We got in touch with David Hunstad of Old Lutheran to get an inside scoop on the business and its Lutheran identity. Old Lutheran has gone through a transformation in its understanding…and communication of Lutheran identity over the last few years. It is a transformation that happened because the larger community started asking questions about how we as Lutherans identify ourselves and the kind of images that we use. David’s responses below have been lightly edited for style.
Connect Journal: What is the mission of Old Lutheran?
David: “To provide unique products and services that help our customers express their Lutheran identity.”
Connect Journal: When did your business begin, and what were the first products you offered?
David: That’s kind of a funny story. It was sometime in 1999, and I was at Old Navy with my daughter shopping for back-to-school clothes. I thought it would be really funny to have a shirt with a picture of Martin Luther that simply said: “Old Lutheran, established in 1483.” Our first shirt was a parody of the Old Navy shirt with the pickup. We designed the shirt and ordered 24 of them from a local screen printer. I wore my new shirt to a planning meeting for the 2000 St. Louis Youth Gathering, and it was a hit. I quickly sold the remaining 23 shirts to others at that meeting, and a company was born.
I told my kids at the time that if we ever sold 1,000 shirts, we could buy a computer. We created a crude website and took orders via email. We would mail a shirt with an invoice, and most of the time, our customers paid for their bill. Augsburg Fortress liked the shirt and sold it at the Youth Gathering and Churchwide Assembly, and my kids got their computer.
Our first shirts were the classic Old Lutheran shirt and coffee mugs. We added You Might be a Lutheran If (YMBALI) and Lutheran Chick; This Is Most Certainly Brew Coffee and Sin Boldly Lager beer glasses; and Confirmints (breath mints with the small catechism on an insert). All of our first stuff was inside humor. We played on words that lifelong Lutherans would think were funny, and no one else would understand. We had strong customer representation from anywhere in the country where there were Lutherans, in places where there weren’t a ton of Lutheran churches. We had more customers from Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Washington than we did in the Midwest because there weren’t resources in those pockets of Lutheranism. Our tagline is: “The center of Lutheran Pride, but not too proud.” I think we met a need that Lutherans had to say publicly that they liked being Lutheran and that they could laugh at themselves. I could go on and on about the early days, but that’s probably enough for now.
Connect Journal: Tell us a bit about your staff. How many full time and part time employees do you have, and what kinds of positions do they hold?
David: We currently have eight people who are full time. That’s down from our peak of 14 just 12 months ago. We are faced with the same thing every business is. Labor shortages, increased wages and overall inflation have had a role. The cancellation of the Youth Gathering and overall competition from other online companies have played major roles in our current staffing. We have three graphic artists, three production staff, a general manager and me. We hire additional help as needs arise. One of the things I love the most about our staff is their diverse backgrounds and how that all plays into who we are as a company. Most are under 35 and come from a variety of religious and ethnic back grounds. Our lead screen printer is an immigrant from Iraq. She prepares food for birthdays and brings her daughter to work.
Connect Journal: What are some Lutheran principles/beliefs that guide your work at Old Lutheran?
David: Thank you for asking this. Who we are as a company has evolved quite a bit in the last several years. Our mission statement is the same, but we have worked hard to change the focus from Lutheran “identity” to Lutheran “expression.” In our early years our messages were primarily inside humor and celebration of our ethic/Lutheran heritage. We celebrated our northern Scandinavian roots that became intertwined with our church life. Lutefisk and Lefse, hot dishes, sitting in the back row—things that were more representative of who we were and less about what we believe or how we live out our faith. As we have focused more on “expression,” our message has changed. We focus more on “all are welcome.” If we are living out the great commission, we have to be welcoming and forward-thinking. In the last year we have sold more LGBTQIA pride products than former best sellers Sin Boldly or Lutheran Chick items.
Martin Luther stood up to the power of the day when he posted the 95 theses and said, “Here I stand.” He recognized that the church was using its power and influence to strengthen the privilege of the wealthy. He advocated for those who didn’t have a voice. He stood up and challenged the system and quite literally risked his own life for those who were not at the table. I think when, in our Lutheran confession, we say for things done and “undone,” we admit that our very inaction is a sin. Those principles have become the driving force for who Old Lutheran is as a company. We want to offer unique products and services that help our customers EXPRESS. Love God. Love People. The End. Be the Change. This person loves you. Black Lives Matter. These are all driven by what I understand to be Lutheran principles and beliefs. We have a long way to go, but we want to be part of, maybe even a big part of, that journey.
Connect Journal: What have been perpetual best sellers, and why do you think they have appeal?
David: Well, without a doubt, our Classic Old Lutheran T-shirt remains a strong seller. Over time, Lutheran Chick, YMBALI and Sin Boldly Lager have been big for us. As I mentioned, we are intentionally shifting away from that message and living into what we have done and left undone, and that means hard work and some major shifts. I think Sin Boldly and Saint/Sinner remain part of that messaging. Perhaps we need a replacement for YMBALI shirt with a You Might be a Lutheran in Name Only shirt to point out what we have left undone.
Connect Journal: How do you think Old Lutheran helps young people in the church understand more about their Lutheran identity?
David: I think over our history one thing that I have tried to do with our shirts and messages is to create talking points. I hope that over the years, our shirts have sparked conversation about what it means to Sin Boldly but, more boldly, proclaim Christ. I hope that Saint/Sinner created conversation about Simul Iustus et Peccator and Martin Luther and Lutheran identity and Lutheran expression. The humor of our shirts This Is Most Certainly Brew Coffee could spark a conversation about the small catechism and what we believe. I also hope that Love is Love, Here We Stand and Holy Trouble create conversations about what we have left to do.
The bottom line really is that I really see that what we are doing as a company is helping to drive the conversation. I’d like to think that if we are not helping the conversation, we should close our doors because to me, the most important thing is that people are talking about and, more importantly, doing something to change the systems that keep power in power.