On Being a Lutheran in the South

By Graham Glover

A Southern Lutheran

It’s not an oxymoron, although sometimes it seems like it should be. Compared to the Northeast and Midwest, there aren’t a lot of Lutherans in the South, especially Missouri Synod Lutherans.

But we’re here, Lutherans in the land of Dixie. Lutherans have a rich history in the South, but again, compared to our friends up north, we sometimes seem an insignificant bunch.

My father-in-law, a Southern Baptist, jokes that when I first met his daughter, he had to tell his mom that a Lutheran was a type of Baptist or else my wife’s grandmother would think she was dating an unbeliever. I get similar reactions when my non-Lutheran Southern friends visit a Lutheran church. “That sure didn’t seem like a church service to me,” they often say. “Are you sure you aren’t a Catholic? And what in the world were you wearing up there? Those “dresses” you got on are a little strange, don’t you think?” I am most certainly not a typical Southern preacher.

But even though Lutherans may be outnumbered in the South, and while our American heritage may be stronger in other parts of the country, I think the South is a most natural place to be a Lutheran.

Lutherans are steeped in tradition. Our tradition—the Church’s tradition—doesn’t dictate our faith, as our faith is always normed by the truths of Holy Scripture. But it’s a faith that is never separated from tradition. Like Southerners, our tradition informs our language, customs, and practices. Some might say it’s impossible to be a Lutheran without an understanding or appreciation of tradition. Tradition informs so much of what we do and who we are as Lutherans, such as our doctrine, worship, and reading of Scripture. And like Southerners, we acknowledge that tradition needs to change from time to time. While tradition is important, it is not sacrosanct. Tradition is not inerrant.

Lutherans are also deeply connected to community. While our congregations are self-governing, they aren’t wholly independent. We are part of a larger church body that binds itself to a common creed and a common understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Community means a lot to Lutherans, as it does to Southerners. Even when separated by city or state, Lutherans and Southerners are quick to rally around our commonalities. We are quick to identify with the larger community to which we belong. We do so because these communities mean something to us. They are important, both in substance and in style. These communities are not merely window dressing. They are part of who we are.

Lutherans are what I like to call appropriately formal. So much of what Lutherans do is formal: our worship, doctrine, and dress (to include those nifty “dresses” I get to wear during worship). By and large, Lutherans are not known for our informal demeanor. Some call us rigid, maybe even too rigid at times. But behind our formalities, most of which are appropriate, I think there is a laid-back people. And this is precisely the character of a Southerner—a formal but easygoing individual who will get all dressed up, talk properly, act dignified, and then offer you a beer or a glass of sweet tea and bare their soul to you.

So, to my fellow Southerners, we Lutherans may not look like what you think is normal for Christians. We may be a bit outside your comfort zone of how you understand Christian practice (especially the Lutherans who have “Missouri” in their name). But I’d like to suggest that you give us Lutherans a chance. Give us a look. I think you’ll find we have a lot more in common than you think!