Looking forward and back

On Saturday, April 17, 2021, my wife, Leslie, and I landed in Lilongwe, Malawi. As we landed and looked forward to our new life living and working in Africa, we also looked back to 1991 when we first landed in Zambia to serve as part of the mission team. Back then we arrived with two daughters ages four and two, and one son who was six months old. Now, it’s just the two of us, and those three (and two more) kids are all grown up. Back then we left behind our parents and “took their grandchildren away,” as they would remind us at times. Now, we are leaving behind our grandchildren.

Missionary Mohlke and his wife, Leslie, with their shipping container as they prepare for the move to Lilongwe, Malawi

Back then, we were a young family, and I had just been assigned from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary to serve in Zambia. Now, Leslie and I have been together for over three decades and have been blessed in many ways as we lived in Zambia, Nebraska, Idaho, and Arizona. Now, we look forward to being blessed as we live again in Africa and wonder a bit what the Lord has in store for us. That said, we know for certain that just as the Lord saw us through in the past, he will be with us and bless us this time too.

Many Changes

It is said that you can never go home, meaning that our memories of home remain the same but time changes everything and things are never as we remember. As Leslie and I returned to Africa, we kept reminding ourselves that this would be true, and indeed it was.

Back in 1991, we arrived in a country that had suffered from years of socialism and one-party rule. The consequences were a ruined economy and infrastructure. It was a challenge to procure the most basic of needs. Now, even though there are differences in name brands and price, almost anything can be purchased at a local store. Back then it was big news when certain items were available at the store. Now, one can compare prices and quality of items that you want to buy.

Back in 1991, the only forms of communication with family in the U.S. were airmail and long-distance calls that cost $1.00 per minute, that is, if the phone was working at all. Now, with cellular data, there are multiple means of voice and video communication. That is, if the electricity is on. I guess some things do stay the same.

Missionary Mohlke in Africa in the 1990s

Nothing New

As with water and electricity outages, other things remain the same. The biggest constant is the need to share the Good News of Jesus. People continue to struggle with sin and guilt and need the comfort of Jesus. The work of sharing this comfort is still carried out through Christian congregations who gather to be blessed through Word and sacrament and are willing to share the truth with their neighbors. Nowadays, the congregations are served by locally trained pastors and elders, but the work remains the same.

Something New

Back in 1991, my work was to serve a dozen churches, visiting them every four to six weeks. In between my visits, the work of shepherding the congregations was in the hands of faithful men and women who read sermons on Sunday and taught basic instruction and Sunday school. They visited the sick and managed the affairs of their congregation. When I would visit, I conducted worship and offered encouragement and training to those who were serving so faithfully.

Nowadays, WELS missionaries in Africa are not serving as pastors or overseeing congregations, but are working with the pastors and leadership of church bodies throughout Africa. Back in 1991 there were missionaries doing what I was doing in Malawi and Zambia. Now, the mission team works with partner church bodies in Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, as well as Malawi and Zambia. We also are working with Multi-Language Productions, offering basic biblical and shepherding training to individuals anywhere in the continent. Our prayer is that all these relationships and partnerships would be blessed by the Lord so more people may hear the Good News of Jesus in Africa and beyond.

Always

As Leslie and I begin this new stage of mission life, we know that it is the Lord who has called us here and will bless us. For this we are thankful.

The Lord be with you all.

Written by Missionary Howie Mohlke, leader of the One Africa Team

 

 

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Another day to serve

My alarm rings: another day to serve.

“Dear Lord, give me the heart to share your grace today. Thank you for freeing me from the bondage of sin so that I am able to serve you and others.” It’s been 35 years since I was told by my doctor that I would not survive two years due to cancer. “Thank you Lord for calling me to yourself through what the world cannot see as grace and freedom.”

Time to go to the cafeteria here at Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School and meet up with my fellow volunteer servants to prepare for the day’s work. We have a devotion and prayer, and we are ready for a day of building a staff housing unit that will be a place of rest for the additional teaching staff needed to serve the Apache community with the love of a grace of our Savior. Peridot is part of the WELS’ oldest world mission field to the Apache people on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona. This mission is a unique place, and the Apache people are as unique as the region in which they live. What a privilege to be allowed to support this mission!

Building site at Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School

As a member of Builders for Christ, I have been given the opportunity to help in many church settings as a project manager. The chance to serve a world mission is a rare opportunity for lay volunteers and can be a challenge to work out logistics. Some of the challenges such as funding, timing, materials, and planning onsite are no less difficult in making the puzzle fit. The Lord continues to counter what we call “stumbling blocks”. Oh how small our vision is in comparison to what God’s vision is for us!

Since Arizona has allowed school choice, our Lutheran schools have had a lot of interest from parents that could previously not afford private education, or who would like a Christ-centered curriculum. “Thank you Lord for making our schools a respite from the world. You can have the world, but give me Jesus.” In a time when so many of our churches are shrinking, Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School and mission are expanding. What a challenge! What joy and exaltation! We are free in Christ to serve him in so many ways. “But Lord, all I have is a few old tools and old hands to use them. Here am I, send me, send me.” And God says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The afternoon draws to a close. Let’s straighten that framing a little, install the sheathing, and call it a day.

Today brought some local volunteers, our Apache brothers and sisters, who share the desire to serve God and their community.

Thank you Lord, for allowing us to serve together to assist in raising these little ‘Poppies’.” The “Poppies” are the children served by the loving staff here at the school. They’re referred to as the “Poppies of the desert floor” that erupt in splendid color as spring rains water and nourish the dormant seeds. With the “Poppies” come the parents and families to hear God’s refreshing and freeing word. The peace that transcends human understanding, and the rest the world cannot emulate.

Okay, that’s a wrap. “Thank you for another day of grace and the sharing of your spirit, Oh Lord.” Our hosts thank us for another day of work. They don’t know how blessed we are to help in our small ways. It’s not fair we get more in return than what we came to give. I love God’s economy! “Thank you Lord for another day of grace. Thank you for these missionaries that leave lives of luxury to spread your love among the ‘Poppies’.”

Rest well dear friends. And as the builders say, “I will see you down the road.”

Written by Mr. Randy Baker, project manager of the Builders for Christ project at Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School on the Apache reservations in Arizona

 

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 5

You’ve heard that communication is 93% nonverbal. What does this say about sermon delivery? Clearly, we ought to spend way more time than we do in front of our mirrors, and we ought to endure way more agony watching recordings of ourselves. We ought to stop fussing so much over the careful crafting of words.

Why? Because everybody knows that only 7% of communication is verbal, while 38% is vocal, and 55% is facial—this famous breakdown still appears in graduate-level communication textbooks.

Nonsense!

Albert Mehrabian’s study from over fifty years ago was about the interpretation of the emotional state of other people. That’s a crucial distinction. “How are you?” I ask, and in that moment, the language of groans or laughter takes over. If I mean to communicate caring, what I say has to make sense within the total richness of my nonverbal display. Of course.

Our words will not tend to be convincing when our nonverbal cues are pulling in a different direction entirely. Do you believe someone who shouts, “Alright! I’m sorry!” as he slams the door? Not a chance. How about a friend who sighs, “I’m fine,” with her wet eyes glued to the floor?

Somewhere within these commonsense observations hides the fact that sermon delivery is not irrelevant. My preaching is not all it can be if I say that there is joy in knowing Jesus but you never see it in me. Surely, we want to avoid the “performative contradiction” of speaking vital things while the entirety of our person is loudly saying something else. By the help of God, we can do better than that.

Ideals of Sermon Delivery

I once conducted an experiment in which I quoted John 3:16 in six straight sermons. There wasn’t much premeditation. I was just wondering how many Sundays it would take for the words to start to feel tired and overworked. How long before someone would comment, “Really, pastor? Again with John 3:16?” That day never came.

It was something I read in The Normal Christian Life, by Watchman Nee1 and which I have seen since in Kierkegaard’s notion of an “existence communication.” The idea is simply to “be in the words as you say them”—to exist in them. No going on automatic pilot. No having the words just sort of roll off the tongue in a thoughtless recitation. Speak slowly and think deeply about what you are saying.

“For God…so loved…the world…”

This takes a little practice, that is, handling something so familiar in this way. So practice I did.

“…his One and Only Son…that whoever believes in him…will not perish…”

It turns out I overdid it. On Sunday #6, I tried to speak but was completely overwhelmed.

“…but will have eternal life.”

That wasn’t the point. We aren’t going for drama here, nor are we trying to manufacture an affecting display of feeling. All the sincerity in the world adds nothing to the inherent power of the Spirit married to his Word. No, all we are after is simply a genuine communication. I find that being in the words as I say them, for the most part, lets delivery take care of itself.

Being in the words as I say them, for the most part, lets delivery take care of itself.

About sermon delivery in general, Bryan Chapell writes, “Congregations ask no more and expect no less of a preacher than truth expressed in a manner consistent with the personality of the preacher and reflective of the import of the message.”2 Let’s unpack that.

Chapell argues that the “elocution movement,” with its standards for how every speaker should gesture, stand, and sound, has been dead for over a century. The rhetorical style that has long won the day is to “sound like ourselves when we are deeply interested in a subject.”3

I agree. As you deliver your message, work within your own personality—“you do you”—but show us the man who is captivated by the cross. Show us that version of you, the one who is entirely invested in what you are saying, transparently affected by it. It means the world to you. As I wrote earlier, we can tell that you are being put back together by the News you deliver.

“For God…so loved…the world…”

I tell my eager students in their introduction to homiletics: “Show me that guy!” And they do. Brothers, you would be delighted to see it.

I remember one of my favorite preachers, a beloved seminary professor, who would scarcely move a muscle when he preached. He worked within a personality that was both brilliant and unassuming. He quite simply let the words do all the work. There is much to commend that.

However, that may be overstated. Just as you “cannot not communicate,”4 a preacher cannot not have a delivery. The content of his sermons was so rich and pitched so steeply that it required expert inflection to make his meaning transparently clear and the pausing of a seasoned veteran to give his words room to play on our minds. If you knew the man, you would not want him to do it any other way.

The best delivery calls little attention to itself. What we hope for is that, as the power of Christ rests on faithful proclamation, people are hanging on the words. Whatever spell we may cast in our preaching can be broken by a distracting mannerism or unnatural modulation as people wake up to the fact that, “Oh that’s right, I’m listening to a sermon.” Pray God they hardly notice us at all.

The best delivery calls little attention to itself.

“Working within our own personalities” will have as many looks as there are preachers, and I can think of plenty of good men for whom “not moving a muscle” in their delivery would itself be a strange attention-arresting choice.

At any rate, the small attention we are here paying to issues in communication can, I hope, be justified by an observation our fathers made. People don’t only receive the Word of God spiritually, that is, through the ministrations of the Spirit working through his Word. People also receive the Word of God psychologically. That is to say: a whole array of human processes is involved with all communication, and those don’t somehow cease to function because we happen to be communicating God’s Word.5

Our preaching needs to be heard, understood, attended to, and held. And we can certainly stand in the way by violating the expectations of the moment or by contradicting the what of our communication by our how.

People also receive the Word of God psychologically.

After all, the fact that we “cannot not communicate” means that our nonverbal communication flows in a steady, unstoppable stream, one you cannot be thinking about all the time. We make more or less constant commentary on who and what matters, and it is mostly unintentional. This means that “communication leakage” is likely happening. In other words, we may need to do a gut check. What do we actually feel about the people we speak to, about the undeserved privilege of the moment, and about the things that we trying to put into words? Because, so goes the theory, all this will leak out of us.

People will see us. In the long run, people will know.

I hope that one humble article in Preach the Word is not too much emphasis to place on striving to have our delivery pulling in the same direction as our content—“For God so loved the world…”—and to have our whole person contribute a loud “Amen!”

So say my face, my eyes, my voice, my very body:

“This matters! And so, people of God, do you.”

How to Read the Written Word

The Church has a stewardship of the spoken Word. We Christians still attend to sacred words on a page that are allowed to animate a human voice and are given room to charge with holiness the physical spaces in which we gather. It is a seminal moment, this opening of a Bible, this “Hear, now, the Word of the Lord.” It is one of those key features in the life of a congregation when our hard-won means of grace theology becomes actual in our midst.

That happens as we bring our whole selves to the act, and when we linger over the assigned readings for the day. The thought and care we give to the public reading of the Scriptures—or don’t—is revealing us.

If people are pretty sure they are seeing us read a biblical excerpt for the first time as we stand before them, what does that say? What communication would be leaking out of us if we start our sermons by reading our text out of a Bible and then ceremoniously tuck the thing away? Holy Scripture was the prelude; now for the main event? Here’s another gut check: how, in our heart of hearts, do we really feel about the words of God versus our own? Are our words—are we?—the bright star on the homiletical stage? God forbid. What a humble, glorious activity it is:

“Devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture…” (1 Timothy 4:13).

Be in the words as you read them, and you will not say without inflection or pause: “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many people” (Matthew 24:5). Have a downward sentence-ending inflection on the word “Christ” and then a healthy pause, or you risk distorting the meaning entirely.6

Be in the words as you say them, and you will perhaps not emphasize the word “and” when you speak the invocation—“…AND of the Son, AND of the Holy Spirit”—but instead the thrice-holy name of the Triune God.7

Think of what you are saying—here’s a pet peeve—and we won’t suffer the annoyance of, “On the third day, Christ rose AGAIN.”

Let’s return to the positive, better, to the joy. Take a closer look at that gorgeous paragraph from Jesus that begins, “In my Father’s house are many rooms…” (John 14:2) Sense the fresh way it can strike the heart when, on the basis of close reading and a robust understanding, you realize you want to change up the inflection and pace in ways you haven’t heard done before.

Which word or words will you inflect in the phrase, “In my Father’s house?” A weighty question, don’t you think? Can you make a good decision on the fly? I don’t think so. With a little preparation you will know to have Jesus answer the question of Thomas, “How can we follow when we do not know the way?” with a well-inflected “I” as in, “I am the Way (long pause) and the TRUTH (inflect this as a new thought and pause) and the LIFE (inflect and pause)” (John 14:6).

Which words will we inflect? Well, which words are being contrasted, such as “flesh” and “spirit” in Romans 8? What new thought is being introduced? What wordings, such as “and IF I go and prepare a place for you,” are a repetition and therefore can be read more quickly so as to get to the reason for the sentence?

I. Will. Come. Back.

Think about those words as you lock eyes with the weary and the anxious. I dare you.

The Particulars

I mentioned earlier that delivery can, for the most part, take care of itself. When we are in command of our message, preaching can be an authentic communication that is to die for. If the first time we preached we saw before us only that unpleasant phenomenon of a sea of “resting faces,” you have learned with experience how much more than that is going on. Beautiful, honest, urgent things pass between the under-shepherd and his flock if he can only be enough in the moment to receive them.

The reason I say “for the most part” is that a little further study of sermon delivery may reveal areas in which our instincts are not perfectly informed. We can still grow.

I recently had Jason Teteak, author of Rule the Room, in the class in which I introduce homiletics to future pastors. To say the least, he raised the bar. I recommend his book. It emerged out of his analysis of thousands of speeches. Having given little thought to my own delivery for decades, the experience was good for me.

Can you make a good decision on the fly? I don’t think so.

I learned that I need to close my mouth when not speaking. Didn’t know that. I learned that to raise my voice to unnatural levels is not as effective as speaking with quiet intensity (as much as a sound system allows). I learned that inflecting upward conveys excitement, but at the end of a sentence, it can convey far less credibility and conviction than a downward inflection does. I’ve learned that the whole range of vocal variety—thoughtful changes in tone, pace, volume, inflection—can be part of the ways I hold attention or regain it for the highest moments in my sermon. These are non-discursive symbols that do not translate into words but, instead, are felt as qualities. I’m learning not to fill in my pregnant pauses with vocal noises—I’m trying to empty them of “ums” and “ahs.” Again, good things happen in the silent spaces we create.

I learned that there are four rhetorical styles that can characterize a preacher—his sweet spot—and that there are risks involved with emulating someone if it’s just not who we are.8

I’ve learned to ask myself, “What do I want my listeners to feel in this moment?” Rather than merely perform that emotion, the thing is to actually feel and display that very thing on my face. I’ve learned what to do with my hands if I am not a “hand talker.” I’ll find a comfortable default position in which to rest my hands, and then I’ll scour my manuscript to create a few meaningful gestures to go with various wordings and which will enhance a few of my most important thoughts. Less is more.

I’ll scour my manuscript to create a few meaningful gestures to go with various wordings.

I’ve learned about “targeted” movements, gestures, and facial expressions that are an additional way to bring attention to specific words or phrases. I’ve learned about dividing the space into which I’m speaking into a grid of nine quadrants and randomly spread my attention around with a few seconds in each at a time. I try not to leave any part of the room out so that I am not saying, ‘The love of God is for all of you…especially those of you on my right where I am always turned.” I’m learning to meet eyes in a Goldilocks moment of a little under a second—not too little, not too much.

I think about these things a bit as I write and prepare. Then I set them aside.

Lord, help me forget myself.

A Rare Both/And

Some of us are gentle. Some of us are bold. We tend to lean one way or another. In a term from Timothy Keller’s book, Preaching, we strive to preach with “warmth and force” as qualities that combine uniquely in the character of Jesus.

We do not hide that we are weak or decorate our jars of clay. We have taken the disappointing journey inside. This informs our gentle humility and fuels all our compassion. We know what sin is—people can tell that, too. We can dare to be sinners.

And we rise with power and authority on loan from God. We stand up with things to say before which queens and kings ought to bend their knees. We pour our treasure out.

Conclusion

I am fascinated by the way nonverbals cues and channels intersect with spoken words. What if we heard Jesus say, “No servant is greater than his Master,” but never saw him on his knees washing the feet of his friends? Would we understand? John comments, “He now showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:2).

He showed them.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me!” (Luke 22:42) What if you only heard the words but did not see him fall. Meanings leak out of him like great drops of blood.

Later on, he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27).

My Lord, how you speak with your hands! My God, the body language of the Word made flesh!

The Gospel writers saw significance in dozens of nonverbal cues in the life of Christ: the touching of the leper, the drawing in the sand, the loud cry from the cross, the frying of fish on the shore—all the beautiful ways he delivers his lines. He came to join with us in the full richness of human connection and to fully share in our human stuff.

These cues accumulate in a thing we find convincing, by the grace of God. They accent the words that overwhelm.

“For God so loved the world…”

 

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.

1 Watchman Nee was a prominent figure in the house-church movement in China.
2 Christ-Centered Preaching. Baker, 2005, 329.
3 ibid.
4 This is a famous contribution from Paul Watzlawick.
5 On this point see Jon Hein, “Treasures in Jars of Clay: The Synergy Between the Instrumental and Ministerial Causes in God’s Plan of Salvation” at essays.wisluthsem.org.
6 See How to Speak the Written Word by Nedra Newkirk Lamar (Revell, 1967) for guidance on pause and inflection as an aid to understanding the spoken Word.
7 This is a soft example. It is not to suggest that the “and” is not meaningful. Try it both ways and see if you don’t agree.
8 See Jason Teteak’s Rule the Room (Morgan James, 2014) for more information.


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

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Earliest New Hymnal Adopters

As I write this article in the last days of March, at least 50 congregations have already preordered the new hymnal (or decided to do so), sometimes also with a quantity of the psalter. In contrast, a few people have asked how they can be expected to consider purchasing something they haven’t yet had a chance to thoroughly review. I’ll speak to that a bit later. But first some thoughts about my assumptions and some comments from the earliest adopters.

Not every congregation

Pressure and anticipation for a new hymnal in 2021 is simply not as high as it was in 1993. So leaders from both the hymnal project and NPH recognize that adoption will likely be at a different pace than the rapid and almost universal adoption of CW93 in the mid-1990s. And that’s perfectly fine. No one is saying that all good synodical team players should quickly jump on board.

Further complicating decisions is a year of pandemic. So here, again, is a comment from the September 2020 WTL: “Hymnal project leaders recognize that not every congregation will want to or be able to adopt the new hymnal in 2021. Reasons include COVID uncertainties, tightened budgets, and uncertain futures. This article isn’t meant to ignore those realities but only to encourage review and planning in whatever way seems appropriate.”

But as many as possible

Granting that not every congregation will adopt the new hymnal in 2021, there still is benefit in many doing so—benefit to the congregations, not merely to the success of the project.

A few years ago, the Commission on Worship and its consultants were busy with Schools of Worship Enrichment. Over 12 years we served 291 congregations, coast to coast, large and small, young and old, growing and declining. Those who served these weekend events noticed two contrasting challenges to implementing a vision of creative, flexible, and satisfying liturgical worship. The obvious challenge came from some who wondered if we needed to abandon a liturgical format and heritage hymns to reach or retain the people we want to serve. The less obvious challenge came from those who seemed content with varying degrees of uncreative and inflexible implementations of liturgical worship. It’s not surprising that some would want “something more” than that approach to worship.

The resources were always there for enriching Lutheran worship with alternate canticles and new hymns in varied musical styles accompanied by instruments far more diverse than the solo organ that commonly led worship. But many pastors and musicians didn’t have the vision or ability to implement this “enriched Lutheran worship.”1

Now the new hymnal suite richly provides options that can help both of the challenges described above—as well as support congregations without either challenge. The church that prefers an ensemble to an organ (or both in rotation on different weekends) will find the music they need for two musical settings of the primary Sunday service. Same for many hymns. A church that formerly relied mostly on organ, whose musicians lacked time or ability to involve other instruments, will find a wealth of resources.

Such options reinforce a healthy bias that project director Michael Schultz mentioned in the previous article in this series: “I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.”2 In the past such a bias might have been heard to support a narrow musical bandwidth that wouldn’t be labeled flexible and creative. That was never the intent. But now the new hymnal suite makes it far easier to implement goals of flexibility and creativity.

So I urge “as many as possible” with conviction that it’s good for congregations across a synod to share a worship philosophy and core worship resources.

It’s good for congregations across a synod to share a worship philosophy and core worship resources.

NPH and the Commission on Worship

These two synodical entities have different if complementary roles. NPH is a business and a ministry, your ministry partner. From them you have received promotional materials and a preorder option. They sell products at price points that enable them to continue serving in their role.

The Commission on Worship is not a business but only a ministry partner concerned with many aspects of worship enrichment. One of the biggest opportunities for worship enrichment comes along only every 30-40 years: the release of a new hymnal. So communications from the C/W will share introductory resources and urge adoption of the new hymnal. We do this not from a business perspective but purely from a ministry perspective.

Comments from earliest adopters

To assist congregations that have not yet ordered the new hymnal, I polled some that have already ordered and asked three questions. Various answers are included below with the hope that they might be helpful to other congregations. The congregations represented are from all over the country and range in average attendance from 38 to 560. State abbreviations follow most comments.

How did you build consensus to make an early decision, long before able to review the pew edition and other volumes?

We started early singing songs we understood would be included and made a point of telling people the song would be part of the new hymnal. We talked about it in our leadership meetings and with the congregation that this was just what we do: new hymnal comes out, and so we will be using the new hymnal. People were looking forward to new songs and sounds, so it was a fairly easy sell. ~SC

There wasn’t much of a debate as to whether we would adopt the new hymnal. We participated in multiple field tests for the hymnal, plus the congregation was aware of the work I was doing on the Scripture Committee. We already have ordered hymnals and psalters to put in the pew racks (enough to make sure we meet the minimum for the Service Builder discount). We also plan to subscribe to the Service Builder. The only item that caused some discussion was the number of physical hymnals to order, since we have for a long time printed the entire service (hymns included) in the service folder. However, the combination of needing to purchase a certain number for the Service Builder discount and the understanding that having physical hymnals in pews for people to look at and use in addition to the service folder is valuable for members and guests alike made that discussion rather brief. ~KY

How much longer do we need to wait?

Our two pastors and staff minister decided early on they wanted to purchase the whole shebang, and took it to our elders, and it was easily approved. We are paying for it mostly with memorial money that was donated specifically for this purpose. As I’m sure is the case with many congregations, we removed all our old hymnals from the pews for COVID-related reasons, which will make the physical transition even easier! We’re also going to open it up to any members who want to personally purchase anything, and add their orders to our one big church order. I feel everyone at our church has been really open to the switch! ~WI

The process for building a consensus to make an early decision began more than ten years ago. We are liturgical in our worship style but have adopted any number of songs and services over the years to introduce new formats. For Advent and Lenten services, for example, we started with Compline 2, found a version of Psalm 91 that we liked better, and mixed and matched a couple of other elements and/or changed pieces for one year along the way. The people like these services, so it isn’t hard for them to be excited about a new hymnal which will facilitate trying some additional new services. ~MI

Our decision was never really a struggle. The congregation has a long history of making use of the musical resources that the synod makes available. Our people here have embraced many of the hymns and liturgies from the supplement, and are already familiar with many of the Getty tunes that will appear in the new hymnal. For our congregation, it wasn’t ever really a question of “Will we choose to get the new hymnal?” but “How much longer do we need to wait?” ~GA

What was your funding process? Budgetary over two years, plus special gifts, or what?

Purchasing the new hymnal was part of our five-year plan. We had little discussion. 47 out of 100 hymnals are paid for as of early March with the methodology pictured above. Strictly special gifts. Many of the other books have also been purchased for the church. ~IL

We started at least two years in advance by setting aside $2000 in our ministry plan and then made it part of our special projects list. (We share this list with people who want to make a special donation or give a memorial.) We had planned to use a special “buy a hymnal” drive this year, but a member gave a large gift as a memorial and covered the cost. Another member recently contacted me to offer to pay for the new hymnal and other volumes. So in our case, it was just something people were drawn to support. Blessed! ~SC

We were going to do “combination of budget/congregational gifts” over this year. But someone was very blessed in the recent stock market run-up and came in wanting to make a gift and paid for the first batch of hymnals/psalter/resources in one shot. So, I was able to say at elders, “Well, this is the cost I’d ask you to approve…and please know that it is already paid for…” which made the decision easier. They would have said yes anyway, but they also simply assume (as I think our council does) that our synod is putting out a new hymnal and a) we’ve been using some of those resources already and b) we’d of course just go along and adopt it. ~WI

Please know that it is already paid for.

We had talked about “every member buy two,” one for them and one for the pew. Decided not to go that route as we’ve received gifts already of $9,000 for it without it even being advertised outside of Elders/Council. We are all in to the tune of about $12,000. ~WI

A few years ago a member left a gift to the congregation in his estate. He had a deep love for worship music. We used a portion of his estate to purchase a grand piano. When the hymnal’s budget planning worksheet was made available, the council realized that the remaining portion of the gift would cover the cost of the new hymnals. At the same time, we do plan on inviting people to use the offering envelopes to make a special gift to the hymnals in the expectation that we can stretch our worship budget a bit further yet. ~GA

Are you ordering the psalter? If so, for pews or just choir?

We are ordering 25 copies to start for choir and small group use. We plan on purchasing 300 hymnals for the sanctuary and choir. We will subscribe to Service Builder and purchase multiple copies of the hymn and liturgy accompaniment books. We will purchase 30 copies of the psalter for the choir. ~MN

Any other unique stories that would provide interest for the article or quotes from members?

Nothing really unique, except our people are very excited. ~TX

Our worship committee was very excited to see the wealth of materials available at a substantially lower cost than first anticipated. We had committed early on to books in the pews for a number of reasons; the pricing structure made that a no-brainer from an economic standpoint, as well. ~WI

There is a bit of frustration expressed in that there are a number of TBD items and details connected with the new Christian Worship. Yet, I know the project is very ambitious in its scope and timetable for publication.3 ~MN

The pricing structure made books in the pews a no-brainer.

The National Conference on Lutheran Leadership [January 2020] was an incredible help. We were able to bring five members of the congregation, including our office administrator and two council members. We all left the conference deeply impressed with every aspect of the hymnal showcased there: the support volumes, the Service Builder, and above all, the worship services. It allowed those members to be strong early advocates for the hymnal. ~GA

It’s been decided we will gift all our organists/pianists with their own copies of all the accompaniment books (we have six accompanists), which I thought was super generous of the leadership. ~WI

We all left the conference deeply impressed with every aspect of the hymnal showcased there.

We look forward to many instrumental parts already prepared. I play trumpet, we have an occasional violinist, a couple of guitar players, some hand drums, a flute, a penny-whistle player, if you can believe that, and some other people we are trying to get involved with occasionally playing a piece. Pre-transposed pieces and other various options are exciting to the special music people who are looking forward to getting their hands on these resources.4 ~MI

At Trinity, Waukesha, we are at an advantage since we’ve been almost exclusively using new service music, hymns, psalms, etc. for all our services since Advent (Year C, one year ahead of other WELS congregations to help prepare planning resources for other churches next year).5 There have been many positive comments on the new hymns, revised texts, and service music. ~WI

Confidence in the project

Now, back to a question posed in the first paragraph: how can a congregation consider purchasing something they haven’t yet had a chance to thoroughly review? Perhaps the comments above from diverse congregations around the country can help to answer the question.

Another confidence-building factor is the caliber of those serving on the hymnal project’s Executive Committee. It has been a highlight of my almost 40 years in the ministry to work with these men, people with both sound theological grounding and practical parish experience. It is a testimony to the confidence that our synod can rightly have in this committee that one member was a seminary professor, two others accepted calls to the seminary during the project, two others have declined calls to the seminary, and two others have served as professors or administrators at synodical schools. Furthermore, every word in the new hymnal has been scrutinized by a doctrinal review process.

In closing I emphasize again that the hymnal project recognizes that congregations are in different places as far as decisions and timelines. This article doesn’t intend to lobby but to provide perspectives from the congregations cited. Still, whether you preorder soon or don’t even think about the new hymnal this year, we hope that eventually the vast majority of congregations will adopt the new hymnal just as we did in the years following 1993.

By Bryan Gerlach

Pastor Gerlach, a member of the hymnal project Executive Committee, has served as Director of the Commission on Worship since 1996. Previously he served parishes in El Paso, TX, and Citrus Heights, CA. He regularly plays organ and piano in two Milwaukee-area churches.

 


As far as the funding process goes, this is the announcement we’ve been running in our bulletin.

Pass on the Legacy with Our New Hymnal

If you could make an investment that would positively impact someone for at least 30 years, wouldn’t you want to do that? You have that opportunity with the release of our new hymnal. Christian Worship will be released for the fall of 2021. This new hymnal will be the staple of Eastside’s worship for the next generation. Combining the best from past traditions with the best from current resources, Christian Worship keeps the gospel at the heart of our worship, kindling the joy of worship on every page. To fit our congregation’s needs, we need 400 hymnals. That’s a $9600 investment. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of our hymnal for the past 30 years. Wouldn’t you like to be part of this new 30-year investment? Could you prayerfully consider donating one hymnal to Eastside for each member of your family? Think of the impact you can make! If you have any questions, please speak with Pastor Berg.

By early March, we’ve raised over $8000 of $9600. That’s without any special drive. Those are just individual gifts above and beyond regular offerings. As of right now, we are only ordering a few copies of the psalter. But if we receive more than $9600, we will order copies of the psalter for choir use. ~WI


1 This is not a careless and unfounded generalization. Survey data from those 291 SoWE congregations clearly supports the observation.
2 “A Wealth of Accompaniment Options,” March 2021. Back issues are available at worship.welsrc.net.
3 Most of 20 resources are coming out at the same time in the fall of 2021. Compare that to the years following 1993 when only the hymnal and manual were released. The Handbook came out in 1997, the Altar Book in 1999, Occasional Services and Pastor’s Companion in 2004.
4 Instrumental parts with transpositions will be provided by CW: Musician’s Resource.
5 The hymnal project director is a member of this church. The planning resource mentioned will be released in summer. For a detailed analysis of this church’s needs, see “Trinity Hymnals,” a supplemental online doc at the link in note 2.


New at christianworship.com

“Why a New Hymnal?” This bulletin insert is newly added to a ZIP of other bulletin inserts. It came about from a pastor’s request for something very simple as opposed to “visit the website.” It may be useful to share before a decision-making group meets or simply to build interest for the arrival of the new hymnal. Find it in the Publicity Toolkit link under Resources.

The Wedding Rite in the New Christian Worship” – an article by Prof. Jonathan Micheel from the Spring 2021 issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.

Coming later this year: a variety of introductory videos useful not only for evaluating and understanding hymnal project choices but also for exploring and using various resources.


 

 

 

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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Optimistic outreach

You’ve no doubt experienced it in your congregation. Nearly all of our ministry and outreach events for the last year have been canceled, postponed, or altered. We canceled worship for about six months. Human contact was greatly reduced. All this has certainly threatened our outreach efforts. However, in spite of these setbacks, God has given us many blessings amid the COVID-19 conundrum.

Necessity propelled us deeper into the digital age and further into social media outreach. This has prompted us to continue providing weekly video devotions, sermons, and a children’s message for both preschool and elementary age children. We used the “down” time to upgrade our equipment and video efforts as well as our website in order to help people connect with us and to find the information they were looking for.

Inside Redeemer’s new worship facility

COVID postponed our Jesus Cares Ministry and “Worship at the Cross.” We had hoped to begin this past fall (2020), but our special needs community remains under isolation. So, while they remain in quarantine, we have begun to record our Worship at the Cross service, which we post through our website and social media content once a month. Our contact and leader in this community has shared this information with the people who are members of her group and has encouraged them to check us out. We hope that by mid-summer 2021 or fall 2021, we will be able to “Worship at the Cross” face-to-face.

While our Easter egg hunt and other service events like a food drive were canceled, we were able to offer online worship and weekly Bible study. We kept in contact with our prospects and members, some of whom checked us out online and appreciated the gospel they heard. This past summer we were able to worship face-to-face for about six weeks before we had to close again.  However, this time it was for a good and positive reason.

Inviting people to the Easter for Kids drive-through event

Three and half years ago, we had begun worship and ministry inside a large professional building. While the management staff was friendly and accommodating, the location hindered our efforts. In July 2020 and in answer to our prayers, God provided us a stand-alone building for lease which is located on a major road and near an elementary school and one of the largest grocery stores and retail areas in the city. While the building required about $30,000 to renovate, God blessed our people so that we were able to raise all the money within our multi-site congregation! We did not ask for or need additional synodical or outside support.

Additionally, God blessed our members with many gifts. In addition to their offerings, many of them donated time and energy to make the remodel of our new facility a reality. People both within our congregation and in our community have commented on how nice it looks and how well it functions. This new space with the opportunities it gives us have invigorated our members and we are happy to report that, since we have moved into our new facility, we have seen a notable increase in guest attendance. We prayerfully hope to welcome five new members within the next two months!

There are still more reasons for our optimism. Under some restrictions, we held a drive-through “Trick or Treat” where we handed out bags filled with candy, crafts, Bible lessons, and invitations to our Thanksgiving and Christmas services. We handed out over 300 invitations. We did much the same at Christmas with our drive-through Christmas for Kids, and we did the same for Easter instead of our annual Easter egg hunt.

We recently resumed our door-to-door, face-to-face efforts to invite neighbors to our Easter for Kids drive-through event and our Easter worship. Like so many, we pray by summer of 2021 we will be able to return to more normal social conditions. We remain optimistic that our efforts will continue to see more visible measures of blessing. Thank you for all you do in your words, actions, attitudes, and offerings to support the efforts of WELS Home Missions in WELS! We truly appreciate it.

Written by Rev. Aaron Glaeske, home missionary at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Victoria, Tex. 

WELS Home Missions just approved funding for seven new home mission locations! Read more about these new mission plants in this article from this week’s Together e-newsletter.

 

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Mission Journeys: Back up and running!

“Go and make disciples…”

That phrase has taken on new meaning this past year as individuals and churches adjusted to life during a pandemic. Many of our members will never take worshiping in their church for granted again. We pray that Easter services around our synod were filled with people singing praises to Jesus for his victory over sin, the devil, and death!

Members from Divine Savior Lutheran Church in Doral, Fla., recently visited the church in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

Mission Journeys, the WELS short-term mission trip program, is back up and running again. The first two congregations going out are Zion in Columbus, Wis., (pictured above) and St. Paul’s in Clintonville, Wis. These congregations are heading to a location south of Seattle, Wash., to assist in canvassing an area where a new home mission might be planted. All the precautions are in place, including the wearing of masks, as the teams go door-to-door. Additional teams will be heading to Idaho and Oregon this summer. If you and your congregation are unsure of traveling a long distance, Mission Journeys has domestic mission trip opportunities in the Midwest and beyond as well.

The park in Puerto Rico that Mission Journeys teams would be renovating and conducting outreach events.

International mission trips are still a year away as many countries around the world have strict restrictions upon entering. Fortunately, Puerto Rico is a part of the United States. This makes travel a possibility. Missionary Mike Hartman, team leader of the WELS Latin America missions team, has identified an opportunity to send mission teams to Puerto Rico. The initial plan is to renovate a park near the local church in Guayama and assist them in holding outreach events. Mission Journeys is looking for 12 congregations to commit to sending one mission team a year for three years. The teams will need at least half the members to have Spanish-speaking ability. We want over half of the 12 congregations to have Hispanic members and a Hispanic ministry. This would allow our Hispanic brothers and sisters the opportunity to serve on a mission trip in Latin America. God willing, these trips will begin in November 2021 and be spread out throughout the following months and years. Please add Puerto Rico and the national churches there to your prayer lists as WELS sends mission teams to partner in sharing the message of Jesus, our Savior, in a fertile field, where the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.

Written by Mr. Shannon Bohme, Mission Journeys coordinator

For more information or questions, visit wels.net/missionjourneys or send an e-mail to missionjourneys@wels.net.

 

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Faith and healing for 60 years

When you hear the word “Africa,” what comes to your mind? For WELS Lutherans, perhaps a lot of history comes to your mind. History that is often rooted in the work of the Central Africa Medical Mission.

1963: Barbara Welch and Kay Stuh work at the Zambia Clinic

The Central Africa Medical Mission (CAMM) started doing Christ-centered medical work in 1961 for just a handful of people in Mwembezhi, Zambia, which is near Lusaka, the capitol of Zambia. Today, thousands of Zambians come to that same clinic site seeking medical health (healing) for their body as well as spiritual health (faith) for their soul.

In 1970, medical services began in the country of Malawi as a mobile clinic. According to one of our first resident nurses, Edie Schneider Hintz, “For several weeks at three regular clinic stops we saw over 1,900 adults and 700 children in our under-five clinics. Amazing for their first try in the bush with medicine.”

The Lutheran Mobile Clinic in Malawi currently serves four rural villages. Annual attendance varies between 47,000 to 58,000 patients. The people in these villages trust our Lutheran Mobile Clinic to provide them with preventative healthcare and good quality medical care.

This year, CAMM will celebrate its 60th anniversary of showing Christ’s love through our care of very poor and needy people in central Africa who come to our clinics. Every day at our clinics, we get to nourish the faith of patients by sharing God’s Word with them through devotions and praying with them. At the same time, we get to bring healthcare to children in our under-five program, to adults who are suffering from malaria and HIV, and to young mothers in our maternity program.

Devotion at a clinic in Malawi

We also have some exciting news happening in Malawi this year. We have reached the point where we are now able to nationalize our clinic and give more responsibility to the Malawian staff, so that they can run the clinic and make it their own. That’s always been our goal, and God has blessed us at this time to be able to achieve that goal.

There are so many blessings that CAMM has experienced by God’s grace, and there are even more opportunities waiting for us.

Because of the Lord’s great love over the past 60 years, hundreds of thousands of patients have been helped and countless lives have been saved through the work of CAMM. In addition, many adults and children have heard the good news of Jesus and have been baptized as a result. It’s been one blessing after another as we have provided Christ-centered medical and spiritual care for the past 60 years in Africa. “To God be the glory, great things he has done!” (CW 399).

Written by Rev. Kevin Schultz, Central Africa Medical Mission Spiritual advisor

We are featuring the Central Africa Medical Mission during the month of April as they celebrate 60 years of God’s grace in 2021. Visit wels.net/camm to learn more.

 

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Hitting a homerun

Jesus was relational. And he probably would have liked baseball too. I mean, his ultimate goal is getting us home, right?

Harvey helping out around church

I follow Jesus’ example in being relational and loving baseball. My 14-year-old son, Jackson, is quieter; but he shares my love of baseball. He’s played select ball since he was 8 years old with a young man named Gavin. Gavin’s father, Harvey, has coached the boys for 6 years (12 seasons between spring and fall)! About five months ago, Harvey came to check out our new church building as he knew that if I wasn’t at the ballpark, I’d be there. He knew our family very well outside of church and decided he was ready to find out what it was that made us church folks different. Now he only misses an opportunity to be at church if we have an early game on a Sunday morning. He’s known to wear coaching gear to Bible study or service so he can head right to the fields from church so he misses as little as possible. He’s a fixture around Christ the Rock and will soon finish instruction classes and, God-willing, we will welcome him into membership.

Baseball is a team sport. So is mission work. My family and I witness by our behavior and attitude at church and at the ballpark. Now Harvey is really on our team too. Baseball can appear to some as a slow sport. But the good news is, there’s always a new day with plenty of second chances. Jesus is like that too. He sometimes takes six years to work in the heart of a friend we see all the time. But when someone you care about finds that second chance. . . WOW!

In baseball, often times you fail. But you never give up. Not every friend I develop a relationship with will come to church. But I know that if I keep following the example Jesus set, his will is done. Every biblical “hero” struck out at some point. Except Jesus. He’s our ultimate Hall of Famer! I don’t have to hit a home run every time because at the gates of heaven, God will see Jesus’ perfect record instead of my own sad and pathetic failures and stats. And Harvey will be right there too, holding up Jesus’ perfect game as his when we play together for the Bethlehem Braves. Or maybe the Jerusalem Giants? Who knows.

Written by Rev. James Skorzewski (Pastor Ski), home missionary at Christ the Rock Lutheran Church in Hutto, Tex. 

 

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This is Eleanor

If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. (1 Peter 4:11b)

As I would greet people before and after worship, I often heard a phrase that always brought a smile to my face: “This is Eleanor”. Very often that phrase would be used as a group of college students would gather to visit after worship or in the Fellowship Hall for a meal. She is not a college student. She has never attended one of the Bible Studies held on the local college campus. But she was a servant to her Lord and Savior who utilized the strength that God provided her. I would like you to meet Eleanor.

She was a model of the Christian faith in her personal life. She understood our sin and the need for our Savior. She was faithful in her worship and Bible study attendance. She knew her Bible and read it daily. When college students came into the church building, her congregation knew she was a good person to introduce them to. And so the phrase, “This is Eleanor. . .” is one that sticks in my mind as I visit congregations, high schools, and campus ministries. I think of how Eleanor humbly did some things to encourage college students to be faithful to their Savior. Eleanor also encouraged her family this way. She was very thankful for the campus ministry that served her grandson in Texas. She would regularly write to the college-age students from her home congregation of St. John’s in Minneapolis, Minn., who were away at school. When they came home, she was always happy to see them and greeted them with both a welcoming face and encouraging conversations. When St. John’s was deciding whether or not they should be the place that serves college students in the Twin Cities, Eleanor spoke up both publicly and privately, “We have an opportunity to serve young adults at a crucial time in their lives. I think of my grandchildren and our college students here.” As I remember her encouragement, there are more people just like her spread across our synod.

Eleanor with her grandson, Adam, who attended Texas A&M

This is Eleanor. . . She was a model of the Christian faith. She encouraged her family members to stay faithful to their Savior during their college years (and beyond). She did the same with students in her church family. At the age of 85 she encouraged her pastor and congregation to be the place that would serve as the location for campus ministry in the Twin Cities. In the eight years that followed, the Lord continued to provide her with the strength to serve young adults. The Lord Jesus shepherded Eleanor home to heaven in June of 2020 at the age of 93. She was a tremendous blessing to those that knew her. We rejoice that she’s with her Savior in heaven.

Just as COVID has forced individuals and congregations to pivot, the same can be said for college students and our campus ministries. In these last few months, I have been able to visit with various congregations, high schools, and called workers. I have met people who are just like Eleanor. They love their Lord and they love their church and/or school. They show that love with their service. They are individuals who understand that their learning and growing is ongoing as they hear God’s Word and gather around the sacraments. They have family members who have college-aged children and grandchildren. There are young adults in their own congregation who spend some very formative years at locations of higher education. For quite a few places, there is a college, university, or trade school nearby.

The Lord gives you opportunities to serve just as Eleanor did. If you are a current college student, utilize the time God gives you to not only grow in your knowledge and understanding of your course of study but also use this time to grow in God’s Word. For those not in college, continue to be encouragers to your own family members who are either approaching are already in their college years. Encourage the young adults in your own congregation. If your setting is one where there is a college campus nearby, consider ways that the Lord may allow and equip you for serving students with what God has entrusted to you.  God’s blessing to all of you!

Written by Rev. Dan Lindner, WELS Campus Ministry Mission Counselor 

Learn more about WELS Campus Ministry and how you can get involved at wels.net/cm100.

 

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Arriving somewhere new

When was the last time you were in a new situation? Was it attending a new school? Starting a new job? Moving into a new neighborhood?

After accepting the call to serve on the Latin America missions team, my family and I arrived somewhere new. In fact, we arrived sooner than expected! Our original flight from Los Angeles to Quito was cancelled. We had two options: we could wait a few days for a similar flight, or we could head to the airport to catch a redeye that had a few seats left. We were eager to start this new adventure. We scrambled to complete some last-minute errands, went to the airport, and made it to gate as our new flight was boarding.

Beth Behmer and kids Nora, Emma, and Baby Ray

This worked out better than we could have expected. The redeye landed during the day. As the plane made its final descent, our girls gazed out the window. “I see mountains!” “I see a park!” “I see a soccer field!” Those were just a few of the comments. The level of excitement was high.

After landing, we went from seeing to experiencing new things. Our girls visited their new school. They met their new teachers. They started learning a new language. We found our way around a new city. We enjoyed new foods. We started to make new friends.

I also started new work. Previously, I served as a parish pastor. Now I am part of a team that trains and equips people throughout Latin America to share their faith and start churches. This means learning a new style of ministry. I’m learning how to teach classes through Zoom. I’m learning how to conduct one-on-one bible studies with church leaders. I’m learning the best ways to encourage church planters as they work to spread the Good News.

In the first few days, I saw how this new style has had an impact. I met the Guaman family from northern Quito. They learned the truths of the Bible through Academia Cristo classes. Now, they are gathering a group in their home using Academia Cristo resources. I met Jose Cormachi from southern Quito. He, along with other men, gather a group together. They lean on Academia Cristo resources for training. Being in this new environment has given me the opportunity to see new ways that the Holy Spirit is working throughout Latin America.

Guaman family confirmation with Missionary Nathan Schulte

When we find ourselves in new situations, we rely on others. We are thankful for the help of Missionary Nathan Schulte, our teammate on the ground in Quito. We are thankful for insights from friendly Uber drivers and advice from new neighbors. We are thankful for the prayers and support of our brothers and sisters in WELS.

Above all, we are thankful for Jesus, our Savior. One thing that is not new is his presence, protection, love, and grace in our lives. Someday, he will bring us and all believers somewhere new.

What will it be like when we arrive? What will we see? Who will we meet? What conversations will we have? How will we feel? What will be the first songs we sing? Because Jesus lived, died, and rose again for us, we can look forward to learning the answers to these questions together!

Written by Matthew Behmer, missionary on the Latin America missions team based in Quito, Ecuador 

Want to hear how the Behmer family “landed” in their new mission field? Read more in the Behmer missionary family landing report.

 

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Behmer missionary family landing report

Have you ever wondered what happens during the first couple of weeks after a missionary family arrives in their new field of service? Read more about how the Behmer family (Missionary Matt, his wife Beth, and kids Nora, Emma, and Baby Ray) landed in their new mission field of Quito, Ecuador, this past January: 

Monday, January 4: On Monday morning in San Diego, we found out our original flights to Quito, Ecuador, were canceled. We drove up to Los Angeles and found a flight that left that evening. We had a smooth departure and had a good redeye flight to Panama City. Our daughter Emma thought the breakfast provided on the flight was perfect – a turkey sandwich, yogurt, and juice box.

Missionary Schulte meeting Behmers at the airport

Tuesday, January 5: The connection in Panama City went well. When we arrived in Quito around noon, we were picked up by Missionary Nathan Schulte, who had lined up a small school bus to take us and our many suitcases to the Airbnb. We were very thankful for the space. He also had some groceries waiting for us. In evening, we explored Cumbayá, bought some extra essentials, and got dinner.

Wednesday, January 6: We met Missionary Schulte for lunch. From there, we went to set up our phones to get cell service in Quito. In the afternoon and evening we started an online search for houses.

Thursday, January 7: We met up with Missionary Schulte in Quito and walked to Guaman family restaurant for lunch. They’re contacts made through Academia Cristo, the Latin America mission team’s online outreach program. We took a walking tour of the area and visited a park. In the early evening, we met with the first realtor.

Friday, January 8: We visited the school in Tumbaco where our girls would begin virtual school. We then met Missionary Schulte for our first house showing. We also looked at more houses online and started to line up other showings. We decided that a rental vehicle would make the house and furniture search more efficient. After some headaches at the airport, we were finally able to get a small SUV. In the evening, I returned to the airport to pick up Missionary Andrew Johnston, his wife Cindy, and a few of their kids who were going to help in the landing process.

Saturday, January 9: We toured a total of five homes. One home in Tumbaco checked most of our boxes: It had three bedrooms, a separated area that could serve as an office, a great backyard, and seemed to be move-in ready. There were a couple of concerns with security, but nothing that couldn’t be addressed. It was in a small neighborhood with only three other homes.

Sunday, January 10: Missionary Schulte led us in a wonderful church service. He led the liturgy, lessons, and hymns, and we listened to an edifying sermon by Pastor Jon Schroeder from Sharpsburg, Georgia. After church, we went to see five more homes. That night we grilled out at the Airbnb. We’re thankful to Missionary Schulte and Caleb, a Martin Luther College graduate and volunteer in Quito, for watching the kids all day.

Missionaries Behmer and Schulte meeting to discuss their ministry

Monday, January 11: Beth and I discussed it some more, and we decided that we wanted to pursue the Tumbaco home. It was close to the kid’s school, had the space we felt was needed, and we decided we could find solutions for additional security. We began looking for family vehicles that afternoon. While Missionary Johnston attended some meetings, I began looking at options for furniture and home items.

Tuesday, January 12: We revisited the Tumbaco home with Missionary Johnston and our girls, Emma and Nora. We found out our offer was accepted, and we finalized some of the details. Emma and Nora loved the backyard, and it seemed like a home. That afternoon we attended some meetings, and then began looking for a family vehicle. We found a Toyota Fortuner that fit the bill and began the process of buying it.

Wednesday, January 13: Missionary Johnston took sole responsibility for making sure three kids participated in their respective online classes. That takes some special talent – we are appreciative! My wife Beth and Cindy Johnston went furniture shopping and got all the major things we need for our home. I went with Missionary Schulte and some of our other contacts to officially transfer ownership of the vehicle.

Thursday, January 14: Despite now owning a vehicle, we couldn’t drive it today due to the picos y placas. That stands for peak [hour] and [license] plate, a driving restriction policy aimed to reduce traffic congestion. It can only be driven on certain days. However, this works out great as Missionary Schulte’s car can be driven on the opposite days! The rest of the day was filled with meetings.

Friday, January 15: With a home lined up, a vehicle purchased, and some meetings out of the way, we were able to catch our breath on Friday morning. While the Johnstons watched our kids, Beth and I got lunch and went shopping for some home supplies. In the evening, Missionary Schulte and Caleb came over for some fellowship time. Missionary Schulte treated everyone to pizza and ice cream. It was delicious!

Saturday, January 16: We went to find authentic home furnishings at a good price and didn’t return until 5 p.m. The Johnston’s picked up some delicious empanadas for all.

Sunday, January 17: Cindy Johnston and I did some brief filming of an introduction video for Academia Cristo. Then, we all headed to the Guaman family confirmation. It was a special service, using liturgy and music provided by Academia Cristo. Missionary Schulte led a Bible Study using the Academia Cristo model and performed the rite of confirmation. We celebrated Holy Communion together. Then, the Guaman family provided a delicious lunch. We also enjoyed a cake brought by the Johnston family. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to get to know the Guaman family a little better.

The Johnstons, Behmers, and Missionary Schulte with the newly confirmed Guaman family

Monday, January 18: The Johnstons headed to the airport to return home, and I returned the rental car. After some meetings, we spent the rest of the day packing up to leave the Airbnb the next day.

Tuesday, January 19 and onward: 

We moved out of AirBnb, managing to fit all our suitcases and recent purchases in and on top of our new SUV. After moving into the home in Tumbaco, a few maintenance issues with the house popped up that we’re currently addressing. On Friday, January 22, we met our neighbors. All of them have children, and one also sends their kids to the school in Tumbaco our kids will attend.

Next steps: Beth and I will be digging into language training. Our girls have started their virtual classes and very much enjoy them, and they’re enrolled in Spanish classes.

We are very thankful for the opportunity to live and work in Ecuador! We are also thankful for all the support of WELS. This includes the budget for our housing, the purchase of our vehicle, and funding for the Johnston family to help with the transition. We feel that WELS and the Latin America missions team has helped us have the best landing as possible. We are looking forward to using this strong landing to launch into work and our new life in Ecuador!

Report by Matthew Behmer, missionary on the Latin America missions team based in Quito, Ecuador 

 

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Linger with me before God’s throne

It is true that our job is to teach students about the Bible. By God’s grace, we have a school through which to accomplish this work. We’ve asked for your prayers: that God continue to provide us students interested in serving people. You’ve walked with us and prayed with us as we’ve watched God pour out his blessing on this work by bringing Asia Lutheran Seminary many people who wish to study God’s Word.

Additionally, God has provided us with plenty of opportunities to share his love with those who aren’t sitting in our classrooms. Where we live, the vast majority of people still do not know their Redeemer. God recently gave me an opportunity to share. Andrew’s mom urgently waved me down as I was walking down the street to go eat. I had never met her. She needed help picking up her 27-year-old son who is wheelchair-bound as a result of cerebral palsy. There was no one else around to help. So, I awkwardly lifted up a grown man while she situated his wheelchair. I told him he was heavier than he looked. He laughed at me for being weak. The irony was not lost on either of us. At that moment, we became friends.

As we rode the subway one day, Andrew asked me, “Are you ashamed of me?”

“No. Why?”

“Because I am disabled. People can’t accept that.”

I asked him, “Are you ashamed of me?” Long pause….

“Dude…? No!” he said with a smile and a laugh. His question shook me though. I almost cried. I thought about shame, the suffering he’s endured, and the importance of face in this culture. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Andrew’s father is completely out of the picture.

God granted me the grace to realize that if my sin were a physical deformity, it would be far worse than the distorted body that sat before me in that wheelchair on the subway. And yet, I have a Father who has not abandoned me, but who has saved me and restored my relationship with him despite my dreadful condition. He is not ashamed of me, his son. This Father has not abandoned Andrew either. How could I not tell him? That his shame has been done away with and that the God of the cosmos has sacrificed everything to restore his soul and body so that they could live together in life everlasting. I imagined what Andrew would look like walking around in heaven untwisted and new. My moment of reflection was interrupted by Andrew who reminded me I was at my stop.

It would be deceptive to give you the impression that this work is all just one success story after another. There are those, but many situations involve an amount of painful growth and waiting. We linger while God does his amazing work in us and the people around us. It involves suffering, prayer, awkward conversations, and more waiting. This story is just one example of that lingering. However, instead of just asking you to rejoice with me when visible harvest comes, I want to invite you to linger with me before God’s throne while I pray for Andrew. If you would, please take 30 seconds to pray for him with me, and for those millions here who do not yet know Christ. The apostle Paul’s prayer request so many years ago is mine as well, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” (Ephesians 6:19)

Written by Tony Barthels, instructor at Asia Lutheran Seminary in Hong Kong

 

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Communicating the power of the gospel cross-culturally

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

Romans 10:14

When Jesus came to earth, he preached the good news. According to the four gospels, the amazing thing Jesus did during his three years of ministry were not the miracles, but the communicating and ministering done with the power of the gospel. Clear communication of the gospel is a necessity for a minister or an evangelist. When Jesus preaches the good news, he uses a simple and easy to understand way to communicate the gospel to the people to whom he is speaking.

One question we ask ourselves at Grace Hmong Lutheran Church is, “How do we communicate the gospel to the unbelieving Hmong people? Especially people who believe that inanimate objects have souls?” When Paul and Barnabas communicated the gospel in Lystra (Acts 14:8–23), they spoke to people with these beliefs in a clear and understandable way.

It is the power of the gospel that brings wonderful news to the whole world, including the Hmong community! God sent his Son into the world to die for sinners. Our sins are forgiven. That is awesome! That is the good news! That is the powerful message of the gospel God has given us, and we pray that the power of the Holy Spirt will guide us to communicate this message to others clearly and understandably. This is SO important, especially in cross-cultural ministry.

New members at Grace Hmong

This past January, 11 prospects of Grace Hmong completed the membership course and were confirmed into the Christian faith. The members of Grace Hmong or I had no power in converting these people into faith. It only happened by the working of the Spirt through the Word.

But how did we meet them so that we could share the gospel with them? It was a short conversation between one of our members and the head of their family. Then they came to our 2019 Thanksgiving Service. After the service they were invited to join the meal. At mealtime, Grace members and I had the opportunity to talk with these families about their faith and presented the pure gospel to them. They were interested! They told me that they never heard that sinners are saved through faith in Christ – they had been taught that sinners are saved only through good works. A couple weeks later, they came to our Sunday morning service and continued after that. Three months later, they decided to take the membership course.

During the membership course, they learned the theology of the cross. Every time we met, I tried to communicate the gospel in a clear and simple way for them to understand. The power of the gospel slowly penetrated and created faith in their hearts. We cleared up misunderstandings they had from the past. Now they are baptized and confirmed into the faith and are members of WELS!

What changed their hearts and turned them to the saving power of Christ? It was not the wonderful meal Grace prepared for them. It was not the money Grace spent on that day. It was not the power of the members or Pastor Lor that penetrated their hearts. It was the Holy Spirit working through the gospel.

That is why it is important for the church, the members, and the pastor to communicate clearly the simple message of the gospel. In the Great Commission, Jesus declares his authority over all things, and then he commands us to go and communicate the good news to others. Jesus wants us to share the power of the saving gospel with other people the way he taught. To God alone be the glory!

Written by Pastor Ger Lor, home missionary at Grace Hmong Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Kans.

Learn more about Hmong ministry at wels.net/hmong.

 

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A Wealth of Accompaniment Options

Church acoustics consultant Scott Riedel is in the habit of saying that an ideal geometric shape for a worship space looks like a shoe box turned on its side. Horizontally it has a definite long and short axis, and vertically it has enough ceiling height to provide a proper reverberation. Carpet is minimal, if not absent. If newer, the floor might be tile or finished concrete; if older, it likely is hardwood planks. I’ve been in a few sanctuaries like that, including the one I first frequented as a young child. Today, when I take a seat in a live acoustic space like that, I look forward to enjoying one thing in particular—you can hear the people sing.

Liturgical ensembles

These days, more often than was the case a decade or longer ago, the seat I take in the worship space is occasionally a 24” high, four-legged stool. A guitar is on my lap and a music stand in front of me. Nearby are an amp, a piano, and a mic stand or two for the cantor(s). I occasionally play with the ensemble at Trinity Lutheran in Waukesha, WI, or I’m on the road for a conference or Bible class, sampling psalms, hymns, and ritual music from the new hymnal resources.

Years ago, it was rare for me to participate from my four-legged stool. While serving as a parish pastor for 24 years, my guitars and amp most often stayed at home. Part of that was for personal reasons. I had no desire to “feature myself” as far as playing guitar for worship. Nor were either of the two congregations I served necessarily ready for that kind of instrumentation. They had been in “organ-only” mode for virtually all of their existence. Piano was not used for congregational singing, and I would still say that, in most cases, a single acoustic guitar, even when amplified, is not well-suited to lead congregational singing.

But there was another issue, one that Don Chapman (hymncharts.com) wrote about: “In 2002, as a new music director at a church plant, people in my congregation were complaining that I wasn’t including hymns in my praise sets. I wasn’t including them because back in those days, there weren’t any! So I started arranging my own.” I don’t have raw data to cite, but anecdotally, I get the impression that two to three decades ago, Lutheran musicians who played instruments other than the organ were in some cases channeled toward commercial Christian arrangements, in great part because those were the only arrangements available for their instruments. There were, of course, a few hymns found in Lutheran hymnals, known by Lutheran worshipers, sung across a broader swath of Christianity, and arranged for ensemble instruments. But twenty years ago, just a few.

The scope of this article does not cover the difference between commercial worship songs and familiar hymns. But if it did, a key point would be the difference between songs that are more suited to trained singers and hymns that can be sung by the whole assembly. I, of course, have a bias, and it’s not just against worship songs that tend to be more soloistic and in favor of hymns that are familiar and were written for group singing. I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.

I am strongly biased toward having the congregation predominantly (not exclusively) sing the hymns, psalms, and ritual songs that have been curated and published by our church body.

In recent decades, that’s where the rub has been. Liturgical ensemble arrangements of “our” materials have not been available in any kind of abundance at all. By no fault of its own, our publishing house has not published individual hymns arranged for a liturgical ensemble. In the past, the few resources in this genre were typically found in collections in which some titles would not be found in our hymnal. Such a small supply of resources can, of course, result in the same kind of overboard repetition that some Lutheran congregations have run into with non-Lutheran arrangements—twenty songs that get repeated every six or seven weeks. I hope that’s not an inaccurate caricature; it’s what I have heard that some of our congregations have discovered. Oddly enough, it’s the very same thing that congregations can run into when using liturgical ensemble arrangements of our curated and published materials—there isn’t enough to go around, i.e., to go around a whole church year’s worth of worship planning.

The new hymnal project will change that. And that’s not just because we think it’s a good idea to balance organ-led services with piano/guitar/ensemble-led services. That’s not just to put to good use the skills of the pianist/guitarist/instrumentalist the Lord has brought into our membership (though we certainly want to be good stewards of such gifts). That’s not just because some think that the ensemble can sound more upbeat or because they subjectively prefer it over the organ (and why wouldn’t we want to keep them happy?). No, our plan to provide a wealth of curated materials for a liturgical ensemble is because God’s grace in Christ has made us want our sacrifice of praise to be the best it can be.

One element of “best” can be objectively defined. Can you hear the people sing?

With organ music, the servant on the bench needs a keen sensitivity toward the interrelated items of organ registration, worship space acoustics, number of people in the sanctuary, intended mood of the service, and worshipers’ familiarity with the materials that are on the musical docket. All of that and more will come under consideration as the organist goes about his or her task of supporting the song of the assembly. It’s no different when the liturgical ensemble is providing the worship music. Sufficient rehearsal, congregational cueing (especially for introductions or inter-stanza turnarounds), dynamics governed by number of worshipers present, attaining the proper mix through the soundboard, mic levels and overall volume level of amplified voices and instruments properly adjusted, small ensemble or large—there are plenty of things to look out for. But one consideration rises to the top of the list: can you hear the people sing? The Lord has good hearing. Be it barely audible or raising the roof, he will always hear the praise of his people. The question to ask is, “Can the people hear each other?”

Can the people hear each other?

Whether you bring together two musicians or ten in an ensemble, share with them that our goal is to let the people’s song be heard, because that’s where the general scripture truths and the specific gospel message reside—in the lyrics of the assembly’s song. Instrumentalists need sensitivity to volume control and willingness to be a team player (aka, trusting the sound tech to get the mix right). Cantors need to understand (and also the congregation by educating them on this point) that they are not singing primarily to the assembly or for the assembly but along with the assembly. Instrumentalists and vocalists serve to strengthen the assembly’s song.

So back to the opening paragraph of this article. I’m in a sacred space where music is going to lift the life-giving gospel around the room, direct it into ears, and anchor it in believing hearts. I look forward to hearing a room full of people singing the gospel. To pull this off with an organ, there are pallets and pallets of music to enliven the pipes and fill the room with the godly music of saints and angels. God be praised for that! Three volumes of our new hymnal products (Accompaniment for Hymns, Accompaniment for the Psalter, Accompaniment for Services) will bring together an abundance of those organ arrangements for the hymns, psalms, and rites we have compiled. By comparison, rather than pallets and pallets, it seems we may have not much more than a partial filing cabinet drawer of arrangements for the liturgical ensemble. Let’s see what we can do to address this situation.

Accompaniment Editions

As you may have noticed from mock-ups at christianworship.com, the accompaniment editions are 8.5×11, portrait orientation, spiral-bound. For the most part, they contain only keyboard arrangements. In a number of cases, however, there are both organ settings and piano settings. For a majority of the hymns that were originally written for piano, an idiomatic organ or general keyboard arrangement was added. For some of the hymns that are regularly played on organ, an idiomatic piano arrangement was added. (See below about many more piano arrangements, along with auxiliary instrument arrangements, available in CW: Musician’s Resource [CW:MR]).

In addition to upscaling and reformatting the pew edition hymns to fit on a letter-sized page (which, incidentally, make the music easier to read for some), many of the hymns in Accompaniment for Hymns have multiple keyboard settings: alternate key; alternate setting; modulation to a festive final stanza; soloed organ setting; alternate piano or organ arrangement. For a total of 683 hymns (656 in the pew edition and 27 appearing only in CW: Service Builder), Accompaniment for Hymns offers an additional 447 auxiliary keyboard settings of the various types just mentioned. Similarly, Christian Worship: Psalter includes 470 musical settings of the 150 psalms. The Accompaniment for the Psalter offers 93 additional keyboard settings. Some of the piano arrangements in these accompaniment editions will have corresponding instrument files in CW:MR.

Besides accompaniments for the lectionary psalms that appear in the front of the hymnal pew edition, Accompaniment for Services includes the keyboard scores for all of the ritual music. This includes The Service: Settings 1-3, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. Settings 2 and 3 of The Service and the Compline setting have both a complete organ setting and a complete piano setting. The piano arrangements of Setting 2 (Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen) are simplified piano arrangements, intended to make the piano setting accessible to the vast majority of pianists. More complex arrangements will be available in CW:MR. Auxiliary brass/timpani arrangements for the organ setting and auxiliary ensemble arrangements for the piano versions of Settings 2 and 3 will be available in CW:MR. Additional settings of The Service, available only in Service Builder, will be similarly resourced with organ and piano settings and auxiliary instrument files available in CW:MR.

Accompaniment for Hymns offers an additional 447 auxiliary keyboard settings of various types.

Additionally, a greatly expanded aspect of ritual music in the new hymnal suite of materials is the music of the Gospel Acclamation. (See a sample at christianworship.com/resources in the “look inside” section.) Formerly called the Verse of the Day, the Gospel Acclamation consists of an opening and closing alleluia refrain with a seasonal or proper verse of the day in the middle. Accompaniment for Services provides 230 pages of Gospel Acclamation music. Each of the three settings of The Service has its own Gospel Acclamation setting, and there are an additional 21 Gospel Acclamation settings for the entire church year. All of these acclamations are written for general keyboard (organ or piano). Some acclamations use additional instruments. For example, Irish Alleluia, published by GIA and arranged by Richard Proulx, has a version for organ, brass, and timpani, but it can be performed just as well with piano, guitar, and other instruments. A 7×10 spiral bound edition (Christian Worship: Gospel Acclamations—Cantor’s Edition) will be available for presiding ministers, cantors, choir members, and instrumentalists. (This edition allows users to avoid illegally copying the keyboard edition for singers and other musicians.)

Musician’s Resource

Most of the music for the liturgical ensemble will reside in Christian Worship: Musician’s Resource. The NPH website will add a section dedicated solely to searching for, reviewing, and purchasing auxiliary keyboard and instrumental music that supports the hymnal and psalter. Thousands of pages of music will be available at this location.

For example, the most basic liturgical ensemble is a piano accompaniment with another instrument playing the melody. If that other instrument is a clarinet or trumpet, additional music is needed since these are pitched at B-flat rather than C. To match keyboard music, trumpet music has to be raised a whole step. If the keyboard music is in F Major, the trumpet part must be in in G Major. We have already done the foundational work on over 500 hymns, so that the various instruments which play at different pitches have a musical score to work with the pew edition setting of the hymns. Each SATB hymn ends up with 16 pages of transpositions. That means we already have 8000 pages of instrument transpositions for the pew edition hymn settings.

But most of the Musician’s Resource is comprised of arrangements that go beyond the pew edition settings. Not always but most frequently, the liturgical ensemble is looking for music that has been arranged with other instruments in mind, not just “SATB hymnal versions.” The Musician’s Resource will include a variety of these resources: vocal descants; instrumental descants; lead sheets; alternate choral stanzas; alternate harmonizations; full modern arrangements; modulations (transitioning to a higher key for a festive final stanza; roughly 5% of the hymns in Accompaniment for Hymns have such an optional modulation).

More often than not, the liturgical ensemble is looking for full modern arrangements. One strong advantage of these arrangements is how they can fit almost any size ensemble. These arrangements may have parts for eight different instruments, but they also work if you have only piano and guitar. We are aiming to offer a full modern arrangement for every hymn, and eventually more than one. Since CW:MR will be a living resource, we can continue to add to it long after the hymnal has launched in the fall of 2021.

Christian Worship: Supplement (2008) included Divine Service II, a service that made use of metrical canticles. These are songs of the liturgy where the text has been recast as rhymed verse and the tune is that of a familiar hymn. Christian Worship: Service Builder will include several dozen metrical canticles for those who wish to build such a service. Our goal is to arrange also these metrical canticle hymn tunes for liturgical ensembles. Such arrangements can, of course, serve double duty for both a hymn text and a metrical canticle.

We use the term liturgical ensemble because the ensemble is supporting the congregation as the congregation participates in the liturgy.

Looking forward

Liturgical worship makes use of the church year with its appointed lectionary and propers, it has a regular celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar, and it follows a historic order which includes the ancient texts of several songs that tell the story of our deliverance through Christ. We use the term liturgical ensemble because the ensemble is supporting the congregation as the congregation participates in the liturgy. The ensemble may consist of anywhere from two to ten or more instrumentalists and anywhere from one to four or more cantors. So the term liturgical helps establish some healthy parameters: this is a group that assists the assembly in singing the ritual music (canticles), the Psalm of the Day, the Gospel Acclamation, the Hymn of the Day, and other selected hymns.

It would sadden me if I were writing this article solely because there might seem to be a trend toward piano/guitar/instrument ensembles and away from organ accompaniment. With a fitting registration, the organ does a magnificent job of supporting the song of the assembly. The many organ resources that are queued up for our new hymnal will continue this fine heritage. I wholeheartedly support both organ accompaniment and ensemble accompaniment. I also do not hesitate to say that we need and are preparing more resources for the latter. I look forward to having a six-stringed instrument on my lap and an abundance of music on the stand before me, composed for a liturgical ensemble. I look forward to accompaniment editions and a Musician’s Resource that put those ensemble scores in front of a host of WELS instrumentalists, affording them the high privilege of leading God’s people in song.

And soaring high above all that music, I most look forward to hearing assembled voices clearly singing that Jesus Christ is the LORD, Our Righteousness (Jer. 23:26).

By Michael Schultz

Pastor Schultz has served congregations in Flagstaff, AZ and Lawrenceville, GA. He chaired the hymns subcommittee for Christian Worship: Supplement, compiled its guitar edition, and currently serves as project director for the new WELS Hymnal Project. As a member of Trinity, Waukesha, WI, he plays guitar for worship and occasionally preaches.

A small liturgical ensemble (pictured above) provided music for a COVID-era Easter service recorded in the seminary chapel. That video is still available here: https://wels.net/together-at-the-empty-tomb-this-easter. The socially distanced musicians performed in an empty chapel without a congregation present.

Another excellent companion video to the topic of this issue is at welscongregationalservices.net/worship-led-by-a-modern-ensemble. Some of the new songs and arrangements in both videos are included in the new hymnal project.


Correction

The printed version of the previous issue, Worship and Outreach, was missing its second paragraph. Please reference the online version at worship.welsrc.net if this issue is used for group discussion or in a Bible class setting.


 

 

 

WORSHIP

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

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 4

A drill sergeant is giving an order to a cadet.

Sergeant: “There is no talking during drill.”

Cadet: “Yes, sir. The fellas were just explaining that to me.”

Sergeant: “Be quiet, cadet! There is no talking during drill!”

Cadet: “Sergeant. I know all about that. Like I was saying….”1

On it goes. The cadet takes the sergeant’s words as a communication of information. What is he missing? Only what the words have to do with him.

What we have here is a failure of application.

The Scriptures communicate the costliest information that can be thought of: preeminently who Jesus is and what he has done. But the Word is not a communication of information alone, but of capability as well—to repent, to speak, to persevere. As Paul instructed (Titus 2), the grace of God is teaching us how to live as we wait on Jesus’ return.

They hunger not to become walking encyclopedias of religious information.

The people of God daily hunger for the external Word to come to them from the outside, telling them that they are sinners and telling them they are saved. And they hunger for this, too—not to become walking encyclopedias of religious information, but to take up into an actual life even the smallest part of what they know.

Appropriation and Application

Let’s distinguish appropriation and application.

Appropriation is about people not only having the truth, but being had by it. It is about taking to heart the things of God so as to be renewed and transformed by them. We want people to see some essential piece of divine revelation more clearly than when they first walked in the door. We would have them delight in some aspect of the grace of God as it is revealed in Jesus—the glory of his self-sacrifice and his astonishing resurrection. Appropriation grabs hold of the big facts and celebrates those two words Martin Luther held dear: For you.

Appropriation celebrates those two words Martin Luther held dear: For you.

Application depends entirely on appropriation. The “Now what?” follows on the heels of the “So what?” and draws on its strength. Application is about our changed situation—how life can now be lived, now that Christ is revealed to our hearts again by Word and Sacrament. Whether we include explicit directives for life depends on the telos of our text. If we say with John, “Little children, love one another,” but are a little short on the details, it is to leave intact the marvelous freedom of the Christian “to do or not do” (Luther).

An example

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Psalm 103:13).

I was disciplining one of my daughters in her bedroom. Her spirit was a fist balled up. She was seeing a side of me she hadn’t seen before. I became gradually harsher, needing only to see some glimmer of sorrow over her sin.

I broke her. Contrition poured out in a wail: “I’m sorry! I can’t help it!”

Now I broke, too. I know a thing or two about that. Now everything changes.

“O, sweetheart…” I say and crush her to my chest, searching for words and taking my time, all to overwhelm her with God’s love and with mine.

I talked about this with my grown daughters the other day (to get permission to share). They didn’t remember the episode and demanded to know which of them was in the story. I’m not telling.

I talked to them about how a father’s heart goes out to a child, how it bursts from his chest. How he rushes to her side, chasing all the space away. It happened from the time they were little. It happened at first words and first steps, at sporting events and musical performances, at graduations and weddings, at times my God let them shine. But, as I tried to put into words, none of that can touch that day in my little girl’s bedroom.

Do you think you understand how a father runs to his child in her struggle against sin? How he is with her? How he is for her and on her side in the fight against this thing she hates? She has gotten to him. She is his. He is hers.

Let’s be in no hurry to move on. In your struggle with sin, think about this with me. Think about how a father loves a child.

You live all these decades in a room called grace only to discover that one of the walls is an accordion door. You push it back to discover there is more yet than you had seen. What is it like to be reconciled to God? What have I yet to grasp about this relationship, this love—how wide, how long, how high, how deep? I find that the furniture in my mind is still being rearranged.

“As a father has compassion on his children.”

This is application. We search out the implications of salvation—what it has to do with me and what can be different about today.

What do you notice?

You notice that what we are discussing takes time. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

You notice that my example is heavy on appropriation. It leaves the application mostly unstated. It wouldn’t need to be so. Application of the phrase “those who fear him” would fit nicely in my exposition of the text earlier in the sermon. But I take the accent here to be on something we are supposed to know in our bones about the sort of compassion God-fearers will always find in God.

Notice that this example has a modest goal. This is not “the whole counsel of God” packed into one sermon. I am not trying to do everything. Rather, I have concerned myself with a single thought that a child can know. You learn that to speak with understanding the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer is not so modest a goal after all.

Finally, the example above happens to blend illustration with application (a term that includes appropriation in its broad sense). Those components of preaching play well together, especially if I mean to go beyond conveying the information packed into that single verse, “As a father has compassion on his children,” costly as it is. I am taking pains to close the loop. Everything this magnificent psalm has ever meant—to its original hearers and all those across time—it means for you.

Appropriation in particular

One of the axioms of education is to take people from the known to the unknown. You understand the periodic table in basic chemistry? Good. Let’s see what happens when these elements combine.

Now think about taking people from the appropriated to the unappropriated. We address people who prize the death and resurrection of Jesus. They don’t doubt that they are reconciled to God. This is good. Why, then, are many of them so anxious? How do you close that loop? That’s a good question.

It helps to know our people as well as we can. Audience-centeredness is critical. Take the time to ask good questions, listen well, and reflect deeply on what you’ve heard. Perhaps recycled sermons fall flat not because they were poorly written but because we had entirely different faces before us as we wrote them.

Might we ever be content with appropriation alone and have no application at all? I think so.

The people you preach to are living lives no one has ever lived before or will again, with their particular gifts, confronted by the particular obligations of their vocations and the needs of their particular neighbors. This goes to the freedom of the Christian to look around, and in the peace of forgiveness, to do “whatever comes into their minds to do” (Luther).

The third use of the law slides so easily into the first. The voice of conscience wakes up as cruel as ever.

A colleague has said that “the law is no puppy that only does what you want it to do.” I may intend by the imperatives and cohortatives in my sermon to guide the grateful lives of people. “How can you express this thankfulness you feel, this wonder at so great a Savior? Here’s how.” But as we know, “lex semper accusat” (the law always accuses). The third use of the law slides so easily into the first. The voice of conscience wakes up as cruel as ever, though it was never our intention to leave people there.

With clarity about what the gospel alone does for people and what the law never can, I sometimes elect to emphasize appropriation and take care not to overwrite my applications. This I do to cultivate gospel predominance as C. F. W. Walther taught us.

Good Friday is one day I want “It is finished” to echo through every world there is and ring in every ear. Let this and only this carry them out the door. Not, “I’ve really got to do better!” Not, “I had better get my act together.” Just, “It is finished!”

This is about so much more than sinning less, to put it bluntly. The death and resurrection of Jesus into which we are baptized remains a matter of perpetual appropriation as we learn to daily die and rise with Jesus.

Application in particular

Sermon application takes careful thought.

Until the eternal gospel of our Lord is heard above the sound of a nagging conscience and the complaints of offended reason, we cannot ask in the right way what God would have us do. We risk either tying on burdens or waking up the pharisee if our applications are not built on a robust presentation of law and gospel.

I want my applications to be “aha moments.”

I want my applications to be “aha moments.” In the spirit of the law, we sweat and strain to produce the qualities of heart we know should be there—we should be more compassionate, more patient, more fearless. Good luck with that. Think instead of the good things that come to us simply because we see. Think of the fruit that grow spontaneously on our branches simply because we have taken in the person and work of our Savior with clearer sight. “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

“In view of God’s mercy.” Aha!

And I hope that deeply rooted Christian optimism characterizes our applications.

When I preached Romans 12 not long ago— “Love must be sincere…” —I told a story of my best friend in high school. During a midnight heart-to-heart he confessed, “I don’t know if I’ve ever really loved anyone.” Next I looked into the faces of hundreds of college students and asked, “Do we love each other? I mean it. Do we?” I let the question hang in the air for some time. (Good things happen in the pauses, don’t you agree?) Students told me they talked about that all through lunch. They didn’t know what I would say next, and they wondered, “How could we not have known?”

Students told me they talked about that all through lunch.

In my message, I reminisced about the quality of the friendship that tenth grader offered me—it still takes my breath away. No, we do not love to our own satisfaction. We are not love’s definition. You don’t look at the likes of us to know what love is. But we do, indeed, love because God, in Christ, loved us first. We love because Jesus did not fail in his quest, not only to rescue us in every way a person can be rescued, but also to teach us brotherly love and to create a people eager to do what is good.

“And in fact, you do love all of God’s family…. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10). This is how we talk to the bride of Christ.

Given everything we are led to understand about this sinful flesh of ours, as good theology teaches us to call things as they are—given what we are led to expect of fallen people in a fallen world—is it not a wonder when God’s people love? What a few words and a little bit of water can do!

It goes to a question I often raise with my students: how does one properly speak to the bride of Christ? We can preach the law to powerful effect without needing to say things to the Church that are simply not true. For example, her works done in faith are not the “filthy rags” Isaiah spoke about. There are lifelong believers who think that! How refreshing it will be for them to find out that the smallest act of Christian love is the Lord Christ celebrating his victory over sin, death, and devil. The moment came from him, as did the impulse, and the strength. These acts are his even as they are ours, and in them, in grace, he positively delights.

Aha!

There is more we can teach our people as we depict the life of freedom that busts out in good works. For example, I love the picture a brother has offered: a father holds the hand of a toddler as she takes her first steps. She cannot walk a single step apart from his grip on her. But don’t think she is not the one doing the walking. Just watch those little feet go. Now take a look at his face—how a father loves a child.

Just look at his face as the people of God, his masks, offer up their holy vocations in service to their neighbor—a subject we will never tire of, nor will they. There’s an aha moment in the thought that my sanctification is for the people who experience me, those whom God wants loved.

Lastly, when we understand that we are nothing without Christ and can do nothing without him, our references in preaching to the means of grace will not be obligatory. We know no other way of sermonizing than that, in our applications, we perpetually call our people to remain in Christ. How? We drag ourselves in our poor half-heartedness to Word and sacrament in hopeful expectation of being wakened and warmed. We let the Word of Christ live richly within us, as God gives us the strength.

“Thinking must be turned a new direction; Christ must be thought of if you are to say Christ lives in you” (Luther).

The habitus practicus

In the twin arts of appropriation and application, our own credibility is implicated. By the earnestness of our appropriations and the realism of our applications, we demonstrate that we know what we are talking about. We show that we “share in human stuff” with the people in the pew. The pulpit is not our private confessional, but they can tell that we know something about living as sinner and saint in this actual world of simple pleasures and broken shoestrings—that our preaching is an extension of our very lives.

It will be obvious at the end of our lives that we did not become who we so badly wanted to become. Instead, we learned to never let the cross out of our sight. That cross is dear and what we learn through tentatio and Anfechtung (trial and struggle) we will teach to others and call it all blessed. Luther: “For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will inflict you, will make a real theologian of you.”

There is no escaping the struggle of Christian living. Instead, there is the promise of Jesus to meet us there by his Word. We display to our people what we have learned in the Spirit’s school: that God allows us to be battered by devil, world, and flesh so as to learn to hang on for dear life to the gospel. In the end, we wage everything on Jesus.

To grow in “the practical habit of the theologian” is not only the task of the pastor. He will urge on his people that gaining the knowledge of Christ is a way of life. It happens, for example, when some in the body of Christ are offended by others and are making motions of leaving. You plead, “The first time someone hurts you, you want to leave? Really? You will miss it. Now is when theology becomes life. Now is when we find out what all this has been about from the start, when you forgive freely from the heart for Jesus sake.” This is application.

God allows us to be battered by devil, world, and flesh so as to learn to hang on for dear life to the gospel.

We are not drill sergeants whipping cadets into shape. We are pastors seeing to the care of souls. They are not “brains on sticks” (James K. A. Smith), empty receptacles in which to pour Bible trivia (if there is such a thing). In a nod to C. S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man), they are people “with chests,” capable, in Christ, of responding to Christian truth in whole-hearted Christian living.

Their capability is Christ. By the Spirit, his every gospel imperative—to trust and not be troubled, to hope and be glad—will ring true in them.

What a pleasure to guide God’s people in what it means to linger and live in God’s thought—how a father loves a child.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.

1 From The Parables of Kierkegaard.


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Mission partners in Finland

Did you know that WELS shares fellowship with a Swedish-speaking church in Finland? Get acquainted with Pastor David Akerlund, his wife, Marika, and their congregation.

The following is taken from a recent interview with Pastor David Akerlund:

I serve as one of three part-time pastors in St. Johannes Evangelical Lutheran Church. Our church began in 2008 with six members. Since then, God has blessed us. We have grown to 28 members who meet at two different sites, in Jakobstad and Vaasa on the west coast of Finland. I serve together with two other pastors, Pastor Ola Osterbacka and Pastor Oyvind Edvardsen, and one Bible teacher/organist, Hans Ahlskog.

I usually preach two Sundays a month. I visit the sick and share the gospel with people in my neighborhood. God gives me many opportunities to talk about the Savior with my extended family and workers at the meat-packing plant where I work. Sharing the gospel takes time. I’m thinking about one of our recent confirmands. . . I first shared the gospel with him (Rasmus) in 2008. He’s a cousin on my wife’s side of the family. At family gatherings, I would talk with him and my other relatives about our eternal needs. Our conversations continued over the course of nearly a decade before Rasmus was finally ready to take adult instruction classes and join our church.

Pastor David and Marika in the home they are building

I love sharing the Good News of Jesus. There are so many people in our neighborhood who are searching for answers to the most serious questions in life. Who is God? Why am I here? Where am I going? I want to share God’s truth with people who are hurting and looking for comfort.

I’m married to a wonderful woman named Marika. Together we are a support family for a little girl named Lena who is nearly three years old. We are building a house. [David and Marika are actually building their house with their own hands, brick by brick and board by board.] My dream is that God would allow us to adopt children so that our house will be full!

A couple of prayer requests:

  • Please pray that God would give our congregation many open doors for sharing His comfort with the people in our community.
  • Please pray that God would help us through the long, difficult process of adopting children.
  • Please pray for me and my service. I think it would be great if I could become a full-time pastor for the workers at our meat-packing plant! Many of them are interested to hear about the Savior. I would love to spend all my time preaching, teaching, meeting prospects and encouraging people with God’s Word.

Interview conducted by Pastor Luke Wolfgramm, Russia

St. Johannes is an Associate Member of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC), a group of 32 confessional Lutheran churches and synods from around the world. The CELC gathers at triennial meetings for encouragement, fellowship, study, cooperation in projects, and an internationally united voice. Learn more at celc.info.

 

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The first spiritual decision I’ve made for myself in my adult life

“This is the first spiritual decision I’ve made for myself in my adult life.”

I wasn’t expecting her to say that. I met her in the parking lot before church. She had finished going through basic Christian instruction and said she wanted to become a member of our church. This was the day she would join us as the newest member of our church family. I love those days. SO much.

Worship at a local restaurant in North Nampa

So when I met her in the parking lot, I was all smiles and congratulations. But she was more serious. She’s been through a lot in life. Men have been awful to her. Churches have made her feel guilty and confused. She’s been living with a lot of emotional and spiritual pain. It was all on her face that morning in the parking lot. And that’s when she said it: “This is the first spiritual decision I’ve made for myself in my adult life. I’m really glad to be here. This church is where I belong.” And then she smiled.

Cross of Christ in Boise, Idaho, began services at our multi-site in North Nampa in November of 2019. It had been tough to find space to meet, but a local restaurant is closed on Sunday mornings, so we meet there for church. It’s worked so far, but it’s getting tight.

We had no idea who we’d encounter in the coming months and how God would guide our ministry. We certainly weren’t planning on canceling in-person services only months after starting because of COVID-19. But God has his plans. We anticipated needing a larger space to rent as we grew out of the restaurant, but we weren’t expecting to have every opportunity fall through or prove too expensive. Yet God still has his plans. We definitely weren’t expecting to suddenly have the opportunity to purchase our own 5,300 square foot building during the global pandemic, and be scheduled to hold services on our church’s second campus this summer. Go figure. . . God has his plans.

Cross of Christ’s new location in North Nampa

That woman in the parking lot is one of many souls we’ve been privileged to meet in the past year. Who knows who God will bring our way in the years ahead? How exciting to have a new and bigger building for even more gospel ministry in Nampa, Idaho! How exciting to discover what further plans God has for us!

I still smile when I see her every Sunday. She’s glad that she’s here. I’m glad she is, too. Every new face, every new opportunity, every new day of God’s mercy, and every great spiritual decision new friends make as they start following Christ—it all just makes me smile.

Written by Rev. Kurt Wetzel, home missionary at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in North Nampa, Idaho

 

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My students are my teachers

I teach seminary classes and Bible institute courses in three countries – two Muslim nations and one Hindu. The students are my teachers.

Tonight I go to the home of a man who has been head of a Bible school since 1996. He is distinguished and well-educated. I was invited for supper at his home two months ago. He lives where three of his four brothers also have families. Their tiny homes abut one another, and until recently had thatched roofs.

I take off my shoes at the door and my host leads me to the living space – a bedroom! There is a narrow walkway between the dresser and bed. My host, and some members of his family, sit on the bed cross-legged while I sit on the only chair. We visit like this for an hour and a half.

Then it’s time for the evening devotion. We leave the bedroom and go to the one “living room” for the four families. Hunched together–husbands, wives, and children sit in the dim light. The oldest daughter of my host is sitting on a cot. She pulls out a tiny, hand-held air-organ from under the cot and plays hymns. Everyone sings. Then a brother reads the Word of God. I was asked to share a devotion.

Now it is time to eat. They lead me back to the bedroom. A small narrow table is pushed up against the footboard of the bed. My coworker and I sit at the table while others sit on the bed. Course after course of food is brought in. We talk, laugh, and enjoy the delicious food. Then at 10:30 at night, after 3-4 hours of visiting, it is time to go back to where we are staying.

I think of this family, and families in America, and I ask myself, “Who is the most happy?” I realize that it’s not what’s in the house that makes a happy home. It’s what’s in the heart that makes a happy home.

My students have a passion to learn the Word of God. They will travel great distances to attend a workshop. One young lady walked two days to reach a bus, and then rode the bus for three days.  Five days of travel one-way. Then she will sit on the floor with a hundred other people for 5-10 days from 8 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. to learn and discuss the Scriptures in large and small groups.

My students have a passion to reach the lost. They love the people who persecute them. One man had his home vandalized several times for sharing the gospel. He was also beaten, cut with a knife, and threatened with death. I see his face light up and hear the excitement in his voice as he talks about new ways to reach the lost. I wonder, “How can this be? They hurt you. They left a 2-foot scar on your body. . .  and you love them?!” I gain new insight into the love of God which caused him to send his Son into this world.

My students have great faith. While Christians make up only 1% of the population, they trust God to do great things. The don’t focus on what they cannot do. They focus on what they can do under God. They don’t play defense–that is, they don’t hide from the world. They are always on the offense. Attack, attack, attack. . . not with weapons of violence, even though their enemies use these weapons, but with love and truth. They are peacemakers storming the gates of hell. It is an inspiration for me to work with men and women like these. They have a joyful spirit, a contagious faith.  “Forward, forward, forward” in Jesus we go.

These students are my teachers.

Written by a WELS missionary

Details have been intentionally left out due to the sensitive nature of the mission work occurring in these countries. Please privately email missionspromotions@wels.net if you’d like to learn more.

 

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Hope remains

What thoughts come into your mind these days when you think of Portland, Oregon? In the midst of a pandemic, Portland has been in national headlines many times for its 100 days of protests. When I first arrived in the area, I visited near the downtown area to grab some of Portland’s famous donuts and coffee. I was greeted at the donut shop by a bouncer wearing a bulletproof vest, and I was served at the café from behind two layers of bulletproof glass by a barista wearing a full-face mask. It was eerie, it was scary, and it was intimidating.

The Hope core group at work

It is true that the challenges of starting a church in the midst of pandemic, unrest, wildfires, and mistrust are very real. And yet, there is incredible opportunity amid the challenges. In a dark time, the light of Christ shines brightly! In a time when hopelessness threatens all of us, the hope that lives because Jesus lives lifts us up. This message of hope is a powerful message for the people of Tigard. As a city, we have watched as so many of the things that give us comfort be removed. We’ve been forced to ask the question: “What can I possibly put my hope in that will not disappoint me?” The only thing that will not disappoint us is the hope that we will live eternally with Jesus!

We, as a core group of believers in Tigard, have had the incredible privilege of sharing that hope with the people of our city. We have experienced opportunity and success in the most unlikely places! I’ll share two of these unique opportunities.

Boarded up business during the protests

Over the last two months, we have been putting on our masks and knocking on people’s doors while holding a freshly baked loaf of banana bread with just one simple message: “Hi! I’m from Hope Lutheran Church – a brand new church here in Tigard. We know that times are hard right now, so we are here to share some hope and banana bread with you!” It wouldn’t seem like knocking on people’s doors to share food and conversation would be the most successful tactic during a pandemic, and yet the gospel opportunities we’ve had have been astounding.

In the first days of January, a riot took place in downtown Tigard. Small businesses already struggling to stay afloat were damaged and were forced to board up their windows. In the aftermath, we were able to talk with some of the business owners and help clean up. We were able to share the hope of Jesus in yet another situation where it might seem that hope could not thrive. We were even given the opportunity to witness this hope to the mayor of Tigard and the chief city councilor!

Pastor Bourman’s son, Theo, packing Hersey’s kisses for prospects

The challenges are real. Yet, instead of the dwelling on the challenges, I ask you to pray with us for opportunities for the Holy Spirit to create faith in people’s hearts. The unrest is real. Yet, instead of struggling with the unrest, I ask you celebrate with us the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross. Whether in peace, pandemic, or protest, only one thing can remain certain: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! In this we place all of our hope.

Written by Rev. Paul Bourman, home missionary at Hope Lutheran Church in Tigard, OR


 

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Christian Noblewomen

Throughout my ministry, whether it was serving U.S. congregations or as a member of WELS World Missions, I saw many Christian noblewomen with a variety of spiritual gifts offering their time and talents to the Lord. These sisters in Christ possessed the characteristics of the many women who can be found in the Scriptures, such as Miriam, Ruth, Hannah, the Marys of the New Testament, Anna, Tabitha, and many more.

Their faith was evident through the fruit that it bore.

Two other biblical names come to mind when I think of my position as a WELS Friendly Counselor to Indonesia: Ester and Ribka (Hebrew for Rebekah). Both of these Christian noblewomen are members and current workers of our sister church, Gereja Lutheran Indonesia (GLI). Both have a unique set of spiritual gifts and skills, distinct from one another, which they are using in the gospel ministry of GLI.

Ester

Ester (which probably means “star”) is an appropriate name for Gereja Lutheran Indonesia’s Publications Coordinator. Through her work, she is “letting her light shine before others so that they may glorify their Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). On a local level, she also is active in her congregation and as a member of the regional women’s group. She is also the wife of GLI’s seminary chairman, Pastor Mikael. She was able to accompany her husband when he came to Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary for extended studies and attend classes with her husband. Her studies helped her better understanding English theological words and phrases. Strengthened in faith and with a deeper understanding of doctrine and terminology, she is now better equipped to translate, print, and share materials. Her commitment to faithful translations will serve GLI for generations to come.

Ribka

Ribka is the administrative assistant at Sekolah Tinggi Teologi Lutheran, the seminary of GLI. She also assists GLI’s leadership in various ways, including processing reports in English for WELS personnel, interpreting between Indonesian and English speakers during meetings, as well as helping with travel and housing arrangements for visiting guests. She is a faithful and accurate translator of God’s word. The assistance she offers synod and seminary leadership requires a high level of trustworthiness, and she faithfully carries out all of her tasks.

While God has gifted GLI with many such women who also use their time and talents to glorify their Savior and assist fellow believers, I was privileged to work personally with both Ester and Ribka in recent years. What a blessing that God gives his church faithful men AND Christian noblewomen who are equally equipped with the spiritual gifts needed to carry out his great commission of sharing the message of salvation. To God alone be the glory!

Written by Rev. Greg Bey, part-time friendly counselor to Indonesia

Learn more about Gereja Lutheran Indonesia (GLI) at wels.net/indonesia.


 

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2020 hindsight

Well, that didn’t go according to plan.

We began 2020 with a well thought out strategy, a good mix of outreach and in-reach efforts. We’d pull together with four big seasonal events to attract the community and engage our members. In the off months we’d look for quick wins – joining in the next 5K, hosting a game night, perhaps even bowling (as embarrassing as that would be for me). We met as a church to identify coordinators and volunteers. Everything was falling into place. Ready, set, go!

We never got to “go.”

Survive & Thrive after Quarantine webinar

Like churches across the country, the unexpected sidelined our plans. No community Easter brunch. No door-to-door introductions and invitations. No 5K’s, no concerts, no strawberry socials. Our focus shifted from the myriad of possibilities before us to managing the practical concerns of simply worshiping together. One step forward, two steps back.

But would you believe the Lord still brought blessing?

By necessity, our live-streaming capabilities matured rather quickly as online worship services moved from the confines of our website to the open spaces of Facebook. With our in-person events canceled, we pivoted into the all-digital event arena and hosted our first ever webinar: Survive & Thrive after Quarantine, an online event intended to help our community see COVID through a Christian lens. We got used to fellowship on Zoom and, in time, to worshiping six feet apart. Simply put, we shelved our big plans and rolled with the opportunities God placed before us.

And the Lord brought blessings – unplanned, unexpected, unforeseen blessings. Our online worship allowed us to connect with prospect families we might never have met otherwise. Zoom Bible studies kept us growing together even from a distance. Phone calls, text messages, email, and even snail mail were tools for mutual encouragement.

Ascension’s Christmas Festival

And as in-person events came back, the Lord gave us more opportunities. We swapped our planned indoor family Christmas event for an outdoor, socially-distanced Christmas festival, complete with individually packaged cookies, free raffles, and live music. Long-time members of Ascension and new friends rolled up their sleeves and donned their masks to enjoy the Christmas season with a much-needed sense of semi-normalcy. The Lord gave us good weather, a good turnout, good fun, and good contacts.

2020 was a challenging year to try to hit the ground running as a home mission restart. It’s humbling to so quickly shelve your first-ever ministry plan. But it’s far more humbling—and inspiring—to see the blessing the Lord Jesus pours out apart from our planning. We’re excited to bring several families into membership early this year and begin classes with several more, all blessings realized in the chaos of COVID.

Last year didn’t go according to plan—well, not our plan. And as it turns out, that’s a good thing.

Written by Rev. Ben Berger, home missionary at Ascension Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


 

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And he brought him to Jesus

What Andrew had found made everything else on the to-do list fade away. This discovery was of such importance that Andrew went right away to find his brother Peter. The discovery wasn’t a what, but a who. Andrew told Peter that they had found the Messiah (John 1:41-42). What greater thing can a person do for a sibling than to bring them to Jesus?

Bible information class in Mandarin at Reformation in San Diego

Many Chinese Christians freely use the term “brother” when they talk about a friend in the faith. When John, a Chinese member of Reformation Lutheran Church in San Diego, brought his Chinese friend Mark to a Thanksgiving church event, Mark was introduced as a brother in the faith. During the Thanksgiving event, Mark and his family enjoyed playing games with other brothers and sisters. The event was a reminder for everyone in attendance that we are always able to give thanks when Jesus is our focus. Mark’s family also heard a clear law and gospel message in Mandarin from Vicar David Choi (from our sister synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod).

Mark was eager to talk with the pastors and vicar afterward to learn more about the life of a pastor. The desire has been in Mark’s heart to find a path to study for full-time ministry. The pastors and vicar at Reformation have been able to share more information with Mark about our synod’s Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) – a possible path for Mark to study for the pastoral ministry.

The first step is for Mark to study Reformation’s Bible information class and become a member. Thanks to translation efforts in the past, Reformation’s membership courses are available in Mandarin. Mark’s studies are well under way, and he is cherishing the time to be brought closer to Jesus.

Andrew and Peter would go on to share the truths they had learned from Jesus. They brought others to Jesus by sharing what Jesus had taught them. These brothers knew the best they could offer anyone would be to welcome them into the family of believers with the Good News of Jesus.

All of us have friends we can invite to join the family in spending time with Jesus. How might that person we invite respond when Jesus speaks to them? How might God use that person in the future to reach out to others? God continues to amaze us in the ways his gospel changes hearts and lives. May we all continue to follow Andrew’s example of prioritizing an invitation to those around us to join us as we spend time with Jesus.

Please keep Mark, John, Vicar Choi, and the growing outreach ministry to our Chinese neighbors in San Diego in your prayers.

Written by Rev. Neil Birkholz, WELS Asian ministry consultant and Associate Pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA

Learn more about Asian outreach occurring throughout North America at wels.net/asianministry.


 

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So much more than a burial

The body of late Evangelist Chitanzane Kantokoma Mapulanga was laid to rest on December 6, 2020. The coffin was lowered. The dirt was heaped. Wreaths were placed.

Evangelist and Mrs. Mapulanga – December 2016

But the funeral was so much more than a burial. It was a “witness to a stricken world.”

In Christ, who tasted death for us
We rise above our natural grief
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief. – CW #607

Some say that the best evangelism opportunities in Malawi are funerals. Why? Because the masses gather. Not just the fellow members of the deceased’s home church, but the entire community. Crowds of people. And as you can well imagine, a variety of faiths in need of a message whether they realize it or not. What better time to share the gospel of Jesus?

That is exactly what Pastor Khwima Msiska did.

He preached 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, “. . . the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Pastors Msowoya and Msiska

Pastor Msiska could have hijacked the sermon time and simply highlighted how much Evangelist Mapulanga had accomplished during his personal and ministry years. God had given the Evangelist a total eight decades spanning from 1940 to 2020. There would have been plenty to say. After all, just in his gospel ministry of serving the Lutheran Church of Central Africa, how many sermons did Evangelist Mapulanga preach? How many babies and adults did he baptize? How many member visits had he made? How many people of the Lutheran church had he comforted, corrected, rebuked, and trained in righteousness? Over decades of service, how many kilometers had he pedaled and miles had he walked to serve the Lord’s people?

But Pastor Msiska didn’t dwell on those things. For that matter, neither did the Liturgist Pastor Msowoya nor any other speaker. The funeral focus was not about the man Mapulanga but about the God man Jesus Christ. Both Lutheran Church of Central Africa pastors answered very clearly the questions that are most important: What had Jesus done for Evangelist Mapulanga? What had the Promised One accomplished? Why did Christ die on the cross? What does Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death mean for him, and me, when I die? 

Ah, now that’s something to talk about. And sing about.

And that is what the Lutheran women and men did. The preacher and the liturgist were not the only ones witnessing to the stricken world. So were the many people who attended the funeral and are longing for Christ’s coming. We arrived at the funeral home at 9 a.m. We departed at 4 p.m. And for the better part of seven hours, people were singing. Why?

Because there was something to sing about! The funeral was so much more than a burial. It was a witness to a stricken world that there is hope beyond the grave. There is life after death. There is a crown of righteousness in store. No wonder the family of God longs for their Brother’s appearing on the last day! We are not just waiting for Jesus Christ to come again, but desiring it, yearning for it. Looking forward to it, patiently but with anticipation.

One day our fight will be over. Our race will be finished. And we will live no longer by faith, but by sight.

Missionary Holtz with Evangelist Mapulanga

And so with the strength and splendor of belief, the men and women lifted up their voices. They sang at the funeral home, at the mortuary, walking to the cemetery, and huddled around the grave. The day was one of song, and the songs were ones of witness. And the witness was to Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, so will Evangelist Mapulanga. Because Jesus paid the penalty of sin, we don’t have to. Because Jesus gave up his crown, we will wear one!

A gift of grace.

Until the Lord calls us home as he did Evangelist Mapulanga on December 4, we will still have graves to dig, funerals to attend, and loved ones to bid goodbye. We will mourn. Hearts will ache. Tears will flow.

But not without hope.

So we will also have sermons to preach and songs to sing and a witness to give. Because there is a world out there stricken with sin and in need of a Savior. No matter in which country our loved ones die, let the masses and the crowds come to our Christian funerals! It’s so much more than a burial.

Written by Rev. John Holtz, world missionary on the WELS One Africa Team


 

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Worship and Outreach

“This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach.” Without the ability to go back in time and scan every piece of publicity produced, I would imagine a claim like that was seldom made in advance of the 1993 publication of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. At the time, the latest iteration of the megachurch movement was just starting to pick up steam. Churches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback and Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek were still in their infancy. Andy Stanley’s Northpoint had not yet been founded. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church and Sally Morgenthaler’s Worship Evangelism, both influential in the “worship as evangelism” movement, had not yet been published.

As our church body prepares to publish its next hymnal, I’m confident I’m not the first one to say this nor will I be the last: This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach.

What I mean by that, however, might surprise you. The primary benefit this hymnal provides to a congregation’s outreach efforts has nothing to do with the time during which the hymnal is actually in use. It has nothing to do with what happens in that sacred space we call a sanctuary and that sacred hour we call a service. The primary way this worship resource will also benefit a congregation’s outreach has very little to do with worship, and that’s probably how it has to be. Let me explain.

From “Seekers” to “Nones”

There was a time when, due to various factors both spiritual and societal, a considerable portion of our country’s population could be described as “looking for a church.” They likely identified as religious, even Christian. They did not attend services regularly and/or had not committed to a specific church home, but they would be willing to do both assuming they found the right church. They have often been referred to as “seekers.”

To whatever degree and during whatever period of time that was true, most would agree that it is no longer true today. James Emery White has thoroughly chronicled the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, a group often referred to as “nones.”1 In 2020, “nones” comprise almost a quarter (22.8%) of the population according to the Pew Research Center.

Many of these religiously unaffiliated Americans are now raising members of Generation Z. Generation Z, also referred to as iGen, consists of people born between 1995 and 2010. As you might imagine, a generation raised by people who are increasingly religiously unaffiliated will be likely to have no strong connection to religion themselves. Jean Twenge points out that, while about a quarter of the overall population is religiously unaffiliated, a full third of young adults (ages 18-24) fell into that category already in 2015.2

A “none” is the opposite of a “seeker.” It’s not that they don’t believe in God. It’s not that they are hostile to religion. They simply have no strong feelings about either. In a May 2003 article in the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch made famous a term to describe this mindset: apatheism. He wrote, “Apatheism—a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.”

As one might imagine, the decline of “seekers” and the rise of “nones,” has had an impact on the way Christian churches view the connection between worship and outreach. In a world full of “seekers,” worship and outreach work together in services that are “seeker-friendly.” James K. A. Smith summarizes such an approach this way: “If the church was going to feel welcoming, it needed to feel familiar, accessible, and ‘cool,’ characterized by the sorts of professional experiences people associated with consumer transactions together with the thrilling enjoyment of a concert. The seeker-sensitive church would feel like the mall, the concert, and Starbucks all rolled into one—because those are places that people like, where they feel comfortable.”3

Jared Wilson calls these attractional churches. He points out the increasing naivete of such an approach in today’s world: “As cultural Christianity fades, so does the potential customer base for attractional churches.” Wilson predicts that the attractional church will “slowly grow further out of touch with the surrounding culture” by “assuming its neighborhoods are looking for church, but different; religion, but relevant; Christianity, but cool.…”4

As a result of this cultural shift, our weekly services will likely bring us into contact with fewer and fewer people for the first time. Whether that service is publicized as “casual, relevant, and engaging” or “rooted, reverent, and transcendent” will make little difference to an apatheist. Rather than designing our gatherings to bring people in, more and more we will need to disperse from those gatherings and seek people out. Pastors and laypeople will need to invest in relationships with the people around them, build trust by demonstrating genuine love and concern, and look for opportunities to share the gospel.

The tools and resources provided … allow pastors to get out of their offices to spend more time engaging people with the gospel and equipping their members to do the same.

That’s the primary reason I say what I’m saying: This hymnal won’t just benefit your congregation’s worship. It will also benefit your congregation’s outreach. The tools and resources provided don’t just allow congregations to do more in worship. They allow congregations to do it with less time and effort. They facilitate and streamline many of the time-consuming mechanics of worship planning and preparation. They allow pastors to get out of their offices to spend more time engaging people with the gospel and equipping their members to do the same.

In a world of “nones” rather than “seekers,” that’s inevitably where more and more gospel conversations will have to take place. In the end, that’s probably a good thing. When we are faithfully reaching out with the gospel the way our world needs us to, we won’t feel the burden of trying to design our worship to do outreach for us. As Wilson observes, “You don’t have to treat the worship services like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers.”5

“You don’t have to treat the worship services like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers.”

What If They Actually Show Up?

But what happens when someone actually shows up? We might be tempted to think that worship that follows a historic, liturgical structure will feel increasingly foreign in a world that continues to drift from any discernible Christian moorings. That might be true, but that might not be an entirely bad thing.

As we become more aware of some of the effects of “life as we know it” in our modern, technology-driven world, many of the effects we are starting to observe are quite disturbing. On the one hand, our technology allows us to interact with people all over the world in staggering numbers. However, those virtual interactions are poor substitutes for the full, rich relationships God created us to enjoy. Our connections increase exponentially, but true intimacy is a scarce commodity. Loneliness and isolation are on the rise. Cal Newport makes this comparison: “Much in the same way that the ‘innovation’ of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.”6

In addition to connecting us to a staggering number of people, technology connects us to a staggering amount of information. As a result, however, the task of separating what is important from what is trivial, much less what is true from what is false, becomes staggeringly difficult. A single platform, YouTube, hosts both the pastor’s sermon from last Sunday and the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video (and the latter, not the former, briefly held the title of being YouTube’s most-watched video of all time). A single platform, Facebook or Twitter, delivers sourced, verified news from trusted media outlets and every conspiracy theory under the sun. A single pipeline, my email inbox, delivers announcements from my church and my children’s school and scam requests from Nigerian princes who need my bank account information. Alan Noble points out the effect that the information age can have on our ability to identify what is important: “Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity, and personal implications.”7

Finally, our device-driven world may be the greatest reflection and reinforcement of a post-Enlightenment, “brains on a stick,” view of humanity. Smith describes that view this way: “We view our bodies as (at best!) extraneous, temporary vehicles for trucking around our souls or ‘minds,’ which are where all the real action takes place.”8 We often operate as if every problem is caused by ignorance and solved by information. Content is king, and our devices deliver it in virtually limitless supply. The more time we spend with our screens and inside our own heads, the more detached we are from God’s physical creation around us.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these same problems can find their way into worship if it is designed to mirror “life as we know it.” The same forces that so easily isolate members of the human race even as they are superficially connected are quite good at atomizing the body of Christ. Noble argues: “Part of the challenge of contemporary services is that our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another. Volume levels rarely allow us to hear ourselves clearly, and certainly not our neighbors. The result is that we experience worship much like we experience a concert. It becomes an individual, emotional, and spiritual exercise wherein I try my best to think about the words and praise God. But even though I am surrounded by the saints, I remain comfortably in my own head.”9

The same technologies that deliver limitless information, entertainment, and advertising to us can easily be used to deliver content to worshipers. When the same media and platforms that deliver the trivial and the untrue are also used to deliver the gospel, however, the difference between these things is flattened. Noble observes, “We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see [these trends] at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and a TED Talk than a sacred event.”10

It should not come as a surprise that the same young people who are most inundated by the content delivered by our devices are the most disinterested when similar media are used to deliver the gospel. Wilson observes, “From Gen Y on down, generally speaking, those interested in local expressions of Christian community are less and less interested in programmatic, consumeristic approaches to spirituality. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because younger generations tend to be the ones most readily embracing technology and innovation. But the issue is not the use of technology or innovating new ideas; it is the lack of authenticity they sense in an overproduced spirituality. They tend to respond negatively to pop-song covers, movie-clip illustrations, and cheeky sermon series titles.”11

Finally, when the same forms and media that pump endless information into our heads are utilized in worship, the same “brains on a stick” view of humanity reinforced by so much of life can also be reinforced by our worship. Worship can give the impression that every spiritual problem is caused by ignorance and every spiritual solution is information. Noble argues: “Our church services (especially in evangelicalism) involve less liturgy, less focus on bodily participation, and greater emphasis on disengaged reason…. We have made communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies.”12 The pandemic of 2020 has been a revealing experience in this regard. As churches were forced to close their doors and go exclusively online for a time, it became evident how many people concluded that a service delivered in their home through a screen was in no way inferior to one experienced in person with other Christians—and how many churches seem to have concluded the same thing.

Perhaps the real opportunity presented by modern life is to highlight and excel at the features of historic, liturgical worship that offer people respite from what is comfortable and familiar.

Rather than engaging people with the gospel using forms that mirror what people already find comfortable and familiar, perhaps the real opportunity presented by modern life is to highlight and excel at the features of historic, liturgical worship that offer people respite from what is comfortable and familiar. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship is a truly communal exercise where the proclamation of the gospel is carried out not just by the experts or professionals up front but by the person sitting to my left and to my right. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship conveys the fact that something important is going on during the hour between invocation and benediction. It delivers the palpable gravity the gospel deserves. First time guests may walk out our doors using a variety of words to describe a liturgical Lutheran service. “Trite” is not likely to be one of them. At its best, liturgical Lutheran worship takes disembodied minds and reorients them to the physical world God created, redeemed, and will one day glorify. It engages their senses and involves their bodies. It aims not just to fill their heads but to move their hearts with the flesh-and-blood saving acts of the Son of Man and the bathing-and-feasting sacred acts he instituted. Rather than trying to fill up the outward shell of “life as we know it” with the gospel, Lutheran liturgical worship delivers the gospel within a shell that can give people a taste of “life as it was meant to be.”

In other words, “strange” and “foreign” might actually be valuable features of Lutheran worship rather than flaws. Talking specifically about reaching today’s youth, Smith observes, “These strange historic rites of the church catholic serve to reenchant the world for those immersed in our secular, disenchanted age…. The very similarity we wanted in order to keep young people entertained is precisely what makes them suspicious that there’s nothing really transcendent going on here.”13

Historic, liturgical worship will not do a congregation’s outreach for it. In a world full of more “nones” and fewer “seekers,” no worship style will. However, a Lutheran congregation can be confident that Christ-centered, liturgical worship will support, not stunt, outreach efforts aimed at taking the gospel to the people of its community rather than waiting for them to come to it.

One Thing’s Still Needed

In the meantime, the realization that our worship can’t do our outreach for us will enable us to keep our eyes squarely on the bullseye we are aiming for in worship, namely, to let the gospel have center stage. If more and more people are living without the gospel, more and more people are living with the consequences of life without the gospel. More and more people are looking not just for a little help to improve some facet of their lives. They are looking for something that can adequately serve as the foundation for their lives. They are in search of an identity and a sense of worth. They are looking for unconditional approval and belonging. They are in desperate need of a solution for their guilt and shame. They need what the Bible calls righteousness. Even secular anthropologists are noting how much this search drives human behavior. Jonathan Haidt writes, “An obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.”14

The gospel is not just what someone needs in order to go to heaven some day. The gospel is what someone needs in order to get through each day. “It is the chief article for a reason. Not only is this the chief article on which the Church stands or falls…, but this is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ.”15

The gospel is the one thing people need most both for heaven and earth. It is the one thing needed by both the first-time worship guest and the lifelong Christian. And more than anything else, liturgical Lutheran worship is designed to proclaim the gospel. Our rites tell the basic gospel story weekly. Our calendar of readings puts tissue on that gospel skeleton by repeating the works and words of Jesus annually. Our heritage of hymns aims gospel truths and gospel events squarely at people’s hearts by setting them to poetry and music. Lutheran worship brims with the gospel. Lutheran worship is above all else Christian worship. It was Christian worship in 1993. It will remain Christian worship in 2021 and beyond.

By Jonathan Bauer

Since 2014 Pastor Bauer has served at Good News Lutheran Church in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, a growing suburb of Madison. Good News is a mission congregation that was started in 2013. In addition to his service at Good News, he is a member of the Institute for Worship and Outreach and the WELS Hymnal Project’s Executive Committee.


More on Worship and Outreach

An interview at christianworship.com (under the link For Worshipers) offers additional thoughts on worship and outreach. The interview is moderated by Eric Roecker, WELS Director for Evangelism, and features Jon Bauer, Caleb Bassett, and Jon Schroeder. The interview and this article—along with other interviews, articles, and videos—can be recommended for advance viewing and reading for a leadership group or open forum that discusses the new hymnal.


1 See James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014).
2 Jean Twenge, iGen (New York: Atria, 2017), p. 121.
3 James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), p. 103.
4 Jared Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), p. 34.
5 Ibid, pp. 95-96
6 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), p. 136.
7 Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2018), p. 24.
8 Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 3
9 Noble, Disruptive Witness, pp. 137-138.
10 Ibid, p. 122.
11 Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church, p. 30.
12 Noble, Disruptive Witness, p. 130
13 Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 148.
14 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon, 2012), xii.
15 Gene Edward Veith and A. Trevor Sutton, Authentic Christianity (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017), p. 98.


 

 

 

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Preach the Word – Joy and Confidence from the Basics – Part 3

I watch a pastor from three rows behind and a little to the left. He is celebrating 25 years in the ministry. He is listening to a sermon with his face in his hands. His bride puts her hand on his shoulder and steals a glance. A big thing is happening right beside her.

The preacher up front is performing a great kindness by the picture he paints. He is depicting the Lord Christ as he walks among the lampstands that are the Good News churches, keeping them lit. His saving face is revealed in their soft, flickering light. But there is more. See, he is holding the stars of the churches—their pastors—in the palms of his hands.

What greater kindness is there than to search all possible means of communication, beginning with the images that sparkle and the narratives that unfold within the sermon text itself, all to inscribe the thing deeper, deeper in the bottom of a soul.

Reconciled to God. Kept. Held.

Why illustrate?

The pastor longs to show his people things—not just to tell them—and to have the truths of any given Sunday bore down through the head and into the heart. He would have those truths be all the more available for life by means of that high homiletical art we call illustration.

A good story—the truth-telling that disturbs, the ending that makes it worthwhile—is like good art. It creates a conversation for the car ride home. It leaves you with more to say than just, “My, wasn’t that nice.” It gives you something memorable on which to hang that day’s whole point.

And so, having expounded the meaning of our text, having captured the truth in clear and dramatic doctrinal assertions, the sort that Christians love, now we want to let this truth get up and walk around. We want to give it a human face. We want to set things beside it to say, “This is what it’s like. This is how it looks. This is how it feels.”

Why tell stories?

The guru of narrative communication is named Walter Fisher (1931-2018). He happened to be a gentleman scholar of some Christian depth. He liked to say that people are fundamentally “storytelling creatures” [homo narrans] with brains hard-wired for narrative. Story is the form of communication that is most like life for the way it meets us in a steady sequence of events and ambiguities.

Fisher pushes back on what he calls the “rational world paradigm,” the view that the world meets us in a series of logical problems, and that being educated means being trained in the kind of critical thinking that can help us succeed in navigating such a world.

In contrast, children are enculturated from little on in what Fisher terms “narrative rationality,” the ability to think in stories. He saw all human communication as narration so that even greeting someone in the hallway is a story—it settles in our minds as an episode. Long after we may have forgotten every word our favorite teacher ever said to us—when all that content has long drained from our busy brains—what remains in episodic memory, perhaps for a lifetime, is how she made us feel. That we may take to our graves.

This goes to the profound “stickiness” of stories, especially those that draw on deep currents of feeling. Episodic memory—how we easily retain dozens of details in a well-told story—is vastly more powerful than eidetic memory—retrieving, say, a random seven-digit number.

Stories lodge like seeds in the soil of people’s thoughts.

Think of Jesus’ parables. Stories lodge like seeds in the soil of people’s thoughts—even if they do not immediately understand the meaning that hides curled up and green inside the shell, perhaps one day, by the Spirit, they will.

Incidentally, please don’t hear, “Once upon a time…” when I use the word “story” throughout this article. This is no small thing. At our insistence that the divinely inspired history recorded in the pages of the Bible is true, worlds hang in the balance.

And Fisher, too, was no postmodern. He had a correspondence view of truth—there are good stories and there are bad stories in terms of their claims on reality. He noticed competing stories about the way things are within the Bible itself—“‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Fisher understood that devil, world, and flesh persuade more by the slippery stories they tell than by anything remotely rational. He trusted the meta-narrative of Scripture, the grand story from garden to garden that reveals to us and to our children everything we really need to know: who God is, who we are, what’s wrong with everything, where our redemption and hope are found.

They are found in Christ. Nothing else will do.

What makes a story work—what explains its influence—is when it has “narrative fidelity” and “narrative coherence.” That is, it “rings true” and it “hangs together.” With these qualities in place, stories carry within them what Fisher calls “good reasons”—to trust, to serve, to wait, to hope. For a fuller accounting of these ideas, Walter Fisher’s groundbreaking book, Human Communication as Narration, is fascinating and accessible.

A good story doesn’t need to be explained. Doing so may only break the spell. Good stories heal the rift between mind and emotion. The best stories leave no part of the prodigal untouched. As C. S. Lewis believed, they lower our defenses and “sneak past those watchful dragons” to deliver truth home. Lewis described that the subsequent events in a narrative—this happened, then this, then this—are like a net in which something may be caught that “is not subsequent”—what grace is and, more ineffably, what it is like.

Good stories heal the rift between mind and emotion.

Of course the true story of Christ crucified and raised for us all is the soul of preaching. It is the soul of worship itself.

Where will our best stories come from?

“I will open my mouth in parables and utter things hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). Our best stories are found within the Scriptures themselves and in the teaching of the Rabbi from Nazareth.

These are the stories to which the Spirit has married himself. Without needing to pry open the mind of the Spirit to know why he communicates as he does, his love for stories is evident across the entire scope of the Bible. The Word has the ultimate stamp of “narrative coherence”—it all hangs together in Christ—and “narrative fidelity”—by the Spirit it rings true. The “good reasons” it provides are to die for.

Let me mention two of the narrative strategies that the Scriptures model in particular. “Narrative transportation” names the way the Scriptures steal us away, for example, to a mountainside in the Sinai Peninsula where a bush burns but does not burn up. The whole atmosphere of the place is the infinitive qualitative difference between God and us.

“Identification” is the way we come to “share human stuff” with Moses on our knees, feeling with him the enormity of his calling and the overlap of our identities as men who some days want to cry out, “Who am I that I should lead these people?” Similarly, the inspired writer of the book of Ruth wrote high theology into the mouth of a woman who struggles with grief and loss.

In an earlier issue, I mentioned the “epidemiological approach” to the Scriptures, or, catching the mood of these texts like a contagion. When Alexander Pope wrote, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” he was commenting on the seldom recognized problem of talkativeness on the subject of God. He means those who prattle on about the deep mysteries of God with scholarly detachment as if talking about a strange bird or a shiny rock.

Not Naomi. We grieve with her so as to arrive where she does at the first mention of her redeemer, “Yahweh has not abandoned his loving kindness to me!” (Ruth 2:20)

We do not want to excavate the meaning of our text and then discard the form, as if the story itself didn’t matter, or as if there’s no compelling reason divine revelation has come to us in the way it has. We would do violence to the parables of Jesus by bogging down in an academic study of what sort of corn the prodigal fed to what sort of pigs. Let the story be the story.

One of our fathers, you may know, made it his practice to begin a sermon on a New Testament text by drawing on the well of inspired accounts found in the Old Testament, and vice versa. I can’t imagine your search would ever end in disappointment when you go looking for an account from the other testament, so to speak, that is asking to be brought into conversation with your text.

Is preaching to become story time?

To paraphrase E. M. Forster:

“The queen died. The king died. Those are facts.
The queen died, and the king died of a broken heart. That’s a story.

Notice from this example that we are not necessarily thinking of long, rambling narratives. Some people who study narrative communication advise us to think instead about the disproportionate power of a two-minute story wrapped around a compelling image.

The disproportionate power of a two-minute story wrapped around a compelling image.

The LORD speaks through Isaiah about a vineyard set on a fertile hill. He cleared the stones and built a tower. He planted it with choice vines. He hewed a winepress to hold the good grapes this vineyard would surely produce for him. But what he found was reason enough to destroy the whole thing outright. And then we find out.

“Israel is the vineyard.”

A two-minute story wrapped around an image.

If there’s any chance that Walter Fisher is right about our being “hard-wired for narrative,” I don’t think we need to resist what is palpable in preaching. It is natural that the attention of our listeners waxes and wanes across the span of twenty minutes. And we may need to risk taxing their ability to hang with us when crucial doctrinal content takes some time to expound. But when the first few words of a story leave our mouths—“So my dad used to take me fishing…”—we can feel our people perking up and coming back to us. Or is it just me? I don’t think so.

Rather than turning preaching into story time, we are not wrong to notice the features of the story form that allow it to do what it does as a communicative event, for example, the way a baked-in conflict or obstacle or tension entangle its hearers. We cannot not listen for how the thing can possibly be resolved. That observation about the structure of narrative can inform the way we introduce a sermon in an attention-arresting way without overtly using narrative at all.

No, preaching isn’t story time. But there is time for a good story. Whenever I divide my communication classroom into four corners according to four personalities that you’ll find in any group, I ask students in each corner, “What would you like to tell the rest of us about how to communicate with you?” Inevitably, one particular corner of the room will say, “Tell us a story. That’s how we get it.” Then another corner will chime in, “And it needs to touch our hearts. We won’t learn if you leave that part of us out.”

“Lose the autobiography?”

I told a story of my Aunt Marie in a sermon one time. A colleague I revere complimented my message, but then said, “Preaching is proclamation. So lose the autobiography.”

I’ll admit that I struggle with that counsel when it comes to drawing on our own life experiences as preachers. I made that adjustment for more than a year and received the feedback from someone close to me, “You’ve changed what you do in the pulpit. And for me, something is missing.”

Episodic memory is vastly more powerful than eidetic memory.

There are some obvious pitfalls to avoid. The pulpit is not our personal confessional. On the other hand, God forbid we make ourselves the hero in our own stories, when that position belongs to another. And the truth is, our wives and children should not cringe or live in dread of what may come out of our mouths that is private and theirs alone.

How much we value transparency may be a generational thing. This is a generalization, but it seems to me that the college students I serve would say, “Show me some glimmer of understanding that life is hard, and that you know what struggle is. That’s when you have my attention.”

How we feel about our lives makes sense within the way we tell our story. So there’s something we can model as we tell our stories with more true Christian optimism and less of a grumble for having Jesus drawn into our frame, even as he has drawn us into his.

So, while I personally conclude that “less is more” when it comes to what we share from the pulpit, I have been blessed by those brief, scattered glimpses into the lives of the preachers who have served me well. I say this in the spirit of the letter to the Hebrews: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Why use imagery?

Illustration is not confined to the story form. Our use of images can be brief but impactful.

Jonathan Edwards once spoke of the futility of saving ourselves through good works. This he captured with the image of a spiderweb that cannot even slow a falling rock. He had a gift for tying a truth to a sensory experience as a way to impress it indelibly on his hearers.

The Scriptures themselves are a saturation of mental pictures.

That is an original image. But notice again that the Scriptures themselves are a saturation of mental pictures. Kenneth Burke relishes the “this-ness of that and the that-ness of this” to explain how images work. How is the mercy of God like an ocean? How is an ocean like the mercy of God? We are getting to the essence of things as we come to see the one in the light of the other.

What imagery has in common with story is that both are maieutic. That is, they leave work for the listener to do. We leave room for the listener to complete the meaning, such as when we pray, “Keep me as (literally) the little man of your eye” (Psalm 17:8). Look close into the eye of God. What do you see there? What does it mean? David doesn’t say.

Likewise, we want to allow people to linger over an image like that, to let it hang in the air a bit. Why? Because we know that truth can be made more fully one’s own for that moment we have prepared of, “Ooh! I get that!”

This doesn’t mean leaving things to chance. The listener’s effort must be rewarded. One approach would be that early in our message we let the story be the story, as I say, or let the image be the image, but then we can come back to it in the end to be sure we’ve left no one scratching their heads.

The apple of God’s eye. The beauty there is an aspect of the meaning. The incandescent moments in Scripture are not merely a way to say more impressively what could have just as well been said another way. They bring us into closer contact with what we already know. They help us not only to know what we know, but to love what we know as well.

The incandescent moments in Scripture … bring us into closer contact with what we already know.

Where do illustrations come from?

My Dad used to say, “You can tell a pastor who reads from one who does not.” He was referring to the quality of the man’s words and the freshness of his thoughts. They will not be what they could be if he impoverishes himself to the narrow confines of his own thinking or experience.

To “the pastor who reads” we can add: the pastor who tunes in to the world when it is telling its best stories, such as they are, revealing its rebellion, its idolatries, its hunger, and its need. We can add: the pastor who is curious—who engages in history and art, fiction and non-fiction, movies, music, and all the rest of popular culture. Out comes an introduction based on the Isak Dinesen’s story, “Babette’s Feast” or the poignant chorus of Jason Isbel’s, “If We Were Vampires.” Talk about packing a wallop.

Above all, to the pastor who reads, we add: the pastor who inhabits the biblical world, immersing in and absorbing its stories, images, poems, and songs.

What does it look like when Truth gets up and walks around? When it wears a human face? Look there. It is the Lord Christ strolling among the lampstands and holding their stars in the palms of his hands.

Written by Mark Paustian

Dr. Paustian is a professor of communication and biblical Hebrew at Martin Luther College where he teaches “Advanced Christian Rhetoric” which combines an introduction to homiletics and an introduction to apologetics in one course. He holds a PhD in Communication from Regent University.


 

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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A head-start on the restart

Our mission in Wesley Chapel chose to get a head-start on the restart that every church is experiencing right now. Two years ago the members of Emmanuel in Zephyrhills, Fla., decided to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. They chose to sell their property and everything but the hymnals, font, and communion set. They chose to work with their District Mission Board, call a home missionary, and spend time as a wandering church. . . a restarting church that would find a way to evangelize nearby Wesley Chapel, Tampa’s booming northern suburb.

I accepted the call to the Wesley Chapel home mission a week before the March shutdown. We knew back then we were joining a church choosing to restart. The group had taken this leap of faith and was seeking a shepherd for their next steps. Members dreamed of the future, but first we needed to answer some fundamental questions: What is the Bible’s blueprint for a church? What’s absolutely critical, and what can we let go? What ministries and programs should we offer? How will we invite the community? As 2020 wraps up, our group is still studying God’s answers to those questions, and we’re still studying our Wesley Chapel mission field. We plan to spend 2021 setting up our primary ministries.

What’s changed since March is that every church is now forced to answer similar questions: Why do we gather? Are we essential? What will we offer online? Is it worth restarting that program or not? See! Our group was just ahead of the pack!

Home missionary Phil Hunter’s installation – poolside!

Our Wesley Chapel home mission has navigated the same practical puzzles as all other churches (meeting location, online worship, safety measures, etc.) Again we just happen to be very flexible–for such a time as this! We didn’t own a building anyways, so we were prepared for simple services in unusual locations. We met in a family’s yard. We held a poolside installation service. We now lease space from a beautiful new school and meet on their covered patio. We adjust the sound system for each new space, laugh at ourselves when the candles won’t light, and consider it all part of the adventure. We’ll likely own another facility soon, but for now we enjoy a camaraderie with Christians across the ages and the globe who worship outdoors or meet in houses.

The pandemic has not hindered our home mission start. However, it has slowed down our communication. In normal times, we could all gather for a meal and an open forum or brainstorming session. Now it’s an in-person forum for some, a Zoom meeting for others, an e-mail and online form for others who can’t Zoom, plus letters and phone calls for the few beautiful souls who have managed to avoid the internet. It is still possible to gather input and distribute info. . . but it takes more time and effort. In the big picture, that’s a pretty easy yoke for us to bear.

A final bit of news: A new name for this new church year. We spent a month gathering name suggestions. Our leaders discussed them, compared them to other area churches, and narrowed them down to a final four. We took those finalists and surveyed area WELS school kids, core group members, and dozens of people at parks and stores around Wesley Chapel. The result of that research is a name that’s both fresh and iconic, appealing to WELS kids and unchurched families, and connects well with Biblical imagery and local geography: Citrus Grove Lutheran Church, launching in late 2021 here in Wesley Chapel, Fla.

Jesus bless your church’s restart. . . and ours!

Written by Rev. Phil Hunter, home missionary at Citrus Grove Lutheran Church in Wesley Chapel, Fla. 


 

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2020 blessings in Vietnam

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20b

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lord is always with his church. Our brothers and sisters in the Hmong Fellowship Church in Vietnam are not stopping reaching out to lost souls. Pastor Zang said, “Most of the pastors in the Hmong Fellowship Church are farmers, and they know very little about germs. They have heard many scary things through television and radio about the impact of COVID-19, but they see it as less dangerous when compared to the lost souls that have no chance to hear the gospel before they die. The souls will be condemned eternally to hell without hearing the word of God.” In 2020, more than 12,000 have come to be believers in Jesus.

Pastor Fong burns a pagan altar

In 2020, Pastor Fong and his evangelism team reached out to many villages in his area. The Lord has blessed their outreach tremendously. They were able to establish nine new mission congregations in nearby villages. Fong said, “We proclaimed the Word and cast demons out of some people that were brought to us. The people had sought help from shamans in their community, but they couldn’t drive out the demons. In Christ’s name, we were able to drive out the demons and heal the sick.” Besides this, they also burned the pagan altars of the unbelievers to prove to the community that Christ has power to overcome Satan. In some cultures, you don’t dare to burn the altars in which sacrifices are offered to the devil because they think that they will bring curses to their family.

Despite the pandemic, the Lord has provided a way for the WELS to continue training the Hmong Fellowship Church church leaders. The last WELS trip to Vietnam was in January 2020. In November, the Vietnam mission team responded to the request of Hmong Fellowship Church and offered Zoom training to 57 students in Hanoi. Rev. Joel Nitz teaches the gospel of Mark and I teach Law and Gospel. The students are divided into two groups. Each group spends eight hours per week online. Due to poor Wi-Fi connections, some students have had to travel to the city to get a better connection. They have never utilized technology to assist in their ministry before. Instruction via Zoom is something new for them. It took me two days to guide the students in how to use the program. Praise be to God, they finally learned how to use it! Due to their excitement, some students have asked permission for their wives and parents to join our training as well. They are welcome in Christ’s name!

During the training. Rev. Nitz asked the students to recall the blessings in their lives given to them through Christ. Pastor Tsheej and Ntsuablooj said, “The biggest blessing in my life is the opportunity to be part of WELS training in Vietnam.” Pastor Nukhai said, “The more I learn from WELS, the more I feel like I know nothing about the Scriptures. There is so much to learn. If I look back to the last eight years, before I received WELS training, I saw a dark path in front of me. But now I see a clear path before and after me. I will dedicate my whole life to learning from WELS, God-willing.”

WELS’ teaching has helped the church leaders identify the false teaching in Vietnam. Thanks be to God for the well-trained pastors in WELS! The Hmong Fellowship Church has grown from 126,000 to 138,000 in 2020. To Christ alone be the glory!

Zoom training

The Hmong Fellowship Church has been tremendously blessed; however, there are also some big challenges ahead of them. More than 1,360 leaders are waiting for someone to train them in the Word of God. They are also waiting to build more churches for new believers to worship their Lord. Evangelism work is the priority for them. They are very skilled in doing evangelism in their community. With proper training and materials, these men will continue to share God’s word.

The building project in Vietnam is still active but has been delayed due to COVID-19. Once I visit Vietnam, I will arrange a Zoom or face-to-face meeting (God-willing) between WELS representatives and the representatives in Vietnam. The government also wants to make this project happen as quickly as possible.

Our brothers and sisters in Vietnam send their greetings and say, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” to all WELS members. They appreciate your help and support, especially to train their leaders in the word of God. They also ask for your continued support and prayers.

Finally, I would also like to thank our members in WELS for your continued support for the work in Vietnam. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. May the Lord of the Church send more workers to harvest his fields. May the Lord continue to bless our leaders, members, and the work in the U.S. and around the world so that the lost souls may be saved through faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Written by Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator


 

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Perfect timing

The timing seemed awful. Missionary Joel Sutton and his family and I had only been in our new mission field in Paraguay for a few months. We had just found housing, but it certainly didn’t feel like “home” yet. We were really looking forward to changing that: getting to know our neighbors, traveling a bit in the country, making connections in the community.

Then the pandemic hit. Paraguay´s government issued a “total isolation” policy. We could leave our houses to get food or medicine, but that was about it. So much for our plans of getting established in a new mission field! From our perspective, the timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been much worse.

But God’s timing is always perfect. We were locked in our homes, but so were people all across the world. Many were scared and searching for answers. The Latin America missions team had just rolled out a new, Academia Cristo Bible study app for smartphones. . . and downloads surged. Sign-ups for our online Bible training courses surged too. Zoom classes with 10-20 students before the pandemic were now filled with 40-50. God was reaching more souls with the gospel all over Latin America!

One of those souls was Lester Soto from Managua, Nicaragua (pictured above). He had downloaded our app just after the pandemic hit and signed up for our live classes in April. When I met with him after class one day via Zoom, he admitted that he had been putting off his relationship with God for a long time. But God had used events in his life to lead him to search for the truth, and he found us online. More importantly, his Savior found him. “I was lost,” Lester said. “But now I know Jesus did everything for me. I have a spiritual peace I’ve never had before.” He told me he wanted to join one of our churches. When I said we didn’t have a church in Managua yet, he said he wanted to help start one.

Over the course of the pandemic, Lester was able to take 11 online Bible courses with us. He’s now gathering a group in his home to share with them what he is learning. And he’s not the only one: I could tell you about Eduardo from Bolivia (pictured), José from Ecuador, Benjamín from Colombia, and others—all of whom found us during the pandemic and are now working to plant churches where they live.

It might not always seem like it to us, but God’s timing is always perfect. The Christmas story reminds us of this. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, miles from home, with a barn for their hotel room. That doesn’t seem like the best moment for the Savior to be born! But there in Bethlehem was precisely where and when God had promised it would happen (Micah 5:2). In God’s eyes, the timing was perfect: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son…” (Galatians 4:4)

In our case, having just arrived in a new mission field did not seem like the best moment for God to allow the pandemic to happen. But just ask Lester, Eduardo, José, Benjamín, or any of the countless others across the globe that God has used the pandemic to reach or grow with the gospel. I’m sure they’ll all tell you. . . God’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Written by Rev. Abe Degner, world missionary on the Latin America missions team who resides in Asunción, Paraguay. 

Want to learn more about world mission work in Latin America? Visit wels.net/latin-america to learn how Academia Cristo, an online training tool used by the Latin America missions team, is reaching millions of Spanish-speaking people with the gospel.


 

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Growing God’s garden

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

– Galatians 6:9,10

Not everything grows down here. This past quarantine, my wife and I, like millions or other amateur gardeners and do-it-yourselfers, decided to plant a garden. After a few weekends, several hours, and countless trips to Lowe’s, we had our own budding garden, with okra, raspberries, zucchini, tomatoes, and grapes.

But not everything grows down here. The peonies failed to thrive. A dogwood tree and an elephant ear rotted in the boggy clay. A few berry bushes withered; one snapped at the base with a gentle pinch.

It’s easy to grow weary of that kind of work, isn’t it? To toss the gloves in the garage and ignore the yard. All that caring, feeding, and nurturing, only to have the fate of a crop slip from your hands. What went wrong? The soil? The seeds? Did I do something wrong? Could anything grow here? Could anything grow now?

A little amateur gardening experience leads us to appreciate some of God’s great truths about his kingdom and how it grows: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” – Mark 4:26,27

Have you felt the same way? Pastors and members alike have spent time maintaining interpersonal bridges; exploring mysterious livestream glitches and problems; calling, texting, and brainstorming to find some way of hanging onto everyone. At times, church work can feel like starting a broken lawnmower. Bursts of energy trying to get something going, only to puzzle over what the problem could be.

Worship at May River

Not everything grows down here. What grows near you? Do you feel fatigued? Perhaps a creeping sense of futility? Frustration?

There’s a reason Paul says not to get weary. Because while not everything grows immediately, some things do. And they grow. . . and they grow. . . and they grow, bearing far more fruit than one might imagine. As I write this, we are currently on our second crop of Okra. The first grew to a height of four feet. After we chopped them down in September, another crop appeared.

How much more wonderful to see what God is doing with souls here! Even in the midst of a pandemic, God blessed us with the opportunity to finish teaching Bible information class to seven adults and two of their teens now enrolled in catechism classes.

Beyond that, God’s people continue to bear fruit. New members step up into service and longtime members keep serving. God’s people still make it a priority to clean, decorate, coordinate, serve, and pray for one another. After church, you overhear members building one another up. In the midst of uncertainty and tension in our nation, generosity holds strong. In uncertain times, God still works in beautiful ways.

No, not everything has grown. The new, thoughtful sermon series, your friendly invite, the hours spent tweaking the tech may not have yielded results (yet). But God still promises—yes, even in a pandemic—that his Word produces fruit.

Just as every hardship is an opportunity to gain a better grip, a deeper appreciation of God’s promises, so he nurtures and tends a young home mission congregation. He draws us closer and closer to his Word. He shapes our hearts, gently tugging us from our own strength and capabilities, laying us back on his shoulder for his grace every day. And in our Savior Jesus, we regain a fresh sense of optimism and hope. As we turn, again and again, to his promises, we catch our breath and make our way back out to the fields, ready for the harvest.

Written by Rev. Erik Janke, home missionary at May River Lutheran Church in Bluffton, South Carolina

Want to learn more about the ministry at May River? Watch Pastor Janke’s Moments with Missionaries video update from Taste and See.


 

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There Is Room in the Choir

There Is Room in the Choir

Hymn selection criteria and variety

Every fall throughout my ministry, it has interested me to see who would come out of the woodwork to join the choir and who would continue to opt for a pew downstairs. A musician in my first parish was a National Endowment for the Arts scholar. He received that prestigious award to study jazz at New York City University. He never missed church, but his gigs often kept him up to the wee hours of the morning—ensuring a late service attendance. Consequently, the most musically gifted man in the parish never joined the choir.

A quiet, private woman with a thick Spanish accent from Guatemala did. Her background was not in jazz, but in costume design. She was never at the center of conversations in the commons. But in the soprano section, she sang Bach, Getty, and Gerhardt with all her heart. A man with a post-doctoral degree in organic chemistry joined too. He sang bass. His profession was pharmaceuticals. His passion was singing. A hard-working delivery driver usually sat next to him. The choir was always a fascinating blend of the family of believers—young and old, white and blue-collar, life-long WELS, and brand new to the faith. There is room in the choir for all of these people and more!

This cross-section of the faithful on earth is a miniscule, yet precious, sample of the heavenly choir. There, the music will always be in tune. There, the labor of long days and longer nights will not keep us away. There, the harmony will be perfection—a symphony of praise to the Savior: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!” To quote the Christmas hymn, “Oh, that we were there!”

Do you ever wonder what that will sound like? Everyone dreams of heaven just a little differently. What will it look like? What will our reunion with loved ones be like? What will our bodies be like once they are unchained from the shackles of sin and decay? For me, I often dream about the sound. This comprehensive, heavenly music, what style will it be? Will we recognize it? Scripture obviously does not give us the answer. What it does give us, however, is a template—of sorts—for what the Church’s music can strive to be on earth: Comprehensive in scope, Christ-centered in content.

Comprehensive in scope, Christ-centered in content.

Think of our new hymnal as a “choir” of sorts. Specifically, a choir that has 683 members. Unlike an eager choir of musical novices, each and every member of this choir had to pass a rigorous tryout with at least six separate stages of text and tune analysis and development. 15,000 hymns tried out for a seat in the ensemble. 683 made the cut. Why such an exacting process? Because scriptural truth and stewardship of musical treasure demand a bar that is deliberately set high. This choir, after all, will sing, teach, and impart Christian truth to the Church! It will do so for hundreds of thousands of people, in thousands of weekly services, in dozens of countries, states, and territories, over the next thirty years.

15,000 hymns tried out for a seat in the ensemble. 683 made the cut.

These rigorous standards for membership in the choir were already embedded in the Hymnody Committee’s “Hymn Criteria List” that was unanimously adopted by the Executive Committee and guided hymn tryouts for the next five years. To be included, a hymn must…

1. be Christocentric.
2. be in harmony with the scriptural faith as confessed in the Lutheran Book of Concord. (Especially, but not restricted to, means of grace focus, justification centered, law/gospel dichotomy, receptive view of worship, proclamatory/didactic function of hymnody, etc.)
5. be superlative examples of their genre in regard to both textual content and musical craft.

An exceptional choir is made up of top-shelf talent. Many members of the choir may indeed be—in and of themselves—musical standouts. But a choir of musical standouts is a choir that will quickly standout as unpleasant to listen to! A choir is not a choir of soloists doing their own thing. A choir seeks blend and balance across all members and sections. The many seek to present themselves as a united voice.

Profound theologians who won’t wow you with esoteric knowledge.

So too, our hymnal is a book for the many—not just the standout musicians of the congregation who are usually called upon to sing the solos. It is meant not primarily for the members of a band, but for the band of believers that sit in the pews of the church, the desks of a classroom, and the comfy chairs of the living room. Many of the members of our new hymnal’s choir are profound theologians, but they won’t wow you with esoteric knowledge that is meaningless to most. Many of these hymns have sung in the grandest buildings of Christendom, but they will never refuse an opportunity to sing at bedsides and sickbeds too! The members of our new hymnal’s choir are not musical specialists. Their pictures are not hanging on the wall of a museum. Instead, they have been sung by multitudes of God’s people over the years and, therefore, the hymnody committee is convinced, will continue to be sung by multitudes for years to come. (This assumes, of course, leaders and parents willing to invest the effort to teach them to members and children!)

That’s why your hymnody committee spent six years of their lives painstakingly looking for hymns that would…

6. be accessible and meaningful for God’s people at worship in both public and private settings.
7. be useful for those who preach and teach the faith.
8. be part of a corpus that will find wide acceptance by the vast majority of our fellowship.

A good choir has a certain knack for singing a wide repertory of music—and does so convincingly. Thirty years ago, I had the experience of sitting in on a rehearsal for a community choir in Annweiler, Germany. They sang the songs of their homeland in a wonderful way. I smiled hard, however, when they began to sing a spiritual, “Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin’ my name.” Buxtehude himself could not have sung it more squarely! But they tried. But as they sang, a little bit of our American experience was experienced in the rolling woods of the German Palatinate, and the audience loved it.

The choir of our new hymnal has been very deliberate in casting a wide net for members that are our very own from Lutheranism’s heartland and members that will become our very own from around the world. Looking back, several more of Paul Gerhardt’s children will be in the choir. Looking forward, many hymns by newer talents from Getty Music will sing as well. The new choir will sing the seasons of Christ’s life that are unfolded in the seasons of the church year with a distinct expertise. We will hear much that resonates with the various seasons of our lives. It is impossible for one book to be a one-stop resource for every ethnicity and culture. But the law of Christian love and the doctrine of the holy Christian church caused us to be deliberately inclusive of the nations, tribes, people, and languages with whom we will sing in the heavenly choir.

That’s why we invested thousands of hours of time and effort in recruiting choir members that would…

3. be rooted in the Church year with its emphases on the life of Christ and the Christian’s life in Christ.
4. be drawn from classic Lutheran sources and deliberately inclusive of the Church’s broader song (including so-called international or global music).

The choir in my first parish was a wonderful cross section of the congregation, which, in turn, was a good representation of our community. Demographics are of interest to church leaders as they make plans to find the lost and strengthen the found. What do the demographics of the hymnal choir look like? They look much like a church that is both deliberately rooted and reaching.

An important group of hymns that predate the Lutheran Reformation serve as an important reminder that we are no cult! We are a continuation of the one, holy Christian and apostolic Church. It may be of interest to know that the ancient hymn, “O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel” was the most sung hymn in WELS in our data. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the members in the hymnal choir sing with a decidedly German accent. WELS members will be pleased to hear that we invested significant effort into helping our German friends improve their English by means of fresh translations! When appropriate, we also dressed some of them up in a tune that was a little less continental.

We invested significant effort into helping our German friends improve their English.

Germany fought two world wars with the English and Americans. But in the hymnal choir, they all get along wonderfully well. The hymns of England and America are well-represented. Almost 100 members come from the British Isles. They come from soaring cathedrals and pleasant meadows. Roughly 50 members sing not the Queen’s English but with an American accent. Our American experience—folk, revival, and spiritual—is well-represented.

Our hymnal choir is well-represented by the elderly members that we love and cherish! But what is different about this choir is the number of youth that have joined! The Hymns Committee gave tryouts to literally hundreds of hymns and contemporary songs with a fresh, modern sound. “Fresh,” “young,” “contemporary,” and “modern” are words that mean many different things to different people. No matter what your definition, as you page through the hymnal, you will notice about 10% of the faces will fall into those categories. They have not yet stood the test of time. But they have been properly vetted. Their talent holds promise for a long and fruitful future. It is our hope that Gerhardt and Getty will make beautiful harmony in the choir for years to come.

What is different about this choir is the number of youth that have joined!

Rounding out the membership in the choir, one sees faces from the Islands, Africa, and Latin America. They hold an important place in the choir. Their inclusion will help us all remember that vision of heaven’s choir—a vision that is desperately needed in an age where racial harmony has often spiraled into a sinful cacophony! We are all members of the body of Christ. If for only that reason, they need to be represented in this hymnbook.

This brief demographic survey shows that we have a hymnal that is decidedly rooted in the Lutheran tradition, but is certainly trending younger and younger. This has always been the Lutheran Church’s way!

Perhaps the best way, however, to get to know a choir is to stop talking about the different members and simply listen to them sing. We will get to know this choir best by attending a concert or two. So what’s on the program? A useful program has been compiled titled, Christian Worship: Hymn Preview. (See the sidebar.) This preview highlights 54 hymns. Each of these hymns illustrate the concepts that led to inclusion in the choir. It is a program that will be certain to impress, no matter what expectations you bring with you.

You became immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its multifaceted beauty!

Take some quality time to read or even sing the preview in its entirety. You can’t judge a book by its cover, nor should you. You certainly shouldn’t judge a book based upon what other people have said. Experience the hymns for yourself, lots of them. Experience them with an open mind and open ears. Let your preview serve as a prelude to a renewed appreciation for, fascination with, and commitment to Christian hymnody. You might sit down at this concert thinking you will just experience a choir. Instead, you will become immersed in the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of its multifaceted beauty!

Page through the preview. Look at all the hymns—each of them is unique. “Lift Up Your Heads” has gone on a diet and looks lovely in her new tune. “Dawning Light of Our Salvation” is one of the younger members of the choir. Her composers were youth confirmation age when our current hymnal was published in 1993. “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” sings in a section with about 22 other American folk tunes. (Spoiler alert: “Thou” is not an accident in her title. A careful read will reveal a bit of bias in bringing back some thee’s and thou’s in the “new” hymnal. This choice reflects common usage among American Christians in 2020.) In the Christmas section, can you hear some familiar carols that weren’t part of the CW93 choir? The preview contains a carol from Poland (“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”), one from England (“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”), and one from France (“Love Has Come”). Finally, a member with a widely-recorded voice rounds out the Christmas section, “Joy Has Dawned” by Getty and Townend. In just these first several hymns, one already sees a Christ-centered cross-section of old and new from the Old World as well as the New.

A Christ-centered cross-section of old and new from the Old World as well as the New.

And WELS will be blessed. Grandmas and grandpas will be blessed as they continue to sing their old favorites and teach them to their children’s children. The children will be blessed by a gospel heritage in song that has now come to them. The 683 singers in CW21 will be with us for thirty years. How wonderful to know that they will gladly serve as they always have: spreading the good news, teaching the truth that sets us free, inviting the lost, strengthening the found, encouraging the living, and comforting the dying. Until…

Until we join the hosts that cry,
“Hosanna to the Lord most high.”
Then in the light of that blest place
We shall behold you face to face. (CW93 230:3)

 

By Aaron Christie

Aaron Christie began service this year at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary where he is Professor of Worship and Homiletics and Dean of Chapel. When he served as the chair of the hymnal project’s Hymnody Committee, he was pastor at Trinity, Waukesha, WI. In addition to his training as a pastor he holds the Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin. He has served the synod at large as a member of the Commission on Worship and the Institute for Worship and Outreach and as a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment.


More New Hymnal Information

Several new items are available at christianworship.com. A new article under the Resources link, What’s New, gives quick access to all the new content. Christian Worship: Hymn Preview shares 54 of the approximately 200 new hymns planned for the new hymnal. Each hymn is accompanied by a brief comment on its origin, spiritual meaning, usage in the wider Christian church, or other interesting detail. Some samples from Christian Worship: Accompaniment for Hymns are included—options for both piano and organ. CW: Hymn Preview is available only as a viewable (not printable) PDF. This is due to restrictions placed by copyright holders.

The following chart shows the new items available.

CW: Hymn Preview54 hymns with comments, as described above.
Hymn listsA comprehensive list of 683 hymns and liturgical songs from both the pew edition and CW: Service Builder. Available in three formats: Excel, RTF, and PDF. The list is tentative, pending copyright permissions.
There is Room in the ChoirThis issue of Worship the Lord is also available online.
A Liturgical Philosophy for Christian WorshipThis article by Prof. James Tiefel is from the forthcoming Christian Worship: Foundations, a companion volume to the new hymnal. This volume is a pastor’s manual that provides rationale for the services in the new hymnal. It will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.
“For Us and for Our Salvation, … He Became Truly Human” (The Translation of the Nicene Creed in Christian Worship)In this article Pres. Earle Treptow offers an explanation for the wording of the Creed. This is a preliminary draft of an article that will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.

 

 

WORSHIP

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

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