Where in the World are the Lutherans?

If that question seems like a ‘no brainer’ it’s because Lutheranism is so strongly identified with people of Northern European descent.  So it’s probably not going to be a surprise that out of the estimated 80 million of the world’s people who identify as Lutherans, nearly half of them reside in Europe, and about a third of those reside in Germany, making it the country with the largest Lutheran population, followed closely by the United States where many European Lutherans immigrated.  No surprises there.  But the following table may not be what you expect!

Countries With More Than One Million Lutherans*





Germany 11.8 million Finland 4.0 million
United States 11.7 Norway 3.9
Ethiopia 7.9 Madagascar 3.0
Tanzania 6.5 Nigeria 2.3
Sweden 6.3 Netherlands 2.0
Indonesia 6.0 Papua New Guinea 1.3
Denmark 4.4 Namibia 1.2
India 4.0

(* source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheranism_by_region.  The numbers tabulated are as reported in 2018 and have not been updated to the present.)

By summing the numbers for Ethiopia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Namibia we see there are today WAY more Lutherans in Africa (20.9 million) than in all of North America!   And who would have thought that India, Indonesia, and New Guinea are home to nearly as many Lutherans (11.3 million) as the US or Germany!  These are not the demographics of the Lutheran church of our forefathers!   In fact, of the 76.3 million Lutherans tabulated here, 32.2 million are from countries that have only a small percentage of people of European ancestry.

These numbers are all the more striking when we recognize that those counts for European Lutherans are inflated by the fact that these are largely state churches, where actual participation is low.  In reality, both Europe and the US are experiencing declining numbers of Lutherans (as well as most other traditional denominations).  Thus, the fact that the number of Lutherans worldwide is actually increasing is entirely due to the vitality of Lutheranism in non-traditional regions, Africa in particular.

To put it bluntly, the old idea that WE are the center of Lutheranism and that the rest of the world is a kind of secondary ‘mission field’ is not only offensively patronizing, but downright unrealistic.  Sure, the institutions and traditions of our Northern European heritage will continue to be cherished by many Lutherans.  Yet, in terms of the things that most importantly define our faith — faithful ministry of Word and Sacrament – our Lutheran brothers and sisters around the world not only share our theology, but in many areas have much to teach us.  Perhaps it is because many of these Lutheran brethren are accustomed to facing adversity that they have stood resolutely against compromising clear Biblical teachings for the sake of cultural conformity as some Lutheran bodies have done. A case can be made that historic Lutheran values are being most vigorously defended far from the traditional Lutheran homelands.  And in terms of spirit-filled worship and zeal for Evangelism, we can find much to admire and emulate in these rapidly growing Lutheran churches.

What should we make of this?  We can bemoan the apparent decline of Lutheranism in the traditional regions, and surely this is a cause for concern and soul-searching.  Yet, our primary commitment is certainly not to propagating our European identity or even our Lutheran denomination, but to spreading the good news of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Therefore, we should glorify God for wherever Christ is faithfully proclaimed and God’s grace offered through Word and Sacrament.

Thus, even as we recognize the challenges facing our Lutheran identity here at home, we should also enthusiastically support and give praise for God’s mighty work in bringing the people of this world to Him.  It’s His Kingdom!

“therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (Matthew 9:38)

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