota and one from South Dakota, but that still seems like the Midwest to me). At some point early in the semester, I talked to a few students from the East Coast who had visited Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (the "western" seminary, located in Berkeley, California) before deciding to come to Gettysburg. They mentioned that the people at PLTS had talked about the difference between East Coast and West Coast Lutheranism, but these students had been confused about what this difference actually was.

I've thought about this a bit, and I decided to share my insights. If I sound overly biased towards my western roots, I apologize—but, well, it's what I'm used to. At the end of the day, I don't really believe that one is better than the other; each has its unique challenges and its unique advantages. There are certainly differences, for good or for bad.

A little history is helpful to understand the difference. Lutheranism obviously had a long history in Europe before it came to America, but when it came, it primarily came to the East Coast (and Midwest, of course). In the west, the predominant religion historically was Roman Catholicism, and that is clearly evident in New Mexico, and from what I've seen, in California, too. As a result, Lutheranism in the west is relatively new. In the west, you don't see any 150- or 200-year-old Lutheran churches; there simply isn't that long history in the west. As a result, there seems to be less of a sense of dynasty or "this is how we've always done it, my family has been in this church for four generations". As a result, churches out west seem to be slightly more flexible (churches are always stubborn and resistant to change, but there are degrees within the trend). There's less resistance to change because there's simply less history providing inertia to the church.

The other big difference is simply the density of Lutherans. Again, in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, there are enough Lutherans to kill an army of cod (sorry, lutefisk joke). The east coast generally has more Lutherans than there are out west. It seems that on the East Coast, this breeds a certain complacency—there are tons of Lutherans, there will always be Lutherans, we can be as Lutheran as we want to, and we don't really need to branch out and reach other people. This is an exaggeration, of course, but this is the direction that churches seem to tend out here. In the west, Lutherans are faced with a world of challenges; I remember going to a synod assembly in Colorado, and all the Lutherans from Utah were primarily interested in dealing with the Mormon church. That was their challenge; they seemed almost desperate to figure out how to be Lutheran in a Mormon state. In New Mexico, again, the predominant force is Roman Catholocism; not that it is a threat, but simply that it pervades the culture. You can't get away from it. At least my home church responded to these challenges with consistent and determined ecumenism. They worked with all the other churches—they had to. There were no other Lutherans around. Personally, I appreciate that ecumenism, because I think our similarities are far more important than our differences.

So that's my two cents on the East-West divide. Like I said, I'm biased toward what I know, but I don't mean to be dismissive of East Coast Lutheranism, and certainly not of East Coast Lutherans. And I'm grateful for this learning experience, because I think it's important to get out of your comfort zone and see what different people do in different circumstances.

No comments: