A past post “Day of Renewal Time to Reflect on Bold Service and Future Directions for ELCA discussed a new process being put forward by ELCA to determine future directions and priorities, “Called Forward Together in Christ”.

As was mentioned, this is a process begun by Bishop Eaton to help leaders make decisions about the future identity, direction, and priorities of the ELCA.   She wants to hear from people at all levels across the church.  Read more about it here.

One of the first questions to is “What is distinctive about our identity as a Lutheran church?”



For too long, the answer to that question has been Ole and Lena jokes.   Lutheran churches in America were established by German and Scandinavian immigrants.  But that was a more than a hundred years ago.  Lutherans come from all ethnic backgrounds now.

I became a Lutheran as a teen in California when a friend invited me to Luther League.   I had never heard of Lutherans being a particular ethnicity until I went to California Lutheran College (now University)  and there were all kinds of inside jokes and stories and cheers ending with “Ya sure ya betcha”.  I didn’t understand any of it and I felt just a little bit left out.

If that’s how I felt as a white girl at Lutheran college, can you imagine how people of color feel when we tell these inside jokes and act as though Garrison Keillor’s stories are descriptive of all Lutherans?




If people think the Lutheran church is an ethnic-specific church, they aren’t going to be real interested in checking one out.

Pastor Paul Baile was born in Iowa with Norwegian roots.  He currently serves Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas. He got tired of seeing jokes and memes about Lutherans eating Jell-O.

“I started making the memes in frustration with jokes that assumed that Lutherans were Scandinavian. As a pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation on the Mexican border, I’m tired of the unwritten rule that says Lutherans have to eat certain foods or sing certain songs.”



“Lifelong Lutherans who cook tortillas on a comal are just as Lutheran as those who roll lefse.” He notes “Parishioners in my congregation have lived their whole lives as Lutherans, and have all sorts of beautiful culinary, musical, and artistic traditions that are not always lifted up as Lutheran”


The idea of making memes that illustrate the variety of Lutheran ethnic traditions caught on quickly.


Elle Dowd was recently entranced for as a candidate for ordination through the Pacifica synod.  She created a hashtag #DecolonizeLutheranism to go with the memes.

“My work in Ferguson and in Sierra Leone has shown me how often white people center themselves and universalize our own experiences. Many times these things can seem benign, but when it happens over and over and over in big and small ways, it’s very damaging.”


Dowd continues:

“Lutheranism may have started with Martin Luther, a German, but Lutheranism is not an ethnicity. The gifts that Lutheranism gives to the world are not some cultural marker but are things much more sacred and universal. The gifts we bring are through our theology: like the lens of grace and the theology of the cross, and through our history of speaking truth to power”

The hashtag and memes testify to the power of social media to get across a challenging social message in a fun way.


It got people to think about their own traditions and to see what Lutherans around the country and world think of as traditional cuisine.

covered dishIt was fun but the message was powerful.  Insider jokes that suggest some Lutherans aren’t real Lutherans are not harmless jokes.

“When we equate Lutheranism with German/Scandinavian heritage as if they are interchangeable, we are erasing the multitude of other expressions of Lutheranism and centering ourselves,” notes Dowd.

Centering ourselves is actually a pretty Lutheran description of sin.

” We should be able to preach the Risen Christ without also having to explain Sven, Ole, and their lutefisk hotdish,” observes Pastor Baile

Now that we are done talking about food, the harder work of articulating what is distinctive about being Lutheran can begin.

NE Synod contribution in honor of our Namibian guests

NE Synod contribution in honor of our Namibian guests

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. A number of us, too, are planning on organizing a day-long conference on the theme #DecolonizeLutheranism. If any are interested, please feel free to email me at fherrera@lstc.edu.


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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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