Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper observed on Twitter a month or so ago that “[t]he ‘just have more kids’ approach to church growth would be more compelling if it was evident that the kids in our congregations actually remained in the church past confirmation.”
It was a remark that particularly struck home with me, because after my own confirmation—or, to be more precise, after my high school graduation—I didn’t seriously attend a Lutheran congregation for the next 7–8 years of my life. Yes, I attended Thanksgiving and Christmas services at my old church when I happened to be in my hometown, and in fairness there are parts of Connecticut where confessional Lutheran churches are virtually nonexistent, but on the whole, I didn’t make much of an effort to stay connected. To my chagrin, even though I attended various chapel activities at college, and was involved with a Bible study group in law school, I was still a member of the demographic captured by this 2019 study, with its central finding billed as “Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church as Young Adults”: “Two-thirds (66 percent) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research.”
One of the reasons underlying this, I think, was the fact that I didn’t feel like I had a great sense of where to “go” spiritually and intellectually, as a Christian, after my confirmation. As a young person, the perpetual Lutheran reiteration of the heartbeats of the Christian life—Word and Sacraments—can seem pretty static. Of course I read the Bible, I was baptized as a child, and I go to church and receive Communion. Is that it? Isn’t there anything more to be said?
Now, I certainly don’t want to validate that belief: an emphasis on Word and Sacraments is rooted in the historic tradition of the church, provides a theological rhythm that can underpin an entire lifetime of Christian practice, and has the advantage of resisting faddishness. But I can’t deny that the resources that drew me back to the institutional church came from medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, philosophical theologians like David Bentley Hart and E.L. Mascall, and moral philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre—none of them Lutherans, or even really Lutheran-sympathetic. I did not, generally speaking, have a good sense for where my childhood denomination fit into the bigger picture of Christian theology.
What do I wish I’d better understood? To name one example, I wish I had come across something like Joel Biermann’s book A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Embrace of Virtue Ethics, which argues within a confessional Lutheran context for the enduring vitality of the broadly Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, or the cultivation of character over time through habits and disciplines. In contradistinction to those Lutherans who would take a decidedly negative view of the “third use of the Law,” Biermann defends the claim that morality matters by distinguishing between the “civil righteousness” that individuals may exemplify on earth and the “Christian righteousness” that has to do with their standing before God. (Biermann also posits a third category of righteousness—that righteousness which inheres within the earthly acts of the already-justified believer— but for various reasons, I would argue that this is really a subcategory of the first.)
This bifurcation is, of course, altogether alien to Catholic thought; as Daphne Hampson has argued, the entire category of simul justus et peccator simply makes no sense if righteousness is construed “univocally.” Yet on a philosophical level, the distinction is perfectly intelligible. Consider the following analogy: a man commits bank fraud, is found out, and subsequently pleads guilty in court. His defense attorney—assuming a certain level of competence—puts forward “mitigation evidence,” intended to persuade the court to maybe show some leniency on the grounds that the guilty man is a devoted husband and father and a faithful churchgoer, suffered from a poor upbringing, and so on. This mitigation evidence does not change the fact that, in some form, he is going to face consequences. It does not, that is, make him not guilty of the act at issue. The relative “righteousness” of his private life does not place him back into a right relation to the law.
So likewise for the human being “here below”: an individual’s exemplification of good, ostensibly God-honoring behavior in the presence of other human beings simply does not entail that that individual possesses any claim to eternal life and the promise of resurrection. In other words, there is no point at which one’s growth in their personal merit allows them to demand that God “cash out” their account and grant them eternal bliss. This, at bottom, is the logic of the Lutheran distinction between kinds of righteousness.
Yet this distinction does not mean that growth in civil righteousness is not worthwhile in itself. Just as it would be objectively good for a man to show love to his waiting family while serving out a prison sentence, even if that love did not reduce his prison term, it can still be objectively good to cultivate the virtues coram mundo—before the world—without that cultivation amounting to a kind of self-justification. Rejecting this distinction in its entirety would imply the idiosyncratic position that it is altogether theologically immaterial whether, say, a Christian chooses to live life as a hospice nurse or a serial killer. And that claim, for the overwhelming majority of Christians throughout the tradition, simply will not hold.
In the end, there are really two issues here (to my mind) when it comes to the retention of young people. The first is the threshold question: where does the Lutheran tradition—or for that matter, the magisterial Protestant tradition more broadly—fit in the bigger Christian picture? Does theology simply drop out of the picture after the Council of Chalcedon and then pick back up in 1517? And the second is a more “applied” matter: what does it mean to grow as a Christian over time? How does one reason through topics like growth in theological understanding, or a move into the vocations of husband and father? These are issues that become particularly pressing in the transition from childhood to young adulthood, a transition marked by sustained exposure to alternative branches of Christianity (and other faiths) and by the inevitable assumption of new roles and responsibilities. I wish I’d come across resources confronting them directly. Books like Biermann’s volume, to their great credit, sit at the nexus of both such issues. And I hope Lutheran presses release many more like them.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.