Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Change in the ALC?

Il Coro's recent comments got me thinking about the ALC (Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, a.k.a. "the Federation") again, and how it has changed since I was a kid. So I thought I'd start this thread to give my pet theory on why this is the case, and invite everyone to post their views as well.

Back when I was growing up, it seemed like the ALC was a lot more like the OALC and other branches of Laestadianism. No TV, no sports, no make-up, no jewelry, no drinking, a lot of exclusiveness (thinking we're the only true Christianity), Finnish songs and preaching in the worship service, etc. Nowadays, however, you can find many ALC congregations that aren't much different than any other conservative evangelical denomination out there. People have TVs and even Internet connected computers. Women may dress conservatively, but wear makeup, jewelry, and clothing that are within the mainstream of the populace.

The first lens through which I see the change is that of the immigrant experience. First generation Laestadian Finnish immigrants, many of whom arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century didn't speak English, were uneducated with few opportunities other than farming, mining, and other manual labor. They built the churches as a touchstone and enclave where they could remember the best of what they left "back home," preserving the traditions and even setting them in stone over and against all the strangeness and harshness of a new land.

The second generation had a foot in both America and Finland. Fluent in both Finnish and English and educated in the American public school system, this generation felt the most conflict between the old ways and the new ways. While they were still sheltered from much of mainstream America through long hours helping out on the farm, raising siblings in large families, and not watching TV, English was their primary language and they were immersed in the mainstream culture through school and listening to the radio (often evangelical Christian radio). As this generation reached adulthood English started to become the primary language used in ALC churches, with Finnish songs and sermons becoming secondary.

The third generation and beyond (this generation) is fully acculturated to America. For the most part they have not learned the Finnish language, and speak only English fluently (or maybe some other language they learned in school.) They do not have any special ties to Finnish culture or heritage except for what might be preserved through church, or some foods eaten primarily during the holidays. Many of them have achieved higher education, even advanced degrees in engineering and humanities. Many of this generation feel no particular allegiance to the ALC as part of their cultural heritage and leave for other types of churches or no church at all, in keeping with whatever their worldview may reflect as a mainstream American living in a pluralistic society. Those that stay may stay for the sense of community and extended family, or may stay because by this time the church itself also largely reflects the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism with which they agree. There is now little or no singing or preaching in Finnish, instead largely traditional hymns or in some cases "praise music" drawn directly from the conservative evangelical subculture of "Christian radio" and books.

The other lens through which I see the change is that of factions within the ALC. At least since the 1960s and 1970s, there have been at least two and maybe three factions in the ALC. There is the "Laestadian faction," largely older but some younger members, often in smaller congregations in rural areas. These are most like the OALC and others in their implementation and view of the faith. There is also the "evangelical faction." Often larger congregations near larger cities, these ALCers would listen to James Dobson on the radio, attend Billy Graham crusades, and enjoy contemporary Christian music as well as "praise music." They seek to implement these types of changes within their own ALC congregation. A third and perhaps overlapping faction are those ALCers that support formal clergy training via the Inter-Lutheran (ALC) Theological Seminary. This non-accredited conservative seminary trained many pastors that went on to be ALC pastors, but the more "Laestadian" faction still eschewed formal theological training, so there is a landscape within the ALC of congregations where the leadership has some formal theological training, and others where the pastor has none at all. Still other split the difference, with a head pastor from the seminary but an assortment of assistant pastors without any formal education.

It seems to me that the momentum within the denomination lies with the evangelical faction. As time passes the Finnish heritage becomes less and less relevant, giving the Laestadian faction major headwinds. Conversely, the wind is to the back of the evangelicals, as adherents are looking for a form of ALC that accommodates itself better to the larger American culture with which they increasingly identify -- at least the conservative evangelical subculture. It's still not a perfect fit, because to the extent that Apostolic Lutheranism is actually Lutheran there will be major theological differences with the evangelicals --especially on baptism and eschatology. On the other hand, both Laestadianism and evangelicalism share an anti-intellectualism, populism, and suspicion of institutions, as well as Biblical literalism. To most rank and file modern day ALCers, theological distinctions between Laestadianism and evangelicalism may matter a lot less than the general "tone" and "mood" of the worship experience, and preaching that emotes "the Word."

My big unanswered question: Since the immigrant experience and the evangelical resurgence of the 60s and 70s potentially affects all branches of Laestadianism in the United States, why does it seem like some branches have changed more rapidly than others? Why does the ALC seem more accommodated to mainstream conservative evangelical culture than all of the rest?