The Mainline in Late Modernity

Tradition and Innovation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Maren Freudenberg
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , December
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


German sociologist Maren Freudenberg explores the “fundamental change” taking place in American religion in late modernity (1). In particular, she is concerned with the ways mainline denominations are responding to declining membership in the context of an increasingly fragmented society, growing religious pluralism, and flourishing subjective spirituality as evident in the emerging church movement and neo-charismatic groups. Having posed her broad topic, Freudenberg quickly narrows her focus from mainline denominations (the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church [US], the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Convention, and the Disciples of Christ) to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which she identifies as “the polar opposite of post-denominational American Protestantism” (11). She notes that the ELCA is “known for its traditional, liturgical style of worship, hierarchy and bureaucracy, rational approach to faith, and its progressive theology” (11). 

The book is based upon interviews with innovative leaders and field research in five congregations in northern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. As is customary in a sociological work, neither the congregations nor the leaders are named, though some leaders (such as seminary professors and a former synodical bishop) could be identified without much effort. Sociologists of religion are Freudenberg’s primary conversation partners, not theologians or historians. She identifies four trends and offers conclusions about how religious practices and organizational structures are changing in the ELCA. In chapters 2 through 5 she describes the emergence of a discourse about change throughout the denomination, development of networks and practices of cooperation and exchange at regional and local levels, growing lay participation and nurturing of community, and increased efforts to foster spirituality, particularly in local congregations. In chapter 6 she explores the dynamic interaction of these trends and suggests that together they promote a “liminal phase of transformation” (172). Significantly, she detects movement toward “faithful witness,” a style of evangelism consistent with Lutheran theology and concerned with sustaining its understanding of the Christian gospel rather than preserving its institutional structures. She concludes that “the ELCA’s unique selling point is combining high and low church practices and a decidedly progressive Lutheran perspective” (214). 

While Freudenberg’s attention to the ELCA in particular and American Lutheranism more generally is to be applauded, the book has some limitations. Without questioning the accuracy of what she observed, questions can be raised about the validity of generalizing from this small sample. She addresses the concern about representativeness by noting that most ELCA congregations are in the upper-Midwest and are most likely to be rural. Nonetheless, her conclusions need to be tested in other settings. Her repeated characterization of the ELCA as a confessional tradition, and her assertion that the trends she describes are “entirely novel,” require historical contextualization. Certainly the ELCA is a confessional tradition, arguably more so than the other six denominations Freudenberg includes in the mainline. However, Pietism also runs deep in the tradition, especially in the rural, upper-Midwest. The trends she observed in these congregations might be compared profitably to the agenda set out in 1675 by Philip Jacob Spener in his Pia Desideria. Moreover, historian Sydney Ahlstrom identified the ongoing interaction of confessionalism, pietism, and habits of critical thought as characteristic of Lutheranism. This Lutheran type of pietism—rather than the American, revivalist-influenced sort that is mentioned—might be one clue to understanding the ELCA’s response to current changes in the American religious landscape. If this response is indeed “unique” among the mainline denominations (213), it may also be a reminder that Lutherans have only recently been numbered in that group. Readers of this study would be well advised to pair it with a richer account of the ELCA’s pre-1988 history and should be cautious about extending its conclusions broadly to either the entire ELCA or to mainline denominations without further studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

L. DeAne Lagerquist is Harold H. Ditmanson Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maren Freudenberg is research associate at the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany.

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