Pastor Long

Pastor Long is one of 60 Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) leaders who are receiving theological training in Hanoi, Vietnam, from Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator, and members of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). In March 2019, the leaders gathered again for two weeks of training. The first week was a study of the first 400 years of church history in the New Testament era. The second week was a study of the Bible’s teachings about Church & Ministry. The intensive courses included 6 hours of class activities during the day and assigned readings in the evenings.

On coming to faith: An evangelist came to my village in 1997, but there was persecution in my village. The church in my village had two leaders. One of them was killed. The other one had to flee. Because I was a part of the local government, I knew what was going on among the Christians. As I learned more about Jesus, I came to believe in him. I kept my faith secret for many years. Finally, in 2003 I resigned from my government position and became an active part of the church. In 2007 I was called to serve as a pastor.

On ministry: I serve as a pastor in Lang Moua village in Hasan Province. I serve 366 families, about 1980 members. There are elders who assist me in the congregations. I preach twice per month and the elders also preach. I also teach the Bible at many gatherings each week. Many of my members want to receive Christian counseling; most of that work is done by the elders. I enjoy ministry. Serving God in any way makes me happy. I support myself as a farmer; my fields are in the mountains, and it takes me a couple hours to travel there. Also, I am often traveling to visit congregations in surrounding areas.

On learning: I started coming to Pastor Lor’s classes in 2013. But then my wife became sick, and I was not able to attend for a couple years. My wife is better now. We have three sons and one daughter. I am very happy that I can come here to learn more about the Lord.

What WELS members can pray for: I would ask the people of WELS to pray that God continues to strengthen my faith and to give me more knowledge, so that I can preach and teach the Word faithfully. I appreciate those prayers. Please allow me this opportunity to say to the people of WELS, “Thank you for supporting these classes. When we look back on our past selves, we see that we were like the Pharisees. In our sermons we were telling people that they needed to be better in order to be right with God. But now we know the Gospel and are living with joy. The members are happy. The elders are happy. I am so happy. We have given the blessings of baptism to all our children and infants.”

Brad Wordell, part of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) Team, is a member at Christ Alone, Thiensville, Wisconsin.


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From Devastation to Celebration

April 25 was the 4-year anniversary of the worst earthquake in Nepal in 75 years. Its epicenter was west of the capital Kathmandu in the Dhading District where we have many churches. Seven of our churches were flattened by the quake. In the villages not one building was left standing. Not one house, not even an outdoor toilet. The people said the ground moved like a wave–and then it moved back in the opposite direction–like a wave. Scientists say this earthquake lifted the earth 3 feet high in an area 75 miles long by 30 miles wide. Even Mount Everest was shaken and displaced, according to satellite images, 3 inches to the north. Avalanches on Mount Everest caused the greatest loss of life in a single day. 19 climbers perished. A village with more than 200 people was completely buried.

A newly rebuilt church in Nepal

In all, 20,000 people were killed in the earthquake. 600,000 people were homeless. The quake hit at 11:56 a.m. when many of our people were worshiping. In one church, seven Christian brothers and sisters were killed when the walls collapsed on them. The people lost many loved ones and their possessions. They dug in the rubble looking for food, clothes, money. . . and Bibles and hymnals. They were forced to live under blue tarps, many during the cold winter months. Some had to bury their family members in their yards.

With the help of WELS Christian Aid & Relief, our Christian brothers and sisters in Nepal brought relief to the people in the villages where the churches were destroyed. They were the first to arrive and sometimes the only ones to bring help even months after the disaster. They walked on narrow mountain paths to bring supplies–blankets, food and clothing. The earthquake caused sections of the paths to collapse into the ravines below forcing the rescuers to follow dry riverbeds. It was extremely hot and exhausting. One of our men fainted and nearly slid off the side of a cliff.

Nepalese Christians gather to dedicate their church building

When they arrived, many of the people were unable to express emotion. They seemed stunned, in a state of shock. In one village the people asked that we have a worship service thanking God before we distribute supplies to them. A few months afterwards we had a grief workshop to provide comfort to those who lost loved ones in the quake.

Four years later the people are rejoicing. After great effort they have rebuilt their seven churches. Survivors carried building supplies on their backs along the narrow mountain trails. If they were carrying a roof panel, for example, they had to turn sideways–with their faces towards the mountain and their backs to the cliff.

They dedicated four new churches within days of the 4th anniversary of the quake. It was a great celebration. 700 people. There were dancers. They rejoiced in the Lord. They expressed gratitude to God and to their Christian brothers and sisters in various congregations and schools who provided gifts for the rebuilding of these churches.

In spite of the devastation, they had a celebration. They celebrated because they have a Savior whose death caused another great earthquake where the rocks split and the dead were raised (Matthew 27:45-54). They know they will see their loved ones again. His death shook the world and broke the rock-solid grip of death.

Written by: WELS Friendly Counselor to South Asia

To learn more about mission work in South Asia, visit wels.net/asia.

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Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Wisdom from Wittenberg – Part 1

Martin Luther’s Pastoral and Practical Revisions of Worship


The story behind Luther’s creative worship

In the year 1517, The Feast of all Saints—November 1—just so happened to fall on a Sunday.1 The alignment of this date and the day of the week wouldn’t have escaped the notice of Christian worshipers. In fact, it would have amplified the din in town and city streets throughout Christendom. Across Europe, thousands of Christians would have thronged to the doors of their churches for what must have seemed like a Sunday morning, Christmas Day, and Memorial Day all rolled into one.

The scene in northern Germany would have been no different. But something different was about to happen, and it happened, in large part, due to a brilliant bachelor professor who, like the rest, would have been walking to and from worship on that particular Sunday morning. On All Saints Day, 1517, Martin Luther could not have imagined how much a document which he had written to his archbishop and posted publicly the night before was going to change his life and his congregation. So much, in fact, that now, even 500 years later, we are still celebrating the man and his moment at the church door.

Though we often tend to focus on the man and his moment, we rarely take the time to imagine what was actually happening on the other side of the door. In fact, it’s rather difficult to imagine. The style and pattern of worship inside the All Saints’ Church on that famous All Saints’ Day, 1517 would hardly be recognizable to us.

Perhaps some figures might be illustrative: In 1517, mass was celebrated 9,000 times at the Castle Church alone—a public or private mass offered every 53 minutes, without letup, for an entire year.2 40,000 candles were burned, consuming four tons of wax at a cost of $100,000. The prime attraction at All Saints Church was the collection of relics: 19,000 cataloged items neatly arranged in ten aisles.3

But the real heart of Wittenberg worship on All Saints Day was receiving the indulgence: walk through the door, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, confess your sins to one of the dozen extra priests available, say a prayer for the pope. Once done, most people simply left once the priest had elevated the host. This was worship in Wittenberg under which the people were held captive to the careful control of the Catholic church and enslaved to the indulgence of the papacy. No one at the time could have known that the detailed document which Professor Luther had posted to the church door was about to change all of that.

The document that Luther had posted, 95 Theses, or A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,4 was a breach in the dam. What flowed through that breach was Christian freedom. Throughout the five years that followed 1517, Luther began to experience for himself the unexpected effects of freedom. Sometime in 1518, Luther had a spiritual breakthrough in which the truth of the gospel finally set him free from the terrors of his conscience.5 By 1519, he was set free from his vows of monasticism. By 1520, he was publishing The Freedom of a Christian6 throughout Germany. And by 1521, Luther was finally called to defend that freedom before the Holy Roman Estates at Worms. Luther stood firm in his freedom, and the rest is history.

However, a breached dam often presents something of a problem. That problem was quickly experienced by the worshipers in Wittenberg. Luther’s associates in Wittenberg saw their new-found freedom as something to be experimented with. After Worms, Andreas Karlstadt concluded that since Rome had broken with the preacher of Wittenberg, it was time for the people of Wittenberg to return the favor. While Luther was away at the Wartburg, Karlstadt took over in Wittenberg and went on an “iconoclastic binge.”7 Worship services were flooded with new ideas and new forms. Suddenly, Germans who were used to Latin chants and prayers were hearing loud German phrases while receiving communion in both kinds from priests who wore no robes. None of them were sure why it was happening. It seemed the only reason was ‘because of Rome.’

Luther defended the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity.

Throughout the five years that followed 1521, Luther would need to defend the gospel from the burst dam of freedom and creativity. Luther would respond from the Wittenberg pulpit in a way that was direct and abrupt.8 But he would also respond from his Wittenberg desk in a way that was subtle, quiet, and patient. Luther would find ways to change how communion was received. He would find a way to give the Wittenbergers a service of their own. But he would take his time in finding that way, and his approach would be pastoral and highly principled.

It would come about through a three-year-long worship project, begun in 1523 with an order of service meant to demonstrate how the mass could basically be used as is, save for a few critical changes. The project would reach its conclusion in 1526 with a second order of service, meant to show how worship life could be completely and creatively—but still pastorally and practically—adapted. These two documents, in which Luther recognized “something must be dared in the name of Christ,”9 would serve as two poles, each connected to the other, between which an ancient-future pattern of Christian worship would emerge.

Five hundred years later, the past is present. We worship in the land of the free. Innovation is addictive. Our creative impulses are rocket-fueled by communication technology. Often the question we hear isn’t “what can we change?” but “how much of this do we really have to keep in order to stay Lutheran?” We enjoy our liberty to tinker and experiment with worship. But perhaps Luther’s principled project can compel us to be careful with our creativity as we seek to adapt and shape the worship life of our congregations.

The remainder of this article and its part two companion will explore four aspects of Luther’s approach to creativity.

Creativity is careful to serve the gospel.

“The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 This was Luther’s foundational worship principle. Everything he thought and did was not for himself, and not against Rome, but for the gospel. This is where Karlstadt had gone astray in 1522 and why his worship adjustments caused so much consternation. Karlstadt’s reforms were not initiated by or driven by an understanding of the gospel. This is what Luther addressed in the eight sermons that he preached following his sudden return to Wittenberg on Invocavit Sunday. Rather than allowing the gospel to do its subtle, quiet work through its various and familiar forms, Karlstadt sought to immediately renovate and redefine nearly every aspect of worship and preaching. His impatience, combined with a desire to liberate himself and the Wittenberg laity from the forms and patterns of Rome, drove him to a point where the gospel’s power was flouted in favor of his own fanatical enthusiasm.

Luther’s sermons were a call to faith, love, patience, and a renewed appreciation for the gospel principle: since God changes hearts through the power of the gospel, everything that we do—especially what we do in worship, and to an ultimate degree what we choose to add to or remove from worship—is done in the interest of conveying the gospel to people’s hearts. The Word must be allowed to do its subtle, quiet work. “We do nothing, the Word does everything.”11

The gospel principle did not lead Luther to the same conclusion that Karlstadt had reached. Wittenberg’s worship was free to change, but it was also free to be retained. In fact, much of the service ought to remain, owing to love for people and faith in the gospel. Much of the present order of service, after all, did preach the gospel, provided that it was heard in public (not just said in private) and provided that the clutter of indulgences was done away with. If the people were present, they would have heard sermons preached in their everyday language, just like we do. At the same time, they would have heard prayers not in everyday language, just like we do. The people knew what “Kyrie eleison” and “Credo” meant. Why alter them? Luther’s advice in 1523 but also in 1526 was to adhere to established patterns, since arbitrarily departing from them could be self-serving or Karlstadtian.

“We do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty….”

In both services, the established pattern of liturgy was retained. Luther said, “This is necessary so that no sect arises from public worship as if I had devised this service out of my own head.”12 Luther’s subtle critique of Karlstadt and his motives deserves to be emphasized: “An order of liturgy is not simply to fulfill a personal need or plan or idea but must always serve the gospel.”13 On its surface, Karlstadt’s Wittenberg movement might seem driven by the desire for greater inclusion or clearer communication. But desires for better things ought to be checked carefully less like Karlstadt we charge ahead and miss our target. “Since we are rooted firmly in a rich tradition, we do not avoid the new but are careful to avoid novelty, eccentricity, or quixotic attempts at newness for its own sake.”14

On the other hand, perhaps Karlstadt had raised an interesting question. “If there are moments when the service isn’t clearly communicating the gospel, what do we do then?” To many, the Lord’s Prayer had become automatic. To many more, the mystery of the Lord’s Supper was just that—unintelligible. Here, Luther found ways to adapt. And Luther’s ‘way,’ as published in 1526, would be a form of worship catechesis.

The preface of the 1526 Deutsche Messe seems to be written by a man more interested in ‘a good catechism’15 than ‘a new service.’ In fact, when we look at the service, we recognize that the two interests are one and the same. “The preaching and teaching of God’s Word must remain the most important.”10 Where the Lord’s Prayer needs to be taught, teach it. Where the Lord’s Supper needs explanation, provide one. And so Luther did.

It is important to realize that Luther’s intention was primarily catechetical. Otherwise, there is a temptation to extract Luther’s statements from their context and then to force his ‘new service’ to serve modern ideas about what worship should be. Those ideas might sound like this:

  • “Such orders are needed for those who are still becoming Christians.”16 i.e. Luther was providing a new service that was more approachable to those new to the faith. This idea overlooks the fact that in Luther’s day, no one church shopped, adult baptisms were nearly unheard of, and every parishioner had been trained in the routines of church life almost since birth. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than initiation.
  • “This service should be arranged for the sake of simple laypeople”17 i.e. Luther was adapting to the culture of the people in Wittenberg. Unless the service was translated into their language and idiom, they would be unable to hear and respond to the gospel. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther’s Latin service had been translated into German only a few weeks after it had been published and that people all over Germany were already worshiping in German. It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than language.
  • “Now there are three kinds of liturgies or Mass”18 i.e. Luther was willing to offer alternatives. A Latin service was preferred by some, a German service by others, another service by yet others. This idea might overlook the fact that Luther never drafted a third service. Nor did he object as the first two were merged.19 It seems that in Luther’s mind, the service was about more than preference.

Luther’s service was about more than initiation, language, or preference.

Rather than pitting these efforts against the other, Luther honored them all as expressions of catechesis. And he employed ancient and modern tools simultaneously in this effort. Luther sought to defend the gospel for a Christian culture which had a good knowledge of Christian tradition. To do this, he produced a Formula Missae which removed everything at odds with the gospel, while retaining everything that wasn’t. At the same time, he sought to declare the gospel to a “population becoming secularized and needing reintroduction to its Christian roots.”20 To do this, he produced a Deutsche Messe in which the truth of the gospel could still be ‘caught’ (as emphasized by the retained rituals21) and ‘taught’ (as emphasized by the added explanations).


Creativity in service of the gospel is the primary principle. Part two of this article will explore additional principles:

  • Creativity is careful to honor the arts
  • Creativity is careful to serve the community
  • Creativity is careful to serve the congregation

Written by Mark Tiefel

Pastor Tiefel serves at Emanuel, New London, WI. His service as a District Worship Coordinator has covered both the South Central and Northern Wisconsin Districts. He is general editor of a new edition of manuals for the WELS Hymnal Project.


Photo is of Weimar altarpiece, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1555. An analysis by Michael Zarling is at breadforbeggars.com. For another instructive image of early Lutheran worship, search for the 1561 altar panel from Torslunde Church. (Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Wikimedia Commons.)


This article, part 1 of 2, is adapted from a presentation at the 2017 WELS national worship conference. Those interested may find additional information in a handout of the same title along with the worship folder for All Saints’ and recordings from that service at worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-conference. Additional recordings are on the double CD “A Mighty Fortress” available from NPH.


1 Google, using the Gregorian Calendar, specifies Thursday. But prior to 1582, dates were determined according to the Julian Calendar. In that calendar, November 1 fell on a Sunday.
2 To say the Castle Church alone is tongue and cheek. The masses weren’t said constantly, but dozens were offered privately and simultaneously, often with no one else in attendance.
3 This is the scene described by Martin Brecht, Road to Reformation, 118.
4 LW 31:17-34
5 The date of this breakthrough is uncertain, but likely happened during the summer of 1518, while Luther was preparing his lectures on the Hebrews. Luther referred to it as a moment when “the gates of heaven were suddenly opened to me. Cf. Brecht, Road, 225.
6 LW 31:327ff
7 The phrase is coined by Frank Senn, page 275 in Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Fortress, 1997.
8 Many can remember the scene from the 1953 film: “How dare you lay hands upon the crucifix!”
9 The phrase is from Luther’s Preface to the Formula Missae. LW 53:19
10 AL (The Annotated Luther) 3:146, LW 53:68
11 LW 51:77
12 AL 3:142
13 Dirk Lange provides this note on the above quotation in AL 3:142 n.19
14 Schalk, Paradigms, 55
15 “Onward then in the name of God! First the German service needs a down-to-earth, plain, simple, and good catechism.” (AL 142)
16 AL 3:141
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid, 140.
19 Even during Luther’s lifetime, it was common for Latin and German settings of the same texts to be sung alongside one another.
20 Maschke, Timothy. Gathered Guests: A Guide to Worship in the Lutheran Church. Second Edition. Concordia, 2009, 155.
21 “The congregation assembled around the Word and the sacraments needs other forms than an individual needs when reading the Word or praying by himself. Unity demands the individual’s regard for the whole. Conversely, however, it also demands that the whole have regard for the individual. It demands regard for the ‘weak’—a demand, which in accordance with what Luther requires, is emphasized by many church rituals.” Elert, Werner. The Structure of Lutheranism. Tr. Walter Hansen. Concordia, 1962, 328-329


RECOMMENDED READING

For a fuller list, see Tiefel’s handout from the 2017 worship conference. The list below includes only newer or lesser known items.

Books:

Luther, Martin. “The German Mass and Order of the Liturgy, 1526.” Ed. Dirk G. Lange. The Annotated Luther. Volume 3: Church and Sacraments. Fortress, 2016.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (1483-1521). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1985.
———. Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532). Tr. James Schaff. Fortress, 1990.
Leaver, Robin. The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Eerdmans, 2017.
Maag, Karen and John Witvliet. Worship in Medieval and Modern Europe: Change and Continuity in Religious Practice. University of Notre Dame, 2004.
Schalk, Carl. Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. Concordia, 1988.
———. Music in Early Lutheranism: Shaping the Tradition. Concordia Academic, 2001.
Zager, Daniel. The Gospel Preached Through Music: The Purpose and Practice of Lutheran Church Music. Good Shepherd Institute, 2013.

Articles and Essays:

Herl, Joseph. “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Liturgies: Insights from the Sixteenth through the Eighteenth Century” in: Thine the Amen: Essays on Lutheran Church Music in Honor of Carl Schalk. Lutheran University Press, 2005.
Koelpin, Arnold. “Luther Reforms the Mass.” Focus on Worship. Summer, 1989.
Leaver, Robin. “Luther and Bach, the ‘Deutsche Messe’ and the Music of Worship.” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001).


 

WORSHIP

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

GIVE A GIFT

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Preach The Word – Not without Testimony

Apologetics in Preaching

Not without Testimony

We are not left without testimony (Ac 14:17). This is true in every aspect of life. Imagine waking up to a world without any knowledge passed down to you. No set language to imitate. No wisdom to ponder. No technologies invented. I am thankful that I didn’t have to learn, discover, or invent all the agricultural, mechanical, or technological advancements I take for granted every day. We are not left without testimony.

Nor are we left without theological testimony. Not even the Gentiles Paul encountered, whether in cosmopolitan Rome (Rm 1:20) or backwater Galatia (Ac 14:17), were left without testimony. Natural law is common to all. Every human has enough information to conclude that there is a something out there beyond this world. Paul therefore states that Gentiles are “without excuse” (Rm 1:20).

Paul based his conclusion on evidence that we might categorize as the classical arguments for the existence of God.1 Consider a form of the cosmological argument: All things are contingent; nothing pops into existence by itself but rather depends on something or someone else for its existence (e.g. the carpenter made the table from wood). Since the universe is the sum total of all contingent things, then the universe is contingent. This requires a necessary being outside the universe which caused the universe. The universe could not pop into existence by itself.2

The cosmological argument not only points to the existence of a noncontingent being, it also points to certain attributes of this being. This being would have to be a free agent and outside of time and space. If this being created the universe, it would also be powerful and intelligent. This being would also be a person (philosophically) which means it has consciousness and rationality.

Love is conspicuously absent in the classical arguments.

The classical arguments, although debated, are powerful. Yet they don’t bring the skeptic to Christ. They may point to the existence of a divine being but not the Christian God. Notice also that love is conspicuously absent in the classical arguments. The gospel is nowhere to be found. If we are left with only natural law, we are left with only law. We can only conclude that the “god” of nature seems angry and doesn’t discriminate between the good and the evil of humanity.

Thankfully, we are also not left without testimony about Christ. Testimony about the existence of God is evident with a use of reason, but gospel testimony is only revealed. And revelation means words. Whether spoken, written, signed, or pictured, these words are always preached.3 The truth of the gospel must be preached, that is, revealed. And to be revealed it must be hidden, that is, clothed in word.

So words matter. Therefore, we are concerned not only with words but also with attacks on words. Today we encounter two attacks on words. The first is an attack on words themselves. The second is an attack on the texts of Scripture. Both are ultimately an attack on the Word. Jacques Derrida’s attack on logo-centrism4 is an attack on Christo-centricism (since Christ is the Logos). Yet we should not ignore the main point of his critique: Do words help us know truth, or do they get in the way of knowing truth? Practically speaking the answer is “yes” to both. Words are our best tool in discovering and transmitting truth. Yet who of us has not struggled to communicate a thought because words have failed us? Here we realize that the problem is not with words but with misuse of words and our failure to articulate truth with imperfect language.

Postmodern language games [bring] two apologetic opportunities.

While the Lutheran preacher is worried by these postmodern language games, he should also see two apologetic opportunities. The first is the recognition that we, as sinful language speakers, are limited in our ability to know truth and are weary of people who speak truth not to power but for power. The second is the urge to know is still engrained in all humans, even in those who claim “we cannot know.”

Do not Lutherans understand the bound will better than anybody? Are we not dismayed at the misuse of words by politicians and advertisers? We should be the least surprised people on the planet when sin is exposed. With a certain calmness (as opposed to the hysteria we experience in the contemporary world), we can slow down the anger and build a solid epistemology. Sparing ourselves (and our people) from technical language, we can simply argue that we humans are capable of knowledge. I suppose someone could always protest “Couldn’t this all be a dream?” But we don’t live our lives like that. We have basic beliefs upon which we build a view of the world.

Secondly we have a desire to know. More than that, we have a desire for joy, drama, importance, and wonder. We were made for something great and we know it. Nobody would describe as admirable the person who shrugs his shoulders and mutters “Who cares?” Lutherans are able to balance this very somber attitude of “We can’t know fully and it’s out fault” with the revelation of the Logos who fulfills our natural desire to know. True, we sinners cannot fully know anything, let alone God, but God provides everything we need in Christ. He is the Logos.

Heraclitus’ famous river analogy about a person unable to step into the same river twice5 seems to imply that change is so constant that meaning is illusive. But Heraclitus also said, “Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.”6 Heraclitus understood that there was something outside which regulates all things. Heraclitus said “Listen to the Logos,” and John said “Here is the Logos dwelling among us.” Jesus is the Logos. He is what we are looking for but cannot see because of the blindness of sin. The urge to know is there in all. The way to know is in Christ. So we preach Christ.

The urge to know is there in all. The way to know is in Christ. So we preach Christ.

The second attack on words is an attack on the texts of Scripture. There is a general cynicism to the accuracy of the Gospel accounts. Once again, the apologist does not want to engage in circular logic (the Bible is accurate because it says so). Nor does the apologist want to cede the field to the skeptic. Instead the apologist wants to level the playing field so that the same criteria used to examine other ancient texts are used on the New Testament manuscripts.

A basic outline of such criteria can be found in countless books on apologetics. A quick summary will suffice here. Three tests determine the accuracy of ancient documents. First, the biographical test examines the autograph and manuscript evidence. How close to the events were the autographs written? How many manuscripts are there, and how early are those manuscripts? Second, the internal test concerns itself with the coherence of the text, the ability of the writers to be accurate (means, motive, and opportunity), and the text’s claims about itself. Finally, the external test asks if there is extratextual evidence to back up the claims of the texts.

The New Testament texts pass all three tests. We have good reason to believe in an early dating of the Gospels. The amount of manuscript evidence and the gap between the autographs and the manuscripts are by far the best of any document of the era (biographical test). The New Testament writers had the opportunity and means to record this data. They also had pure motives (they gained nothing for their testimony but martyrdom). The New Testament claims inerrancy and lays out a coherent message (internal test). We also have what amounts to a chain of custody of the evidence. We have insight into the vetting process of the books of the canon (e.g. John taught Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus). Add to this extra-biblical accounts of Christ (e.g. Tacitus and Pliny the Younger) along with archaeological evidence, and the texts pass the external test.

The Sixth Sunday after Easter (May 26, 2019) has much to do with testimony. The First Reading (Acts 14:8-18) is the story of Barnabas and Paul in Lystra and Derbe. The two missionaries are mistakenly identified as gods. In response Paul states that they work for the true God who had not left the Galatians “without testimony” of a supreme being who sends “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (Ac 14:17). Psalm 65 is an example of praise for such providence.

The Sixth Sunday after Easter has much to do with testimony.

The Second Reading (Rv 21:10-14, 22, 23) highlights the foundation of the apostles’ testimony. In Jesus Christ’s revelation to John, the church is pictured as the New Jerusalem. Written on the city’s foundations are the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rv 21:14). The apostles are equated to foundations because the church’s ministry is built on their testimony.

Finally, the Gospel (Jn 14:23-29) is Jesus’ own words about his relationship to the Father and his sending of the Spirit to the apostles. “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn 14:24b-26).

Here is an example of how a preacher might include apologetic concerns about words, texts, and reliability into a sermon.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” What a lie. It doesn’t take us too long in life to realize that wounds inflicted by words heal slower than broken bones. Words matter. Words are powerful.

This makes perfect sense because we are people of words. Better yet, we are people of the Word. The world was created by words. God wants to deal with us with words. We deal with each other with words. He wants us to take him at his word. The whole story of the Bible is about people not taking God at his word and then God coming with his Word to save them. Finally Jesus is the Word. Now, you might say “But Pastor, I dream in color!” Or “I think in pictures.” Good for you, but how will you explain it to me? With words. For lack of a better way to say it, we are people of words.

We have more reliable historical data for Jesus than any other person of that era.

So we are very sensitive when people attack the Word. Maybe you have heard it said that the New Testament is unreliable history. “We don’t really know what Jesus said or did.” This is simply not true. We have more reliable historical data for Jesus than for any other person of that era, and it’s not even close. I won’t bore you will all the details, but just consider this one fact: We have more copies of the New Testament which verify the events of Jesus’ life than any document describing the most important people of ancient Greece or Rome. We have around 5,600 manuscript fragments of the New Testament. Most famous writings of the time have less than a dozen. A dozen! By far the largest manuscript collection of one book is Homer’s Illiad which boasts 643. It’s not even close to the evidence of the New Testament. All I am saying is don’t fall apart when you hear that the New Testament is fraudulent. It’s simply not true.

But there is another more subtle attack on words. It’s an attack on the ability of words to even transmit meaning. It goes like this: every word is spoken by an author who then loses control of the word. The word is just floating out there detached from what the original author meant by that word. Even the original author is using words that come with their own baggage. For example, when a poor kid on the tough streets of Philadelphia hears the word “run” he thinks of something different than what the long-distance runner thinks when she hears the word “run.” Fair enough. There are shades of meaning. But does that really mean that we cannot communicate with each other or even know anything for sure? The fact that we are using words right now disproves that theory. We are able to match reality with words.

Yet we all have experienced a time when words didn’t do the trick. “I’m at a loss of words,” we might say about an extraordinary event. It’s not that words have necessarily failed us but rather that we sinful users of words have failed. We’re the problem. And God knows this. He knows that we are so deeply flawed that we cannot wrap our heads around divine things and in fact, fight against them. Every single day I grow in appreciation of this passage from 1 Corinthians: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cr 13:12). God knows our flaws. He knows us better than we know us. And one day I will know. One day.

So God is very concerned with words. It is through the Word transmitted through preached words that you and I know salvation. Think about what we heard today. Jesus revealed to St. John the Golden Jerusalem, heaven. It’s pictured with twelve foundations with the names of the apostles on those foundations. Why such respect for the Twelve? Because of their bravery, wisdom, and integrity? Hardly. The Twelve are most important because of their testimony. They were the first to see and hear Jesus. Their greatest honor was to pass down this testimony.

In fact, this is what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel. These words of the Father were given to the Son and the Spirit. It is the Spirit who then comes to these eyewitnessing apostles. The Spirit inspired them to write, record, speak, and preach this message to others. Why? Why are all three persons of the Trinity involved in words? Why do they acknowledge this on the foundations of the Golden Jerusalem? Why is this the highest honor? Because of you, that’s why. Because of you.

Words matter. God’s words matter. They matter because this is how God deals with us. This is how he is revealed to us. This is how the Spirit comes to us. This is how you have faith. And these words have power, the power to save. They have power to cut through all the confusion of our modern world. We hear all sorts of stories, all sorts of words, all sorts of reports. We don’t know which words to believe anymore. But the gospel cuts through all of that and declares forgiveness for you. This is truth, for this Word is Christ and Christ is the truth.

We need this specific word. It is true that every person has been given testimony from God. Nature tells us that there is a designer of some sorts. Our consciences tell us that the designer is a moral being. There is a right and wrong. “He has not left himself without testimony,” as we heard Paul say today. But none of this tells me what I really need to know. A tree can tell me that there is a God. But it can’t tell me that Christ died on its distant relative for my salvation. I need to know Christ and him crucified for me. Only the Word tells me that.

God has gone to great lengths for your salvation. He sent his Son who lived, died, rose, and ascended for you. He has also gone to great lengths to give you words, and in fact the Word. The Twelve preached it and even died for it. The New Testament writers recorded it. The church copied it. Your ancestors confessed it. Your parents, biological or spiritual, taught it to you. And now it is preached to you. So that you would know. So that you would have peace. Words matter, don’t they? So here is the preached Word to you today, “You are forgiven!”

Written by Michael Berg


1 The four classical arguments for the existence of God are the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and anthropological arguments.
2 One important question in cosmology is the finitude of the universe. If the universe is infinite then no creative being is needed to explain the universe. The Kalam Cosmological Argument makes the case that time cannot be infinite. If the universe (and therefore time) is infinite then the time between when you started reading this sentence and the time you stopped would include an infinite amount of moments. But how could you traverse an infinite amount of moments? The fact that you have reached this present moment proves that the universe is not infinite.
3 See Luther’s distinction in The Bondage of the Will between the preached God and the unpreached God. We are to seek God where he intends to be sought, hidden but paradoxically revealed in word. Seeking an unpreached God, that is without word, ends with law not gospel.
4 Derrida attacks the idea that language is a fundamental expression of reality.
5 Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments, G.S. Kirk, 1954 Cambridge University Press, 366 -367.
6 The History of Philosophy Vol. 1, W.K.C. Guthrie, 1967 Cambridge University Press, 424-425.


Books for Further Study:

Can Science Explain Everything? by John Lennox
Can We Trust the Gospels? by Peter Williams
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospel by J. Warner Wallace
Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli
History, Law and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery
The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists by Ravi Zacharias


 

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Pastor Tong Poa

Pastor Poa is one of 60 Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) leaders who are receiving theological training in Hanoi, Vietnam, from Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator, and members of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). In March 2019, the leaders gathered again for two weeks of training. The first week was a study of the first 400 years of church history in the New Testament era. The second week was a study of the Bible’s teachings about Church & Ministry. The intensive courses included 6 hours of class activities during the day and assigned readings in the evenings.

Pastor Poa shared his story with PSI Professor Rev. Brad Wordell, with Bounkeo Lor serving as translator:

On coming to faith: My parents and the children in my family were brought to faith through Christian radio broadcasts in our country. I was seven or eight years old at the time. Because the persecution against Christians was strong in our area, my family relocated to Houalenga village in Song La Province when I was about ten years old. There were other Christians there, but there were no leaders for the church. For that reason, I was asked to start leading liturgy at the age of 10.

On ministry: After I graduated from high school in 2008, I was also appointed a leader in the church. Now, 11 years later, I oversee 18 congregations in which there are 245 families with about 1,630 members. I work with one other pastor. We are in the city, and we serve the surrounding villages which can be reached from our city. I am married. My wife and I have 3 children ages 9, 6, and 2 years old. The congregations do not pay me a salary, but they do help pay for my transportation. There are many talented men in our villages, but the churches look to me as a leader. This is a special privilege from God. I wish I had more time for ministry. Some of the people I serve live in the mountains, and it takes me a long time to reach them. I travel by motorbike as far as I can, but then I must walk the rest of the way. To reach some of my people, I must walk 10 kilometers through mountainous terrain. Some of the places I serve do not have any cellular service.

On learning: I have been coming to these classes for 3 1/2 years now. I received training from others before, but these classes have helped me understand the Bible much better. I always return from here ready and eager to teach God’s Word to my people. Because I am the tallest pastor here, about a year ago the brothers gave me the nickname Saul.

What WELS members can pray for: Besides supporting my family and my ministry, I am also taking care of my parents, who are in their mid-60’s. In the past we struggled to survive, but the Lord has provided stability for us now. Please pray that the Lord continues to provide for our daily needs, so that I can continue to serve the spiritual needs of the members of my congregations. Please pray that God gives me health and strength and endurance, so that I can face any hardship.

Brad Wordell, part of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) Team, is a member at Christ Alone, Thiensville, Wisconsin.


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Where we are. Who we are.

The blank look. The slight frown. The searching, mystified expression. If the person’s face had a digital readout, it would say, “no results found.” Then the question: “So… where is that?”

It would be nice if we never had to hear that question ever again. “So… where is your church?” It’s like hearing someone say, “Nope, never heard of it. I’ve lived here for 30 years. I drive by it every day. Doesn’t register. Your congregation’s ministry has made zero impact on me. Your efforts to identify yourself to our community, build relational bridges, and communicate your message has failed.”

Great. Thanks a lot. Not an encouraging question. “So, where is your church?”

Our church building is set back from the main road. It’s tucked away behind a hedgerow of city-owned, required-by-zoning lilac bushes. It has a low profile in the view of a driver or passerby. So signage is important. Announcing our presence and proclaiming our identity in visual form is a must.

With help from an outreach grant, we installed a new roadside sign. It’s simple. It’s professionally and durably constructed. It’s clean and neat. It’s visible from the main road and the traffic light.

It’s only been a few months since we installed the sign, but we can’t keep up with all the people pounding down our door! Our attendance doubled, then tripled, since the new sign went up.

Really?!

No, not really. If only it were that simple: to post a public placard and wait for the people to notice and respond.

Easter Brunch at Mighty Fortress Lutheran Church – Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

It turns out that we do want to keep hearing that question, “So, where is your church?” In fact, we actually want to take the initiative and ask the question ourselves, “So, do you know where we are?” Maybe we will get the frown. . . and the blank stare. . . and the response in the negative. Maybe we will get a deflating sense of how many still don’t know about us. But we’re happy to tell them. And give them directions. And invite them. And show the way. We’re delighted to describe in detail how to locate our church.

And then. . . we get to ask the next question. “Alright, now that we’re clear on that… you know where we are. Do you know who we are?”

It would be really surprising if anyone from the community nodded and said, “Oh, sure. I know who you are!” No one would be expected to have any kind of answer for that. That means we get to tell them. “Mighty Fortress is a group of people who have found rock-solid truth in the Bible, and appreciate the rock-solid comfort that Jesus provides.” Or something like that.

Short. Simple. Hopefully, not too canned or rehearsed-sounding. Just a quick introduction to who is inside the walls of that unfamiliar building and to why they might want to enter it themselves.

We don’t expect our attendance to double or triple anytime soon. And we don’t expect that we have eliminated the need for that, “So, where’s your church?” question. But we pray that we have a better shot at getting a glimmer of recognition when we tell people. We pray that we have a better shot at awakening a glimmer of Spirit-planted faith when we introduce ourselves and our message. We pray that we have a better shot at sharing with our community where we are and who we are.

Written by Rev. Dave Boettcher, home missionary at Mighty Fortress in Red Deer and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada.

To learn more about WELS Home Missions in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Pastor Zongchin

Pastor Zongchin is one of 60 Hmong Fellowship Church (HFC) leaders who are receiving theological training in Hanoi, Vietnam, from Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator, and members of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI). In March 2019, the leaders gathered again for two weeks of training. The first week was a study of the first 400 years of church history in the New Testament era. The second week was a study of the Bible’s teachings about Church & Ministry. The intensive courses included 6 hours of class activities during the day and assigned readings in the evenings.

Pastor Zongchin shared his story with PSI Professor Rev. Brad Wordell, with Bounkeo Lor serving as translator:

On coming to faith: I was a businessman, and my business took me to Laos in the 1990’s. There I met Pastor Lor’s grandfather, who shared the gospel with me. He read to me from Matthew 24, where Jesus is talking with his disciples about the end of the world. Those words stuck with me. After I returned to Vietnam, I realized that I believed in Jesus. I gathered with the few other Christians in my village. I told everyone openly, “I am a Christian.”

On ministry:  But then the persecution came. I was followed by people and persecuted for 3 years. As I told people about Jesus, 15 families were converted. Because the persecution grew stronger, many of those families fled. I also had to move to the province of Song La. I remember thinking to myself that I was like Abraham, traveling to a new place which was not my home, because of the Lord. While I was there, a pastor from Laos came and taught me more about the Bible and about being a pastor. We studied the parables of Jesus and the meaning of baptism. He gave me practical advice about how to lead a congregation. Because of persecution by local government leaders, all the other Christians left; only I and my family remained. I sent a letter to the government in Hanoi. They sent a representative out to investigate. Then the persecution ceased for the most part. During the next 11 years I told people in my village and other villages about Jesus. In some areas I had to talk to people in the jungle, secretly, at night. Now I oversee 1580 members from 310 families in 14 congregations. Many of those congregations are led by elders, whom I am trying to train. I am a full-time pastor and I oversee many congregations, but I do not get paid as a pastor. In many cases congregations do not even pay for my travel to go serve them. I support myself as a rice farmer. I also grow a kind of grass that is dried and used for making brooms.

On learning: My ministry involves preaching and teaching and the training of elders. I need training so that I can do these things well. I have been learning Lutheran doctrine for almost seven years now. The training I am receiving from WELS is much better than the training I received earlier. Now I know how to interpret and explain the Scriptures. Now I am confident that I am preaching and teaching God’s Word correctly.

What WELS members can pray for:  I would appreciate it if the members of WELS would pray about my use of time. I want to have a proper balance in my use of time and money. Pray that I continue to gain more knowledge for teaching God’s Word to others. Pray that the WELS can continue to train me and the next generation of leaders in our church. In my congregations there are four men who want to be pastors. Two of them are my sons. They keep asking me, “How soon can we begin our training?”

Brad Wordell, part of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) Team, is a member at Christ Alone, Thiensville, Wisconsin.


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How great is the need?

No, you are not looking at people wearing purple Ku Klux Klan robes.

It’s Good Friday in the center of Quito, Ecuador. Two thousand people line up for a procession that winds through the streets from noon to 3pm. Almost all of them wear purple. Some carry huge wooden crosses with beams the size of telephone poles. Some carry statues. Some strap cactus crosses to their bare backs. Others whip themselves or have others whip them. Others clamp chains to their feet and drag them along.

Why are they doing this? I asked a lady who had participated in 11 of these events. She eagerly told me that there are many reasons someone might choose to participate. You may have some big sins to pay for or you might want to ask God a really big favor. In that case, you would need to participate 7 years in a row.

I was sad.

Good Friday in Quito, Ecuador

She actually said “pay for your sins.” All days are bad days to try to pay for your sins, but the irony of trying to do so on Good Friday was hard to hear. Equally disturbing was the attempt to convince God to answer prayers on the day when Jesus won for us complete access to our loving Father who always is eager to hear us. If one thing was certain from my observation of this Good Friday procession, it is this: many hurting people who are desperate for relief live here.

About halfway through the procession I saw a young woman who had been carrying a cross. She had collapsed by the side of the road. A team of Red Cross paramedics was attending her.

I was sad.

I thought about all the reasons the girl may have chosen to carry that cross. I thought about the guilt and the deep desire she had. She wanted something so badly. She was hurting. Even worse, I imagine her failed attempt will probably heap even more guilt and shame on her.

I was sad.

I wish that I could have been able to talk to her. I wish I could sit down at a coffee shop and just listen. To her and to all of them. I wish I could have had the opportunity to talk about Jesus. But at that moment, I couldn’t. Not with her and not with many others. I didn’t have the opportunity.

But maybe I’ll have the opportunity someday.

Traveling around Quito (not to mention all the rest of Latin America), I pass many apartment buildings. “How can I get in them? How can I talk to those people?” I ask myself. In most instances, I can’t.

I might not be entering, but the Word is. Through social media, thousands upon thousands of people learn about Jesus and have opportunity to sign up for online classes (or on-the-ground classes in some cases like Quito). Then I get to talk to them. Then I get to tell them about Jesus.

I am happy. The Holy Spirit is working.

Written by Rev. Nathan Schulte, missionary on the Latin America missions team based in Quito, Ecuador 

To learn more about mission work in Latin America, visit wels.net/latin-america.

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Memorandum of Understanding signed in Hanoi, Vietnam

On April 24, 2019, WELS President Mark Schroeder, World Missions Administrator Rev. Larry Schlomer, and Director of Missions Operations Mr. Sean Young checked in after their first full day in Hanoi, Vietnam, with exciting news to report: After surveying the land chosen for the theological education center, a memorandum of understanding was signed by WELS and Vietnamese Fellowship Church (VFC) representatives confirming we can move forward with all land purchase, construction, and training plans!

Praise be to God! This is a huge step forward as we continue to train the leaders of the Hmong Fellowship Church in the truths of the gospel. Please continue to pray for this amazing mission opportunity and support it with your financial gifts. Learn more at wels.net/vietnamhmongoutreach.

 

View additional photos from their trip in the WELS Missions Flickr album.

 


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Planting the seed of the gospel in sunny Southern California

Crown of Life is a multi-site church in the Inland Empire in Southern California. It has three congregations in the growing cities of Corona, Riverside, Yucaipa, and Victorville. Corona is a city of commuters. Many people come through this area for various reasons: going to work, heading to the beach, etc. Riverside is a developing area. Many young families are moving into the older neighborhoods and are making these areas a more desirable place to live as the neighborhoods are revitalized. Along with this, new restaurants and stores are moving in. Yucaipa is a growing city with many young families. There is a strong desire here for community and a place they can feel safe raising their children. Each location has a unique set of opportunities to connect with the community to proclaim the gospel.

Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary students canvassing

This past January we were blessed to have a group of seminary students come to help canvas in our communities. This group was comprised of juniors, middlers and seniors and was led by Professor Allen Sorum. For many of these men, it was their first time going door-to-door. Many started out with trepidation and doubts as to how effective door-to-door ministry would be. At the end of the trip there was a sense of excitement, having met many of our neighbors. The group interviewed people to find out about their beliefs and what they are looking for in a church. The goal of these seminary students winterim trip was to answer the question, “What is the most effective way to start a church in these communities.”

In order to prepare the community for this canvassing event, we prepared flyers to invite our community to Financial Peace University and a Marriage Enrichment seminar. This pre-canvassing flyer resulted in not only great conversations, but a few enrollments in our Bible information class. Only a short while after the seminary students were here, Praise and Proclaim Ministries came out. They also carried out canvassing in three communities and found the people in these areas generally friendly and approachable. Many were open to talking about Jesus and expressing their needs and desires.

This is a ripe mission field as Southern California continues to grow and, along with it, the number of people looking for somewhere to belong. People want to learn about the Bible. Many expressed concerns that they were not learning enough about the Bible in the churches they are currently attending. There are two Evangelical mega-churches in the city of Riverside. Please pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to water the seed of the gospel our church is planting in Southern California!

Written by Rev. Dean Ellis, missionary at Crown of Life Lutheran Church in Inland Empire, Calif. 

To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Rejoice in the lost sheep

One of the features that can be found in our Philippine flag is an eight-rayed sun. These eight rays represent the first eight Philippine provinces that revolted against the Spanish colonial government in the 19th century. One of these eight provinces is Cavite. You might ask, “What does Cavite have to do with Law & Gospel Lutheran Church?”

Pastor De Guzman teaches the Catechism in Cavite

Cavite is the site of Law & Gospel congregation’s first-ever teaching station outside its base in Novaliches, a suburb in the metropolitan Manila area. The work in this area started in September 2018, when a couple who are members of a WELS congregation in Appleton, Wis., reached out to me, asking if I would consider doing mission work in the said area. Our contacts in Cavite, a family of five, are relatives of the couple (specifically of the wife who is a Filipina).

For more than a year now, my wife and I would travel a total of about 5 hours, back and forth, every Saturday to teach Bible study and a kid’s Bible class. Not an easy one, though, as we have to contend with the infamous Manila traffic.

Considering the amount of time, energy, and money we’re spending each week for this small teaching station, some might question whether it’s worth all the efforts and resources. A better question to ask is, what value does God place on one lost soul? Jesus says in one of his parables:

Kid’s Bible Class in Cavite

“Which one of you, if you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that was lost until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls together his friends and his neighbors, telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my lost sheep!’ I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:4-7

By God’s grace, our contacts–a couple and their two teenage children–have already finished studying Luther’s Small Catechism. There are a lot more lost souls in the community that we need to reach. As each lost soul is valuable to God, traveling long hours to Cavite every Saturday is definitely worth it.

Written by Rev. Alvien De Guzman, pastor at Law & Gospel Lutheran Church in Novaliches, Philippines 

To learn more about world mission work in the Philippines, visit wels.net/philippines.

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Proclaiming the Good News in Ukraine

The Ukrainian Lutheran Church (ULC) is experiencing renewed focus and enthusiasm for evangelism. The ULC pastors brainstormed ideas for doing outreach in their respective communities.

Church in Kremenets

The program they developed is a three evening program that involves music (both instrumental and vocal), Bible study, prayers, a worship service at the conclusion, and time for mingling and fellowship. The first three of these programs have already taken place at congregations in Kiev, Krements, and Ternopil. Many visitors attended! Local church members and pastors are excited about the results and rejoice that new people are hearing the Good News of Jesus. The next step? Friendship evangelism workshops are being scheduled to help the churches become more welcoming, and for training the pastors and church leaders to carry on programs of evangelism. We pray for God’s continuing blessing on their outreach efforts.

Church in Kyiv

This June, WELS members will once again help five congregations conduct Vacation Bible Schools. The WELS Mission Journeys program is becoming more involved with planning and scheduling these mission trips. Both the Ukrainian churches and our volunteers have been blessed with this cooperative effort.

Please pray for the ULC pastors. They are faithful to their calling, preaching God’s Word and administering the sacraments. Pray for the members of the ULC churches as they support the mission of preaching and teaching Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Pray that the Lord will bring many more people in the Ukraine to know and follow the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ!

Written by Pastor Roger Neumann, Europe Administrative Committee Liaison to the Ukrainian Lutheran Church

To learn more about world mission work in Ukraine, visit wels.net/ukraine.

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Lessons for a Home Missionary

Third Thirsty Thursday. I looked forward to it every month. Being able to sit around with a dozen brothers in the ministry on a social level was a highlight, but it wasn’t only the colleagues I looked forward to seeing. Each month I counted how many members or community acquaintances I could walk by on my way to the usual corner tables reserved for our party. “Hey Coppersmiths! Hey, Todd & Patti! Hey Keith!” It wasn’t too tough. With a congregation of 2,500 in a town of just over 10,000, chances were pretty good there’d be at least one familiar face who’d say hi.

Pastor Heckendorf’s installation at Light of the Valleys Lutheran Church – Reno, Nev.

Then I moved. I soon realized how thirsty I was for that interaction with a familiar face. Will I ever be recognized? Will I ever recognize someone else? Funny how lonely one can be in a city that has forty times more people. Then it happened. After being somewhat down that there were no new faces in worship that morning, my wife and I went out to breakfast. As I walked by a booth, I heard it. “Hey!”  It was “Ray”, somebody I just umpired with the day before.

There was no “God’s Great Exchange” drawn out on the napkins at Peg’s Glorified Ham N Eggs that day. (Although after seeing me in a suit, Ray did ask, “You comin’ from church?”) But more than one missionary lesson was learned:

1.) The value of being part of the community to reach the community. I could sit in my office all day and write the best sermons, craft the best blogs, and design the most eye-catching postcards. But nothing beats meeting guys like “Ray” where they are at. To be able to walk into an umpire-training session and hear, “Preacher, you need a crash course on this?” is a tremendous blessing. Who cares that the instructor can’t remember my name – he just let everyone else know I was a preacher. (Coincidentally, the day after our breakfast encounter, Ray and I met at an umpire-training session. He didn’t know I was the preacher when we met at breakfast. Now he wants to ask some questions.

2.) People thirst to be recognized. It’s not just me. Unless you’re running from the law, people long to be known by people. God created us to be relational. I’m not the only one who moved to Reno this last quarter. Hundreds have moved in, so how can we position ourselves to say “hey” to them? (I’m thankful we have a realtor lady as a core member who’s going to help us reach the new movers.)

3.) God’s timing is always right. As mentioned above, it was a little bit of a downer day. We were on a good streak of having visitors in worship, but not that day. What tremendous timing on God’s part to pick me up when I needed it. In all things, but especially in home missions, what a reminder that God’s time isn’t always our time. But God’s time is always better.

4.) Peg’s eggs really are glorified.

Written by Rev. Joel Heckendorf, missionary at Light of the Valleys Lutheran Church in Reno, Nev. 

To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Starting a new church built on The Rock

Mr. Noel Ledermann is a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Citrus Heights, Calif., and a member of the core group exploring mission work in Folsom, Calif. He is also a lay member on the Arizona/California District Mission Board and represents the AZ/CA District on the Board for Home Missions.


Sacramento is the capital of California, and the greater Sacramento area has a population of just over two million people. WELS has three congregations in this area. Over ten years ago, members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church—a church of about 500 members and a school of about 100—-began to talk about establishing a daughter congregation 15 miles away toward the growing community of Folsom. Those talks died due to other congregational concerns at the time; but, as the local economy and population grew, the opportunity began to be discussed again in 2017. After encouragement from the Arizona-California District Mission Board (DMB) and with the leadership of Pastor Kolander, the lead pastor at St. Mark’s, a newly formed Sacramento Area Mission team met in December 2017. Pastor Kruschel, our Home Missions Counselor at the time, and Pastor Vogt, the Chairman of the Arizona/California District Mission Board, were in attendance and helped guide our discussions.

We got started by exploring the potential of a home mission congregation in the Folsom community. Local drive-arounds were completed by interested members of St. Mark’s, our Home Missions counselor, and Pastor Kolander. Initial demographic research was also completed using Mission Insites, a program provided through WELS that helps us understand the community make-up. Some canvassing of the area was also completed by two Martin Luther College students in the summer of 2018. We also had conversations with other mission pastors and laypersons in our mission district.

We made the decision to move forward after several small core group meetings. Our core group was made up of over 20 members from St. Mark’s that had shown a dedicated interest to move forward with this mission effort, and—with at least a two-year commitment to this mission—to work on a mission request to synod to establish a new mission church. We decided on a name late in 2018. In the short term we will be The Rock Lutheran Church, but we also want the new pastor to have some input.

Then, late in 2018, a local WELS member came forward and wanted to make a gift of $500,000 toward this new mission effort. What a blessing! That financial commitment was not only a blessing in terms of monetary value, but it was additional encouragement to our core group as we continued to move forward with our outreach plans.

Over a dozen meetings took place over the next 18 months with our core group members and smaller sub-committees. During that time, Pastor Kolander and I worked on putting together a new mission start request to be submitted to synod by early March 2019. That information required detailed financial estimates, demographics of the area, the names of members committed to this mission effort, and a planning timeline covering the first 18 months of operation. That included plans on what needed to be done and how the group would be involved in the community through events, canvassing, and Bible studies. Early in 2019, we found a Hampton Inn where we could begin a monthly Bible study. The first Bible study was held in March 2019, even without formal synod approval to open a new mission. This was all accompanied by excitement and some healthy anxiety. Within weeks of that first Bible study, the new mission start request was submitted to the WELS.

Looking back, it has been a whirlwind being part of this exciting new mission effort! At the same time, it has been filled with both highs and lows, some hic-ups and speed bumps, and a whole lot of trust in the Lord. We’re anxious to know what the future will bring, but our faith and hope in God makes it a lot easier knowing that everything is in His almighty hands!


This is the first article in a four-part series about WELS Home Missions and how new missions are explored and started throughout the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies. Stay tuned the rest of this month for additional blogs from a District Mission Board chairman, Home Missions Counselor, the Board for Home Missions Chairman, and the Administrator for Home Missions.


To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Starting a new church: You’re never alone

Rev. Steven Hillmer is the pastor of The Springs Lutheran Church in Sparks, Nev., and also serves as the Chairman of the Arizona/California District Mission Board (DMB). The Arizona-California DMB has been working closely with the core group who are starting the new mission church in Folsom, Calif.


In last week’s article from the four-part series about WELS Home Missions, you heard about the front-line, boots-on-the-ground work that is helping establish a mission near Sacramento, Calif.— specifically The Rock Lutheran Church in Folsom. Starting new home missions is no easy or small task, but you’re never alone. In WELS, this holds especially true in the area of home missions.

Now bear with me, WELS really loves our acronyms.

At the synod level is the WELS Board for Home Missions (BHM). The BHM looks for and financially supports mission opportunities across the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies. At present, there are over 80 WELS home mission congregations receiving financial assistance. We call these subsidized missions. This funding comes from your Congregational Mission Offerings (CMO) sent to synod from your church, as well as through individual special gifts. There are also over 30 unsubsidized missions, which means they do not receive direct funding from Home Missions, but receive assistance through their district mission board, mission counselors, and synodical support staff.

Pastor Steve Hillmer – AZ/CA District Mission Board Chairman

The Board for Home Missions (BHM) is made up of the pastor chairman and lay member from each District Mission Board (DMB). There are 14 District Mission Boards—which includes WELS Canada. These DMB’s are comprised of both pastors and laymen. The two main tasks of the DMB’s include supporting existing mission congregations and identifying potential mission fields. Members of the DMB’s are assigned to the existing missions as “shepherds” to offer encouragement and guidance to the new mission pastor and members. They do this through face-to-face meetings and other personal contacts throughout the year.

When it comes to identifying new opportunities, the DMB works with a core group or a local congregation—like St. Mark’s in Citrus Heights, Calif.—to bring forward a mission request. What happens next is perhaps unknown to many WELS members. Usually in February of each year, all fourteen DMB’s work through the requests for new mission starts, enhancements to current ministries, and any other special requests (including Vicar in a Mission Setting requests) from their district. Each of the mission requests include a 3-year budget and 12-year subsidy projection form that incorporates estimates on buying land and building a facility. With demographic forms and more, each request can have 30-50 pages to work through. At the end of some pretty intensive meetings, these requests are prioritized locally by the DMB and submitted to the BHM by March 1.

These forms and budgets not only provide a tool for each mission to complete very thorough and due-diligence work, but they also give the Executive Committee of the Board for Home Missions a good picture of the ministry potential and anticipated costs. In any given year, there are between 15 and 25 new requests! For three to four weeks, all requests—along with all renewal requests for continued mission support—are reviewed by the Executive Committee members who call up the local missions and DMB’s for any clarification.

At the beginning of April, all the requests are prioritized; and that’s when it really gets tough because of limited funding. Next week’s article will talk about what happens at the Board for Home Missions level and how they make their decisions.

What is most certainly true is that the work of reading and reviewing all these new requests demonstrates so clearly that the harvest is ripe. The Lord is opening doors for the gospel to be proclaimed across our country every day. We are thankful that he gives us a dedicated team of pastors and laymen who are actively looking for ways to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. We are thankful to gifts you give to support this work. We are also bold to encourage all WELS members to see that the harvest is ripe and to support mission work at home and abroad with our financial blessings.


This is the second article in a four-part series about WELS Home Missions and how new missions are explored and started throughout the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies. Stay tuned the rest of this month for additional blogs from the Board for Home Missions Chairman and the Administrator for Home Missions.


To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Starting a new church: What’s next?

Rev. Wayne Uhlhorn is the pastor of Beautiful Saviour Lutheran Church in Carlsbad, Calif., and also serves as the Chairman of the WELS Board for Home Missions (BHM). The BHM counsels, directs, and supports all the districts in their home mission activities, including campus and multi-cultural ministries. The BHM Chairman is elected at Synod Convention to serve a four-year term. 


In last week’s article from the four-part series about WELS Home Missions, you read more about a core group that is beginning to form a new mission church near Sacramento. You learned what a core group is, how often they meet, and what they do when they meet. You’ve also read about how the area District Mission Board, along with the Mission Counselor, helped that fledgling group bring a request for a new mission start to the Board for Home Missions (BHM).

Now what happens once that request is brought before the WELS Board for Home Missions?

BHM Chairman Rev. Wayne Uhlhorn reading the recognition of retirement for Home Missions Counselor Rev. Ed Schuppe earlier this month

Since the WELS Board for Home Missions is 29 men strong, we elect from within our Board two pastors and two laymen who work with the chairman of the BHM in carrying out funding decisions with all of our Home Missions.

This five-man Board for Home Missions Executive Committee is charged with two important tasks: 1) spreading the gospel through starting new mission churches and 2) being wise stewards of the resources God has made available through his people. And so we delve into the mission requests and look for the following things:

  • How strong is the core group of a mission? What spiritual gifts do they possess? How many are committed to being active in the new mission?
  • What are the demographics of the community where the new mission will try to locate? Is the population growing? Is industry thriving?
  • What percentage of unchurched are in the community? Are there a number of people there who are not connected to a church and/or do not know Jesus as their Savior?
  • What do the projected finances of the mission look like? How long until this mission might be able to become self-supporting, under God’s blessing?
  • What does the ministry plan look like for the new mission? Have they given some serious consideration to how they plan to bring the Good News of Jesus into the hearts and lives of the people in their community?

Each spring, the BHM Executive Committee looks at anywhere from 15 to 25 new start requests. We evaluate each request based on the criteria listed above. We interview the District Mission Board chairman and Mission Counselors prior to meeting to get a better feel for the mission. We discuss among ourselves each new mission start. Most importantly, we pray for God’s wisdom to make best decision for the good of his Kingdom.

There are three things that can happen to a new mission request.

  • Deferred: We may feel that the new mission is perhaps a year away from being started. The core mission group needs to do a little bit more work to build itself up and determine its ministry plan.
  • Denied: A mission request may be denied if we feel it doesn’t fit the criteria of what WELS Home Missions is commissioned to do.
  • Prioritized: The new mission start requests that we feel are ready get prioritized (or ranked) from top to bottom. Depending on how much funding is available, the missions prioritized at the top are able to be authorized and may begin calling a mission pastor and working their ministry plan. Some years its as many as 6-8 new missions, maybe more! Other years it may only be 2-3.

Sadly, this spring we were only able to authorize three new missions–and only because they were able to come up with their own local funding for the first year or more. Two more were prioritized, but we have to wait to see if we have the funds later on in the fiscal year to give them the green light to call a mission pastor and move forward. Declining congregational mission offerings (CMO) subscriptions affect WELS Home Missions and that’s why it’s looking like we can’t approve as many as previous years. Let’s join in praying that God not only send workers into his harvest field, but that he also sends gifts to support starting new missions. The harvest is ready in many fields across North America!


This is the third article in a four-part series about WELS Home Missions and how new missions are explored and started throughout the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies. Stay tuned the rest of this month for an additional blog from the Administrator for Home Missions.


To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Starting a new church: Why we do it

Rev. Keith Free, Administrator for WELS Home Missions, serves full-time out of the WELS Center for Mission and Ministry in Waukesha, Wis. The Home Missions Administrator is an advisory, non-voting member of the Board for Home Missions (BHM) and is responsible for executing the decisions of the BHM. 


Perhaps you know a family that drives many miles to worship at the nearest WELS church. Growing up, there was a family who drove over 75 miles one way to worship at the church where my father was pastor. Think about an unchurched family or an unbeliever. . . To my knowledge, when growing up or during the many years serving as a parish pastor, I can’t recall any unchurched person making a specific effort to travel any great distance to worship with us.

Why do we plant mission churches? We do so in order to have another outreach center; another location from which God’s Word can go out to people who need the message of sin and grace and law and gospel. We do so in order that folks blessed with faith in Christ Jesus can invite their neighbors, co-workers, or friends to join them in worship at a convenient spot.

If you’re skeptical of church planting or believe the widespread myth that new church plants just “steal sheep” from other flocks, that simply is not the case. Yes, there are going to be people who start attending a new church who were part of a different church. There is no denying that it does happen. Generally speaking though, when a new church plant is engaging its community, is persistent in inviting the folks in their vicinity to worship, and encourages its members to invite their unchurched friends, typically there are going to be people reached who either have no church background or haven’t been in a Christian church in years. They’re lost in their sins! They need to hear about Jesus Christ; his perfect life, his Good Friday death, and that incredible resurrection on Easter Sunday that was done to save all those lost in their sins.

Yes, established WELS churches engage the unchurched and lost just like mission churches do. Yet, by their very nature, established churches do a lot to serve the already reached—which is vital! There are more hospital visits, more counseling sessions, more meetings. There can be more worship services and Bible classes. A lot of time is spent feeding God’s people with the Means of Grace, just like it should be.

By its very nature, a mission church focuses most of its time and energy to reach the unchurched. A mission church looks to share God’s truths in Holy Scripture with the lost. The reality is that planting new churches is most often the single greatest way to reach any culture far from God: that is the intent and purpose of the mission church.

When someone tells you, “We already have a lot of churches. . . we don’t need to plant another”, remind them that we need thriving bodies of gospel-motivated people hearing Jesus’ directive who gather and then scatter to very intentionally and assertively fulfill the Great Commission. You can never go wrong supporting and praying for the people who are a part of a church plant. You can never go wrong in giving to WELS Home Missions so that church planting can continue in WELS. New churches make a difference—an everlasting difference. God bless our synod as we keep on planting mission churches.


This is the fourth article in a four-part series about WELS Home Missions and how new missions are explored and started throughout the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies.


To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

 

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A rare and precious gospel

There were already a lot of churches in Morristown. In this medium-sized manufacturing town in the hills of East Tennessee, it seemed like there was a different church on every corner.

When I arrived at Living Promise almost eight years ago, there were 153 churches already in Morristown. With a population of less than 30,000 this meant that there was more than one church for every 200 people. I had to wonder what sort of future lay in store for us at Living Promise and would there be any need or room for us in Morristown. . . How would the community take to another church, this time started and pastored by outsiders? Would anyone care what our church had to say when there were already so many churches saying so much?

There was a lot that I found that didn’t seem all that remarkable as we began to introduce ourselves to the community. Morristown was a lot like most of Appalachia—most people grew up pretty familiar with a church. Most people believed that Christianity was a good thing. Most people, at least at some level, believed in God.

Community event at Living Promise

What still amazes me, however, is the impact that the truth and the gospel would have in our little community. As we continued to preach and teach the Word of God, people showed up. Even in a town where most people had never heard of a Lutheran, people walked through the doors of a Lutheran church. As we knocked on doors, followed up with people, and planned kids camps and events to meet our community, God blessed our efforts. While during our first year most of our worship services had attendance in the single digits, this last year we have crept over 100 more often than not—all of this by the grace and power of God.

God sent souls to us who had been hurt by other churches. He sent souls to us looking for an answer to quiet a guilty conscience. He sent souls to us looking for Biblical answers to some hard questions. As God sent us these people, we realized how rare and precious the gospel truth that God had given us to proclaim is. While there were already a lot of churches in Morristown, the true gospel in many ways was still rare. People in our community were still crying out for the gospel we had to share.

All of this has encouraged us all the more in our gospel proclamation. We still know that there are a lot of churches in Morristown. Even more, we know that the gospel we have is rare and precious and that God will use it to gather his people.

Written by Rev. Matthew Westra, missionary at Living Promise Lutheran Church in Morristown, Tenn. 

To learn more about WELS Home Missions and how you can support mission work in the United States, Canada, and English-speaking West Indies, visit wels.net/homemissions.

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Bright Promise

Bam, bam, bam!

We heard pounding on the front door at 1 A.M early on a Sunday morning. I stumbled around in the dim light and answered it only to discover a very drunk man who wanted to talk. I was half-asleep, and he was. . .  well, you know. The conversation was almost comical. Finally, it became clear to me that he was asking if he could sit down. Given several factors, that was not a good idea, so I asked him if we could talk another time. He tried to show me where he lived but pointed in all four directions and mumbled something about building three. I asked him for his contact information, but he had lost his phone. As I escorted him out, I noticed that he had gotten sick all over the floor of the entryway. I watched him go to the elevator and get in. In the morning, I noticed that he must have come back out of the elevator, took off his jacket, and gotten sick some more.

“That’s disgusting,” you say, “Do you really have to share this in a Missions Blog?” Yes, I do. Because some great things happened through this rather unfortunate and disgusting situation. First of all, I learned even more about the beautiful heart of my beautiful wife. Our entryway is public. People walk through there. In fact, our landlord lives just across the hall from us. Without a single complaint, my wife put on her rubber boots and dish gloves and cleaned up the whole mess on her hands and knees. She never said one negative thing about this bozo who scared us half-to-death (imagine getting a knock on the door at 1 A.M. in a country where missionaries are being expelled every day. . .) and then made a disgusting mess all over our hallway.

Second, the next day (or I guess I should say that is was much later that same day), the young man returned to apologize. He happened to show up when a Christian brother was also arriving. The young man said he was embarrassed. I told him that we are Christians and that we forgive people. We gave him a Bible. We told him to read the gospel of Mark and send us any questions that he had. He was shocked. We exchanged contact information, and I have had further opportunities to shower him with grace.

In the local language, his name could be translated “bright promise.” The night he banged on our door, there wasn’t much “bright promise” to be seen—just a young man making a fool of himself and possibly throwing his life away. But God used it to introduce him to the life-changing gospel of our living God. It turns out that he actually lives 3 floors above us—the exact same door. For some reason, the elevator doors opened on our floor and brought us together. I’d like to think it is for his eternal good, the “bright promise” of heaven.

Written by a missionary in East Asia

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Poppies and prayers for the Apache reservations

The poppies in Peridot, Ariz., are out in full force. They spring up on the barren hillsides seemingly out of nowhere while we sleep. When the sun rises the next day, the dull, drab colors of the rocky slopes are on fire, covered in brilliant yellows and oranges.

Indian Day at East Fork Lutheran School on the Fort Apache reservation

It’s an amazing display of God’s power and artistic touch. A person wouldn’t think that anything could grow on those rocky desert slopes without the rich soil that is the lifeblood of so much greenery. But those poppies don’t need much dirt. The tiniest cracks in the rocks are enough. All they need is a small drink of water and warm sunshine and they open up and reach for the sky.

The poppies remind me of the new opportunities that our Lord has given to our schools on our Apache mission field. You might not expect to find some of the fastest-growing schools in the WELS on Apache Indian reservations in the middle rural Arizona. And you certainly wouldn’t see the facilities or amenities of a typical school or the neighborhood filled with fine, well-kept homes in an affluent suburb. But like the poppies, our schools on the Fort Apache and San Carlos Apache Indian reservations don’t need much to bloom.

The focus of our mission field is to train Native Americans to lead and to serve in God’s kingdom. And this training starts already in elementary school with children learning the truths of Scripture and being in a safe environment where Christianity is modeled and practiced by faculty and students alike. And while our schools have been in existence for more than 100 years, recent developments have caused them to burst into brilliant bloom like the poppies.

Field trip for Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School on the San Carlos reservation

The state of Arizona now allows parents to choose private education instead of sending their children to the failing public schools on the reservation. In communities where 75% – 80% unemployment is the norm and paying even the smallest tuition amount is a challenge, our schools are now accessible to many more families. And with half of the population on our reservations under the age of 18, we rapidly attracted more students than we have facilities and teachers. Like the poppies, we’ve burst into life in an instant, increasing the number of students by 100% in the last 5 years.

Among the red rocks and desert hills, Christian schools are blooming. Dedicated teachers who are passionate about sharing Jesus are equipping children to serve our Lord and be leaders in their homes, churches, and communities. Pray for them, and for the continued opportunities to bloom on the Apache reservations where they’ve been planted.

Written by Rev. Dan Rautenberg, Native American Missions Field Coordinator

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My Mission Journey: Liz

Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) sent out its first Mission Journeys team in January 2019 to assist Grace Lutheran Church in Sahuarita, AZ, with community outreach, English as a Second Language classes, and church-property clean-up. Liz O’Connor (pictured third from left), a sophomore at WLC and member at St. John’s, Lomira, WI, was a member of the team and shares her experience: 

Q: Why did you decide to volunteer for this Mission Journeys trip? What did you hope to gain?

I love traveling to new places to spread the good news of Jesus and help out churches in a variety of ways. Through this trip I hoped to strengthen my faith and connect with the people of Sahuarita.

Q: Have you been involved in outreach programs like this in the past?

Yes! In high school I went to Victory of the Lamb Lutheran Church in Katy, TX, with a group of students from Redeemer Lutheran in Fond du Lac, WI. Last spring break I took a trip to Illumine Church in Rock Hill, SC. There were four girls from WLC that traveled there to help out.

Q: What were some of the things you did on the trip? What was your favorite part?

We canvassed the neighborhoods of Sahuarita to further understand if more people need a church home and childcare (the answer was yes!). We helped the ladies at Mission to the Children by packing bags and organizing supplies for their next trip to Mexico. Lastly, we helped out with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Grace in Tucson, which was my favorite part of the trip. In our free time we went hiking and visited attractions in the Tucson area, like the Arizona Desert Museum and Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

Q: What lessons did you learn from your experience?

I learned that it often takes more than one encounter to engage others when it comes to speaking about church or Jesus. It is difficult for some people to talk about, so maybe the door in the face one time can lead to listening ears the next time. Who knows what God can work after that! There is nothing wrong with baby steps. God will take care of it.

Q: How will you use what you learned on your trip in your own life?

I can apply this lesson to my life in any conversation about Jesus, whether it is at WLC, work, or wherever. When the opportunity arises, I can do just what I’ve practiced on previous mission trips – spread the love of Jesus!

Q: Would you go again? What would you say to someone who might be considering taking a trip like this in the future?

I would go on this trip again in a heartbeat. For those of you considering a mission trip, I strongly encourage you to go. There is nothing like it! You don’t have to worry that you are too young, too inexperienced, too nervous, etc. God will use you!

Q: Do you feel it is important for high school and college students to take time to do short-term outreach trips like these? Why or why not?

It’s SO important – These trips teach you how to engage with others, and they instill a heart of service. There are some experiences in life that you won’t have unless you go on a mission trip, and you can apply the lessons learned in your own church and community.

Q: Anything else you want to add about your experience with Mission Journeys?

One of the coolest parts about going on a mission trip is meeting people that share the same faith as you all over the country and the world!

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People take their time

I was practicing my sermon on a recent Sunday morning, preaching to the empty chairs, when I got a phone call from an unknown number. Doris wanted to confirm what time the service was. “I can’t come to church today, Pastor. I’ve got a family commitment. But I’ll be there next Sunday for sure.” I vaguely recalled a conversation with Doris from when Ron and I were out canvassing. She and I had talked in her driveway for so long, Ron was wondering what had happened to me. But how long ago had that one previous conversation with Doris taken place? I had to scroll back a bit through my calendar. . . ten weeks!

It takes a while.

Keith and his wife Shawn brought their eight-year-old to our soccer camp in June. Each sweltering afternoon they would find refuge under a shade tree, keeping an eye on Bryce and chatting with the church members who were prepping snacks and handing out water. The three of them came to our worship service at the end of the week. We never saw them again. Not until the first Sunday in January, when they came to worship a second time. Six and a half months later!

Few folks seem to be in a hurry to get connected to a church.

I stopped at Jane’s front door three days after she attended a worship service with her niece. The conversation was pleasant and brief. I gave her a “welcome gift” and was on my way. That seemingly was the end of Jane’s interest in what we have to offer. Until there she was, sitting next to her niece and worshiping with us on Christmas Eve. Ten months later!

What is it that keeps individuals from responding more quickly to our invitations? I suppose I could spin all sorts of theories in response to that question. I realize the experts have offered their own, well-researched explanations as well. But it’s hard to get beyond the unholy trinity so often referenced by Luther. People are slow to respond to our visits and encouragements because they are constantly being delayed by the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh.

Worship at Living Savior in Hendersonville, N.C.

I don’t want respond to this phenomenon with cynicism, or become callous to it, or even accept it as inevitable. I would rather commit myself and our members to a more aggressive follow-up schedule. In addition, Jesus invites me to frequent prayer on behalf these blood-bought souls. Mostly, however, I want to be mindful that even the Son of God himself found his most frequent listeners to be “slow to believe” (Luke 24:25). If Jesus’ ministry is the model for outreach, then why should I ever be discouraged when people take their time responding to my church’s outreach ministry?

I’m pleased to announce that after her ten-week delay, Doris actually did worship with us the following Sunday. And starting that first Sunday in January, Keith, Shawn, and Bryce haven’t missed a Sunday. They’re already signed up for our next “Foundations” class. And Jane just wrote me a heartwarming note about how much she loves the class she’s been taking and the services she’s been attending. Now she says she “can’t wait” to become a communicant member of her new church.

What do you think? Someday should I ask each of them why it took them so long? Nah! I’d rather keep telling them how grateful I am that our church can serve them with the gospel of our merciful, patient, long-suffering Savior and of the timeless life he’s won for them and for me.

Written by Rev. Paul Zell, missionary at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Hendersonville, N.C. 

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What do you do with children in worship? Practical Ideas for Education and Training

What do you do with children in worship?

Practical Ideas for Education and Training

Scene 1

The rocker slowly creaks back and forth in hypnotic tranquility. The young mother has been at it for a few minutes, though it feels like hours. Why won’t sweet Sofia settle down? In what could be a frantic moment in her first child’s first day at home, an unexpected calm settles in. Suddenly, this frantic moment has become a profound moment, one no lullaby could ever touch. The words come out in quiet chant: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” The mother recalls that her help in her new vocation will come from Christ himself. Without thinking, she starts into a new “lullaby”: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” By the time she gets to “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” she is not sure whether she or the baby will better sleep in heavenly peace that night.

Fast forward two years. Another profound moment. This mother had been joyfully smiling at little Sofia who clings to her favorite stuffed animal among the dozens in her room—a lamb. The mother has happily reported to her pastor how the young “soloist-to-be” runs around the living room shout-singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” She has reflected on her daughter’s ever-so-brief pauses from coloring during church to perk up when she hears the congregation singing Kyrie, eleison. But in this new profound moment she also has a moment of clarity. The memories of that first night home come flooding back, along with the last 24 months’ worth of liturgical lullabies and regular wrestling through worship. She suddenly gets it! Two years of catechesis, of faith formation in both home and church, have thoroughly shaped Sofia! As the lightbulb flashes in her mind like bright neon lights, she realizes that this symbiotic relationship of church and home will have eternal impact on her precious little one. Worshiping at home (and teaching about worship at home) is something her family will certainly not stop any time soon—the immediate and eternal blessings are far too rich!

Scene 2

A forklift would be needed to lift the parents’ jaws off the floor. They came for cute moments of pageantry, but they certainly got more than they bargained for. These two parents are among a half dozen preschool families new to the concept of church. It just “hasn’t been their thing” yet as they have sifted through the identity of their own personal truth. But they at least knew their kid needed a preschool that was safe and moral, so they chose the highly rated Lutheran one nearby. They were pleased with the first five months of school and were excited for the preschool Christmas service. After all, who could deny that little Tommy in his mini three-piece suit singing at a church would make one amazingly boast-worthy Instagram cover photo?

But the giddy excitement froze in time. If their iPad hadn’t filmed it, they wouldn’t have believed it even happened. This sweet little chorus erupted with preschool enthusiasm to belt out, “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross he’ll bear for me, for you.” Say what? They were expecting to hear about a silent night or a little manger or perhaps “Merry Christmas” and “Here comes Santa Claus.” But this? It was shocking to see their little baby sing about another baby who would go on to die. They didn’t know what to say. That is…until three days later. Three days later they tried out the Christmas Eve candlelight service at the same Lutheran church. They marveled at little Tommy who was singing half the hymns from memory, hymns he learned during preschool song time! As the pastor then unwrapped the marvels and mystery of the incarnation that night, the parents shared a look that said, “This place is pretty special! Our whole family needs more of this!”

Scene 3

Ten kindergarteners solemnly process into a room, not coerced but definitely coached. Though the room is dimly lit and the one adult stands with a silent smile, they all know the routine. Each takes off their shoes. Four of them distribute mini-hymnals to the group. Three of them place a clean white cloth gently and neatly over a table situated perpendicular to three rows of chairs. The last three work with the adult to place candles on the table and carefully light them. Without prompting, they complete their tasks and file into their seats.

The adult begins, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The young children cross themselves and joyfully say, “Amen!” The leader continues, “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.” They enthusiastically reply, “The Light no darkness can overcome.” Each child then lights their own little candle, gazing with wonder into the fire yet also remembering that their teacher told them how they were marked with the sign of the cross and given the light of Christ and resurrection at their baptisms.

As it turns out, sweet little Sofia and three-piece-suit Tommy are classmates in this Sunday School room. Sofia has been at the church since birth and has been learning worship “stuff” since night one in that rocking chair. Tommy was just baptized last year (shortly after that Christmas service) and is relatively new to worship outside of what he hears in preschool. His family has been in membership for five months. However, both of them are thoroughly enjoying this catechetical experience. For one month each year, their Sunday School takes a break from normal lessons for “worship training mode.” The children enter a room that is set up to be a mini sanctuary. They are taught to revere the presence of a holy God yet appreciate his grace allowing them to enter into his presence. They work together, almost like a mini-altar guild, to set up the worship space. Then they continue with a brief 30-minute service of sorts with a few sensory-filled rituals, hymns, songs of the liturgy, and a brief lesson based on the theme for that Sunday. They conclude with 20 minutes of activities related to the Sunday or the season.

This one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship.

What Sofia and Tommy have been experiencing is based on The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It’s an immersive worship experience for children designed by Sofia Cavaletti and patterned after Maria Montessori’s self-guided play theories. (Those with preschool ministries have likely heard of Montessori methods). The congregation has found that this one-month intensive worship teaching and training each year has made little children very enthusiastic about worship. The pastor has found that some of his 4-year-olds know more about worship than some of his 54-year-olds! Meanwhile, the parents have found both at home and church that their children are clearly the examples of faith and worship that Jesus once stated.

The Ideal: Partnership in Discipleship

Are such scenes even possible?

It would seem as though a wise first step in our congregations would be to follow in Luther’s steps (again!) and double down on families. Surveys strongly indicate that parents and children would benefit from more teaching and training regarding worship. But when presented with some test materials that could help in this matter, more than 75% of focus group parents indicated they would like more materials to help their family engage in worship. Our congregations seem to want help, too. The survey of WELS pastors indicated that 78% of them would be highly interested in materials that help teach and train parents to teach and train their children.

The first article in this series (July 2018) posed the question: What do you do with children in worship? In subsequent months we pondered parents’ struggles as culture has corroded and families have struggled. Pragmatic Westerners, of course, offer solutions to perceived problems. Thus, we reviewed things like children’s sermons, children’s church, Sunday school offered during worship, and other options. But each popular solution has weaknesses: keeping children occupied only for a few moments, or completely removing them from worship. Therefore, though Christian freedom allows various choices, not all may be beneficial or best.

Following this we turned to the Scriptures for both prescription and description. Prescribed were God’s commands about the vocation of parents who have primary responsibility for spiritual training. Also prescribed is God’s command for all to worship him. Though we may desire more detail on many accounts of public gatherings and worship, it is reasonable to assume that God’s people brought their children to worship.

Church history suggests the same. There is good evidence of children being incorporated into worship. The church fathers exhorted parents in their responsibilities—descriptions that again allow us to conclude that parents would bring even the youngest of children to worship. A brief survey of science also supported the value of all children being in worship. Children learn best by doing, from repetition, with their senses, and all of this especially when they are with their parents. Science suggests worship alongside parents is an ideal place for children.

Any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents.

Finally, it was noted that the problem is not really with the children. The problem is actually with the parents. Thus, any solutions to improving ministry to and worship with children must focus on the parents. Parents need teaching and training so that they in turn can teach and train their children. This is what the Church is called to do—to equip the saints for works of service within their vocations.

So, are the previously described scenes possible? Could the fictional and ideal become the factual and real? I believe they can when we work toward an ideal partnership between home, church, and school (where applicable).

The Home

Parents today often find themselves barely treading water in a vast ocean of information with waves of cultural influence crashing down on them. Thus, first and foremost, parents need to grab hold of their identity in Christ. When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus. Parents who know their identity as children of God in Christ will understand the importance of fixing their hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things—including their children. Furthermore, parents who are regularly taught their identity in Christ will grow to a fuller understanding of the importance of teaching children their identity in Christ, too.

When parents look for identity in their children, the children can become all-consuming idols that demand worldly focus.

Next, parents need teaching and training regarding how to parent. Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well. Every Christian needs vocational catechesis, and parents are by no means an exception. It is best to start with teaching and training Scripture’s foundational principles about love, discipline, and physical and spiritual care for children. Then good and godly practical parenting strategies could be shared with parents. As they receive guidance in parenting at home, this will in turn help with their parenting in the pews.

Simply being a parent does not equate with doing it well.

Finally, parents need teaching and training regarding worship. Parents need to be reminded what worship is, whom God calls to worship him, why God’s people worship, and how they worship. When they better understand these truths, they will surely understand the importance of their children being in worship with them and the whole body of believers. As parents learn to understand and engage in worship themselves, they will better teach and train their children to do the same.

In order to accomplish these goals of teaching and training parents, it is wise for congregations to offer various educational and training opportunities. Bible studies on the topics of parenting, family life, worship, and more should be regular in the rotation. For those new to the church, pastors are wise to teach thoroughly about worship and children in worship already in Bible Information Class. Pastors can teach those with and without children what is expected of parents and children in worship. Additionally, pastors and church leaders can suggest or provide materials that facilitate home worship and that help teach and train both parents and their children. The more and the earlier children have the words and songs of worship (liturgy, hymns, psalms, etc.) in their hearts and on their lips in private worship, the better they will actively join with the full body in corporate worship.

The Church

But it’s not enough for parents and children to be taught and trained. While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain. Congregations need education on the topic of children in worship.

While parents are in the trenches with the children, others sometimes criticize and complain.

Pastors and church leaders would do well to patiently and lovingly instruct on this issue. Rather than jumping into a practical solution fad—such as offering child care or Sunday School concurrent with worship—these leaders can teach the entire congregation what God says about worship, the Church, parenting, children, and the intersection of them all. Congregations always benefit from learning more about doctrine and practice. But they also do well to learn how to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the body of peace.”

Loving instruction might mean having some difficult conversations. It might mean telling some elders that they need to be more patient with parents’ struggles and that their privilege in Christ is to be a loving part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Then again, loving instruction might mean a difficult conversation with a young family, telling them that sometimes they might need to step out with the baby a bit earlier. Their effort to be present in worship and train in worship is marvelous. But some days for tykes and toddlers are just plain rough. While members can be taught to be patient and loving on this issue, it’s helpful for parents to step out sometimes so that others can maintain focus in worship.

Finally, pastors and congregations can strategize ways to encourage and facilitate children worshiping. Could the Sunday school take a month off from Bible stories each year for worship teaching and training? Could a church implement during those weeks, or perhaps during a midweek study, The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (described above)? Or might the worship folder provide clear and loving guidance about children and families? What about removing the “reserved pew” signs in back and encouraging families to sit up front where a child’s senses will be more engaged? How about using a children’s choir to sing a liturgical song or psalm refrains? How about an acolyte program…or a junior usher program…or kindergarteners joining adults to hand out the friendship registers during the offering? Congregations can explore many ways to bring children to the forefront and encourage their worship life as valued members of the body of Christ.

The School

For those who have preschools or schools, a quick word may be of use. Most WELS schools have a mission statement that includes the conviction that the school is an arm of the church and is a partner with parents. This certainly can remain true on this topic of children in worship!

Teachers can be encouraged to incorporate worship concepts into Bible stories. When teaching about John the Baptist, talk about the font, baptismal symbols in the church, and the sign of the cross. When teaching about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, talk about the precious Sacrament their parents joyfully receive as they commune with the risen Christ. When teaching the life of Christ, show how the songs of the Ordinary parallel the life of Christ. During quiet time in school preschool teachers can make clear the importance of quiet time in the pew as well.

Most schools, even preschools, have a hymnology curriculum or regular set of songs that are learned. The pastor can work with the teachers to ensure that children are learning the hymns sung most often in worship. Could liturgical songs or psalms also be part of this effort?

Speaking of the pastor and the school, what treasured moments are available in school chapel! It’s wise for the pastor to regularly lead chapel. Those are precious pastoral moments for a multitude of reasons. Pastors can use school chapel as a time to teach about worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments, the sanctuary, symbols, imagery, and more. The school is a priceless partner of both church and home!

Conclusion

“Yes, as God gives me strength.” It is truly a special moment in our worship life. Parents are beaming with smiles, barely containing their joy. As they gaze at their newborn, they know that as the water was poured onto the forehead, God himself poured open the floodgates of his grace and welcomed that child as his own with the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. While the congregation looks and listens with shared joy, the pastor asks if they are willing to assist in whatever manner possible so that the child may remain a child of God until death. The people respond, “Yes, as God gives me strength.”

With those words the entire congregation pledges before God to “assist in whatever manner possible” so that child remains faithful until reception of the crown of life. Raising a Christian child is first and foremost the God-given responsibility of the parents. But they are not alone. The entire Christian Church works together to train children in the way they should go—both in faith and in worship.

May God fill us with his grace so that we abound in patience, love, diligence, and wisdom as we teach the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord. May God then fill us with joy to join those children to worship the Lord with gladness for our growth and his glory.

Written by Phil Huebner


 

WORSHIP

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

GIVE A GIFT

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

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Preach The Word – Resurrection Apologetics

Apologetics in Preaching

Resurrection Apologetics

I have to admit, to my great shame, that I had trouble preaching during the Easter season. Easter Sunday was great. Preaching on Doubting Thomas the next Sunday was always a delight, but the rest of the season was tough for me. What’s left to say? One bit of advice that helped me was: read the hymns of the Easter season; they will inspire you. And they did. Another inspiration came when I got more serious about apologetics. The Sundays of Easter became an opportunity to speak about the facts of the resurrection and how those facts were the foundation for a confident faith in the face of all tragedy, especially death.

A theme of sorts emerged in my Easter season preaching, one taken from 1 Thessalonians: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). I wanted to make sure that my people knew where they were going, where their faithful loved ones who died already were, and the basis for this hope. In short, I wanted them to know the facts, reason, and hope of the resurrection of Christ.

On Easter Sunday, when visitors abound, I also wanted the skeptics to know. I didn’t want them to be ignorant either. But as we have already discussed in this series of articles, the skeptic might balk at a sheer proclamation of these facts. Again, preaching is the means by which the Spirit will grant faith but the apologetic minded preacher is also aware of the task to knock down any barriers. So the skeptic might contest, “How do you know?” and the answer “Because the Bible said so” is incredulous to him. It is a form of circular logic.

The skeptic is aware of the following circular argument: Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. Question: How do you know that it is God’s Word? Answer: Because the Bible says it is God’s Word. Question: Why should I trust the Bible? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. While this is true, the unbeliever is right to be skeptical. Insert Koran for Bible, and you see the problem.

So how do we get out of this circular argument? The answer is the resurrection of Christ. Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because Jesus said so. Question: Why should I trust Jesus? Answer: Because he rose from the dead, and I’m going with the guy who claimed to be true God and backed it up with a resurrection.

Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

The advantage of this tactic is that the argument is moved from the arena of blind faith to one of normal reason. Thus the skeptic is not left with only a command, “Believe this because I say that it is true” but is offered evidence for the claim. Why should the skeptic believe you and not the Muslim who says that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or even die on the cross)? In this case the apologist simply levels the playing field while being fully aware that the Spirit, and only the Spirit, will convert the unbelieving heart. The apologist only wants to show that Christianity is not like other religions that only assert claims. Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

It is helpful then to start with the facticity of the resurrection of Christ. Is there good reason for the skeptic to believe that at least the resurrection of Christ is possible? I think so, especially if the skeptic is willing to treat the evidence of the resurrection as they would any historical claim from the same era. Permit me to lay out the evidential argument for the resurrection of Christ in outline form:

I.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A.  The Romans knew how to crucify someone to death, and there is no good reason to believe that they did not kill Jesus, especially considering the punishment Roman soldiers faced for not carrying out their duties.

B.  There is no good reason to doubt the eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion.

II.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses lied about what they experienced.

A.  They gained nothing from such a ruse (money, power, prestige).

B.  They were willing to die for this truth, making them very credible eyewitnesses.

C.  There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses were all mentally insane. How could so many people in one place and in one time all of a sudden be insane when there was no evidence of a preexistent mental illness? And even if this was the case, how credible is it that so many mentally insane people got their stories straight?

III.  Only three groups had access to the body of Christ: the Romans, the Jewish enemies of Christ, and the disciples of Christ. There is no good reason any of these groups would fake the resurrection of Christ.

A.  The Romans would not fake the resurrection. They were the ones who crucified him.

B.  The Jewish enemies of Christ were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. They were even paranoid about a theft of the body and demanded that the Roman authorities secure the grave.

C.  Despite the paranoia of the Jewish leaders, there is no good reason to believe that the disciples of Christ would fake his resurrection. Most of them displayed incredulity to his claims of a death and resurrection. Nor would they have gained anything from such a conspiracy except persecution.

IV.  Jesus claimed to be true God.

A.  There is no evidence or reason that Jesus would lie about this.

1. Jesus did not gain anything from such a lie except death.

2. There is no evidence that Jesus was crazy.

B.  Jesus proved his divinity by rising from the dead and performing miracles for which there were credible eyewitness accounts.

V.  Jesus declared the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God.

A.  Jesus declared the Old Testament to be the Word of God.

B.  Jesus sent the Spirit to inspire the New Testament writers.

VI.  Since Jesus is divine we ought to believe what he says about the inerrancy of the Bible.

Theories of a faked resurrection are outlandish and easily dismissed.

This is only a brief outline. The Christian must contend with textual criticism and questions of the canon, topics the confessional Lutheran pastor is trained to handle. The apologist must also deal with theories of a faked resurrection, but they are outlandish and easily dismissed. But there are also other tidbits that enhance the resurrection argument such as women discovering the empty tomb. If you were to create a believable story about a resurrection in an era when female witnesses were deemed less credible than male witnesses, you would not make women the first eyewitnesses in your story.

Armed with this logical outline, the preacher can move to the deep meaning of the resurrection: We too will rise! Three elements combine to make Easter season preaching robust: the facts of the resurrection, the breaking of the circular logic mentioned above, and a passionate application to frail human life.

The Third Sunday of Easter (Year C, May 5, 2018) connects the resurrection of Jesus Christ to our place in heaven. In the Gospel (Jn 21:1-14), Jesus proves his resurrection by appearing to the disciples on the shores of Galilee. In the First Reading, Christ converts Saul to be the great missionary to the Gentiles so that we might know with certainty that Jesus actually rose from the dead (Ac 9:1-19a). The Second Reading is a picture of heavenly worship from Christ’s Revelation to St. John (Rv 5:11-14). The Lamb is on his throne encircled by the living creatures and the elders. They sing with a multitude of angels “Worthy is the Lamb.” This is our home made secure by the resurrection of Christ. All people will know and all people will fear this awe-inspiring God because of his victory over death, a fact we sing in the Psalm (67). The following is an example of how a preacher might make these connections for his listeners.

You can’t just assert things and expect people to believe them to be true. We are far too jaded to accept the assertions of the late night television salesman. True, we all have our gullible moments. The infomercials still run, don’t they? We sooo want to believe that eggs won’t ever stick on this new kind of skillet. Yet we learn from our mistakes and become less and less naïve as we grow older. That’s probably a good thing.

In the marketplace of spiritual ideas there are a lot of infomercials. This preacher over here claims he can cure diseases. That preacher over there can give you “your best life now.” One religion promises enlightenment, another internal peace. This denomination stresses moral integrity, that one social justice. It even seems that some people chose their spirituality by letting the charisma of the leader trump facts, a dangerous method. So who are we supposed to believe let alone follow with our whole lives? All religions make assertions, but how do we know which one, if any, is true?

Sometimes we investigate claims by trial and error. We buy the skillet and hope it lives up to the salesman’s pitch. As we grow a little wiser we might carry out some research. What are the reviews of the skillet? If the reviews are poor, we don’t waste our money. But we can’t do that with religious claims, can we? We can’t go by trial and error. A religious commitment means exactly that, a commitment. You can’t go half way. And what religion is not going to have glowing reviews from its adherents and bad reviews from its enemies? We aren’t buying kitchenware after all; we are trying to find a way of life, a way of thinking, a path to truth. We need something more.

We can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims.

But not all is lost. We can test the claims of a religion. In particular we can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims. Is Jesus who he says he is? This was certainly a question with which the disciples grappled. You don’t think the disciples doubted Christ? Last week we heard about Thomas forever known as “Doubting.” Peter and the rest could not wrap their heads around the death and resurrection of Christ. They heard but did not always confidently believe. We are not alone in our doubts.

It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended.

Jesus appeared to his disciples in order to prove his resurrection. And notice how he often did it. He ate! It’s so simple. He ate with the Emmaus two and he ate breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as we heard today. Think about it. Let’s say that you just attended a funeral. Maybe it was your grandmother. Now let’s say you see grandma a week later. Your probably would rub your eyes or pinch yourself. It must be a dream. “I shouldn’t have eaten that frozen pizza at midnight last night.” Or maybe you might think this is a hallucination. “The doctor did change the dosage of my medication last week.” It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended. I wonder if some of the followers of Christ thought along the same lines. Thomas did for sure. The Emmaus disciples weren’t fully convinced either.

Now let’s say that your dead relative eats with you, physically eats in front of you. There is a piece of fish on a plate and then the piece of fish is gone. Now that’s something. This is exactly what Jesus did for the disciples in Galilee. Peter believed right away and maybe his fellow fishermen-disciples did too. But Jesus goes above and beyond. He provides physical proof. He eats. Ghosts don’t eat. Hallucinations don’t eat. Jesus bodily rose from the dead. Peter wouldn’t wonder a week late, “Did I really see Jesus?” He would remember: the fish was there and then it wasn’t.

Now, you might say, “That’s nice, but I wasn’t there.” True enough. You weren’t there when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address either, but you believe it happened. Why? Because there are credible eyewitness accounts. You have no reason not to believe it. In fact, if you denied it, you would be thought of as a weird conspiracy theorist. Granted, the resurrection of Christ happened way before the Civil War. And it is more than a presidential speech; it is a supernatural event. Yet, we have eyewitness accounts and documents to back up the resurrection claim. We have more textual evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection than any other event of that era, and other events aren’t even close. We have more historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than any Roman emperor winning any war or legislating any law.

So we are left with conspiracy theories raised against the resurrection claim. Maybe this was faked by the disciples? But let’s think it through. Why would they do that? Generally speaking, people lie for three reasons: money, sex, or power. The disciples gained no prestige, no revenge, no high placement in society. They gained no power. Nor did they become wealthy or more popular with the ladies. In fact, they received only persecution and, for most of them, death. Would the Roman officials fake Christ’s resurrection? Why would they? They wanted to be done with this religious squabble. Would the Jewish leaders? They were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. We are running out of options. Except one. He actually rose from the dead.

And God wants you to know about it. So Christ sent the Spirit to inspire these eyewitnesses and historical investigators like St. Luke to write about it. These documents have been carefully vetted and preserved for you. In one case, Christ took his own enemy, Saul, kicking and screaming into the faith. We heard about it today. He literally knocked Saul down on the road to Damascus and confronted him. He baptized Saul, known to us as Paul, and converted him to Christianity. He even taught Paul in Arabia everything he needed to know so that he could testify to the leaders in Palestine, to Jews and Gentiles across the Mediterranean world, and finally to us centuries later through his letters. And his message is this: Christ died for sinners like you and me, and he rose from the dead defeating death for us.

These eyewitness documents are to be preached to desperate sinners who face the possibility of death every day.

I know that we are pretty jaded people. It comes with the territory. How many products have you bought that have left you wanting? How many lemons have you driven off the used car lot? And it’s actually worse than just being jaded. We have sinful minds which by nature abhor God and his message of grace. We (our sinful sides) fight against him. So did Thomas, Peter, and Paul. So these eyewitness documents are not just for our careful investigation. They are to be preached. Preached to desperate sinners like you and me who face the possibility of death every day. Preached so that we might believe that Jesus truly is who he says he is, the Lord Almighty and our Savior from sin.

“I don’t want you to be ignorant … or grieve like the rest of mankind” (1 Th 4:13) to quote that same St. Paul. I want you to know that there is a real hope based in real facts. I don’t want you to wonder what happens next. I don’t want you to be alone in the misery of burying a loved one. I don’t want you to be depressed about death or fear what comes next. I want you to be at peace. I want you to know that God did something about this horrible thing called death. I want you to know that Christ loved this world so much so that he gave his life for it, to pay the price for your indiscretions and everybody else’s too. I want you to know that he overcame death with a miracle. I want you to know that he promises you the same miracle of resurrection. I want you to know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and he did it for you…so that one day you and I could join in heaven’s song we heard today, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rv 5:12). I want you to know, and so did Christ. So he ate with the disciples and told them to tell us. Christ lives, and so shall we.

Written by Michael Berg


Some helpful online resources:

Cross Examined (crossexamined.org)
Gary Habermas (garyhabermas.com)
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (rzim.org)
Reasonable Faith (reasonablefaith.org)
Stand to Reason (str.org)
The Veritas Forum (veritas.org)
Thinking Fellows (thinkingfellows.com)
Library of Historical Apologetics (historicalapologetics.org)


 

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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Listen to WELS Through My Bible in Three Years on Alexa

Last month the audio version of WELS Daily Devotion was added to Amazon Alexa’s “Flash Briefing” function. Today, we are pleased to announce that the Through My Bible in Three Years series is also available. If you have an Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, etc. you can set up a “flash briefing” that plays through a list of available items, or “skills” of your choosing. You can hear news from NPR, the local weather forecast, a daily joke, and almost anything else you can imagine. Once you have it set up you can just ask Alexa to “play my flash briefing” or “what’s in the news?” There are other commands you can use as well. CNET put together a nice article on how to enable this feature.

You can now add WELS Through My Bible in Three Years to that lineup. Each day WELS provides a narrated portion of Scripture, that over the course of three years, will navigate its reader through the entire Bible. These passages are read by Pastor David Witte (now enjoying face-to-face conversations with his Lord in heaven). This is a wonderful way to be fed by the word over your morning cereal or driving the kids to school. In your Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone (or https://alexa.amazon.com on your computer) go to settings, then Flash Briefing, then “add content.” You can then search for “WELS Through My Bible.”

If you decide to use this “skill,” be sure to leave a review in the app. This will increase the likelihood of it being found by others, who can then also hear the Good News!

My Mission Journey: David

Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) sent out its first Mission Journeys team in January 2019 to assist Grace Lutheran Church in Sahuarita, AZ, with community outreach, English as a Second Language classes, and church property clean-up. David Wilson (pictured third from left), a junior at WLC and member at St. John’s, Pardeeville, WI, was a member of the team and shares his experience: 

Q: Why did you decide to volunteer for this Mission Journeys trip? What did you hope to gain?

I thought it would be a fun way to get out of my comfort zone and meet other WELS members outside of Wisconsin. I was looking for a different perspective by visiting a relatively young WELS church and also create closer relationships with the other participants.

Q: Have you been involved in outreach programs like this in the past?

I have been involved with other canvassing and mission efforts locally, but this was my first mission trip.

Q: What were some of the things you did on the trip? What was your favorite part?

The majority of the time was spent canvassing and interviewing residents to gain insight into the community. Our main goal was to inform people that the church was opening a new location with childcare, which is a large need in that community. We also had one day that involved doing work at the church. It was good ole’ manual labor to get the outside looking pretty. Besides working, we also had time to do a lot of hiking and to explore Tucson and the surrounding area.

Q: What lessons did you learn from your experience?

While it may be uncomfortable at first to approach someone at the door, that feeling of discomfort is only temporary. The results of my actions could impact someone eternally! We don’t get to see results right away, but that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t effective.

. . . I also learned that Arizona is an unforgiving place where many of the plants and animals can kill or hurt you. I’ve decided I would rather see a black bear in Wisconsin than a black widow spider in Arizona.

Q: How will you use what you learned on your trip in your own life?

I plan on taking this experience and utilizing what I learned to interact more with those I know who don’t understand the joy we have in Christ. While I know they will be difficult conversations, they will be more than worthwhile in the end.

Q: Would you go again? What would you say to someone who might be considering taking a trip like this in the future?

I would go again in a heartbeat. While we did do a lot of work in our short time in Arizona, we had a blast doing it. We also got to have fun exploring in the off-time. Personally, I thought the best part of the trip was getting to know the pastor and his family as well as the other church members. They really made us feel welcome and at-home during our stay. It was not easy to leave.

Q: Do you feel it is important for high school and college students to take time to do short-term outreach trips like these? Why or why not?

I would recommend this type of trip to any young person. Not only is it an awesome faith-strengthening experience, but these trips also give you an opportunity to bond with friends. It’s a cost-effective way to travel and expand your horizons.

Q: Anything else you want to add about your experience with Mission Journeys?

Coming from an older congregation, it was super fun to be involved with a younger congregation. I think that some of the ideas and programs I learned about would do well at my home congregation as well as others in the area. I hope these trips can serve as a way to increase the flow of ideas for outreach and programming for participants to take back to their home congregation.

 

To learn more about the WELS Mission Journeys program and how you and your congregation or school can get involved, visit wels.net/missionjourneys.

 

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Clouds and Sunshine

Which side of the clouds are you looking at?

As I was flying into a city in East Asia, I spotted this scene out of my seat, 42A. We had been flying above the clouds in bright blue skies with puffy white clouds. But as we descended it got darker and darker. Black clouds cast a pall over the city. . . but then a break in the clouds revealed my destination. There was even a little sun out on parts of the city.

Doesn’t this pretty much sum up what it means to see the world as a follower of Jesus? The group of people I was going to visit had been under a dark cloud. Local authorities told them they could not meet in the location they have used for a year and a half. They would be watched. Their lives would be touched by moments of fear and doubt.

But when I met to encourage them, I found that the Son was still shining. Brothers and sisters didn’t want to let the fear of persecution split up their group. They did want everyone to be doubly united in faith and hope to carry on. With God’s help, they will! They see the One who is both over the clouds and walks with them under the clouds.

It’s not an easy situation, but the early Christian church faced much worse. Persecution in the 21st century has grown to the point where many say Christians worldwide are the most persecuted of any group. Governments that want to control Christianity have more tools than ever such as surveillance cameras and other technology. But God’s eye is always on those who trust in him.

His Kingdom will not be brought down. Some brothers and sisters may be getting a small bruise as they stumble on a stone of persecution right now, but no one and no thing can ultimately oppose the Rock of Ages. As Jesus said, “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” – Matthew 21:44.

So let us fear God! May God bless governments with wisdom. May he strengthen his people whose lives are momentarily disrupted by fear. May he help all of us to keep seeking his Kingdom and his righteousness. We can trust his promise that the gates of hell shall not overcome it.

Written by a missionary in East Asia

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Back Home to Africa

Who doesn’t love to be home? Especially when you have a wonderful family such as my parents and older sister. I was born in Malawi, Africa, though I spent the first ten years of my life in the small town of Chipata in Zambia. My father, Pastor John Holtz, worked as a missionary there until he received a call to move to Malawi in 2008. I spent the rest of my school years there all the way until I graduated secondary school at age 18. Since then, I have been attending Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) as a nursing student, currently in my third year. I have been extremely blessed to have been able to go back home to Malawi during the longer breaks to see my family and old friends.

Heather (left) and two friends after observing a surgery

As part of the nursing program at WLC, third year students go on an immersion trip to Lusaka, Zambia (the capital), where they stay on the seminary grounds. I did not live in Lusaka, but my family traveled there often for work and missionary gatherings. So there I was, surrounded by my classmates in a place so foreign to them yet so familiar to me. It felt odd, simply put. At the same time, it was a huge blessing to be able to share my life in such a unique way with the people who have accepted me into their lives in the United States.

The purpose of our trip was to experience the medical field in a Third World country. We visited the government-run hospital known as Chelstone, a private children’s clinic known as Beit Cure, an organization for disabled children known as Special Hope Network, and also some grade schools for teaching. We also traveled to a rural clinic in the town of Mwembezhi where WELS missionaries originally started their work. I thought that all of these organizations were impressive. With limited resources and endless patients, these facilities are doing a great job at providing inexpensive to no-cost care while still providing respectable patient outcomes.

First church (refurbished) built by the WELS mission in Mwembezhi, Zambia

You may be wondering if it is my desire to work there . . . that answer is difficult. In Zambia, only local residents are hired. The advanced health care systems in the United States have a much different focus, some of it good, and some of it I do not particularly like. On top of it being hard to “adult”, it is even harder to know where to start when you are pulled in so many different directions, as many missionary kids often experience.

But here’s the good news: God is in control. There may come a time when our parents move, and we feel like we have lost our home. Though we desire to go back, what is there for us to do? We need to remember that God leads us and knows what is best for us. When we worry about our future and transition into adulthood, it clouds our vision to the joy that is in Christ Jesus. Proverbs 3:5-6 reminds us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all you ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Patio area is where devotions are held in the mornings. Pictured: women line up for their children to receive vaccinations

So what does it feel like to be back home as an adult missionary kid? Contrarily, going back to Malawi makes me feel like a kid again. Many of my childhood memories were experienced there and in Zambia, my friends are there, my pets, my house . . . but most of all what makes it home is my family. I know its cliché, but how can I deny it? Whenever I am home, I feel myself again, though it is bittersweet. I go back, knowing I’ll have to leave again in a few weeks. I always cherish my time there, though I remember that life on this earth is temporary. Any struggles here on earth are nothing in comparison to the glory that will be experienced in heaven. Something that I find both comforting and amazing is that those same people, that my dad and all the other missionaries and Lutherans in Africa impacted, are going to be with me in heaven someday. I thank God for my life in Africa, and I thank God for my life here too. But most of all, I thank God for saving me a place in his Kingdom.

Heaven is my home.

Written by Heather Holtz, current student at Wisconsin Lutheran College and daughter of Africa Missionary John Holtz and wife Mindy

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A Little Child Shall Lead Them

*Specific details have been left out and names changed due to security precautions

Sophia was born in March 2013. When her mother went in for an 8-month check-up, the doctor told her, “Unless you reach the capital city within 24 hours, you and your unborn child will die.” To get there meant an 14-hour drive over many dangerous roads. To make matters worse, the government had shut down all air and car travel between cities because of strikes and protests. No one could travel the roads.

The father went into the police station and asked for a special permit. The chief of police gave him a document showing he had permission to travel the roads, but only at night. They got into a car and began the 14-hour journey. There were road-blocks by the police and by the protesters. The father had to get out of the car and remove the obstacles–trees, tires, barrels, etc–that the now-sleeping protesters had set up. Some of the roads were along the sides of cliffs where the tires come so close to the edge that a passenger must hang out of the window and bang on the side of the car to let the driver know if they are too close or “just the right distance” from the edge.

It took two nights to reach the city. By the grace of God his wife and daughter survived. She was born into the world a month early and was born into God’s family in baptism.

But life would not be a smooth road for this little girl . . . there were more challenges to come. After one year of life the family learned their little girl could not hear. She was unable to speak. With the help of friends she received ear implants. How she smiled the first time she was able to hear. Every day her mother took her to speech therapy.

Sadly, there were other health complications: frequent illnesses, infections, fevers, and stomach discomfort. She had trouble walking. Her parents and siblings often held her hand to keep her from falling. In spite of all this she was cheerful and bright – and she filled her family’s home with happiness.

Then on April 11, 2018 she had trouble breathing. Her mother rushed her to the hospital in only 15 minutes; but it was too late. Her little heart stopped beating. God took her out of this world to himself.

The father was caring for suffering people in a far-away place. To return to where his wife and daughter were required two days of walking and three days of driving. He decided to wait so he could tell a group of 150 people about the love of Jesus. They knew his daughter had just died–and they were surprised he did not leave immediately. He explained, “I know that my daughter is in heaven and I will see her again one day. I want you to know about Jesus so that you will have comfort when you or your loved ones are dying.” The next day he spoke to another group. Then he began the long journey back.

The family is grieving, but they have peace and love in God in their home. The father says, “I find great comfort in the baptism of my daughter. It is critically important that others baptize their children and grandchildren.” In some countries it is illegal to baptize anyone under a certain age. Many refuse to do it for this reason. They are afraid of being arrested and put in prison. In one place those who convert to Christianity and are baptized are guilty of a capital crime. According to the constitution, they are to be executed. How the devil rages against baptism . . . but “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Weak and stumbling though this little girl was, she has overcome Satan, the world, and death. She now lives as a powerful testimony of what it means to live and die–and live again–in Christ.

Written by a mission counselor to an Asian country

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Gospel Seeds Continue to Multiply

Ger Yang was one of the first Hmong men home missionary Rev. Loren Steele met in St. Paul, Minn. in 1988. Ger Yang and Loren Steele worked together to share the message of salvation with the Hmong in the Twin Cities area.

Ger Yang (left) at Village 9 in Thailand

After Ger Yang was trained to be a pastor, he went to Thailand for mission a trip in village 9, Tak, Thailand, where he unexpectedly passed away. After Ger Yang died in December 1995, the Lord brought me to study in the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) program. I was ordained on October 16, 1999, and was called by the Minnesota district to serve Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn.

The seed of the gospel is still working at Immanuel Hmong today! Immanuel Hmong was started by two strong missionaries: Ger Yang and Loren Steele (both of whom are now in heaven). After I was ordained two decades ago, Immanuel Hmong started off with only a few orphans and widows. From then on, the Lord has continued to bless his church to grow to over two hundred members. The Lord is kind and he took care of his church. Today, Immanuel Hmong’s worship attendance every week is around 110 with 200 souls in our membership. Our congregation is working hard to reach out to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. More than 70,000 Hmong people live in the Twin Cities area.

Although Immanuel Hmong is a mission church itself, we have a heart for mission work even outside of our own community. Immanuel Hmong continues to reach out to Thailand, following the footsteps of Ger Yang, to Village 9 and many other villages throughout Thailand where Hmong people can be found. Village 9 now has Hmong men serving as evangelists and pastors. Pastor Vang Toua Moua (Joe Saema) now serves as the main pastor for Village 9. The seed of the gospel didn’t die with Ger Yang. Once the gospel seed was planted in St. Paul, Minn., it spreads to the different parts of the United States and Southeast Asia. I was even asked to baptize ten people during my recent visit in December 2018!

Pastor Vang Toua Moua baptizes a newborn in Village 9

The seed of the gospel continues to spread to different villages. There are many nearby villages by Pastor Vang Toua who need the seed of the gospel. Pastor Vang Toua Moua and his congregation are equipped to bridge the gospel seed for those villages. We trust that the Holy Spirit will turn more hearts to faith in Jesus Christ.

Only the Lord can water the planted gospel seed to grow and multiply. I ask that you remember the Hmong ministries in the Minnesota district and around the world in your prayers. Together, the Lord will accomplish his purpose when he sends his gospel seed to the lost world. As Isaiah said, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” May the seed of the gospel continue to grow!

Written by: Pastor Pheng Moua, Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn. and member of Joint Mission’s Global Hmong Committee

To learn more about Hmong ministry in the United States and around the world, visit wels.net/hmong.

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