Take a guess: On any given Sunday, where do you find the most Lutherans in church?
The answer: Ethiopia and Tanzania.
The two nations, with nearly 8 million and 6.5 million Lutherans respectively, are now the second- and third-largest Lutheran communities in the world. Germany, the homeland of Martin Luther, is still No. 1 with 12 million, but most Lutherans there aren’t regular Sunday churchgoers.
The numbers point to the direction of Luther’s namesake faith in the 21st century. As the denomination erodes in Europe and the United States, which now has about 4 million members, it’s embraced by thousands of new followers each year in countries shaking up the old rituals.
The trend is reshaping congregations in Minnesota, the Lutheran capital of the nation. Africans are bringing rich voices to church choirs, fresh faces to Christmas pageants, and new flavors to potluck dinners. At the same time, Minnesotans are directly aiding the boom, training African pastors, supporting health clinics and schools, and building partnerships between Twin Cities congregations and East African churches.
“People still have a [preconceived] idea of what it means to be Lutheran, especially in a place like Minnesota where so many people identify as Lutheran,” said the Rev. Peter Harrits, who oversees 60 Minnesota-Tanzania church partnerships for the St. Paul synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
As the world celebrates Luther’s 500th anniversary this weekend, with countless worship services, choirs and prayers, the German monk’s message has captured an unforeseen audience.
“If Martin Luther were alive today, he’d be surprised at what happened to the church carrying his name,” said the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of the ELCA’s global ministry division. “Lutheran is not Lake Wobegon.”
Madagascar, for example, has three times as many Lutherans as the 1 million in Minnesota. It also has Sunday services that would be completely foreign to Luther, mixing fervent prayer, dance and the exorcism of demons.
How it began
To understand why the Lutheran faith is shifting south, meet Ibrahim Bitrus, a scholar from Nigeria who recently relaxed at a coffee shop near Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Bitrus grew up in the 1970s in a typical town without running water or electricity and just one school and one church. That church was Lutheran, a mud and straw structure “with mud seats, mud altars, mud everything.”
Bitrus’ father was a Lutheran pastor who had converted after attending a nearby Lutheran Bible school in the 1950s, the era in which the denomination began to climb.
Growing up, Bitrus recognized the lure of a religion that brought schools, health clinics and other supports to poor villagers. The faith also stressed “the power of the Holy Spirit” and salvation, he said, attractive concepts for Nigerians.
“When the Bible talks about spirits, polygamy, famine, injustice — people see themselves,” he explained. “Salvation brings liberation.”
Minnesota’s role in this Luther revival struck Bitrus about 10 years ago, when a Twin Cities delegation toured the seminary where he was teaching. He later learned about Luther Seminary in St. Paul, moved here to pursue a Ph.D., and quickly discovered a network of Nigerians, including a former teacher at the Bible school that triggered his dad’s conversion.
For the past year, Bitrus has been preaching at Twin Cities churches, teaching church classes and meeting religious leaders to offer an African perspective on the faith. They include pastors seeing their first African immigrants in the pews, such as the Liberians now attending First Lutheran Church in Crystal.
“It was wonderful to have him here,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dave Folkerts. “He was a consultant to me on how a North American church can do evangelism to African immigrants.”
Bitrus will return to Nigeria this year, where he will share his Minnesota-gained knowledge with colleagues and students. It’s just one example of the circular Minnesota-Africa connections that link Lutherans’ past with the future.
The Lutherans’ success in Africa can be felt in Minnesota, where the juxtaposition of cultures is adding both fresh energy and cultural confusion to congregations. While most immigrants have joined local churches, some have created their own. On any given Sunday, for example, there are services in Oromo and Amharic for Ethiopians and in Swahili for East Africans.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Tanzanian Pastor Andrea Mwalilino prayed in Swahili at the altar of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. The choir took its cues from a musician with a keyboard that set an East African rhythm.
As the service ended, everyone made their way to the center aisle for a final hymn and gentle dance out the door.
The pastor stood at the door, surveying the group. During his lifetime, he’s seen the Lutheran church in Tanzania grow from 500,000 in the 1970s to 6.5 million today. The folks here are a tiny part of the equation, he said, but they come for the same reasons as back home.
“If life is hard, where is your refuge?” he asked. “You go to God.”
Across town, African immigrants joined in singing hymns at the Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer. About 15 years ago, several families from Togo began attending. They now number about 30 of the 175 active members.
Pastor Mary Albing was both impressed by the depth of their faith and surprised by some expectations they had of pastors. “If they had a dispute with a family member, they’d come in to me and expect me to sort things out,” she said.
There were cross-cultural glitches. Initially, no one invited the Togolese to join the church because they assumed they didn’t want to, she said. With no common language, there was a lot of nodding and feigning understanding between the old and the new.
But the church made it its mission to welcome them. It set up a loan fund, helped pay for families’ needs and offered other supports. As their English improved, the Togolese began volunteering at church.
At this month’s Octoberfest party in the church basement, when the accordion player and bratwursts were gone, Albing said the Togolese members “turned on West African music — and everyone danced.”
Clearly “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” hasn’t become a hot musical number in most African nations. Yet Tanzania, Ethiopia and Madagascar — which combined have 15 million Lutherans — are consistently ranked among the largest Lutheran populations. Others have smaller yet growing ranks.
Forty percent of the world’s Christians will call sub-Saharan Africa home by 2050, compared to 26 percent today, a new analysis by the Pew Research Center shows. It’s where growth potential lies.
Challenges remain. There’s competition for souls from other Christian denominations, including evangelicals. There are conflicts with liberal foreign denominations, such as the ELCA, over gay rights and other issues. Violence is taking a toll in countries such as Nigeria, a partner of the Minneapolis ELCA Synod, where Boko Haram extremists have killed hundreds of Christians.
And it’s unclear whether the lure of Luther will remain as strong for the next generation.
But on Oct. 31, “Reformation Day” to the world’s Protestants, millions of Africans will be among the faithful ending a year of celebration.
“I don’t know 30 years from now what will happen,” said Mwalilino. “But for now, African people are flowing into church.”