What is the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church?
The Old Apostolic Lutheran Church has a small but visible presence in Southwest Washington, thanks to the region’s influx of Nordic immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Minnesota and Michigan, the region is recognized as one of three concentrated areas of Old Apostolic Lutheranism in the United States, according to Lutheran scholars.
Church leaders estimate there are more than 5,000 in the Clark County congregation, which has churches in Battle Ground, Brush Prairie and now Woodland. There is no way to ascertain the exact number; the church doesn’t keep a roster of membership, said co-pastor Dale Schlecht.
Old Apostolic Lutheranism is a “sub-sect of a sub-sect” of Lutheranism known as Laestadianism, said K. Marianne Wargelin, a scholar of the Finnish-American experience and history doctoral student at the University of Tampere in Finland. Wargelin lives in Minneapolis, Minn., where there is a concentration of Laestadian sects, and has visited the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church in Battle Ground as part of her research on that branch of Lutheranism.
The sect is named for founder Lars Levi Laestadius, a pastor in Northern Sweden. He founded the sect in the 1840s, merging tenets of Lutheranism with cultural aspects of the Sami people, Wargelin said. The sect spread throughout Sweden, Finland and Norway. After Laestadius’s death, the sect splintered into several sub-sects, one of which was the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church. Nordic immigrants brought those beliefs to North America.
Old Apostolic Lutherans are distinct in their layman approach to the ministry, Wargelin said. Unlike in standard Lutheranism, pastors are not ordained, and no one pastor preaches every Sunday. Instead, the church has a council of pastors, she said. Schlecht said he and other pastors at the Clark County church take turns preaching.
Another distinction is the amount of conversion to Old Apostolic Lutheranism, Wargelin said. Other sub-sects of Laestadianism typically gain converts only through marriage, while many members of the Old Apostolic Lutheran congregation are not of Nordic descent, she said.
The group believes that confession should be made to another member of the congregation, she said. Standard Lutherans may ask God for forgiveness, but they are not expected to confess their sins to another.
Old Apostolic Lutherans’ lifestyle tends to shun secularism and activities such as watching television, she said. For example, the church doesn’t have a website, though church members use technology for other aspects of their life.
“They have huge churches,” Wargelin said. Members frequently have large families, believing that children are gifts from God.
They also have a strong sense of social responsibility.
“They’re kind of insular, but they take care of community,” Wargelin said. “They take care of everybody.”
— Paris Achen
In the 400-some years following the Protestant Reformation in 1517, Lutheran congregations around the world built their own churches. While the custom has faded with the demands of modernity and forces of individualism that drive American life, it lives on in Clark County’s Old Apostolic Lutheran Church.
Using nearly all donated labor and money, nearly 1,000 volunteers from the church recently erected a new church at 1500 Dike Access Road in Woodland just off of Interstate 5.
“Across the country, it’s been a long-standing practice that buildings are funded with donations,” said Dave Halme, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. “Not all of the congregations have all of the experience and skills. We were fortunate here that we had all the architectural, engineering and trade skills to build it ourselves.”
The church building, at nearly 41,000 square feet, will serve as the third location for a congregation that exceeds 5,000. The church already has locations in Brush Prairie and Battle Ground.
Construction took less than a year and 55,000 volunteer hours, Halme said. It’s expected to be completed in March. The church plans to hold an open house at the new site in May.
All of the design, engineering and construction was performed by members of the congregation with the exception of acoustical engineering in the sanctuary. That had to be contracted out, Halme said.
The volunteer hours saved the church about $6.5 million, he said. The total cost of the project with volunteer hours was $4.5 million, he said.
Volunteers organized the project and scheduling by dividing the group up by trade, said Reazo Redinger, project manager and member of the church’s board of trustees. Each trade was assigned a project manager, Redinger said.
Many volunteers came to work on the church after their day jobs or on weekends, he said.
“It’s been a fun project,” he said. “It hasn’t felt like work.”
Volunteer painter Jeff Muonio of Battle Ground said he’s enjoyed getting to know church members he doesn’t usually see because they attend a different church service.
“It’s been fun,” Muonio said. “It’s been interesting to see it going up.”
Muonio and volunteer painter William Tanninen of Battle Ground helped build the church’s second location in Battle Ground when they were both about 17.
“It’s kind of a satisfied feeling (to see the Woodland church go up),” Tanninen said.
Workers kept track of their hours in order to qualify for medical aid insurance from the state Department of Labor & In
dustries. The department offers the insurance at a low rate of 5 cents per project-hour when a project is by a nonprofit group such as a church, Halme said. The insurance covers direct medical costs for workers injured while performing volunteer work.
The two-story church includes two lobbies, to cut down on congestion as members enter and exit the building; a sanctuary; two multipurpose rooms; an extensive nursery; Sunday school classrooms; and a massive dining hall. The high-ceiling sanctuary offers lower-level and balcony seating for a total of 1,000.
Two multipurpose rooms on each side can be opened to increase capacity by another 160. Two infant rooms in the nursery feature one-way glass so that parents can watch the sermon while calming or nursing babies. Those rooms connect into two toddler rooms with a small kitchen area and bathroom. The dining hall with four serving lines is large enough to accommodate everyone attending a sermon. Once a month, each church hosts a meal cooked by members.
The site was planned about 10 years ago. It took time to launch the project as church members decided where they wanted their third location, a toss-up between Ridgefield and Woodland. A church member donated the property in Woodland. Before construction could start, property had to be added to Woodland’s urban growth boundary in order to connect with water and sewer.
Halme said it’s bittersweet to see the project nearly completed.
“We have so enjoyed it, we hate to see the project come to an end the camaraderie and things,” Halme said. “When it’s an all-volunteer project, it’s a labor of love.”