Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here? — GetReligion (2024)

Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?

Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.

The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?

Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?

So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.

The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.

“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”

North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat. ...

Phone and email messages to church leaders, including pastor Mindy Bak, were not answered Monday.

Yes, the pastor is a woman. That would hint that this is an ELCA congregation, right? Except that we are also talking about a flock that experienced strong growth in recent decades, a timeframe in which the ELCA has been experienced stunning declines in terms of membership.

So what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here? And what issue was at the heart of this painful split?

Believe it or not, the story never answers either of those questions (other than in comments by readers at the end of the report). I realize that the "why" question would require strong quotes from people on both sides of the split and the reporter -- trigger warning -- would have to ask questions about doctrine. Maybe like these three?

Here is the closest that readers get to an answer on the second question, with quotes from a Jack Anderson, a former member:

“She lost the primary support of the church -- the tithers,” said Anderson. “The young people around here are not in a position to command a lot of resources. But the (breakaway church) has lots of well-established people.”

Jim Kellett was a member of North Heights for about 25 years -- until he began attending the alternative services last year. He, too, was critical of Bak and said she was “destroying the church.”

When interviewed in September, Bak said the drastic cuts were necessary to save the church. She charged that the Bondservants were sexist and could not stand to see the church led by a woman.

OK, let's assume that "tithers" -- people who give 10 percent of their income to the church -- are older, more traditional members. It might make sense for some of them to leave if placed under the leadership of an ordained woman.

But none of this makes any sense at all without knowing what brand of Lutherans we are talking about, right? It's like covering a Baptist war in, oh, Atlanta without knowing the differences between the Southern Baptist Convention and a church in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

So has anyone else covered the basics in this story? Well, in the Twin Cities there is another newspaper. So what does the Minneapolis Star Tribune story say? In this case, the big question is answered right at the very top (where this information belongs):

North Heights Lutheran Church, once numbered among the nation’s biggest ELCA congregations, is shutting down.

The church in Arden Hills, along with a sister congregation in Roseville, had 7,600 members at the beginning of the century. Then a noisy civil war, in which breakaway members created a ferocious website posting internal church documents, led first to the closing of the original building and finally the shutdown announcement on Sunday.

Church officials declined to comment Tuesday, as did others connected to the church.

“I really have no comment on this right now,” said Mike Bradley, director of the Alliance of Renewal Churches, the church network with which North Heights affiliated itself after breaking away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Now, that word "ferocious" is a bit much, without evidence to back it up. Still, it's crucial to know that this massive congregation left the ELCA and moved to a "renewal" network, which is often code language for evangelical theology. If you look around online, North Heights is frequently described as a "charismatic" church.

Alas, the rest of this story is based on file materials. It's pretty clear that people on both sides of the split -- including Pastor Bak -- have gone silent, probably at the advice of lawyers.

But background materials did yield this, about events in 2000 or thereabouts:

The Star Tribune’s religion editor described the church ... as one that “can wield incredible influence within the [ELCA] denomination.” Within a few years, however, the church broke off from the ELCA over social issues such as the denomination’s more liberal posture on hom*osexuality.

Obviously, this was not going to be an easy story to cover, with the church's current leadership -- we can only assume -- choosing to remain silent.

Did the more conservative, established members rebel once again and move further to the right on doctrinal issues? Were there "worship wars" issues between young and old? How did Pastor Bak come to this rather independent church in the first place? What is her denominational and/or theological background?

Yes, there are lots of questions here. But how do you cover this religion-beat story without asking these kinds of, well, basic religion questions?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here? — GetReligion (2024)


What are the three types of Lutherans? ›

Over 40 different Lutheran denominations currently exist in North America. However, most North American Lutherans belong to one of the three largest denominations, namely, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Why did ELCA and Missouri synod split? ›

In 1976, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) was formed by 250 congregations that had left the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) in a schism precipitated by disputes over biblical inerrancy and ecumenism.

What is the difference between ELCA and Missouri synods? ›

While the LCMS believes the Bible requires agreement in all that the Bible teaches, the ELCA holds that disagreement in some matters of doctrine, such as the mode of Christ's presence in Holy Communion, do not prohibit church fellowship.

Is the Evangelical Lutheran Church the same as the Lutheran Church? ›

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in 1988 by the merger of two major Lutheran denominations, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, along with the much smaller Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

What is the difference between Wels and ELCA Lutheran? ›

The ELCA is pursuing fellowship relations with the Roman Catholic Church and with various Reformed churches in spite of a lack of doctrinal agreement with them. WELS practices “close communion,” that is, we believe that only members of churches that are in doctrinal agreement should commune together.

Do Missouri Synod Lutherans allow female pastors? ›

The Missouri Synod teaches that the ordination of women as clergy is contrary to scripture.

What is the problem with the Missouri Synod? ›

The Missouri Synod has often been at odds with other Lutheran groups because of its insistence on strict conformity with its interpretation of “pure doctrine” based on the Bible and the Lutheran confessions. Until the 1960s it refused association and cooperation with all groups that it considered doctrinally in error.

Why did Wisconsin Synod break from Missouri Synod? ›

The doctrine and practice of church fellowship was the presenting issue that led to the split between the two synods.

Is the ELCA in decline? ›

CHICAGO (AP) _ The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says its membership dropped 1.6 percent to 4.85 million last year.

Can anyone take communion in a missouri synod lutheran church? ›

Congregations in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) practice closed communion (close is used by some in place of closed), meaning that Lutheran catechetical instruction is required for all people before receiving the Eucharist, though some congregations in ...

Is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod losing members? ›

Every district of the LCMS has experienced numerical decline in the past decade — from a 4 percent decline in some places to over 25 percent in others. The counties where the Synod is strongest across the country also tend to be the counties where population is decreasing.

What Bible version do Missouri Synod Lutherans use? ›

English Standard Version (ESV, Word-For-Word)

This translation is used for the Scripture readings in worship at First Trinity and in our hymnal. Our national church body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has chosen the ESV as its official translation.

What is the most conservative Lutheran church? ›

There are also two smaller and more conservative international associations—the International Lutheran Council, with 7.15 million members, and the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, with approximately 500,000 members.

What are the two types of Lutherans? ›

4. There a large number of Lutheran denominations, with the two main bodies in America being the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

What religion is similar to Lutheran? ›

Along with Anglicanism, the Reformed and Presbyterian (Calvinist) churches, Methodism, and the Baptist churches, Lutheranism is one of the five major branches of Protestantism. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, however, Lutheranism is not a single entity.

What is the difference between ELCA and LCMC? ›

LCMC is congregational in structure, rejecting the historic episcopate which was adopted by the ELCA, the denomination to which many LCMC members had previously belonged, in the Called to Common Mission agreement. The beliefs of the LCMC are based on the Bible and the Lutheran confessions in the Book of Concord.

What are the 3 basic beliefs of Lutheranism? ›

Being “Lutheran”

Our congregations accept and preach the Bible-based teachings of Martin Luther that inspired the reformation of the Christian Church in the 16th century. The teaching of Luther and the reformers can be summarized in three phrases: Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone.

What is the difference between Nalc and ELCA? ›

The group describes itself as embodying the "theological center of Lutheranism in North America," noting that it stands between the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the more conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) and other Lutheran church bodies in North America, "firmly within ...

How many different Lutheran religions are there? ›

Globally, there are some 150 such Lutheran church bodies; 148 of these are loosely joined in the Lutheran World Federation, which was established in 1947.

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