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


 

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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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An Unexpected Missionary

During their fall 2018 meeting, the Board for Home Missions approved funding for three new missions starts. One of the new home mission starts is in Richland Center, Wis., which is part of a multi-site effort being supported by St. John, Hillpoint, and Trinity, Lime Ridge, both in Wisconsin. St. John and Trinity share one pastor, who has been exploring the viability of a mission in Richland Center. On January 1, retired Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Professor James Korthals began serving this new mission site as a part-time, second pastor.

To learn more about new home mission starts and enhancements that were approved in 2018, visit wels.net/newstarts.


Aveline

The best missionaries, more often than not, are not the ones you see in the pulpit.  This past fall, I—with the help of core group members in Richland Center, Wis.—started a new Mornings with Mommy program. Meeting once a month in the story time room of the local library, this program has provided a wonderful opportunity to meet and foster relationships with young families in the community. Many hands helped to make this new opportunity possible. Members of our multi-site congregations, nearby congregations, and pastoral support all have had a hand in reaching out with the gospel. But the best missionary for Mornings with Mommy has much smaller hands.

Meet Aveline. She is 2 ½ years old. Aveline first came to Mornings with Mommy in November, along with her mom, Shannon, and her 1 year old brother Emerson. Aveline is many things, but shy isn’t one of them. She jumped right into all of the activities and had a lot of fun! She was unable to make it to our December session, but we learned that she was the reason they returned in January.

Shannon and Emerson

Shannon grew up in the church but had drifted away over a number of years. But it was Aveline that reminded her of her need for her Savior. One of the circle time songs that is sung at each session is “Jesus Loves Me.” Shannon mentioned to one of the Mornings with Mommy helpers that at the November session, it was Aveline’s first time hearing “Jesus Loves Me.” But it wasn’t her last time singing it. Despite only hearing it once, over the next several weeks she was singing it in car rides, at home, and even remembering most of the sign language signs they were taught. Aveline’s enthusiasm reminded Shannon of what has been missing in their life and expressed a desire to return to church and join Sunday School and Bible classes. Not because of a dynamic pastor or welcoming member . . . but because of the joy of a two-year-old singing a simple song of our Savior’s love.

Aveline not only served as a missionary in her family, but a reminder to our volunteers and core group. She is the example of why we started this program, so that children and families may be connected to the love of Jesus and what he has done for them. It has made our volunteers want to reflect that child-like joy with whomever God brings to us each month.

Sometimes the best missionaries are not the ones you see in the pulpit. Sometimes it is a two year old sharing the love of Jesus with her family!

Written by: Pastor Dan Lewig, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Hillpoint, Wis. and Trinity Lutheran Church, Lime Ridge, Wis. 

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New Hope in Uganda

Originally appears on the One Africa Team Blog. To subscribe to receive future updates directly in your inbox, visit oneafricateam.com. “Like” the One Africa Team on Facebook at fb.com/OneAfricaTeamWELS


“Come over and help us!”

This first century request came from a man in Macedonia (Acts 16:9). Convinced that this plea was an outreach opportunity from God, a four-man team (Luke, Paul, Silas, and Timothy) set out on a mission journey to answer the call and share the gospel of Jesus. They traveled to various locations, spoke to the local people, visited the places of prayer, “reasoned with the people from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead . . .” (Acts 17:2,3)

The gospel did amazing things. It gave the people . . .

Pastor Makisimu Musa, wife Mary, with children Grace and Mark

New Hope.

Come over and help us!

This twenty-first century request came from a man in Bugiri, Uganda. Convinced that this was an outreach opportunity from God, a three-man team was formed and set out on a mission journey to answer the call and share the gospel message of Jesus. What Paul and his team did in Macedonia and beyond, the three-man team did in Uganda: traveled to various places, spoke to the local people, visited the places of prayer and expounded the Scriptures. By God’s grace, the results were the same: the gospel worked wonders and it gave people in Uganda . . .

New Hope.

The first century mission opportunity came by way of a vision (Acts 16:9). Last month’s opportunity came via an email. The request for help came from a man named Makisimu Musa, a pastor leading a fledgling church body in Uganda. Back in 2008, he caught wind of a Lutheran church body in America called WELS as well as a synod in Zambia and Malawi called the LCCA. (Pastor Musa was attending a school in Kenya and was told about the Lutheran Church, specifically about WELS and the LCCA in Zambia & Malawi.) He heard about their sound doctrine and practice and wanted to know more. He consulted with his fellow pastors and evangelists and together they decided it was time for them to reach out for help.

Frustrated with church politics, confused with false teachings, discouraged with a lack of Biblically sound materials, and uncertain of a God-pleasing way forward, they sent the message:

Come over and help us!

Translator Lydia

Those weren’t the exact words nor the only words, but it was the bottom line message. It went first to Pastor David Bivens (Divine Savior Lutheran Church, Sienna Plantation, TX), the Chairman of the Administrative Committee for Africa. Pastor Bivens then passed it along, and eventually it landed on the desk of Missionary John Hartmann in Zambia, who is the One Africa Team Outreach Coordinator for Africa. He assembled a team, set the dates, and planned the trip. On December 1, 2018, Missionary Hartmann, Pastor Pembeleka (LCCA-Malawi), and I touched down in Entebbe, Uganda.

The mission journey began. The outreach mission trip dates were set for November 30, 2018 – December 13, 2018.

We stayed with Pastor Musa and his family in his rural home. He had put together an aggressive schedule for us: travel to eight congregations, meet six pastors and five evangelists, teach three days of lessons, and attend two days of meetings.

In it all, we witnessed the Body of Christ in action:

  • Church leaders attended 18 hours of  lessons and presentations (Justification, the Church, and Stewardship);
  • Pastors preached the Word and administered baptism;
  • The pastor’s dear wife and others cooked our meals, washed our clothes, and tidied our rooms;
  • A Lutheran member drove us safely to all of our destinations;
  • Congregations prepared meals and traditional entertainment of plays, dramas, dances, and songs;
  • Several people served as translators, turning our English words into Luganda and Lusoga.

Spending a dozen nights and covering over a thousand kilometers gave us a glimpse of the Ugandan people and their beautiful land. Uganda truly lives up to her name: the Pearl of Africa. So many natural wonders! Among the many, Uganda boasts the second largest lake in the world (Victoria) and the source of the longest river on earth (Nile). We were blessed to see them both.

Left to Right: Rev. John Holtz, Rev. Bright Pembeleka, Rev. John Hartmann

But for us, the real Pearl of Africa is the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45,46): the gospel of Jesus Christ! It’s what prompted the first email from Pastor Musa. It’s what motivated our mission outreach trip. It was the foundation of our lessons and the focus of our meetings.

And it will guide any future plans and discussions with these new found brothers and sisters in Uganda.

May I humbly send you a request, too? Our plea comes from Uganda:

Come over and help us!

You don’t need to go there to answer the call. We simply, yet resolutely, ask for your prayers. Will you put Uganda on your prayer list? Pray for this mission outreach effort. The Lord has given us this wonderful opportunity and the gospel is already doing amazing things. The Pearl of Great Price is the only True Pearl of Africa . . . and the world!

Oh, by the way . . . as these Christians in Uganda find their footing and forge ahead, it’s this “Pearl” that reminds them why they chose the name they did for their new church body:

New Hope

Written by: Rev. John Holtz, Missionary in Malawi and member of the One Africa Team

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Sharing the Precious Message in Albania

I have a feeling we’re not in Novosibirsk anymore . . .

“You have palm trees!”

It’s such a touristy thing to say, but I can’t help it. We don’t have palm trees in Novosibirsk, Russia. I’ve just landed at the airport in Tirana, Albania. (Albania lies on the Mediterranean Sea, directly east of Italy’s heel.) Seminarian Nikolla Bishka is picking me up in his Ford Focus for the thirty minute drive to his hometown of Durres.

Albanian Pastors (L to R) – Niko, Agron, and Mikel

For the next two weeks “Niko” and I will study Paul’s letter to the Galatians and talk about what it means to serve as a pastor. I’m excited for the new challenge. For the past twenty-one years I have served as a missionary in Siberia. Now I have been asked to do some traveling in order to mentor pastors and seminary students in Russia, Bulgaria, and Albania.

Niko is twenty-six years old, quiet, but friendly. He lives with his parents, Pastor Mikel and Pavlena, and his younger brother Viktor. As we drive along the country’s main highway, Niko tells me how things have changed. The old dictator is gone. Life is better . . . but wages are low and prices are high. Gasoline costs $6.25 a gallon! Students are protesting peacefully in the streets of Tirana demanding improved living conditions. Many people are leaving the country to search for work in Italy or Germany. Religion is allowed. There was a time when all religion was banned. In the 1960s, Christians were imprisoned and even executed for their faith. Now about seventy percent of the population claim to be Muslim, and the rest are nominally Christian. Most of Albanian’s three million souls live in spiritual darkness.

Downtown Durres

Niko drops me off at my hotel which he carefully chose for its low price and beautiful view overlooking the ruins of an ancient Roman theater. We agree to start our studies the next day at the congregation’s rented facilities. I’m grateful for the chance to rest! The trip from Novosibirsk to Tirana takes a full day – three flights, six time zones, and nine hours in the air.

The Durres church is a storefront located right on the city’s main road. Immediately upon entrance, neatly labeled photographs of church members greet me. Niko points out his picture. Then he points out a picture of the congregation’s first pastor, Missionary Richard Russow, with the church’s founding members (2006). The church is decorated for Advent and Christmas.

Mikel (left) and Niko (right) leading worship

With a prayer for God’s blessing, Niko and I dive into our study of Galatians. What a joy! No wonder Martin Luther called this little book his “Katherine von Bora.” Luther loved this letter for its clear comfort: God has saved us by His mercy. There is nothing, NOTHING, we need to add to Christ’s perfect work of rescuing us for life. This freedom lets us love God and people with all our hearts. The people of Albania need to hear this precious message! Something else strikes us as we read Paul’s letter: the apostle dearly loved the people he served. He writes with such emotion as he urges his people to believe God’s truth and to reject Satan’s lies.

May God give Niko and all of us that same love for God’s word and God’s people! Please pray that God would give Niko many years of gospel service. Pray that God will lead many Albanian people to freedom in Christ!

Written by: Rev. Luke Wolfgramm, Missionary in Russia

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Preach The Word – A Claim on Reality

Apologetics in Preaching

A Claim on Reality

I teach freshman, a lot of freshman. As I become acquainted with the spiritual lives of these brand-new college students, it is apparent that there is often a separation between their spiritual lives and their lives of reality. These two separate realms don’t often meet. When they do meet, it is not necessary that they correspond. Students might have a truth in their spiritual lives and a truth in their day-to-day lives, and it doesn’t bother them if they do not match…as freshmen anyway.

A student might believe in guardian angels but be incredulous at the idea of demon possession. A student might believe that God has authored a life plan for him but is not the author of mathematical constants. A student might believe that she has a soul but that there is no non-physical entity at play in biology or physics.

It all depends on the historicity of the resurrection.

This should not surprise us since a very clear message has been sent to our society: Christianity is not a claim on reality. St. Peter would differ. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt 1:16). Christianity is a claim on reality. Peter saw with his own eyes the real Jesus performing real acts in a real place in real time. St. Paul takes the argument to a further level when he says that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead the whole Christian faith is useless. It all depends on the historicity of the resurrection. If Jesus remained in the grave, Christianity loses its power and you are being duped by such preaching. Spiritual truth needs to match reality.

Here is where some of the “New Atheists” are often the most honest ones in a conversation. It is one thing to tell your children a fairytale which they know (or eventually will figure out) is only a myth. It is quite another thing to indoctrinate your children into a worldview that is based on a falsity, especially one that has been the source of exclusion, violence, and even war. Some “New Atheists” even accuse religious parents of child abuse. Their line of thought is not off the mark. We might say the same thing about a cult leader who has convinced his followers that he is Christ returned. It’s wrong, and there is no neutral ground in the matter.

So there really is no room for a demythologized Christianity which denies the resurrection of Christ. It’s not intellectually viable. Nor is this demythologized Christianity redeemable as a moral code, not considering the scandals of the church. Christianity is not benign. It is either the way to salvation or it is a lie that has led to exclusion and even worse. There is no spiritual truth and real truth, just truth. On this we and the “New Atheists” can agree. It is becoming less and less acceptable in our culture to believe in a moralistic Christianity especially without a salvific resurrection. St. Paul was right all along.

While it is true that faith is believing in what we cannot see, it is not a blind faith based on myth. My faith is only as good as the object of that faith. Yet some have left the impression that faith is separated from fact. Again, a clear message has been sent: Christianity is not a claim on reality. Some of the blame is to be laid at the feet of the academy. The 19th century brought clarity to college campuses on an issue that had been incubating since the Enlightenment: Which discipline is the Queen of the Sciences? It started with a separation between the so-called hard sciences and soft-sciences. Chemistry is a claim on reality; theology is not. Physics deals in reality; philosophy does not. The hard sciences do truth; the humanities do opinion. And if there is a disagreement between the two, the hard sciences will win (and get the funding too).

American preachers have helped to solidify a false division between fact and opinion.

Yet some of the blame belongs at the foot of the pulpit. American preachers have helped to solidify a false division between hard and soft, fact and opinion. Some have left the impression that science is out to get theology, and Christians should be wary of intellectual inquiry. Perhaps too many words have been spoken about topics better left to the psychologist (matters that are, rightly or wrongly, called “soft”), and not enough words have been spoken on Christianity’s claim on truth and the robust worldview it offers (matters based on “hard” facts). Perhaps we have unwittingly accepted the division of hard and soft, admitting our place in the latter. After all, we just do faith.

Remaining in the arena of the soft is problematic because there is no way to prove a soft truth other then, perhaps, a personal experience. And even then we are left with a faith detached from an object. The strength of that subjective faith becomes the ultimate determining factor for Christian conviction instead of the facts of Christianity. A person can believe in anything, but that doesn’t make it true. This is not to dismiss emotional and passionate reactions to God’s saving actions or grief at losing a loved one which is comforted with a promised resurrection. It is just that those emotions and passionate reactions should be grounded in the reality of Christ.

Too many freshman come to college with the mindset that their faith is mere opinion, tradition, or a psychological aid. Faith is, at best, a virtue. It can be valuable. It is good, but it is soft. Real truth, reality itself, is to be discovered in the laboratory. Religion might be useful for psychological well-being but has little, if any, purpose in the real world. But we can’t remain freshmen forever. Eventually we are confronted with this thought: Do I turn my brain off in the spiritual realm and just accept my faith as a soft truth that does not necessarily correspond with hard truth (i.e. reality), or do I simply leave behind such childish things?

She told me that I had given her permission to think.

When serving as a parish pastor I experienced a memorable moment on this topic: a young adult woman told me that I had given her permission to think. She had the impression that thinking was antithetical to her Christian faith—even that it was wrong. In humility she did not want to question what she had been taught, but this only made her doubt more. She was at an existential crossroads. Do I keep turning my brain off in this spiritual realm, or do I finally succumb to reality and reject the whole thing as myth, a useful myth maybe, but just a myth? It was a false dichotomy. She only needed to see that Christianity is a legitimate claim on reality, that it offers an intellectually satisfying worldview. She needed permission to think.

Our faith is a simple faith but not a simpleton faith. So we preachers should ask ourselves some questions: Does my preaching inspire a simpleton faith or a robust worldview emerging from the simple truths of scripture? Have any listeners been intellectually turned off by my preaching? Have I, as a preacher, concentrated on the method of preaching confident that I had the right message, but not plumbing the depths of that message? Have I conflated the simple and unchangeable message of the gospel with a simpleton message? We preachers are in an office that demands asking such humbling and penetrating questions.

Preaching becomes more robust, dismantling the idea that Christianity is an unintellectual crutch for the weak.

Preachers should be careful not to leave the impression that the Christian faith cannot compete with other worldviews. Christianity can and has. One of the tasks of the apologist is to create a level playing field on which he can make the claims of Christianity over against other claims. The apologist wants the skeptic to use the same reason and logic which he or she uses with every other fact in life. From there a presentation of Christ may be made through which the Spirit may do his saving work of faith. A satisfying Christian worldview can then be developed. In turn preaching becomes more robust, dismantling the idea that Christianity is an unintellectual crutch for the weak.

Christianity has a lot to offer. The most important thing is salvation, of course, but it does not end there. Springing from the love of God in Christ comes a worldview that deals with all the big questions in life. It is a complete worldview, the only one on the market. For far too long the secular world has lived off the borrowed capital of the Judeo-Christian worldview. While the preacher is a proclaimer of grace and not a salesman, this does not mean that he should ignore the completeness of the Christian message. This is important when dealing with the skeptic who has yet to believe that salvation is in Christ. All she sees is what Christianity offers in a broad sense. And if all she sees is a shallow ideology, she is less likely to give the gospel a hearing.

Christianity deals with all of the big questions of life. Who are we? Where are we going? What is our purpose? What is the point of suffering? What is the good life? How should we act? Not every worldview offers satisfactory answers to these questions. A materialist has no answer to suffering other than that it is something to be eradicated. Christianity has the theology of the cross. The Buddhist scrambles to find a purpose in day-to-day life other than the Eightfold Path to eliminate Dukkha (suffering or mental dysfunction). Christianity offers a divine purpose in vocation (love of neighbor as God’s coworker or mask).

Christianity has also been significant in its contributions to many endeavors: the university, hospitals, human rights, modern science, just war theory, ethics, law, education, and music. No doubt misguided Christians have fought against the good in some of these, but abuses in the name of the Christian faith do not negate the true message of Christianity. It is to our shame that atrocities have happened in the name of Christ. Yet Christianity has an answer even for that: forgiveness for even the most misguided people.

The task of the apologetically-minded preacher is to promote the robust worldview of Christianity without arrogance, all the while making sure the gospel predominates. The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany offers an opportunity on February 17, 2019. The assigned texts offer a clear distinction between the person who trusts God and the person who trusts man. In the First Reading (Jr 17:5-8), Jeremiah promises blessings to the faithful and predicts doom for the unfaithful. Psalm 1 continues this contrast between the one who walks in the counsel of the wicked and the one who does not.

Then, as usual, Jesus flips everything upside down. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:17-26) tell us that the poor are blessed and that the hungry will be satisfied. Those who trust in God will have all of these beautiful benefits, but they might have to wait until the Promised Land of heaven much like the faithful in Jeremiah’s day had to wait until after the exile for their Promised Land.

But Christ did rise from the dead, and this fact changes the world.

Then consider the Second Reading from 1 Corinthians 15, part of a lectio continua during the Epiphany season, year C. Here St. Paul lays out for believers a clear apologetic message: If Christ did not rise, then Christianity is a fraud. But Christ did rise from the dead, and this fact changes the world. A sermon on these readings could tackle the issue of Christianity as a claim on reality. Maybe something like this….

Paul is pretty confident in his faith, isn’t he? It is not a false confidence. The distinction between a false confidence and a confidence based in fact is hugely important for us. If we are to judge a person’s religious claims by his or her confidence, then the suicide-bomber wins out. Who is more confident than he? No, Paul is confident that Jesus rose from the dead because Jesus actually rose from the dead and Paul investigated the matter. Not only did Jesus appear to him on the road to Damascus and teach him in Arabia, but Paul also knew of eye-witness accounts of the resurrection. So Paul defended himself before Agrippa and Festus with this statement: “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Ac 26:25-26). These things were not done in a corner but out in the open for all to see. You can investigate these facts.

Armed with both the facts and the Spirit’s gift of faith, Paul is confident enough to say that everything depends on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the whole thing falls apart and Christianity is a fraud. Paul puts everything on the line. Not with a bomb strapped to his chest but armed with reasonable truth and Spirit-given faith.

So Christianity is not neutral, is it? It’s not a self-help program that is valuable whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead. It’s not a moral code with a nice fable about a man who overcame great evil but indifferent to the claim that he is God Almighty. It’s not an inspiring story that encourages us but is divorced from the facts of Christ’s life. It is a claim on reality. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a lie and we should not be Christian.

And quite frankly, a lot of other things fall apart too. Do we have the same concept of human rights without the concept that mankind is created in the image of God and loved enough to be redeemed by God? If I am just a pile of molecules like everything else, do I really have value? Do we have the same amount of scientific progress without the concept of an ordered universe that is given to us to for exploration? If the physical world is divine, as many ancients thought, should we even carry out scientific experiments since it would be playing with the divine? Do we have the same sense of morality without an absolute being? What gives anybody the right to say “This is right” or “This is wrong” if it is just my opinion versus yours? I would argue that we wouldn’t have the same world that we live in without God and the resurrection of his Son. We would have something far worse.

Of course none of that really matters unless we have internal peace and eternal hope. And we can’t have peace and hope without a resurrection from the dead. So this is the question that Christianity answers above all else: Where am I going after this life? Well, here is your peace and hope: the resurrection of Christ. And it isn’t a myth; it really happened. This gives you internal peace: You know that you stand righteous before God on account of Christ. This gives you eternal hope: No matter what happens, eternal bliss belongs to you.

But there is more. Along with this peace and hope comes a full life, a life of value, rights, exploration, purpose, and joy. It answers all the questions mentioned above. Christ really is the answer to all of life’s questions. This is the difference between the man who walks is the counsel of the wicked and the man who does not as we sang in the psalm. This is the difference between the person who trusts God and the person who trusts man as Jeremiah contrasted for us today. Trusting in man over God forces us to put a disordered world into order and answer the great questions of life by ourselves. On the other hand, trusting in God means that we have an ordered world given back to us in gospel freedom—a world full of meaning, purpose, and opportunity.

And even better, we have a God who forgives us and will resurrect us despite the fact that we have and will fail in this life. This claim is true. The apostles witnessed his resurrection and have reported it to us. Through their words the Spirit grants us faith and even confidence, a Paul-like confidence. With this we live free, free to explore, think, learn, take chances, all with internal peace and an eternal hope.

Written by Michael Berg


Books for further study:

Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target by John Lennox
How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt
Human Rights and Human Dignity by John Warwick Montgomery
Postmodern Times by Gene Edward Veith
The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism? by Frederic Baue
Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl
Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements by Thomas Oden
Solomon among the Postmoderns by Peter Leithart


 

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What do you do with children in worship? Historical and scientific perspectives

What do you do with children in worship?

Historical and scientific perspectives

Why? It’s a question so beautiful yet so horrifying. Parents know. It can be equal parts inquisitive and annoying. It can cause a parent joy or frustration. “Why is the sky blue? Why do cows have spots but zebras have stripes? Why does it take so long to get to grandma’s? Why did that man just make a hand gesture at your driving?” Oh, to be a child again with such an inquisitive mind!

For all the times that parents hear an equally dear and dreaded question, God forbid they ever stifle curious minds when it comes to Christ and his kingdom! Children want to know so much about Jesus. “Why was he so loving? Why did he have to die? Why did he ascend into heaven?” They want to know so much about worship, too! “Why do we say ‘Amen’ so often? Why does the pastor make the cross with his fingers? Why did he say that you’re eating his body and drinking his blood?” How precious and how special that little children are asking giant questions!

God’s design is for children to be curious and for parents to be the ideal teachers. In the previous article we noted how Scripture testifies that it is God’s will for parents to train children in “the way that they should go.” Before exploring this further, consider support from church history and science.

History on Children in Worship

Last time we considered key principles from Scripture. To summarize:

  • Worship is for all people of all ages.
  • Parents have primary responsibility for training their children in the faith.
  • Parents in Scripture taught their children to worship.
  • Parents in Scripture brought their children to public worship events—no matter how great, grand, or gruesome.
  • Children were expected to be present at worship. (Paul addressed them in his epistles.)

Children joining their parents for worship is not a fad or phase of the past. This has always been the case. We can go back to Abraham and God’s encouragement to train his children in the ways of the Lord (Genesis 18), or to Moses and his encouragement to teach children anywhere and everywhere the commands of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6 et al.). Claire R. Matthew McGinnis notes in an essay on children that expression of the Jewish faith involved much interaction with children in worship.1

McGinnis reminds us that Passover (Exodus 12:25-27), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 13:7-8), firstborn rituals (Exodus 13:14-16), and the promised land monument (Joshua 4:6-7, 21-24) all had intended opportunities for children to ask “What does this mean?” God had designed worship for his people in such a way that the children would ask the giant “Why?” questions! The parents would then have occasion to teach and explain how these rites and rituals of worship connected to God’s grace in the past. Alfred Edersheim similarly describes in detail how from early on children would know the sights, sounds, and songs of temple life and worship.2 This was simply what the Jewish people always did. This was their way of life with their children—going to worship with their children and then teaching and training them.

As the Christian church then emerged from the Jewish people, the first Christians carried forward the attitude of Christ who welcomed little children and the rich history of families worshiping together. Marcia Bunge notes that while descriptions of early worship practices aren’t common, the evidence is strong enough to suggest that children were present at worship.3 Many of the early fathers also discussed children in their writings and sermons, and especially the importance of teaching and training children. John Chrysostom in particular wrote much about parenting and children.4 In every era of church history children were always included in worship, and parents were thought of as the critical influence in a child’s life.

In every era of church history children were always included in worship.

Thus, as we sweep across history and observe the evil of this world’s people using and abusing children, we witness the stark contrast of God’s people who treasured their children. They treasured them so much that they brought them again and again to Jesus’ feet as they carefully taught them the faith and trained them to worship, answering so often their “Why?” questions about worship.

Contributions from Science

As Lutherans, the solid foundation of our faith is the living Word of God alone. The Scriptures alone dictate our doctrine. However, it is a blessing from God when other sources of information give us wisdom and insight into what we know from the Word. We have seen how church history gives us additional information about children in worship. Science has much to offer as well.

Lisa Miller is a New York Times bestselling author who has spent more than two decades studying the spirituality of children.5 Her discoveries are conclusive that children are spiritual. We may smile at that since we know the Scriptures have testified for millennia about the soul and conscience that all people possess. However, her studies are still fascinating and useful.

In her work, Miller continually observed the child’s keen perception for the big, grand, and divine. Consider how children “Ooh” and “Aah” at the ocean or the Grand Canyon, or how they draw incredibly profound pictures about Jesus and heaven. It’s as if children were made for awe and reverence. Surely this is part of a simple child-like faith. This is the divinely-designed science behind the “Why?” questions children often ask.

Science also provides much information for us to ponder on the topic of child development—volumes of facts and figures about the developing body and brain of children. Consider a few key pertinent points:

  • Children learn best when they follow examples (mimic, imitate, repeat after me).
  • Children learn best when there is repetition (doing something over and over again).
  • Children learn best when examples and repetition come from their own parents.
  • Children learn best when they use all their senses (sight, sound, touch, etc.).

The church has been richly blessed with a liturgy that is centuries ahead of the sciences.

Clearly, science offers support for the importance of parents taking the lead in teaching their children the faith and training them to worship. But another thought occurs: what a precious gift God has given to us in the divine service! The church has been richly blessed with a liturgy that is centuries ahead of the sciences.

In worship the entire body of Christ gathers together—young and old alike. In the service children mimic and imitate the examples of their parents. They repeat songs, psalms, confessions, creeds, and prayers over and over.6 And while doing this, all their senses are engaged:

  • Eyes that see colors of the church year, robes, movements of the congregation
  • Ears that hear music, songs, psalms, words, prayers, and sermon
  • Mouths that join in those songs, words, and prayers
  • Noses that smell candles, flowers, perhaps incense, or a familiar “churchy smell”
  • Bodies that move by sitting and standing, bowing, folding hands, kneeling

Science contributes to our topic by emphasizing the importance of parents teaching and training. Experience teaches the same. I think of my daughter who from little on has sung hymns by herself in bed, or my son at age four wandering the living room with a piece of paper because he was “memorizing his sermon.” Both of them (now 8 and 11) just a week ago recalled my father’s Easter sermon theme from last year: Christ is Risen! No Foolin!

I think of a host of children who would belt out, “Glory to God in the highest” because they sang it in chapel during the week. I think of little Audrey setting a great example for the whole congregation with every hearty “Amen!” and fervently loud rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. I think of the preschoolers who watched with silent awe as their parents received the Lord’s Supper or ashes on Ash Wednesday. I think of kindergarteners enamored with the flickering candle flames of a Compline service, first graders who pondered the import of a pitch-black sanctuary as the seventh candle was extinguished on Good Friday, and even the littlest tykes who know when to respond, “He is risen indeed!”

Children have … a great aptitude for awe and reverence.

Children have been designed by God in such a way that as they develop—cognitively, emotionally, spiritually—they have a great aptitude for awe and reverence. Children are built for the “Why?” you could say. And God has given parents the great privilege of teaching and training in order to explain the “Why?” This is true for their faith lives and their worship lives.

History Repeats Itself?

What a mess it was! Few knew anything about the Bible. Few understood or even attended worship. Most abused their Christian freedoms. And regrettably, the pastors were leading the people astray. Luther could hardly believe it was actually that bad. Luther reported to Nicholas von Amsdorf on his horrifying visit to the Saxon churches, a letter that is now part of the enchiridion to the Small Catechism. Luther wrote:

The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.

Considering the massive influence of a messy American culture along with the abuses of freedom seeping from Evangelical churches, perhaps we could say history is repeating itself. What was Luther’s solution to the problem? Teaching! Parents needed to be taught and they in turn needed to teach their children. Hence, the Large and Small Catechisms. If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, history should repeat itself here, too: more teaching and training about worship.

The solution to any challenges is teaching and training parents.

Regarding the question of what to do with children in church, the answer from Scripture and other historical sources seems clear: the best practice is children worshiping with their parents among the full body of Christ. The solution to any challenges then is teaching and training parents and they in turn teaching and training their children. Statistics suggest that we haven’t been doing a great job with this.

In a survey of nearly 600 WELS pastors across the US and Canada, 92% reported that they do not offer formal training to parents about how to engage their children in worship. Confirming this, a survey of 200 WELS parents reported that 93% have not received any worship education.

Similarly, a survey of pastors reported that 78% of churches do not offer training to children about worship. However, it is suspected that those that do train children do so only through their Lutheran school. Why this assumption? Because a survey of parents found 95% reporting that their congregation has not offered any training to their children to help them understand or participate in worship.

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.

An Example of a Solution

Recently, WELS Congregational Services created a booklet of daily devotions with accompanying prayers, rites, and rituals for Advent and Christmas. The intention was for the family to spend time together at dinner or bedtime to meditate on the Word, discuss some common worship practices (like the Advent wreath), and prepare for the coming of the Savior.

These materials are brilliant—precisely what is needed to help train children in worship. Consider the benefits of making use of such materials:

  • Families are growing together in the Word.
  • Children have opportunities to ask their “Why?” questions and get answers from parents.
  • Families are following scriptural directives and precedent, reflecting historical and scientific support, for parents taking the lead in teaching and training their children.
  • Families are reflecting on the Scripture readings heard in worship, subtly training children to listen carefully in church so that they can be prepared for these daily devotions.
  • Parents are training children for worship as they teach them about various aspects of worship (in this case the wreath, the tree, candles, etc.).

In my reading and research on the question of what to do with children in church—in Scripture, church history, science, survey work, and more—it is quite clear that the number one solution lies with the parents. God tells us that he wants all his people to worship him. God tells us that he has charged parents first with the responsibility of teaching and training children. Thus, if we want to make improvements on the topic of children in church, we must work hard to teach and train the parents.

Conclusion

The long history of this world is filled with darkness, evils, and atrocities, especially toward children. From Molek to medieval or modern times, from varying abuses to millions of abortions, sin has gripped the hearts of many cultures and children have sadly experienced far too much evil. But through every era the light of Christ has shined on and through his people who act distinctly different. God’s people treasure the blessings that are their children. Thus, throughout the ages Christian parents have been careful to answer the “Why?” faith questions of their children. It is the distinct privilege of parents to teach their children how and why we worship a gracious Savior God who shepherds us to a paradise much different than this world of sin.

As leaders of churches, schools, and synod, pastors would do well to follow the directives of Scripture, the support of history and science, and the saints who have gone before us. We must find more and new ways to continue the critical work of supporting parents in the teaching and training of their children. May our actions support the prayer of the hymn Gracious Savior, Gentle Shepherd:

By your holy Word instruct them;
Fill their minds with heav’nly light.
By your pow’rful grace convince them
Always to approve what’s right.
Let them feel your yoke is easy;
Let them find your burden light.

Taught to love the holy praises
Which on earth your children sing,
With their lips and hearts, sincerely,
Glad thankoff’rings may they bring,
Then with all the saints in glory
Join to praise their Lord and King.

This article has focused in a general way on a vitally important strategy: teaching and training parents so that they can do the same for their children. In the next and final article on children in worship, we will explore specific ways that congregations and parents can partner together to teach and train children to worship.

Written by Phil Huebner


1 Bunge, Marcia J., Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds. The Child in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
2 Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003, p. 103-104.
3 Bunge, op. cit.
4 See especially his major work, An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, also known by a more concise title, On Vainglory and the Raising of Children.
5 Miller, Lisa. The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015, p. 10.
6 Is there a risk of encouraging thoughtless auto-pilot worship? Not when pastors, parents, worship planners, and musicians focus on the depth, richness, and variety available in Lutheran worship. Helpful content is at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-education; e.g. for pastors (Theology of the Ordinary) for congregations (Worship Service Notations) and for parents: (The ABCs of Worship and Meaningful Worship).


 

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

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

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Faces of Faith – Simon the Translator

An exciting ray of hope continues to shine among the growing number of Lutheran congregations of South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. As the camp has extremely limited internet access, Multi-Language Publications (MLP) has provided hundreds of pounds of printed materials, from catechisms to seminary resources, to serve these vibrant congregations.

PSI training in Kakuma Refugee Camp (Simon pictured in green)

Very few of our Nuer brothers and sisters speak English. Enter student pastor Simon, early 30s in age, who speaks fluent English and was my translator for a week of Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) sponsored classes for 17 men at Kakuma last October.

The relationship one builds with a translator over a short period of time is often amazing, but none have ever compared to working beside Simon, with his passion and exuberance for the message of Christ. Simon’s method of translating included walking closely beside me and mimicking my every hand gesture. It often felt like we were in some kind of choreographed dance together. I found myself motivated to be more demonstrative in my movements, with Simon immediately responding. At the same time, Simon began punctuating the points I made in class with an exuberant “Alleluia,” which was echoed back by the students. Seeing Simon get more excited got me more excited! It was an exhilarating experience as we fed off each other in a class on the life of Christ.

Simon preaching

On the last day of classes, Simon was asked to preach at our camp-wide, combined church service. Simon however, did not restrict himself to simply preaching. Grabbing a large, goat-skin covered drum in one hand and wielding a strip of rubber truck tire tread for a drumstick in the other, Simon just wailed on that drum from the opening song. Stalking the congregation to root out the timid, Simon urged the assembly on to greater and greater heights of joyous praise. The room became an ocean of music, rhythm, drums, and movement.

Needless to say, Simon preached with the exuberance he displayed in his music and his translating. I videotaped over an hour of Simon preaching. Rarely have I seen a man preach with such intensity and passion.

Two days later our visit to Kakuma was over, and we needed to say goodbye until next year. I couldn’t wait to work again with this amazingly gifted brother.

Simon (on the right) plays his drum for worship

Less than two weeks after we left Kakuma Refugee Camp, I got the news from Pastor Peter Bur, our U.S.-based South Sudanese pastor who serves as South Sudanese ministry coordinator. Peter told me that Simon and a few others were walking home late at night after an evening church gathering and decided to take a shortcut outside of the parameters of the camp. As they walked through a deep, unlit valley, they were attacked by robbers (not of the Nuer tribe) looking for a little cash or a cell phone. Simon was shot in the chest and died a short while later.

I miss Simon more than I can put into words. Although the only word I ever understood him say when he preached was “Alleluia,” that one word said it all. We both believed in the same Savior Jesus. We both knew we were on the road to Paradise. And during those classes, we both knew there was nothing more important and exciting we could be doing than preparing men to take the message of Jesus to the ends of that camp.

Simon got to Paradise way before anyone expected. Kakuma will never be quite the same. Neither I suspect will the heavenly choir, with Simon no doubt shouting his “Alleluias” the moment he arrived. I will see you again, Simon, when we will sing and play drums together to our Savior King forever!

Written by: Rev. Terry Schultz, Consultant for Multi-Language Publications 

To learn more about WELS Joint Missions outreach to the South Sudanese, visit wels.net/sudanese.

 

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Listen to WELS Daily Devotion on Alexa

The audio version of WELS Daily Devotion can now be added to Amazon Alexa’s “Flash Briefing” function. 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 Daily Devotion to that lineup. Each day WELS provides a three- to five-minute devotion based on a Bible passage. These devotions are written by WELS pastors across the country and globe. They are then “read” by a few individuals within the WELS Congregational Services team. What a great way to put technology to work for you as you sit over your morning coffee or get ready for work. 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 Daily Devotion.”

If you do have an Echo (perhaps there was one in your stocking) and 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! Look for more skills in the near future including our “Verse of the Day” and “Through The Bible” readings.

Thanksgiving Evangelism

What is thanksgiving? Why does this country celebrate Thanksgiving in November each year? Many Hmong in the Kansas City community celebrate Thanksgiving each year, but do they really understand the meaning of Thanksgiving?

The answer is no!

Each year during the Thanksgiving holiday, the Hmong people celebrate Thanksgiving by preparing a big meal to enjoy with family members and friends like other American people do. In the non-Christian Hmong community, Thanksgiving is just a holiday for eating and drinking. They only enjoy the abundant foods and drinks on their table, but they don’t know the true meaning of Thanksgiving – the appreciation and thanks for the saving grace and blessings God provides to mankind.

Thanksgiving is one of the most effective events Grace Hmong uses to attract Hmong people in the community to hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a huge piece of our evangelism calendar. Each year during the Thanksgiving holiday, Grace spends a lot of time, effort, and money to be able to host a successful event. Grace prays and hopes to bring the Hmong community to attend the event and to hear the message of God.

Grace Hmong Lutheran Church – Kansas City, Kans.

At our 2018 Thanksgiving service, the members of Grace again had the opportunity to share with our guests why we say thank you for the blessings and love we receive from God. We shared the message of why we find ourselves having a reason to celebrate. There’s never a time NOT to express our gratitude to God for what he has done for mankind! Psalm 140:13 declares, “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name.” Giving thanks is what Christians do. We were so happy to share that message with our community during the service and meal time.

I was blessed and amazed to see all of the attendees enjoying their time eating up God’s Word during the service. And again during meal time, everyone enjoyed the tasty foods Grace provided. As I looked at their smiling faces, nothing was more enjoyable than spiritual feeding with God’s word and physical feeding with well-prepared Thanksgiving food.

All of the effort, time, and money Grace Hmong put into the event was well worth it. All of our guests enjoyed the message and food. The overall turnout of the event was around 102 people, many of whom were visitors from the community and nearby neighborhood.  From this event, there were two families who were interested in joining the church. The sweetness of the gospel warms their hearts and compels them to join us and come back next time.

The congregation’s outreach efforts are focused on our evangelism program, a Facebook advertising campaign for the weekly sermon series, and events such as thanksgiving with a potluck meal to follow.

Grace’s outreach to the Hmong community is not easy, and we have been experiencing many challenges. However, God continues to remind us that the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel for the Holy Spirit to win the lost souls.

We are very excited about the gospel outreach opportunities within our community and we hope to share that excitement with the Lord’s people who are supporting that work with their prayers and with their offerings. Let’s keep on sharing the message of saving grace in Jesus!

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

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Swords and Selfies

Less than thirty years after Martin Luther’s death, in the town of Riobamba in the Spanish territory known as the viceroyalty of Peru, and at the foot of what was then considered the world’s highest mountain, a man simply known as “the Lutheran” arrived. The story goes that he was suspected of being Lutheran because he talked about being saved by Jesus without a word about the Virgin Mary or any of the saints.

Coat of Arms in Riobamba

“The Lutheran” didn’t last long in Riobamba. The townspeople’s suspicions quickly turned into hate, and then into action. With the fervor that accompanied the festival of Saint Peter, the man who represented salvation by grace alone was dragged into the town square in front of the cathedral and hacked to death with swords. When word of the action reached Philip the IV of Spain, the king he was so impressed with the enthusiastic execution carried out by the people of Riobamba that he granted them the great honor of a royal coat of arms for their town. The year was 1575.

443 years later, fellow Lutheran missionary Nathan Schulte and I walked into the town square of the same village (now in the country of Ecuador). We saw the same facade of the church in front of which “the Lutheran” had been executed (the rest of the building was destroyed in an earthquake, but the ornately carved stone facade that presided over the martyrdom in 1575 still stands today). High on the municipal building at the center of the town’s coat of arms, a Lutheran face looks out over the square with two swords pointed towards it.

And we took selfies.

But I didn’t go all the way to Ecuador for a selfie. I made the trip (I live with my family in Mexico) to take part in a little of the work there in Ecuador and join Nathan and Phil Strackbein (the other missionary who lives in Ecuador) in a full day of planning of how the precious message of salvation by grace alone would be taken to the people of Ecuador. Our missionaries have only been in Ecuador for six months, but, so far, they are being met with more open doors than swords.

Carlos Fernandez and his wife Graciela study the catechism with Missionary Johnston in Argentina

My trip last month not only took me to Ecuador, but also to Paraguay, Argentina, and southern Mexico. At those stops I met people who, as they take classes online or in-person, were sharing it with others. I spent two entire days studying with a man in northern Argentina who, at the end of my last day, showed me the lot he owns where he plans to build a church and where the pure gospel will be shared. I visited the humble home of a man in southern Mexico who filled his small living room with family and friends so that we could talk about Jesus.

As I had the privilege to move freely and study the Bible with people in Latin America, I couldn’t help but think of “the Lutheran” of Riobamba, perhaps the first Lutheran in this part of the world. How could I complain about staying in an accurately-priced $13-a-night hotel room or spending half a day in a Paraguayan bus station when I compared what I had to go through to those who have gone before? By God’s grace, 501 years after the Reformation, we have an open door for the gospel in places where once we did not. Through online classes, on-the-ground missionaries, occasional visits and, above all else, by the power of the life-changing gospel, people are telling people, disciples are making disciples who make disciples, and the name of Jesus is being shared in Latin America.

Written by: Rev. Andrew Johnston, Missionary in Latin America

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The Holy Spirit will take care of the rest

When you work with people of another culture and another language, those people handle your linguistic shortcomings in a few different ways. First, you have “the Simplifier,” who slows the conversation with you way down and only uses simple words, immediately rephrasing sentences that may be too complex. Next, you have the “the Louder.” This is the person who speaks extra slow to make sure you understand, making big gestures as sign language to help you along. And, for some reason, they think it will help if they speak louder and louder until they are nearly shouting at you . . . but in a very eager and friendly way. Finally, you have the “the Firehoser.” That’s the person who forgets almost immediately that they are speaking with someone who is just learning their language. They are so excited to speak with a foreigner who understands their language that you are soon swimming in complex vocabulary and grammar you’ve never studied, at speeds faster than a 747.

My friend YuTong is definitely a “Firehoser.” I invited him to a local restaurant to eat lunch with me. Since his father is a chef, Yutong knows a lot about food preparation. He began to explain to me in his language why many local restaurants fail to make foreign food correctly. Within seconds, he was using all sorts of jargon I didn’t understand. I smiled and nodded in agreement. I really wish I had understood what he was talking about. It sounded so interesting, and he was so excited about it.

Most of our conversations go that way: him excitedly telling me things, me straining my little brain to understand while looking up words in the dictionary as fast as I can. Thankfully, Yutong is also a “Simplifier” when he remembers to be, so he slows down and makes sure that he doesn’t lose me.

It was during one of these “Simplifier” moments that he told me about his imminent divorce. He and his wife have not been communicating. In fact, it got so bad that she became pregnant twice and had an abortion both times without even informing him of the situation. Since he wants to have children, he was devastated when he found out. Tears require little language to communicate volumes. So, when his eyes watered up in a way that is very rare for men in that culture, I knew he was hurting badly.

When I told him that I would pray for him, he asked how God could help him. What an opening for the gospel!

Whenever I have these sorts of opportunities, I am immediately reminded how my grasp of the local language falls short. How can I communicate law and gospel effectively in another, very difficult language? Even if I am a “Simplifier” in my communication and use exaggerated gestures like the “Louder,” how do I express the wonders of our God is a way that the local people will really understand? It is difficult enough for people to believe in Christ when the gospel presentation is clearly spoken. How will they believe when I am stumbling over every other word? But I am also reminded of this passage from the Scriptures:

Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:3

I am reminded that, even when I am using my own heart language to share the gospel, my ability to argue eloquently, turn a phrase, or expound on the Greek of a certain Bible passage will never, ever bring someone to faith in Jesus aside from the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Our job is to expose them regularly to the marvelous grace of Jesus. He will take care of the rest.

Maybe you are frightened to share your faith with that neighbor or coworker—not because they have no interest, but because you are afraid of messing up the message. Hey, at least you are not trying to share in another language (At least, not usually)! But the real comfort is that the Holy Spirit puts his power and authority behind those simple, stumbling words to change hearts—forever! Praise God!

Written by: A missionary in East Asia

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Ashley’s persistent witness

Jeremy (pictured far left) with Ashley standing right behind him

This story begins with Ashley. Ashley will be the first to tell you that she did not have an easy childhood. So when she heard about Jesus for the first time, about his love for sinners like her, she was all in. She went to church, witnessed in the streets, and memorized Scripture. She would scrap and scrounge to get to church — even in the cold Detroit winters!

However, Ashley eventually lost that spark and entered what she calls her “slip and slide” period with God. She started dating, eventually had a child, and when her second was about to be born, she decided it was time to get them baptized. That’s when she came to Palabra de Vida. She got married, and by God’s grace, her husband, son, and daughter were all baptized. Then, Ashley started her mission.

Jeffry

In January of 2017, she got me access to her sister’s house where her nephew and two nieces were living. I got to teach them all about how baptism is God’s way of adopting us into his family. Jeremy (pictured above)— whose parents are both dead and who has bounced around from home to home — perked up, and asked with tears in his eyes, “So, I get to be in God’s family?” The three were baptized that month.

Then in December of 2017, Ashley and her husband Andrew’s friend, Jeffry (upon insistence from Ashley), approached me about getting baptized. After pouring over the Catechism, Jeffry couldn’t believe how good God was, and finally blurted out in excitement, “Wait, so God saves me through baptism? Wow! I gotta get baptized!” He was baptized in January of 2018.

Hollie holding her daughter Kaelie

Jeffry and Ashley both started encouraging their friend and cousin Hollie to baptize her little daughter, Kaelie. Kaelie was baptized in April of 2018.

The lesson? Don’t underestimate the power of your gospel persistence! God worked through Ashley to bring eight people into his family, with more to come! Many people have heard the gospel in worship or Bible study or their own homes because of Ashley’s witness. Just look at this group of people (pictured in the cover photo) so affected by her gospel witness — nearly half of them have come to faith through her persistent gospel witness!

“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

Romans 2:7

Written by: Pastor Ryan Kolander, Palabra De Vida Lutheran Church – Detroit, MI

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