Pressing the reset button

It was time to press the reset button.

A Lutheran church on the west side of Las Vegas in the area of Summerlin started back in 1990. After two building projects and quite a few years of numerical growth, the congregation fell on hard times. Families moved away, older members moved on to heaven, and the current pastor moved back East to serve another congregation. That’s when the local mission board stepped in.

Although there weren’t enough members left to support a full-time pastor any longer, the Arizona-California district mission board was convinced that the area was ripe for the harvest and the opportunities to share the gospel were too good to pass up. They worked with the congregation and submitted a request to the Board for Home Missions to “restart” the congregation.

The term “restart” simply means that the congregation needed to press the reset button. There was a small core group of Christians remaining from a well-established church, but the congregation could not go on functioning like it had in the past. It needed a facelift so to speak, a chance to start at the beginning and try it all over again.

The congregation in Summerlin went through a two-year vacancy from mid-2020 until mid-2022. During that time, the core group shrunk even smaller than it was before. In fact, the 20-25 members left began attending Shepherd of the Hills, a sister congregation in Las Vegas led by Pastor Tom Unke who was also the vacancy pastor at the time. The buildings in Summerlin sat empty and the future was questionable.

Now, as this near calendar year begins, there has already been plenty of progress in the right direction. A new pastor accepted the call to restart the church in late summer/early fall. The congregation’s name was changed to Foundation Lutheran Church. Already a website has been produced, social media pages have been constructed, and signs have been installed. The facilities are in the process of being updated, cleaned, fine-tuned, and painted. Most importantly though, contacts are being made, conversations are being had, and relationships are being formed with a number of individuals and families throughout the community, setting the stage for gospel opportunities to come.

For the time being, the core group of Christians is still attending Shepherd of the Hills. A grand reopening is planned for April 2023 when full-time worship services and Bible studies will resume in Summerlin. There is a lot of work still to be done leading up to that launch date, but it is an exciting time for Foundation. The reset button has been pushed. The congregation is financially backed by WELS Home Missions until it can stand on its own two feet again. And this small remnant of Christians is armed with the powerful Word of God as it looks to once again reach as many hearts and minds as possible with the gospel about our Savior.

Written by Rev. Matt Frey, home missionary at Foundation Lutheran Church in Summerlin, Nev.

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Building fellowship in Europe

Relationships don’t idle in neutral. Either they get stronger, or they grow weaker. With the blessing of God, our relationships with our sister churches in Europe are growing stronger.

Our oldest European relationship is with our sister church in Germany, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (ELFK), which dates back to 1876. For years the Commission on Inter-Church Relations (CICR) has been representing WELS at the ELFK conventions. In addition, for over 40 years ELFK families have been sending children to one of our WELS prep schools. Some of their pastors have also studied at our seminary. Generous WELS members provided support as the ELFK established a grade school, and one of their first teachers was a WELS member. ELFK pastors read our Forward in Christ and Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly magazines, and sometimes translate articles into German for their church publications. One of their pastors also translates books by WELS authors into German. It’s a strong relationship that, as we’ll hear below, is now growing even stronger.

Pastor Martin Wilde (ELFK) and Professor James Danell

That’s not our only strong relationship in Europe though. Nearly every year, the Commission on Inter-Church Relations has visited sister congregations and brother pastors in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, often providing a doctrinal paper at one of their conventions. It has also maintained relationships with our sister churches in Ukraine and Latvia.

Recently the Commission on Inter-Church Relations shifted the work of maintaining these relationships to our World Mission One Teams. The result in Europe is strong relationships growing even stronger. The Europe mission team now has stateside representatives who support and encourage our other sister churches in Europe, too—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Albania, and Russia.

In addition, the Europe mission team is moving Missionary Luke Wolfgramm and his wife Jennifer to Leipzig, Germany. From here, Missionary Wolfgramm will be able to support and encourage all of our sister churches in Europe.

One of the ways he will do that is by partnering with the ELFK and its 100-year old seminary in Leipzig to provide seminary training throughout Europe. Missionary Wolfgramm will also partner with Sweden’s seminary to provide pastors with continuing education.

Ukraine provides another example of strong relationships growing stronger. Since war broke out, our stateside Europe team representative has been in almost daily contact with the Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC). In October, members of the ULC and ELFK came together to reach out to Ukrainian refugees.

Relationships have been growing stronger in other places as well. When the Wolfgramms were forced to leave Russia, they headed for Albania where Missionary Wolfgramm has been providing pastoral support and encouragement as well as seminary training. At the same time, he has been doing all he can to let our brothers and sisters in Russia know that we will support and encourage them in any way we can.

In Bulgaria, Pastoral Studies Institute professor Allen Sorum stays in regular contact with Pastor Iliyan Itsov as he reaches out to the Roma. He also joined Missionary Wolfgramm and ELFK seminary president Holger Weiss on a recent visit to our sister church in Latvia, where the three taught and encouraged the Latvian pastors and seminary students. Missionary Ben Foxen maintains contact with Pastor Petr Krakora in the Czech Republic, letting him know of our desire to support the Czech Ev. Lutheran Church and its Martin Luther School in their gospel work.

Then there is our brand-new London mission. We are excited to see how God will bless the gospel proclamation of Missionaries Michael Hartman and Conifer Berg as they bring the good news of Jesus Christ to this international city.

Working in partnership with our brothers and sisters in Christ across Europe, we pray for God’s blessing on each of our sister churches there and on our growing relationship with them.

Written by Rev. James Danell, Commission on Inter-Church Relations representative to the Europe mission team & Europe mission team representative to the ELFK

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Thought Leadership in Ministry

peaple around computer pictureThought Leadership is the detailing of ideas and the sharing of knowledge around a particular field, area, or topic of expertise. While Wikipedia contains no entry for “thought leadership,” it does for “thought leader.” Here is the entry:

A thought leader has been described as an individual or firm recognized as an authority in a specific field[1] and also as business jargon.

Meanings

Go-to expert

From the perspective of a thought leader as the ‘go-to expert’, being a thought leader means to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of the target audience on a particular topic. Thought leaders are commonly asked to speak at public events, conferences, or webinars to share their insight with a relevant audience. In a 1990 Wall Street Journal Marketing section article, Patrick Reilly used the term “thought leader publications” to refer to such magazines as Harper’s.[2]

In the previous decade, the term was revived and re-engineered by marketers.

Criticism of the phrase and concept

The phrase “thought leader” is identified by some writers as an annoying example of business jargon.[3] Kevin Money and Nuno Da Camara of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at the University of Reading’s Henley Management College write that the nebulous nature of the phrase (the unclear nature of “what is and what is not thought leadership”) contributes to its reputation among cynics as “meaningless management speak.”[4] Some writers, such as Harvard Business Review contributor Dorie Clark, have defended the phrase while agreeing “that it is very icky when people call themselves thought leaders because that sounds a little bit egomaniacal.”[5] New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked the lifecycle of the role in a satirical column entitled “The Thought Leader,” published in December 2013.[6]

A parody on the term was published in 2016 by Pat Kelly on Canadian television’s This Is That program. In the process of the discussion, imitating TED talks, Kelly elicits responses from the audience that exemplify the effect he describes as the result of applying well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite speaker.[7]

Thought leader. (2022, December 13). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_leader

As I read through this definition, I both see the need for thought leaders in the context of our synod, churches, and schools, but I also see why some would pause in aspiring to or seeing somebody else as one. After all, when a possible meaning includes the word “egomaniacal,” one should pause. Clearly, I think it is a worthy discussion. I’ve chosen to take up a few paragraphs to consider thought leadership in the context of ministry. It comes to mind as I’m working through the teaching of a graduate course for Martin Luther College entitled Enhancing Ministry through Technology. I am thinking about including an entire week on the topic. Let me explain why.

when a possible meaning includes the word “egomaniacal,” one should pause.

Leadership in the area of technology, especially as it relates to ministry, is a precious commodity within our midst. So as I write, I will primarily have technology leadership in mind. It is not that it doesn’t exist, but it is very much under the radar. Many pastors, teachers, and volunteers have the ability to consider the intersections of technology and ministry, discern its usefulness and then apply it thoughtfully. Many times the ministry greatly benefits. I see classroom innovations and superior use of digital communications tools and personal productivity gains, and the list goes on. It takes time and earned expertise to become such a wise steward of these gifts. For a worker to understand the best uses for a website or social media platform or master a classroom management system can take hundreds or thousands of hours out of an already stressed ministry workload. Some would consider such pursuits ancillary to the “true ministry” of gospel sharing. While arguments could be made, the real worth shouldn’t be measured by the first-degree impact but by the broader one.

This is where thought leadership steps up. To spend time becoming an expert without sharing that expertise seems to be poor stewardship. While sharing with and teaching others takes even more time, there are ways to prepare for the eventual thought leadership portion if you go into these pursuits with that end game in mind.

So what would a thought leader do? For a person in ministry, that might initially look like a concern that other team members would benefit from their learnings and a formal way to transfer that knowledge, coach, consult, and participate in the ministry of others. In the world of educational technology, this does not always equate to a title like “Technology Director.” In fact, there could be multiple thought leaders within one faculty sharing their technical expertise. As for pastors, I’ve seen expertise shared on tools like Logos, task and project management, and the like within the ministry team, one-on-one with other pastors, or at circuit meetings. Why? Because they are passionate about the topic and confident in their own understanding and use cases of the tool, process, etc.

Thought leaders are informed opinion leaders in their areas of expertise. They are influencers in the most positive form of that label. But when is the right time to take on that role, and how do you do it? Here are five steps in how I would suggest approaching it.

Number One: As you learn, write. It is very difficult to share expertise with someone else without giving them something in written (or some kind of lasting) form. Take the time, usually not a lot, to document your learnings. This can be rather unstructured at first, more of a journal. But good writing, with an eye toward your future self’s needs, can be made up of excellent building blocks to piece together insight and meaningful content for others. I would suggest using a notetaking app like Google Keep, Apple Notes, OneNote, or Evernote. Use tags or some kind of organization strategy if you like, but don’t go overboard. This is a step that can’t be distasteful. 

Let’s say you’ve figured out how to craft an annual report of some sort using infographics rather than boring headings and paragraphs. You use a tool like Visme or Canva to create engaging presentations. Document your journey. Why you selected that tool, its benefits over something else, templates you like, examples, and use cases. Perhaps at first, the documentation is more for yourself than anybody else so you can remember next year why and how you did it.

Number Two: Go deep, and don’t fill up your dance card. Once you have tools, techniques, and processes that work well for you, don’t succumb to the temptation of greener grass. Thought leaders do look for excellence both in themselves and their tools, but they aren’t quick to adopt every new shiny thing that crosses their path. They go deep. They know their area, their tools, and their chosen technologies. In the end, if it isn’t working, they know why and what the next thing should have…and they document that too.

Number Three: Maintain a list of learnings you’d like to publish. If you truly have insights to share, there should be no shortage of things you can write about. Create a note for yourself that lists all the things that occur to you that might be worth sharing. This list can also act as a script for future learnings you’d like to undertake or things you want to go deeper on.

Number Four: Publish stuff. Spend two hours a week writing or screencasting or whatever thing you are going to use to share your work. The discipline of setting time aside can’t be skirted. It needs to be intentional. Obviously, one of the staples of thought leaders is the blog. It is a place where you control everything. If you don’t want comments, then turn them off. You control the organization, the title, the length, the use of imagery, and what appears before, next to, and after your content – unlike things like Facebook and Twitter, where you have very little control. This is your narrative. This is you on the web. 

This is your narrative. This is you on the web.

Consider sites like WordPress, Squarespace, Edublogs, and Blogger. There are hundreds of others. If you want to share content like screencasts or you are comfortable in from of a camera sharing your expertise, one obvious choice is YouTube. It is so easy to publish. One benefit of self-publishing is you have a little more control over what the internet, or Google, thinks you are. When someone searches your name, the content you have written will likely appear, rather than what others might have written about you someplace else. 

Number Five: Promote your stuff. There is no sense in publishing if you don’t let your intended audiences know there is good stuff to be had. This doesn’t have to be marketing, but look for opportunities to share your experiences and expertise. In fact, you may discern many more opportunities to share because you have taken the time to document what you’ve taken the time to get smart on. You will even find a greater thirst to learn from the other thought leaders in areas you are interested in. Your network will grow, and you will too…to benefit the kingdom.

One place in my area of ministry where I see a number of budding thought leaders is the WELSTech Google Group. Rarely will a question be asked that isn’t responded to with a most thorough and thoughtful response. And usually spot on! Those who respond are experts in their fields. They’ve been bloodied and survived to tell the tale to the benefit of others. Their short step to broadening their reach and value to the community is to publish. That is a good way to identify if you are a potential thought leader. When asked, you share your expertise. The next step is obvious, I hope.

What God has gifted you with is worth sharing. Your insights, ups and downs, struggles, and successes can all contribute to a larger ecosystem of learning. From my observations, there is far too much wheel-inventing going on. That’s poor stewardship. That’s harmful and wasteful to ministry opportunities. With today’s tools, there really are few barriers to sharing your useful and wonderful and helpful thoughts.

Many years ago, I taught a Winterim course at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Winterim is a two-week session between semesters that gives students an opportunity to study in areas of personal interest not normally part of the seminary curriculum. The course I taught was on pastoral productivity. I had totally forgotten that I had even taught the course until a pastor approached me with thanks for the learnings that I had shared during that course. He said it had and still is making a positive impact on his ministry. It made a difference.

That is the thing. You don’t determine how God will use your gifts, experiences, or story. He does. Making yourself available for ministry opportunities is what stewardship is all about. Finding ways in true humbleness to share your giftedness is the point.

Finding ways in true humbleness to share your giftedness is the point.

Of course, thought leadership isn’t only for techie topics. As I write, there is an upcoming WELS Leadership Conference to be held in Chicago, IL. I’m excited to attend this year, as there will be many ministry thought leaders willing to stand in front of people and share what God has allowed them to learn and experience. What a blessing! But I also believe the influence and benefit of a “tech in ministry” thought leader can be and needs to be as broad as possible. Technology changes fast, and I see many frustrated by it rather than being enabled by it. What a waste. I look forward to many more taking on the joys of thought leadership, not in an egomaniacal fashion, but in true humility and a desire for true learning stewardship.

Worship and Outreach – In Salt Lake City

St. Francis on being a winsome witness: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”1

We know it’s difficult for people to walk into a church for the first time. Many have wounds from another Christian or church. Many have heard that “the church” is at least complicit, if not one of the great offenders, in this world’s evils. “The church” has a history of judgers, haters, chauvinists who are intolerant, and holding back progress.

Anyone who walks in the door on Sunday is a miracle and answer to prayer. We’ve got a little over an hour to love them in the very best way we can.

One miracle is Darrel. I know what I want for him. I want this Sunday morning to open the possibility of another story for Darrel, so much bigger than whatever the world has preached. I want his life to be interrupted—he’s going to be in the presence of God and among divine things. I want him to notice that the front entrance and landscaping are nicer and newer than he expected, a good first impression. I want him to be welcomed at the door with a smile and an easy conversation. Then to be handed a worship folder by someone who is obviously glad he’s here. I want him to be taken aback by the beauty and arrangement of the sanctuary, a space different than he’s used to. I want him to wonder about things: what is that for, how many kids does this church have, will I be able to follow along? But not too many questions. I want him to see the pastor reverence the altar and realize he takes this time very seriously but then to hear a warm greeting from him. I want the bulletin to strike him as simple and attractive and the opening hymn to speak clearly and be sung well enough for him to join in. I want him to hear God named, to be a bit shaken by a confessing of sins and then a touch jarred by the absolution. I want him to wonder about that good news. I want him to sense that this is something the pastor lives for. I want him to recognize he was made for this—to be in communion with God, being filled by the Lord and saying back, “I love you too.”

I want him to not be able to leave without understanding the subject—verb—object combinations that save and define us: Jesus loves you. God forgives you. He has mercy on us. He takes away the sin of the world. He lives and reigns, now and forever. His body is given for you. He shines his face on you and blesses and keeps you. No sacrificing to appease. No bargaining for favor. And what that enlivens us to: we praise and bless and glorify God, proclaiming his death until he comes again.

I want to see Darrel with those people who can talk to anyone, and I want six other people to smile at him. I want Darrel to feel like this is a community where he could belong, and this place could be a home for his soul. In other words, I want Darrel to hear the gospel in words and see it in the love of saints. I want him to come back. Who doesn’t?

Pastoral and practical questions then. What has Darrel really been thinking? Where does this most likely fail? What can I make happen and what will I fight for? Darrel did actually visit us, invited by a friend. He described himself as an atheist, formerly a zealous Mormon missionary. I asked him about visiting our congregation. I share his thoughts below.

Liturgy as Outreach in Salt Lake City

Prince of Peace was planted in Salt Lake City fifty years ago. Today the neighborhood is roughly 50% LDS. Our property is literally adjacent to a Mormon church building. We need a liquor license hanging on the wall in order to have wine at Holy Communion. Many go to churches here that include Jesus’ name but have never prayed the Our Father out loud with others.

Whether they know it or not (and some do), they’re looking for freedom.

I suspect that you know the challenges of speaking the gospel to a Mormon. For example, they use the same words with different meanings. They judge truth by inner witness of the Spirit, a “burning in the bosom.” Many American Christians are looking for something similar. More than once a visitor from a non-denominational background has said, “I felt the Spirit here today.” They’ve been taught to look for a sensation in order to know the Spirit is at work—that feeling authenticates a “real worship experience.”2

Here’s Paul, formerly LDS, later in the worship band at a Reformed community church, and now worshiping with us:

“Years ago we attended one of the services. It was my first time in a liturgical service. I remember being kinda weirded out that everyone was reading out loud in unison. I told Emma, “Seems a little cultish.” Ha! The things we’ve been taught formed in us an expectation that liturgical worship is inferior, that such people must have a dead faith because there aren’t shouts of amen, crying, or swaying back and forth with hands raised in an emotional frenzy of enthusiastic piety.”

Mormons and Evangelicals both attack the means of grace. So what’s the best way to love these restless souls? They’re not visiting for a “spiritual moment” or for moralistic preaching; they’ve had those things in spades. Whether they know it or not (and some do), they’re looking for freedom. You know how soul-stirring it is to watch the gospel find the cracks and work its way in! God be praised.

The liturgy of our divine service is a strong witness; it’s noticeably different than LDS or Evangelical worship, distinctly Christian and Christ-centered. If you’ve come from legalism, Lutheran worship is an escape from the treadmill, for your joy. Everything commanded is done. Enjoy your forgiveness! If you’re used to a service inherited from revivalism where the climax is commitment or decision or testimony, Lutheran worship shocks you with a different telos: it’s all gift! Jesus is here for you, not potentially, but really, already. If you have no worship background, you experience the gospel, historical connection, transcendence, and community—each of which could be an article unto itself.3

Jon Bauer concluded an insightful article in this publication with these lines that are so worth repeating: More than anything else, liturgical Lutheran worship is designed to proclaim the gospel. Our rites tell the basic gospel story weekly. […] Our heritage of hymns aim gospel truths and gospel events squarely at people’s hearts by setting them to poetry and music. Lutheran worship brims with the gospel.4 Lutheran worship preaches the gospel at all times, using words.

Lutheran worship is an escape from the treadmill.

Paul again, who thought our worship “a little cultish” at first:

As the Lord has drawn us in, some of the things that rubbed us the wrong way or that we were weirded out by have become the most precious. A big one is the confession absolution. I was really thrown off by this at first. But as we’ve grown in understanding, it’s become so beautifully comforting. Another topic is the primary direction in worship—from God to us. The main thing isn’t what we do. No, we come in need of being served. We come empty and Christ fills us through the word and sacrament. It’s so different from what we’ve known, upside down. So rich and full and right.5

“It’s so different from what we’ve known, upside down.”

Belonging

Consider some thoughts on two things that are rather universal and work toward what I want for Darrel. These things are part of putting flesh on Christ’s love and preaching the gospel, with and without words: belonging and being real.

Somewhere I heard James K.A. Smith say that in seeking to reach out you may be answering questions that people aren’t asking.6 For example, you speak about the significance life has in Christ, but unbelievers may believe they already have a life of significance and meaning. Maybe they’re involved in a political ideology or social cause; they’re making a difference. They’re not looking for more significance. But ask if they ever feel alone, unloved, or anxious. While not our most unique and important gifts as Lutherans, a sense of belonging and being real seem to resonate with the actual life questions of the guests we’re trying to love.7

It’s hard for someone to visit worship for the first time. We all know this, but it bears emphasizing: a culture of hospitality is love. It is Christlike. It is the gospel preached without words, and it must be part of our culture if we don’t want to hinder our outreach.

I promised the real Darrel’s thoughts. He shared this with me about his first visit:

The liturgy is certainly something I wasn’t familiar with, but it was easy enough for me to feel comfortable with it.

For confession and absolution, I stood out of respect, but I did not participate. I felt as a non-believer at the time it would have been disingenuous. But I remember this being in large part the first e-mail I wrote to you because I felt it very bold to forgive sins in God’s name.

I most remember how everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though at the time I had no intention of joining.

But he came back. He felt welcomed—even though a bit jarred by the absolution. He had no intention of joining, but the Lord had other intentions. Darrel became part of our liturgical life together first, then a few rounds of BIC. He was baptized and confirmed two years ago and now serves the Lord here in a number of ways.8 He wrote:

The liturgy is awesome because it isn’t what I can do for God; it’s about what he does for me.

Hooked by the gospel, Darrel belongs to our Lord and to us.

Being real

Many visitors come skeptical. Younger people, especially, can smell hypocrisy a mile away. It’s important for us to be real, to be authentic.9 Mitch and Alyssa migrated out of Mormonism and are in BIC with my associate. They came to us after they had vetted us by watching online services. Unsure of the liturgical service, they still ended up visiting, they said, because the preaching is about Christ and what he has done. They added, “It’s obvious you mean it.” It’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had as a preacher. It’s as the pastor’s wife always says: “preach from your heart.”

Younger people can smell hypocrisy a mile away.

It’s a reminder that the office of the ministry is not incidental to worship or outreach, but integral. The Lord has chosen this earthen vessel with his particular gifts and personality to deliver God’s gifts. Those reading this have, like me, failed in more ways than we can know. There’s no excuse for laziness. But lest we despair, the Lord picks us and lets us participate in his gathering. And love covers over a multitude of sins. One of the harshest criticisms I ever heard of ministry was from another pastor’s wife: “You preachers are good at preaching it. You’ve gotta work on believing it’s for you too.” The pastor must love the worship, convinced and confident that the Spirit is alive and present and touching lives. Take in the gifts, preacher. Be taken by the gospel.10

I’m not making suggestions in what follows. I just want to give you a sense of Sunday morning at Prince of Peace.

We have a paschal candle, hymnals, and vested acolytes. Some people have coffee mugs in the pews. I often use humor in a sermon to connect with God’s people. I wear a clerical collar. A modern ensemble sometimes leads the singing. We carry a crucifix in procession for select services. Our average age in worship is 35. We celebrate the Sacrament every Sunday. We invite anyone to come forward and receive a blessing if they’re not a member. We can go weeks in a row without a visitor but also had a service once with at least one Muslim family, one Mormon family, several Hindu families, plus Pentecostal and Evangelical families (all part of our school ministry).

I expect that much of the above has neither drawn people in nor pushed them away. I’m grateful to be at a season in life where I’m not interested in criticizing my brothers in ministry. I’m well aware of my weaknesses and share my story knowing that some details might not seem useful for you. What I can say is that this is me honestly trying to serve these people in the best way I can. I hope that our practices make people ask a good question: why do we do that? If they don’t ask, I find ways to explore the question anyway. One member said this about being real: “If our service is too far ‘high church’ or too far ‘casual entertainment,’ most people are probably going miss the message.” Different may be good; inauthentic isn’t.

One more joy of the liturgy is that bodies move. In contrast to worship as a cerebral exercise, a Bible study, or a concert hall, liturgy is multiple modes of participation: sitting, standing, folding hands, coming forward, eating, singing, speaking. These, too, are worship. God chose to redeem us through the incarnation of Christ. He is incarnate to redeem not only my thinking but also the hands I fold and the backside that sits in the pew. Salvation is not an idea ‘out there’—it is Christ, really here among us and in us, his body. A couple in their early 80s were recently confirmed, and the woman hugged me on the way out of church. She said, “You told us we’re the body of Christ, and I think that calls for a hug.” More profound than she realizes. In any case, liturgy encourages bodily worship.

Joel Oesch wrote: “As the Age of Excarnation continues to hypnotize us with shiny new toys and grand promises of pixel-induced bliss, the Christian confession can offer a narrative on human identity that actually addresses the whole person. Our neighbors are not simply minds. They are much more than complicated computers that produce outputs.”11

There’s much here to sort through philosophically and theologically. But this seems easy enough: liturgical worship is in touch with who we really are as the human beings God designed, body and soul. It’s purposefully a rather formal way of worship, but it’s real things, real people, real presence for people who are bombarded with virtual “realities.” It is a habit that forms us, consciously or unconsciously or both.

Loving them in the best way

I know what I want for a visitor. I can’t do the whole list. I wish I were more consistent. I complain about some things and I still do them. I pray it’s something like golf—one good shot might be enough to bring you back. Can I make sure something on that list of what I want for Darrel happens? Obviously.

Make liturgy live. Enjoy it. Jesus is there!

Do I have any tips for you? I’ll share with you what mentors have been saying to me for decades. Make liturgy live. Enjoy it. Jesus is there! If worship has become dull, consider your sacristy prayers. Do the old exercise of sitting in the sanctuary on Saturday night and imagining the struggles of the people who will be there in the morning. Have accessible worship folders, comfortable singing, and strong preaching.

“Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” One of the best intersections of outreach and worship is a Sunday morning where we do both.

By By Tyler Peil

Tyler Peil is one of the pastors at Prince of Peace in Salt Lake City, Utah. He serves the Nebraska District as secretary and the WELS Commission on Evangelism as an Everyone Outreach coordinator. He was a member of the new hymnal project’s Scripture Committee.


1 If St. Francis actually said it.
2 Lutheran pastors know about the spirit of the enthusiasts, but I didn’t see the worship connection so clearly before reading Bryan Wolfmueller’s Has American Christianity Failed?
3 Of course, it takes time to grab all of that, as most good things do. I’ve seen it sometimes play out this way: confusion, boredom, curiosity, appreciation.
4 Worship the Lord #106, January 2021.
5 Paul and his wife Emma were confirmed in the Lutheran faith this year, and their three boys were baptized into Christ.
6 Most of his presentations and writing are insightful for a pastor trying to reach this culture with Christ. He’s a Christian philosopher who clearly puts his finger on the zeitgeist.
7 These don’t supersede the richest gifts: full strength gospel, Scripture alone, Christ at the center, sacraments, honesty, history as the holy, apostolic Church, pastoral care, etc.
8 I’m not making an absolute statement here, but I’ve noticed that most often those who are first part of worship regularly and have been loved and found friends here (they belong) are less likely to trail off after confirmation. It’s okay if BIC isn’t immediate; formation in faith and discipleship is more than handing over data, even if that data is the Word of God. Liturgy forms a rhythm of life in Christ—Jesus words, baptismal life, repentance, absolution, prayer, vocation, etc.
9 Jon Bauer referenced this in the article mentioned in endnote 4. Check out Barna polls as well.
10 I’m afraid some Sundays I’ve exuded all the joy of a flight attendant rushing through the safety demonstration for the third time today. It’s definitely possible to see liturgy as something to be used instead of something alive by its content. Lord, have mercy.
11 “Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” at www.cuw.edu.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – Insights from a Pastor Reaching Unexpected Prospects

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from a Pastor Reaching Unexpected Prospects

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. It provides insights from Pastor Ben Kuerth, from Divine Savior in Doral, Fla., a northwest suburb of Miami. Prior to his ministry in Florida, Kuerth started a mission church, Victory of the Lamb in Franklin, Wis., where he served for twelve years.

Divine Savior operates an academy with 1,150 students and a special needs school with 40 students. A unique challenge is preaching to 65 WELS called workers who are mostly from the Midwest while also connecting with many who have never heard the pure gospel. Doral is home to immigrants from Venezuela, Colombia, most of South America, and many other countries since those who want to do business in South or Latin America have offices in Miami. This presents opportunities to share the gospel with souls who have little Bible background and for whom English is often not their native language.

Ideas from Pastor Ben Kuerth

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

The first three examples are of people in suburban Wisconsin—one from the early days of renting a Polish beer hall, one from our days in a movie theater, and one from our new ministry center. The last example is from Florida.

A tough father. He did MMA fighting at a local gym—not a big guy, yet wiry and tough. I sat next to him at the closing picnic for our soccer Bible camp which his daughter had attended. I invited him to church. He smirked and said, “Nah, church is for wimps.” I ended up daring him to come to church for the sake of his daughter and prove to her that he was a tougher and better man than Jesus. He said, “Okay, you’re on!” To my surprise, he actually came that Sunday . . . and faithfully almost every Sunday after that. Baptizing him and his daughter was a special moment. He thanked me for making church feel like a place where guys like him who were rough around the edges could come and not feel weirded out. He helped me realize that a lot of guys deep down are craving someone to call them out and call them to something more, Someone bigger.

A lot of guys deep down are craving someone to call them out and call them to Someone bigger.

A tearful mother. One night the phone rang. The woman was in tears because her son had committed suicide the day before. The reason she called me was because three years earlier I had knocked on her door while canvassing and invited her to church. She never came. What I didn’t know is that she had been watching our services online for years. Even though I barely knew her, she knew me and considered me her pastor. On the phone she told me the previous night she had watched one of our services on repeat over and over from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. God’s Word was the only thing that soothed her broken heart. She reminds me of something now whenever I see the camera at the back of church: somewhere at the other end of that camera lens’s tunnel is someone else just like her—a soul hungry for what only God’s Word can give, someone who at some point will likely look to me as their pastor.

She had been watching our services online for years.

A trembling woman. One Sunday I noticed a car I didn’t recognize. It was parked some distance from the doors of our ministry center. For 15 minutes it just sat there. No one got out. Worship was about to start. But I felt I needed to go out there. I introduced myself and said, “Can I walk you in?” The woman in the car was trembling. She said she’d been battling depression. She had prayed to God for a sign—either to get out and actually go inside or to go away for good. She had recently considered ending her life. She then said something I’ll never forget: “I came here thinking maybe I’ll first give church one last shot.” I think of her often on Sunday mornings even now as I pray, “Lord, help me today to speak and act as if someone here is giving church one last shot.” This has had a lasting impact on me.

A grieving son. Recently in Doral I’m grateful for Bruno who has started bringing his two daughters to church. A few years ago, his dad died of cancer, and it was brutal for him to watch. How his dad faced death without hope did a number on him. During the pandemic he began seeking God, thinking that there must be more than this material world. Thoughtfully he wondered, “There has to be a God since I have this desire to be a good person and want to make the world a better place.” So out of the blue, he came to our church. From his home office he can look out his window and see our “Divine Savior” sign—a sign from God he now calls it! I can still see Bruno leaning in, intensely listening as I preached that first Sunday. Over a strong cup of Colombian coffee two days later, Bruno shared what had hooked him: “It’s like you were saying, ‘Let’s get back to the basics . . . but in a good way.’” My sermon that previous Sunday was nothing special—except for the simple, clear law and gospel with Jesus at the center. But, of course, (silly me) that’s exactly why it was so special for him! God brought Bruno into my life at just the right time when I needed to be reminded that I don’t need to carry the burden of always being super creative or needing to come up with “new-to-me” content. What people need, more than anything, is the clear, Christ-centered truths of the Bible communicated simply and sincerely. That is sorely lacking in so many South Florida churches. Is it also by you?

I don’t need to carry the burden of always being super creative or needing to come up with “new-to-me” content.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. Clear beats clever. Sometimes I try and get too clever, and I end up confusing people. Clear and clever? That’s great when you can pull it off. Sometimes the occasion calls for it, perhaps. But if you’re trying to communicate with people whose first language is something other than English, or with people who are brand new to Christianity (or both!), being clear is the vital task. The more people I meet from other countries, the more I’m starting to realize this.
  2. “There’s a soul at the end of that tunnel.” I tell myself this whenever I look into the livestream camera lens. There are potential pitfalls to preaching when you’re aware of people “eavesdropping” anonymously from anywhere in the world. Yet over and over, for years now, I’ve met or interacted with people who’ve reached out to me as their pastor even though I had no clue I was pastoring them. This is simply because someone invited them to watch online, linked them to a particular message, or they stumbled onto our website where at some point the Spirit prompted them to take a next step. So, keep them in mind. Consider greeting those who are worshiping online. Invite them to reach out to you if and when they’re ready. Simply acknowledge their “presence” with gratitude whether or not you know if anyone is actually out there watching. With archived services and messages online, it’s virtually guaranteed that someone will be eventually. It’s also a great way to establish a culture that communicates, “We are a church that is always expecting guests.”
  3. Imagine someone present in person or online who is giving church one last shot. Between people disillusioned with some church experience and those doing the trendy thing of “deconstructing” their faith, this is a huge segment of people. When you prepare for a service imagining that such people will be present, it changes how you plan to greet people in the parking lot, host the service, conduct the liturgy, and communicate during the sermon. At least it has for me.

Consider greeting those who are worshiping online . . . to establish a culture that communicates, “We are a church that is always expecting guests.”

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Kuerth’s sermon on 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10. You will hear his theme “Only Jesus Provides Eternal Home Security” echoing in the excerpt below.

The Thessalonians knew that ultimately only Jesus provides eternal home security. They knew that only in Jesus would they be kept safe from God’s judgment against sin. How about you?

There is a danger today, I think, that we would be so lulled into a false sense of earthly security that we forget about our real need for Jesus and his saving grace. There is a danger today facing everyone in Doral that if we just have enough money, or toys, or technology . . . and that if our earthly lives and houses feel safe . . . and we have the sense that we’re in control and if we keep our lives so busy that we don’t even really think about death or God’s judgment or wrath . . . then everything must be okay, and we just assume we’ll be safe forever and ever. There is a danger today specifically for Christians too that we would compromise the convictions of our faith and the teachings of the Bible in order not to experience conflict with the world. There is a danger that we would make our own personal comfort a higher priority than taking up our cross and following Jesus no matter the cost rather than be made fun of by our friends who don’t believe what we do.

But no matter what the cost, no matter how heavy the cross we have to carry in life or how much conflict we face, to those who cling to Jesus, he promises relief. Paul says, “He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” This is why the Christian church is the only place where you are perfectly safe. You’re safe here not because this earthly building is built impossibly strong. You’re safe here not because nothing bad could ever happen here. You’re safe here because only Jesus Christ provides eternal home security. Like Paul told the Thessalonians, “This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” . . .

Everything Jesus accomplished as the stand-in for sinful humanity, he did for you. When he died on the cross, those were your sins he was paying for. When he rose from the dead, that was your victory over the grave that he won. When he comes back in glory, he will come to bring you safely home and glorify you with him forever. It’s something we can look forward to. Only Jesus provides eternal home security until the day he says, “Welcome home.” Then we will be forever safe from all violence, selfishness, exploitation, and greed. Then we will be forever safe from all the consequences of sin and from endless ruin itself.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Kuerth’s sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 with the theme, “Jesus Gives Us What We Need.”

So how could (Joseph) be sure (of what the angel told him and if he was equipped for the task of raising and protecting the Son of God)? Because he simply took God at his word. He went all in trusting God’s Word instead of his initial feelings. There’s a great lesson for us. That’s why months later Joseph followed through and named that little boy Jesus. Even after he had time to think things through, he was still sure. Even after the emotional high of a personal visit by an angel had long worn off, Joseph kept hanging on to God’s Word. He knew that God was with him.

And you can be sure of that too, no matter what you’re going through right now and no matter what surprises you will find in the future. For even though life often takes us by surprise, nothing takes God by surprise, and his presence in your life means you have nothing to fear. In our world there are lots of uncertain things. Pop up ads promise you too-good-to-be-true deals if you just click on them right now. Weather predictions are sometimes right and often not. The stock market is volatile and not even the experts seem to know whether it’ll go up or down. You might not be sure what the next year is going to hold for you and your family. You might not always be sure where you’re going to find the courage to deal with the different people and situations you face.

But you can be sure of Jesus. You can be sure he came to pay for your sins as the only one perfectly qualified to do so because he is both fully God and fully human. You can be sure that he lives to take you to be with him forever heaven. You can be sure that Jesus is your Savior God who is with you as you go forward into the future. Because he is Immanuel.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

I need to talk through the ideas in my head with others in order to sift out the wheat from the chaff, so for years now the most helpful resource in preaching preparation has been to meet regularly with other pastors to share key insights, applications, and ministry stories of the real people we’re thinking of as we prepare a sermon on the same text. I feel blessed to get to do that via Zoom with other Divine Savior campus pastors as part of our multi-site ministry.

A preaching book that I regularly consult is Stories with Intent by Klyne Snodgrass. Prof. Paul Wendland suggested this in a satellite summer quarter class on preaching parables. The book provides useful insights into story structure, historical context and interpretation, and relevant modern applications. I’ve realized that I could improve how I tell stories, so the book has been a help in thinking through the ways Jesus used stories.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes from Prof. Emeritus James Westendorf’s article, “Passionate Preaching for Impassioned Preachers.” You can read Prof. Westendorf’s article in its entirety in Preach the Word 4:1.

Know Your Text. Often when you go up to a person you didn’t know very well before and start asking him questions about himself, rather than simply listening to what other people have to say about him, you find out some very interesting things. You may get to know the person so well that you want to introduce him to your friends. The same thing can happen with texts. You begin a dialogue with a text, asking questions of it and listening for its unique answers, given in a way that perhaps no other text can give, and you start getting excited. The conviction begins to grow in mind and heart, “Wow, this text has some amazing things to say, and it says them so marvelously. I can’t wait to introduce it to my people next Sunday.”

Know Your Pulpit. The sermon is our chance to tell others what we have seen and heard from the mouth of God himself. I wonder with what feeling Philip spoke the words to Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”? I don’t think those words were said matter-of-factly because what they revealed was so mindboggling and amazing. You are in the same situation when you preach, only you don’t have to find the people first. They have come to you! Don’t hide the excitement. Let the enthusiasm that is in your heart show!

Know Your People. The impassioned preacher is not just a visiting pastor, he is also a listening one. He does the hard work of actually paying attention to what his people are saying. He makes mental notes of the fears, disappointments, doubts, and hopes which his parishioners describe. . . . When he is in the pulpit, all those conversations come flooding back into his memory. In his voice can be heard his unrestrained joy that says, “Boy, do I have something wonderful to tell you.”

Know Yourself. I’m sure you have been told more than once in your career, “Preach every sermon and apply every text to yourself before you take it to your people.” When that is done faithfully and regularly, the enthusiasm to share grows. . . . There are no magical formulas and no artificial contrivances that can keep the fires burning and the juices flowing, but that doesn’t mean there are no solutions to the absence of passion in our hearts and in our sermons. You are regularly working with the Spirit’s own instrument. Let it have free course in your heart. The passion will be there; passionate sermons will be the result. You and your people will reap the benefits.

Written by Joel Russow


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Mother’s shelter renovations in Zambia

It is not uncommon to hear babies crying in the village of Mwembezhi, Zambia. In Psalm 127:3 it reads, “Children are a heritage from the Lord; offspring a reward from him.” The Central Africa Medical Mission (CAMM) has been helping protect the Lord’s gifts and their mothers for over 60 years. The Lutheran Rural Health Centre in Mwembezhi is located about 60 miles west of Lusaka, in Central Province of Zambia. The clinic provides Christ-centered healthcare services to people within its region. One of the primary functions of the clinic is pre and postnatal care: monitoring pregnant women throughout their pregnancies and then through labor and delivery. In 2021, 197 babies were born at the clinic. In fact, the Zambian government mandates that babies be born at health centers such as Mwembezhi, rather than at home.

Unlike the United States, people do not have cars or have easy access to ambulances or taxis to transport a mother to the clinic quickly when she goes into labor. To address the problem, the clinic created a mother’s shelter where expectant mothers can come two or three days before their due date then safely deliver the baby at the clinic. This is followed by proper postnatal care in the critical 48 hours after giving birth and resting before returning home. Before leaving, mothers are given gifts of baby blankets, onesies and baby hats, which are donated by our supporters in the United States.

Before renovations

The mother’s shelter, which consisted of two rooms—an open space and a storeroom (which the local police occasionally used as a jail cell)—had fallen into a state of disrepair. The roof leaked, windows were broken, masonry was cracked, doors were made from rusty iron roof sheets, the paint was peeling, woodwork was rotting in places, and there was no electricity or running water. It was clear that the building needed significant improvement and so a renovation project was proposed.

Additionally, because of an inspection of the clinic conducted by the Health Professional Council of Zambia in June 2022, it was decided that the clinic did not have proper and separate male and female observation rooms as required by Zambian health standards. Men and women were sharing the same observation room. So as part of the renovation project, it was decided that the old storeroom would be extended to create a larger mother’s room that could accommodate up to four mothers at a time, and the two previous mother’s rooms would be converted to male and female observation rooms.

CAMM was blessed to receive grants to fund the project from WELS Christian Aid and Relief and students from Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, Wis. Construction began in September 2022 for the renovation and remodel of the building.

After renovations

The building received a new roof, windows were reglazed and repainted, rotting woodwork was replaced, cracked masonry was repaired, drainage around the building improved, walls and floors were replastered and repainted. A new concrete walkway was built between the mother’s shelter and the main clinic building. The shelter was connected to the clinic’s solar system and lights and electrical outlets were installed. Wash basins were also added. The building was re-opened in December 2022.

With the completion of the mother’s shelter, CAMM has now renovated all of the buildings associated with clinic operations. CAMM leadership wants to ensure that patients are treated with respect and quality in the facilities and staff who help them. The Lutheran Rural Health Centre is regarded as the best health center facility in the Shibuyunji health district. Most importantly, our patients hear the good news of the gospel and receive true Christian love from our staff during their care.

Written by Gary Evans, field director for the Central Africa Medical Mission

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The Evangelical Lutheran light at Christmas

“An evangelical? Lutheran? church? This I gotta check out…” Such was the thought process for Steve Yetter, when he received a new-mover mailer from the people of Mount Calvary in Redding, Calif. It was late 2020 when Steve moved from his home in Santa Cruz to be closer to family and that put him within Mount Calvary’s mailer radius. Steve had been part of evangelical churches before, but he wasn’t sure how evangelical and Lutheran went together. He stopped by our church on a Saturday, got a tour, and came back the next day for worship. Steve’s experience is a good example of how that “Evangelical Lutheran” comes shining through in Word and Sacrament. Steve continued to worship, took instruction classes, and joined the congregation. The Lord’s light was shining.

Steve Yetter and Pastor Schaefer

Now, Steve occasionally plays guitar for worship, sings in the adult choir, and attends Bible class regularly. After being in various churches throughout his life, the gospel-centered nature of Mount Calvary congregation is refreshing for Steve—that’s the true meaning of “evangelical.” It’s all about Jesus and his free salvation. “I got the love from the front and when I was in the pew, that love comes from the Light,” Steve said. The Lutheran emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace has also been different from Steve’s past experience. “Other churches talk about being in the Word, but here we’re saturated with it.”

Christmas is commonly considered the season of light. Evangelical Lutherans get to share that light, so that sinners repent and believe the good news. This Christmas, that Evangelical Lutheran light was shining at two locations. Steve is part of a Core Group reaching out at a second campus in Anderson, Calif. Earlier this year Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church of Anderson voted to unite their ministry with Mount Calvary’s. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we now have two campuses and one joint congregation. Thankfully, we’re getting support and direction from our District Mission Board and working on growing together to share the light of Christ. It’s all new for us, and this Christmas we were able to experience the blessing of the Evangelical Lutheran light. The congregation at both locations welcomed over 40 visitors who came because of online advertising, personal invitations, and mailers—something Steve knows a little about. The adult choir sang on Christmas Day at both locations—something Steve got to be part of too. “It’s about getting the light out to more and more people,” Steve says. “I’m happy to be part of it.” We’re happy to be little lights, who know the one true Light. As Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).

Written by Rev. Benjamin Schaefer, home missionary at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Redding, Calif.

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Counting the stars in Uganda

Originally appears in the One Africa Team blog. Subscribe to future updates from Africa at oneafricateam.com.

Uganda is a special place. “The Pearl of Africa,” they call it. It’s a beautiful country of rolling hills, mountains, and vegetation. The source of the Nile River is there, bubbling up from underneath Lake Victoria. During the day, my eyes couldn’t get enough of all that they were seeing.

It was when the sun went down, though, that I saw and was reminded of something even more beautiful.

My colleague, Missionary Keegan Dowling, and I had the privilege and honor of traveling to Uganda just before Christmas 2022 to teach about the life of Jesus to a group of pastors, evangelists, and lay leaders in the Obadiah Lutheran Synod (OLS). The OLS is a church body with whom WELS will be declaring formal fellowship during its 2023 synod convention. The workshop took place on the property of the church president, Pastor Musa (Moses), located in a village away from modern conveniences. The only electricity around was produced by a generator sparingly after night fell. This might not sound very pleasant, but it revealed something often hidden from our eyes.

The night sky. . .

Seeing that sky and the starlight that pierced its veil is something I will never forget. Thousands upon thousands of the great starry hosts twinkled above us, casting their soft light and dispersing the gloom. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the conversation God had with Abraham about the stars. . . “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. . . So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5).

Pastor Dowling and I were blessed to be introduced to about 40 of those believing stars at this workshop. We taught many stories from the life of Jesus, from his birth to his ascension, and these stars soaked it up. Then they showed us their own capacity for light-bearing as they taught and retaught the same lessons in our practical sessions. Our goal was not only to teach them more about Jesus, but to teach them to teach their people more about Jesus.

Who could have guessed that we would meet some of Abraham’s descendants in this remote village in a country halfway around the world from the home we knew? Jesus can count the stars.

He knew he’d be introducing me to Tony, a persistent optimist and a man trained to be an educator. He sees many challenges facing their church body (lack of Bibles, for one), but he sees more opportunities for doing gospel ministry. He wants to give Bibles away, show films about Jesus to the community, start a Lutheran school for children, travel to Sudan to do missionary work there, and more.

Jesus knew about Jaka, a refugee from South Sudan due to the war going on there. He lives and serves in a refugee camp on the Ugandan side of the border. Jaka lives separated from his parents. In spite of his experiences, he praises and glorifies God. He also keeps his sense of humor and was often the one making everyone laugh.

Jesus introduced me to another star, Isaac, one of the few men there who has been seminary trained. He had been doing work with another church in Uganda, but eventually left for doctrinal reasons and has been in touch with WELS for some time. I was privileged to be part of the meeting where he and his two companions officially requested to become a part of the OLS in Uganda. Three others who weren’t able to make it to the workshop will also be joining. More stars. . .

Finally, Jesus knew about Pastor Musa, the current president of the OLS, shining brightly for all of them. He and two others started this church body back in 2008. They had neither congregations nor resources. Today, the OLS has nearly 30 congregations in spite of still having very few resources. Their motto has often been: “We will make use of whatever resources are available.” That goes for money and people as well. Many of the workshop participants were young, in their late teens or early twenties, and they had very little training. But Musa is determined to train them and have their gifts put to use to teach the people in their congregations. That way the light of Jesus may shine all the more brightly, and more and more stars of Abraham might make themselves known as they pierce that blanket of night.

As you look up at the night sky, wherever you are, count the stars you so often can’t see. Count these descendants of Abraham who shine with the light of Jesus. Pray that our Savior would cause them to burn ever more brightly, that the whole world may be bathed in the light of God’s fulfilled promise to Abraham.

Written by Rev. Ben Foxen, Outreach Missionary on the One Africa Team




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Merry Christmas from WELS Missions!

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth, it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55: 10-11

What gifts will you get this Christmas? What gifts will you give? This time of year, we tend to focus on so many earthly things, but we know these things do not last. The truth of forgiveness in Jesus IS what lasts. He came down from heaven and lived a perfect life to give us the only thing we need: eternal life in heaven with him. This gift is ours. For free. There is no greater gift.

We here in Home, World, and Joint Missions are humbled to serve God and his family of believers. It is truly a privilege to share the message of God’s greatest gift to all believers, Jesus Christ, with all people. It is through people like YOU that God enables this work to continue. Thank you! Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we see the miracle of faith sprouting up all over the United States and world. May we all strive to plant seeds of faith and share God’s Word, because he promises it will not return empty. The Word goes out and always achieves God’s purpose.

Merry Christmas from your brothers and sisters in Christ serving WELS Home, World, and Joint Missions!

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Chinese worship launches in Coquitlam

November was full of blessings for Abiding Love Lutheran Church, a Chinese ministry based in Coquitlam, BC, Canada. Since being assigned to serve this new mission full-time after graduating from the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) program in 2020, Pastor Qiang Wang and his wife Susan have been faithfully witnessing to the Chinese community in and around Coquitlam.

After two years of waiting, God blessed their efforts and Abiding Love launched public worship on November 27, 2022 (pictured above). They will continue to offer Chinese worship twice a month in Vancouver, which is central to many members of Abiding Love.

In addition, Susan’s Chinese dance group hosted a dance show at a local community center on November 26. It was the first public event held by the Chinese group since the pandemic. Members and prospects volunteered at the event (pictured right) and had a chance to get know to many other people and tell them about the ministry.

The Wangs continue church potlucks, hosting prospects in their home, offering three online Bible studies per week, and facilitating online Sunday school. You can read more about the Wangs and how Chinese ministry in Coquitlam got started in this Forward in Christ article from May 2020.

View photos from their launch, the November dance show, and other ministry activities on Flickr.

 




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Lighting the way through holidays

Jesus boldly stated that “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Only through Jesus can we reach heaven and spend eternity with God. As Christians, we have God’s calling to walk together and invite others to join us on the way to paradise. The challenge, at times, is gathering a crowd to hear the Good News we have in Jesus. For Reformation Lutheran Church and School in San Diego, Calif., the hosting of traditional American holiday get-togethers has helped gather a crowd. The target audience for some of these gatherings has been Reformation’s neighbors who have come to the U.S. from other countries. The church and school have discovered that there is a strong interest in the local immigrant community to participate in American customs and holidays. Some of the Asian families living near Reformation saw the stores advertising for the Thanksgiving holiday and wondered what it would be like to participate in such a festival. When these families received Reformation’s invitation to a Thanksgiving meal, many were eager to join the gathering.

Mark Jiang leading the opening prayer

Mark Jiang is a Chinese man who connected with Reformation at a Thanksgiving celebration several years ago and reflected on the significance of such gatherings: “It’s so important for our church to host a Thanksgiving dinner. We have many Asian family in San Diego: some of these families have their children in our school, some families are new comers to the U.S. It is our duty to welcome and give God’s love to these families, not only for their daily life, but also help them to know God. God’s Word is the lamp to our path (Psalm 119:105), so we use this opportunity to connect with families around us, to help them, especially in this thanksgiving season to help our families to think of all the thanks we can give to God.”

Mark Jiang is now enrolled in the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) studying to be a WELS pastor. Mark counts his blessings as he remembers receiving an invitation to gather with American Christian friends for the holidays. Let us all consider how we can use opportunities like holidays to share with someone that our Savior is truly the way to their eternal life. May the Word of our God continue to be a lamp for your feet and a light for your path as you follow the Way to heaven.

Written by Rev. Neil Birkholz, North American Asian Ministry Consultant 

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Thinking creatively

Last month, Asia Lutheran Seminary attended the Hong Kong Christian book fair. Tony, the connections missionary attended the event and made for himself a personal goal: to get our materials into the hands of as many people as he could. At the end of the day he had handed out over 7,000 Time of Grace booklets, small devotionals ranging on a variety of topics. The Hong Kong Christian book fair is held every year, selling Asia Lutheran Seminary publications, including books from Dr. Thompson and other various Lutheran resources. Attending the annual book fair is just another way for Asia Lutheran Seminary to get its name out there. Tony said, “I just wanted to hand out resources, I never expected that many people would walk away with materials and learn about Asia Lutheran Seminary.”

Despite the fact that most of the world is living in a post-COVID world, the COVID policies are still in place in Hong Kong, which has led to many opportunities to think creatively about how to continue to search for students and connect to others, the book fair being one of them.

And it’s not just Tony who is thinking creatively. The resilience of the church in east Asia is also impressive. Tony said, “Historically and again now in the present we are seeing how resilient the church in East Asia is. And how, despite that fact, they have found creative ways to continue to grow and find lost sheep.”

Written by Peter Janke, missionary on the East Asia mission team

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More than we ask or imagine

“Pastor, we would like to meet with you to baptize our daughter.” That was the message that was left on our church answering machine 22 years ago. I was the first pastor of a brand-new mission church called Faith Lutheran Church in Radcliff, Ky., next to Ft. Knox army base.

Jared was the dad who left that message. He and his wife Cady brought their daughter, Madison, to church to be baptized. I took Jared and Cady through adult instruction classes. Jared had grown up Lutheran in another synod. Cady never really went to church growing up. In her words, I was her first real pastor.

Being in the military, Jared and Cady and their three daughters have moved 15 times around the United States in the past 22 years. Wherever they have moved, they have found the closest Wisconsin Synod church. There were times a church wasn’t close, and they had to drive an hour one way for worship. When they were stationed at West Point, where Jared was teaching as a Colonel, they invited cadets to their home where they set up a makeshift altar and worship space in their living room. They used materials provided by WELS Military Services for worship.

In May, I attended my first graduation service at Martin Luther College – our college for training for the public ministry. 22 years after I poured water over her head and spoke God’s Word into her ears and heart, I watched Madison walk the stage to receive her teaching degree.

Who could have imagined that all this could result from an answering machine message? A family that became a blessing to our mission church – and numerous other mission churches – a family committed to God’s Word, and another servant of the Lord trained at Martin Luther College. God will do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

The Lord of the Church has blessed me with the experience of a home missionary so that I am now serving as a District Mission Board chairman. Now I am working with the people, pastors, and churches of our southeastern Wisconsin district to start new mission congregations and support those that have already been started.

As people, pastors, and churches, let us continue to pray for our established churches, our fledgling churches, and those new churches we wish to start. Together we pray and trust that God will use our combined gifts to bring that family to church. That child to the baptismal font. To leave that message on the church answering machine. Then years and decades later, we will see that God has done and will continue to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

“Now to him, who is able, according to the power that is at work within us, to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20, 21).

Written by Rev. Michael Zarling, Southeastern Wisconsin District Mission Board Chairman.

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Still open, and open wide

If walls could talk, I’d be asking the walls of the Lutheran Church of the Open Bible a few questions.

Open Bible? It’s the name of a quaint, white painted wooden church in Whiteriver, Arizona, nestled on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. It was dedicated in April of 1922. That clocks the building at 100+ years old. Like any centenarian, these walls have heard a lot. Imagine all the meetings, discussions, services, studies, classes, and conversations that have taken place inside the church. If these walls could talk, I’m guessing they’d have a lot to say.

Celebrating 100 years of Open Bible

I went to Open Bible on October 15, 2022. It was no ordinary day. We enjoyed a meal and live music; we were blessed with guest speakers, historical videos, and a worship service. It was the 100th anniversary celebration. About 275 gathered that day. Looking around inside the building, some questions about the history of Open Bible came to mind. . . why then? Why there? And why are there holes in the stained-glass windows?

Oh, if walls could talk. But they didn’t. I’m being stonewalled, hey? Well, even though the walls didn’t say anything, some people did.

Why then? Bill Kessel did a masterful and engaging job of explaining the history of Open Bible. I wondered, why was Open Bible built when it was? Bill answered my question with an analogy; God answered it with a Scriptural truth. Picture two local rivers, twisting and turning through the White Mountains. At times, far apart, sometimes near, but always separated by a rocky landscape; but then eventually the two courses of water meet, flow together and form one river. Now picture two lives. Two men, one Apache and one German. Two individuals about as different as two could be. Geographically they were sometimes far apart and other times near, but their paths never crossed. Until one day they did. They found each other. Or, better said, God brought them together. With his own power and his own timing, the Lord set them on a common course. From then on, their lives, like two rivers converging, flowed as one. God had the heart of the Apache Chief Alchesay and the WELS Missionary Rev. Edgar Guenther in his hand. No one could have ever imagined that God used a flu pandemic to bring two “rivers” together to meet at just the right time (1918) to accomplish what he desired. Rev. Guenther did his work, the Holy Spirit did his. The gospel was shared. A faith was born. A friendship formed.

Chief Alchesay

Why there? God not only determined our times, but also the places. . . What was God carrying out in the rocky landscape of Whiteriver? His plans. Plans that no one ever could have imagined. With a newfound faith in Jesus, Chief Alchesay and other Apache desperately wanted a church in their Whiteriver community. Not just any church, mind you. A Lutheran one. One that would faithfully preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. They expressed their desire for a place of worship. God honored the yearning of their hearts. A petition was signed. Permission was granted. Land was given. A church was built. It was a memorable day on April 30, 1922. A key was presented. The door was opened. Open Bible was dedicated.

On that single day, 101 Apache were baptized! Chief Alchesay was the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Open Bible currently has a membership of about 900 souls. The message of the anniversary day reflected the promise of God: “Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.” (Exodus 20:24b) God is doing just that. Coming and blessing. Kirk Massey, pastor of Open Bible, is quick to thank the Lord that the members of Open Bible are taking ownership of the ministries there.

But I had one more question: Why are there holes in the stained-glass windows? The answer was honest and straightforward. . . bullets and a bottle. Someone fired a few rounds of a rifle and someone else threw a whiskey bottle. The results were the same. Broken windows. What prompted the shooting and the throwing, no one knows. Probably never will. Frustrating? Yes, because stained-glass windows are a challenge to repair. The cost is high, and repairmen are few. But instead of anger over what we can’t control (or even fix), how about looking at the window holes through a different lens? Broken panes can serve as a reminder of a broken life. Certainly, our own. Who hasn’t seen or experienced a broken relationship, promise, or body? But especially that of Jesus! Ironically, the windows in Open Bible that have been broken are the ones that create the 3-paned picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. If any life was broken, it was Jesus’! Not just his body, but his relationship with his Father. The significance is as astounding as it is life-changing. By way of Jesus’ brokenness, we are made whole! What we can’t restore, Jesus can.

Bill Kessel with members from Cibecue

And he will. If not in this life, then in the next. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:10) Broken? Take heart, Jesus is the key to full restoration.

Speaking of a key, just prior to his death, Chief Alchesay had one request. (And it was honored). He humbly asked to be buried with something that was extremely special to him: A key to Open Bible. Why? He came to believe that Jesus Christ was the key that had opened the Scriptures to him and heaven for him. Alchesay was filled with humble joy that he–chief of sinners–was forgiven and chosen by God to be one of his children. He considered it a great honor to help build the church so that the Word could be preached, well, to help build the Church.

The Whiteriver church still stands to the glory of God to share with people that the Father’s heart, Jesus’ arms, Holy Scriptures, and heaven’s door are still open, and open wide.

Written by Rev. John Holtz, Native American mission counselor




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Happy Thanksgiving from WELS Missions!

Sometimes it takes a bad situation to bring out the best in us.

Medical advances are taken for granted until someone in your family desperately needs help. Peace and prosperity aren’t seen as gifts until a country is plunged into war. A roof over our heads is not given a second thought until a hurricane rips it off. Food on our plates is expected, but that expectation can melt away in an instant where drought or famine hit hard. When help arrives in a desperate situation, thanksgiving can shine. Doctors, soldiers, emergency crews, and aid workers can fill pages with accounts of people filled with gratitude when help arrives.

Help in a bad situation can bring out the best in us. This is why thanksgiving should never be far from our lips. We were all in the most desperate of circumstances. Born into a sinful world and determined from birth to rebel against our Creator, we were in the most horrible situation imaginable. We deserved to be separated from our Maker for eternity. But God intervened. He sent his Son and saved us. He redeemed the entire world from sin by his death on the cross. He proved his success, and ours, by his resurrection from the dead. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul encourages all believers to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

We in the WELS Missions office have the great honor of seeing God’s amazing grace reach the far corners of the world. Aid for families touched by diseases, wars, disasters, and famine are always welcomed with expressions of thanks and joy from our Christian family around the world. That thanksgiving is raised to the highest heights as we rejoice with them in the greatest gifts of all: the gifts of God’s eternal grace, mercy, and peace. Thank you for helping us bring the life-giving gospel to the world. Enjoy this short video that shares how God blessed that work in 2022.

Join with us this Thanksgiving to rejoice at what God has done for us all. Rejoice that many are helped when life in this vale of tears gets tough. Shout praises to God for the blessing of being able to share this good news with the world.

From all of us in WELS Missions, we thank God for you!

Happy Thanksgiving!

WELS Home, World, and Joint Missions

 




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A rich welcome

Dear Heavenly Father,

The hymns have been sung, the Scripture has been read, and the sermon has been preached. The hands have been laid, the verses spoken, the blessing pronounced, and the promises made. Yes, even the cake and other treats have been eaten, the fellowship enjoyed, and the pictures taken. It’s officially done.

Lord, on Sunday, October 2, 2022, in Whiteriver, Ariz., at a historically significant WELS church called Open Bible, Pastor Kirk Massey installed me as the Native Christians Counselor on the Native American mission team. But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know, Lord. I’m not informing you of something you didn’t already see. The comforting truth, Lord, is that you knew it all before it all even happened. Long before the Divine Call was extended, you saw that this day would arrive and you knew who would be there. You ordained what would happen and that it would happen.

It did.

Lord, thank you for all those brothers and sisters in Christ who were able to join us. The events of the day were humbling, and indeed were a rich welcome into the Native American mission. Thank you, Father, for each one with whom we will now do ministry and do life, both on and off the reservations. Thank you for the many people who stand beside and walk alongside us: our families, our friends, our synod, our co-workers. Thank you for those who have gone on before and for those who will come after. Whether near or far, in person or on Zoom, the family in Christ truly is a gift from you. And so is the work.

Ah, yes. The work.

When we stepped out of the installation service that day, we didn’t just step outside. We stepped into the mission field. One statistic in particular sticks in my mind, Lord. More than 90% of Native Americans aren’t Christian. They don’t believe in Jesus. They don’t know the true and only way of salvation.

As I stood in the open air, it was then that I once again realized: it’s not just the high altitude of the White Mountains that takes my breath away. So does the thought of the mountain of mission work looming before us. The ministry work appears, not just like a solitary mountain on the distant horizon, but more like a sprawling range surrounding us on all sides. Seemingly endless. As far as the eye can see.

Lord God, you were–and are–very much aware of all the ministry opportunities and challenges that lie before us. And around us. Bless our efforts according to your will.

Please hear me, Father. Not just my prayer here, but also the petitions, intercessions, and requests still to come. The ones that I’ll be saying later today, tomorrow, and the day after that. And the ones after that. Yes, Lord, I recognize not just the monumental task before us on the Native American mission field, but also the overwhelming sinfulness within me. It looms large. Mountain large. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” (I hear you, Paul. I feel your struggle).

But by your power, dear Father, I also hear your voice. Thank you for telling me of the rock-solid certainty of forgiveness through your Son Jesus. Because he shed his blood, I’m washed clean! You, a perfect God, in love with a sinner such as I? Yes, shocking, I know. But that’s just it. Your gospel is as surprising as it is real.

So when I step out my door, Lord, or look out my window or drive down the road, let the mountains be a daily and vivid reminder of the one Jesus climbed for me.

For there on that Calvary mountain, as he hung on the cross. He was paying a price too steep for our blood. But not for his. Paid in full. Was it worth it? For us, yes! We get a free gift, though at a high cost. He decided that he’d rather go to hell for us than to live in heaven without us.

Open Bible Ladies Choir

Salvation won.

How richly blessed we are to have a God like you. What a great reason and motivation for us to work while it is day in the Native American mission and beyond. You give us a reason to raise our voices in song! The ladies from Open Bible congregation did just that. How wonderful it was to hear them sing How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace. . . in the Apache language, no less. All glory to you, Lord!

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for inspiring the Apostle Peter to write the text, and thank you for leading Pastor Gary Lupe to preach it. Verse 11 is such a comfort. Thank you for including it in your Word:

“And you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Your Word, Lord, brings to our attention what lies ahead. (And we just got a taste of it). So when it is no longer day and when our faith turns to sight and our prayers to praise, we will be ushered into our eternal kingdom with a rich welcome.

Written by Rev. John Holtz, Native American mission counselor

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Blessings and answered prayers

431 days. That is the number of days between my first day living in Waco, Tex. (July 7, 2021) and our launch service at Christ Our Refuge (September 11, 2022). 431 days of planning led to a major milestone in the life of our local congregation. While we always viewed our launch service as a starting line and not a finish line, it is still good to reflect on blessings and answered prayers from God. I’d like to share three specific examples from our launch service with you.

Visitors
We had everything set up and ready to go on the morning of our launch service. We were just waiting for people to show up. One member said, “I just pray we have some visitors show up this morning.” God answered her prayer. I was standing outside greeting people when our first visitors arrived. It was a young couple with two little girls. One of the first things the mom said to me was that she had never been baptized, but she wanted to be. She went on to say that they wanted to have their two little girls baptized as well. It’s as if God was telling me, “Look, I’m going to bless the work that is being done here.” In all, we had 15 prospect visitors join us for our launch service.

Worship Facility
Our core group met in a number of different places during the 431 days that led up to our launch service. We met at on the outdoor patio of a pizza place, in member’s homes, and in a smoke-filled VFW Hall to name a few. We spent a lot of time searching for a space where we could hold worship services. The VFW Hall, a school gym, and an event space were a few of the options. Ultimately, God blessed us with a 6,000 square foot building which we were able to lease full-time and make our own. It is such a blessing to have a permanent location in the community and a place to come together and worship our God!

Music
Our initial core group (12 adults and 5 kids) did not contain a lot of musical ability. We prayed a lot for a solution to our lack of music. Enter Lilia. Lilia is a WELS member who just started her freshman year at Baylor. Our launch service had beautiful music thanks to Lilia using her gifts to glorify her God!

A launch service is something to celebrate, and we certainly thank God for all the ways he blessed us in the 431 days leading up to it. However, it is just the starting line. Please continue to pray for the ministry at Christ Our Refuge as we seek to share Jesus with the lost in our community.

Written by Rev. Andrew Westra, home missionary at Christ Our Refuge in Waco, Tex.

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Worship and Outreach – In Suburban Metro Atlanta

I often describe Covington as “Metro Atlanta meeting Old South.” It’s a place where you’re either from here and you remember when the six-lane highway was a dirt road, or you moved out from Atlanta to here because it’s cheaper and you might even be able to have a yard. When I got here 20 years ago, it was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Countless subdivisions were being cut out of the forest and farm fields, and the neighborhoods were quickly making the county more diverse. Covington is in the heart of the Bible Belt, and those from here remember getting picked up by the buses on Sunday morning and going to the Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal churches regularly, but then fading away. When Abiding Grace started, we were worshiping next door to one of the longest running annual camp meetings in the nation (think tent revival), a staple to the community since 1828. If you were used to church, you were used to a Spirit-led, Bible-based, fire-and-brimstone worship that lasted all day. But most had walked away from that scene years earlier. Then you add so many start-up churches following the population boom that the county had to make rules about how long they’d allow a church to rent space in their schools.

I’m giving you this background because I’ve been asked to describe worship and outreach in my setting, so it might be helpful to know that setting at least a little. Although, truth be told, worship and outreach are simpler than we usually make them out to be, so the truths we’ve experienced here will likely have application to just about any setting.

So, what does worship look like at Abiding Grace, and how does that work for outreach? Here are some ways our worship has been described.

“Very Traditional” and “Kinda Contemporary”

I know these two are usually seen as opposite ends of the spectrum, but it really depends on where you’re coming from. We use the Western Rite (the hymnal liturgy) and aren’t afraid to have regular variety in the parts of our service, alternating several settings for the Kyrie, Gloria, Gospel Acclamation, etc. We’ll occasionally use gathering rites and our choir tries to present various styles of music to carry the message. We include a children’s sermon in each service and write a local Prayer of the Church, often borrowing sections from those provided in the hymnal resources but including special petitions about what’s going on in the community and in the lives of our members and prospects.

I appreciate the clarity with which grace is proclaimed throughout our liturgy.

Different

This is probably the most common response I get when I show up on the doorstep of the first-time visitor and give them my standard line: “We’re so glad you came to worship with us. I know that sometimes when people worship with us for the first time, it’s exactly what they were expecting. But for others, it’s totally different. So, I just wanted to see if you had any questions about our worship and find out what you thought about it.” More often than not, they cut me off before I get to end of my spiel and tell me it was totally different. That’s when we get to talk about why different is a good thing. After all, they aren’t connected to whatever church they used to be going to, probably for a reason. Would we want to be exactly the same?

We get to talk about why different is a good thing.

But it’s more than that. Church is a different place from the world around us. Our message is fundamentally different from society’s and from most of the churches in our county. Several years ago, after a lesson of Bible Information Class, a retired prison guard pulled me to the side and told me with tears in his eyes that he had been going to church and been around God’s Word for more than 70 years and until that night, he had never understood grace. He wasn’t the first or last person to make a statement like that. I’m constantly amazed at how amazing grace is to those who have grown up with the “obedience” understanding of religion that is so prevalent in churches that claim to preach the Word. Hearing that makes me appreciate the clarity with which grace is proclaimed throughout our liturgy, from the reminder of the gift of Baptism in the Invocation to the power of the Absolution, to the thrill of the Supper and the peace of the Benediction. That’s a good different from worship that is all about me and my response.

When visitors see something different than what they are used to, I hope they ask why. In fact, that was one of the key principles our building committee kept in mind as we worked to design our church building. We didn’t want it to look like everything else in the community. We wanted people to notice that we were different, that we took God’s message for us seriously, that we had a big God and a God of love. In a county full of white clapboard churches with the narrow steeple or movie-theater looking contemporary structures, the powerful stone exterior and stately belltower proclaim that we worship a powerful God that is worthy of reverence, and the stained-glass windows and open doors proclaim that he is a God of love.

So, yes, I’m okay that we are “different.” But that’s not all. Our worship has been described as…

Accessible

We understand that what we do is unfamiliar to some, so we strive to make it accessible. That meant, from early on, printing everything in the bulletin so that it was easy to follow along for those who were new to our worship and for those parents who had simultaneous kid responsibilities. They didn’t need to turn pages in the hymnal and switch sources.

In BIC people are regularly encouraged to ask about whatever they don’t understand in worship.

That means explaining church-speak whenever possible. We regularly put notes in the margins of the bulletin describing why we do what we do and explaining the parts of our service and how they communicate the gospel and tie us to the Holy Christian Church. In Bible Information Class people are regularly encouraged to ask about whatever they don’t understand in worship. I often tell them that everything in worship is designed to communicate the good news of Jesus and his love for us. I’ll say, “If we do something and you don’t know why, it’s not doing that. Please ask. Then either I’ll be able to explain it, and every time you see it from here on out you’ll be reminded of God’s love for you. Or I won’t be able to explain it, and we’ll need to rethink why we do it or if we should.”

The repetition the liturgy provides helps make what we do here quickly comfortable, even as the texts and applications of the Proper change. Our sermons strive to consider the biblically illiterate, explaining our references and including them in the audience. We want to help them realize this is a great place to grow in that knowledge of the Word. We invite the children up for children’s sermons and give them opportunities to serve in the service. Even in our announcements we make sure not to use shorthand (explaining WELS or LWMS every time they are mentioned), encourage all to be involved, and thank the guests for coming.

We want them to know that they are coming to something that is worthwhile, so our worship is also…

Transcendent

In the first year of our work, I remember a pivotal moment in our history. It was a statement made by a lady who had grown up in a Muslim home but had taken us up on a canvassing invitation. Long story short, she was baptized and confirmed and then accepted an invitation to come to our planning meeting for this young church. We had been worshiping weekly from the very beginning of the mission work in Covington, so we were having a meeting about how we worshiped, about what we needed to change to reach the unchurched in our area. We also wanted to maintain our Lutheran heritage and doctrine as we were reaching out to a community who most often responded to our name with the question “What’s a Lutheran?” Several of our mostly white core group were there and a couple of our new confirmands, one black and one Hispanic, to give us the “outsider’s view.” We were talking about the music in worship and lamenting that our music was foreign to the ears of those who didn’t grow up Lutheran (which was more than 99 percent of our target area, really!). People were throwing ideas around about finding what music we should use and how we could sound like what was familiar to our community. One lady said we could grab some of the Christian songs from the radio and play them. The people in our community would recognize them at least. That’s when Najia said it, “I don’t think we need to do that. It’s okay for it not to sound like what’s on the radio when I come to church. It’s church. It’s supposed to be different from what I hear day in and day out. I hear what I hear every day. When I come to church, I want to hear what I need to hear. Church is supposed to be special.”

Plus, the message is different. Our hymns proclaim the greatness of God, not our obedience. The robe, the candles, the acolyte, and banners all have something to say, and a big part of that message is that God is God. He is worthy of our respect and honor, fear and reverence. “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

“It’s church. It’s supposed to be different from what I hear day in and day out.”

Yet even though our worship strives for transcendence, we pray it is not aloof, cold, or detached. It is our goal that worship is also…

Authentic

It’s worship. It is real people coming before God because he is worth something to them. It is a conversation between sinners and a holy God. Satan wants to make it a show, a “going through the motions.” The sameness of liturgical worship makes that a real temptation. The business side of church makes it possible for people to see our outreach in that way too.

A story.

Melvin was a prospect for years. He was always friendly, so I kept coming back and showing up at his door for another conversation. He regularly told me he’d come to church…sometime. And then he didn’t. This went on for years. Then Bill showed up (remember the septuagenarian prison guard above?). I’ll tell it from Melvin’s point of view. I just heard him tell the story again because every time I bring a new vicar to introduce him to Melvin and Melvin’s bed-ridden son, Melvin tells the story about how he got connected to Abiding Grace.

“This guy was bugging me for years. Every time he showed up, I told him ‘Yeah I probably should get back to church.’ Every time I told him, ‘I’ll show up one of these days,’ and then Sunday would come, and I just didn’t. Then he sent the closer. That’s what I call Bill, because well, I couldn’t not come when Bill invited me. I figured Pastor had to do that stuff. He was the pastor, but then Bill shows up and tells me how good it is to go to church there and I told him I’d come, so I just had to. I thought it would be just one time and I’d be able to say I did it.”

The robe, the candles, the acolyte, and banners all have something to say.

The best part is when Melvin talks about what he thought about worship. “Now, don’t get me wrong. It was weird, but Bill seemed to like it and I realized that everything was based on God’s Word, so I came back, and before you know it, I’m in the class and then I’m a member.”

Did you notice what he noticed about worship? It was weird, but Bill, this real man, this “good guy,” was into it. It was real people worshiping a real God using their own gifts, not someone else’s. I guarantee you that on the Sunday he came, the choir wasn’t perfect. The piano had a wrong note or two, and I’m sure I tripped over a word more than once. But it was real. The pattern of the church year, the familiarity of the liturgy, the gifts of God’s people allowed us to worship.

Going along with that, worship at Abiding Grace is…

Flexible

Like I’ve said before, we use the liturgy. We preach on the church year. We make use of many of the resources in the hymnal, we follow the rites and rubrics suggested. Unless we don’t. For a reason.

When we were still in the middle school cafeteria, Linda came to worship with us. We had been visiting her for a while and had great conversations. Then, she promised to come worship with us. This was going to be great. Then she showed up. She worshiped. We talked about it. It was great. She came the next Sunday. Then she didn’t. She missed a couple in a row, so I went to talk to her. She told me she really liked that we were so focused on the Bible and enjoyed worship, it was the kind she had grown up with—but she just can’t do it. The standing and sitting doesn’t work for her. Last Sunday she had grabbed onto the folding chair in front of her to help her up, and she stumbled and almost fell. She wouldn’t have been able to handle that, so she was done. I told her she didn’t have to stand when everyone else did. She told me that would make her stand out and embarrass her. I told her if she came back, we’d stay seated the whole service. She said okay, thinking she was calling my bluff. I emailed my council the heads-up and they said, “Go for it.” So for the next month we didn’t stand for the Invocation or the Gospel or the Creed or the Prayer of the Church. The congregation was happy to help make her feel comfortable. Since then, we’ve brought back standing for the Gospel and the Creed—with Linda’s okay.

Worship is the family of faith being the family of faith. It’s more than you can get from a screen at home, even though that is a nice option to have when necessary. Worship is more than receiving a message or hearing great music. Worship is the family of faith being the family of faith, and that is attractive to those who need a family of faith. In other words, that’s attractive to everyone. Study after study, anecdote after anecdote, social media site after social media site show that we long for connections. We are wired for it. That’s what God said was “not good” about the first perfect human created. He was missing connection. He needed connection. So do we. What suburbanites in the Southeast and people everywhere need is the “gathering together” the writer to the Hebrews tells us not to give up (Hebrews 12:25). Our neighbors can find from other sources more entertainment value than we can provide. They can find plenty of talking heads to tell them they are giving them God’s Word. What they need, and deep down they know it, is a connection with God and his people rooted in and flowing from God’s love for us all.

May God use our congregations, and each of us as individuals, to give people exactly what they need. And may he bless all our efforts to connect with our neighbors and our communities.

By Jonathan E. Scharf

Pastor Scharf serves Abiding Grace in Covington, GA. He is also Circuit Pastor of the Peachtree Circuit and chairman of the following: the seminary’s governing board, the Cottonbelt Conference’s Program Committee, the South Atlantic District’s Commission on Evangelism. He is an advisor for the Synod’s Commission on Congregational Counseling. He was a member of the new hymnal project’s Scripture Committee (lectionary). He has been privileged to serve many new Christians (an average of 25 adult confirmations per year since 2011) in an area where Lutheran worship is rare.


The Service: Settings 2 and 3

Instrumental parts and more for both modern ensemble and brass/timpani are now available from the Musician’s Resource (top right on NPH’s home page). Find these by selecting “Setting Two” or “Setting Three” from the Rites dropdown. For more information, including comments on why Musician’s Resource content isn’t coming at a faster pace, see the Hymnal Highlights from September 30 and October 14 (welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources). September 30 also includes links to Google lectionary calendars.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

Preach the Word – Insights from Multiple Ministry Settings

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from Multiple Ministry Settings

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. This issue provides insights from Pastor Tom Engelbrecht, who has served in multiple ministry settings: six years at a mission restart called Amazing Grace in South Beloit, IL, then six years as assimilation pastor at Christ in Pewaukee, WI, a large congregation, where he also was involved in starting a second site. He currently serves at Christ Our Redeemer, Aurora, CO, which is a small to medium sized congregation with a Lutheran Elementary School. Pastor Engelbrecht is married to Jackie and together they have four children.

Ideas from Pastor Tom Engelbrecht

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

  • A caution to remain clearly biblical. I’ve always wondered, as have most pastors, I think: What would happen if you interviewed the members in my congregation on basic points of doctrine? How would that go? I try to keep that in mind when preparing sermons—perhaps many of the “insiders” are kind of “outsiders.” Because of that, my first example of an “outsider” impacting my preaching isn’t an outsider at all. I was at a large congregation and asked a retired pastor to offer feedback on a particular sermon that I knew I had tried to gear toward outsiders. He said something to the effect of “It didn’t sound very Lutheran.” I remember I had intentionally tried to avoid jargon and technical words. I wanted to be as simple and clear as possible. To this day, I’m not entirely sure if the pastor’s observation was positive or negative, but it sticks in my mind as a caution to remain clearly biblical (Lutheran) in my attempts to reach outsiders where they are at.

What would happen if you interviewed the members in my congregation on basic points of doctrine?

  • Specific law fully, yet wisely. I was preaching at the brand-new second site of our large church. We were trying to reach out to the families who sent their kids to the public school in which we were worshiping. There were about thirty people in attendance, and a couple of the families were from the school. I remember making a law application that had to do with online pornography. Following the service, one of the women, who was there with her 11-year-old son, said that she didn’t expect that her son would be exposed to talk about pornography at church. They didn’t return. I don’t think I would have preached the sermon any differently if given a second chance, but I think about that interaction as I seek to preach specific law fully, yet wisely, for the sake of the listeners.

She didn’t expect that her son would be exposed to talk about pornography at church.

  • Good news for the anxious. Have you seen the first-time guests that come in with the “deer in the headlights” look? We recently had a woman visit us for the first time with that look on her face. It made me wonder what was going through her mind. It also made me wonder if anything was getting through at all because of the stress of her unfamiliar surroundings. It impressed upon me the importance of the clear proclamation of law and gospel so that even those who may be anxious or distracted will hear the good news that their sins are forgiven in Jesus.
  • Share…no matter how people react. I was preaching for a funeral of a young girl. I didn’t dwell too much on the life of the girl, but rather on the hope that Jesus gives—especially through Baptism. I was a little surprised to see a woman frowning at me and shaking her head during the sermon. I didn’t have the chance to talk to the woman after the service and find out what was bothering her, but it sticks in my mind as an example of those who don’t appreciate the hope we have in Jesus. Funerals seem to be where I have the chance to address more outsiders than any other service. What a privilege we have to share the foolishness of the hope of the resurrection, no matter how people react! And what an opportunity for outsiders to confront death and hear about True Life.

Funerals seem to be where I have the chance to address more outsiders than any other service.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  • Smile. Yes, smile. And give people reason to smile. A mission counselor taught me that when he critiqued one of my services. One of the only critiques he gave was, “You should smile while you’re giving the Benediction.” It’s very simple but not always easy to do when we’re focused on leading a service. Smiling and giving people a reason to smile sets people at ease and draws them in to listen.

“You should smile while you’re giving the Benediction.”

  • Call, talk to, and spend time with your members and your prospects. I’ve had the privilege of serving at a mission restart, a very large congregation, and a smallish congregation with a school. I’ve always been able to find reasons to stay in my office. That’s when sermon writing has felt stale and out of touch. Spend time with people. Their joys, burdens, blessings, and challenges are the same things that outsiders are experiencing. If we listen, people will let us know what’s going on. We’ve got the message that addresses what’s going on.

I’ve always been able to find reasons to stay in my office. That’s when sermon writing has felt stale and out of touch.

  • The law and the gospel are the two main messages in the Bible. Through the law God crushes the self-righteous and through the gospel God heals the broken. We all know this, but not everyone knows this. A law/gospel sermon isn’t necessarily going to be simplistic. It might be exactly what that outsider needs. They almost certainly will not have heard a clear law/gospel message before. You get to be the one to share it with them.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Engelbrecht’s sermon on Romans 7:14-25, where he focuses the listener on our internal struggle against sin and then points hearts to the One who rescues sinners from themselves.

Why do you do what you do? How many times a day do you ask yourself that same question? You tell yourself you are going to be more positive today, but the first chance you get, you complain. Why do you do that? You want to keep your cool with your kids, but you fly off the handle. Why do you do that? You aren’t going to get online and visit those illicit websites tonight, but you grab your phone or computer and sink right back into the filth. Why do you do that? You are going to show love to your wife or respect to your husband, but you snap at them the first chance you get. Why do you do that? You are going to stop participating in gossip, but the moment you hear that juicy morsel you can’t help but pass it along. Why do you do that?

That’s exactly what Paul is talking about. Paul confessed that he didn’t do what he wanted to do. He did the very things he hated…. Paul puts a name to “myself,” the part of me that will not do what I want. He calls it the sinful nature. Every one of us is born with a sinful nature that we’re stuck with until we die. The old man in our lives is always catching up to us and crashing into us to ruin the things we want to do. The other night in Bible study someone gave a great example of the old man ruining the things we want to do. He said that he works downtown and occasionally he’ll see people begging for money on the street corner, so he’ll often give them whatever change he has. He said he does that simply out of faith in Jesus. But he said that almost every time he does it, there’s a part of him that hopes someone else saw him do what he did so that they think he’s a great guy. What was a selfless act turned into a selfish act. I appreciated his honesty and completely agree that when we want to do good, evil is right there with me! Myself is always against me….

The struggle between “me” and “myself” finally brings us to the “I.” I am wretched. I need to be rescued from myself. If you’re anything like me, my dear friends, that’s often where you stop. I am wretched. I don’t understand what I do. But we can’t stop there. Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Jesus always wanted what God, his Father, wanted. He always knew what his Father wanted. He always did what his Father wanted. That doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t struggle. He was tempted in every way, just as we are, but he was without sin. That means he was righteous. This is why Paul brings up Jesus Christ into the midst of the battle of me, myself, and I. We don’t know what we do, but Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly who he was doing it for. He did it in exactly the way it needed to be done to rescue us from us.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Engelbrecht’s sermon on John 20:1-8, where he highlights the main character in our lives to explain the impact of the resurrection on insiders and outsiders alike.

When it comes to the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I’ve always operated under the assumption that Jesus is the main character of the resurrection. What you’ll notice is something that surprised me…. We might go so far as to say that John makes the main character of Easter morning the empty tomb. We should begin by asking the question, “Why would John make the tomb the main character of the resurrection morning?”

Probably the best answer for why John makes the tomb the main character of resurrection morning is because everybody else made the tomb the main character that morning…. When (Mary) saw the tomb was opened, what did she assume? She didn’t assume that Jesus must be risen from the dead just like he said. Instead, knowing that he wasn’t in the tomb, she came to the conclusion that his body must have been moved to another tomb…. She ran and told this to Peter and (John). When they heard her story, they took off running. You have to admire their urgency, but where did they run. They ran to the tomb! Why did they run to the tomb? As far as they were concerned, Jesus was dead…. Their thoughts and lives were governed by death. So of course, they went to the tomb.

What is the main character in your life? Mary, Peter, and John probably thought their main character was still Jesus, but their thoughts were consumed by the stuff of death. Their footsteps that morning led to the place of death. You might think I’m overstating things, but when our thoughts are consumed by any other main character in our lives than Jesus, our footsteps are leading to a place of death.

Think about what types of things become the main characters in our lives. We get consumed by success at work or our children’s happiness or a healthy body or more material things in our lives. What is the inevitable destination if our footsteps lead down the path in pursuit of those things and other things like them? The destination is death. We don’t always think about it that way because those are good things in our lives. But they can’t be the main character in our lives because they end in death….

(Mary, Peter, and John) saw the stuff of death in the tomb. What didn’t they see? They didn’t see Jesus. Why didn’t they see him? Because he was alive…. The tomb is no longer the main character, because the tomb is changed as well. Now the tomb is the empty tomb. It’s not Jesus’ tomb anymore. It’s the empty tomb. Which means it’s never going to be the main character again. Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise and the proof of all our empty tombs. Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise of life for all those who have Jesus as the main character in our lives through faith. With Jesus as the main character in our lives, everything changes.

Jesus’ empty tomb is the promise and the proof of all our empty tombs.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

Early on in my ministry I very much appreciated Franzmann’s Bible History Commentary. It was valuable for helping me make sure that I didn’t go off track about a narrative text. Most recently, I was thankful for Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Reckless World. It was a helpful reminder that God continues to use the ordinary means that he’s always used to reach and strengthen people: the gospel in Word and Sacrament. As we do our best to use God’s ordinary means, he will bless it as he sees fit.

Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes Rev. John Vieth’s article, “The Value of the Four Divisions of Theology for Our Preaching.” You can read Pastor Vieth’s article its entirety in Preach the Word: 5:6.

Pastoral theology classes occupy an important place in our own seminary training. They do not, however, comprise the entire curriculum. Our well-balanced training in the disciplines of Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology—as well as Practical Theology—prepares us for not only the general demands of pastoral life, but also for our pulpit work in particular…

Biblical Theology
We can’t share what we ourselves don’t have. If our purpose in preaching is to share with our congregations the words and promises of God, a thorough acquaintance with those words and promises on the part of the preacher is paramount. God did not call us to preach and then ask us to create interesting, comforting, or motivational messages of our own. He has called us to preach the interesting, comforting, and motivating message of his Holy Scriptures…

Historical Theology
While we do well to heed Harold Senkbeil’s warning, “…it’s always dangerous to run a church by archeology” (Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness, p. 78), our study and review of the controversies and heresies that troubled the Church in the past can prevent us from saying things we don’t want to say when we stand up to preach…

Systematic Theology
Since systematic studies equip us with a ready grasp of the great truths of the Bible and how they fit together, our training in dogmatics can help prevent us from developing novel interpretations of Bible texts that are contradictory to the rest of God’s word. Preachers with defective or deficient doctrine can unwittingly fall prey to pitting one text against the rest of God’s revelation.

A second advantage of thorough instruction in systematic theology is that it can alert us to preaching values in texts which serve as the sedes for certain Christian doctrines. When the Church has historically identified certain passages as key proofs of particular Christian teachings, those teachings deserve consideration in sermons based on those texts.

This is not an exhaustive listing of the value our theological training has for our preaching. Hopefully it reminds us to take up and dust off some parts of our training that we have let lie on the shelf for a while. Listen again to the encouragements of August Pieper:

In the parsonage, in the pastor’s study, in his little den are the sources of the church’s strength. If this little den becomes cold and empty, or if it is dedicated to the Old Adam and the spirit of this world, the church’s strength will evaporate, and the spirit of the world will overwhelm it. If, on the other hand, the Spirit’s fire burns in the pastor’s praying and studying, new streams of the Spirit will flow out daily to God’s people (WLQ, Vol. 84, No. 4, p. 276).

Written by Joel Russow


Prof. Russow at the National Conference on Lutheran Leadership

Preachers can enrich their preaching with non-members in mind by attending his session in January at the Chicago Hilton. Here’s the description of his session, but note that it’s not only for preachers!

St. Paul ask the believers in the church at Corinth to think about what they do if they are gathered for worship and “an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in…” (1 Corinthians 14:24). So, Paul tells those believers to expect that “non-members” will show up and to think through what happens in worship because of that fact.

In our WELS congregations, we hope to increasingly have “unbelievers and inquirers” visiting our worship at the invitation of a Christian friend. Over half of unchurched people say they would seriously consider accepting an invitation from a trusted friend to visit church. So, imagine WELS members take this all to heart and begin regularly inviting unchurched neighbors and family members to worship. Some of them actually show up! Now what?

What would you want the preacher to keep in mind as he preaches to these guests for the first time? Preachers, how should the presence of visitors impact your sermon preparation and proclamation? How deep can (or should?) a sermon go with listeners who know little about the Bible?

The reality is that our sermons will strive to keep two audiences in mind—church members and non-members. This presentation will especially wrestle with keeping the non-member audience in mind, but the encouragement shared will also edify the members too. Church members and preachers alike can benefit in this presentation as they seek to grow wise toward outsiders and make the most of every preaching opportunity.

Learn more at lutheranleadership.com.

 


 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

 

The glory is God’s – New beginnings in San Antonio, Tex.

Our grand opening service began months before September with a planning meeting. Our core group (a small group of dedicated individuals that do the work of starting a church) met at pastor’s house to plan the details of a service that we planned the year before. With our goal for worship set, we were able to focus on our mission. The “West Campus” is the second site of Our Savior Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Tex. We are dedicated to finding family, serving our community, and growing in God’s Word. We wanted to make our grand opening service all three.

  • We want to be a place where anyone can find family. The core group had time before our grand opening to plan events and build relationships. We were finding family and giving personal invitations. We had time to plan a service that hosted guests and created conversation. Our approach was simple: food (breakfast tacos and local cookies) and children’s activities.
  • We want to be a church that serves community. Instead of guessing, we took our time before our grand opening to learn about our community. We held community events and engaged with the people we want to serve.
  • We are a church that grows in God’s Word. We held many “preview” services so that our grand opening would go smoothly. As a mobile church it takes a lot of practice to set up and take down an entire worship service. Our hospitality team worked hard to make sure we greeted all our guests in a professional and meaningful way. Our music group put in countless hours of practice so that we sounded great. Our children’s ministry established itself quickly to be ready for the big day.

As a multi-site church we not only invited our community, but we also invited the entire central campus. We wanted everyone to be a part of our first service.

Finally, on September 11, 2022, we held our grand opening service. Thanks to the planning, attention to detail, and by God’s grace, we were ready on time. But we were not ready for what came next. Our core group made it early. Guests from the central campus came pouring in; the support was overwhelming. Prospects and friends brought their families. Guests were coming for the first time because they got our community flier.

As the service was starting, our emergency chair volunteer was hard at work setting up more and more rows of chairs. God blessed us with a grand opening that was larger than the core group imagined. It was a humbling moment.

But the greatest thing that happened that day wasn’t anything that we did. The greatest thing was that we held a service that focused everyone’s attention on the promises of God in word and song. God used us to publicly proclaim his name to people, old and new. The glory is God’s.

I’m going to guess that not many home mission congregations write blogs about the second service they hold. It’s not planned out as much. But the truth is, the best part of any grand opening service happens the next Sunday too. And God willing, every Sunday after that.

Written by Rev. Micah Koelpin, home missionary at Our Savior Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Tex.

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Supporting the family of believers

Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.

Psalm 105:1-3

We have many reasons to thank our gracious Lord. Precisely in difficult times, we recognize his merciful love particularly clearly. The Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC) has been part of the worldwide Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC) from the beginning. Since then, there have been sometimes more, sometimes less close ties between the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (ELFK) in Germany and the ULC. With the outbreak of the Russian war against Ukraine, the blessings God bestows on people from different cultures through spiritual fellowship became evident. Our history differs, but the unified faith in the common Savior, Jesus Christ unites us.

For members of the ELFK, it was not a question at all whether we will help people who had to leave their homeland because of the war. We were only moved by the question: How can we help? As Christians, we want to thank God for the grace and love he has shown us. Through the Apostle Paul, he let us know how we can show this gratitude in a special way: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galations 6:10) And so we were moved by the question: What possibilities will God open up for us, especially to help brothers and sisters in faith from the war zone in Ukraine? Since then, some refugees have also found refuge in the vicinity of our congregations. God has blessed us richly and prepared hearts to help those who often arrived here with only a suitcase or a few bags. They were warmly welcomed. Bishop Horpynchuk (ULC) and I were in communication to help brothers and sisters in faith and to find lodgings near congregations. God helped us to help. Glory be to him forever and ever!

An idea to say thank you to the helpers and at the same time to support ELFK in proclaiming the Good News among Ukrainian refugees was allowed to become a reality in October 2022 when the Baroque Plus ensemble from Kiev visited Germany. Let me take a little personal look back:

The Baroque Plus ensemble

I look back with gratitude and joyful emotion on a week in which we were able to get to know and love new friends. As president of the ELFK, I am grateful to God. I had the opportunity to experience fellowship with brothers and sisters in faith during these days. Already on the evening of the arrival of the ensemble, there was a joyful reunion for my wife and I. At the end of April this year, we had offered a guest room in our parsonage to an ill parishioner of the Resurrection Church in Kiev. When he went back home on May 11, tears flowed. We knew we would meet him again in our heavenly home, but the war was still a reality in Kiev and so we worried about him and his family. No one had told us that Petro would be one of the drivers who would take the ensemble from Kiev to Saxony. And so on October 11, exactly five months after his departure, we were happy and grateful to see and hug him once again.

Although we did not know the other members of the team beforehand, we became familiar with each other very quickly. Wherever Christians come together, they are united by the same faith. God brings them together and lets them enjoy the fellowship. We were able to experience this clearly. It was also good for us to see the smiling faces. We knew that one day after their departure from Kiev, the attacks with drones and missiles on the Ukrainian capital flared up again. Our guests also knew that. Whenever there was even the slightest thought of home, smiles changed to tears. As the group was on route to Germany, a rocket struck in close proximity to the house where the families of the bishop and a member of the ensemble live. Windows were broken, but God helped and preserved loved ones.

I would like to tell you another short incident. After the ensemble had rehearsed once again in Nerchau, there was an opportunity for a walk. We all enjoyed walking along the narrow river Mulde under the sunshine, blue sky, and colorful trees. Again and again, the conversation partners changed. During one of these conversations, a member of the ensemble told me, “It’s so nice and quiet here.” There was again, the thought of the situation at home: sirens wailing for air alerts, bullets whistling, and explosions thundering. At the same time, by God’s grace, we may live in peace, enjoy tranquility, and go about our work as usual.

Since February 24, 2022, it has been our daily prayer that God will soon give peace to Ukraine. The threatening gestures from Moscow have expanded those prayers. For a few weeks now we have been increasingly asking God to keep peace in our country and give it again in Europe. We know that God is in the regiment. He directs and guides everything. And he is also almighty in this. We can trust in him. As the Apostle Paul says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) It is perhaps not easy for us to see how a war with all its hardship should serve any human being for the best. But let me say this at the end of this unfortunately much too long article: If only one lost person has come to faith in the Savior through the journey of the Baroque Plus ensemble, through the fellowship in the church services, through the proclamation of the gospel and the love connected with it, then it was the best for this new sheep in the flock of our Lord Christ. And then there will also be joy about this sheep in heaven (Luke 15:7).

I would like to close with another thank you. Thanks to God, who made possible and blessed the journey of Baroque Plus. Thanks to the brothers and sisters in Ukraine, who had the idea and the willingness to travel almost 2,000 km by car to faraway Saxony, a part of Germany. But thanks also to all the brothers and sisters in faith in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) for all their support in praying, preparing, and carrying out this wonderful opportunity. We look forward to a healthy reunion – if not here on earth, then certainly in our eternal homeland.

Shared by Rev. Michael Herbst, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (ELFK) in Germany




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Fellowship in Latvia

What does “fellowship” look like?

The Europe mission team is working to strengthen ties between WELS and a dozen confessional Lutheran churches of Europe. These churches believe the same things we do. Now what?

Have you ever heard of the Confessional Lutheran Church in Latvia? Luke and I visited Latvia once in 2002 to apply for fresh Russian visas. Two Latvian pastors (who are brothers) took extra good care of us. Ivo and Ugis Sildegs arranged a place for us to stay, showed off tourist sights, and helped us contact the Russian embassy. They also introduced us to the Latvian church. We met a team of pastors working on a weekly, professional-grade newspaper aimed at the public. We ate birthday cake with their synod president. We had a great time – even though the February weather was rough!

Then we went back to Novosibirsk. For the next 20 years WELS had only limited contact with our brothers and sisters in Latvia. In fact, it has been ten years since anyone from WELS visited them.

This past May 40 participants from CELC sister churches gathered in Albania where Luke and I are currently living. Three representatives from Latvia also attended the conference. One of them was Ivo, the pastor who had cared for us so many years ago. After the conference we kept in touch with Ivo and made plans for a fall visit.

We just finished our second trip to Riga a couple days ago. What did we find?

Rev. Luke and Jennifer Wolfgramm

We found people worried about surviving the winter. We stayed in an apartment in downtown Riga that was freezing cold inside. When we asked the neighbor if her apartment had heat, she said, “No, and we’ll be thankful if the heat ever turns on this winter!” One of the pastors kept busy chopping wood for the church’s wood-burning stove nearly every day of our visit. Another congregation is working to replace its natural gas heater with a geo-thermal system. Leaders repeatedly told us, “We can’t make plans too far in advance. We just need to get through this winter.”

We found people worried about war. A large statue of a woman in downtown Riga commemorates Latvian independence which they won only in 1918 – and promptly lost again during WWII. Latvia has a long history of being controlled by other neighboring countries. They worry that if Ukraine falls, they will be next. Fellowship means sharing each other’s burdens. We listened sympathetically, but we didn’t despair!

Best of all fellowship means studying God’s Word and praying together. The men studied Old Testament “Wisdom Literature.” There was an especially poignant moment when they read Song of Songs: “See how the young man in this book loves his wife? Jesus is our faithful husband who shed His blood for us, His bride. Will He now abandon us to face cold and violence alone? Never!” Those words meant something to those church leaders. What a joy to share God’s promises!

We found opportunities in the church. We met talented, experienced pastors and three gifted seminary students. (That’s huge! There are only 300 people in the Latvian church.) Fellowship means sharing resources, organizing online seminary classes during the year, and in-person courses in the summer. Fellowship means worshiping together on Sunday, drinking tea, and sharing news from Albania, Finland, Germany, and the U.S. Fellowship means rejoicing in our new-found friendships and marveling that this is just the beginning of eternity.

We found opportunities in the community. Everywhere we turned we heard people speaking Russian. Some were from Russia, but many have fled from Eastern Ukraine. They’ve left everything, maybe for a time, maybe forever. They miss home. They miss their families. Fellowship means working together to assist those in physical need. Fellowship means sharing Jesus’ peace with souls groaning for good news.

It was a week of strengthening fellowship. A week of studying, worshiping, and praying together. Visiting, eating, and laughing together. Celebrating our common faith, love, and purpose, and looking forward to the next time we can meet again!

Written by Jennifer Wolfgramm, world missionary wife on the Europe mission team.

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Sharing their stories

How did you become a Christian? When did it happen? Were there other people who helped you to know Christ?

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit Ethiopia. The main reason for my visit was to teach a course on St. Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus. The course was intended primarily for young men who are preparing to be pastors in the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia (LCE). There were seven students in the class.

When I arrived, I asked each student to share his story. How did you become a Christian? When did it happen? Were there other people who helped you to know Christ? All of them had interesting stories. One student is the son of the LCE’s one and only pastor. He didn’t ask to be born into that family, but he was. And that is how he became a Christian. Another student was a Sudanese man who came to Ethiopia as a refugee. His mother and father were not Christian, but he learned about Jesus from his uncle, a man who is now a WELS pastor. That’s how he became a Christian.

I shared my story, too. A father who was my seminary professor, who taught me so many “big religious words” and deep truths about the scriptures that I can’t possibly remember all of them. A mother who led me in my bedtime prayers, prayers that were so foundational to my spiritual development that I can’t possibly forget even one of them. And that’s how I became a Christian.

All of us told very different stories, but one thing was the same in every story. We were all so grateful to God for the people who helped us to know Christ.

St. Timothy had a story, too. His father was a Greek who almost certainly did not believe in Jesus. But Timothy’s mother was a dedicated Christian, and his grandmother was, too. That’s how Timothy became a Christian. Paul wrote in his Second Letter to Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you.”(2 Timothy 1:5,6)

How can we thank God for those who shared the word of God with us? And how can we honor those people who have led us to faith in Christ? St. Paul tells us how. “Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.” (2 Timothy 3:14)

For about two weeks, the students and I studied the word of God in the Letters to Timothy and Titus. We grew in our understanding of the gospel. We honed our abilities to share the word of God with others and to lead people to Christ. That’s the best way to thank God for his blessings.

When people tell their stories and thank God for those who helped them to know Christ, how many people will thank God for you?

Written by Rev. Mark Panning, world missionary on the One Africa Team

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What matters most

“What can I do for that Christian student when they are away at school?” It’s a question with which parents, pastors, and congregations certainly wrestle. And there are many answers, but can I suggest a starting point based upon experience?

The WELS Campus Ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was in a tough spot. The 2019-20 school year began with a pastoral vacancy before COVID came and shut ministry down completely through the 2020-21 school year. When a new pastor arrived and began looking at the 2021-22 school year, there were some daunting realities: a building that looked abandoned, no core group, no established relationships, and continued restrictions for on-campus student interaction.

Where to start? Missions always depend upon people, and for the coming school year, finding a core group would be the focus. It would determine whether this ministry could move forward. But how would this group be found? Going door-to-door in a dorm or setting up shop in a student union are not advisable for a middle-aged pastor. Ultimately, it was an online database that would determine if this would work – what else could be used to reach students and determine if there was interest?

Armed with a Google Voice account, the text messages began to fly. . . a hope and prayer that a college student would respond to a text message from a complete stranger and then agree to meet for an open house. And while there were plenty of text messages that received no response, there were many thankful for the invitation. There were others that said they would come. And still others who said they knew fellow WELS members and would invite them too.

The first open house welcomed 19 students! When they were asked what they desired campus ministry to be, the overwhelming response was Bible study. An opportunity to gather and be fed by the Word of God. In fact, it was the only response. As so for each week during the 2021-22 school year, a time to gather for Bible study was offered. And the students came. . . with one big caveat: most needed a personal invitation through text message. When the week got busy or assumptions were made and personal texts didn’t go out, our numbers plummeted. It was a tangible reminder that relationships and personal invitations matter most.

And that takes this conversation back to that database, and with that I repeat an often made request. The online campus ministry student database depends upon home churches and pastors, area Lutheran high schools, parents, and students to provide information crucial for campus pastors to do their work. If you have a connection to a college student, please reach out to the local campus pastor and make sure they have the information (and even better, an introduction) they need to connect with that student. It’s where it all starts, and when you are thinking about what you can do for that student, it’s awesome to think about where it might lead!

The format for Bible study each week was simple: we started by sharing moments from the week that struck them as Christians, then we would study the Word, and finally there was an opportunity to ask any tough “apologetics” questions that were on their mind. Faith was strengthened and relationships were built. There were also numerous times during the year when students invited and brought others (WELS and non-WELS friends).

The majority of that core group is back again for the 2022-23 school year and as they gather this year, they are the ones who are asking what’s next. They want to start to work on the building that needs work both inside and out. They are organizing get-togethers at the house to enjoy fellowship and fun. They are doing together what the Bible tells us will result when Christians form their relationships around the Word of God!

Written by Rev. Thomas Voss, WELS Campus Ministry pastor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

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The response to free

Sermon illustrations are not always easy to come by. Sometimes you rack your brain for a story, a life-experience, something from a book that you’ve read, but nothing comes to mind. But, other times, you experience something that you just know will be a great sermon illustration someday.

We recently had one of those experiences at Sure Foundation. Each year in Brandon, S.D., there are city-wide garage sales that are widely popular. In each neighborhood, you can see numerous sales going on. People will come from Brandon, Sioux Falls, and even further away just to see what they can find.

As a church, we decided to get in on this event, but not as a fundraiser. We decided to collect things from the members of the congregation to give away to the community. But here was the catch. We weren’t advertising it as free. People would come hoping to find a deal at a garage sale, only to find out that everything was free.

Nearly every member family of the congregation participated by giving their stuff. We even had prospects, neighbors, and people from the community contributing stuff for the sale. Just like that, three big garage stalls were packed with stuff.

Throughout the eight hour event, we gave away almost all of the stuff! Those who attended were shocked to find out that everything was free. It was in that moment of shock that each person received a card from a smiling volunteer that said, “Just like salvation in Jesus is free, so are these. Enjoy this gift from your friends at Sure Foundation.”

What an easy way to share the love of Christ! But we haven’t gotten to the sermon illustration yet. Prior to the event, we instructed our volunteers to insist that everything was free. We figured that some would want to contribute something for what they had taken. So, our volunteers did just that. They insisted that everything was free, but people were so thankful, that they responded in thanks. Sometimes that thanks was obvious by the expression on their faces. But other times, people showed their thanks by giving. They gave and they gave and we put it in a box designated to go to a school district fund to buy lunch tickets, snow pants, and boots for those who can’t afford it.

The response was remarkable. Just shy of 300 people showed up to this event and we raised $1,000 for the school district fund from a FREE event! And there’s the sermon illustration. What’s the response to free? What’s the response to grace? The response to grace is a thankful heart. And our volunteers witnessed example after example of thankfulness overflowing into giving.

What an amazing blessing! It was an event that blessed the community with free things, it was an event that blessed us with an opportunity to share the gospel, and it was an event that blessed and encouraged our volunteers. Oh, and it was an event that blessed me with a great sermon illustration.

Written by Rev. Craig Wilke, home missionary at Sure Foundation Lutheran Church in Brandon, S.D.

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Unexpected booms

We heard that Dickinson, N.D., was booming. A town of 17,000 has grown to around 25,000 permanent residents over ten years. And that doesn’t include some of the oil field workers and their families, which could increase the estimated population to 35,000 depending on the season. My wife and I were expecting that type of “booming” when we nervously arrived to start a new home mission church in North Dakota. We were expecting the housing market to be booming, making finding a house difficult. Thankfully we were able to sign a lease and begin renting a 100-year-old home. The landlord was nice enough to let us paint the place while we waited for our furniture and clothes to finally arrive. There’s plenty to explore. . . new businesses are springing up everywhere, Dickinson is revitalizing its downtown, young families are moving into the peaceful neighborhoods, and church bells ring around town on Sunday morning. The harvest is plentiful in this booming town in the middle of the wide-open grasslands of North Dakota!

All of that booming was expected. The unexpected booms came after the moving truck arrived. Our furniture and clothes had been in the house for only five days when a huge thunderstorm sprang up. The lightning, flashing in the nighttime prairie sky, is truly a sight to behold. We were admiring those magnificent flashes when suddenly the whole window turned white, immediately followed by the loudest boom we had ever heard. A boom so loud that it almost sent my 8-month pregnant wife into labor. We both stood there, stunned as the house went dark. Looking out the back window and seeing the tree shrapnel strewn about our yard, it became apparent that the tree in our backyard had been struck by lightning. Thankfully the power came back on, but the lightning strike had damaged many things. The following two weeks were filled with daily visits by various repairmen, our landlord, tree trimmers, family, and friends. The house was booming with people, and making so many new connections was wonderful. God blessed us with some valuable conversations and connections. Through that lightning strike, some repairmen became mission prospects.

We were preparing the house to host many people after my installation, and several things still needed to be fixed. We were able to host the installation service at the local Veterans Pavilion, which was booming with people. Over 90 people from other WELS congregations came out to show support for the new mission in Dickinson. God blessed us with overwhelming encouragement from the many people who came to the installation. We were able to host the pastors and their families at our house afterward, even with the air conditioner being on the fritz from the lightning strike. After the sewer backed up twice and flooded our basement, everything in the house seemed to have settled down from the booming events of the past month. We were able to start visiting the homes of all the members of the core group. Driving back from one of those visits, another lightning storm sprung up in the beautiful badlands of North Dakota. Then suddenly, another lightning strike hit the ground within 10 feet of our car. Dirt flew up everywhere, and the boom sounded like a gunshot. We were told that Dickinson was booming, but this was not what we expected. All my wife and I could do was laugh. We laughed about it and all that had happened to us since we arrived the rest of the car ride home.

Suddenly the idea of starting a new mission in the booming town of Dickinson, N.D., seemed less scary. We knew we had God on our side, who could work out the expected and the unexpected booms for our good. We have a God who has the power to calm any storm, and that is the God that Amazing Grace Lutheran Church gets to share with the people of Dickinson, N.D. God be praised!

Written by Rev. Joel Prange, home missionary at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Dickinson, N.D.

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Family ties

Santo Tomás Lutheran Church is a congregation that serves the Hispanic community in Phoenix, Ariz. It is “family ties” that have brought many people to walk through the doors of our church. This personal invitation from one family member to another to hear the good news that Jesus is their Savior continues to be an integral part of our ministry. “La familia es todo” (Family is everything), was the quote I remember one of our church members sharing with me. What this member was really stating was how important those ties are; as witnessed in the case of Irma and her relatives.

It was 2011 when I first met German (Hehr-mahn) and his family. It was German’s sister, Irma, who introduced them to me. At the time, he and his wife Dallana (Dah-yah-nuh) had three young girls who were not baptized. They were not church going people even though they both grew up in Catholic families. Irma, a member of our church, invited them to accompany her one Sunday so they could hear and understand better what we preach and teach. At first, they did not show much interest as the weeks and months went by. I decided to call them again to see how they were doing. They told me they wanted to baptize their three young daughters. We met at church along with the padrinos (godparents) to discuss how God blesses us through his wonderful sacrament of baptism. On December 24 of that same year, during a special afternoon service, we baptized their three daughters.

German and his family continued to visit our church as their Christian family ties began to grow with fellow believers from Santo Tomás. In 2021 we decided to restart our new youth Catechism classes. I visited German and Dallana to invite them to enroll their daughters in class; they accepted. German also extended an invitation to his sister Mariela to encourage her and daughter to also begin classes. For over a year, Mariela, German and Dallana sat together learning about God’s love while at the same time their children were taking Catechism classes and learning about their Savior.

This journey of faith for German, Dallana and Mariela, all members of the same family, began with a simple invitation from a relative. It was Irma who understood their spiritual need, and more importantly, that family ties have deeper meaning when it involves God’s grace offered freely through faith in Jesus their Savior.

On August 28, 2022, German, Dallana and Mariela were received as communicant members of Santo Tomás. God is good! In October of this year, their four children will also be confirmed along with nine other students from the Catechism class of 2022.

Irma never expected that her personal invitation to her brother German and his family ten years ago would lead to seven relatives being brought into Santo Tomás’ family to grow with fellow brothers and sisters in their saving faith. In the end it really comes down to the fact that by God’s grace, “La familia en Cristo es todo,” (the family in Christ is everything).

Written by Rev. Tom Zimdars, home missionary at Santo Tomás Lutheran Church in Phoenix, Ariz.

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“One Faith, One Family.” – Hmong National Conference 2022

What would lead people to pack into three vehicles at 11:30 p.m. and drive through the night from Kansas City to Wisconsin or catch the 2:00 a.m. red eye flight from Fresno to Milwaukee? The answer is the Hmong National Conference hosted by Trinity Hmong in Manitowoc, Wis., this past July 29-31. After canceling the last two national conferences due to COVID, about 170 Hmong brothers and sisters were finally able to gather together to celebrate with food, fellowship, and the Word of God.

The theme for the gathering was, “One Faith, One Family.” Separate breakout sessions were held in English for the teens and in Hmong for the adults.

Pastor Sam Lor of St. John’s, Minneapolis, Minn., led about 50 teens through the topic, “Cultural Identity through Baptismal Identity.” Why this subject? Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) student and cohost, Semson Lor, said, “In the world today you can identify so many different ways. We wanted teens to see who they are in Christ.”

At the same time the teens met, Pastor Pheng Moua of Immanuel Hmong in St. Paul, Minn., was leading the adults in the Bible Study, “How to Encourage One Another.” “We are living in the End Times and it is important to motivate each other and build each other up in order to let our light shine to the world.”

All the devotions, sermons, and Bible studies of the conference reinforced the theme, “One Faith, One Family.” Pastor Ger Lor of Grace Hmong in Kansas City, Kans., stated, “Unity of brothers and sisters in Christ was what the Savior prayed among his disciples: ‘that they may all be one; as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, and they may also be one in us.’ The gospel creates a unity of faith with our Father, our Savior and our fellow believers.”

Pastor Joel Nitz was also in attendance for the first time since he took the call to serve the Hmong in Vietnam. He reflected, “I had a wonderful experience as I connected with our WELS Hmong members in the U.S., worshiped and learned with them, and practiced my Hmong language skills.”

In addition to feeding the soul, there was plenty of food for the body. The meals reflected the different places Hmong people have called home over the decades. Laotian pho was served for lunch one day and all-American hamburgers served picnic style for dinner on another. In order to work off the extra calories, a sports tournament was held on Friday that included volleyball and corn hole.

The highlight of the conference was at the Sunday morning worship service where the group expressed their spiritual and doctrinal unity at the Communion Service.

And why travel so far? Pastor Xing Yang of Faith in Clovis, Calif., shared, “Jesus. I tell the people it is about Jesus.” The next Hmong National Conference is scheduled for 2024 in Fresno, Calif.

Written by Rev. Leon Ehlert, Chairman for the North America Hmong Committee

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Worship and Outreach – In a Southwestern Suburb

God had Isaiah say it first, but Peter quoted him. “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).

Many people have favorite verses or stories in the Bible. This passage has always spoken to me. It has it all: original sin, man’s mortality juxtaposed against God’s eternity, means of grace, and preservation in faith. When you add that Isaiah originally put those words into the mouth of John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ, you also have the summary of our Law and Gospel witness.

Perhaps that verse suggests the nexus of outreach and worship, too. The lifelong Lutheran with a “WELS” tattoo needs to hear “all people are like grass” just as urgently as the “none” granddaughter. The serious-looking octogenarian in the second row needs to hear “the word of the Lord stands forever” so that his heavenly hope rests on God’s eternal word. So does the postmodern millennial who is looking for an anchor in the storm of 21st century culture.

All the souls in your parish and community will wither and fall. Will they do so with the Lord’s eternal promises in Christ? You already know that the application of our gospel witness looks a little different from place to place depending on context in ministry. This is a part of what it looks like in Marana, Arizona.

Context

Redeemer is located in the northwestern suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. Tucson stretches across a valley floor to the foothills of five mountain ranges. It is located roughly halfway in between Phoenix to the north and Mexico to the south. In 1950, Tucson’s population was about 80,000. Today, it has surpassed 1,000,000. The University of Arizona is here. And, because the sun shines here more than it does in Florida, so are a lot of retirees looking to escape the cold and snow. That makes the city an eclectic mix of young and old, as well as a melting pot of people from every corner of the country.

Parish demographics reflect our community. We are close to equal parts ages 0-25, 25-55, and 55 and up, and reflect many different races and ethnicities. We have native Tucsonans, transplants from the west coast, the Midwest, and the east coast. Of our more than 500 parishioners, maybe 40 percent have a WELS background. Among our numbers are many new Christians, recent converts, de-churched who have found a new home, and others who have come to us looking for orthodoxy.

An important part of our context is Marana’s rapid population growth. When Redeemer relocated to our current location in 1998, we didn’t have a lot of neighbors. Now, thousands of homes have been built, and thousands more are planned. On any given Sunday, we will welcome six to eight brand-new first-time guests to worship. In a year we’ll total between 400-500 first-time walk-in guests. Many of them are new to Arizona, new to our area, and are looking for a church home.

Culture

Some congregations are not ready for outreach. That culture needs to be built. My former congregation in Indiana wasn’t ready. Their congregational roots dated back to 1972 when a splinter group left LCMS because of frustrations over Seminex. Feeling burned by their former church body shaped the congregational culture. Their attitude was, “It’s us against the world!” Anytime a guest visited worship, you could feel the coldness and see the suspicious looks from across the chapel. They needed patient teaching that helped them make peace with their past before they were ready to make peace with worship guests.

A similar situation existed when I arrived in Tucson. Redeemer enjoyed rapid growth in the early 2000s, expanding their pastoral staff to four full time men and daughtering a mission congregation. That came to an abrupt halt when the market corrected and the economy stalled in 2008. The so-called “Great Recession” hit Tucson hard. Housing starts stalled. Many who were upside-down on their mortgages were forced to sell at a loss and move to a new city for employment. The parish that had seen impressive growth was halved. By the end of 2011 all four pastors had taken calls away, leaving a once thriving congregation looking forlorn. Some were downright angry. And when you walked into church, you felt it. They needed time to heal. They weren’t ready for outreach.

“It’ll take five years before the congregation trusts me. We need time to heal.”

How do you change that? How do you change a congregation’s culture and prepare them for outreach? You make haste slowly. Just after I got to Tucson, I remember talking to a very faithful man. He was a retired businessman, and bored. He was so excited to have a pastor after an extended vacancy that he walked into my office and wrote me a blank check. “Anything you want, pastor, I will do it.” His noble enthusiasm was tempered by my curt response. “Jim, I accept your offer, but it’ll take five years before the congregation trusts me. We need time to heal.” He looked at me in disbelief! He was ready to go. Why didn’t the congregation share his enthusiasm?

The first thing we worked on was attendance. In Indiana, you always knew who was there; the numbers were smaller. Redeemer was at least five times larger than that parish. I was new and didn’t know anybody. Add to that Redeemer had no system of tracking attendance or differentiating members from guests. After about a year, I called Jim into my office. “I’m still getting to know the people, but it sure looks like we have a lot of outreach potential.” Outreach? He didn’t think so. Neither did many of the other leaders in the congregation. In the absence of accurate data, who really knew?

One of the tools we agreed to use early on was a Friendship Register. Leaders were dubious whether it would be embraced or be perceived as an intrusion. To avoid the latter impression, we came up with an idea. Rather than ask a serious looking usher in a blue blazer to hand them out, we assigned the task to four smiling children in elementary school. Even now we rarely get 100% to participate, but when a pigtailed little girl in a sundress hands you the register, even the most curmudgeonly will usually cooperate. It took time and patience, but eventually it caught on. After we collected attendance data for a season, we discovered that on any given Sunday 25% of the worshipers were non-member guests, either first time worshipers or repeat attenders. Leaders were stunned! We had a mission field right inside our chapel and no one had any idea!

When a pigtailed little girl in a sundress hands you the register, even the most curmudgeonly will usually cooperate.

As leaders began to acknowledge the open door of outreach God was driving into our chapel, we began work on our worship welcome. That meant addressing our Sunday morning culture. As you address culture, this point is critical: the pastor sets the temperature for the congregation climate. Many people already operate with a stereotypical view of pastors that we have to work to overcome; they are stuffed shirts; they’re overly serious, not down to earth or relatable. Many people never see their pastors other than in the pulpit, even on Sunday mornings. Do your congregation a favor and work hard to dispel those stereotypes! Set the temperature. Be visible on Sunday from the time people arrive. Meet them in the parking lot; welcome them in the entryway; visit with them in the nave. Call everyone by name, look them in the eye, and greet them warmly. Carry their burdens. All people are like grass, pastors included. Show them you’re human. Smile, joke, and laugh. When you practice the golden rule, treating people like you genuinely love them, they’re much more inclined to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

An evangelism professor from our Seminary once noted that guests make up their minds about whether they’ll return to your church in the first two minutes of their visit. Before they hear your carefully rehearsed choir, before they see your professionally produced service folder, before they listen to your homiletical prowess, they’ve already made up their minds. Creating a friendly and welcoming atmosphere is worth the effort. After the pastor leads by example, put your people to work. We placed greeters outside the chapel doors to welcome people with a smile and a hearty “Good morning!” Ushers were carefully trained to answer questions and assist with special needs. We tapped five of our most bubbly parishioners for a special task. Get to church a half hour early, and personally welcome every new face you see in the chapel, whether young or old. Over time, something better happened. The whole congregation began to participate. Now, it’s common for first time guests to comment before they leave, “This is the friendliest congregation I’ve ever visited.”

We tapped five of our most bubbly parishioners for a special task.

Chapel

Our chapel was dedicated in 2002. When I arrived ten years later, our property team noticed the carpet bubbling. “We should fix that.” A year later, transplants lamented that the acoustics were lousy. “Can’t we fix that?” Another year passed, and I followed up on guests who hadn’t returned. They explained they couldn’t see the chancel because of the placement of a load bearing pillar. “Can’t you fix that?” In 2015, a parent who attended school chapel bemoaned how washed out our screen projectors were. “Can’t you fix that?”

Although our chapel was very usable, there were enough needling limitations that congregational leaders resolved to address it. They planned a tasteful cosmetic update that would be done by fall 2019 in time for our 75th anniversary. We selected a designer, made plans, but missed a key vote and our anniversary deadline. The following spring, COVID complicated everything. That turned out to be a gift. Since our timelines were pushed back, we revisited our plans, adjusting its scope to prioritize the chancel. After we suffered through supply chain constraints and constantly pushed off deadlines, our project is now complete.

A stunning makeover that powerfully influences both worship and outreach.

Our color scheme changed from the greens and purples of a Tucson sunset to something warmer. We replaced the carpeting with luxury vinyl tile. The pews were reupholstered. We purchased new LED light fixtures, and the entire chapel was painted white. The music space was reimagined. The biggest improvement, though, was in the chancel. The screens were removed, so now the eye is centered on the powerful visual of a free-floating cross.

What began as an innocuous project to address a punch-list of irritations turned out to be a stunning makeover that powerfully influences both worship and outreach. Our previous chapel was utilitarian, but “meh.” The remodel has a wow factor. It is difficult to describe just how impactful good lighting is on people’s demeanor, their mood, and their willingness to engage in worship. A bright space makes for happy people who want to engage. Replacing the carpet with tile has significantly enhanced our singing. It’s a live room; sound jumps. A retired LCMS pastor who worships with us occasionally commented, “I always knew your people could sing. But now they raise the roof! The new acoustics are a real game changer.” Prior to the remodel, nobody commented about our chapel. Now it’s often one of the first things people notice: “Your chapel is just beautiful.” Happy people, vigorous singing, and a friendly culture connect worship to outreach.

Happy people, vigorous singing, and a friendly culture connect worship to outreach.

Consistency

One of our oft repeated internal sayings is, “Whoever shows the love gets the soul.” You have probably already done the math. With as many walk-in guests as we see annually, shouldn’t we have 4,000 members by now? That’s our next mountain to climb. We’re working on building a consistent, repeatable follow-up program to worship. Here is what we’ve built so far.

Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

Every Monday, a lay-led team visits those first-time guests at their home. They deliver a welcome bag filled with devotion books, coffee cups, magnets, and church information. What’s in the bag is irrelevant. The initiative and the personal, face to face visit is what matters. Since they did us the honor of visiting our chapel in person, the least we can do is say “Thank-you” in person. By the end of the week, a team of ladies with good penmanship has sent off a handwritten note. About ten days after their initial visit, the chairman of the outreach team reaches out by phone or email. The hottest prospects are referred to the pastor. The simple logic behind the effort is that you never know which personal touch will resonate. Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

About a year ago, Joe walked into church. He’s an 80-year-old Marine. His idea of fun is to wake up at 2 a.m. and bicycle 40 miles up Mt Lemmon. After that he lifts weights and rides his motorcycle. When Joe walked into church the first time, he told us he hadn’t been in church in 50 years. But his wife had just died; he was looking for answers. “All people are like grass.” I didn’t meet Joe that day, but our follow up teams ran their program: doorstep, handwritten note, outreach chairman, pastor. A vicar eventually took him through instruction and today he’s an active member. Just yesterday, this 80-year-old Marine approached the woman who delivered the initial follow up bag. He was weeping. “I am so thankful that Redeemer reached out to me. You have no idea how special this church is to me.” Whoever shows the love gets the soul.

This 80-year-old Marine was weeping.

I love that story because I had nothing to do with it. Joe is a victory of our parish, a victory of the consistency of our process, of the Golden Rule. You know that there are no silver bullets in ministry, but this is as close as it gets. Work hard. Take initiative. Be consistent. Follow up and follow through. Show love. Delegate, and train your people for ministry. And then get out of the Holy Spirit’s way.

Conclusion

Nobody has ever been converted because of a shiny new chapel. Nobody repents because of a solid greeter or usher program. No saint who is now in heaven credits the bubbly brunette or the glad-handing pastor. It’s the Word that works.

Consider the alternative. A gloomy environment, dour people, or an aloof pastor are a turn off. Any one of them can undermine a gospel witness, casting a pall over the God we praise. Of course, God can save people in spite of us. Is that really what we’re aiming for?

Understanding your context in ministry matters. You’ve got to play the cards God dealt you in your backyard. Working to improve your ministry culture helps to prepare souls to meet Jesus. That’s what John did. He prepared the way for the Lord by eliminating barriers. He made the path straight. He raised the valley up, he brought the hills down, he smoothed out the rough ground. He made it easy for people to meet Jesus.

Isaiah said it first. “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”

“And this is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25).

By Adam Mueller

Since 2012 Pastor Mueller has served Redeemer, Tucson, AZ. Previously he served in Kokomo, IN where he also helped start missions in Lafayette and Greenwood, IN. Besides parish ministry, he has served in various roles on the district level including evangelism coordinator and circuit pastor. On the synodical level, he has served on translation review teams, the Commission on Congregational Counseling, and as chair of the Hymnal Introduction Program.


“The remodel has a wow factor.” The photo to the right shows before the remodel. The after picture is at the beginning of the article. Additional photos are available online in #116a at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-worship-and-outreach. Pastor Mueller also led a significant renovation project in Kokomo, IN. It was featured in #19 at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture.

 


Recent Resources

The Foundation Year A worship planner – PDF and Excel files for the full year were posted in mid-August after Advent through Epiphany was posted earlier in June.

Hymnal Highlights – The June 17 post includes ideas for fall or long-range planning. You can subscribe to receive them, along with other information, at welscongregationalservices.net/subscriptions.

Christian Worship: Service Builder – Six tightly scripted videos are now available at: christianworship.com/resources (under Articles) and at welscongregationalservices.net/hymnal-introduction-resources. These videos are useful both for those already using Service Builder and for those just exploring—and to help congregational leaders to see the value and potential of Service Builder.


 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach the Word – Insights from an Urban Setting

Preaching with Outsiders in Mind

Insights from an Urban Setting

Editor’s note: This issue continues our series on preaching with those outside our church membership in mind. The previous issue provided insights from a pastor serving in rural Nebraska. This issue provides insights from a pastor serving in the greater Seattle area.

Pastor Daniel Lange shares insights from his ministry at Light of Life Lutheran in Covington, WA, where he has served for twelve years. Pastor Lange also serves as the first vice president of the Pacific Northwest District.

Ideas from Pastor Daniel Lange

Four examples or thoughts on how outsiders have impacted your preaching preparation:

Preschool parents – Every week I see the moms and dads dropping their kids off at our preschool. They are outsiders who could visit church any given Sunday and sometimes do. In my conversations with them, I’m often reminded that they are busy, stressed, worried for their children, filled with questions or guilt about parenting, and looking for deeper peace and purpose in life than living the “American dream” in the suburbs of Seattle. (I confess as a parent living in the same community that I struggle with much of the same). What would I want to say if a family from our preschool stepped in this week? “God use these words for them. May they find the Savior who invites them to find rest for their weary souls.”

The conversation died when I said I was a pastor.

My neighbors – Last year, two young professionals moved in next door. As we greeted one another, the conversation died when I said I was a pastor. Since then, as I’ve poked around different topics, I would describe their worldview as many living on West Coast—atheist, humanist, and secularist, with a splash of anti-religion. They care deeply about social issues. While they haven’t come to church yet, my prayer and goal for them is that someday they will. When I see opportunities to touch on current events in my sermon, I ask myself, “How would I say it if I knew they were coming? Or how might I say it if we were talking to one another in the backyard?” When looking at issues in the world, we may not agree on the cause, but we can agree that the symptoms are ugly. I, too, see the devastating effects sin has on our society. How can I connect those problems to the Problem and finally to the Solution of Jesus?

The drug-addicted welder – I met a man in my community two years ago. He was more open with me than anybody I’ve ever met. After finding out I was a pastor, in the first five minutes he confessed to me he was addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, and sometimes slept with prostitutes. He said he had recently been trying to quit it all. With tears starting to run down his cheeks, he wondered if I had time for a question. He wanted to know if his baptism still meant anything. I was able to talk him into a Bible Information Class but still have not convinced him to come to church, although he has promised many times to show up. He is a reason I sometimes ask myself, “Is God’s grace clear in this message? If this is the Sunday he arrives, will he see the Jesus who forgives him still, loves him still, and, yes, whose baptism still promises eternal life?”

Many of them are burned out by heavy preaching which presents Christ only as example.

The drifting de-churched – The collapse of Mars Hill in Seattle left 10,000 Christians without a church home. A few of these families have made their way to our congregation, joining some others with a non-denominational background. Many of them are burned out by heavy preaching which presents Christ only as example. They remind me to preach the law with all its deadly force and the gospel with all its life-giving power.

Three encouragements to preachers for keeping outsiders in mind in sermon preparation:

  1. Regularly pray for first time visitors at your church. I live in an area where we don’t get walk-in visitors on a regular basis. When we do, one thought I don’t want to have is, “I wish I would have put more time into my sermon this week.” I’ve heard this from several others: the best outreach a pastor can do is to have a good sermon every week. Praying for regular visitors is an exciting pastoral practice. It’s exciting because God often says, “Yes,” to those prayers. It also helps me keep the outsider in mind when preparing the sermon.
  2. Trust your sermon preparation process. Sometimes when Easter, Christmas, or VBS Sunday is coming, I find myself falling into the trap of focusing on the audience before I have spent enough time in the Word. At some point, we do turn from gazing into the Word to gazing at our audience, but don’t make that turn too quickly. Stay glued to the text, soaked in the Word, and keep digging, just like any other week. When the speaker is captivated by what he has discovered, the audience (both insiders and outsiders) will be listening.
  3. We have THE STORY. In the age of information, where people are bombarded with disinformation, fake news, biased views, and thousands of stories every week, what comfort to know that we have THE STORY. Even though we may not know the personal story of every outsider who comes into our doors, we know that God’s STORY includes them. What a privilege to share, even if it’s just one time.

Two sermon excerpts of preaching with outsiders in mind:

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Lange’s sermon on Genesis 1, preached during the summer of 2020 when protests and riots gripped Seattle, Portland, and much of the nation. Lange comments that the sermon attempted to connect social issues people are passionate about to the greater problem of sin.

“Why is our world broken?” Be careful as you answer that question. Some might say, “Because of racism.” I wouldn’t disagree. Some might say “Because of lawlessness.” I wouldn’t disagree. “Because of selfishness, because of hatred, because of greed.” I wouldn’t disagree. But the reason I urged you to be careful in answering the question, “What is wrong with our world?” is this: everything we see happening right now is connected to a problem that runs much deeper than anything you see in the headlines. Like a river of pollution and filth THE PROBLEM runs its ugly course through every part of our existence. It’s source, the headwaters, begin flowing into our world just 2 chapters later.

I find myself falling into the trap of focusing on the audience before I have spent enough time in the Word.

Genesis 3. The tragic account of how God’s beautiful creation fell apart. Tempted by the devil at a tree, the first human beings reached for something they could never attain, they believed the serpent’s lie that they could become like God himself. And rebellion, evil, and sin went viral. Spreading like a cancer into all of God’s creation. Racism is an evil that flows from this event. Lawlessness is an evil that flows from this event. Injustice, violence, hatred, fear, greed, selfishness, apathy—all of it flows from what took place at that tree.

It’s very likely that because of your background and upbringing, one of these issues angers you more than another. And because of that, you are likely drawn to one side more than another. And if you are drawn to a side, you then have the target: the other side. To point out how they are so wrong and how your side is so right. And like blinders on a racehorse, our anger focuses our attention on the issue and against the other side and we forget something. We often can’t see it, but since the fall into sin there is not a single person living on earth who is completely right. Not even close to it. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). I’m not saying there isn’t a time to speak up and speak out and stand for justice and righteousness, but I fear we often do so without acknowledging and confessing something first—that wicked and evil river of pollution flowing from the tree in the Garden of Eden has flowed right into my own heart as well. As children of Adam and Eve, we were born with hearts of darkness. You were born with a heart of emptiness. We all enter this world with hearts filled with chaos, emptiness, and disorder. We are all guilty and deserve God’s righteous and true anger to come down upon us.

The scene is set again for one of the greatest demonstrations of God’s power and love. He looks at this mess of a world and he sends his Word again to bring peace, order, justice, and life. This time he didn’t just speak the Word, he sent the Word. The Word of God took on human flesh. Born of a woman and placed in a manger. The Word grew up and walked the earth. He, and only he, lived righteously and walked perfectly. He, and only he, was always in the right. He, and only he, was truly in a position to look down on everyone else in righteous anger, but he didn’t. Instead, he looked up to his Father and said, “Let it be me! Let your anger come down upon me! Not them. Let all this mess fall squarely upon my shoulders.” And so, we go to another tree. The tree where the innocent Son of God, took up all our pain and misery and suffered injustice for us once and for all.

Many guests would be used to preaching heavy on sanctification and light on justification.

Here is an excerpt from Pastor Lange’s Palm Sunday sermon on Philippians 2. This sermon was preached on a Sunday when many preschool guests would be in attendance. Lange comments that this sermon attempted to speak to the de-churched with a non-denominational background. Many guests would be used to preaching heavy on sanctification and light on justification.

Remember what was said at the beginning (of the text), “In your relationships with each other have the same mindset Jesus displayed.” God commands us to be humble just like Jesus. And if I said, “Amen,” right now and you left, you might be thinking this was the sermon summary: “1) Jesus was humble, 2) God commands us to be humble just like Jesus,” and you might be fine…for a while. You might go to IHOP and get your pancakes, go to Home Depot and buy your hanging flowerpots for the deck, but sooner or later this question would catch up with you today or this week, “Have I been humble like Jesus? Am I in my life being humble like Jesus? Can I ever be humble like Jesus?”

Why is it that my heart enjoys having the advantage over others? When people treated Jesus like nothing, he carried on in love without complaining? But why is it that when people dismiss me or treat me like nothing, I want to say, “Excuse me, don’t you know who I am? How significant I am? You can’t treat me like that!” And being a servant? Why is it that after a long day of work, the dishes get done, the house gets picked up, and finally a quiet hour for me, and right when we sit down, we hear from upstairs, “Mom, Dad, I need you.” Why is this heart of ours is so slow to serve? This is not a “Look at Jesus and be humble like him!” kind of sermon, this a “Look and first be humbled!” kind of sermon. Be humbled by the truth we haven’t loved this way. Be humbled that God commands us to love this way, but we can’t. We have broken his commands. Someone had to pay for our pride and our selfishness, someone had to pay for the times we haven’t loved others. Someone had to pay for all of our sins. That is what Jesus came to do. It was the reason he came to the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. To rescue us from sin. He didn’t bring an army. He would win victory over sin by surrendering himself. His humility is our hope!

There is no greater act of humble love. The exalted one, who by nature is God, allowed sinful humans to pin him to a crossbeam with nails. The most powerful being to ever walk the earth rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and offered himself to die. The one equal to God didn’t consider using that advantage for himself, even when the other crucified criminals mocked him telling him he should save himself. He stayed. He didn’t even think of saving himself, because all that was on his mind was saving you. The payment we owed God the Humble Servant has given.

One preaching resource (besides the Bible and Confessions) in your library and why you have found it valuable:

One resource is my blank sermon writing template page. Every week I open this document when it is time to begin a new sermon. It has prayers, reminders, tidbits from homiletics class, quotes from other preachers, sermon diagnostic questions, etc. Here is a sampling of what is on it right now:

  1. Begin with prayer. Remember: It is a privilege to stand in pulpit. Enjoy the process!
  2. Catch ME in the Gospel net this week!
  3. Holy Spirit, use this message despite me!
    • Text: Theme of Day: Prayer of Day: Lessons: Initial Ideas:
    • Law: “How can I preach the Law to the secure sinner?” (CFW Walther, Proper Distinction)
    • Gospel: “How can I preach the Gospel to the crushed sinner?” (Walther)
    • Other thoughts and questions:
      • Where is Christ in this text?
      • What lie is the devil telling? How does this portion of God’s Word expose that lie?
      • OT questions: What does the text reveal about God and his will, God’s acts, covenants, law, grace, etc?
      • What is the narrow and broad context of this text?
      • Don’t forget the “So What?” factor.
      • With this sermon I pray that the Holy Spirit will ____ my listeners to…
Timeless Reminders

Editor’s note: This issue’s timeless reminder comes from sainted Prof. Daniel Deuschlander’s article, “Preaching Old Testament Texts.” You can read Prof. Deutschlander’s article its entirety in Preach the Word 7:2.

Perhaps it will help if we start with the simple and so useful assumption: Every text is unique. It makes no difference whether the text is from the Old Testament or the New, keeping that assumption in mind may help to guard against preaching the same sermon every Sunday or from using the same application, no matter what the text: This is the Word of the Lord. Now let’s go out and share it with our neighbors and relatives. Just as the miracles of Jesus are all the same only different, so too are the Bible stories of the Old Testament. Jesus’ miracles all prove that he is the omnipotent Son of God who cares about our human condition. But each recorded miracle is at the same time unique, containing in its telling a lesson found nowhere else in quite the same way. So also the Bible history of the Old Testament. Each story makes the point that God is serious about his Word, both the law and the gospel.

The preacher is always looking for what makes these inspired words, this particular story, unique.

Each story illustrates the truth that grace is always undeserved, that we live by faith, and that we walk as pilgrims under the cross. And at the same time each story is unique and sharpens our understanding of those eternal truths just a little bit more. It is part of the art of the preacher of the Word that he is always looking for what makes these inspired words, this particular story, unique. He is always asking the text: What are you doing here? Of all the things that God could have said, could have told us about, why this?

Written by Joel Russow


The Foundation – Year A

The worship planning spreadsheet (and PDF version) for the entire year has been available since mid-August. Advent through Epiphany had been posted in early June. Some materials such as the Preacher Podcast and graphics are still being provided as they become available.

To receive earliest notice of such materials, be sure to sign up for email notification of new resources at welscongregationalservices.net/subscriptions/. Pastors might want to encourage musicians to sign up for the Hymnal Highlight series, which offers practical and helpful ways to introduce new hymns.

Are you just now considering The Foundation for the first time? Be sure to review the introductory video at welscongregationalservices.net/foundation-yr-a/ and also Worship the Lord #111. A link is just under the video. Note that you can use The Foundation even if you don’t have the new hymnal. You can easily adapt the worship plan for CW21 in the Year A Planner to CW93. The new lectionary is available in the free test drive version of CW Service Builder (builder.christianworship.com) and for purchase from Logos. Since the Gospel readings in the new lectionary are almost always identical to the old, you can still use Planning Christian Worship (worship.welsrc.net) for hymn suggestions if you’re still using CW93. Just watch for any hymns that focus on a First or Second Reading that might have changed in CW21.


 

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