Commentary

LBI revival empowered the Norwegian church, too

I deeply appreciated Michael Sherer’s great article on the birth of the Lutheran Bible Institute movement (Metro Lutheran, July 2010, page 18). I’ve seen little published on this great move of God’s Spirit, which affected hundreds of thousands of Scandinavian Lutherans from the teens to the sixties of the last century.

Sherer mentioned the Swedish side of the equation, but the pietists of the Augustana Synod were not alone. About the same time that Swedes on the east side of St. Paul created a Bible school at First Lutheran, our congregation, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, founded a missionary training school at its former location in the Minneapolis’ Seven Corners neighborhood.

In this first generation that Swedish and Norwegian pietists could communicate freely in English, some sort of special energy was created. (Dare I use the word “synergy” in a non-theological sense?) These groups came together, and the spiritual descendants of Hauge and Rosenius created sparks that continue to warm the heart of Lutheranism. Together they created a school, which then spawned a revival across the northern U.S. Whether this is termed the “neo-neo-pietistic revival” or the “LBI revival,” from the roaring ’20s through the Great Depression and WWII, LBI and the ministries its graduates created changed the face of the church.

The school charged little or no tuition, and emphasized one- or two-year programs that gave students a broad overview of the Bible, with a strong emphasis on evangelism. Many Twin Cities congregations were strengthened by the presence of these enthusiastic students, including Trinity Lutheran Church of Minnehaha Falls, Augustana Lutheran (downtown Minneapolis), and St. Paul’s. Most of our members over the age of 60 came to St. Paul’s because of their time at LBI.

The first generation graduates of LBI created the four LBI branches Sherer mentioned. Other graduates helped found the World Mission Prayer League, the Latin American Lutheran Mission, the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement, the Lutheran Colportage (literature) Society, and numerous Bible camps. Young people, articulate and alive in their faith, returned to their congregations and communities, to roll up their sleeves and build the Lutheran church. On vacation, I have been greeted by grey-haired members of congregations from here to Seattle who tell me, “Oh yes, we attended St. Paul’s when we were at LBI!”

As the revival came into its third generation in the ’60s, some of that generation’s leaders tended toward legalism and undue emphasis on the third use of the law. (In fact, many of the children of the great LBI pietists became the social pietists of the ’60s, such as ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson, whose father was president of LBI.) This legalism, along with the peacetime draft helped to weaken the joyful ministry of the school. If the boys couldn’t attend the unaccredited school, then the girls wouldn’t attend the Lutheran Bridal Institute!

High interest rates on building projects and the lower number of students doomed the school in 1984. The Twin Cities’ Lay Ministry Training Center also carried on this tradition, but closed a few years back. Many leaders are saying that a new LBI for the new century is needed. Anyone else hear that call? Maybe in this new century, as we see new alignments of congregations, and sparked by the thousands of new immigrants in our midst, God will create something new!

(Roland J. Wells is the senior pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMC), Minneapolis. He is also the executive director of the School of Urban Ministry and the U4C (Urban Cross-Cultural College Consortium) program. He can be reached at 612/874-0133 or rolandwells@juno.com.)

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