God’s been training you to do his work

Remember going to school and taking classes that you assumed you’d never use again in your life? Remember that summer job you hated, but it was at least some income to pay for school the next year? Remember that random encounter you had with a stranger asking you some very pointed questions about your faith that you felt you didn’t answer well? Remember that tragedy you went through as a young person and how hard it was to process and understand?

There are many times in our lives that we have wondered why this happened or how is God going to use this for good. I’m guessing this might be hitting home right now as we ponder how COVID-19 is for good. Especially in a mission field it is hard to make connections with people to spread the gospel, when “stay at home” orders are extended across the country. We are used to sharing the gospel in a personal way with people and connecting them to the Word through worship. Events that bring the community together and outreach to show our community we care are all difficult to host at this time. While we might be trying to expand our digital reach, that can be hard too. The members we have are struggling and finances might be difficult during these times.

Trust me, God has been training you this whole time to do his work. I never envisioned the mission work I’ve been privileged to lead in Sahuarita, Arizona, to look like this. Accepting the call four years ago to lead mission efforts at a multi-site congregation at Grace in Southern Arizona looked very different on paper than in reality. But the way that God has used my past training and experiences to further his kingdom, even in such difficult times, is amazing.

Our community research led our congregation to buy new property and build a church and child learning center to serve our neighbors with the gospel. The process was slow and tedious, the delays were many, and just when things were really moving forward, COVID-19 hit. What appeared to (potentially) be a major set-back has been a blessing. Builders for Christ was pulled from our project, but previous experience in the construction industry has allowed my time to be used as a project manager to lead our local volunteer crew. I’d already learned many lessons on patience at the start of the mission work here, and the delays aren’t causing extreme stress. The pandemic came just soon enough that we aren’t open yet and don’t have to navigate a very difficult situation with children under our care. In all of this we’ve still been able to connect to our community through the workers on the job site. We are grateful that construction work is considered an “essential” business so the delays haven’t been drastic. We look forward to serving the child care needs of our community once our building project is completed this summer. We are hopeful that we can invite guests to our new worship space to hear the gospel once the buildings are completed.

Sure it isn’t what we might expect as “normal” mission work at this time, but God has been training us our whole lives for this moment to take his gospel to our community. We can even rejoice in our past sufferings because they have trained us for this moment. We put our hope in Christ during these difficult times as the Lord of the Church. God’s been training you this whole time to do his work.

Written by Rev. Ryan Heiman, home missionary at Grace Lutheran Church and Child Learning Center in Sahuarita, Ariz.

 

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God’s kingdom is still coming

“Your kingdom come.” We used to pray that every Sunday in church together. When we did, we were asking God to rule our hearts and to send his Spirit to the hearts of others in the world. But we probably prayed those words thinking that, as congregations, we had God’s kingdom work pretty well under control. Not anymore!

Once upon a time, we had ways to measure our—I mean God’s—kingdom work. We tracked worship attendance. We counted kids in Lutheran school desks. We measured offerings. We quantified volunteer hours. Pastors mapped out hospital and shut-in visits. And if we liked the way things look on paper, we assumed God’s kingdom had certainly come! At least we had a good system in place for tracking kingdom work! When we prayed, “Your kingdom come,” we meant, “Just give my kingdom a little boost, God. But we mostly have our—I mean your—kingdom going strong.”

But now our people aren’t in pews. Our students aren’t in desks. Our offerings are not in plates. Our hospital visits are not even allowed! Is God’s kingdom still coming? How can it, if we can’t track it?

It’s a terrifying thing for a congregation to realize suddenly, the kingdom work we’ve gotten used to is no longer within our control. And yet, has it ever been? Did God’s kingdom ever fit within our church’s budget and calendar? Or does God’s kingdom belong to. . . God? The Alpha and the Omega, the Creator, Sustainer, and Light of the world?

Thank God he’s running his kingdom! Because who could have imagined that this was the way he would kick us out of our churches and into the world? I’m amazed by just how powerfully God’s kingdom is pouring into the world in these dark days! He’s hammering through once hardened hearts. He’s uprooting deeply ingrained grudges. He’s tilling up straight paths through the baked desert floor.

And the gospel! It’s been incredible to watch newly emboldened Christians scatter the gospel seed in public in ways I have never seen. Parking lots packed with cars and pastors with megaphones. Facebook exploding with worship service views, shares, and engagements. People talking about death and resurrection in their homes, with their children. Easter Sunday resurrection hope pouring through every media and social media into homes where unbelievers and believers alike are listening. Christians serving in their communities as fearless light and salt when others cower. WELS members across the country becoming stronger together, forming a gospel-seed tidal wave, as they engage with one another through social media!

Is God’s kingdom still coming? Oh, yes! And thank God he has let us be on the front lines bringing that kingdom to more people, in new ways, with renewed zeal. Yes, Lord, yes! “Your kingdom come!”

Written by Rev. Ryan Kolander, home missionary at Palabra de Vida in Detroit, Mich. 

 

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A COVID-19 Baptism blessing

“That’s awesome!”

That’s all I could say as I watched the couple sit at their kitchen table.

Jeff was confirmed on December 22, 2019. Having completed his “Starting Point” course, he was so thrilled to be part of our young congregation. His volunteer spirit—whether it’s making homemade salsa or taking beautiful landscape photographs to decorate our rented walls—is contagious. And so is his positivity. But there was one thing that bothered him—his wife didn’t really know Jesus and didn’t come to church with him. He wasn’t going to push. Partly because of his personality, but mostly because he trusted God’s timing. Then, on December 22, Deedee came to support Jeff. Then she came again on December 24. Even though Christmas Eve worship was interrupted by an armed robbery at the liquor store that shares a wall with our facility (perhaps another Missions Blog story!), Deedee was not deterred. She kept coming to worship every Sunday.

In late February, she asked if she could talk to me after church. Deedee wanted to be baptized. After going through the meaning and blessings of baptism at a Starbucks meeting in early March, we picked the date—April 5, Palm Sunday. And then, coronavirus came. After explaining that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for her to be baptized on that date, both Jeff and Deedee agreed they’d like to explore the options. Zoom to the rescue!

I set up my laptop six feet away from the church baptismal font (not for social distancing purposes, but only for the camera angle).

CAMERA 1 –

Pastor: “We all have a deep need for baptism. . . this is for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Not even the gates of Hades can prevent the gospel from going out. Be confident as you are now baptized in the name of the Triune God.”

CAMERA 2 –

Jeff (pouring water on Deedee’s head): “Denise, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

CAMERA 1 –

Pastor:  “That’s awesome!”

It was a highlight of my ministry. I’m not sure who I was more excited for—Jeff, Deedee, or myself! But the joy wasn’t over. Unbeknownst to Deedee, congregation members were filmed offering their support, “We will, and we ask God to help us.” What a surprise for Deedee to watch the recorded service on Sunday, not just to see herself, but her brothers and sisters in Christ welcoming her into our church family. Jeff’s follow-up email, “We really enjoyed the Baptism section with everyone in support.”

That’s awesome!

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

 

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Faces of Faith – Hany Guzmán

As the morning mist mixed with the bright beams of the sun’s first rays over Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, ten-year-old Hany Guzmán would stand out on her earthen porch to greet the day. With a mug of atol de elote in her hand, she watched the cool fog slowly dissipate and the shadows silently disperse as they gave way to the scorching heat and piercing light of a Sunday morning. The sweet, corn beverage brought warmth to her body and strength for the day as she helped get her family ready for church. Slipping through the front door, she would wake her three younger siblings with whom she shared a single bed. They would march off together to attend their local congregation’s misa. Sometimes her parents would accompany them and other times they went alone, but Hany wouldn’t miss a mass for the world.

Hany and her siblings in Guatemala

Once they found their customary spot in the back of church, although the sun still shone brightly through the stained-glass windows of the cathedral, it seemed as though an even denser fog settled in. Hany and her siblings heard the priest read the Bible and give short talks about how they were to pray to the right saints to find fame and fortune, but it just didn’t seem to make sense. There was a spiritual haze that never seemed to lift, a darkness that just wouldn’t disappear. Hany wondered to herself, “Is there any way I can go to heaven?”

Five years later, darkness defined the day as Hany woke up on a frigid December morning in Anchorage, Alaska. A glance outside at the thermometer showed twenty-five degrees below zero as the first hints of daylight slowly revealed the silhouette of the mountains beneath a cloudless sky. It was Sunday morning and it was still her job to wake her younger siblings for church, but they could wait a while to brave the cold. The short trip to church was less than a block. She started to make some hot chocolate as she waited for the sun to creep over the Chugach Mountains. In a few short hours, she and her siblings would be on their way to Iglesia Luterana de Fe en Cristo. She still wouldn’t miss a service for the world.

Hany at Camp Luther in Anchorage, Alaska

Although the sun barely skimmed the tops of the peaks outside, inside her church one thing was clear—the light of the gospel had changed her life. The same sun that warmed her face in Guatemala now shone through the stained-glass windows of her new church, but here the mystery of salvation had been revealed. Here she heard the unobscured gospel that brought clarity to her mind and comfort to her soul. Hany and her sisters and brother—Brianna, Alegría, and David—found their spots in the back pew. From her vantage point, Hany could see many people she had invited to church herself. In fact, she was personally responsible for seeing her church’s catechism class grow from a dozen kids to over thirty. Later in the service, the congregation would confess its faith together using the familiar words of the explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed. “All this he did that I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just has he has risen from death and lives and rules eternally.” There was no longer any doubt; the darkness had dissipated and the fog had lifted. Wiping away a tear, Hany chimed in with confidence and conviction: ¡Esto es ciertamente la verdad! This is most certainly true!

Written by Rev. Christopher Ewings, home missionary at Iglesia Luterana de Fe en Cristo (Faith Lutheran Church) in Anchorage, Alaska

 

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Preach the Word – Go Deep

Go Deep

As you know by now, I’m a fan of simple preaching. I love Luther’s assessment of a good preacher: “He’s the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way” (AE 54:384). A good preacher refuses to talk in secret pastor code language. He understands the reality of biblical illiteracy and meets his people where they are in their life of faith. He focuses his hearers on a central truth in his sermons, instead of wandering all over the map. Above all, he points people to Jesus with clear law and gospel again and again. I’m a fan of simple preaching!

But I’m afraid that phrase—“simple preaching”—can be easily misunderstood. It might sound like “simple preaching” means preaching simplistic sermons without much meat or depth. It might sound like “simple preaching” means sticking to easy sections of Scripture and simply rehashing the plan of salvation week after week. It might sound like “simple preaching” means avoiding anything that challenges our hearers’ understanding. If I’ve given you that impression, Jesus has other ideas. Jesus sends us out to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Jesus wants us to preach and teach everything in his Word.

“Simple preaching”—can be easily misunderstood.

A brother pastor asked me this perceptive question: “What about the sections of Scripture that are not simple? It’s good that you began here with Jesus’ parables and Paul’s simple preaching. But Peter noted that Paul is often difficult to understand…. What if the text is not so simple?”

Here’s the reality in Scripture: Some texts aren’t so simple! As our brother mentioned, Peter noted that Paul can be difficult to understand: “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pt 3:16). So here’s how Peter ended his letter just two verses later: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen” (2 Pt 3:18). It’s true that some sections of Scripture are hard to understand. So what does God want? He wants every Christian—from a new convert to a long-time pastor—to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. God wants us to go deep!

Paul—who wrote things that are hard to understand—emphasized that same truth: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Cor 3:1-2). Paul longed for his hearers to grow spiritually. In fact, Christ has given pastors and teachers to his church so that “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Eph 4:14-15). Jesus wants his people to grow!

The book of Hebrews includes a striking lament. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hb 5:11-12). Can you sense the frustration in the author’s voice? “I want to say more, but I can’t because of your spiritual immaturity.” Wow! Strong words. Every pastor can relate to the feeling of having to teach the same basic truths over and over again to people who ought to have matured further in their faith. “I want to say so much more, but…”

Here is the author of Hebrews’ encouragement: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so” (Hb 6:1-3). The author certainly wasn’t encouraging his hearers to abandon core teachings about Christ. But he was challenging them to take their understanding of Christ to a deeper level. Isn’t that also our goal as preachers? We want to challenge our hearers to grow. We want to go deep!

It sounds counterintuitive, but simple preachers lead people to go deep.

But here’s a caution: This encouragement to “go deep” doesn’t nullify anything I’ve written about “simple preaching.” Don’t challenge your people with your theological vocabulary or stuffy grammar. Don’t challenge your people with a convoluted outline or a myriad of disconnected biblical references. That’s not “going deep.” Do challenge your people with the deep truths of God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:2). Simple words. Deep thoughts! “He chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Simple words. Deep thoughts! It sounds counterintuitive, but simple preachers lead people to go deep.

These Bible verses have led me to examine my own preaching. I want it to be simple and clear. But I also want to go deep! Am I? Every one of us has had the experience of sitting through a disappointing conference presentation. The topic had excited you. You had eagerly anticipated impacts on your life and ministry. But then the presenter spent an hour saying the same thing over and over again. You left deflated—maybe even angry! No depth. No value. How often is that me? Do people walk away from my sermons thinking, “I was expecting a whole lot more…”

There’s evidence that I haven’t been challenging my people as much as I think I have. How often am I surprised that my members don’t know what God says about important teachings? I moan, “How do they not get that sex before marriage is wrong? They act like it’s normal!” But then I realize that I hardly ever preach about sexuality. What else? Unfortunately, I can think of lots of examples. “How come they are not concerned about homosexuality?” “Why do they keep bringing up millennialism?” “How do they not know what the Bible says about predestination?” Well, have I preached about any of those doctrines lately—or ever? Maybe I need to go deeper!

Lazy mouths can lead to lazy ears.

There’s an interesting phrase in the Hebrews passage I quoted above. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn” (Hb 5:11). The phrase “slow to learn” is literally “lazy in respect to ears” (νωθροὶ γεγόνατε ταῖς ἀκοαῖς). Isn’t that a clever phrase? How often are our people “lazy in respect to ears”? But now here’s the catch: How often aren’t we preachers “lazy in respect to mouths”? Do you think there’s a connection? If my people sense that I’m preaching the same thing every week, that I haven’t gone deep, that I’m not willing to challenge them…. Do you think lazy mouths can lead to lazy ears?

Often our reasoning—or excuse—is to say, “That topic is better for Bible class.” Sure, it’s easier to explain something with an hour in a class. It’s much more challenging to craft a sermon on the same topic. But you know the problem. In my congregation, less than 15% of adults attend Bible class. How about yours? If diving deep is reserved for Bible class, we shouldn’t be surprised when 85% of our members think that Lutherans and Catholics believe the same thing. We need to preach—not just teach—on the deep truths of the Bible. I wonder if our people don’t have a greater desire to go deeper into God’s Word than we give them credit for. That’s why they bring up predestination and muse about the Trinity and ask for more Revelation… People want meat!

People want meat!

This means that you, preacher, have a big job! To challenge and motivate the 75-year-old elder who’s been a member his whole life. To convict and forgive the 44-year-old straying member who happened to show up for the first time in years. To connect with the 27-year-old who hasn’t ever stepped in a church before. To keep the attention of the 13-year-old who is supposed to be filling out a sermon summary. All while keeping the central focus on Jesus’ work of redemption.

Does this mean that every word of your sermon is going to be understood by every person there? No. Does it mean that every application should hit home for every person? Impossible. But if I’m preaching on the deep truth of predestination, I want the 13-year-old to walk away knowing that she is loved. I want the 27-year-old to go home trusting that his life has purpose. I want the 44-year-old to be amazed at God’s grace. I want the 75-year-old to have peace when he thinks of death. Going deep into doctrines has practical applications for every one of God’s people.

Here’s where to start: Give yourself time to pray and mature for yourself. Luther wrote, “You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal…. Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding.”1 When was the last time you “went deep” into a biblical doctrine apart from your sermon prep? In our circuit, a brother recently suggested we read the recent translation of Walther’s “Church and Ministry.” It’s deep. And long! It’s made me realize how rarely I go deep into God’s Word to grow personally in my knowledge and understanding.

Give yourself time to pray and mature for yourself.

Then, think carefully about how you go about choosing which text to preach on each week. As you choose a text, there are lots of factors to consider. What texts have I preached on before? Which has the clearest message for me to communicate? Which hits at a particular need in our congregation right now? Add these to the list of things to consider: Which text presents the greatest challenge to my sinful nature? Which text pushes my biblical understanding to a deeper level? Which has truths from God that my people probably haven’t heard for a while—or ever?

As you consciously look to challenge your people to grow in their spiritual maturity, here’s a caution: We’re not talking about randomly mentioning hot-button issues from the pulpit. In a recent devotion for a group of non-members studying English at our church, I mentioned abortion in passing as an example of sin in our world. The shaken looks on many of the women’s faces immediately convicted me of a serious pastoral mistake. If you’re going to go deep, go deep. Preach a whole sermon—or two or three—on abortion: why it’s sinful, what hope and forgiveness Christ offers, what godly options exist for those with unplanned pregnancies.

This might be a place for a sermon series at an appropriate time of year. In my previous congregation, we took a survey of our membership. We had a huge response—over 175 completed surveys. One unexpected blessing was the opportunity to see which biblical teachings our members were struggling with, including some deep doctrines like the roles of men and women, hell, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper. In response, we designed a summer sermon series called “Clearing the Roadblocks.”2 We dove into each of those doctrines. Our people genuinely enjoyed “going deep.” Members asked, “I’m going to be gone next week, but I really want to hear what the Bible has to say about _________. Can you share your sermon with me?”

I remember one particular Thursday evening worship service. In a very liberal, ELCA-dominated small town in Minnesota, I got to preach on the roles of men and women. That evening, one of our faithful male members finally convinced his wife—a very committed ELCA member—to join him for worship. I saw her and thought, “Oh, boy.” The idea flashed through my mind to preach on something totally different. Thankfully, I didn’t. After the service, she said she had never heard what the Bible actually says. Going deep into a challenging doctrine was a blessing for her—and me too! I had nothing to fear, because God’s Word is true. People need all of it!

Into what areas of Christian doctrine would it be beneficial for your people to go deep? In an election year, God has a lot to say about government. Are your people going to hear it? Identity—it’s on everybody’s minds. Will you dive deep into what it really means to be a child of God? The Trinity: “Are all gods really the same?” Church fellowship: “Why are there so many Christian churches?” Nobody gets it, but the Bible explains it. Go deep!

As you do, remember the deepest, most challenging doctrine of Scripture. Do you know what it is? Here’s how Luther explained Peter’s words about the difficult teachings in Paul’s writings: “He saw that many frivolous spirits were jumbling and twisting St. Paul’s words and teaching, because some things in the latter’s epistles are difficult to understand, as, for example, when he says that ‘man is justified by faith apart from works’ (Rom. 3:28)” (AE 30:198). What’s the most challenging doctrine of all for our sinful natures? Justification by faith. We better make sure we clearly teach that difficult, deep doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus!

As I write this, concern over the coronavirus is spreading. This week, WELS churches were forced to suspend in-person worship services. I pray that by the time you read this, those fears have subsided. Here’s what I’ve learned from the pandemic so far: Each time you preach, you are preparing your people for the day when you and your church will no longer be there. Preach the gospel in every sermon like it’s the last time your people will be in a church, and go deep into God’s Word to prepare your people to study the Bible on their own when you and your worship services are no longer available. Give them the gospel and challenge them to go deep.

That’s what Paul did. While he didn’t face a pandemic, he was often forced to leave the churches he served on a moment’s notice. A notable example is his stay in Thessalonica. A mob forced Paul to flee after a short stay. Yet, his letters to the Thessalonians reveal a depth of teaching on matters like the end of the world and the antichrist. Paul got deep with those people quickly. Even Paul’s long stay in Ephesus only amounted to two and a half years. Yet, Paul could confidently say, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27).

In every sermon, consciously or not, you are teaching your people how to read and understand God’s Word. In other words, every sermon is a sermon on hermeneutics. Only please don’t use that word in your sermons! Every sermon you preach is an opportunity to teach your people how to search for answers in the Scriptures, how to use context to aid understanding, how to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Every sermon you preach is an opportunity to teach your people how to dive deeply into God’s Word, so that when the day comes that their preacher is gone or their church is shuttered, God’s people are equipped to continue digging deep into his truth.

Brothers, in your simple preaching, go deep.

Isn’t this exciting? Week after week we preachers get to open up God’s Word for God’s people, “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt 13:53). There’s urgency for us preachers. Each week, we look at a portion of God’s Word and realize, “This is so important. This is so applicable. This is just what my hearers need to hear!” Then, the very next week, we look at a completely different portion of God’s Word and realize, “This is so important. This is so applicable. This is just what my hearers need to hear!” That joy and urgency is what led Luther to say, “If I today could become king or emperor, I would not give up my office as preacher.”3 Brothers, in your simple preaching, go deep.

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass serves as pastor at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI. You can read his sermons and daily devotions on his blog at upsidedownsavior.home.blog.


1 What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), Volume 3, p. 1359.
2 If you’re interested, you can find an overview of our “Clearing the Roadblocks” sermon series at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-23/
3 Meuser, F. W. Luther the Preacher. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983, p. 39.

 

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Filled to overflowing in Barcelona

In February 2017, 24 missionary wives met together in Athens, Greece, for the first ever World Missionary Wives Conference. What an amazing experience! I arrived in Athens barely knowing only four other missionary wives. I left the conference just a few short days later with two dozen sisters! Sisters with whom I share my joys and sorrows, blessings and challenges, laughter and tears. Our first World Missionary Wives Conference set the stage for more contact through a WhatsApp group, summer gatherings, Missionary Family Reunions, phone calls – more opportunities for encouragement.

On March 5-9, 2020, the long-awaited and much anticipated second World Missionary Wives Conference was held in Barcelona, Spain. Picture a room of 25 women who have been waiting three years to see each other face-to-face. Add in a heaping portion of hugs, a healthy dose of sharing, and a pinch of silliness (from jet lag, of course), and there you have the second World Missionary Wives Conference.

We based our conference on the theme “Filled to Overflowing”, taken from Psalm 23:5 “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In Barcelona we filled our cups with encouragement, peace and joy for service around the world. God’s word served as our primary source of encouragement. We spent time together worshiping our Savior and studying what God says about various topics. One of our own missionary wives shared a keynote address, “Filling up throughout Life’s Transitions,” and facilitated a panel discussion entitled “Filling Your Cup.” World Missions Administrator Larry Schlomer led us in worship. Other ladies led us in small group Bible studies and devotions.

Fellowship provided more encouragement. Missionary wives so very rarely see each other face-to-face! The conference gave us a number of opportunities for fellowship. We enjoyed tours and tapas, churros and chocolate, Gaudí and games. Each activity laid a platform for sharing and encouraging, for cultivating friendships old and new.

The timing for the conference was providential. Just a few days later, and we would have had significant difficulties in Spain because of the coronavirus. But God kept us safe. After our delightful conference, everyone made it home safely and just about everyone sat in self-quarantine for 14 days, but no one got sick. We thank God for His mercy in getting us all to Barcelona and back safely and for keeping us healthy.

We’re back home with our families on our mission fields. Our cups have been filled with blessings of encouragement, peace and joy. Now what? Now comes the next stage–sharing those blessings with others. First of all, we share our blessings with our husbands. An extra dose of encouragement for a missionary is never misplaced. Next, we pour out blessings on our children, both those with us and those far from us. And then we turn to our mission fields.

For me, that means the Russian ladies I love so dearly. They are quite a group–old and young, scientists and gardeners, grandmothers and young women, feisty and meek, confident and insecure. But they all need encouragement. They hunger for God’s peace, especially in these uncertain times. They crave the joy that comes from God’s forgiveness. I have all those qualities to share, because my cup was filled to overflowing in Barcelona. How can I serve you? It’s my turn to pour! Funny thing. . . the more I pour, the more I want to bask in God’s precious word myself, and my cup just stays brimming.

Written by Jennifer Wolfgramm, missionary wife in Russia

 

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Crises, Hymns, and Faith

Crises, Hymns, and Faith

This article covers several themes and purposes. It shares thoughts and resources related to the COVID-19 crisis. It calls attention to the power of hymns—especially in a time of national crisis and private anxiety. It shares some resources planned for Christian Worship: Hymnal (CW21). It points to two new Congregational Services video resources.

By the time this article reaches readers, the crisis may be resolving. But that’s not how it feels while writing on April 5. And even if we are on the downside of the infection rate when you read this, the spiritual themes covered by hymns mentioned below will continue to strengthen and comfort God’s people and witness God’s truth to a broken world even as it returns to normal.

All Is Well

A well-received new song at the WELS leadership conference last January was All Is Well, by Steve and Vikki Cook. The final verse affirms “…with newborn eyes we will behold the glory of the risen Lord.”1 Consider how this song might fit in a (streamed) service during the Easter season. If a soloist or small group sings this song after the sermon and the preacher has intentionally referenced it’s meaning during the sermon (All is well—in spite of global pandemic and personal anxiety—because of God’s promises and Jesus’ resurrection), it will be a powerful synergy of sermon, song, and context.

A powerful synergy of sermon, song, and context

This song is featured in a new video resource: Worship Led by a Modern Ensemble. This video features the Trinitas ensemble from Trinity, Waukesha, WI. It demonstrates leading worship with an ensemble of piano, guitar, and other instruments. The focus is on songs of the liturgy, psalms, and hymns. Some settings of the liturgy, slated for CW21, are crafted to work either with organ (and other instruments) or with a modern ensemble; the melodies remain the same while the musical accompaniment varies.

The video, available at welscongregationalservices.net/download/w014/, includes interviews that can help parish musicians and leaders to think through rationale and best practices. All Is Well begins at 16:28.

By special arrangement, a melody/text graphic for All Is Well along with an organ accompaniment is available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-hymnal-introduction-series/. The song works best with piano,2 but not every church has a good piano for leading the entire congregation. If a soloist sings the song with piano accompaniment, the organ version can serve as preservice music.

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

The hymnal supplement (CWS) includes David Haas’ hymn by this name. It will also be in CW21. The text gives valuable comfort in time of crisis and echoes the Gospel for Easter 5, Year A. The first verse points to something far better than “safer at home”: “In God’s [eternal] house there are many places for you alone to dwell in safety.”

In the cantor/responsorial tradition from which this hymn comes, verses are sung by a cantor with the congregation singing the refrain. This custom grew out of reforms in the Roman Catholic church instigated by the Second Vatican Council in an attempt to encourage more participation.3 But Lutherans, accustomed to being “the singing church,” often want to sing the whole song, whether Gloria or hymn. A challenge for some, then, is that the CWS accompaniment doesn’t support congregational singing of the verses in the usual way—by placing the melody in the top voice of the accompaniment. That’s because the original intent was to accompany a cantor.

A congregation very familiar with the verses or with stronger than usual music reading skill can certainly sing the verses to the original accompaniment. To make it easier to sing this song in other congregations (and in those without a good piano), the accompaniment edition for CW21 will include an organ accompaniment that clearly states the melody. By special permission, this arrangement is available for free download at the previous link. The organ version can also be used as service music, perhaps with a gentle registration during the offering or communion distribution.

Vital hymn singing—and playing

While it’s no secret that the Getty movement has popularized modern hymns, some might not realize that the Gettys are champions of old hymns as well. I attended the 2019 Getty Sing! conference in Nashville and was struck by the frequent use of old, traditional hymns often in old, traditional arrangements—even a cappella. I’ll never forget hearing 10,000 people singing Holy, Holy, Holy unaccompanied and in harmony without printed music! And the same for O Sacred Head, Now Wounded about which one wag has said that American Evangelicals, who so love this old German hymn, think it’s an early American tune. Hans Leo Hassler (d. 1612), composer of the tune, might be amused.

10,000 people singing O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

The Trinitas video champions a “both/and” approach to musical variety for the congregation. An entire service led by an ensemble is for the entire congregation, not a niche audience with a musical taste preference. It’s not “contemporary worship”; it’s just worship for the united body of believers in a given place that Sunday. Same for services led by an organ.

If organ accompaniment feels draggy or lacking in pulse, an organist can gain insights and improve skills from another new video resource: Effective Service Playing: The Partnership between Organist and Congregation, presented by David Kriewall (welscongregationalservices.net/download/w013/). This is an online masterclass for organists, delivered by a video and a PowerPoint file or PDF. This masterclass seeks to improve performers’ ability to play in a way that best supports congregational singing. This video serves both for those who have had years of lessons and those who are self-taught. It’s not a video to view quickly in one sitting. It’s something to study and ponder with hymnal in hand and trying out some of the performance examples during a practice session.

A draft for the preface to one of the new hymnal accompaniment volumes discusses the musician’s privilege in worship.

Our worship this side of heaven is a foretaste of the feast to come, a highpoint in every Christian’s week, the “event” that drives congregational health and vitality because here God again delivers salvation to his people. It is a high calling and privilege for musicians to assist worshipers in this most central and important activity—to help them sing out about salvation that comes from our God. That’s why attention to hymns and liturgy is always more important than preservice music and postludes. In hymns and liturgy God’s people actively participate in proclaiming his salvation.

We hope that Effective Service Playing will help organists to improve, whatever their current skill level.

Theologia crucis

“All is well because of God’s great love.” Is it easier to trust the truth of Romans 8:28—“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”—in hindsight? Perhaps. But the ability to “validate” God’s promise in this way is not necessary to trust his promise even when we can imagine no reason for hardship or disappointment. “The sun beams on behind the clouds, and in the dark still grace abounds” (from All Is Well).

“Don’t let worship be wiped out.”

As theologians of the cross, it’s good to ask “What shall we sing about?” What is the content of songs during a crisis? There are many themes, but a particular Lutheran emphasis flows from the theologia crucis. We can gain insight from Lutheran choral music during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). American Christian perspective on life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness knows that God doesn’t promise health and prosperity. These are not inalienable rights. If they vanish, we don’t blame God but rather trust his working “for the good” in a world broken by sin and its consequences. One song from that three-decade war prays in part: “O God, we thank you that you have alleviated our pains through your dear Son, the pains brought to us by filthy sins.” This doesn’t mean that a specific sin caused a war or any other crisis, only that we live in a sin-damaged world. Another song makes us thankful for streamed worship when it prays: “Grant us again your heavenly peace; don’t let churches and schools be destroyed, don’t let worship [Gottesdienst] and good order be wiped out.4

It’s probably true that many people prefer to sing happy songs. But note the frequency of lament and penitential themes in the psalms, the hymnal of the Old Testament. Even in our culture there are “popular” examples of musical lament, whether the Blues or sad Country-Western songs. So it’s valuable now and then to give a rationale for the sad and serious hymns we sing, whether by verbal or printed comment.

It’s valuable to give a rationale for the sad and serious hymns we sing.

For not a few of us a Thirty Years War perspective on the fragility of life has been reinforced. It is good to speak in both sermon and song to the temptations faced by us who live in a comfortable “first world” context. Am I really worried that I’ll get the virus? Or that the market and my 403b won’t rebound, if not this year then certainly within my retirement horizon? God’s promises in Christ are our ultimate confidence, not the wonders of pharmaceutical rescue and economic recovery. One of the new Getty/Townend hymns begins: “Still, my soul, be still and do not fear though winds of change may rage tomorrow. God is at your side; no longer dread the fires of unexpected sorrow.”

One day we will face death, but not in despair or defeat. Rather, with the confidence found in All Men Living Are but Mortal. This hymn from TLH, updated by Hymnal Project director, Michael Schultz, is included in CW21 with the tune to which the text was originally sung, JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN (CW 114). The author, Johann Albinus (1624-1679), was born during the war. He lost his father at age 11 and his stepfather at age 19, five years before war’s end. Consider these stanzas in light of our current crisis:

All men living are but mortal
and will surely fade as grass;
only through death’s gloomy portal
to eternal life we pass.
When this body here has perished,
then will heav’nly joys be cherished
where the saints, in glorious dress,
live and reign in righteousness.

Therefore, when my God shall choose it,
willingly I’ll yield my life,
nor will grieve that I should lose it,
with its sorrow, pain, and strife.
In my dear Redeemer’s merit
peace has found my troubled spirit,
and in death my comfort this:
Jesus’ death my source of bliss.

Jesus for my sake descended
my salvation to obtain:
death and hell for me are ended,
peace and hope are now my gain.
With great joy I leave earth’s sadness
for the home of heav’nly gladness,
where I shall forever see
God, the Holy Trinity.

This hymn is posted for free download along with other resources mentioned in this article. The text most people associate with JESU, MEINES LEBENS LEBEN, is Christ, the Life of All the Living, which will also appear in CW21. Not a bad association! “All men living are but mortal,” but in faith we affirm: “Christ, the Life of all the living, Christ, the Death of death, our foe.”

Funeral

A “new to us” funeral hymn is Now Calm Your Heart. One hymnal committee reviewer commented, “Time to beef up the Death and Burial section with quality hymnody.” This comment referred to the text. But pairing with the tune HAMBURG (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross) caused other reviewers to rate it low, even a blunt “no” as in “forget it!” Then WELS composer Jeremy Bakken, moved by the text, submitted a new tune that easily gained approval. Thus we have a very old hymn with Latin and German roots paired with a 21st century tune. If there are COVID-19 funerals in your church, familiar hymns are the first choice. But this hymn is available for free download (along with an mp3 audio file), perhaps best rendered by a soloist for now.

And this peek into the editing process: The original first line, from other hymnals, was “Now hush your cries and shed no tear.” Really? A health-care professional in your church has died, and you say to grieving friends, “Stop crying, no tears”?5 The revised first line is not only more pastoral, it’s also faithful to the original ancient hymn by Prudentius (d. c.413), Jam moesta quiesce querela, which comes to us via a German translation by Nikolaus Herman of Joachimsthal fame.6

Gerhardt

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) became an adult during the Thirty Years War. Some details of the war’s impact on his life are in CW:Handbook. His difficult life was aptly described by an inscription on a portrait, which reads, “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus”—“a theologian strained in the sieve of Satan” (CWH, p717). His hymns help us to sing God’s promises in the face of tragedy and disruption.

Someone recently asked me about the new hymnal Web site’s emphasis on hymns from Getty Music: “I hope we’re not giving up Gerhardt to make room for Getty.” No, we aren’t. There are more Gerhardt hymns than Getty. In fact there are more Gerhardt hymns in CW21 than in CW93. One new Gerhardt translation with a “new to us” tune is Entrust Your Fears and Doubting. Like so many Gerhardt texts and others from his era, this text speaks powerfully to our current crisis. It is paired with the tune originally associated with Gerhardt’s text and bearing the name of his hymn in German: BEFIEHL DU DEINE WEGE. This hymn is also available for free download, along with an mp3 audio file.

Now and then one hears the objection that old German hymns can’t speak to our modern world. It’s certainly true that complex poetry and archaic language can be a barrier. So this hymn allows Gerhardt to speak in a 21st century idiom.7 Some also wonder about old music connecting with modern people, but so much depends on presentation and familiarity. Who would say that Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel, from the 12th century, doesn’t connect? To gain an impression of how adaptable BEFIEHL DU DEINE WEGE is, search YouTube to find a remarkable variety of settings in various styles.

So much depends on presentation and familiarity.

The Trinitas video mentioned above starts with God Himself Is Present (CW 224). At 22:40 you can also hear We All Believe in One True God (CW 270) with just one voice, piano, and guitar. This is immediately followed by mention of sources for arrangements. Gerhardt gets a 21st century boost from the Hymnal Project in another way beyond fresh translation. The Musician’s Resource will include arrangements for modern ensemble similar to those featured in the Trinitas video. Some were used at the January national leadership conference, including arrangements for Gerhardt’s Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me (CW 428) and My God Will Never Leave Me (CW 418) with text by Ludwig Helmbold. CW:Handbook points out that Helmbold wrote this hymn to comfort friends who were fleeing Erfurt in 1563 to escape a plague.

Since so much depends on presentation and familiarity, how might you introduce Gerhardt’s hymn? I can hear a certain female vocalist at my church singing the first two stanzas. I know that most people would find this first exposure to a new tune to be utterly compelling as an expressive soprano sings words of comfort and prepares the congregation to join in on stanza 3, maybe with a clarinet or other instrument doubling the melody. Then back to soprano for stanza 4 and congregation for 5. You don’t have a capable soloist in your congregation? Then use three people singing unison.

This article has focused on a present crisis and a future hymnal. In closing, some words from Hymnal Project chair, Jon Zabell, from his plenary address to the 2008 WELS worship conference, introducing CWS.

“The early Christians faced persecution to the point of death for their faith. Martin Luther had a weight of responsibility on his shoulders I can’t even begin to imagine, and he had powerful enemies and a tender conscience besides. Paul Gerhardt lived through war and poverty and buried his wife and four of his five children. Open your hymnal. Open your supplement. You can sing what they sang. You can trust what they trusted.”

By Bryan Gerlach

New at ChristianWorship.com

Under Frequently Asked Questions

  • Replacement for HymnSoft
  • Why Service Builder and pew hymnals?
  • Rationale for Service Builder pricing

A spreadsheet for calculating costs is now available. “Budgeting for Christian Worship” links from two pages: Resources (top of homepage) and Looking Ahead (bottom).

 

1 Full lyrics are available online. Some online performances of this and some of the more upbeat modern songs are often “too much” for typical Lutheran worship. But as the Trinitas video demonstrates, an ambiance suitable for Lutheran worship is easily achieved. Note also that this song, like so much of the Getty Music repertoire, is eminently singable by a congregation—in contrast to the soloistic and rhythmically complicated style of much “contemporary Christian music.”
2 Purchase the piano or ensemble accompaniment if you want to use these options before the new hymnal is published.
3 More participation in contrast to the deficit implied by the title of Thomas Day’s book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Crossroad, 1990; updated version 2017).
4 CD 2, tracks 6 & 17 from Friedens-Seufftzer und Jubel-Geschrey / Music for the Peace of Westphalia 1648. CPO, 1998.
5 To be fair, the original text can be understood as “you will be able to find comfort….”
6 Brown, Christopher Boyd. Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. Harvard, 2005. He spoke on this topic at the 2008 WELS worship conference.
7 Compare a 19th century translation at hymnary.org; search for “Thy Way and All Thy Sorrows.”

 

WORSHIP

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

GIVE A GIFT

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April cancelled

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

 

There’s an unusual quiet on the campus.

The Lutheran Bible Institute in Lilongwe, Malawi, is normally in session; there’s usually a beehive of activity that makes the campus hum: Classes, homework, study hours, work detail, classroom learning and break out group discussions.

But now?

No power point presentations, no lectures nor recitations, no storytelling, no professor jokes nor student laughter. No opening day devotions or communicative Greek dialogue. No break-time chatting, checkers, or chess. Student houses stand menacingly vacant. The campus church building stands eerily quiet. No one is kicking up dust on the football pitch. No one tending to the maize in the fields. No students or their families to be seen. Gone without a trace. It’s as if they all vanished. Disappeared.

Well, in a way they have. In fact, I might add, rather quickly. Due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the Lutheran Bible Institute has also been affected. Just like every other school in Malawi, and most in the world. On March 20, Malawian President Mutharika declared Malawi a State of Disaster and ordered that all schools be closed as of March 23.

That mandate turned into a mad scramble for the faculty to quickly get the students back to their home villages. It wasn’t an easy doing, especially for the Zambian students. It first meant countless hours in the immigration office to sort out remaining issues with passports, student permits, and for some, birth certificates for kids recently born in Malawi.

And to think…

This was the final year for the Lutheran Bible Institute students. The three-year program was coming to a close at June’s end. The fourteen students and their families and the Lutheran Bible Institute faculty had anticipated a joyful–and eventful–graduation service. How things can change and change quickly! There was just no time for a special “cap and gown” service; there was no class speaker, no class song, no diplomas received, no gifts given. It wasn’t that there were COVID-19 cases in Lilongwe. In fact, at that time, there were no officially confirmed cases even in all of Malawi! This comparatively tiny country stood with few others as having zero infected people. So why cancel the classes if the virus wasn’t evident?

Because the fear was.

Maybe you’re seeing–or experiencing–something similar. Panic buying. Anxious thoughts. Worrisome nights and troublesome days. Some are struggling with lost jobs and new-found questions: Do I wear a mask or not? Quarantine or not? Do I have it? Did I give it to someone else? Do I get tested? Can I get tested?

The fear and the questions spread as quickly as the virus itself. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Price hikes, long queues, and empty shelves. And it’s not just schools that have been cancelled. Flights? Cancelled. Hotel bookings? Cancelled. Long-awaited vacations? Cancelled. Cruise? Rally? Convention? Even an election? Cancelled with a CAPITAL C.

A red-letter disappointment.

But despite the cancelled classes and graduation service, this class will still proceed onto the Lutheran Seminary in Zambia in September 2020. Each of the 14 students have met the qualifications and the faculty recommends them. And so there were still hopeful smiles on the campus. Before the 14 students parted ways, with a hoe they parted the earth and made time to do one last class activity:

They planted a tree.

With a lighthearted touch they hung a sign on the tree. More than a sign, it was the name that they gave the tree; a name that you could probably guess considering these times:

Corona.

Did you know that corona means “crown”? The virus, presumably so named, because in a way it resembles one. The coronavirus has brought a lot of sickness and death to our world. But it looks like we are adjusting to the situation: masks, social distancing, hand washing, working from home, and studying at home.

What a golden opportunity we also have been given: to fix our eyes on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Stop and pause this week. What a week it is!

Whom do we see?

  • A Palm Sunday donkey-riding servant king making triumphal entries, not just into cities like Jerusalem, but into hearts like ours.
  • A Maundy Thursday Passover lamb that offers, not just bread and wine, but body and blood.
  • A Good Friday center-cross “criminal” who, even as people taunted and mocked, still was breathing out forgiveness.
  • A Devil Destroyer who went to hell to proclaim his victory.
  • An Easter morning Death Defeater who came out of the tomb fully alive and victorious, guaranteeing our own resurrection and life. And victory!
  • A Powerful Ruler sitting at the right hand of God controlling all things.

And by faith, what Paul the Apostle knows is also what we know: “in ALL those things (even in a State of Disaster) God is working for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

THAT you know. What you maybe didn’t know was where on the campus the Lutheran Bible Institute students planted the tree. They dug the hole and placed the tree right next to the campus church where they worshiped most every morning and every evening. The place where law and the gospel was preached. The house of God in which name of Jesus was held high. The location where forgiveness was proclaimed and where the sacraments were administered. Where they learned to preach devotions and lead the service with liturgy.

Perhaps what you also didn’t know was the name of the church: Crown of Life.

What a paradox! A tree of death. A Crown of Life. Or is it a Crown of Death and a Tree of Life? As you’re thinking about that, think about this: There is another tree that comes with the same paradox. The tree on Golgotha. A tree of life or a tree of death? A crown of life or a crown of death?

Actually, both. It’s the place where law and gospel meet. The epicenter of God’s full wrath and full love. A converging torrent of anger over sin and love for the sinner. So, when God gives you the opportunities this Holy Week and beyond, sing your hosannas! Feast at the Lord’s table! Answer the hymn writer’s question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” (CW #119)

Remind yourself that Satan has been defeated. Peer into the tomb and find it for what it is: empty.

And the next time your sins trouble you and you wonder if God has forgiven you, remember that the written code was nailed to the cross. (Colossians 2:14)

And the debt you owe because of your sins?

Cancelled.

Written by Rev. John Holtz, One Africa Team missionary

 

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Partnership in a new reality

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1: 3-6

How do we bring the gospel message to a billion people living in East Asia? This a question on the hearts of many in our synod as we look beyond our American borders.

God heard our prayers and for over a decade allowed WELS pastors and their families to live and serve in East Asia. This approach, however, has been adjusted as our WELS missionaries and families have been relocated out of East Asia for security reasons. But a change in a home address does not mean we change our mission.

Christian churches around the world are developing and enhancing their online approach to sharing Jesus. Our East Asia team is no different. We are revamping how we train, disciple, and mentor the national leaders who can take the gospel to places where we cannot go. By God’s grace our WELS seminary in Hong Kong has adapted to adversity and continues to serve their students and support national congregations.

The security risks that WELS missionaries faced also caused local East Asian leadership to reevaluate their approach for worship and Bible study. God has not been surprised by any of the issues facing our mission field and is blessing these new and innovative efforts. Each week our brothers and sisters in the faith are meeting in small groups or joining together online to hear the same message of God’s truth and God’s love for his beloved creation.

Baptism at Reformation in San Diego, Calif.

Our East Asia team is making every effort to build up the church leadership in East Asia. But with certain doors closed, we are exploring how God might use us to build up the church in East Asia from within our American borders. Every year a large number of students from East Asia attend our WELS high schools or are involved in our campus ministries. As God blesses their hearing and study of the Word, how might we equip them for sharing the gospel when they return to their home country?

As our WELS congregations continue being God’s salt and light in their local neighborhoods, visitors from East Asia come into our churches, admire the quality of our schools, and are looking for community and relationships. The WELS Joint Missions is very eager to offer support to any school or congregation that have these opportunities. How can we meet the spiritual needs of these visitors where they are at right now in their walk with God? And if they do call on Jesus as Lord, how can we support and equip them to reach others in East Asia?

These are not just theories and hopeful planning. God is blessing our WELS churches right now in these areas. WELS members are making contact with people from East Asia and inviting them to study God’s Word in our homes and churches. God is revealing new partnerships for us, both locally and worldwide, to carry out our gospel mission to East Asia.

Written by a missionary from East Asia

 

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When are you going to visit us?

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. – Romans 1: 8-10

How many people do you know have been born in their native country, but war forced them to escape their homeland? More than a decade ago, a member of Immanuel Hmong Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minn., reached out to a congregation in the far east of Thailand. The leader of this Hmong congregation contacted me, and we became friends. Soon after that, a couple of young men came to study at our training center in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Once I met them, a question was often raised, “When are you going to visit us?” I reassured them that when the right time comes, the Lord will lead me to visit. However, that vivid picture was long gone and a decade passed. Almost two years ago, this congregation approached us for financial support. We didn’t know what to expect because none of our Christian brothers in Thailand, whom we have fellowship with, have been into this new country. We also understood that there were security reasons and restrictions that prohibited us from visiting.

For us to have a better handle on this situation, we knew we needed to make a visit. In reality, you shouldn’t listen to stories or words without boots on the ground. Ears are for hearing, and eyes are for seeing towards better evaluations. And so we went.

My heart was always yearning to see and walk the dusty roads my parents once lived. I wondered how the fresh air of the village smelled, what the green mountains looked like, and what an organic banana tasted like. I questioned how lifestyles and living standards had changed since I left more than four decades ago.

I heard all the good and horrible stories as I grew up. I vividly remember when my family ran from jungle to jungle for survival during the Vietnam War. It grieves me to think of all the defenseless people when I think of this war-torn country. Deep inside of me, no words can describe the pain many of my people once faced. I’m disappointed that I was born during the war; this country robbed me of my childhood and education. Toys and school never once crossed my mind as a child. Only fear, hunger, and endurance provided me with experiences and stories to tell my children.

I was sitting in a plane flying from Bangkok, Thailand, crossing into my destination country, when the flight attendant announced that we would be landing soon. The plane started descending lower and lower to the ground I longed to see. I felt a chill down my spine amidst my mixed emotions. How was I going to get through this trip?

When I arrived, the congregation I was visiting still required a whole day’s journey by land. In this country, freedom of speech and the use of the Bible, or as some people called it “The New Way,” is not allowed in public. I realized how much we must treasure the gospel. When a group of people does not have the privilege to speak or share what they firmly believe, it is like having eyes but no vision. As a visiting missionary, I observed everything from start to finish without saying anything. It created a different yet pleasant experience. When I speak, I only return what I already know. When I listened, I discovered something new. I will never take the gospel for granted and the liberty of the United States, which I live.

Although the country I visited restricts Christianity, there is always hope. Some people have the opportunity to worship and conduct Bible study privately. We pray that as the country is beginning to develop along with chasing after economic prosperity, that the Lord opens doors for the gospel. One thing we can be sure this country needs most is the promise of the message of salvation through Jesus Christ.

As Isaiah said, “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40: 31

Written by a visiting missionary from St. Paul, Minn. 

 

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Mission work in Venezuela

Henry and Tony, pastors of Most Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Medellín, Colombia, made a second visit to Venezuela last month. The primary purpose for their visit was to carry out face-to-face training and encouragement with four Venezuelan Academia Cristo students working to plant churches in two Venezuelan cities.

Rafael, Luis, Egar, and Jackson are Academia Cristo students working to plant confessional Lutheran churches in Venezuela

The crisis in Venezuela has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. A Washington Post article published during Henry and Tony’s visit states that “Some five million Venezuelans have left the country. [This] has refugees in an exodus that mirrors the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.” The same article states that one-third of the remaining nine million people in Venezuela are struggling to feed themselves.

The realities in neighboring Venezuela are very real to the members a Most Holy Trinity. Venezuelan immigrants are a common sight on the streets of their Colombian city. Some come to stay. Others are just passing through as they look for work and a new life. Most Holy Trinity members gather and give away clothing to Venezuelan refugees passing through. “The Venezuelan immigrants are traveling by foot. Many times their belongings are robbed. We provide them with food and help them obtain free medical attention from a number of nurses,” explains Pastor Henry.

It is encouraging to see how WELS and the Colombian church have been able to partner in this new and growing ministry to Venezuelans. WELS offerings have enabled travel to Venezuela and provided humanitarian relief to people inside the country of Venezuela. The Colombian church sends their leaders on trips to Venezuela (a country currently closed to U.S. citizens) and also completely funds the Medellín ministry to local Venezuelan immigrants.

Pastor Tony of Colombia studying the Bible with Academia Cristo student Rafael in Venezuela

There are real needs in Venezuela and WELS World Missions is working with our Colombian brothers to show Christian love to those who need it. The biggest need we see, however, is the spiritual one. We know that God often uses earthly crisis to draw us to him. Nearly a quarter million Venezuelans follow Academia Cristo on Facebook. This is more than any other country. In the past few weeks, 500 Venezuelans have downloaded the new Academia Cristo mobile app and begun studying in Academia Cristo’s Bible institute training program. Another trip to Venezuela is planned for this summer.

Written by Rev. Mike Hartman, missionary and field coordinator for the Latin America missions team

 

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Live Web Streaming Guidance for Churches

livestream imageThe recent guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to limit public gatherings to no more than fifty people certainly has ramifications for our churches. For many it means that alternate worship strategies will need to be considered…most notably live streaming. Some churches do this already, so it is a relatively small step to make this the primary way our members can take part in worship. However, there are some considerations to keep in mind. More on that later. However, many of our churches do not currently stream their services at all. Here are some guidelines and resources for those looking at ways to get started:

  • Read through this excellent article by Phil Thompson entitled “How to Livestream Your Church Service: A Practical Guide.” There are great suggestions and links to more technical how-to articles.
  • A couple of things to keep in mind both from the article and my experiences… one includes a decision by your leadership if you want to try to livestream a typical worship service complete with a small group of people in attendance, or a shorter format worship or devotional experience provided by the pastor or worship leader in a more intimate setting? The article referenced above tends to lean more toward the latter, and I would agree with that. It is difficult to provide an engaging experience based on the traditional corporate worship experience. The viewer quickly becomes a passive spectator. Some of the suggestions in the article for “engaging” the audience are good ones including building in questions with time for reflection and responses, having a Q&A slot, or some other feedback mechanism once the stream has ended. Personally I would be more engaged by a video session streamed by my pastor from his office with chances for interaction.
  • Two suggestions for technologies to consider are Facebook Live and YouTube. While I have no preference for either technology, Facebook would require people to be on that platform, and there might be some reticent to join. I do think Facebook Live has better “personal interaction” options available however. YouTube, while a little more technically challenging to set up would not have the same issue with people needing to login or get an app to participate. Another option mentioned in the article is the use of a camera called Mevo. We’ve used this in the past and works rather well. It requires a Vimeo Livestream account, and the current camera costs about $400, but it allows multiple camera perspectives, records and streams at the same time, can be controlled via a smartphone, and can be viewed on YouTube and Facebook Live at the same time. With the rush for livestreaming solutions, I’m not sure about the availability of these cameras as of this writing.
  • Whatever platform you choose, put a premium on capturing good audio. People can live with substandard video, but if the audio isn’t clear, you will quickly lose their attention and ultimately, participation.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Take some time to both get yourself comfortable with delivery, but also use your leadership team as guinea pigs beforehand and take suggestions before you stream your first service “for real.”
  • You may also want to consider whether you want to offer a live experience or a more on-demand model. How important is it that your people “gather” at the same exact time. There are advantages to having people gather around God’s word at the same time, but there are also technical challenges that some congregations can’t quickly overcome. There is nothing wrong with posting a recorded sermon or devotion or worship experience of some kind for people to view when they can. Of course, try to make that as engaging as possible with some way to provide feedback or invite a “conversation” about the content asynchronously.
  • Once you’ve got the hang of streaming some kind of worship or devotional experience, it’s a short hop to doing the same for other things like Bible Class, which is many respects might lend itself even better to this format. You could have a small group gathered for some in-person interactivity, but then augmented with a larger online group. Be creative. Use the technology resources available to you.
  • Other considerations should be made for those who don’t have internet access or may need technical assistance to get online and gain access to your resources. It might be a nice gesture to make a staff person or tech-savvy member or two available willing to take phone calls and help people along. If people don’t have access to the internet, perhaps delivering a recorded DVD of some type might be your only option. Of course, don’t forget about your shut-ins, but keep in mind the guidance provided by health experts as well.
  • Be sure to consider copyright issues when streaming content. Many of you probably have OneLicense or CCLI licenses already but these licenses typically don’t cover livestreaming. Each also offers “podcasting” licenses that can be added that covers the streaming of any copyrighted content. Christian Copyright Solutions both offers licenses, but also excellent Fact Sheets on all things related to streaming copyrighted content over the internet. Of course remember about typical privacy concerns related to broadcasting members (adults or children). You will want to make sure they are both aware and comfortable with what you are doing. (Note: Until April 30, CCS is offering 10% off with the code STREAM10. OneLicense is offering a free license until April 15.)
  • As always, please feel free to reach out to me directly if you’d like to discuss any of the items in this post or general issues related to streaming. I can be reached at martin.spriggs@WELS.net or 414.256.3250.

May God bless our efforts to share His Gospel in all circumstances, regardless of any earthly barriers we encounter. Truly technology is a blessing God provides for our use to take His message of peace and comfort to our members and the world. The apostle Paul once shared “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Martin A. Spriggs
WELS Chief Technology Officer

Preach the Word – What’s the Point?

What’s the Point?

I have a confession to make. I once attended Joel Osteen’s church. Okay, twice. I went twice. My wife and I lived in Houston, TX for a year, and we went to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church twice. I can tell you firsthand that much of what you hear about Osteen and his messages is true. In the first sermon, Osteen didn’t mention God a single time. In the second, Osteen brazenly twisted Scripture to support his prosperity gospel. Don’t do that! Don’t preach like Joel Osteen.

But I have another confession to make. It’s been nine years since I heard them, but I can still remember each of those two sermons almost word for word. The first had the theme, “Who’s Packing Your Parachute?” Osteen told the story of a U.S. Navy pilot in Vietnam whose plane was shot out of the sky. He ejected from his plane and was saved by his parachute. Years later, he unexpectedly met the man who had packed his parachute on that fateful morning. Like him, we can be eternally grateful for all the people behind the scenes who are packing our parachutes.

The second sermon had the theme, “It’s Under Your Feet!” Osteen took the verse, “He has put everything under his feet” (1 Cor 15:27) and applied it to you and me instead of to Christ. Everything is under your feet! No matter what you face in life—from cancer to bad bosses to financial struggles—you can look that struggle in the eye and say, “It’s under my feet!” Heresy!

A central theme is vital for a memorable message.

I heard each sermon over nine years ago, but I can still precisely remember each one. Why? Each message had a carefully crafted point. There was a central theme that connected the entire message together. It stuck. No one walked away from those sermons asking, “What’s the point?” I remember thinking to myself: “What if this man with such obvious public speaking gifts were to actually preach the truth of God’s Word?” Can I admit I learned something from Joel Osteen? A central theme is vital for a memorable message. When you preach, ask, “What’s the point?”

Compare that with some feedback I received from my first article on “Simple Preaching.” I got a kind letter from a retired WELS pastor. He described his concerns about preaching in the WELS. He wrote, “I sat next to my friend at a lecture given by one of our profs a couple years ago. When he was done, I leaned over to him and said: ‘I didn’t get a thing out of that.’ He replied: ‘Neither did I.’ Well, it just so happened that this past Sunday our new pastor was installed and he had a friend of his preach the sermon. My friend was sitting next to me for this event, and I said to him: ‘I didn’t get anything out of his sermon.’ His response: ‘Neither did I.’” Ouch.

“I didn’t get it.” Aren’t those the most painful words a preacher can hear? If the retired pastor in our pews doesn’t get it when we preach, how many others are asking, “What’s the point?”

Let’s be honest. How many times have you preached a sermon, sat back down in your chair, and wondered to yourself, “What was the point?” I have! How often have you written a sermon because you had to write a sermon? God’s Word was there. True! God uses stumbling, fumbling sermons to accomplish his will. Praise be to God for that! But God’s Word is not pointless. If you and I struggle to know what our point was, our people probably don’t know it either.

That’s a problem. Perhaps there was a time when people went to church simply to hear God’s Word. They felt they needed to. That’s often not the mindset today. If people are going to come, there’s got to be a reason for them to be there. How many people sit in our pews, asking, “What’s the point?” How many people sit at home, asking, “What’s the point?” Pointless preaching makes it seem pointless to attend. Are you willing to ask with me, “What’s the point?”

God’s Word is not pointless.

Because God’s Word isn’t pointless. You know that. There is one, central theme to all of God’s Word. The Bible is one, united story of God’s grace to us in Jesus. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible doesn’t just ramble on and on. It isn’t a disconnected mishmash of stories and songs and proverbs. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Jesus is our Savior. That’s the point!

Beyond that central theme of justification, there are many other clear truths that God preaches to his people over and over again. When God speaks, he always has a point!

  • A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5; Mk 10:7-8; 1 Cor 6:16; Eph 5:31).
  • Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One” (Dt 6:4; Dt 4:35; Neh 9:6; Ps 86:10; Is 43:11; Is 44:6; Zec 14:9; Mk 12:29; 1 Cor 8:4; Eph 4:6).
  • The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex 34:6,7; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; Ps 103:8; Ps 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).

Many biblical books have clear themes that resonate throughout the book. Luke builds his beautiful narrative of lost and found until Jesus finally declares: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). What a point! No one who reads Galatians could possibly miss the central truth: “We … know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:15-16). Why is Psalm 23 so beloved? It’s so clear! “The LORD is my shepherd.” There’s no doubt about the point! God’s Word is not pointless.

It’s our joy as preachers to share that “point” with God’s people. Note how Ezra’s preaching is described: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (Neh 8:8). Here’s the result: “Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh 8:12).

Contrary to the mindless chatter we hear around us, God’s Word really matters.

There is great joy in getting the point of God’s Word! Contrary to the mindless chatter we hear around us, God’s Word really matters. It’s really written for you and me. It has a message that’s truly a matter of life and death. Like Ezra, we strive to make God’s Word clear and give the meaning so that God’s people can understand. A clear central theme in our sermons is important for that to happen. There is a very powerful, applicable point to every section of God’s Word.

Luther would agree. Here’s an example from his Table Talk:

“Only a fool thinks he should say everything that occurs to him. A preacher should see to it that he sticks to the subject and performs his task in such a way that people understand what he says. Preachers who try to say everything that occurs to them remind me of the maidservant who is on her way to market. When she meets another maid she stops to chat with her for a while. Then she meets another maid and talks with her. She does the same with a third and a fourth and so gets to market very slowly. This is what preachers do who wander too far from their subject. They try to say everything all at once, but it won’t do.”1

Luther once simply said, “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse [of the Scriptures], to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.’”2

Another author puts it like this:

“One common sermonic flaw is the preacher’s failure clearly to define the thrust of the message. Without some definition, some clarity on the issue tackled, the sermon rambles from one idea to the next like a bumper car with an eight-year-old behind the wheel.”

“Try this test: If you can’t identify what you’re saying in one, clear sentence, it means that you probably aren’t clear yourself. You may say some good things, but don’t be surprised when no one seems to grasp the thrust of your message. Think about it: When you’re uncertain as to what you’re saying, you don’t know when to stop, do you? How many times have you heard a message like a plane circling the airport, trying to find a place to land? Just when you think the plane is finally making its descent, the pilot takes it back up again for some more circling. A word to the wise: Know what you want to say and say just enough for your listeners to want more.”3

“… like a bumper car with an eight-year-old behind the wheel.”

I bet you get the point. People need to know, “What’s the point?” But here’s the challenge: How do you find the point?

Let’s remember this first: Having a strong central theme isn’t a matter of sermon style. Maybe you preach deductively. You have your theme and parts printed out in the bulletin. Good! But then you hardly mention them in the sermon. You share lots of doctrinal knowledge, but your people may still walk away saying, “What’s the point?” Maybe you preach inductively. You build suspense through the sermon. You take your hearers on a journey. Great! But then you stop before you reach a clear destination. Your people may still walk away saying, “What’s the point?

A brother pastor put it like this: “What if the listeners come away scratching their heads? I think this is rude! … If a deductive form or inductive form or if a narrative style or non-narrative style leaves listeners without a clear, ‘Ah! God has spoken to me today through his Word and his messenger and has drawn me closer to his love and empowered me on my path,’ then 1 Cor 13:1 and 14:8-9,16-17 come to mind.”4 No matter your style, you’ve got to have a point!

So how do you find the point? I know this isn’t easy. We’re sinful, flawed preachers attempting to communicate perfect truths. God help us! He does! Start with a prayer. “Dear Holy Spirit, as I study your Word, lead me to see the truth that you want me and your people to hear this week.”

Then, commit yourself to finding your central truth in the text itself. Far too often, I’ve been guilty of deciding what my theme is before actually studying the text. What audacity! I see the assigned text. Ideas flow. This… That… It’s going to be a great sermon! Then I actually study the text. I almost always realize my initial thoughts were not what the text is about. You too? What should we do? Throw away our thoughts and preach God’s central truth from the text!

But what’s that truth? On the one hand, it’s reassuring to know that each text of God’s Word contains many applications for God’s people. As I search for the main point, I sometimes put far too much pressure on myself. “I’ve got to find just the right thing to preach. I’ve got to phrase it in just the right way. I… I… I…” Relax. Finding a main point in a text from the Bible is not like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding a Super Bowl trophy at Lambeau Field. They are all over the place! In a mine full of jewels, you get to ask, “Which gem is best for my people?”

On the other hand, we guard against making a text say what we want it to say. As you study, ask what question the text is addressing and what answer God is giving. Often, Jesus’ teachings—like the writings of the prophets and apostles—were in response to very specific situations. There was a very specific point. Sometimes that main point is salvation by faith in Jesus. Sometimes it’s God’s truth about marriage, money, or Christian living. While every sermon will contain law and gospel, justification won’t be the main point of every sermon, because not every text focuses on justification. As you constantly point people to the big picture truth of salvation in Jesus, let the main point of the sermon be the main point of the text.

Do you still do text studies in the original languages? Use your Greek and Hebrew skills. Distinguish between main clauses and subordinate clauses, indicative verbs and supporting participles. Greek and Hebrew grammar often highlights the main point in ways that aren’t reflected in English translations. Let the Spirit-given languages guide you to the central truth.

This is why sermon prep is so important. When I feel rushed in my sermon preparation, it’s tempting to begin writing before I know where I’m going. That leads to a stressful writing process and a meandering sermon that loses my hearers along the way. God’s truths don’t come intuitively to us. They are gifts of God’s Spirit through the Word. We often miss a lot on our first glance at a text. It takes time to understand God’s truth and what it means for us.

Once you decide on the point of your text, express it in two different ways. First, write a one-sentence proposition statement that captures your central truth. Then think of a short, memorable theme that can help your hearers remember God’s message. Here’s a simple example:

Luke 1:46-55
Proposition Statement: While I foolishly magnify myself and other people, Mary found joy in magnifying the great things her God had done for her.
Theme: “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”

I know this all takes time, but it’s worth it! Haddon Robinson remarked, “Someone suffers every time you preach. Either you suffer in preparing it or the listener suffers in hearing it.”5

This is something I appreciated about the chance to do children’s devotions in my previous congregation. You talk about honing in on the point! There were Sundays when I lamented, “It’s too hard to condense my sermon into something kids can understand.” Huh. That’s a problem, isn’t it? It was good to learn to share my sermon in a concise way with little kids.

When you’ve arrived at your central truth from God’s Word, here’s my last bit of advice: Use it! I’ve seen sermon themes listed in the bulletin but never actually mentioned in the sermon itself. If the Spirit has convinced you of the central truth of your text, say it. Repeat it. Preach that truth into your people’s hearts. A member recently had an interesting request. He said, “When you have a sermon theme, could you repeat it more than once during the sermon? Sometimes I miss it.” This is what John does over and over again, isn’t it? He comes back to the same themes. In easy Greek. So we can remember them. The Word. I am…. I guess Jesus preached like that!

I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful for every preacher who has pointedly preached God’s Word into my heart. One spring at the Seminary, Professor Brug preached a sermon on Annunciation Day. I could still tell it all back to you, after just hearing it one time. The theme was, “When did the devil know it was over?” The devil knew it was over when the Son of God became the Son of Man inside Mary’s womb. That was the dagger for the devil! That’s when he knew it was over. I walked into chapel that day wondering why we were having a special service for Annunciation Day. What’s the point? I walked out rejoicing in our victory through our God made flesh.

One Ash Wednesday at the Seminary, Professor Cherney preached about David’s sin with Bathsheba. He looked us in the eye and said, “You are the man! Let’s be honest, the reason you and I haven’t committed adultery like David did was because nobody’s wanted to commit adultery with us.” That cut. Then he healed us with God’s grace. Nobody walked out saying, “What’s the point?” I walked into that service focused on classes and deadlines. I walked out convicted and restored by God’s grace. I was blessed. Because God’s Word has a point.

Written by Nathan Nass

Nathan Nass serves as pastor at St. Paul / San Pablo Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.


1 LW 54:428.
2 LW 54:160.
3 Johnston, Graham. Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to Reaching Twenty-first-Century Listeners. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001, p. 172.
4 Pastor James Huebner posted this comment in an online class, “Preaching in a Postmodern World.”
5 Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World, 172.

 

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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 4

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 4: Hearing Assistance

Welcome back once again! Let’s review where we have been thus far:

  • Room acoustics and the sound system are forever intertwined in what we call the electro-acoustic system.
  • The room’s acoustics must be held in check—no excessive reverberation, no slap or flutter echo—in order for the room to sound right for speech or for acoustic music.
  • The sound system must be designed and implemented properly in order to have a chance at working well to communicate speech and, when needed, to properly support music.
  • Microphones and loudspeakers must be carefully selected and applied properly in order to pick up the voice properly and to “spread the word” so to speak, evenly, clearly, and naturally to every worshiper.

Okay. Let’s assume that we have done all of the above. Most people report that they can hear very clearly at worship. However, there are a few people who report that although the sound is much better now than in the past, they still have trouble hearing. For them, both volume and clarity are lacking.

Uh-oh! What did we miss? We have gotten everything right up to this point, but one important system design element needs to be accounted for. You see, Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie can hear just fine now. They are very happy. The friends they sit next to at worship, on the other hand, are not so happy … yet.

Rose and Harry are getting up in years, and for both of them hearing is more difficult than it used to be. Rose has hearing aids. Harry will be getting them soon. They have also heard that some folks younger than they need help as well. They are not complaining about the new sound system; they just realize that they need some more help than others to hear well. For them, the ambient noise in the reverberant space is too much. The sound from the loudspeakers seems distant. Again, not the fault of the speaker system. These folks just need some more help bringing the sound directly into their ears.

How do we provide assistance for these people—young and not so young—so that they, too, can hear clearly at worship? The answer is to provide a hearing assistance system for them.

There are two prominent methods of delivering the needed assistance: the FM-based system and the inductive loop system. Many pastors and others already know the FM-based method well and have it in their churches. The loop system is becoming well-known and popular. Let’s take a look at both and see how they fit into sound system designs.

But first, a hearing assistance “gotcha.” Folks complain that they cannot hear well at worship. The pastor and church leadership approve the purchase of an FM-based hearing assistance system. It works well. A number of folks who use the system are quite satisfied with the improvement. But other people still complain that they cannot hear well. Turns out, the problem is with the sound system itself. The church leadership fell into the trap of buying the hearing assistance system as a cheap “band-aid” which in reality did not solve the root problem: a bad overall sound system.

Implementation of a good sound system meant that some with mild hearing loss no longer needed special assistance.

I have been in several situations where implementation of a good sound system meant that some with mild hearing loss no longer needed special assistance. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate the point.

The first installation that I was involved with was 35 years ago: St. Paul’s in New Ulm, MN. Our company was under contract to install a new sound system at the church. It was for its day (1986) a very good system (though admittedly not visually attractive by today’s standards)—a central horn cluster designed to cover the space evenly, which it did well. An elderly gentleman in the congregation donated the funds for the addition of an FM-based hearing assistance system. He said that he and others needed the help.

We completed the installation enough to where we could debut it—including the hearing assistance—for Thursday evening worship. The donor gentleman came to worship and was met at the door with a hearing assistance receiver. After worship, he returned the receiver and said, “I don’t need the help. This is the first time in 30 years I’ve been able to hear the sermon.”

The moral of the story: Make sure that your sound system is up to par first, and then implement the hearing assistance system for those that really need it!

Who really needs the help? As stated above, Harry, Rose, and some younger folks are experiencing hearing issues at worship. Younger folks? Really? Are they just not paying attention?

I’ve attended a number of seminars dealing with hearing loss, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and sound system design. Presenters throw around statistics without referencing anything. But a quick Google search leads to the World Health Organization Web site with a wealth of up-to-date information. A few highlights and another anecdote:

  • Specific to the United States, over 36 million people (more than 17% of the population) experience measurable hearing loss, or the inability to hear sounds of 25 dB or less in the speech range (referenced to 0 dB as the threshold of human hearing and 70 dB as normal speech from about two feet from the talker). The numbers balloon when expanding to a worldwide view. This compares to about 1.4% of the U.S. population with physical disabilities and 0.14% with visual disabilities.
  • Hearing loss results from a number of causes: genetics, infectious disease, use of drugs, chronic ear infections, exposure to excessive noise, and aging.
  • Hearing loss affects not just older people. Worldwide, 1.1 billion young people age 12-35 either suffer from or are at risk of measurable to debilitating hearing loss due to noise exposure in recreational settings (concerts and listening devices with earphones top the list of causes).
  • It is reported that 60% of hearing loss in children is preventable.
  • Over the past 30 years I have had to bring bad news to more than a few teenagers who were willing to help run sound at church or at the high school. I could not allow them to operate the mixing console. The simple reason: those kids could not hear feedback above 2000 Hz. The admitted cause: hours of listening to their devices with earphones. 30 years ago it was the Walkman cassette player; today it’s the smartphone or iPod). The constant pressure on the ear’s mechanics had severely impacted their ability to hear high sounds such as consonants, ‘s’ sounds, and even feedback in a sound system.

Hearing loss issues are real, and they are not exclusive to older people.

So yes, hearing loss issues are real, and they are not exclusive to older people. It is critical that we a) get the sound system right, and b) add hearing assistance for those who need it, because they do need it. And the number who need it grows by the day.

How does the hearing assistance system work? In simple schematic form, we route a feed directly from the mixer or signal processor to the “driver” of the assistance system (see below).

Diagram of a hearing assistance system

That direct connection is critical to the success of any hearing assistance system. Let’s now get into the FM-based and the loop type systems. How do they work? Is one “better” than the other?

First, the FM-based system. “FM-based” means exactly what it says. The system “driver” is a transmitter that operates on a single FM radio frequency. It’s a single-channel radio station. The sound signal is transmitted through the air to a pocket-sized receiver used by the worshiper. There are several types of antennas to attach to the transmitter based on the size of the space to be transmitted into. On the receiver end, the user can choose from several types of earphones based on preference and health concerns—ear buds, headphones, etc.

The advantages with the FM system are ease of setup, potential broadcast range, relative convenience, and cost-effectiveness. In terms of setup, the FM system is basically plug-and-play. You turn up volume and position the antenna properly. Depending on the physical structure of the building and the presence of interference-causing electrical devices, the FM system may not be limited to just the church proper. Going back to the church in New Ulm, the pastor’s mother was in town for Christmas but was limited in terms of mobility. The FM system “reached” across the street to the parsonage so she could hear the Christmas service. That scenario is not typical, but radio is radio. The FM system is generally very cost-effective, ranging from $1,800-$2,500, including professional installation.

The downsides to the FM system are interference and inherent misuse by the user. First, the FM system is a very small, limited-range radio station and radio receiver system. As such it is subject to all of the things that annoy us when listening to the car radio. If the “air” is not “clean,” interference may be problematic. Reflections of radio waves off metal support structure can cause distortion and dropouts. And since this is simple radio, the FM system at your church may at inconvenient times receive from a similar FM system at the church down the street, and vice versa.

Second, many FM assistance users with hearing aids actually misuse the system. The proper use is to remove the hearing aid and “plug” the ear bud or earphone into the bad ear. Many folks, however, plug the earphone into the good ear and then turn it up. Since the hearing aid has a microphone built into it, the sound from the earphone creates a feedback loop with the hearing aid which is often audible throughout the church nave. There are “loop” type necklace accessories that will plug into an FM receiver, effectively turning the FM system into a loop system for that user. However, keep in mind that the interference and other issues that arise with FM are transmitted through that necklace device.

A third downside to FM is that it transmits sound that is not colored or tonally equalized. The user has hearing aid(s) that have been tuned for that person’s ear(s) to compensate for hearing loss at specific frequencies. Without the hearing aid to “tune” the sound, the sound quality may not be adequate to significantly improve clarity for the user.

Lastly, people have become very conscious of how the earbud looks. The fear with many users is that they will stick out in the crowd because they have this earphone or earbud with its cord hanging out for all to see. That aesthetic stigma prevents many from using the FM system.

There are variations on the FM theme today in which wi-fi adjuncts to the system are utilized. Using wi-fi and Bluetooth with a smartphone, the user can receive very good sound quality without the wires. For older users who have difficulty with smartphones and wi-fi technology, this may be cumbersome. For younger users who embrace technology, this may be a cost-effective option.

Let’s move to the inductive loop system. While still fairly simple in concept, there is a bit more going on here than with the FM system. We still directly connect a sound system mixer output to a “driver.” But in this case it is not a transmitter. We are actually using wire to create an electro-magnetic field to transmit the sound signal. The photos to the right show a church re-carpeting project of which a hearing loop is system is a part. The white strips on the floor are tape covering the loop wire.

The wire is routed in either one or multiple loop circuits around the seating area. The electro-magnetic field is picked up by the telecoil in one’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. The signal is then converted back into acoustic energy by the telecoil, tuned by the micro-electronics in the hearing aid, and transmitted into the user’s ear. Hence, one advantage with the loop system: the user wears nothing extra. He or she simply switches on the telecoil in the hearing aid, making use extremely convenient and inconspicuous, while delivering sound to the ear that is “tuned” for that ear.

But…the loop system is not plug-and-play like the FM system. Because we are dealing with electro-magnetics, we must study the space. What is in the floor structure: concrete, rebar, metal ducts, electrical wire and conduit, large water or gas pipes? These metal objects in the floor will actually “compete” with the loop wire by generating their own current fields. The “competition” manifests itself in buzz and hum that is audible to someone using a hearing aid. We can measure and hear that using an app with a telecoil adapter, which enables us to see and hear any noise before laying out a loop system. The photo below shows the app screen. If the needle goes into the green range, we are good—very little or no noise/hum. When we get into the yellow and then red, then the hum would be significant and render a loop system unusable. That’s the benefit of testing before installing the loop.

A reading of background noise heard as a buzz on a hearing aid

The loop may be a simple single-loop system or it may be a figure-eight loop, or many smaller loops overlapping in what is called a “phased array” to create one field. The complexity of the loop is dictated by noise/hum in the floor, and by the presence of electronic instruments such as guitars and keyboards that might be used within close proximity of the loop. These instruments will generate significant amounts of noise/hum, which only a more complex loop will overcome.

Measuring the hearing assistance system after installation

If I or another loop designer has done the job properly, then the result will be an “invisible” system that allows the user to walk in, flip a switch on the hearing aid, and hear the service clearly with sound tuned for the user’s own ears. The “after” measurement of a completed system is shown in the photo to the right. Green on the meter is always very good!

The advantages are as stated above: invisible equipment, no wires or extra “stuff” that could create an aesthetic stigma for the user, and the ability to pick up sound tuned for their ears. By the way, pocket-sized telecoil receivers are available for those who need assistance but do not have hearing aids. Additionally, the range of the loop system is limited to the area within the loop. We will not be able to transmit to the parsonage across the street. But on the other hand, we will not be susceptible to interference from the church down the block.

The downsides to the loop system are cost and labor. The best time to lay a loop system is during a construction or a renovation project. Otherwise, cutting of existing floor tile or carpet is necessary. (Some loop installers have installed systems to floors with tape, but this is unsightly to say the least.) Necessary testing and the loop layout/design must be carried out by a professional. The installation requires trained technicians. In some areas, certified audiologists may wish to certify the installation. This all comes at a cost. A well-designed and installed loop system will cost $7,000-$20,000, depending on room size and the required loop complexity.

My job here is not to pick a best option for you. I am simply laying out the two most prominent options for your consideration. For performance and aesthetic reasons, I believe that the loop system holds the advantage over the FM system. But the loop may not work in some churches. (We just completed a major sound renovation at the Basilica at the University of Notre Dame; the loop system was not an option due to the floor structure.) The congregation must ultimately decide which is best for its purposes.

For performance and aesthetic reasons, the loop system holds the advantage over the FM system.

My strong opinion, however, is that to not provide hearing assistance is not an option for churches. While technically the ADA does not apply to churches for this purpose as they are still considered private spaces, the real issue of hearing impairment is here to stay. And it is growing. It is our duty to enable Harry, Rose, and all those who need help to hear the Word clearly, just as we provide good sound systems with good loudspeakers for Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie.

I have seen “happy tears” in the eyes of people who finally can again hear the liturgies and sermons that were becoming more and more unintelligible. I look forward to seeing many more of those kinds of tears!

 

 

WORSHIP

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

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Kingdom work

Saying goodbye is a part of our ministry. Our congregation ministers to members of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and saying goodbye is a part of military life. I’ve had to do it 59 times over the past six years. 59 individuals have come to Redemption and have departed. Families come, stay for two to four years, and then they go to their next duty station. They come to be fed with the Word, and in the process I learn to love them, to rejoice with them, and to carry hardships along side them. Though saying goodbye is a part of this ministry, it hasn’t become any easier in the past six years. It still hurts every time.

As much as it hurts to say goodbye, I have to also remember that the transient nature of military life has also granted me some of the sweetest moments in my ministry. It was a military family who came to us while we were still worshiping in a conference center. They had been looking for a church online and came across our website and watched two separate videos on David and Ruth. They liked what they heard, so they came.

In spite of the fluorescent lighting inside and in spite of the portable worship space, in spite of the odd location of the conference center and in spite of the family passing multiple churches on their way, the gospel did its work on them and they kept coming. One Sunday I baptized four of their children. Another Sunday we celebrated two adult confirmations.

These are the moments when I have to remember that ministry is not about me. It is not about what I feel, rather it is about the work of the kingdom. Our congregation has to keep the work of the greater kingdom in view. While families are here we work to equip them for service as best as we can with the gospel of salvation. We strive to make our congregation a nexus for equipping individuals for wherever military life may take them.

The military family who came when we were worshiping in the conference center doesn’t live here anymore. They are over 1,500 miles away doing the work of the kingdom. In their new congregation, the husband stepped into the position of church president. He gave me a call a while back, “We want to run some outreach events,” he said, “I just wanted to pick your brain.” That’s the work of the kingdom.

When they lived here I confirmed two of their children that I had baptized. One of those young men would faithfully usher while he was here. He even spent one of his school breaks to build some book shelves for our church. This coming fall that young man will attend Martin Luther College to begin his studies for the pastoral ministry. That’s the work of the kingdom.

The work in Watertown is not about me, and it’s not even really about Redemption Lutheran Church. It’s about the kingdom of God. It’s about equipping the Saints for works of service wherever the Lord may take them. It’s about preaching the Word and planting it in the home so that families can be assured of God’s love for them wherever they find themselves. It’s about raising a new generation of missionaries who take on the work of the kingdom.

In a sense, saying goodbye is a good thing. Families come, but they leave equipped with the Word. That means that our work here is being multiplied across the country as families take the Word planted in them wherever they go.

Written by Pastor Aaron Goetzinger, Redemption Lutheran Church in Watertown, N.Y.

 

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Another church in Milwaukee

Another church in Milwaukee?!

“Really?”

That’s often the initial response that I get when I tell a WELS member that I lead a new second-site ministry in Milwaukee, Wis. Right in the middle of the “WELS bubble.” One mile away from a well-established, large, thriving congregation that has been around for 170-plus years. The site of the initial conversations to start the Wisconsin Synod and home of the first WELS president, Pastor Johannes Muehlhauser. This is where we started a new home mission church. I get it. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?!

It does sound crazy until you realize that there is a mission field right in our own backyard and the harvest is ripe!

Grace Downtown has prided itself on striving for excellence in worship and preaching. Worshipers gather in a beautiful neo-gothic style church with stunning stain-glassed windows and intricately carved wood furnishings full of Christian symbolism. There is history and tradition but also an eye on keeping worship fresh and moving the gospel forward. Many people love and appreciate this, and it is one of the reasons Grace continues to thrive. But not everyone gets it. Not everyone comes to it.

Grace leaders determined that the time was right to expand the reach of the gospel in downtown Milwaukee and try to connect with the unchurched in a new way. Let’s go to an area whose population is growing and there aren’t any churches serving them. That led us to the Historic Third Ward on the south end of downtown Milwaukee. It’s an area that has changed dramatically over the last decade, going from empty warehouses to high-end boutiques and housing. Young professionals and empty-nesters flock to this neighborhood where they can live, work, and play while walking between everything. Now they can walk to church too!

Renting a room right in the middle of the neighborhood at the Broadway Theatre Center, Grace in the Ward meets on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m. for a service that looks more like a mix of worship and Bible study than the traditional liturgical service. There are definitely preaching moments, but they are mixed in with opportunities to reflect upon and discuss Bible truths with neighbors. Throw in a couple of hymns led by a small ensemble and some time in prayer and you have our service. While it looks different than what you might be familiar with, there is one thing that is strikingly the same–the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in all of its beauty.

Through these gospel efforts at Grace in the Ward, the Lord has led new people to come into contact with his grace and promises for the first time. Members of Grace are bringing their friends to come and see Jesus in a more relaxed and intimate setting. Some who got lost in the big church have found a home in a smaller gathering. Others who have wandered from church have found the new church within blocks of their homes to be a blessing to their lives. Forty-two percent of the Third Ward neighborhood isn’t involved with their faith. Through God’s blessings, that percentage will shrink as life-saving and life-changing relationships are made!

Another church in Milwaukee? That’s exactly the thing that a lost and hurting soul needs to hear. A church that gathers around the means of grace is right in their neighborhood to show them Jesus, their Savior, and his tremendous grace. That’s not crazy at all!

Written by Pastor Aaron Strong, Grace in the Ward in Milwaukee, Wis. 

 

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A flight with Jesus

A few weeks ago during family worship we read and discussed Matthew 2 and the flight to Egypt. As we began, one of the kids remembered that Annibale Carracci had painted The Flight to Egypt in 1604. She ran and located a print among our piles of books which were being sorted and packed for our imminent relocation to Thailand. Like a lot of art from this period, it looks very European (that’s all the artists knew), but still evokes so much thought and emotion by pulling you into the scene.

As we looked at the painting and read the account from Matthew, our children pointed out the range of feelings at having to leave so suddenly. Joseph looks grumpy in the picture. Maybe he’s thinking, “I can’t believe we have to move. . . again!” Mary looks sad, but she also seems concerned for her husband as she looks back at him. And Jesus, he just looks like a content baby as he clings to mom—but maybe there is a hint of distress as well. Our 8-year-old wondered if the expression on Mary’s face in the painting was disappointment at all the things they had to leave behind. After all, they left in such a hurry. Our youngest pointed out, “Babies are too little to be sad about moving.” But then he added that Jesus could be sad if he had to leave his Transformers behind. The older kids were more aware of the reason they had to leave. . . a bad leader didn’t like Jesus, and he didn’t want anyone to take away his power.

But the Lord provided a way to keep the holy family (and the Magi) safe. All the kids pointed out that even though there were a lot of difficult, surprising, and stressful things happening, everything was okay because God was with them. No one missed the divine irony that God was literally with them as Mary carried him in her arms (or in an ancient baby stroller as one child imagined). God was literally and physically with them, but at the same time watching over them from on high.

No one missed the similarities between the flight to Egypt and our flight out of one Asian country to Thailand (even if one flight was much more intense than the other). One big difference, however, is that although God is still with us, this time Jesus is the one carrying us in his arms. Of course, we still hold Christ in our own way—in worship, adoration, thanks, and praise. But how much greater is the peace in our journey knowing who holds who with an everlasting love.

Even though we don’t always know the way in which our Shepherd leads us, what a comfort it is to know that our guide and protector is Christ Jesus. And while we groan with the burdens of major transition, what a comfort too that when we pour out our feelings and concerns to Jesus, he can look back at us with understanding eyes and say, “I know what you mean. I’ve been there too. My Father got me through it though. And he and I will get you through this.”

As missionaries take flights (literally) to new countries, or perhaps wait a little longer in some in-between-land, or stay put in Herod’s land for a while longer—the Prince of Peace will be with us. Whatever transition, trial, or trauma you face, Jesus will still be Immanuel, God with us, no matter what.

Amen.

Written by a missionary in East Asia

 

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Davante’s favorite place

For the sake of this blog, his name is Davante. He started attending Wisconsin Lutheran School last year, when he was in first grade. It was a challenge for him to be in a structured setting that has boundaries. When something wouldn’t go his way, he’d start throwing and kicking things in the classroom and cry. When Davante’s mom was told of his behavior issues, she would often explain how chaotic things were at home, and that it was difficult to control because she often worked late and left her teenage children in charge. One time when Davante and several of his siblings were having behavior issues, she explained that she was not surprised because her new boyfriend had just moved in with his three children, resulting in ten children from an assortment of parents living under one roof. Another time when Davante was acting up in class, his mother explained that his father had recently been released from jail, showed up at the house intoxicated, caused a scene, and was dragged out by the police. Davante, after seeing the entire situation unfold, cried the whole night.

Although Davante struggles through a rough environment at home and continues to have behavioral issues, he has come to know Jesus as his Savior and wants to be baptized. He is assured on a daily basis of the love Jesus in his classes, in chapel, and when working with him on his behavior, as I remind him we love him and Jesus loves him most of all.

One day his class was asked, “If you could go to one place, where would you like to go?” Davante responded by asking, “What is that place that has all of the song books and Bibles?”

“You mean church?” his teacher replied.

“Yeah. I want to go there.”

I have a lot of pictures that he has drawn and given to me. I’m not sure if he gives them to me because he feels bad after his behavioral episodes, because he sees me as a positive male role model in his life, or simply out of his love for Jesus.

Ernest with his daughters Arianna and Mariyah at their baptism

Although Davante has come to know Jesus and grow in his faith in his brief time in our school, his mom has been resistant to invitations to church and opportunities for discussions about Jesus. As I talk to her, it is very obvious that she knows that she needs Jesus. She is very frustrated with how things are going with her life. Yet she resists the call to the hope we have in Jesus. She knows she’s made poor choices in her life and is burdened by the consequences that have resulted from past decisions. Yet she continues to resist the invitations to forgiveness and the peace we have in Jesus and to walk in the light of Christ. We continue to press on, looking for opportunities to share the love of our Savior and pray that the Holy Spirit breaks through her hard heart and bring her into his family. This past week she gave birth to another child. This is her eighth that I know of, from at least five different fathers. She is overwhelmed, needs help, and is very prideful. We will continue to share God’s Word with patient persistence.

While there are many stories in our school of parents who are resisting the work of the Holy Spirit, there are also success stories. A great example is Ernest. Two weeks ago, he was baptized along with his daughters Arianna and Mariyah. Not only was it really cool to see a grown man become born again along with his two little girls, but to see that they really understood what it meant as they purposely came to church dressed completely in white, just like being robed in the righteousness of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Please continue to pray for our outreach efforts here at Wisconsin Lutheran School!

Written by Mark Blauert, school chaplain at Wisconsin Lutheran School in Racine, Wis. 

 

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The Confessional Lutheran Institute

We rightly expect that our pastors are well-prepared servants of God, because we are entrusting our eternal souls to their care. Accordingly, we have the highest expectations for our worker training programs and seminaries, that graduates may present themselves for service in God’s kingdom as “workmen approved” (2 Timothy 2:15). We do not cut corners or take shortcuts or make exceptions. This is as true in Asia and Africa as it is in North America.

In 1964, the WELS mission in Lusaka founded the Lutheran Bible Institute, the first formal worker training program in Central Africa. One American missionary began training half a dozen Zambian students to serve as Evangelists. Since then, 119 men have graduated from the worker training program held jointly in Malawi and Zambia–a blessing from God!

In addition to the six African national professors and four American missionaries who teach in Central Africa, our partner synods in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Kenya are all actively involved in training pastors for service in their respective church bodies. Some of the programs are still being fine-tuned, others are operating in spite of local political conflicts. Professors from the United States make periodic short-term visits to teach in some of the programs.

WELS has also worked hard to serve our sister church bodies in Africa by helping active pastors retain vital skills and motivation for ministry. 112 national pastors are actively serving our partner church bodies in Africa. Over the years national pastors have benefited greatly from continuing education programs offered by WELS missionaries and visiting professors from the United States. The Greater Africa Theological Studies Institute has been offering pastors advanced graduate studies since 2010.

Recently, One Africa Team has brought all of these various aspects of worker training and enrichment together under one umbrella, in order to better coordinate our efforts across the continent of Africa. The Confessional Lutheran Institute (CLI) consists of three main branches: formal continuing education, professional development, and seminary consultation.

We remain committed to offering quality theological education to and with our gospel partners in Africa. We recognize that one size does not fit all, and what works in one country may not work elsewhere. We are not unaware of the devil’s schemes to turn the blessings of advanced education into a source of sinful pride. We seek to equip local African leaders and teachers as they prepare pastors. In all of this, we are committed to a lasting partnership.

CLI has partnered with the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, in partnership with WELS Joint Missions, to provide three levels of for-credit certification and degree programs: Pre-Bachelor of Divinity Certification, Bachelor of Divinity Program, and Master of Theology Program for qualified pastors throughout Africa.

CLI will coordinate the work of One Africa Team missionaries to offer informal professional development courses to groups of local pastors throughout the continent at various times throughout the year, depending on the needs and requests of pastors and church bodies. So far such courses have been offered to pastors in Malawi, but in the future we hope to bring these workshops to other countries.

The third branch of CLI will be seminary consultation. Since the Lord has blessed our sister church bodies with national instructors and boards of control, in many cases the CLI can best serve our partners by offering consultation services in the running, development, and enhancement of their programs. In Kenya, the CLI will assist our partners design a program to train eight Evangelists who will serve the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ – Kenya, as well as further training for South Sudanese refugees who currently serve congregations in refugee camps. In Ethiopia, the CLI will continue to support the worker training efforts of the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia, which runs Maor Theological College through visiting instructors. Although the current political situation in West Africa does not allow WELS missionaries to make personal visits, CLI will continue to consult on curriculum, provide training for instructors, and offer materials for courses. In central Africa, CLI will periodically evaluate the need for resident American professors in local worker training programs and also offer ongoing training for local faculty members.

WELS’ role in Africa has changed significantly over the last 65 years, as God has raised up local leaders who are capable of and excited about training future workers in their church bodies. Nevertheless, our commitment to prepare men who are “approved workmen” for service in the church remains firm. It is our prayer that the CLI will serve this role for many years to come.

Written by Missionary John Roebke, Communications Director for the One Africa Team

 

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Open your eyes

In John 4:35, Jesus tells his disciples, “Open your eyes and look at the fields, they are ripe for harvest!” With these words, Jesus was rebuking his disciples for looking past an evangelism opportunity that was right in front of their eyes. They had dismissed a Samaritan woman with whom Jesus was speaking at a well in Samaria, and now, after doing some evangelism of her own, that woman was returning with a whole crowd of Samaritans eager to see Jesus. “Open your eyes and look at the fields, they are ripe for harvest!”

In October 2019 we hosted a booth at a local family bike ride event. We asked people to fill out a survey, which included picking their favorite church name out of our top 5 finalists. In exchange we handed out drinks, gift cards, and candy.

When I arrived in Houston in July, I had a lot of questions. Probably the biggest question was how I would meet people in a neighborhood four miles from downtown, where people are always busy and often skeptical and slow to open up. I pondered all kinds of evangelism strategies, evaluating different methods to see what would fit our context best. I read books on evangelism and asked for advice from other home missionaries. And over the last six months, we’ve tried a little bit of everything. We hosted a booth at a local festival. We canvassed people on the streets asking them for their input on our logo options. We handed out more than 400 cups of free hot chocolate at a Christmas lights viewing event in our neighborhood. But if you asked me what our best outreach strategy has been, I would probably say that our best outreach hasn’t come from any of those strategies.

While we have made plenty of good connections at our outreach events, the strongest connections have come at times and in places we weren’t necessarily trying to meet people. My wife and I have met people while grocery shopping, going out to dinner, and working out at our gym. Members of our core group have had opportunities to share the gospel at playdates, neighborhood gatherings, and pick-up basketball games. I think it goes to show that evangelism can’t just be limited to a few hours on a Saturday during a church outreach event. It has to be a way of life. Too often we go through life worried about all the things we have to get done, and we miss the people who are right in front of us. But when we open our eyes, we realize that there are opportunities all around us.

In a city of 2.3 million people, those opportunities are endless. In our densely populated neighborhood, almost two thirds of the population is unchurched or de-churched. That is an extremely ripe harvest field! I am thankful that God has blessed me with an incredibly talented and dedicated core group, and that he continues to bless our outreach efforts. After all, whether it’s a planned outreach strategy or a spontaneous conversation at the grocery store, he’s the one who’s really doing the work.

Written by Rev. Andrew Nemmers, home missionary at Hope Lutheran Church in Houston, Tex.

 

 

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Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting – Part 3

Audio, Acoustics, and Video in the Worship Setting

Part 3: Sound System Layout and Setup

Welcome back! We have talked about acoustic principles that directly impact how successful a sound system will be in the worship space. We have also talked about sound itself and how best to project it for clear hearing within the worship setting.

In this article we go one step further and explore system setup in two ways. First, initial setup: how we lay out the sound system from input (microphone, electronic instrument, or playback device) to output (loudspeaker, recording device, or video feed). Second, we look at what a good sound system designer and tuner strives for when setting up the system after the physical installation is complete.

I will include several “gotcha’s” along the way. And, Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie are still with us. You see, they try to hear the message when they go to worship. But they haven’t been able to hear it clearly. They’ve been following our discussion. They want to know more so that they can talk to their pastor and congregation leaders about improving the situation. Let’s get to it!

Sound System Layout

In its simplest form, the sound system consists of several basic components: the input device, the mixer, the signal processor, the power amplifier, and the loudspeaker. The signal follows a path as shown in the figure to the below.

Diagram of a basic sound system.

How do we “make” sound through the sound system? Think of baking a loaf of bread. The “bread” is our sound. The “ingredients” are the signals we put into the system via the input devices, from microphones to playback devices to electronic instruments. The mixer is just that. This device, which comes in various forms and sizes, takes those sound ingredients and allows us to mix them together in the needed proportion—more vocal than drum in the modern liturgical ensemble, for instance—and produces the signal or “dough” that will eventually be finished.

However, we must do something more with that dough. We must prepare it, or “process” it, so that it comes out right when projected from the loudspeaker. Does the sound need more or less bass or treble? Do some frequencies produce feedback due to reflection off walls, microphone choices, loudspeaker positioning, etc.? The signal processor provides us with all the tools we need to prepare that sound properly so Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie will be pleased. The processor, back in the 1950s, was as simple as a tone control on a car radio. It then became an equalizer in the 1960s and 1970s as engineers such as Charles Boner and Bob Coffeen (a mentor of mine) and companies such as Altec Lansing developed the tools that allow us to break the “dough” or raw sound into many pieces and have finer adjustment control over the signal.

Aunt Tilly and Uncle Charlie will be pleased.

In the late 1990’s we witnessed the advent of digital tools that now allow for precision far beyond what early pioneers ever thought possible. A digital signal processor is not just a fancy tone control but a virtual toolbox that allows remarkable control over a number of factors:

  • Adjust frequency response (tone).
  • Synchronize multiple speakers in time using time delay.
  • Set limits on the strength of the sound coming out of the device in order to protect the loudspeakers.
  • Internally mix and route the signal to device outputs of choice such as the main loudspeaker, the cry room speaker, the recording device, the audio-for-video feed.
  • Setting memory presets to recall things like system configurations for varying worship settings, differing attendance levels, and speaker zone on/off.
  • Automatic mixing for voice mics to keep levels consistent and to minimize the potential for feedback from excessive volume.
  • Wireless remote control that allows for simple control without the need for a mixing console where one is not required.

Digital tools allow for precision far beyond what early pioneers ever thought possible.

Once we have prepared that sound “dough,” it is sent to the power amplifier. This is the oven that makes the sound level rise like yeast in the bread to the level (volume) we need to deliver a pleasing “loaf of bread” which we call “sound” for Aunt Tilly and her fellow worshipers to hear from the loudspeakers.

The rudimentary schematic diagram above can be simple or complex depending on a number of variables. A good system designer will use information regarding the size of the worship space, the number of loudspeakers required to provide good coverage and clarity, the number of inputs required from microphones and such, and the number of output devices required—such as feeds to video recording, live streaming, audio recording, subsystems such as musicians’ monitor speakers, feeds to fellowship/social halls, etc.

In a simpler system design where there is no modern instrumental ensemble (or only a very small one), with a limited number of microphones, the mixer and signal processor may well be one unit. Coupled with a wireless remote device (some are simply wi-fi based as opposed to a specific Apple or Android app), all the mixing, signal processing, and signal routing can be handled from that one device, saving cost and operational complexity.

On the other hand, a mixing console may be required for a larger liturgical ensemble. In that case you need the ability to mix sound from a much more hands-on perspective. But be prepared! With that console comes the need to have a trained operator who is willing to learn its features and make adjustments on the fly. And that console will need to be located in a place where the operator can hear as the congregation hears. If you stick the operator in the corner of a balcony, then you have placed your control in another room where levels and tone will most likely be different than on the main floor. In that case Aunt Tilly will not be happy.

Going to the output side of the signal flow, notice the colored dotted lines going toward the output devices. These help me to address a common and significant “gotcha.” I get calls from pastors and church system operators complaining that the levels are bad on the audio recording. Sometimes they tell me that the level is low and that turning up the level results in feedback from the loudspeakers in church. From this description I can tell the caller that the system is configured too simply. The issue most likely stems from the fact that the signal to the loudspeakers and the signal to the recording feed come from the same control. The system designer did not build in flexibility to allow for separate control of main loudspeakers and other feeds. A separate mix and master level control are needed for the recording feed (or other feed) apart from the mix for the main loudspeakers.

A design using the “best bargain” method is a waste of money.

Sometimes this “gotcha” is due to a perceived budget limitation. “We can’t spend much on the system.” So the congregation settles for gear that is not flexible or not expandable. The result is that the system will not do what is needed. And the solution is to start over, which means spending the money twice to get the job done right once. The real solution is to be honest about needs and have the system designed to the need rather than to say “This is what we are going to spend.” This doesn’t imply spending a fortune on a sound system. But it does mean that a design using the “best bargain” method is a waste of money and never ends well. Design the system to the need, and make it expandable so that additions can be made without the need to start over. It costs a little more on the front end but saves a great deal in the future.

Another “gotcha:” The pastor calls and reports a hum in the audio going to our video recording. After I complete my groaner joke (“It hums because it doesn’t know the words.”), I ask questions about how the hookup is accomplished, what the devices are, and other qualifiers. The cause and solution are common. Outside of a cable that has gone bad, the most common cause for the hum is that a cable is not right for the situation. Most “off-the-shelf” hi-fi type cables with phono type connectors accept noise from other sources, induced into the line. Or the grounding is not right. The hum is the result. Make sure that you are using high-quality cables that will ground the devices properly, and make the proper connections to prevent outside noise from getting into the line.

One more “gotcha:” The level is strong coming out of the audio device, but is weak or nonexistent going into the recording device (may also be from playback device or electronic instrument going into the mixer). This is almost always an impedance mismatch. Simply put, there is an electronic roadblock that prevents the signal from getting to where it is supposed to go. In such cases, you need a transformer device that will correct for the mismatch. Since there are varying levels of quality, contact your sound professional for advice on which device to use. Make sure that you are using high-quality devices, both audio and video.

Books have been written on the subject of system layout. The brief description provided here will suffice for now, along with this summary: figure out what you need, design to that need (by a professional), build in flexibility and expansion capability, and utilize the right loudspeakers and microphones.

Sound System Setup

I state up front that the following discussion is not a “how-to-guide” so that you can tune your own system. Just as it takes education and experience to be a good pastor or music director, it takes education and experience along with a trained ear to be a good system tuner or “setter-upper.” Below I point out goals to accomplish when tuning a system. Remember: go to a professional for system design and for system setup/tuning!

Recall from our previous installments that there are some fundamental “must-do/must-have” matters when considering sound system design and setup—and ultimately tuning:

  • Good acoustical character that matches the worship setting.
  • Avoid destructive “slap” and “flutter” echo.
  • Balance reflective, absorptive, and diffusive elements in the space.
  • Design loudspeaker system to work in the acoustic space.
  • Use the proper types of microphones for the various applications within the worship setting.
  • Use proper mic technique.

I assume now that we have followed all of these principles of good design. We have good mics in place. The loudspeakers have been carefully selected and located. The mixer and signal processor are appropriate for the situation. We’re ready to tune!

First, what is my goal? Assuming that we will have good loudspeaker coverage, our goal is simply to deliver the most natural sound possible, clearly and without feedback. If there are supplemental speakers, under the balcony for example, then we also must synchronize these speakers in time with the main speakers so that every worshiper perceives the chancel as the source of the sound.

Second, achieving the goal. Clarity will result in part by having a well-behaved acoustic space and in part by selecting the proper loudspeaker. Notice I say nothing about the prettiest loudspeaker or the most invisible. We always work hard to blend the speakers into the architecture and make them as inconspicuous as possible. But if we lean too far toward aesthetic priorities, then clarity will nearly always be compromised.

To achieve natural sound without feedback, we start with a high-quality speaker that is proven to deliver smooth frequency response “out of the box.” Look at the graph below from a recent project where we measured the balcony support speakers. It shows an even frequency response from the lower-midrange frequencies through the upper end of the speech range. Frequency is shown on the bottom/horizontal axis, and level in dB is shown on the left/vertical axis.

Frequency response graph showing natural sound

Notice that there are no jumps or peaks in response across our measurement range. The graph shows me—and my ears heard—that the sound is natural. And since there are no big peaks, feedback will not be an issue.

Why no issue with feedback? Feedback occurs when sound is allowed back into the microphone. It could be from a reflection, or it could be from poor mic placement. If there is a big peak in response (greater than 2 or 3dB above the average), a significant amount of energy will be allowed back into the microphone, creating a loop we hear as a screeching sound—feedback. Since there are no peaks here, we have no issue with feedback.

While in the tuning process, I will check to see how direct the sound is. What is the level of the sound coming to the ear directly from the loudspeaker as compared to reflected sound? The graph below shows a measurement of the direct sound. The left/vertical axis is level, and the bottom/horizontal axis is time in fractions of seconds. I want to see a very strong initial sound arrival, and either no or very little late arrival from reflection.

Graph measuring direct sound – shows no echo

Notice the tall vertical line just to the right of ‘0’. The ‘0’ point is the loudspeaker’s place in time. The tall line is the first sound arrival. There is a second line close to but far down in level. This graph shows me (and again, my ears heard) very clear sound with no audible echo from any other source.

In the last graph below we have an example of how poor things can get when our basic principles are not followed. Notice the initial arrival followed by arrivals that are nearly as strong. This client hears the same syllable distinctly three times. In that case, I had to report to the client that “we have issues” with room acoustics or with loudspeaker layout or type. In this particular case the issues were with both room acoustics and loudspeaker layout.

Graph measuring direct sound – shows and echo

I have included a good deal of information here. It may be difficult to process it all, especially for those not familiar with all this “audio geek” stuff. If I have helped you to think a bit about your goals for sound in worship, what your real needs are, and how to meet your needs and goals, then I have accomplished my goal.

Sound design involves science, art, and experience.

Additionally, I hope it’s clear that far more goes into this sound thing than just going to the local music store (or going online), buying some stuff, and sticking it in the church. The process of sound design involves quite a bit of science (laws of physics that the good Lord gave us and has not yet repealed) as well as art and experience. Yes, it is a process. And knowing just a little about the process, from design to setup to proper operation, can help you to ask the right questions and to budget appropriately. Then you can be confident of achieving the best results, and God’s Word both spoken and sung will be clear to the congregation.

Knowing just a little about the process … can help you to ask the right questions.

A fourth installment will conclude this series. It will focus on assistance for the hearing impaired. We will review a few simple statistics to show that assistance is no longer just for older people. We will study two major methods for providing assistance—how they work and the benefits of each.

If you have something to ask or an issue to deal with, let me know at info@dshaudiovisions.com. I will respond as time allows and might even prepare another WTL article in the future.

 

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Preach the Word – Preaching to the Biblically Illiterate

Preaching to the Choir Biblically Illiterate

In March 2018, The Wall Street Journal had to issue a correction. The previous day, a journalist had quoted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that Moses had brought water from Iraq. As it turns out, Mr. Netanyahu actually said that Moses brought water from a rock.1 Who’d have thought? That same week, National Public Radio had to make a correction too. An NPR blog on Good Friday stated, “Easter—the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere at all, but rather arose into heaven—is on Sunday.” As the corrected blog later noted, Easter is actually “the day Christians celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection.”2

There’s a term for this lack of Bible knowledge: biblical illiteracy. Less than half of adults can name the four gospels. 60% percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments. 81% of born-again Christians think that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse. Over 50% of high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were a husband and wife….3

And then a guest walks into your church and hears your sermon…. Would they understand it?

Actually, don’t even think about that guest for a moment. Think about the members of your church choir. Over the past year, I’ve had member visits with spiritually mature members of our congregation—like your typical choir members. For a devotion, I’ve read the story of Zacchaeus. I assumed it would be a familiar story. Everybody knows about the wee little man, right? Wrong! When I’ve asked, “Can you remember anything about Zacchaeus?” less than 50% have had any recollection of Zacchaeus at all. Even if we just “preach to the choir” in our churches, we’re preaching to people who are less familiar with the Bible than we’d like to think.

Far from being comical or simply surprising, biblical illiteracy presents a huge challenge to the preacher. Consider these words from Jesus’ “sermons”: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:14). “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37).

What did Jesus assume? That his hearers knew about Moses, Jonah, Abraham, and Noah (and many others!). How can we preach what Jesus preached if our hearers don’t know what Jesus’ hearers knew? Biblical illiteracy isn’t just a matter of Bible trivia. The less our hearers know the people, places, and stories of the Bible, the less they can appreciate God’s plan of salvation in Jesus. Paul reminds us that “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” (Romans 15:4). We want to lead our people to an ever deeper knowledge of God’s Word.

A caution is needed. Biblical illiteracy certainly can’t be solved by preaching alone. That’s more pressure than any preacher can or should bear. We need the Word in our homes, not just in our churches. But preaching does matter. Our sermons do make a difference. So how can we preach when even preaching to the choir means preaching to people who might be biblically illiterate?

To start, we need to understand what biblical illiteracy is. At its simplest level, biblical illiteracy is a lack of knowledge about biblical names and places, like my members’ ignorance about Zacchaeus. In our small Spanish services, I routinely ask if my hearers have heard of people in our Bible lessons. Moses? Blank stares. Abraham? No clue. The apostle Paul? Nope. I’ve come to assume that every character in every story is unknown to my hearers, except for maybe Jesus. People simply don’t know who people in the Bible are. That’s biblical illiteracy.

But it’s been helpful for me to realize that biblical illiteracy goes much deeper. Biblical illiteracy is also missing the context of the words of Scripture. Albert Molher comments, “Our people can know so much, and yet know nothing, all at the same time. They can have a deep repository of biblical facts and stories, and yet know absolutely nothing about how any of it fits together, or why any of it matters beyond the wee little ‘moral of the story.’”4

How many of our people struggle with that? There is danger in “Facebook-meme Christianity.” How often aren’t single Bible verses pulled out of context and used independently from the rest of Scripture? Think of how misquoted this verse is: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). It’s talking about contentment, not winning the Super Bowl!

To be biblically literate doesn’t just mean knowing that Zacchaeus was a wee little man. Jesus’ love for tax collectors and sinners is at the heart Luke’s gospel, from the Calling of Levi (Luke 5) to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) to the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) to the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18). The story of Zacchaeus leads to a marvelous conclusion: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Every text has a context.

So does the Bible itself. Every “little” story like Zacchaeus is part of God’s “big” story. Biblical illiteracy is also failing to grasp how each story of the Bible fits into God’s grand plan of salvation. Professor Paul Wendland likes to quote this phrase from Luther: “If you don’t understand the subject matter, you won’t be able to make sense of the words.” You can learn all sorts of stuff about Zacchaeus, but if you don’t know God’s plan of salvation from creation to the fall to Christ’s cross to God’s promises of heaven, you still won’t get it. How many of our people grasp the little stories (like Zacchaeus) but miss how they fit into the big story of salvation?

That leads us to the deepest, most hidden level of biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy is failing to realize that every text of Scripture points me to my Savior Jesus. “These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” Jesus asserts (John 5:39). It’s all about Jesus! Every part of God’s Word—from Genesis to Revelation—was written to point you to your Savior Jesus. To miss that truth is the worst kind of darkness. You can be a biblical expert and lecture on the grand metanarrative of the Bible, but if you miss the truth that Jesus came to save you, you’re still biblically illiterate.

So where do we start? How do we preach to people struggling with different levels of biblical illiteracy? I know where I need to start: with me. The biblical illiteracy that’s most concerning is my own. Would you agree? I often feel embarrassed to read Luther. He quotes the Bible left and right. In contrast, how many of us have a Google (or a Logos) knowledge of the Bible? I can remember bits and pieces from Bible verses. So, I Google the phrase, and Google tells me where it’s from. Easy! I don’t have to memorize anything. I don’t really have to know anything. Can you relate? Biblical illiteracy in my ministry starts with me.

So I appreciate the encouragement that WELS pastors receive to keep learning and growing. There are lots of conferences. Lots of presentations. Lots of suggestions. “Read Luther. Read current events. Read philosophy and science and history. Read apologetics.” Those are all great suggestions, but do you know what I don’t hear very often? “Read the Bible.” I wonder if our job description as pastors has become so broad that we inadvertently spend less time in the Word than previous generations of pastors. Do we sometimes “run ahead” of the Word (2 John 9)?

Here’s my confession: I don’t know the Word as well as I think I do. I bet you don’t either. So I’m going to give you the encouragement that I need you to give me: Read the Bible! God’s promise is true: “Blessed is the man…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Read the Bible. If you read just one thing today, read the Bible. In fact, don’t worry about reading anything else until you’ve spent time in God’s Word.

Let’s be men of the Word. Biblical literacy starts with us.

In a recent seminary satellite course, “Preaching on the Parables,” Professor Paul Wendland shared two Latin phrases that have stuck in my mind. He encouraged us to preach todo in illis—“everything in these things.” Fill yourself so full of God’s Word that your sermon is todo in illis—“everything in the things of God’s Word.” Then he reminded us that we are the vox Dei—the “voice of God.” What a privilege! We stand before God’s people and share his Word as if God himself were speaking through us. Let’s be men of the Word. Biblical literacy starts with us.

But it doesn’t stop there. We want to raise up people who are people of the Word too. To do that, we need to know people. Where are people at? Which level of biblical illiteracy do they struggle with? Dear pastor, have you planned visits in people’s homes on your calendar yet? There’s no substitute for time with people. Listen to the 13-year-old girl cry hysterically because she’s terrified of death. Watch that hard-working man struggle to find Genesis in the Bible. Preaching to a biblically illiterate society starts with knowing the Word and knowing people.

Here are suggestions for preaching the Word to biblically illiterate people. Assume your hearers will be hearing your text for the first time. Before you dive into your text study, read the text in English, just like people will hear it. Ask yourself this question: What biblical knowledge is assumed in this text? Since we can’t assume that our hearers are familiar with any text, be proactive about anticipating their questions.

Asking that question before you dive into your text study is key. You don’t want to forget what it was like to hear the text for the first time. Don’t start your sermon where you are at on Sunday morning. Your people aren’t there yet! You need to start where you were. In your sermon, take people on a journey. Instead of downloading information, lead them to discover God’s truth, just as you did as you studied your text. Start with the questions that popped into your mind. How did God’s Word answer them? In each sermon, take your people on a journey.

Along the way, tell the context of your text. Don’t just jump into Ezekiel or Mark or Romans. Walk your people into the biblical world of the author. When?… Where?… Why?… It doesn’t have to be long. Often a paragraph or two is enough. Show your hearers your text’s biblical context.

One of the best ways to do so is to not be afraid to preach on biblical narratives. Jesus did! He preached on Moses, Noah, Abraham, Jonah, and many others. If we want our people to know the stories of the Bible, let’s preach on them! When was the last time you preached on creation? How about David and Goliath? Sodom and Gomorrah? If we don’t preach on Bible stories, we shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t know them. Consider using Hebrews 11 as a guide to help you see which heroes of faith to include in your preaching.5

Once you decide which text to preach on, don’t jump away from your text. Before referencing biblical stories or verses from outside your text, ask yourself, “Can biblically illiterate people understand this verse without its wider context?” Don’t say, “Just like Noah in the ark,” unless you plan on telling the story of Noah and his ark. You’ll lose your hearers. Proof texts work great in doctrinal essays, but they can make it hard for our hearers to follow. This isn’t “dumbing down” the sermon. Our hearers aren’t stupid. They just haven’t had the opportunity to study the Scriptures like we have. Instead of jumping around the Bible, let’s help our hearers appreciate the rich ways our sermon text plumbs the depth of sin and the fullness of God’s grace.

Our hearers aren’t stupid. They just haven’t had the opportunity to study the Scriptures like we have.

As you do, tell the big story over and over again. Every little story of God’s Word is an intricate part of the big story of God’s plan of salvation. Zacchaeus wasn’t just a wee little man. He’s Exhibit A of how Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Biblical illiteracy clouds the unity of Scripture. This is where a thorough text study comes in. How does this specific text in its specific context connect to God’s plan of salvation? That’s what the Scriptures are meant to do, right? They “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

That means that we want to get to Jesus in every sermon, like Jesus did on the way to Emmaus. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Since the Scriptures from beginning to end testify about Jesus, every text contains its own unique path to Jesus. Charles Spurgeon is known for saying, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” Instead of thrusting the same gospel paragraphs into every sermon, mine your text to discover that text’s own connection to Christ.

That’s especially relevant, because our biblically illiterate culture desperately needs to hear law and gospel in every sermon. At the heart of biblical illiteracy is failing to see Jesus as my Savior from sin. Not every text reveals God’s plan of salvation with the same clarity. That’s true. Some texts emphasize Christian living more than justification. That’s true. Yet, in hundreds of texts and in hundreds of ways, Scripture was written to say to us, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our people won’t hear that anywhere else.

Our biblically illiterate culture desperately needs to hear law and gospel.

Your sermon matters. From the choir in the balcony to the guest in back, there is a great need for biblical preaching. So here’s a final encouragement: Give yourself time to preach. At times, I stand up to preach already 30 minutes into the service, and we still have the offering to collect, prayers to be said, the Lord’s Supper to celebrate. There are many good things that can be included in worship. Make sure there’s time for the preaching of the Word. Our people are not overfed with God’s Word. In a biblically illiterate world, your sermon matters. Sermonettes can make Christianettes. We need to give our preachers time to preach the Word.

Just remember your goal. I once talked with my dad about how little my confirmation students knew about the Bible. I’ve never forgotten how my dad responded about his time teaching confirmation class in the 1980s. He said, “My goal for my confirmation students by the end of the year was to have them believe in Jesus as their Savior.” That’s our goal as Christian preachers, isn’t it? Our ultimate goal is not people who know lots about the Bible. Our goal is people who believe in Jesus as their Savior through the power of God’s Word.

But think of the names the Bible gives to our Savior: Son of David (Matthew 21:9), Lamb of God (John 1:29), the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Lion of the tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), and the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). What’s striking about those names? They intimately connect Jesus with the people and places of the Bible. Biblical knowledge draws me closer to Jesus. The more I know God’s Word, the more I appreciate God’s plan of salvation for me. So to the choir… To the guests… Preach the Word! Don’t give up. Don’t give in. “Know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Written by Nathan Nass


1 For more, read this article from the Washington Post: “You Should Read the Bible” (March 30, 2018) at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/even-atheists-should-read-the-bible/2018/03/30/98a1133c-3444-11e8-94fa-32d48460b955_story.html.
2 To read NPR’s own description of the mistake, check out “NPR Catches Hell Over Easter Mistake” (April 2, 2018) at https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2018/04/02/598029102/npr-catches-hell-over-easter-mistake.
3 These statistics were compiled by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. See “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” (January 20, 2016) at https://albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4.
4 Mohler Jr., R. Albert. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008.
5 As I wrote this article, I preached on Jacob wrestling with God (https://upsidedownsavior.home.blog/2019/10/20/wrestling-with-god/) and the end of Hebrews 11 (https://upsidedownsavior.home.blog/2019/11/03/the-world-was-not-worthy-of-them/). Here’s also a link to a sermon series that I’ve used on the Heroes of Faith: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2eid4j28jeam0c3/2016%20Series%20Schedule%20-%20OT%20Heroes%20of%20Faith.pdf?dl=0.
Easy click links are at the online version of this article: https://worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/preach-the-word/.

 

WORSHIP

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GIVE A GIFT

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Christmas outreach in the Philippines

In a predominantly Roman Catholic country like the Philippines, is there a “better time” for a community gospel outreach? By “better time,” I mean that time of the year when people are generally more receptive to gospel conversations and church invitations. While Filipinos are generally receptive to gospel conversations, we find that a “better time” to do community gospel outreach is the Christmas season. How did we make use of this opportunity?

Christmas Day worship at Law and Gospel Lutheran Church

One of the Filipino Roman Catholic traditions associated with the Christmas season is holding a nine-day “Simbang Gabi” (evening mass) which begins on December 16 and ends on Christmas Eve. These evening masses (some conduct them on early dawn) are one of the few times when some nominal Roman Catholics would be in attendance. Since most of our current prospects are Roman Catholics (at least by association) we found it a golden opportunity to make use of this tradition to share with them the true meaning and purpose of Christ’s birth. For the very first time since our mission congregation’s inception, we held our own nine-day Simbang Gabi or “evening services.” A few evangelical churches in the country have also been holding their own Simbang Gabi, but only for selected nights–we did it for nine straight nights!

Edmar’s baptism

One of the incorrect thoughts Filipino Roman Catholics attribute to Simbang Gabi is that some form of “novena” needs to be completed so that their personal petitions would be granted. That is to say, their attendance in these nine-day evening masses are works that they must do in order to get something from God. What a contradiction of the Bible’s message that we cannot offer anything to God in exchange of anything! Millions of souls in our country are living with the yoke of the law still on their shoulders. These people need to know the real meaning and purpose of the tradition they have been religiously observing. They need to understand what St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:4-7)

I would say the highlight of our observance of the Christmas season was bringing four young souls to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism at our Christmas Day worship. These four young souls are children of our active prospects in what is known here as Villareal area, an area which is not very close to our base in de Jesus Compound. Nine evening services plus one morning service (Christmas Day) equals ten straight days of preaching! It was physically exhausting, but spiritually refreshing. I wouldn’t mind doing it again next Christmas season. After all, the baby who was born on the first Christmas Day came in order “to seek and to save that which was lost”.

Written by Alvien de Guzman, Pastor at Law & Gospel Lutheran Church in the Philippines

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

 

 

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Spanish Pastors Conference meets in Puerto Rico

The 8th gathering of the Spanish Pastors Conference met in Guayama, Puerto Rico, for four days in January. Fifteen men (plus two wives) gathered for study, worship and fellowship. We tackled Christian Stewardship, focusing on the Biblical truths and the cultural realities that exist. Discussion was lively–and everyone commented that is was a good study. Beside the study, we heard a report of the work of the Latin America missions team and Academia Cristo along with a report from the Board for Home Mission’s Hispanic Outreach Consultant.

God’s power was displayed by the many earthquakes that occurred while we were on the island – several were 5.7 and higher! God’s grace was equally displayed as no damage occurred where we were staying. All the members of the local congregation reported nothing more than frayed nerves. Many of us awoke on Tuesday morning to the second of four large tremors. All of us experienced the last large quake on Wednesday as we traveled to the second largest city on the island, Ponce, to view local culture and take in local cuisine.

Even though the power was out for almost 24 hours (all of Tuesday), we still enjoyed the opening worship, singing everything loudly in A Capella fashion. Cell phones batteries were drained to the last remaining bar of power as news was relayed to family members that everyone was not only okay but also enjoying the quiet night, staring at the stars near the equator with no light pollution!

As the conference drew to a close, someone asked how many of the attendees had worked in Puerto Rico. Five of the 15 men raised their hands! We give thanks to God that this mission has been a vital part not only of sharing God’s Word on the island, but also of preparing men who are sharing the same message in the United States. A big thanks to the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Church of Puerto Rico who hosted the conference!

The conference meets every other year (on the even years), and it has been determined that our 2022 conference will be held in Tucson, Ariz. We ask our gracious God to continue to bless the efforts of these men and the many others who are sharing the gospel with the lost in Spanish and English.

Written by Rev. Tim Flunker, Hispanic Outreach Consultant for the WELS Board for Home Missions

 

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Reaching souls for Jesus in West Texas

In the vast region of the high plains of West Texas lies great promise for the gospel to reach many new souls. Amarillo, Texas, is a growing city of over 200,000 people. Two hours to the south is Lubbock, Texas, an even faster growing city with a bustling 300,000 people. Lubbock is home to the only full-time WELS congregation, Shepherd of the Plains, within a five hour radius. Our ministry area in West Texas is as vast as the beautiful sunsets rest on the horizon.

Due to the far reaches of Shepherd of the Plains, many people from long distances have contacted me to find out if Shepherd of the Plains is the closest WELS church to them. When looking at the membership list, nearly 20% of our members live two hours away in several different directions. It was over five years ago when Shepherd of the Plains had it’s first contacts in Amarillo. Since then, strong relationships have formed and we have now grown to five families. This all without a resident pastor in Amarillo.

Currently our group in Amarillo has a worship service once a month. Because of the distance, we worship at 2:30 to allow my family and I to make the two hour trip after the morning service and Bible study finish in Lubbock. At each of our worship services in Amarillo, we set up worship in a large shop; where we house a makeshift altar, set up twenty chairs, have a digital piano, and have full projection for worship. It was just a year ago when we worshiped in a living room with couches and some folding chairs, until one of the families purchased a new home with the large shop area in mind to be able to use as our worship space.

Since Shepherd of the Plains also has a full-service livestream of every worship service (and now Bible study), the Amarillo group has begun to schedule once a month gatherings to livestream together. Each time the group gets together they have fellowship and bring food for a meal to follow their worship.

The Amarillo team has charged themselves with the goal of reaching many more with the gospel of Jesus, but they also recognize the importance of a full-time pastor to help in that effort. Because of this, they are in the process of researching and filling out a detailed request to call their first home missionary. The process to obtain home mission status is not a process the group takes lightly. They recognize that with regular prayer and guidance from the Lord, he will bless their work.

This is where the prayers of the brothers and sisters in faith through our synod comes into play. Please pray for the mission work in Amarillo and all of West Texas. If you know of anyone who lives in West Texas, the Texas Panhandle, or even two hours an any direction from there, please contact me at 806-794-4203 or through e-mail at jecares1@gmail.com.

Through prayer and your help in spreading the word about the gospel work in West Texas, we will walk together as a synod and reach many more souls for Jesus.

Written by Rev. Jeremy Cares, pastor at Shepherd of the Plains in Lubbock, Tex.

 

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Spiritual unity in South Asia

The Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, in partnership with WELS Joint Missions, guides and assists spiritual leaders around the globe through their pre-seminary and seminary training. The PSI connects with these spiritual leaders through WELS world mission work and through outreach to immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. They are able to evaluate and serve these international groups and synods that want support, training, and a connection to a church body that shares the gospel message in its truth and purity.

E. Allen Sorum, director of the Pastoral Studies Institute, traveled to a country in South Asia in December to teach Ephesians and 1 Peter. Read more about his experience: 


For two and a half weeks, I had skated over icy sidewalks in Novosibirsk, Russia. I was looking forward to my next teaching assignment in a country in South Asia. Average temperature? 85 degrees! As we drove from the airport to the seminary facilities, I was second-guessing my choice of wool socks for this day of travel between Siberia and South Asia.

Seminary in South Asia

Later that first day, I got to sit in on a staff meeting with the WELS friendly counselor and the three spiritual leaders that serve with our friendly counselor to administer the seminary training program. The meeting began with a wonderful reflection on a passage from Scripture that featured deep insights and highlights from the Greek text. This was not a hasty “let’s-open-with-a-religious-thought” devotion! Everyone sitting around that table was clearly enjoying time in God’s Word, mutual encouragement, and a partnership in the gospel. The meeting that followed displayed an excellent partnership between local leaders and our friendly counselor. These men impressed me!

It will be challenging to describe the South Asian leaders who work with our friendly counselor in this place; security realities won’t allow familiarity. But here are three men who obviously hail from the same continent. After that, commonalities are more difficult to see. These guys have strong and independent personalities. Their differences were clearly evident to me when they took their turn translating my lessons for the 25 students before us.

One of these guys didn’t just translate. He ran the class. I mean he allowed only one speaker at a time. Side conversations was strictly forbidden. And the amount of time he took to convey my sentences in his language was about the same length of time it took me to say my sentences in English.

WELS Friendly Counselor (left) with the three South Asian leaders and E. Allen Sorum (right)

The second chap relished in the kind of class mayhem that I rather prefer myself. When I placed a question before the men, it seemed their natural style was to all answer at exactly the same time at an above average volume. Somehow, this translator was able to synthesize a group answer and share it with me in a way that was both entertaining and helpful. This leader/translator used my English sentence as a launching point for additional points that he wanted to add to my original point. At least that’s what I think was going on when my one sentence in English became his one paragraph in Telegu. He was greatly enhancing the learning that was going on in that room, I am sure.

The third man took my wimpy, timid English sentences and turned them into powerful oratory. He wasn’t content to merely instruct. He wanted to encourage, rally, and motivate his co-workers. All of my translators were themselves pastors. They know the challenges these men face back home in their young congregations. Most of the students were already pastors. They were, in general, just getting started at ministry, trying to establish a Christian movement in a hostile environment.

These three spiritual leaders who were also pastors, partners with our friendly counselor, seminary administrators, and translators share another attribute: they care deeply for their students. Spiritual unity is a hard thing to establish and maintain in any place. But when there is a bond of peace and love in Christ, and a good dose of humility, unity has a chance. We talked a lot about this unity: unity of faith, unity of love, and unity of purpose.

The friendly counselor who is blessed with the task of overseeing this ministry asked me to teach Ephesians and 1 Peter; fitting texts for these men and their ministry settings. When we got to the spiritual warfare portion of Ephesians 6, I asked the men to raise their hand if they dealt with demon possession. Almost every man raised their hand. We enjoyed, therefore, a spirited discussion on a Lutheran approach to exorcisms; Lutheran as opposed to Pentecostal. The students agreed that the Pentecostal approach common among them seemed more interested in ascribing glory to the exorcist than to serving the (possibly) possessed individual.

The Lutheran approach acknowledges the obvious. It is Jesus who has power and authority over the universe including the spirit world. So we ask Jesus to remove demons, we see ourselves as his agent carrying out his mission to rescue people, and we give him all the glory.

I was impressed by these men who must carry out their mission in these circumstances. I was impressed by their thirst for truth and their gratitude for partnership with their fellow Christians of WELS. They articulated their appreciation for WELS Christians many times. I assured them that their WELS brothers and sisters appreciated our partnership with them. I articulated that many times. May God strengthen our unity through the bond of peace and love in Christ. May we be a blessing to each other.

Written by Rev. E. Allen Sorum, Director of the Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI)

To learn more about the Pastoral Studies Institute, visit wels.net/psi.

 

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Christmas Presence

Many people in our world think of Christmas as a time for presents. In fact, not only has “Black Friday” become an accepted holiday in the vocabulary of most Americans, but this year it also graduated from a singular to a plural. It seemed like every Friday from October until December became “Black Friday” so we could buy even more presents at a discount.

Here in Native America in our missions to the Apache people in Arizona, we used Christmas as an opportunity to focus on presence instead of presents. After all, Immanuel arrived–God himself came into our world to live like one of us! And we had no shortage of excited volunteers eager to announce his presence to our communities!

Children from East Fork Lutheran School share the story of our Savior’s birth

In the month of December, more than 325 children in Apacheland put on their fanciest Christmas dresses and best clip-on ties and were proud to announce loudly and clearly that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. The students at East Fork Lutheran School were able to tell the Christmas story to several hundred people in the school gymnasium under the theme, “Did you Know?”  Meanwhile, the students of Peridot-Our Savior’s Lutheran School rented a community hall to fit everyone in to hear their program focused on sharing the story of Christmas, using the theme of “Savior of the Nations.”

It was a memorable night on both the Fort Apache and San Carlos reservations, as each school was able to use its ever-growing presence in the community to share the glorious presence of Jesus. These Christmas programs are well attended by our local communities, including many who would not normally walk into one of our churches. And our students were ready! All of the students had been practicing for more than a month under the direction of dedicated teachers, and it showed. They certainly made their parents and teachers proud as they spoke clearly and sang loudly about this miraculous and glorious event.

With approximately half of the population on both of these Apache reservations under the age of 18, our schools continue to have real opportunities to share Jesus. Our pastors and teachers have the chance each day to continue training hundreds of eager evangelists who share Jesus with the youthful exuberance and blunt simplicity of childhood. Pray that they will continue witnessing as they grow up and that they will become leaders in service to their newborn King!

Written by Rev. Dan Rautenberg, Native American mission field coordinator

Learn more about world mission work on the Apache reservations in Arizona at wels.net/apache.

 

 

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A lot to love and a lot to work on

As we walked out of the shopping mall, Missionary Abe Degner looked at me and said, “There’s a lot to love. . . There’s a lot to work on.”

That pretty much summed up not just the visit we had just made with a potential church planting partner in that mall, but visit after visit we made in Missionary Degner’s first couple weeks on the ground as a missionary in South America.

Missionary Degner with Pablo, an Academia Cristo contact in Paraguay

There was a lot to love. Visit after visit turned up people who had come to us through our Academia Cristo online classes in Paraguay and northern Argentina and had already gathered groups around the Word that they heard in their classes. Humberto’s group in Capiibury had already investigated a church building. Pablo’s group just east of Asuncion had taken a stand for the truth and separated from a group that taught falsely. Carlos in Machagai, Argentina, had a group that had studied the “Key’s and Confession” from the Catechism, and he had a number of other former pastors who had come out of other churches who were searching with him for the truth. In addition to these students who found us online, we visited a group of new Christians in rural Paraguay who were meeting in a mission house built by a WELS congregation in Sarasota, Florida. There was a lot to love.

There was a lot to work on. There were economic struggles threatening to distract from gospel work. There were some major gaps in biblical understanding. Missionary Degner and I constantly discussed how to tip-toe through the minefield that is planting and building churches that are dependent neither on the missionary nor a constant flow of foreign funds.

There is a lot to love. . . There is a lot to work on.

Missionary Degner (left) and Missionary Johnston (right) studying with Carlos, an Academia Cristo contact in Argentina

I think this likely describes not just our work in Paraguay and Argentina, but throughout Latin America. As 2019 comes to a close there is a lot to love, so much to thank God for. Our more than a million Academia Cristo Facebook followers have translated into thousands of opportunities to make disciples who make disciples of others. We have had students in live, online classes from every country in Latin America. In addition to groups we were already working with, this year we saw new, on-the-ground gospel opportunities in Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. By the end of the year and by God’s grace, we will have three teams of two Latin American missionaries established in strategic locations—north (Miami, Florida), center (Quito, Ecuador) and south (Asuncion, Paraguay)—so that we can take advantage of all the opportunities which are being placed before us throughout the region.

There is a lot to love. . . There is a lot to work on.

Although we see things trending in the right direction, not just in the amount of new contacts but also in the growth of groups we have been working with for decades, will we realize our plans to see gospel-focused, biblically-sound churches planting churches throughout Latin America? Will those who have that incomplete understanding of biblical doctrine cast aside false teaching and embrace the truth? Will our new app allow us, as we hope, to better respond to the thousands who are coming to us for biblical instruction? Will our team in Paraguay be able to figure out life in a place where no WELS missionary has gone before?

Our Latin American mission team moves forward, ready to work to answer these questions in 2020 comforted by the fact that we are loved (a lot) by our gracious Lord. Please thank God for all he has given us to love. Please ask that the Lord of the harvest blesses that which we have to work on.

Written by Rev. Andrew Johnston, Missionary for the Latin America missions team

Learn more about mission work in Latin America at wels.net/latin-america.

 

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Plot Twist

One of the things I love most about being a pastor is hearing the stories people tell. Each person that sits in the pew has a unique one, a fascinating account of the working of God’s grace.

Christina certainly had an interesting story. I met her only one week after I was installed as the pastor at Living Shepherd Lutheran Church in Laramie, Wyoming. She had a connection to our church previously, when her infant son Leo was baptized. But she hadn’t been to church in a while, mostly because it was difficult for her to come with her infant son, whom she was raising while her husband was deployed in Kuwait.

After sitting down with Christina, she told me her story. She was born and raised in Minnesota, but moved to Wyoming when she was 16 years old. She graduated from high school in Meeteetse, Wyoming, a town with a total population of about 300 people. She attended the University of Wyoming and graduated with a degree in Education. She began teaching at a special school for at-risk children in Laramie. And along the way, she got married and celebrated the birth of her first child.

But the bigger story is the difference God’s grace has made in her life. It may seem like a strange plot twist that Christina and her family ended up in Laramie, but this is how God again brought her into contact with the good news of her Savior Jesus. It may seem like a difficult plot twist that Christina and her husband are raising their child together even though they are miles apart, but God is using it to strengthen their relationship, and to drive them even deeper into his promises.

And then, in what may seem like another amazing plot twist, God brings his gracious blessings through Christina to others gathered here at Living Shepherd. He gives a new, inexperienced pastor the blessing of a prospect eager to learn more about God’s Word and grow in faith. He gives a congregation the opportunity to put God’s love into practice by helping and supporting a military family. And he gives all of us fresh reminders of the power of his Word working in the hearts of his people.

Christina was officially welcomed as a member of Living Shepherd Lutheran Church in Laramie, Wyoming two weeks ago. Before she joined, I asked her to answer a few questions which we could use to share with the congregation so that we could get to know her better. One of the questions I asked was, “What title would you give to your autobiography?” She answered, “Plot Twist.”

It’s a fitting title to Christina’s story. She’s eager to see what else God has in store for her family, and she’s excited to see how God’s grace will sustain her through all the plot twists that may be ahead.

Written by Rev. Adam Lambrecht, home missionary at Living Shepherd Lutheran Church in Laramie, Wyoming

 

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Alive and active

His body language was speaking loud and clear. Arms crossed. Slouched down. A toothpick pursed between his lips as he stared at the floor. Avoiding any sort of conversation with others. Refusing a bulletin to follow along. He didn’t want to be there, but somehow his girlfriend had convinced him to join her in church that morning. Perhaps she was buying lunch on the way home. Maybe if he went once she’d leave it alone for a while. Whatever it was, it sure didn’t seem like we’d see him again.

And then he came back the next week, this time looking up a couple of times during the sermon. The following week, he followed along in the bulletin. The week after that, he left the toothpick in the car. A few months later, he was asking about some classes where he could learn more about the Bible and ask some questions that have been on his mind.

Fast forward to mid-November 2019. His brother is on life support, making it hard to finish up his classes for church membership. He asks his other two brothers if it would be okay for him to invite the pastor to stop in at the hospital for a visit and prayer. It takes a week of convincing, but they finally give in. Their body language was speaking loud and clear. They didn’t really see the need or want this big, goofy, Spanish speaking, white guy in their brother’s hospital room. It seemed like they were paying more attention to their phones than to this stranger in the room. The conversation was short and God’s Word was shared.

On the way home I got a message: “Thanks. They’d like you to come again soon.”

For the word of God is alive and active.

Hebrews 4:12

Written by Rev. Paul Biedenbender, home missionary at Christ Lutheran Church in Denver, Colo. 

 

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