Beckett: Inviting Community – Ethnocentrism Among High Church Lutherans

As Lutherans, having people of other cultures and ethnicities in the Church fits our theology, but we are horrible at practicing it, particularly among high church Lutherans who make orthopraxy into an idol. To many high church Lutherans, the only right way to do church is to have traditional liturgical music (organ only!) with candles lit in the sanctuary and incense filling the air, as well as high church vestments indicative of Roman Imperialism. To these high church folks, any other way than these practices (i.e. low church) is wrong. They are, in fact, being ethnocentric due to their lack of empathy towards peoples of other cultures.

Bruce M. Hartung writes on the necessity of empathy in the body of Christ as well as the lack of empathy in his essay, “Empathy & Community: Inviting Community in the Midst of Cultural Diversity.” Along with this, he also discusses ethnocentrism in the body of Christ and continues with how we can learn to be empathic.

I’m not against high church practices. In fact, I find it quite beautiful and I wear the collar and vestments myself. But I describe many (not all) high church Lutherans as ethnocentric because as Hartung describes ethnocentrism, “Deep in our hearts we believe that the way we do things is superior to the way others do things, that our customs are superior, perhaps even more godly or correct, than those of others” (60).

This is precisely how many advocates for high church orthopraxy view high church. To them, low church is inferior and even ungodly. That is, low church are congregations that utilise contemporary music in worship (even contemporary songs that are doctrinally sound), do not use candles and incense, and even dare not to wear vestments and not preach from the pulpit. Such cancerous high church Lutherans can be found on Facebook pages like Orthodox Lutheran(The founder is WELS, but the page is a great example of the type of high church Lutheran I’m talking about.)

Why is this a problem? Because there is no single right way to a) come together as a Christian community, and b) worship our Lord. Such lack of empathy also fails to share the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Are there wrong ways? Certainly. But is there a single right way? Absolutely not. Should we be concerned with the mysticism inherent in a lot of contemporary worship music? Absolutely. But to brand all contemporary music as heresy and to prohibit (or demand that we prohibit) pastors from using discernment in which faithful contemporary songs to use is foolhardy to the point of ethnocentrism.

In an African culture that likes to dance and use drums instead of an organ in their liturgy, for example, many high church Lutherans will nearly have an aneurism and prohibit such culturally diverse worship in an American Lutheran church because of their hypersensitivity to anything that even remotely looks like mysticism. These people are the reason why Lutheranism is dying—they are so exclusive of other cultures in worship that non-Lutherans hardly feel included in our worship body. To these Lutherans, in order for someone to be a true Christian or a congregation to be the true Church, they have to look like us and talk like us. Not every Christian needs to worship like a German Lutheran in order to be a faithful Christian. To expect and even require peoples of other cultures to worship like German Lutherans is ethnocentric.

These Lutherans need to learn how to be empathic, which Hartung discusses in his essay. I’m not going to cover what he says in detail; you’ll have to pick up the book and read it for yourself. But I will share a single quote:

Following Bonhoeffer, we listen [think priestly listening]; following Benedict, we receive the other as Christ; following Ignatius, we seek the divine goodness in the other and protect her propositions; following Erkeneff, we, in rubbing up against the other, affirm the interdependence of us all; following Ivey and Pedersen… we examine ourselves and our cultural assumptions; following Barger, we become more aware that we do not understand and need to learn about the other; following Christ, we see our Lord in the need, in the gifts, and in the being of the other; following Christ, we rejoice in his incarnation as one of us and we, imperfect though we are, enter the life-experience of the other. (61-62)

Hartung discusses Bonhoeffer, St. Benedict, Ignatius, and the others in detail throughout his essay. He does not target high church Lutherans; this is merely a problem I have detected in our church body that relates to what Hartung discusses. This essay is a necessary read for those few high church Lutherans who believe high church is the only way the Church can be faithful. Unless they check their cultural bigotries, they will not begin to see diverse cultures being welcomed into their congregations.


Kolb, Robert, and Theodore J. Hopkins. Inviting Community. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2013.

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