Social Ministry in the Lutheran Tradition (Fortress Press, 2008)

[1] This helpful volume contains essays by Foster McCurley, Samuel Torvend, Carter Lindberg, Eric Gritsch, Carl Uehling, Robert Duea, and Martin Marty. It also includes a summary of a roundtable discussion of the Future’s Group, an informal gathering of chief executive officers of Lutheran social ministry organizations. Topics covered range from the biblical basis for Christian social ministry (McCurley), to the history of Christian, and specifically Lutheran, social ministry in Europe (Torvend, Lindberg, and Gritsch), to the history of American Lutheran social ministry (Uehling and Duea).

[2] Martin Marty’s “epilogue” sums up the case for “faith-based” social service that takes up the issue of the use of government funding. He offers a sensitive analysis of both the need and justification for government funding and of the companion need for advocacy on behalf of those in need who are the focus of Lutheran Social Services ministries. Indeed, the overarching theme of this book is to “make a case” both for Lutheran engagement in social service and advocacy and for the necessity of church-government partnerships if the needs of contemporary society are to be met fully and well. The book should prove useful to social service leaders, pastors, and any who are interested in this vital topic.

[3] Although it is a cliché to say such about a multi-authored work, the essays do vary quite a bit in terms of the depth of research and of the insights displayed. Rather than critique individual essays, I would rather point to a couple of them that are especially helpful. Foster McCurley’s chapter, “The Identity and Work of God: Social Justice in the Bible,” offers a summary of the biblical material that is a veritable primer on the subject. We are instructed by McCurley that the “poor” in the Bible includes more than the economically destitute. Those numbered among the poor also include the diseased, the homeless, orphans, widows, and victims of crime and oppression. These poor are at the top of Jesus’ agenda of concern. We who have become the people of God through the life and work of Jesus are called to serve and care for the weakest as Jesus himself. His social ministry is our social ministry. McCurley’s discussion will remind those who are already familiar with this material of the breadth and depth of the biblical concern for the poor and oppressed. For others, it can serve as a guide for biblical study of the topic, as in adult study groups in the parish.

[4] Carl Uehling’s essay on the history of American Lutheran social service from 1800 to 1945 provides information that many who read the volume will encounter for the first time. He outlines the progression from local, individualized, acts of mercy to the development of larger social service agencies, now gathered under the umbrella of Lutheran Services in America. Uehling’s thesis is that it is society that has set the agenda for social ministry through the years. His narrative of the history of Lutheran social ministry gives us a sense of how issues associated with immigration, slavery, and the impact of two World Wars helped to shape the development of Lutheran social ministries. Of note is his account of the progression from “caring for our own” to opening the doors to all regardless of creed.

[5] The roundtable by the Future’s Group directly addresses the question of Lutheran identity for social service organizations that has come to the fore in recent decades. With the advent of fully professionalized leadership (i.e., professional leadership is not limited to Lutherans), government involvement (which provides restrictions on, as well as opportunities for, service), a broadly ecumenical client base, and a perceived distance between many Lutheran congregations and “their” social service organizations, the question of identity is much discussed today. The roundtable addressed several aspects of this situation, and ended by reiterating principles already enunciated by Lutheran Services in America:

  • LSA and its members, in partnership with others, are leading a movement of hope and grace toward a society that values generosity, inclusion, justice, and mutual care.
  • Lutheran social ministry expresses a spirit of possibility and will that shapes the future.
  • Lutheran social ministry organizations live out their Lutheran identities.
  • Lutheran social ministry organizations are healthy and vital, engaged in effective service and advocacy.
  • The Lutheran social ministry system has integrated, results-driven capacity.

[6] I recommend the book as a good starting point for anyone wishing to explore the background and current status of the Lutheran social service system. The book is annotated and indexed, which adds to its usefulness.

Donald L. Huber

Dr. Donald L. Huber is Fred W. Meuser Professor Emeritus of Church History at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.