This leads me to tell you that, in the past 10 days, two separate people have told me that they learned about a) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and b) Lutheranism through Wikipedia.
That's right. Wikipedia.
The first person, "A", was looking for a church with a specific social bent. A read on Wikipedia (!) that the ELCA was a gay-friendly denomination. Technically, this is true about the denomination, but not necessarily true of all congregations. A visited Lutheran Church of Hope, felt very welcomed, but was a little overwhelmed by the structure of Lutheran liturgy, more formal than A's previous experience. A asked questions of me, the pastor, about what was confusing. (Yes, please!! Ask away! Even if you aren't visiting.) In the exchange about the service, A told me that everything a person wanted to know about the ELCA, but didn't know who to ask was available on Wikipedia.
The ELCA wikipedia page has LOTS of information. Most of it seems correct, if very technical. There is a long comparison chart between the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that I'm not sure is necessary, but maybe someone finds it helpful.
Things on the Wikipedia page that I would find useful if I was looking for a denomination:
ELCA clergy tend not to subscribe to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, but see validity in various scholarly methods of analysis to help in understanding the Bible. (Questions are allowed!)
Like other Lutheran church bodies, the ELCA confesses at least two Sacraments, Communion (or the Eucharist) and Holy Baptism (including infant baptism). (What's a sacrament? I'll follow the link, but these two sound good.)
Unlike certain other American Lutheran church bodies, the ELCA practices open communion, permitting all persons baptized in the name of the Trinity with water to receive communion. Some congregations also commune baptized infants similarly to Eastern Orthodox practice. The ELCA encourages its churches to practice the Eucharist at all services, although some churches alternate between non-communion services with those containing the Lord's Supper. (Everyone participates. I like inclusion.)
The ELCA ordains women as pastors, a practice that all three of its predecessor churches adopted in the 1970s. Some have become synod bishops. The most recent ELCA hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes alternate gender-neutral invocations and benedictions in all settings. (Women get to play! Women get to lead! Everyone has a role!)
The Church maintains full communion relationships with member churches of the Lutheran World Federation (which is a communion of 140 autonomous national/regional Lutheran church bodies in 78 countries around the world, representing nearly 66 million Christians), the Moravian Church in America, thePresbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion), and the United Methodist Church. (These Lutherans play well with others. Do these other churches all get along with one another in the same way? They do not, but Lutherans join in for Jesus.)
As a Lutheran church body, the ELCA professes belief in the "priesthood of all believers" as reflected in Martin Luther's To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, that all baptized persons have equal access to God and are all called to use their gifts to serve the body of Christ. (Sounds good to me.)
Things on the Wikipedia page that are a little overwhelming: structure of the church, long discussion of ELCA v. LC-MS, history of the ELCA via predecessor bodies.
Of course, if one was really curious about a denomination, it's all there in spades.
The second person, "B", called to see about pre-requisites to communion after reading about Lutheranism, wishing to attend a Lutheran church, and desiring to take Holy Communion for the first time ever. I explained that an openness to the presence of Christ was the only pre-requisite and B explained about reading about pre-requisites on... Wikipedia's page on Lutheranism. In conversation, B held forth that Lutherans were most aligned with Person B's own beliefs in the areas of Holy Communion, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the two natures of Christ.
Given that I'm not certain everyone in the congregation I serve holds the same thoughts on those three things, I went to Wikipedia to check it out on those three counts.
Lutherans hold that within the Eucharist, also referred to as the Sacrament of the Altar, the Mass, or the Lord's Supper, the true body and blood of Christ are truly present "in, with, and under the forms" of the consecrated bread and wine for all those who eat and drink it, a doctrine that the Formula of Concord calls the sacramental union. (Technically, yes. We believe that the bread and wine remain what they are, but that the presence of Christ comes to us through them. How? We have no idea, but who are we to doubt that Christ will show up where he promises to be?)
Lutherans are Trinitarian [...] Lutherans reject the idea that the Father and the Son are merely faces of the same person, stating that both the Old Testament and the New Testament show them to be two distinct persons. Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. (Yep, the doctrine of Trinity... making a beautiful relationship confusing since, what, 431 A.D.?)
Lutherans believe Jesus is the Christ, the savior promised in the Old Testament. They believe he is both by nature God and by nature man in one person, as they confess in Luther's Small Catechism that he is "true God begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man born of the Virgin Mary". (Do you know what Lutherans talk about even less than the Trinity... the two natures of Christ.)
So, Wikipedia's page on Lutheranism... technically correct and way overwhelming. It's like my whole church history class, plus Lutheran history crammed into one loooooong page, with enough rabbit hole links to keep you occupied for days.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, like the bears you see, I now know 2 people who have sought out Lutheran churches because of Wikipedia. How many
bears people are looking at those pages and not visiting, calling, or asking? How many people are turned off by the pages?
Most people I know end up in a congregation because they are 1) invited by someone they know or 2) are in close proximity, but either way they stay because they are welcomed and feel connected.
The need for welcome and connection remains, but the ways people are finding churches is changing. There's a lot more information out there that people are, apparently, more likely to seek out first before they set foot in any building, tent, or worship space.
There are fairly serious implications to this. We must make sure that our congregations are up to date on new media and that it looks good and inviting. Your fellowship hour may be AMAZING, but no one will know if your webpage looks like no one cares.
Secondly, we must keep an eye out for other information about our denominations. Google your denomination (and your church). What comes up first? Is it the first thing you'd want people to see?
Thirdly, you (and I) are still primary communicators of what it means to Christian and, after that, a particular flavor of Christian. Do you know what you believe? Do you know why? Faith stories aren't just for pastors. Nor are the clergy the sole keepers of denominational information. You don't have to have all the doctrines memorized by name, but it's worth considering, deeply, why you believe what you believe.
After all, what will you talk about during a power outage when Wikipedia's unavailable?