What do you do with children in worship? Cultural perspective / strategies

What do you do with children in worship?

Cultural perspective / strategies

Side by side the children sat. Old kids. Young kids. Big kids. Small kids. They sat together with zero problems. No pinching or poking. No goofing or giggling. No whining or weeping. Not even any parental prodding! They just sat there—looking around from time to time, but otherwise completely focused on message and music.

“How can this be?” you wonder. What enchanted chocolates did they eat? Is the choir director’s baton actually Harry Potter’s wand? How could children of all ages sit together without parents and quietly participate in worship without one Cheerio being launched or tear being shed? Surely this is a myth or fairytale!

How could children of all ages sit together without parents and quietly participate in worship?

I assure you, this is no utopian fantasy. This was a reality, and I saw it with my own eyes. Sadly, it wasn’t anywhere in the U.S. though. It was in Zambia.

I recently returned from a mission trip in Africa filled with joyful experiences and one unexpected revelation. I’ve spent so much time pondering children in worship, and then I learn an incredible lesson on the other side of the world when I wasn’t expecting it!

The deafening silence from Zambian children in those oxymoronic moments of worship preached a message of magnitude. Children of all ages can sit quietly in worship and can fully participate—even without threats of time-outs or promises of stickers and screen time!

Children are expected to be quiet and respectful when required.

I came to learn that Zambian family culture is starkly different from American family culture. From the earliest moments children are expected to go with the flow, to be obedient, to be quiet and respectful when required. All over children are found cuddled in kangas on their mothers’ backs during daily work. Children are allowed to play near streets and by themselves. Yet they are expected to make good choices, to be safe, and to participate in the chores that support and sustain life. And amazingly, everywhere we went we saw children respectful to all elders in authority—parent, pastor, teacher, or even visiting Americans.1

Such a cultural context provided moments that would go unnoticed if not so glaringly different than American culture. I saw those children sitting quietly together for worship (and it was uncomfortable on the dusty ground in a handmade hut-sanctuary). Another day I saw more than two dozen children sit together without any parents, joyfully joining in a one-day VBS of exchanging stories and songs between cultures. Those children ranged in age from two to 14, and there was not one behavior issue for four hours. I even saw twin three-year-olds sitting cramped on their parents’ laps for a nine-hour bus ride. They had no games, toys, or screens, and yet I wouldn’t have known they were there had I not been sitting across from them!

There was not one behavior issue for four hours.

Now let’s go back to the U.S. again (thankfully without the 23 hours of flying). Here we see children at the epicenter of life. They have painted rooms and hundreds of dollars of toys and accessories waiting for them before they are even born. Parents flinch at their child’s every movement from birth on, eager to please Paul and pacify Payton and hopeful to record every moment on their iPhones and boast about it on Facebook. Children learn quickly that it doesn’t take much to make mom or dad jump. Appropriately timed tears or tantrums make parents cave-in to buy the toy, to drop important work midstream, and yes, even to take them out of church to the “fun room” down the hall.

Appropriately timed tears or tantrums make parents cave-in…

Consider also the surge of stimulants in America. Within months of birth children are plopped in front of Baby Einstein with its flashing lights and colors. They’re handed tablets and phones not long after—either to get them ahead in learning or to keep them occupied when noise is inconvenient, like at a restaurant. (I’ve often seen parents hand their kids screens in worship, too). Are we surprised at attention and focus issues when Americans average more than 70 hours per week on screens2 where images change every few seconds? Add these thoughts to those shared in the previous article on this topic: Americans also have parenting problems due to generational issues, information overload on how to parent, a post-Christian culture, and constant age segregation where others are expected to take care of my children.

So take a breath and a step back to peer at the portrait of parenting in America. For me the picture became crystal clear when I was immersed in a different culture. We have cultivated a culture of parenting in America that is often inappropriate at best and inept at worst. Unfortunately, we’re so lost in our American trees that we don’t usually realize the problems until we have opportunity to frolic in a different forest…like in Africa.

“I Have a Solution!”

Here we are then, steeped in the American parenting culture, and churches are feeling the hurt in worship. Some older members look in disdain at disruptive children during worship. Parents wrestle in the pews, praying for a quick and quiet finish to the service—“Please, can we just once make it through the whole service? Just once, please!” Meanwhile, churches have children who are lost in the mix while the adults are wondering, “What do we do about this?”

Well, typical to Western civilization and pragmatic American thought, when you have a perceived problem you need a solution. Over the years God’s people have attempted various solutions. One might wonder aloud: Do the solutions and services for children in churches come from an American mindset of “please the customer”? Or do the solutions come from genuine evangelical, pastoral, and missiological care for people to hear the Word of God? In other words, do our solutions show we’re trying to keep people happy about children—so no one complains about noise and so parents don’t have excuses? Or do our solutions show we’re searching for every possible way for the Word of truth to be proclaimed to all people? I’m not sure there’s always a clear-cut answer.

What follows then is a review of some strategies and solutions churches have adopted to serve children and families in worship. This is not a comprehensive list, but it does touch on the most popular solutions. Each is reviewed by considering some of the positives and negatives they offer.

Foolish, Frivolous, and Forced

Liturgical clowns. Yes, they actually do exist. Please don’t google it (though I’m sure you will now). This is one of several “solutions” for serving children in worship that would fit into this category. Many creative minds have concocted many “creative” ways to involve children in worship, e.g. liturgical clowns. Another is a suggestion to have children come forward to the chancel and enact letters and words from the Lord’s Prayer, much like Y.M.C.A by the Village People. Yet another suggestion is to have children lead the entire service via hand puppets they created. You can buy books filled with such ideas. Might it be safe to say that we can agree these are foolish and frivolous ideas, unwise for the sanctity of God’s house and the dignity of gospel ministry?

Other solutions spring from a buzzword in children’s ministry today—intergenerational worship. For many authors, this does not mean simply having old and young people worshiping together. Rather, some force contrived ideas into worship to create intergenerational moments. For example, a grandparent and a grandchild take turns reading the Scripture lessons together.

Not to be misunderstood, intergenerational worship is good and God-pleasing. God wants all of his people to worship together. There are good ways to plan for involving children in worship (children’s choirs, children passing out friendship registers, child acolytes, etc.). But we would do well to think carefully about intergenerational moments that might be forced or contrived.

Nursery / Cry Room

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 84% of WELS churches reported have a dedicated space that functions as a nursery or cry room.

Pros: It’s a fact of life that every parent knows: some days are just bad days for tots and tykes. Anything from earaches to bellyaches cause a youngin’ to be yearnin’ for the exit during worship. A nursery can be a great blessing for parents to nurse, to discipline, or to let a child catch a breath and regroup. Additionally, in this post-Christian era many parents may not be familiar with proper decorum for children in church. A nursery could be helpful to visitors as they (and their children) gradually learn more about worship.

Cons: Perhaps the biggest consideration is this: What purpose does the nursery or cry room serve? Is it a quiet place for parents to do what is described above? Or is it simply a safe zone for kids to play and let loose? Children learn quickly. Babies know if they cry they’ll be fed, held, or changed. Little ones know if they throw the sippy cup off the high chair and you pick it up, they can play that game all day long with you. Children can quickly be trained that if they cry enough they can go to the “fun room” with all the toys. Children should go to the nursery because they need to not because they want to.

Similarly, caution should be observed if the nursery functions as a drop off zone, as if it’s day care during worship. It may be convenient for parents during worship. It may allow them to pay attention more. It may even be a blessing for those newer to the faith and still learning about the Word and worship. However, God has given the directive first to parents to train their child in the way to go.

Perhaps the best scenario is a nursery that is used on a needs basis, not a convenience basis.

Considerations: A nursery or cry room can be a great blessing. Perhaps the best scenario is a nursery that is used on a needs basis, not a convenience basis. It is probably best to have a room that looks into the sanctuary or that has an audio and video stream of the service. If such a room is staffed by volunteers, it would be wise to have a large rotation so that the same people do not continually miss worship.

Children’s Sermons

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 22% of WELS churches reported having a children’s sermon every Sunday, 27% fairly regularly, and 18% on occasion. Others may be considering adding them to worship.

Pros: A children’s sermon is a fantastic way to show pastoral heart and care. There’s something friendly and heartwarming about the Lord’s called minister welcoming children as the Lord himself did. A children’s sermon provides specific opportunities to preach Law and Gospel on a level that children might understand better. Additionally, they may be great ways to teach about the worship theme of the day or other aspects of worship (liturgy, symbols, rites, rituals, etc.).

Cons: One of the biggest considerations for children’s sermons is how they are carried out. Far too often this time during worship turns into a pause from the sanctity of divine service for moments of trite and trivial hilarity. I’ve seen garbage cans, balloons popped by lighters, puppets and more appear in the chancel before the holy altar of God Almighty. And inevitably, there are also the awkward moments—Johnny revealing a little too much about home life, or Susie hiking up her dress to reveal Elmo undies. Yes, these could be considered cute moments of “kids being kids,” but what are we subtly teaching the congregation about reverence and awe? What does this “time out” do to the ebb and flow of worship, the back and forth interaction between God and man that is the liturgy?

Careful planning should be exercised so that we not give children a cartoon version of Jesus.

Considerations: A children’s sermon can provide great personal time with the pastor for children as they have opportunity to hear a clear and concise point about the Gospel, the worship theme, or some other liturgical lesson. However, caution and careful planning should be exercised so that we not give children a cartoon version of Jesus instead of the true Alpha and Omega, King of kings Jesus.

Children’s Church

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 4% of WELS churches reported having a Children’s Church service that runs in a separate location from the sanctuary during part or all of the regular service. However, anecdotal evidence suggests this is a growing trend in our circles.

Pros: In theory, a Children’s Church service could serve good purposes. This service could be used to directly and specifically apply the Law and Gospel from that Sunday to children. It could be used to teach children about the liturgy as well as the words and songs of the liturgy. Children’s Church could provide parents an opportunity to focus more during worship. In some settings this may be a greater need than others. For example, on one Easter Sunday at my previous parish we had over 300 people in worship. Nearly half of those were visitors, and over 75 children were under age 12. It was so loud you could barely hear me read the Easter Gospel! Could a Children’s Church service have provided an opportunity for more focused Easter worship so that all the visitors could clearly hear about resurrection hope and joy?

Cons: You note how I stated that Children’s Church could be good in theory. It is my estimation that the possible pros are far outweighed by the cons. Is it wise to separate the body of Christ during worship? Is it wise for others to usurp the parents’ responsibility for training children in the way they should go in a society where parents are already so accustomed to others raising their children (see the previous article)? If children, especially young children, learn best from watching and mimicking, when will they see dad sing or mom confess her sins or both with tears in their eyes after receiving the body and blood of our Lord? And finally, what are we subtly teaching children about their value and abilities in worship when we send them down the hall?

Considerations: While there are potential blessings from offering a Children’s Church service, there should be great caution here. Too often Children’s Church becomes play time or song and craft time in a “more fun” room down the hall. More importantly, Children’s Church potentially communicates subtle messages of great gravity that we ought to consider carefully.

Concurrent Sunday School

In a recent survey sent to pastors, 7% of WELS churches reported having Sunday School or a children’s program running concurrently with worship that children could go to instead of the regular service.

For the sake of brevity, most of the pros and cons for this are the same as for Children’s Church. However, this question must also be asked, “If children go to Sunday School during worship, when will they worship?” Worshiping the Lord of Hosts is considered neither optional nor age-specific in Scripture. God wants everything that has breath to praise the Lord in worship.

Parents may make strong comments about Children’s Church or concurrent Sunday School such as, “I was finally able to concentrate. I get so much more out of church now.” However, though these comments are well-intentioned, we must recognize that parents are the ones God has given the task of training their children to do the very thing God wants all people to do—worship.

What is Beneficial?

When considering a few of the solutions that have been offered for serving children in church, we do well to heed the words of Paul: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.3 We surely have Christian freedom to do many things, but not everything is beneficial or constructive for children.

Some may be noticing that I have been burying the lede a bit with this article and the previous. The topic is What to Do with Children in Church? But no answer has clearly been given yet. This is done purposefully. The intention was that we first ponder the struggles many congregations and parents have with children in worship and then consider what many are offering as solutions. With these thoughts in mind, in the next article we will turn to the Scriptures for both prescription and description regarding children in church.

May the Word of truth guide us clearly as we serve all who worship the Lord!

Written by Phil Huebner

1 Some in the broader secular culture—not only Christians—recognize the issues. See: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-overprotected-american-child-1527865038 and https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/02/spoiled-rotten.
2 https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/19/health/children-smartphone-tablet-use-report/index.html
3 1 Corinthians 10:23



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


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



Preach The Word – The Cross as Solution to the Problem of Evil

Welcome a new writer: From 2005-2017 Michael Berg was pastor at St. John’s Lutheran in Wood Lake, MN. He graduated from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France in 2013 and is a fellow of the Academy. He is also a member of the Evangelical Philosophy Society. In 2017 he received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. His doctoral project was “Masks of God: Vocation as the Proper Setting for Human Flourishing.” He now teaches at Wisconsin Lutheran College where he and Dr. Kerry Kuehn from the physics department offer a summer course on practical apologetics geared towards pastors, teachers, and interested laity (wlc.edu/apologetics).

Apologetics in Preaching

The Cross as Solution to the Problem of Evil

A favorite C.F.W. Walther line: “A preacher must be able to preach a sermon on faith without ever using the term faith.”1

Walther’s warning was against preaching faith as if it were a task the burdened sinner must accomplish on his own, thus confusing law and gospel. It was also a warning against turning the sermon into a theological lecture rather than framing the “address so as to arouse in every poor sinner the desire to lay the burden of his sins at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.”2

The pastor must define faith in technical terms, but he must also realize that there are devastated people with him every Sunday who need comfort, not a lecture. His sermons cannot always be about the doctrine of faith but a proclamation of the gospel which arouses faith. Can you preach faith without using the word? Walther says you must.

Walther’s comment about faith and preaching applies also to apologetics and preaching. Preaching apologetically is more than a well-placed apologetic argument here or there. It is rather an attitude, an attitude of concern, one worthy of Peter’s admonition: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt 3:15-16).

Apologetic debates … are not for pulpits.

JP Moreland called apologetics a “ministry of caring.” He was contrasting the apologetics of people like William Lane Craig with the apologetics in which an average Christian pastor or layman might engage. Craig is famous for debates with popular atheists. He’s good. Really good. You should watch the debates. These are important academic exercises. Nor should we forget that Craig and others in the field have knocked the blinders off many intelligent skeptics who in turn reconsidered the claims of Christ. Yet these apologetic debates are better suited for Oxford and Cambridge then for Springfield and Greenville. They are not for pulpits.

Sinner-saints always harbor doubts.

Preaching apologetically is simply concerning ourselves with the skeptics in our pews—skeptics the faithful in our pews will encounter, and the skeptic the faithful deal with every day, the Old Adam. Think of the man Jesus encountered in Mark 9: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). Sinner-saints always harbor doubts. The preacher does damage if he implies that doubting is a sin to be overcome by the sinner himself. “Stop doubting and believe,” he demands without pointing to evidence, that is, making a case (an apologia) for the faith he espouses. We should never forget that when Jesus encountered Thomas, he accompanied a command with his physical wounds in an act of caring. The goal was faith and if it took a hand shoved into the side of Christ, so be it.

That goal of faith is the same for today’s preacher. The apologetic task is incomplete without the proclamation of law and gospel. There would be no point in apologetics without it. The apologist can only knock down arguments against Christianity or assert positive proofs for a viable claim on truth. The apologist can never give faith; this is the work of the Spirit. It has always stuck me that Jesus commanded of Thomas exactly what Thomas could not do on his own, namely, believe. Certainly Jesus knew this? But as the saying goes: Whatever God demands of us; he gives to us in Christ. Jesus said to Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27b) and then Jesus gave Thomas the faith to do just that, believe. The apologist is to proclaim the truth of the gospel, offer evidence when called to, and then let Christ do the real work through the Spirit.

It may be helpful then for the pastor to keep these thoughts in the back of his mind as he prepares sermons: What might doubting Thomas say about my assertions? What might the skeptic say? What might my people say to challenges from skeptics? What does the Old Adam in my people say? And since I am first preaching to myself, what does my Old Adam say about this claim? The preacher is then in a caring mindset sensitive to his listeners’ doubts.

A pattern emerges. First the preacher asks the above questions when encountering a text. He then searches for answers. Somebody out there has thought about these problems before. He might not find a satisfactory answer, but at least he has thought about the issue for the sake of himself and his listeners. After thinking it through he can then begin to craft a sermon or an evangelistic tactic that brings the academic exercise of apologetics to the apologetic task of caring.

Preaching apologetically will thus include some apologetic facts but not a full blown academic debate. It will include pulling the rug out from under a material-only worldview but without a “gottcha” brashness. It will include “Thus saith the Lord” but also a humble attitude. Above all it will aim to arrive at the cross of Christ as efficiently as possible so that the skeptic (and the believer) will see that this is not about winning an argument but about a real Savior accomplishing a real salvation for real sinners. The Christian faith is a claim on reality. These events really happened, and this is good news for you and me.

In this six-part series we will engage some of the apologetic arguments used throughout the history of Christianity. We will then wed them with Christian preaching careful not to obscure law and gospel. We will conclude each issue with an example of such preaching.

The preacher cannot, of course, fully develop each apologetic argument in a sermon, nor would he want to. Nor can we do so here. We will not even come close to touching on all the major apologetic issues of our day. This is for personal study. We hope only to whet the appetite of the evangelism-minded preacher with a handful of resources to begin or continue his journey. Nor are the topics chosen necessarily the most important. They were chosen because they come up naturally in the lectionary in the month or so following an issue’s publication.

This issue’s topic is the problem of evil and the very Lutheran solution of the theology of the cross. Pentecost 22 in Year B (October 21, 2018) lends itself to such a discussion. Mark records Jesus disgust with James’ and John’s discussion about the seating arrangement in the Kingdom. They were being theologians of glory precisely when Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for his date with the cross. Isaiah continues his suffering servant portrait of the Messiah in chapter 53, and the writer to the Hebrews claims Jesus to be our sympathetic High Priest. The psalm selection fits beautifully: Psalm 22.

Now to the problem of evil. How can we reconcile a God of love with a world of evil? Atheists revel in this conundrum. Many point out not only the inconsistency of the situation as they see it but also the violence done in the name of religion and specifically the Christian God. Even more boldly, some assert that God is a moral monster with a long rap sheet of genocide and misogyny. He has even been accused of child abuse at the cross.

Accusations deserve an answer but not a theodicy.

Accusations deserve an answer but not a theodicy, an attempt to reconcile a God of love with evil by vindicating God. Theodicies try to rescue God from his bad reputation. They do not let God be God. The apologist walks a fine line here. Declaring that God allowed or even sent a tragedy to a specific people because of their sin is bad apologetics and bad theology. But so are the seemingly more benign theodicies we hear all the time. We have all heard, and maybe even said, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Maybe. He may also shut every escape like he did in that locked room the Sunday after Easter so that Thomas had nowhere to go but to him. Trite answers to evil are not helpful to the truly suffering. Our job is not to treat God like a piece of property we are trying to sell with a little curb appeal but rather to declare who he is.

Trite answers to evil are not helpful to the truly suffering.

The theologian of glory speculates; the theologian of the cross calls a spade a spade. There is a careful balance in the theology of the cross between speculation and utter meaningless. There is meaning to life, including and maybe most of all meaning to suffering. While the theologian of the cross is barred from speculating, he is not barred from ministering. Consider four spiritual reasons for suffering: sufferings strengthen Christians (Hb 12:7), sufferings teach compassion for others (Ph 2:1-11), sufferings (specifically crosses) are a mark of the church (Ps 116:10 and AE 27:47), and sufferings drive us to repentance, which by the grace of God, hopefully leads us to the Scriptures and ultimately to faith (Pv 3:5). C.S. Lewis called this last reason “God’s megaphone.”3 Only in suffering do we yearn for salvation.4

While the theologian of the cross is barred from speculating, he is not barred from ministering.

We should also allow God his right to punish the unbeliever and chastise the believer. Our contemporary Western world has a problem with God’s anger. We might think, “What’s his problem? Is it really that bad that he must allow earthquakes and disease?” Those suffering in the third-world often have a different perspective. Their complaint is not that God is too angry but too patient with injustice. “How could the Christian God allow such inequality? Why does he not smite the greedy West?” Not only this, but when we look back at the ancient Near East, we are taken aback by the violence and immorality. When we consider that God knew about it all and saw his creation so defiant and so flippant about the rights of human beings, we might wonder why he didn’t rage against humanity sooner. How would you react if your children were mistreated, raped, even sacrificed to the local god? God witnessed this happen to his children. Perhaps he is more patient then we thought.

There are also some logical arguments that combat the atheist’s accusation. First, the ability to define evil at all assumes the existence of a universal morality and therefore a free, powerful, intelligent being outside of time and space (the moral argument). Second, not liking something (a God who allows evil) does not mean that that something (God) does not exist. If that were so, why not wish away cancer? Third, love supposes freedom. In love God allows us freedom. We have misused this freedom and there are ramifications.

The topic deserves more space then we have here. We have to whittle it down even more for a sermon example, but let’s try.

Doesn’t it seem that the disciples are constantly trying to block Jesus’ road to the cross? They saw success and craved it. Who wouldn’t? But what they saw as good was the opposite. Jesus knew that an earthly kingdom would be nothing without a payment for sin. So what seemed to be evil (the cross) was actually the highest good. And what seemed to be good (not being executed) was actually evil. It’s hard for us to blame the disciples though. It’s backwards to think that evil things (failure, disease, injustice, violence) might actually be the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, they are bad, even evil. They would not even exist without sin. But we are to call a thing what it is according to Scripture and not according to sight. So the cross, with all its embarrassment and violence, is good and not just the evil it appears to be.

Well, what about the crosses you bear? Let’s not sugarcoat life here. Let’s not argue about who is the greatest like the disciples did in the shadow of the looming cross. Some of you will go bankrupt. Some of you will die of a disease you’ve never heard of. Some of you might bury your own children. It seems a little small to argue about who is the greatest at such moments, doesn’t it?

So how can we reconcile this coming evil with a God who is constantly telling us that he is love? That might be easy for you if life is going well at the moment. But talk to me when you lie in a hospital bed or when you once again try to intervene with your drug-ridden friend or relative. Tough stuff. The conundrum of a loving God and an evil world has led to many doubts and even atheism. So what’s the answer? Let me boil it down to a few options.

  • Option one: God is not powerful enough to stop evil all the time. The devil and God spar and sometimes God wins and sometimes (a lot of times, it seems) he loses.
  • Option two: God does not care enough to stop evil. This is an even worse scenario.
  • Option three: God simply does not exist. Evil is random and has no meaning. If this is the case, then half of life has no meaning, and that’s on a good day.

But may I suggest a fourth option? God is in charge of evil. It sounds dreadful, but it is truly comforting. Think of Job. God gave the devil permission to go after Job. Dreadful. But what was the result? Job’s faith was strengthened. And isn’t that the goal? What seemed evil was actually good. I wonder if God has given Satan permission to attack you? I don’t know, but I do know that it may be for no other reason than for you to come to Christ in a desperate state. And that’s exactly where you need to be to receive his beautiful promise of life in him.

If the goal is faith in him and the opposite of faith in him is faith in anything else (doctors, government, ourselves), then God must first rid us of this false faith to make way for the Holy Spirit. And if it takes suffering, so be it.

A fourth option: God is in charge of evil.

So, we have more than a God who fights evil, we have one who uses evil for our eternal good. We have more than a God who balances out good and evil but a God who became a curse for our sakes. Listen to Isaiah describe Christ, “Yet it was the LORD‘s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (Is 53:10b). Listen to the writer to the Hebrews describe the same Messiah, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hb 4:15). Listen to Jesus say to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

This is finally what Paul meant when he said, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rm 8:28). Even in the most dreadful evil, the cross, he had you in mind. Even in your most dreadful evil, he has you in mind. So enter the darkness of your crosses with this in mind: I have a sympathetic High Priest who not only knows what I go through, but has gone through it already. Even more, he went through a crucifixion to pay for my sins. All this for my good, my eternal good.

And then emerge on the other side of such evil with Paul’s delight, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rm 5:3-5).

How much more than are you able to love your suffering neighbor, not with trite answers to their pain, but with a real answer, a real Savior, a real comfort?

Written by Michael Berg

1 The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, C.F.W. Walther, 1986 CPH, p. 260.
2 Ibid., p. 260.
3 The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, 1962 Macmillan, 93.
4 The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours, Daniel Deutschlander, 2008 NPH, 114.

Books for further study:

Heidelberg Disputation by Martin Luther
Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough by Alister McGrath
The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours by Daniel Deutschlander
On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde
Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Suffering by Gregory Schulz

Fall planning:

Worship resources for Mission and Ministry Sunday, October 21, or another time, complementing the film To the Ends of the Earth are available at welscongregationalservices.net/totheendsoftheearth: a sermon outline; a new hymn with accompaniment options; and a unison song for children, choir, or soloist (please share the link with musicians).

C18 is a national outreach program with a goal to connect with 1 million unchurched people. Advent planning resources for C18 are available at welscongregationalservices.net/c18. More resources will follow.




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


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



Preach The Word – Luther and the Lectionary

Treasures Old and New

Luther and the Lectionary

“Ah, Luther.” Like an audiophile commenting on Bach, confessional Lutheran pastors utter the name with a sense of awe, respect, and thanksgiving for the life, work, and heritage of Dr. Martin Luther. We revere him, quote him, point to him, apologize with him and, on occasion apologize for him in our teaching and preaching. There is so much that one could offer that it is easier for those in the know to simply look at each and exclaim, “Ah, Luther.”

And yet, no confessional Lutheran preacher would ever leave it at that. For 500 years the Lutheran Reformation has shaped both the religious and secular worlds in which we walk, work, and witness today. It is no wonder that quotes from Luther and the reformers find their way into our sermons. We share sermon highlights, catechetical sections, and snippets from the confessions for the joy and edifying of our people. In doing so, we follow a long line of Lutheran preachers and confessors who would witness to their faith in print and in pulpits throughout the German lands and beyond. Bringing their confession of faith to the biblical storeroom of the lectionary, they found treasures old and new to bring forth.

A Lutheran Lectionary

As the Lutheran Reformation took hold, the reformers sought to develop a worship life that would transition worshipers from medieval self-righteousness to biblical justification by grace through faith. Already by the mid-1520s, the organization of churches in Lutheran principalities had begun. Called the Saxon Visitation, parishes and communities were visited, evaluated, and organized in line with the model set up in Wittenberg. Regional customs and observances were retained or modified, if at all possible, while others were eliminated. Mass-orders were based on the examples of Luther’s German and Latin masses yet they often restored or retained local textual and ceremonial practices. “It is apparent that the various church orders made their own contributions to the evolution of Lutheran liturgy, influenced by but also independent of the contributions of Martin Luther.”1

There grew “a remarkable consensus in the calendrical observances of early Lutheranism.”

As worship life continued to center on the church year, there grew “a remarkable consensus in the calendrical observances of early Lutheranism.”2 Based largely in the historic lectionary, Lutheran churches retained much of the historic church year calendar, especially the festival half, while adjusting for local and regional observances:

  • The Advent and Christmas seasons along with the Festival of the Epiphany remained unchanged
  • The season of Epiphany included the Baptism of our Lord at Luther’s urging, followed by specific emphases each Sunday, and concluding with the Transfiguration (moved from August 6).
  • Lent remained unchanged from Ash Wednesday through Easter Eve, though Good Friday was observed with less somberness and Holy Saturday not at all.
  • Easter Sunday led into the Sundays of the Easter season, each named for specific annual observances.
  • Ascension and Pentecost were celebrated as high festivals, followed by Trinity Sunday.
  • The Sundays after Trinity Sunday were largely marked by lectio continua and semi-lectio continua readings.

Yet as the church year came to an end, the lectionary took a decided Lutheran turn. Luther encouraged special emphases to replace Roman All Saints and All Souls days. The last three Sundays of the church year emphasized:

  • The abomination of desolation (Matthew 25:15-28)
  • The last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Remembrance of the faithful departed (Matthew 5:1-12)3

During the annual cycle, feasts of the apostles and evangelists continued to be observed if they fell on a Sunday. Most of the feasts of the virgin Mary were phased out while the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Visitation were kept. A number of church orders included evangelical observances of local, non-biblical saints.

Conspicuous by its absence, though, was an observance of thanksgiving for the Lutheran Reformation. While much of the church year and its appointed texts were nearly universal, Reformation festivals were celebrated in many and varying ways. Johannes Bugenhagen, among the Saxon visitors mentioned above, encouraged territories to celebrate the Reformation on the anniversary of the date the territory joined the Reformation. Others celebrated on the anniversary of Luther’s birth or death. Still others celebrated on the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. A more unified date for the festival wasn’t established until the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War:

The Thirty Years’ War obliterated these [Reformation] observances, but in 1667 Elector John George II of Saxony reestablished the festival, appointing it for October 31. This date, or the Sunday preceding or the Sunday following, came to be generally accepted in practically all German-speaking and other Lutheran lands, where the festival itself rapidly gained observance.4

Die Heilige Schrift oder Was sagt Luther?

Since then, Lutheran liturgy, Lutheran lectionary, and Lutheran quotes have been fused with biblical proclamation. Week by week our Lutheran heritage has and continues to make its way into the worship lives of our people. Nowhere was this more unmistakably on display than during last year’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Books, movies, articles, daily quotes, devotionals, exhibits, sermons, and the like all celebrated Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. Again and again we heard about Luther’s theology, Luther’s faith, Luther’s Bible, and Luther’s impact on the world.

Yet while millions rejoiced at what God accomplished through the Lutheran Reformation, some were left asking, “Do Lutherans worship God or Luther?” Questions like this are easily dismissed as simple misunderstanding by the uninformed, non-confessional bias from the purveyors of liberal Lutheranism, or unfounded criticism by historical skeptics. Certainly, these have all influenced our Lutheran efforts to clearly proclaim the solae of the Lutheran Reformation. We react, respond, anticipate, teach, and preach with Lutheran tenacity, less the lessons of the Reformation be lost, and rightly so.

Could the way we incorporate Luther into worship give the unintended impression that Luther is Lord?

At the same, we do well to hear such a question as, “Do Lutherans worship God or Luther?” and ask that most Lutheran of questions of ourselves, “What does this mean?” Could the way we incorporate Luther and the Confessions into worship, especially our preaching, give the unintended impression that Luther is Lord? References to Luther’s theology, Luther’s faith, and Luther’s Bible can be rightly understood. Yet such references can also be easily misunderstood, even by those who want to rightly understand.

To be clear, this is about perception and not about quia vs. quatenus. Indeed, our quia subscriptions to the Book of Concord give us every confidence to include quotes from and references to the confessions of our Christian faith and Lutheran heritage. This is obviously a good thing. But to those who are new to Lutheranism or new to the Christian faith, an abundance of such quotes and references may be too much of a good thing. Without thoughtful explanation or careful clarity, even a single quote or reference could result in unintended consequences, leading to misperception. A sermon progression of “The prophet Jeremiah wrote…The apostle Paul wrote…Luther wrote…” may become, to the uninitiated and uneducated, no longer two proof passages and some faithful exposition. Rather, the progression becomes three proof passages. Was sagt Luther can end up being perceived to be on a par with Scripture, not simply quoted because this particular explanation of his is in agreement with Scripture. Sola Scriptura becomes Scriptura et….

When it comes to preaching Luther and the lectionary, the advice here is not to eliminate Luther. Rather, be mindful of how you include Luther in your preaching. We dare not compromise the Word of God for the sake of perception. Yet we are mindful of how we present it for the sake of those listening. We carefully proclaim the Word of Truth. We deliberately apply law and gospel to our listeners. We purposely strive for understanding and clarity. And so, as the writer to the Hebrews encourages, it is also good and right for us to point to and remember the “great cloud of witnesses” and “leaders” who have gone before us. We carefully teach the place that Luther and the confessions have in our preaching and in the worship lives of God’s people. We clarify their relationship to the Word of God. In thanksgiving we “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”5

500th Anniversary Part II

2018 marks another anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the 500th anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation.

The Heidelberg disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 Theses.

Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a “theology of the cross” as opposed to a “theology of glory.” The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology. As a result of the disputation, John Eck proposed a debate between himself and representatives of Luther’s views, which was held in Leipzig from June to July, 1519.6

Here is opportunity to celebrate our Lutheran heritage and rightly use it to point to our Savior. Thank you to Craig Engel for providing the following connections between the 28 Theses of the Heidelberg Disputation and the appointed lessons and themes through the Sundays of Pentecost, Year B. Since Engel’s plan includes dates already passed, I offer two November dates instead. The Heidelberg document is available at the website in endnote 6.

Pentecost 7 – July 8, 2018

Mark 6:1-16, Ezekiel 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Thesis 18 – It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

Pentecost 9 – July 22, 2018

Mark 6:30-34, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:13-22
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Pentecost 14 – August 26, 2018

John 6:60-69, Joshua 24:1,2a,14-18, Ephesians 5:21-23
Thesis 13 – Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
Thesis 14 – Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can do evil in an active capacity.
Thesis 16 – Nor could the free will endure in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
Thesis 17 – Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.

Pentecost 15 – September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23, Deuteronomy 4:1,2,6-8, Ephesians 6:10-20
Thesis 1 – The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
Thesis 3 – Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Pentecost 21 – October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-27, Amos 5:6,7,10-15, Hebrews 3:1-6
Thesis 5 – The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
Thesis 6 – The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.

End Time 1 – Reformation Sunday – November 4, 2018

Mark 13:5-11, Jeremiah 18:1-11, Revelation 14:6,7
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Last Sunday of End Time – Christ the King – November 25, 2018

John 18:33-37, Daniel 7:13,14, Revelation 1:4b-8
Thesis 20 – He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
Thesis 21 – A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

1 Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy, p. 338
2 Ibid., p. 342
3 Ibid., p. 344
4 Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p. 569 (also quoted in Christian Liturgy, p. 345)
5 Hebrews 12:1; 13:7
6 http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following is an introductory “observation” which speaks to the place and impact of catechetical preaching.

I love a good catechetical sermon.

When I hear my pastor read a proof text from the catechism as his sermon text, I look forward to hearing how he is teaching it to his current catechism students. I appreciate the review of my own catechetical instruction, and the new applications of the text to my current life.

The original Handbook to the Small Catechism was dedicated “to all faithful and upright pastors and preachers.” I gain quite a bit from catechetical review in a good catechetical sermon to help me in my role as a Christian father, since Martin Luther suggested that the truths of his Small Catechism were for me to present to my household.

And I know how this has worked in history. Good catechetical preaching has borne fruit in Lutheran congregations.

Almost 500 years ago, a group of families moved to where a mine had opened in the present-day Czech Republic. They named their new town Joachimsthal. That silver mine produced the metal for the coins in their area, which became known as “Thalers,” from which we get our English word, “dollars.”

The year after they founded their town, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, and the Reformation began.

The mining families all became Lutheran. Their story is told by Christopher Boyd Brown in his book, Singing the Gospel. The townspeople opened and supported two Lutheran elementary schools, one for the boys and one for the girls. They supported a number of pastors in a large congregation that contained, at its peak, 5,000 mining families.

Many of their legal and church records have been preserved, and what is striking is the documented evidence of each family being sure that the children learned Bible accounts, Luther’s Small Catechism, Lutheran worship, and in particular, the words of dozens of good Lutheran catechetical hymns. All of that family catechetical work was supported by good catechetical preaching from the pulpit.

After imperial armies took over the territory and banned Lutheranism, a Roman Catholic priest named Franciscus Albanus was sent to the village. He had his doctoral degree from a college where they trained men to oppose the unconditional gospel. Franciscus Albanus worked hard in Joachimsthal. But the children under his care told him the truths of the Bible as they had learned them in Luther’s Small Catechism. The men and women of the village patiently insisted on forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus as their Savior. And the families sang Lutheran hymns in public and private. Of course, there was strong cultural pressure to compromise the truth. But the people held firm. Even armies could not stop them.

Albanus was forced to begin reading through the Lutheran theological volumes stored in the Joachimsthal library in order to “strike the people with their own sword, and convince them out of their own writings.”

Instead, he himself was convinced by the Holy Spirit. Albanus resigned from the priesthood and became a Lutheran pastor. Do you think he engaged in any good catechetical preaching after that?

God bless your faithful preaching, catechetical and otherwise.

Paul Prange, Volume 16, No. 5



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


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



What do you do with children in worship?

Series Introduction

The Look. You know it well. It comes in different shapes and sizes. It comes in different times and places. It comes in different expressions and amounts of seriousness. There are many variations to The Look, but it’s all essentially the same.

You certainly have seen The Look before. You probably have received The Look before. Writing an article first for pastors, I’m quite confident you have given The Look before. The location of The Look is churches, exclusively. The object of The Look is parents, specifically.

What is The Look? It’s a writhing of the brow, a wrinkling of the nose, and a wriggling of the lips that accent a glassy-eyed, ice-cold stare of death. It’s a communication of body language that silently screams, “What is wrong with you? Will you PLEASE shut that kid up?!”

We who are pastors rarely sit with our children, so we might have to go back to seminary or vicar days to remember what it is like to receive The Look. Or we could ask our wives what it is like to receive it (if we dare stir that pot of opinions).

Many times we observe The Look. From the bird’s nest of the pulpit we can survey the congregation and see much of what takes place during worship. We can hear and see the child whining as the parent struggles to soothe and wonders how long to hold out before leaving the sanctuary. We can also see the subsequent turning of heads. Who cares if you were making the greatest sermonic point of your life? At least ten people find it completely necessary to turn and find that disruptive family because they need to be given The Look.

Most times we pastors have familiarized ourselves with The Look because we have given it ourselves. You know the times: When Johnny feels like he has to go marching in with all the saints mid sermon. When the new family decided it would be a good idea to bring a Tonka fire truck and not turn off the siren. When you are pouring your heart out in a sermon you spent plenty of hours on while some (hopefully) well-intentioned parent thinks waiting out a crying child is ideal during worship. When the stray toddler runs down the aisle and looks like he’s going to make a break for the chancel. (All these I’ve personally experienced!)

Yeah. Those are the times we give The Look. Perhaps we give it with our best evangelical spin. But nevertheless we too give The Look that says, “Go ahead kid. Make my day. Charge the chancel and you’ll get the most evangelical death stare you could ever imagine. I’ll ban your family from pot lucks from now until the good Lord returns!”

I know. A light-hearted opening. But don’t let the satire hide the seriousness. Many times we think about these kinds of things that occur within our walls, and we do laugh it off. We shrug our shoulders and say, “There’s not much we can do about that.” We relish a change but relinquish effort so as to keep the status quo. After all, there will always be children and there will always be noise in worship, so we might as well just deal with it.

But I believe this issue is more serious than that and deserves more attention than a roll of the eyes or shrug of the shoulders. Ministry experience has taught me this.

I’ve been at the door of, or in conversation with, many a prospect who has said something like, “Do you have child care or children’s church during your services? If you don’t, I’m not coming.”

I’ve been in council meetings that pushed the boundaries of brotherly conversation as opinionated grenades were launched across the table: “I think all children should be separate in their own service during church so we can concentrate,” . . . “Well, if that happens, I’m leaving!”

I’ve had people leave during worship never to return to worship because of the noise level in church. (Coincidentally, it was my own daughter who stubbed her toe that day.) I’ve had empty-nesters complain about the noise level in church, and then five of them leave membership within a five-month window.

I’ve had parents stare in disbelief when discussion on the topic arises, as if they are surprised their noisy kid would ever be considered a distraction. And yes, I’ve even given my fair share of The Look as pesky peewees pushed my patience while preaching.

This is a big deal. This is a serious issue. Granted, my former congregation was extraordinarily youthful (40% of 300 souls were under age 12!) and our sanctuary was designed for great acoustics. We faced a bigger challenge than most. But every church has children. Every church has visitors and potential visitors with children. No church is exempt from dealing with the issue.

So if many parents and prospects are looking for something for their children during worship, and if children can often be very distracting during worship, and if other worshipers can easily become distracted and upset with distractions . . . What Do You Do with Children in Worship?

Contributions to the Current Situation

This question has taken me on quite the journey. Initially I was searching for that silver bullet that would silence the congregational alligators, hush the zoo of children, and let God’s people go back to focusing on mission and ministry (and worship!). There must be some solution to knock off these three birds with one worship stone! I asked around. I researched. I read. I tried new things. I read some more.

Then, years later, it finally hit me in a lightbulb moment that felt somewhat embarrassing. How could I have been so foolish? I’ve been looking in the wrong place the whole time! It’s not about the children! It’s not like children are suddenly born “worse in church” in the 21st century—as if there is another degree beyond total depravity that children have now reached! No, it’s not about the children! This is really all about the adults!

It’s not about the children! This is really all about the adults!

Take a few moments to consider only a few challenges in the world of adults and parenting today. First, there have been tectonic shifts in generational stability within our country. “The Greatest Generation” carried us on their backs through the Great Depression and WWII. They gave birth to the Baby Boomers who led us toward the ‘60s. But it was the pivotal generation that came next—Generation X. This is the generation that grew up in Vietnam Days, embraced free thinking, embarked on the sexual revolution, and then embodied rebellion against authority and discipline. Perhaps much of their cultural shift stemmed from what was happening at home. Over 50% of those in Generation X experienced some form of childhood abuse and more than 60% grew up in a broken home without both mom and dad present.1 Today, the youngest of this Generation X (those born closer to the 80’s) has children mostly in grade school, with some having high school or preschool children.

Generation X, a conflicted and confused generation, then gave birth to those notorious Millennials. Millennial parents primarily have early elementary or preschool aged children today. That means that these young children coming up through school today are now two generations removed from any kind of parental stability or normality. It shows, too. James M. Pedersen, a principal in New Jersey, wrote a book2 describing in great detail 55 different parenting styles identifiable today.

What’s the point? Many parents today struggle in knowing how to be parents—how to discipline, how to interact with and communicate with their children, and thus obviously, how to have them behave in worship.

Many parents today struggle in knowing how to be parents.

It doesn’t help that these parents are immersed in a post-Christian America. Some 50% of Americans identify as “post-Christian” today. More than 60% of Americans are unchurched or dechurched. And for those that do go to church, almost 40% of Christians today are “not too familiar” with the liturgy (19%) or have “never heard of it” (19%).3 So not only are children growing up in homes without much discipline or parental stability, they are also growing up in homes that are not familiar with being in church. Thus, proper church decorum can often amount to, “What threat, reward, or sticker can be offered in order to keep my kid quiet for an hour?” And if that doesn’t work, “Here, play on my iPhone” often becomes the solution.

There are many more challenges for parents with children in worship today, such as diminishing attention spans due to the 70+ hours Americans average in front of screens per week. But one more challenge deserves a bit more attention here—the age segregation of society.

We are in an era when everyone has their own place or group. There are geriatric and pediatric specialists. There are YMCA camps and programs for every age level. Even churches have senior groups, teen groups, youth groups, Mommy and Me groups, singles groups, young professional groups, and more. But no segregation of society is more significant than between children and adults.

Parents today train themselves to being accustomed to others taking care of their kids. As soon as a child is “old enough,” it’s off to day care or preschool—sometimes for 10-12 hours a day. When school is done, then Shelly is chauffeured and Cara is carted off to gymnastics or swimming or basketball or karate where others continue to take care of the children. But that’s not all. Grabbing a quick couple nuggets at McDonald’s or Chic-Fil-A? No worries! Kids can go to the play place. Need to get a quick workout in? Not a problem! The Y has childcare, too. Need to shop for the newest Swedish-designed lamps? You’re in luck! Even Ikea has childcare! It has become a strange norm today that parents pass off the parenting.

Let’s put this all together then. If a majority of American parents today are “post-Christian” and also non-church going, and if a majority of parents today struggle to know what it means to parent or discipline, and if a majority of parents today have become accustomed to passing off parenting to others, then should we really be surprised in worship that wiggling, whining, and wailing from children have climbed to epic heights while flustered and frustrated parents have bottomed out at miserable lows?

What Does This Mean?

First, the pastoral heart will have sympathy for those who are struggling with their children. (He will certainly also have empathy if his dear wife is herding a horde of littles each week to worship!) With compassion for these struggling parents, the pastor understands that the culture of Christian parenting has greatly changed over the years. Many may not know well how to discipline because they never experienced it themselves. Many newer Christians have also never really experienced worship, let alone liturgical worship. Thus, the pastor is sympathetic because so many parents today are simultaneously experiencing parenting and church for the first time!

Next, the pastoral heart will have sympathy for those concerned about the noise and volume from children during worship, too. We should not be so trite or dismissive as to declare to those concerned, “Well Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ so you’re going to have to get over it.” Remember that such voiced concerns may come from God’s people who desire greatly to hear God’s Word and concentrate on worship. Even though their concerns are not always voiced with Christian care, they can be heard with your evangelical ear. Considering parents’ struggles, some level of distraction is not surprising. The pastor can be sympathetic toward that concern.

Still, the pastor would do well to fully instruct his members about a vow they make so often in worship: “Yes, as God gives me strength.”4 Time and again God bursts open the floodgates of his grace as he richly pours out forgiveness, life, and salvation on a young child or infant newly buried and risen with Christ in the waters of baptism. Following the rite of Christian Worship, the pastor then asks all present if they are willing to assist in whatever manner possible so that the child may remain a child of God until death. Has any pastor ever heard a “No!” to taking up that responsibility? So if the congregation unanimously resounds with the promise, “Yes, as God gives me strength,” then they need to understand what that entails. They need to understand that there will be compassion, encouragement, and support for parents so that in whatever manner possible children may be trained in the way they should go. This includes being trained in how to participate in worship.

In the articles that follow in this series, we will take a closer look at how the pastor and congregation can partner with the parents in such an undertaking. Specifically, our focus will be on how to assist parents in engaging their children in worship.

We will review the pros and cons of various strategies proposed by congregations such as children’s sermons, children’s church, and much more. We will look at biblical and historical precedents (both prescriptive and descriptive) to guide us on parenting and the topic of children and worship. Finally, we will consider a specific strategy aimed at helping parents to engage their children in worship—a strategy supported by Scripture, psychology, and science.

God bless us as we help, encourage, and support letting children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old!5

A Preview of What’s to Come
  • Biblical precedent for families worshiping together in the church
  • Biblical directives for parenting and parental responsibility for teaching children to worship
  • Historical, psychological, and scientific factors that have implications for what is done with children in worship
  • Reviews of common practices with children in worship such as children’s sermons, children’s church, Sunday School held during worship, and more
  • Specific strategies for parents and congregations to help engage children in worship
  • A clearing house of ideas for child involvement in worship

Written by Phil Huebner

In 2007 Pastor Huebner was assigned to start a new mission church in Palm Coast, FL. In the nine years he served there, Christ the King Lutheran Church and School grew quickly and became known for outreach in the community, with many young people and children. He now serves as the Campus Pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, WI where he works with families and children on a daily basis. He received a Masters in Sacred Theology from WLS in 2015 and will finish in January 2019 a doctorate in Missions and Culture from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN. His dissertation is on what to do with children in worship. Departing from the usual custom, Worship the Lord is offering a four-part series on this topic.

1 Statistics from Revolutionary Parenting by George Barna
2 The Rise of the Millennial Parents
3 Statistics from barna.com
4 Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, p. 14
5 CW: 512

Commissioning new music

Is there a special occasion happening in your congregation in the next year or so? An anniversary, retirement, or facility dedication? Consider commissioning new music to celebrate the event. A list of WELS/ELS composers is available here: welsfinearts.org. Or musicians at your church might suggest another favorite composer.

A recent NPH publication is 8 Hymn Preludes for Organ, by Jeremy S. Bakken. The collection bears this dedication: “For Phil Becker from his wife, Lois, in recognition of 50 years of faithful service as an organist in WELS churches. S. D. G.” Phil also served for several years on the Commission on Worship, including as vice-chairman.


Organ Chorales of Samuel Scheidt
Forty-Nine Practical Settings

A new edition is edited and arranged by WELS musician Steven Rhode. From online publicity:

The passage of time hasn’t dulled the craftsmanship and creativity in the chorales of Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). Nearly four centuries after they were first published, the settings still sparkle with innovative harmonies and exuberant rhythmic flourishes. Over time, some of these chorales have changed in common usage from how they were originally published in 1650. This new edition of Samuel Scheidt’s chorales matches the keys, notes, and rhythms of current hymnals while remaining faithful to Scheidt’s musical intent.





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


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



Worship coordinators carry Christ to the heart

With emphasis on Reformation 500, the 2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts brought hundreds together to focus on Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. Exuberant worship used various instruments—the bright sound of the trumpet, the lustrous tones of the violin and (one of my new favorites) the loud clank of the tire wheel during Dan Forrest’s setting of “A Mighty Fortress”1. Each service was meticulously planned to center around the theme of the service, yet everything was put in place to focus on Christ Alone.

Attendees received a worship folder—really a 218-page booklet with all the services and much more. For each service it included a description “About the Service”—useful information to focus the mind and give background knowledge on what was about to be experienced. The “worship folders” had everything necessary to participate in worship, including spoken responses and melody lines to sing. They included lists of service participants: pastors, organists/pianists, directors, and a long roster of instrumentalists. They also included acknowledgments and licenses for copyrighted selections.

Hmm…. How was all of that so brilliantly coordinated? What an incredibly well-done task! Behind the scenes, service orders were planned, hymn and psalm variations were chosen, music was sent to instrumentalists, practiced, and put together in rehearsals. The glorious sounds of the worship conference came from well-prepared instrumentalists, trained choral voices, and hundreds of worshipers in the assembly. The personnel to put together a conference with services of this magnitude included a dedicated planning committee to oversee the intricate details of the service plans.

Could a service like this happen in your church this weekend? While not on this level, God has blessed every congregation with resources for enriching worship. God has given unique gifts and talents to every member of the body of Christ. Are we using all of them to the best of our ability to his glory? Are we doing everything we can to prepare for worship as we would for other important events in our lives—a birthday party, a graduation celebration, or even company coming over for dinner? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And everything you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:16-17).

At some WELS congregations, a person is called or hired to coordinate worship. Together with the pastor, the worship coordinator helps select the service orders, schedule choirs/instrumentalists, and submit license information. Worship coordinators spend time behind the scenes to make worship the best that it can be. At the worship conference three worship coordinators were chosen to lead a presentation on their work. While their congregations’ characteristics may vary from yours, the goals can be the same.

Worship is enriched through musical proclamation of the Word

Martin Luther wrote, “When God’s Word is not preached, one had better neither sing nor read, or even come together.”2 Worship in every WELS church is centered entirely on the Word of God. However, in an hour-long service, how much of the Word is retained, set to memory, and applied to the worshiper’s life? In an ideal situation, worshipers would take home the readings and hymns and study them devotionally throughout the week. But, that’s most likely not the case. Members are sometimes sidetracked in worship, thinking of the last phrase that was spoken or distracted by an unfamiliar melody. Beautiful sections of Scripture sometimes don’t receive the focused attention that they deserve. The words of a hymn can flow by without enough thought about meaning or with scant musical variation to highlight meaning.

For instance, I have sung “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (CW 125) and thought, “What a nice Lenten hymn,” as all four stanzas were sung at the same volume and registration. But could something be done to encourage worshipers to look at the cross on or behind the altar? Could “forbid it, Lord, that I should boast” be sung softly from a humble heart that knows it doesn’t deserve to be in the Lord’s presence? Is there a reed stop on the organ to emphasize the agony, suffering, and affliction produced by the nails and crown of thorns? What if every worshiper sang at full volume the phrase “demands my soul, my life, my all”?

Attention to creative or expressive musical nuances in worship has one simple goal: “The primary objective of music is to carry Christ to the heart…. God placed a beautiful rainbow into the sky as a lasting testimony to his faithfulness. So also Christian artists use color, highlight, and texture to solidify in the heart the message of God’s grace. The Creator has also enabled Christian musicians to join to basic musical sounds rhythm, dynamics, tempo, timbre, pitch, and style so they may touch the heart as they proclaim the gospel.”3

Planning allows integration of musical selections with readings and themes

In a helpful article summarizing the benefits of a music coordinator, Pastor Phil Casmer wrote: “We know that nothing we do this side of heaven will be as glorious as what we’ll experience there where God is with his people—present in glory realized. And yet, we also know that we are given the wonderful opportunity to receive the encouragement of his Word and to bless his name in worship every week. It may be that a music coordinator is something that serves to help you do that. Yes or no, worship is a worthy place to focus our time and resources and energy, a worthy activity for our thought and attention.”4

Pastor Casmer included some excellent points for consideration in his Q & A section at the end of the article. “Certainly there’s something to be said for picking hymns on the basis of good text-study. At the same time, it’s arguable that one could just as well have a sense of the thematic ideas of any Sunday in the Church Year and pick hymns to the same effect…. Chances are good that organists would appreciate a few weeks’ time to prepare hymns and other music rather than cramming it all in 24 hours before worship starts. Why not give it a try? … A worship plan lets you think ahead and take time for good preparation. But it also gives you flexibility. If you’ve done good planning, small changes don’t rock the ship as much because there’s other preparation to rely on. Your organist might feel better about a last-minute hymn change when she’s well-prepared for the other three. On the other hand, we pastors might also consider whether we sometimes make participants slaves to our whims by making worship prep a week-by-week exploration.”

When worship is planned well, it is a team approach. Our church’s planning begins with the pastor who brings worship planning pages to the Worship Committee. The committee looks at the theme of the services, the Scripture readings, sermon texts, hymn suggestions, and any special items that will be included in the services that weekend. Since directors have these pages well in advance, they can select choir anthems that closely match the sermon theme. They can plan liturgy and psalm variations along with special presentation of some hymns. A well-planned worship folder can assure that everyone involved with worship knows exactly what is happening when. The worship coordinator can place anthems in spots that provide an edifying service flow. All the tasks of the Worship Committee are founded on the goal to “carry Christ to the heart” with services planned as well as possible.

Coordination promotes musical excellence in worship

What is musical excellence? I’d argue that it is simply giving God our best. “And shall man alone be still? Has he neither breath nor skill? No, the Church delights to raise psalms and hymns and songs of praise” (CW 222:4). “It is the church musician’s duty before God to practice and perform with the best of his abilities. He ought to do nothing mechanically, by habit, lightly, or casually. Everything in the service ought to be done by decision, with thought and prayer.”5

This does not mean only the most talented can serve in worship. Rather, whatever gifts have been given should be used to the best of one’s ability. What musical gifts and talents has God given members of your congregation? Encourage members to wipe the dust off the instruments they learned as a child. Your flute players may not be able to play a challenging instrumental line of a choir anthem, but they can certainly praise God and enrich his people’s worship by playing the melody of a hymn. For example, if you can raise “Lamb of God” (CWS 748) an octave, the C-C range with no sharps or flats may be a beautiful choice for a beginning flautist. And be ready to invest a bit of time to coach willing players who need some help on anything from reading rhythms to improved intonation.

Encouragement trains future generations of church musicians

Our Sunday school recently sang the first verse of “To God Be the Glory” (CW 399). Those words were taught to children to edify the service. However, one Kindergartener who sang for the service also sang those words to me on our way to school. She informed me that with the help of her Kindergarten teacher, the Sunday school kids would help the others in the class learn the words. Lutheran elementary schools, Sunday schools, and early childhood ministries have an incredible opportunity to teach children biblical truths through song, truths they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

Training musicians at a young age is close to my heart. My mom taught me how to play the piano and continually bought new music for me. My fourth-grade teacher encouraged me to play hymns for the class and to accompany the Junior Choir. She made it seem fun and not intimidating. My dad introduced me to the organ and said it would help if I’d play while he went to communion. Congregation members encouraged me to continue through their positive feedback, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to play for worship ever since.

Is there someone you can influence? You may never know who takes your words to heart. Yet, behind every musician, there is often someone who inspired the use of those musical gifts for God’s glory.

An overview of the position

What exactly does a worship coordinator do? The answer to that question is as varied as each congregation. At the 2017 worship conference, three coordinators put their ideas together to lead a roundtable discussion of the position. The three were Lisa Uttech (Christ the Lord, Brookfield, WI), Levi Nagel6 (St John, S 68th St, Milwaukee, WI) and Debbie Price (St Peter, Schofield, WI). An overview of their duties, schedules, and resources is available online.7

There is already someone at your church who does some of this work behind the scenes, whether it’s the pastor, church administrator, or someone else. But inaugurating the position of worship coordinator—with title, job description, and possibly a divine call—identifies that work as being important to your congregation and its mission. There is always room to grow. Look at what you already do and see where there is room for improvement. Could you add a worship education note to explain various elements of worship?8 Would an instrumental or vocal arrangement help your congregation learn a new hymn? How frequently is there “special music” in your worship? A worship coordinator can help to increase this frequency, contributing more often the spiritual impact of God’s Word set to music—carrying Christ to the heart.

I pray the posted resources will benefit you and your congregation. My efforts may not compare to the talented individuals who plan the services of a national worship conference. But God puts us where we need to be to serve him and his people in that place. St. Paul teaches us, “He himself gave the apostles, as well as the prophets, as well as the evangelists, as well as the pastors and teachers, for the purpose of training the saints for the work of serving, in order to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).

“Before You I Kneel (A Worker’s Prayer)” by Getty, Getty, Taylor, and Townend is a favorite prayer of mine as I begin my daily tasks. (Easy to find online.) Whether your congregation is large or small, all of us who plan worship have the glorious message of the gospel to share. May all the talents of God’s people be used to carry Christ to many hearts through music in our worship!

By Debra Price

Debra, a 1996 graduate of Martin Luther College, serves as worship coordinator at Saint Peter, Schofield, WI, where she also trains the next generation of musicians through teaching piano lessons and substitute teaching.

Involving teens

True story, details altered. Maria and her family recently moved and transferred membership from a mid-size congregation. Gifted at playing the oboe, she had won a top rating at the statewide high school solo/ensemble event. What a surprise to discover that she had never been asked to play at her previous church! Two opportunities were missed: 1) to show that her musical contribution was valuable, and 2) to share her gift with others. Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21.

Excellence in worship

Perhaps for most of us the [national worship] conference is a triennial battery charge—an inspirational encouragement to return to small and medium and large parishes…and do our best. As we ponder what “best” means, it’s good to remember two points.

Excellence is not elitist. The beautiful tone of children singing on pitch and with beautiful blend is impactful to anyone with ears to hear. The precision of Bach played well or a moving concertato communicates across generations.

Excellence is not difficult. But not everyone can play Bach. So note that some musical selections are actually quite simple (especially in some repertoire sessions). These can be achieved at the piano or with a handful of singers and high school instrumentalists. Excellence is not replicating an orchestra; it’s doing the best you can with the resources you have!

From a welcome letter at the 2017 WELS worship conference. The full letter is available at the link in endnote 7.

Examples of worship planning

Sample worship plans from various churches are available here: worship.welsrc.net/downloads-worship/worship-planning. These can be a starting point for creating a customized plan for any church not currently doing this type of longer range planning.

See also from the 2014 worship conference “Working Smarter at Worship” by Jon Bauer and Caleb Bassett: bit.ly/workingsmarterhandout

1 This is included on the double CD of highlights from the worship conference: http://online.nph.net/music-video/cds/wels-worship-conference.html. Choral score: http://online.nph.net/a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god-1.html
To view the conference’s opening festival concert or closing worship service, visit livestream.com/welslive.
2 Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p. 11
3 Christian Worship Manual, p. 57
4 Worship the Lord, no. 68, September 2014. Online at: worship.welsrc.net/ download-worship/wtl-practical-ideas-worship
5 Christian Worship Manual, p. 61
6 If you missed it, check out Levi Nagel’s WELS Connection video update: wels.net/ news-media/together
7 Sermons, presentation handouts, worship service folders, music downloads, and more from the 2017 National Worship Conference are all available FOR FREE at: worship.welsrc.net/worship-conference-2017—useful information for organists, keyboardists, elders, council, choir directors, teachers, as well as for a pastor’s own personal study and growth.
8 See samples at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-folder-notes


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Preach the Word – Lectionary…je ne sais quoi

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary…je ne sais quoi

It is most often heard as a punch line in movies, but the French phrase has its place. Take, for example, its use in in the title of this article. Literally, the phrase means “I don’t know what.” In usage, it is a way to label the inexplicable, especially when one is struggling to articulate an opinion. “The title of this article lacks a certain…je ne sais quoi.”

Last month’s title was “Lectionary Abundance.” This month’s title is the result of the author’s struggle to find a suitable counter to “abundance.” How does one realistically pair “lectionary” with words like paucity or dearth, especially considering the size, depth, artistry, and extravagance of the lectionary’s biblical treasures.

And yet, recent feedback to this series revealed a lectionary challenge not covered in Vol. 21, No. 2. A fellow pastor (for the sake of the article we will call him Don) shared that he struggles on festivals when the lectionary offers the same, or mostly the same, texts through all three years of the lectionary cycle. Is this a lectionary…failure…shortcoming…deficiency? Often these festival texts are so specific to the life of Christ within the Church Year, so rich with imagery and meaning, so beatific in celebration of the day, that they are essential to the worship life of the congregation. Lectionary…weakness? Hardly. Thus, lectionary je ne sais quoi.

Frustrated Perfection-ish

As described earlier in this series, the lectionary, while not perfect in and of itself, is a systematic way to hold forth the perfect Word of God. It may be easy to criticize or question certain selections, or the lack thereof, amongst the lessons of a given lectionary cycle, but it is a fine line between criticizing the lectionary and criticizing the Word. Preaching on Luke 2 for Christmas Eve or John 1 for Christmas Day seems almost obligatory. Yet doing so year after year can leave some preachers feeling like they have said it all before. The Word is perfect, the lectionary has crafted it into a kind of perfection-ish, and yet the frustration remains, at least for some.

One of Don’s specific examples causing him frustration is the three-year set of lessons for Palm Sunday:

Palm Sunday Lectionary Readings

While the Gospel lessons change with each year of the cycle, they are accounts of the same event. The First and Second Lessons along with the psalm remain unchanged. Further, Zechariah 9:9,10 is quoted in Matthew’s account, in essence making one lesson of the two. Year C of the Supplemental Lectionary offers the only alternates to the First and Second Lessons. Add it all up and, at face value, there are only five lessons on which to preach, including the psalm. If a pastor were to preach on each of the five selections, he would be “recycling” in year six of ministry.

By comparison, consider the Second Sunday after Pentecost. There are fifteen lessons from which to choose a sermon text, twenty if the preacher includes the psalm selections:

Pentecost 2 Lectionary Chart

After 15-20 years of different texts, a return to the Gospel Lesson from Matthew in Year A would hardly seem like recycling.

Bored with it all

A certain shut-in enjoyed the visits of her pastors. She was fond of saying to them, “Tell me something good.” By that, she meant, “Tell me about Jesus.” Approaching the age of 100, she could see little more than light and shadow. She could no longer read, but she loved to listen. Her audio Bible and Christian hymn CD’s were her constant companions. But she loved to hear “something good” from her pastors. She had heard about Jesus many times before and in many ways, but she loved to hear about him again and again.

If questioned, there is little doubt that any believer would disagree with her. All believers love to hear about Jesus. But Don shared that his frustration with the lectionary was made all the more pointed by the comments of a parishioner who questioned Don’s ability, and the ability of pastors in general, to bring out new treasures from the Word. I’m sure the commenting parishioner would agree that he wanted to hear about Jesus, yet he complained “I’ve heard the same thing over and over again.”

Comments like these come in many and various ways. This author recently heard the comment, “Dad, your sermon today was different. It was interesting.” (The sermon included a brief Q&A, required a volunteer, and incorporated a multi-sensory visual aid.) Another pastor once heard, “After all of these years, I thought that I had heard it all on Palm Sunday, but you showed me something new.” (The sermon connected Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with his entry into our worship, homes, and hearts—something new to him, at least.) While both comments were intended as compliments, they were also indicators of the pre-service expectations of the individuals. They were surprised to see and hear something new. To be sure, they were both pleasantly surprised. But how many settle in to hear a sermon expecting a “same-ol’, same-ol’” experience? Or to take it a step further, how many come with a bored-with-it-all attitude?

Pressure, Point

It is no wonder, then, that a preacher may feel both the pressure and the desire to bring out new treasure each time he preaches. A pastor doesn’t want bored parishioners. A preacher likes compliments on “interesting” sermons. He feels a sense of responsibility to present the Word as best as he can. He strives to be a good steward of the gifts and opportunities he is given to preach the Word. But there is a reason he is encouraged to bring out treasures both old and new. There is blessing to be found in new treasures of fresh perspective and poignant application just as there is also blessing to be found in the “same-ol’, same-ol’” preaching of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Rather than give in to pressure, recognize the manifestation of the unholy trio at work in both the parishioner and the pastor. Parishioners bored with a text often mirror their pastor’s boredom with the text. A shepherd chasing after something shiny and new for the sake of “shiny and new” can foster a similar desire in the flock and a consequential discontentment with simplicity. Point out the slippery slope of correlating the perceived “quality” of the message with its perceived “effectiveness.” If we are not watchful, a desire for proclamation can be replaced with a craving for innovation. Gratitude at what God has done can become conditional on the novelty of the message. “Tell me something good” easily corrupts into “Tell me something better than last time.”

God’s people need to hear the simple unvarnished truth, be it the harsh condemnation of the law or the sweet assurance of the gospel. Take them to cross, and they will not be left wanting. Preach the Word that the good work begun in them may be carried on to completion. After all, “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). Point God’s people to Jesus, and they will follow in his steps.

In many ways, festival preaching is the easiest time to do this. It is easy to point to Jesus in the manger, to Jesus revealed in glory, to Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. But in some ways, festival preaching can also be challenging. Repetitive lectionary selections seemingly narrow the possibilities. Schedules around festivals tend to be busier than at other times of the Church Year. Time spent studying a chosen text is abbreviated. Short cuts are taken. A quick glance into the storehouse results in presenting the easiest treasures to grab.

Sadly, such an approach can lead to frustration later on. It doesn’t take too many cycles of the Church Year before “new” becomes “old,” “interesting” becomes “repetitive,” and the storehouse seems bare. Keeping in mind the encouragements above, there are additional ways to continue to bring forth treasures old and new from the lectionary, year after year. What follows are some practical ideas for preaching reinvigoration.


If a preacher finds himself struggling to bring forth treasure, especially for festival preaching, take a closer look at the individual selections. Fewer selections and previous study can be a solid foundation on which to build. Ask yourself some searching questions: How exhaustive has your text study been in the past? Could you dig deeper? Have you examined every facet of every gem in every selected text? What differing perspectives could be explored? Could a change in preaching style be an interesting challenge? (Consider, for example, an inductive approach to the text, rather than a deductive, propositional approach.) Have you spent time working with the text to determine where it fits with the cycle of the Church Year, how it relates to the chapter and book in which it is found, what connections are to be discovered between the Old Testament and the New, between prophecy and fulfillment, between then and now and forever? What insights could be gained from the Prayer of the Day? And yes, it might be beneficial to see what others have written, crafted, even composed based on the same text.

A seminary junior once asked a retired seminary professor which commentary the professor felt best captured the psalms. His reply? “Do your own work.” Sage advice, to be sure. And yet what blessings can come to the struggling preacher who, after careful study himself, finds additional treasure through the work and experience of others.

Nesper, n’est-ce pas?

Still struggling? Consider some alternate texts. Paul Nesper’s Biblical Texts1 includes more than a dozen lectionaries developed for use during the Church Year. Among them are the Soll, Thomasius, and Swedish lectionaries. Most are one-year cycles but still offer a number of options. For example, consider lectionary selections and alternates for Pentecost Sunday, the Coming of the Holy Spirit2:

Pentecost Lectionary Alternates

In addition to these selections, Nesper provides a number free texts, similar to E.H. Wendland’s Sermon Texts.3 These selections not only provide additional choices for preaching, they can often provide additional perspective on the already appointed texts. All combined, this trove of selections offer a wealth of additional treasure to present on Pentecost Sunday or any other given festival.

Occasional Opportunity

Festival preaching is a special opportunity to preach the Word surrounded by the joy of the season as God’s people celebrate with gratitude all that has been done for them in Christ. As the preacher chooses a text for special consideration on these and any other occasion, his job is not to unearth hidden truths lost to the ages, wow his listeners with clever takes, or try to prove his mettle through innovation. Rather, his job is to clearly sound the saving message of Jesus again and again to the immediate reassurance and the eternal confidence of God’s people. The appointed lessons of the lectionary are but curated suggestions from God’s Word, carefully chosen to proclaim the Father’s love for his people through his Son. Yet it continues to be a storehouse from which the preacher brings forth treasure old and new. Use it, renew in it, and preach it for what it is, the Word of God.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

1 Biblical Texts Paul W. Nesper, 1961 Augsburg Publishing House.
2 Ibid., p.369.
3 Sermon Texts E. H. Wendland, editor, 1984 Northwestern Publishing House.

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storehouse of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to the importance of good text study to the exhausted preacher.

The more we study each Word as God gave it, the more we overflow with love for the Lover of our souls.


Περισσευω—At least twenty-seven times in twenty-two passages of his thirteen epistles the Lord’s Apostle Paul uses this favorite word. Paul puts περισσευω in faith-born love contexts like the great resurrection chapter which concludes in triumph: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to (περισσευοντες – literally “overflow with”) the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

When the glass of our heart is filled to overflowing with the “the water of life,” the message of Christ’s substitutionary death and glorious resurrection overflows into our work for the Lord. This overflow keeps us from being discouraged by everything the devil throws at us. “For just as the sufferings of Christ περισσευω into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort περισσευω.” (2 Corinthians 1:5). With this word the Holy Spirit pictures the super-abundance of God’s blessings in Christ. Paul wrote to his dear Philippians: “…Your joy in Christ Jesus περισσευω.…. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have περισσευω” (Philippians 1:26;4:12).

What pastor has not at times felt like an old hand-operated water pump? Every person asking him for help seems to drain something out of him until he feels useless and dry. One pastor on a retreat was advised, “If your reservoir runs dry, you’ve got to go deeper.”

In the drought of 1988, Minnesota farmers did something that seemed very strange to metro area residents. They took their heavy equipment into the dried up ponds and lakes around their farms and dredged out the bottom. “Why are you doing that?” neighbors asked. “There’s no water. It’s a drought.” The farmers answered in typical fashion by shaking their heads and going back to work. And when the rain returned they had deeper water on their acreage for the next drought. Few suburbanites realized that their farming neighbors may have contributed enough to the water table to keep their precious lawn sprinklers swishing in the heat.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5-8).

In seasons of spiritual drought, gospel preachers especially need to dig deeper wells, not into human sources, but into the one source of “living water,” the Bible. We can περισσευω more abundantly by drinking deeply of the gracious water of life waiting to be tapped in the Holy Spirit’s original languages.

Mark Cordes – Volume 6, No. 5, May / June 2003


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Let’s rethink how we think about technology in worship

The debate concerning the role of screen technology in worship is nothing new. The pages of this publication took up the topic already more than ten years ago. The good advice given then could be summed up neatly with one word: moderation.

But cultural and technological developments since that time have given new insights on the effects of pervasive digital technology in our homes, classrooms, and public spaces. Indeed, as screens transition from large-format installations in front of the crowd to small-format devices in every purse or pocket, the question of the appropriate role of screen technology in worship is as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

My contention is that the current state of affairs requires more than merely updating our advice for the latest devices. Instead, we must rethink how we think about screen technology in leading the congregation in liturgy and song.

Test our fundamental assumptions

One way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to test our assumptions. A mistaken assumption at the foundation of our thinking will lead to flawed applications later. The result may be a flurry of mitigating efforts, few of which address the fundamental issue at the root of it all and some of which may actually make matters worse.

For example, the thinking about screen technology to lead the congregation in liturgy and song generally goes something like this: “The screen will be an alternative to what’s printed. Those who wish to use the screen will use the screen, and those who wish to sing and speak from the hymnal or worship folder will sing and speak from the hymnal or worship folder.” The assumption is that screen technology is a neutral medium and therefore assumes a supplemental role in the worship space. I believe that this assumption is almost certainly mistaken.

Consider some recent research from the field of educational science. Anyone connected to a school or college knows that the use of screens in education has become almost the sine qua non of what’s considered quality educational methodology. Administrators first installed screens in the front of classrooms and information-dense books and handouts were replaced by semantically-thin slide decks. More recently, screens were put in the hands of every student through direct funding or policies requiring students to “bring your own device” (BYOD). While educators vigorously debated the relative merits of various devices and software programs, the general assumption was that any added technology would be an improvement.

The assumption is that screen technology is a neutral medium….

But recently the debate over which devices and software to use in education has dramatically shifted to whether such technology should be used in the first place—or at the very least, whether it should always be used. Prompting the shift were studies demonstrating that students who took notes on laptops or tablets achieved poorer outcomes than those students who processed coursework with non-digital technologies such as ruled paper and a #2 pencil.

Even more startling (and relevant to the topic of this essay) was the discovery that the use of screens in the classroom had a degrading effect on peers who did not use a device. Researchers compared the effect to something like cognitive secondhand smoke. Merely being in view of an active screen has been shown to cause a degrading effect on the focus and attention of nearby peers.

This result may not be all that surprising when we consider our own experience. Human beings are generally powerless to ignore surprising new information in their field of vision, an effect most pronounced when new visual data appears in the periphery of our focus. This is why something that appears alongside you so easily startles you. It’s why your laptop displays notifications in the upper corner of the screen. It’s why a flickering light bulb will make you look again and again long after you’ve consciously acknowledged that the bulb is flickering.

Generally speaking, liturgical churches that decide to adopt screen technology to lead the congregation in liturgy and song seek a physical arrangement that doesn’t necessarily replace the altar, font, and pulpit as the focus of the worship space. This leaves the areas slightly above and to the edges of our visual focus for the screens to be installed. Ironically, the laudable effort to preserve the architectural and liturgical integrity of the worship space moves the screens to a position where the visual effect of disruption and distraction is the strongest.

Remember also how screen technology works: imagery and text (often animated) is projected as flickering light in front of the congregation. Projection slides suffer from resolution constraints—a slide can only hold a small amount of visual information while also retaining legibility. Such resolution constraints are the reason why information-dense content like liturgy and song must be split over numerous slides. Text and tune that fit easily on a single 6×9 page usually require more than a dozen slides in a hymnal projection edition. Each build in the slide deck is another blink or flash (not to mention another opportunity for disruptive human error). It becomes virtually impossible, then, for the worshiper to keep his or her eyes from the magnetic allure of the projected pixels as they flicker in the most sensitive part of the visual field. And once neighboring worshipers are invited to swipe their way through the service on a smartphone or tablet, the effect may well become even more pronounced.

The screen will accept nothing less than to own the room.

Screen technology tends to disrupt other media and easily dominates the environment by demanding attention from everyone in view. This is not supplemental, additive, or merely neutral; it is a fundamental reorientation of the worship space. Indeed, the screen will accept nothing less than to own the room. To assume that worshipers who find screen technology disruptive or distracting will be able to simply ignore it misunderstands the nature of the medium and downplays the qualities of our human senses. This is why more and more instructors (especially in higher education) are surprising their colleagues with the announcement that they, too, are eschewing the use of screens in their classrooms. Worship leaders may wish to rethink the issue as well.

Examine our embedded metaphors

A second way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to examine our embedded metaphors. We have certain ways of describing topics that may preclude us from seeing a topic in a different—and perhaps better—light.

Consider, for example, how technological metaphors dominate the ways our culture describes the world around us. The enduring mystery of human consciousness is explained in terms of a computer that “processes information” and “stores things in memory” in spite of the fact that the human mind does no such thing. The paradigm of technocracy that so dominates American civic life creeps also into our conception of Christian ministry: people are no longer complex, embodied beings in need of the daily care of a shepherd but instead become resources to be “managed” and workers to be “activated” by ministry experts. Rich concepts like “preach the Word” and “encourage one another” are replaced with phrases like “deliver Christian content.” Embedded metaphors refashion the world in their own image.

One metaphor that deserves scrutiny is the idea of “technological progress.” Because of the undeniable progress that human society has enjoyed as a result of technological development, we have adopted the word “progress” for virtually any new application of technology. The more radical technologists in society go even further. They alloy the idea of progress with an assumed sense of inevitability to it all. This is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley and is rapidly assuming an outsized role in shaping the broader society’s view of moral philosophy and ultimate purpose. Nevertheless, enough dark footnotes are attached to the use of technology to prevent us from equating progress with any and all application of technology.

Historians point out that the 20th century saw an unprecedented amount of death not because of plagues or natural disasters but because mankind had developed technologies to make the mass destruction of human life possible. This is not to equate PowerPoint with concentration camps or Facebook with napalm, but to illustrate that it is intellectually dishonest to reason that the application of technology is in itself human progress.

We can escape the unhelpful “are you for progress or against progress” dialogue.

By examining this embedded metaphor we can escape the unhelpful “are you for progress or against progress” dialogue that can so easily arise when a diverse group of individuals discuss how best to walk together in Christian community. If we can accept that new technology does not in itself equal progress, then we will enjoy the freedom to accurately assess when the application of a particular technology might not, in fact, be progress toward the goals of Christian worship. After all, making a wise decision not to do something is as vital a form of progress as any other. Indeed, it may be a kind of progress we need.

Embrace our cultural anchors

A third way to rethink how we think about screen technology in worship is to embrace our cultural anchors. Let us enjoy the happy reality that time and time again the cultural practices of the church, shaped as they are by the gospel of Jesus Christ, become suddenly relevant to a new generation of people disillusioned by the listlessness of life unanchored by ultimate truth.

For example, we’re observing in our society the growing strength of a sort of digital temperance movement. The movement is motivated by a variety of cultural developments. Waves of revelations have detailed how social media companies have explicitly engineered their products to harvest profit from our insecurities and have deliberately worked to draw us into destructive patterns of digital addiction. It seems increasingly impossible to find a public space that isn’t dominated by scrolling chyrons covering the latest political demagoguery and highlights of hat tricks and home runs. Even the local gas station punctuates the few quiet moments spent topping off the tank with a rapid-fire barrage of ads, news blurbs, and weather reports. Few moments remain that are not held captive to the content of a screen.

Commentators have called this the “attention economy.” In a traditional economy natural resources are developed into products which are sold for profit. In the attention economy you are the product and your attention is the resource to be mined. One author has fairly called the business tactics of the attention economy a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” How apt. The goal of the attention economy is not to invite you to enjoy life in the full, but to convert you into a compulsive checker of news feeds and binge watcher of original programming.

The reaction has been what you might expect. People are sensing that something’s being done to them and it’s not benevolent. Ironically, the dominant forms of expression today (i.e. social media) are filled with depictions of disconnecting from digital technology. Photos of open books, quiet spaces, and peaceful settings offer the modern mind a glimpse of the alluring hope that man does not live on likes alone.

In this environment the temptation is to become ourselves captains of industry in the attention economy. We could fill the pre-service time with rotating ads for church events. We could shoehorn a showing of the WELS Connection between the offering and the prayers. We could assume that colorful clip art will make a great hymn even greater. But modes and methods better suited for the attention economy are becoming more and more likely to elicit a reaction like, “Eww, gross” instead of, “Hey, cool.”

Likely to elicit a reaction like, “Eww, gross” instead of, “Hey, cool.”

And so here we are again—the seemingly old-fashioned, liturgical, Lutheran church anchored to ultimate truth is bringing out treasures old and new to a world dying for something better.

We are fellow travelers who answer the call of Jesus Christ to be a communion of believers shaped over lifetimes by patterns and paradigms not immediately apparent to the world. Our churches are places where the primary task is not to demand more attention but to offer Sabbath rest for the whole person—body and soul. What we offer is not something that attracts eyeballs with its overwhelming brightness but creates a new heart of worship by its captivating beauty.


I have taken an admittedly contrarian view on the topic of screen technology in worship. Indeed, any call to rethink implies that the process may involve discarding some ideas and reforming some assumptions. Yet I have not indulged in a simplistic “all technology is bad everywhere” jeremiad. I have pointed out that just as it is true that not all technology is bad everywhere, it is equally true that not all technology is good everywhere. The wisdom is in discerning between what’s good and what’s bad—or perhaps even more difficult, between what’s good and what’s best.

Not all technology is bad everywhere … not all technology is good everywhere.

I have presented a range of empirical, cultural, and theological observations that I believe support the conclusion that congregations which resisted the impulse to direct attention to the screen may rightly feel validated in their decision. I sense that this may also be a good time for congregations who bet all the blue chips on the power of presentation technology to reexamine whether such practices will foster the kind of embodied community that offers a countercultural witness to the commercial logic of the attention economy. The modern world is oriented toward the fundamentally ephemeral model of content delivery, but the gospel creates an eternal community gathered around a word and a meal. While I remain fascinated by technology and enjoy the benefits it has brought to my life, it seems nonetheless unmistakable that the character of the kingdom to come will be decidedly more human than machine. Perhaps it will be best for the character of our worship to reflect this in a time like ours.

By Caleb Bassett

Pastor Bassett serves at St. Stephen, Fallbrook, CA. He is a member of the WELS Hymnal Project Executive Committee, serving as chair of the Technology Committee. He has designed the project’s public website as well as its private side for managing work by seven subcommittees.


Worship the Lord previously addressed projection in numbers 27 and 28: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture. Note the supplemental content posted along with the archived issues. One item is “Designing a Worshipful Environment,” 38 pages of helpful content by former Mission Counselor Wayne Schulz (d. 2011). See “Screens or Not?” Regarding some uses of projection, he wrote in 2000/2005, “Time will tell if this serves as an aid or a distraction….”

See also Caleb Bassett’s presentation from the 2017 worship conference, a narrated presentation “Screens in Worship,” worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/2017-worship-conference-presentations. Direct link: vimeo.com/228517631.

Holy Week Resources

If you haven’t finished planning for Holy Week, find some ideas under Church Year Planning Resources here: worship.welsrc.net/church-year-planning-resources.

Check for new music at NPH: online.nph.net/music-video/sheet-music/choral-music.html. Use the seasonal filters to find a new setting by Phillip Magness of “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.” Also John Reim’s “Lamb of God,” perhaps with a vocal quartet (or two voices on a part) if you don’t have a regular full SATB choir. Could the string trio part be played on an electronic keyboard?


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Preach the Word – Lectionary Abundance

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary Abundance

Ah, the exquisite agony of a “difficult” decision: taking it all in, evaluating the options, narrowing the choices, flopping back-and-forth, making a choice, taking possession, experiencing some buyer’s remorse, then joyful satisfaction. And that’s just what your average church-goer experiences every Sunday as he decides which home-baked treat(s) to have with his coffee during fellowship hour. But consider the difference if the decision involves a salad bar. The decision-making process is easier. Nearly all of the items are good for you. The only guidelines are your personal likes, the size of your plate, and the number of trips you are allowed to make.

As you enter once again the treasure house of God’s Word through the lectionary you find yourself in a similar situation. A new week has begun. You look at the appointed lessons and their summaries. You take the time to see how they fit together for that day and how they fit into the grand progression of the church year. It is all laid out for you to behold. There is so much to choose from and it is all good for you. There is no agony, just exquisite joy in taking it all in. You could, and will, delight in its glorious nourishment for eternity.

And yet you have been called by a gathering of believers to bring forth from the storehouse treasure which will be nourishing to them. As much as you enter the storehouse to your own blessing, your primary purpose is on behalf of the people you have been called to serve. Yet your intimate relationship with your Lord and your specific training for this work sets you up for a difficult decision—the exquisite agony of deciding what you will proclaim to those same believers through your preaching…and what you will not.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once noted that the number two greatest fear of people is death. The number one greatest fear is public speaking. In other words, he concluded, people would rather be in the coffin at a funeral than giving the eulogy. Because of this fear of public speaking, those new to it invariably begin with a hope for brevity by asking themselves, “How long does this need to be?” I know few preachers who ask themselves that question, and for good reason. The storehouse of God’s Word is an abundance from which to bring forth treasure after treasure. There is no shortage of material. But considering this abundance of the Word and a preacher’s call to representative ministry, perhaps he ought to still ask a similar question from time to time, “How long should this be?”

I resemble that remark

Yes, the focus of this article is indeed on the length of a sermon. (Go ahead and assume a defensive position.) Seriously or semi-seriously, all preachers have been chided for long-winded preaching. Most preachers recognize that this chiding comes with the job. A preacher is out there speaking in public. The public, therefore, has many and varied opinions on both the preacher and the preaching. Up for commentary by the public (parishioners) is everything from content to creativity, from authenticity to energy. But nothing empowers a parishioner to complain to a preacher more than a sermon that is too long.

The preacher, of course, is ready with a host of sanctified (and not-so-sanctified) responses: “People ought to be able to listen to a 30-minute sermon.” “The text required this amount of time.” “The Spirit works as he wills.” “People are always looking for something to complain about.” “This is the way God made me to preach.” Sadly, these comments are often received as more sanctimonious than sanctified, especially by those who are truly struggling against the flesh to stay focused and attentive to the Word of the Lord and the preacher who is proclaiming it.

Would not a faithful preacher take the time to receive these comments as constructive criticism and seek to understand their purposive nature? As blogger Thom Schultz points out, the comments may reflect the lower retention rates of the lecture method, the shrinking of modern-day attention spans, the passivity of parishioners listening in the pews, and the paucity of auditory learners (as opposed to visual and physical).1 Additionally, parishioners may have specific expectations regarding not just the length of the sermon, but also the length of the service. Such expectations are typically neither right nor wrong in and of themselves. Faithfulness to God’s people leads the preacher to lovingly honor them, and when necessary, patiently adjust them. Faithfulness to the Lord leads the preacher to honestly wrestle with the difficult question, “How long should this be?” Ah, the exquisite agony of a difficult decision. “What will I share… and what will I not?”

The exquisite agony of a difficult decision. “What will I share… and what will I not?”

A very good place to start

Let’s face it, the Spirit’s blessing of sanctification and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary homiletical training are to blame for the difficulty of the decision. The Spirit’s blessing instills in preachers a deep love for the Word, a heart for people battling the darkness of sin and unbelief, an aptitude to proclaim healing and hope, and a desire to share what is desperately needed. Homiletical training provides a systematic approach to exploring the storehouse of God’s Word, expositing the treasures within, purposely summarizing and applying those treasures to the lives of listeners, and coherently communicating them. All of this comes together for the preacher as he finds himself readily assenting to the oft-quoted statement: There truly are 100 sermons in every text. The treasure is so abundant!

To illustrate the point, consider The Preacher’s Apprentice. Pastor Mark Cordes has been publishing this dynamic dictionary since 1999. Each reading in the lectionary is exhaustively studied, most texts receiving treatment in 40-60 pages.2 The abundance is overwhelming, and yet the opportunity to delight in the Word of the Lord is spiritually enthralling. Pastor John Koelpin also wrote of this abundant treasure and the challenging joy of Scriptural mining in PTW’s Volume 5 #4.

Text study is hard work, but it is exhilarating. For sinners it is perhaps as close as we can get to gazing at the jewels of heaven that John beheld in his revelation. As the preacher turns his text inside and out—studying it in its immediate context, looking at it in the wider context of the entire Bible, picking it apart word by word and phrase by phrase in the original, and viewing it through the eyes of previous confessors—he finds a bit of gold here and some shining sapphire there, just waiting to be displayed before the hearts of God’s people. Like the prophets of old we “search intently and with the greatest care” (1 Peter 1:10).

A good preacher loves his time in the Word studying the text. Yet the abundance of treasure leaves the preacher with the exquisite agony of a difficult decision: choosing the treasure to summarize and display in a faithful, applicable, and timely way. “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon said of sermon length, “We are generally longest when we have least to say.”3 As true as that may be for some, this author contends that the primary cause of lengthy sermons in WELS is that there so much to say and preachers want to proclaim it all!

After exhaustive research and careful crafting, a budding Junior seminarian once proudly turned in the manuscript of his first sermon. Eagerly he awaited feedback from his homiletics professor, anticipating that the sheer volume of biblical exposition within its pages would translate into equally abundant accolades for its author. Imagine his disappointment when the professor simply commented, “Good work, but save some for next week.”

Perhaps the most common advice from the pew for long-winded preachers is simply “Don’t preach so long,” as if a preacher could simply set an alarm and stop talking at the “bell.” Yet equally ridiculous is an approach that meanders through the results of a text study, recycles similar thoughts within the sermon ad nauseum, or strings together a series of stories with some vague references to a text. Such ramblings invite critical commentary and rightly serve as a reminder to work at crafting the message.

Telic like it is

To put it simply, the point is the point. Even a ten-minute sermon can seem long if it is struggling to bring out the main thrust of the text. Faced with an abundance of treasure discovered during text study and as interesting as all those treasures may be, keep the message focused on the main point. Save some treasures for a Bible study, a blog, “take home” materials for use during the week4, or three years later when the text and its related readings come up again. The storehouse is filled with treasure, yet the preacher’s goal is to help his hearers to focus on that one pearl, that one gem that the Spirit will use as he wills. As one bishop was fond of telling his vicars, “Provide the nail on which people can hang their hats.”

Goal for it

Setting a goal that is in keeping with both biblical and local expectations will greatly help direct the process of crafting a message for God’s people. The most impactful advice this author has received for sermon length came from a Taste of Ministry experience during high school. The host pastor explained that he knew how long it typically took him to preach so many words. He would set his word-count goal and craft his sermon with the goal in mind.

Certainly this approach could lead to slavish adherence to meeting an arbitrary goal at the expense of faithful exposition of a given text. Yet in nearly 20 years of this author’s preaching, a word-count goal has led to a plethora of blessings. Such an approach has led to critical editing, re-working of outlines, the elimination of interesting yet inessential illustrations, and an overall striving for excellence. Good “stuff” has been left on the cutting room floor. Yet the final result from this is a better-crafted message. Essentially, if the length of the sermon goes beyond the word-count goal, it better be worth it.

Good “stuff” has been left on the cutting room floor.

It’s all in the timing

Give yourself plenty of time for crafting, especially if you tend to leave your “sermonizing” to the last minute. Sadly, many preachers are still working on their sermons into the late hours of Saturday night or even the early hours of Sunday morning. Assuming that there has been faithful text study, a message has now been prepared, but how much time has been dedicated to rework? If you find yourself regularly ad libbing during your presentation, or have used the phrase “and that’s another thing” while you are holding forth (yes, this has happened), consider setting aside more time for honing and crafting your message. Give your sermon the priority that proclamation of the Word deserves. Give yourself the time to craft a message in keeping with the gifts God has given you. Make use of fellow believers who can offer constructively critical feedback both after and before you preach. Many a sermon has been preached that could have been better crafted, more clearly communicated, and more succinctly presented simply because the preacher did not take the time to revise.

We are often our own worst enemies. Most preachers get into a rhythm when they preach. They have developed a style, an approach, and a delivery that works for them. These personal aspects to preaching can have a profound impact on the expectations of a congregation, especially when those expectations are in conflict with the personal aspects of the preacher’s preaching. If local expectation is a 20 minute sermon and a 60 minute service, repeatedly preaching and worshiping beyond those expectations will only irritate the sensitivities of the congregation. Lovingly honoring and, when necessary, patiently adjusting those expectations (as encouraged above), can bring preacher and parishioners into a more mutually beneficial harmony. If the preacher desires more time to preach, be willing to patiently help the congregation to see the blessings of a 70 minute service to allow for it. If the service on a given Sunday will include worship aspects like baptisms, Holy Communion, and confirmations, be willing to preach a shorter sermon, recognizing that the means of grace are still active and working through all aspects of corporate worship. If sermon length is truly an issue, take time with your Elders and other mature Christians in your congregation to find out what will best serve the flock. Forcing parishioners to listen to long sermons again and again does not eventually lead to a love for long sermons.

“More” myth

Reconciling “less is more” with “more is better” can be quite the challenge. Yet these phrases have often become axioms to the listener in the pew. A balanced viewpoint recognizes that “Less is [not necessarily] more” and “More is [not necessarily] better.” Generational bias can stimulate this quantity vs. quality struggle not only within the congregation, but also within the preacher. Challenging personal bias towards long or short preaching is a healthy thing to do. Allow the circumstances, context, and occasion to help you craft a message to the edification of God’s people. After all, Jesus once preached a precipitous sermon that lasted all day, yet he was also mindful of his disciples’ limitations, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12,13).

Time’s up

Practicing what this article preaches, it was sent to a fellow pastor for feedback. In his response he shared that his congregation had made the move to every-Sunday celebration of the Sacrament. At the time, there was concern about over-all service length.

I didn’t want service length to serve as an obstacle to appreciating the gifts of the Supper. And so I set out to change how I preached. What I found is that in my 22-minute sermons, I wasn’t speaking as clearly and specifically as I could have. I had grown comfortable in saying things in certain ways. That 22-minute mark fit like my well-broken-in slippers. I started spending more time in text study and more time in revision. It wasn’t an easy process. It is harder for me to preach for 16 minutes than 22. But I have appreciated the results. My sermons are more focused now and there has been a renewed interest and appreciation for the whole sermonic process.

Ah, the exquisite agony of difficult decisions and the immeasurable blessings of a well-crafted sermon, all from the abundance of treasure found in the storehouse of God’s Word. The power of our great God is such that he can work just as effectively through an eight-minute sermon as he can a 45-minute sermon. We may not have a biblical formula for the perfect length of a sermon, but we do have a perfect God. He uses imperfect preachers who have been given the grace to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

1 https://holysoup.com/the-perfect-length-for-a-sermon/.
2 For information on The Preacher’s Apprentice, contact Pastor Mark Cordes – m.cordes@comcast.net. A sample study for Easter 4B Good Shepherd Sunday is provided online at worship.welsrc.net/download- worship/preach-the-word-volume-21.
3 Charles Spurgeon Lectures, p. 135.
4 For example, the preacher need not take the time during the sermon to describe the topography around the Sea of Galilee. He could point his listeners to a supplemental resource like Israel on Drone – Sea of Galilee (youtube.com/watch?v=zlV8HBmL6ek) in pre-service announcements. A preacher mindful of the progression of the liturgy could even provide a link like this the previous week.

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storehouse of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to one of the many blessings that comes from careful reworking.

Leading the listener right up to the well without giving him a drink is a common pitfall in writing sermons, particularly for young homileticians. The preacher engages the listener with one link added to another in his chain of thought. Then suddenly the chain is broken. The preacher leaves the thought unfinished but in the process also leaves the listener scrambling to find the connection to what is said subsequently.

It is a common mistake. We are so filled with the message of the Word we are delivering, we assume our listeners know what we are talking about and what we are going to say next. We mistakenly think that the final statement in our line of thought is so obvious we don’t need to say it. Often the statement we leave out is a key that links what we have said to what is coming. Those obvious thoughts left unsaid leave the real punch out of the message.

Vilas R. Glaeske – Volume 5, No.3


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Preach the Word – Lectionary Teaching

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary Teaching

A common lament among pastors is the phrase, “I wish that I could get more members in Bible Information Class.” Shepherds know first-hand the value of “refresher” classes to keep sharp on language skills, doctrinal insights, and practical approaches. Similar “refresher” classes are of equal value to members looking to do some catechetical review, explore situation-oriented discussions, and finding renewed confidence for faith-based conversations. Not unexpectedly, a common lament among members who take a refresher Bible Information Class (BIC) is the phrase, “I wish we could get more members in Bible Information Class.”

As we continue our look to the lectionary for opportunities to bring out “treasures old and new,” it is important to consider the role of teaching while preaching. Arguments could be made that biblical preaching and teaching share most of the same characteristics. Preaching and teaching then are neither mutually exclusive nor are they merely different without a distinction.

Allow some distinctions: Biblical preaching is summarizing a section of Scripture to its Christocentric message and proclaiming that message to the eternal healing and spiritual edifying of God’s people.1 Biblical teaching is the broadening of knowledge to the growth in understanding of God’s people. The first is meeting our temporal and eternal spiritual needs through God’s Word. The second is carrying out God’s desire for the continued spiritual growth of his people through God’s Word. As new creations in Christ, we want to grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. From this perspective, simply put, preaching meets needs, teaching addresses wants (both God’s wants for us and our Spirit-wrought wants for ourselves).

Preaching meets needs, teaching addresses wants…. Wants tend to be preferred.

Sadly, like many needs and wants, wants tend to be preferred. Years ago, this author preached on Ephesians 5:21-33 under the simple theme: Submit. The PowerPoint presentation slides began with the picture of an elephant rising on the screen as the sentence was stated, “There’s an elephant in the room, and his name is Submit.” This began what amounted to a Bible Information Class lesson on the roles for men and women. It included diagrams, bullet points, and illustrative pictures. While time was spent connecting the biblical roles for men and women to the beautiful picture of Christ and his bride, the Church, the “presentation” was far more teaching than preaching. Afterward, several similar comments were made. “I liked what you did with the sermon today. I learned a lot. You should preach like that all the time.” Perhaps you have experienced similar glowing comments after a sermon that was more of a taught Bible class than a preached sermon.

Just where such comments come from is difficult to identify definitively. Certainly, they are expressions of appreciation from hearts and minds eager to learn. But does didactic preaching as a primary, even exclusive, approach to the sermon offer more of what eager hearts and minds want, rather than what they need? Good preaching confronts and challenges the hardened or apathetic heart. Good preaching seeks to correct the wayward or inattentive heart. Good preaching offers comfort to the aching heart, forgiveness to the guilt-laden heart, and confidence to the questioning heart. All are intimate connections established between God’s Word and God’s people through preaching. They cannot be taught. Teaching is clinical, objective, general in nature. Good preaching is so personal that it leaves the sinner nowhere to run from the law, and it leaves the repentant nothing to doubt in the gospel.

Does didactic preaching … offer more of what eager hearts and minds want, rather than what they need?

Even so, teaching has its place in the pulpit. In contrast to the compliments mentioned above, this author has also received constructive feedback on sermons regarding the need for further explanation. “Pastor, you mention words like justification and atonement in your sermons a lot. But I don’t always know what those words mean.” For us who work with such “big words” on a regular basis, we don’t realize that our average listener doesn’t possess the same working vocabulary. For example, a preacher might quote the Apostle Paul from his letter to the Romans, Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (5:11) These familiar and reassuring words mean everything to us, but many listeners may never get past the word justified. Consider teaching while preaching:

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus Christ went to war and died as a real substitute, paying for the sins of the world, for your sins, for mine, so that because of his shed blood every person on earth can be justified—declared not guilty, forgiven—in other words, you have peace.

Taking a moment to teach, explain, and broaden the individual listener’s understanding, deepens the reassurance of peace through Jesus.

Another role that teaching has in the pulpit is to broaden understanding of biblical settings, cultural differences, and regional observations. An example is the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat from Matthew chapter 13. It is difficult to fully grasp the impact of the weeds sown by the enemy. Consider teaching while preaching:

The weeds most likely sown were a plant called darnel, a Eurasian ryegrass. It looks like wheat until it is more matured and the developing fruit finally identifies it as a noxious weed. What a vivid picture of how we often see little difference between the children of light and the children of darkness. There is both warning here and assurance from Jesus: By their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:20).

Taking the time to broaden the listener’s understanding of a regional weed deepens the connection between God’s Word and God’s people.

The danger comes when teaching is included to the exclusion of good preaching.

For many, this inclusion of teaching while preaching may seem obvious, second-nature even.

It is not just a necessity. Teaching while preaching is a true blessing from God to his people. The danger comes when teaching is included to the exclusion of good preaching. Gone would be the personal connections between God’s Word and God’s people. Sermons would spend more time addressing what people want to learn, and less time addressing what people need to hear. Preaching must be primary and teaching must be secondary. Yet teaching resonates with listeners, instructs the uneducated, and explains mysteries. Teaching broadens knowledge. It has its place.

Early church fathers were known to include liturgical and catechetical instruction in their preaching. One genre of preaching was known as “mystagogical catchesis.” These were delivered by bishops during the week after Easter to instruct the newly baptized about the meaning of the sacramental rites in which they had just participated.”2 These were not Sunday morning, general gathering sermons, however. They were sermons designed specifically for a targeted gathering of catechumens. And yet, they offer further examples of how teaching can be both integral to and prominent in preaching.

Consider once again the lament mentioned above, “I wish that more members were in Bible Information Class.” Is there opportunity to bring BIC elements into our preaching? Look no further than the lectionary to find opportunity for such treasures old and new. A BIC is a systematic approach to broaden understanding of biblical doctrine. But stepping into the pulpit on Maundy Thursday to teach a BIC lesson on Holy Communion as a Means of Grace would not only miss the point of the service, it would also fail to connect the loving example of Jesus to the people who need to hear it. There needs to be a blend of teaching and preaching to broaden the mind and touch the heart.

Working within the liturgical context of the lectionary, there are myriad opportunities to review biblical doctrine within the framework of the Church Year and the appointed lessons. Not only does this provide the “refresher” and broadened doctrinal understanding that many need, it also deepens the connection between God’s Word and his people.

Working within the liturgical context of the lectionary, there are myriad opportunities to review biblical doctrine.

Consider the Gospel Reading appointed for Epiphany 5B, Mark 1:29-39 (February 4, 2018). Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and then is inundated by crowds of people. He slips off by himself in the early hours of the morning leaving the disciples to search for him. When they find him, they exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus’ response is an opportunity to talk about how God responds to prayer, especially when it seems as if he’s wandered off and not listening.

There is no trick, no secret, to reach the live person of Jesus Christ. We are assured In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. So, bring your every request to the Lord. Be generic. Be specific. Be bold and confident, knowing that the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1 Peter 3:12). But don’t get discouraged if you don’t get your way in your time and according to your plan. Rather ask…and then…wait for it…wait for him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. He will come with exactly that—immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine—according to his power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20).

While not a didactic approach to prayer, the paragraph connects the gospel account to the prayer lives of God’s people through the sedes doctrinae found in any BIC lesson on the subject.

The Season of Epiphany provides many more opportunities for lectionary “teaching” as Jesus is “revealed” throughout the Sundays. The following are some ideas for teaching Christological doctrine while preaching on the gospel readings from St. Mark.

Epiphany 1
Mark 1:4-11
The Baptism of Our Lord – Jesus is anointed and identified as the Son of God.

Epiphany 2
John 1:43-51
Jesus calls the first disciples – Jesus is identified as the Son of Man.

Epiphany 3
Mark 1:14-20
Jesus calls Peter and Andrew – Jesus is identified as the fulfillment of prophecy.

Epiphany 4
Mark 1:21-28
Jesus teaches with authority – Jesus is identified by his teaching.

Epiphany 5
Mark 1:29-39
Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law – Jesus is identified by his healing.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Mark 9:2-9
The transfiguration of our Lord – Jesus is identified by his mission.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

1 Consider early apostolic sermons in Acts 2, 4, and 13. The common pattern is connecting the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Christ to the lives of listeners.
2 Senn, Frank. Christian Liturgy, p. 112

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to the broadening of the listener’s understanding of context.

Location, Location, Location

The impromptu homiletics lesson was memorable. “What is the key to giving your sermons a certain sense of depth?” a vicar once asked a veteran pastor who was well-known as a “good preacher.” The pastor hesitated briefly, then replied with a smile: “Location, location, location.” He knew that the vicar was not expecting his answer, nor did the vicar immediately understand what he meant. What did a real estate adage have to do with sermonizing? “I’m trying to emphasize the value of context,” explained the pastor. “Real estate agents know that where a property is situated is often more important than the amenities a home might offer. The setting is more significant than some of the specific details. I’ve found that exploring the context of a text—the immediate setting, the wider issues of ‘to whom’ and ‘for what,’ even considering what a text has meant to the church—supplies me with lots of ideas that give the sermon some dimension.”

The veteran pastor went on to explain that from his perspective one of the weaknesses of novice preachers was that they often equated text study with word study. The resulting sermon tended to expound on key words and phrases and attempted to apply the concepts to today’s world. The sermons were rather “generic” in terms of explanation and application. “They’re thin,” he asserted. “Too many trees. Not enough forest. The meaning is not developed with enough sense of connection to time and place and usage. I mean, I once heard a sermon on ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ that was all about the temptations of wealth. The whole sermon took its structure from the word ‘rich.’ It wasn’t false doctrine, but the sermon didn’t really preach the text. I’ve heard preachers do that with words like ‘mercy’ or ‘grace’ or ‘peace.’ They explain the meaning of the word, then attempt to apply it. Those kinds of sermons turn out to be a bit vague and general.”

He continued to discourse. Note authorship, when possible, for Psalm texts. If it is David, or Moses, you have the accounts of “life history” to give the prayers or pleading or praise a real-life setting. Many Old Testament texts are so rich with context that the specific law and gospel are almost always indicated by the setting. He said that he had preached recently on Psalm 118. The text study produced connections that supplied structure and depth. The central verse—“The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation”—is a direct quotation from the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15. The psalm was also used after the return from exile as part of the Passover liturgy—and it may have been the “hymn” Jesus sang with his disciples before they left for Gethsemane on Thursday of Holy Week. Psalm 118 was also a favorite of Martin Luther and supplied what some call his motto verse: “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” The three levels of “context” provided compelling elements of application. The psalm begins and ends with “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever,” but “this text was about much more than a table prayer.” “The epistle letters were written for specific reasons,” he added, changing the focus a bit. “I know that seems too obvious, but it’s a reminder not to remove the instruction too far from its intended meaning.”

Don’t some preachers spend too much time on historical setting and background? “Fair enough—there needs to be some balance. But don’t forget the verse from Ecclesiastes: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ Ancient texts—and ancient contexts—are always relevant.”

Professor Paul Koelpin – Volume 17, No.5

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Renovation: St. John, Burlington, Wisconsin

Sanctuary interiors are like wedding photos. They are snapshots in time of a sacred event. They represent a Christian congregation at its finest, offering the Lord their very best.

When a couple gets married, they’ve spent months, even years, planning for the big day—whether that wedding is a small gathering of family members or a large church full of people. And when the service is over and the wedding photos are taken, the bride and groom are as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as they will ever be. So it is with sanctuary interiors. When a worship space is constructed or renovated, months, even years, have been spent planning for the work—whether that sanctuary is the small, redesigned storefront of a mission congregation, or the towering edifice of a well-established, 1000 member congregation. And when the construction is complete and worshipers gather in the newly renovated space, the sanctuary interior is as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as it will ever be.

But as wedding photos age, the attractive couple therein—still beautiful—is inevitably locked into that moment in time, with its fashion style, its look. You can usually guess in which decade a couple was married by looking at the wedding photos. And you can usually guess which decade a church was built by looking at its sanctuary. As the worship space ages, it still remains beautiful in its own right. But it is locked into a moment in time, with a certain style, a look.

St John's, Burlington, WI - Before


St. John’s Lutheran in Burlington, Wisconsin is a beautiful church with a long, rich history. Founded in 1858, the congregation built their first church building in 1875. But impracticality in maintenance and growth in membership required new construction. In 1980 a brand new, gorgeous sanctuary was erected and dedicated to God’s glory…representing the very best of 1970s style. And just like a wedding snapshot from the 70s—picture periwinkle suits and puffy white dress sleeves—the St. John’s sanctuary retained the look of that era. Bright orange carpeting covered the entire floor and chancel. Low hanging light fixtures were “buoys of light in a sea of darkness,” according to our design architect. The balcony, which was originally designed for extra seating but later became the “choir loft,” was impractical for musicians. New lighting, new flooring, new balcony design—these became the focus of our renovation.


Longtime members of St. John’s and members of the original church building committee say our nave pendants gave inadequate light from day one. Even at the original church dedication some people were disappointed. Apparently the lighting contractor actually said, “Well, it’s a lot better than other churches we’ve done.” Before the renovation, some people would sit directly under the light fixtures just so they would have enough light to see the hymnal.

So we hired an architectural design firm to put together a new lighting plan for us. No more low hanging pendants, which create an artificial ceiling of light. Now we have linear banks of lights hanging only a few feet from the 40’ high ceiling deck, as well as high-powered can lights pointed down at the pews. We also added additional LED spotlights to brighten the chancel area and replaced the narthex lights with bright LEDs.

St John's, Burlington, WI - After


What a change! Now all can see the hymnal and the service folder—and each other. Now we can see the beautiful, golden varnished, knotty pine ceiling deck. (When people asked us what we did to the ceiling, we said, “We just put light on it.”) Now we can see the carefully detailed carvings on the face of our large, chancel cross. Now we can see the face of the pastor in the pulpit. Now we can see how badly we needed new lighting.

Wedding photographers used to comment to me about how difficult it was to take good pictures. Members used to lament that they couldn’t see the expressions on the pastors’ faces. Some people with decent vision used the large-print service folder, just for added help. Not anymore.

Some of the members of the original church building committee said afterward that this is the kind of lighting they wanted from the very beginning. There is a happier, more celebratory atmosphere noticeable in the sanctuary now. Instead of a dark, intimidating house of worship, now we gather in a bright, joyous space to receive Word and sacrament with fellow believers.

There is a happier, more celebratory atmosphere.


The time for flooring change was overdue. The orange carpet had become a laughingstock among members. People talked about purposefully spilling coffee on the floor to force the update. I don’t think anyone actually did that, but we did have plenty of sippy cup spills and accident stains. We even had a large bottle of Communion wine slip from someone’s hands and crash to the floor, leaving permanent traces. And try as we might, we just couldn’t lift the stains and return the orange carpet to its original glory (?). The anecdote shared often at congregational meetings was, “If we get brand new lights, then we’re going to see just how bad the carpet really is!” Since the pews needed to be removed for the electricians’ lifts anyway, we decided now was the perfect time for new flooring.

Our sanctuary floor slopes down toward the chancel, like in a theatre. So we decided to keep carpeting in the aisles and entryway. But, mindful of improving the natural acoustic of the space, we installed under the pews a hard surface—luxury vinyl planking. Congregational participation in song and liturgical dialogue has improved greatly. Now worshipers can hear themselves and those around them speaking and singing better than ever before.

Congregational participation in song and liturgical dialogue has improved greatly.

Symbols of the means of grace

Symbols of the means of grace

For the chancel we wanted the very best. The chancel deserves the best because its furnishings remind us of how the means of grace are delivered through Word and sacrament. So we installed a lovely ceramic tile which coordinates well with the wooden chancel furnishings, brick walls, and bright reredos wall. All the hard surfaces have greatly improved the acoustic of the room, and the carpeted aisle ways alleviate slip concerns—a win-win for everyone.

Additionally, we installed under the carpeting a hearing loop system, which wirelessly transmits the signal from our church audio system directly into hearings aids equipped with t-coil technology. This allows worshipers with hearing loss to finally hear the service and sermons clearly, as opposed to picking up all the ambient sounds taking place in the sanctuary around them. Our hearing impaired members speak very favorably about the new hearing loop technology.


Our balcony was impractical for musicians, and yet most of our musical ensembles perform from the balcony. Since our members typically do not sit in the balcony for worship, we decided to completely redesign the floor plan to allow for more flexibility for our musicians. Faceted floor risers now allow a director to stand front and center, with a choir wrapped around them in a semicircle. Fixed balcony pews were replaced with individual, stackable chairs. Handbell tables, previously retrofitted over existing pews, are now positioned more comfortably on the risers. Custom cabinets for choir folders, sheet music, and bell cases have decluttered the previously disorganized work area. Now the balcony is versatile enough to meet the needs of vocal, brass, string, guitar, and children’s ensembles.

Here’s one small but impactful change we made to the balcony: we replaced the glass panels of the balcony railing with an attractive façade of steel cables. This allows music to pass unhindered through the balcony railing, instead of being blocked by it. And the result was not the industrial appearance some feared. Now the congregation often comments on how much better they can hear the handbells, choirs, and organ.

An attractive façade of steel cables allows music to pass unhindered through the balcony railing.

Speaking of the organ, we gave our congregation’s main instrument for worship a complete makeover. The relay system was replaced with digital components, the electrical wiring was updated, the console was touched up, and the inoperative pedals and stops were all fixed. Once tuned and voiced, the organ now sings in the acoustically enhanced space like never before. “Majesty” is the word that comes to mind when I think about the refurbished organ. (The impact from an improved acoustical setting applies to any instrument, not only a pipe organ, and especially to congregational singing.)

We also use piano for worship quite frequently. The old keyboard was becoming glitchy. So now a digital baby grand piano accompanies choirs and leads worship from its own designated space near the organ. In sum, the balcony has become a dream come true for our musicians.

Committee Work

Sometimes working on a committee can be a drag, especially when competing personalities clash and narrow-minded stubbornness prevails. But when a committee is comprised of people passionate for the project, united on the goal, and committed to a cooperative spirit, committee work can be a real joy.

That was the case for our Sanctuary Refurbishment Committee (SRC). We sometimes had different ideas and strong feelings, but God blessed us the kind of camaraderie that makes working together for the common goal exciting and fun. In our four years together as a committee, I can’t recall the men and women of our SRC ever speaking sharply to one another. Instead, our meetings were characterized by prayer, patience, perseverance, and productivity—and frequently some homemade chocolates from a chocolatier on our group.

Member Commitment

It certainly wasn’t just the SRC forwarding the renovation project, however. The congregation really took ownership, as well. Our last Sunday in the old sanctuary was July 16. After the second service, over fifty members came together to prepare the room for renovation. Together we removed all the pews, ripped up all the carpet, and put into storage all the Bibles, hymnals, and church furnishings. It was an inspiring display of congregational solidarity.

An inspiring display of congregational solidarity.

So was the inflow of donations. We started with some savings and memorial seed money. But within a few short weeks, the necessary $270,000 was raised to complete the project debt-free, without the guidance of a special funding program. The outpouring of financial support for the project was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to fund the project, at whatever level they were able. God’s Spirit moved the members to contribute to a project they knew would outlive themselves and benefit the next generation.

For fourteen weeks we worshiped in our school gymnasium, which meant changes for everyone. The altar guild had to set up Communion in the school kitchen. The accompanists had to play the piano in front of everyone. The pastors had to preach from a school stage. The worshipers had to sit on metal folding chairs. The ushers had to rethink their responsibilities. The singers had to do without their harmony lines from the hymnal. We all had to worship on a basketball court. And we all had to pitch in to make sure chairs were set up and the gym was worship-ready. But the comforts we lost were made up for in the unity we strengthened. We realized that it’s okay to worship in a hot gym; it’s okay for the pastor to not wear his robe; it’s okay to stand for Communion; it’s okay for the bell to not be struck at the beginning and end of the Lord’s Prayer; it’s okay to sing everything from the service folder; it’s okay for the bleachers to be the worship backdrop. It wasn’t ideal. But it did bring us together as a congregation; it did remind us that “Where two or three gather in my name” (Mt 18:20), there Jesus is with us; it did make us eager to return to our renovated worship space.

Project Stories

Two fun stories may give the readers a chuckle. We ordered the wrong spotlights for the chancel. Somehow, somewhere communication broke down, and the wrong pieces were shipped. Replacement would have been easy enough, but by the time the second order was placed, we were running short on time. We had already set the rededication date, and we had a large wedding the following Friday. Then we received word that the correct spotlights and housings were delayed—by several weeks!—due to manufacturing complications. So one of our committee members baked homemade, chocolate chip cookies, drove them to the manufacturer 100 miles away, gave them to the production staff, and urged them kindly to speed along our order. We got the lights just in the nick of time!

Then, once the electrician had the lights installed, I was with him up in the lift, over forty feet in the air, positioning them to correctly shine onto the chancel. In order to reach the lights furthest from the lift, the electrician stood on top of the railing of the lift, leaned well over the edge of the lift, and stabilized himself with one hand on a ceiling beam. This made me more than a little nervous, and I expressed to him my concerns. He said to me, “Don’t worry, Pastor. I do this for a living.” I looked up at him and said, “Well, I do funerals for a living!” He got the point.


We rededicated the St. John’s sanctuary on October 22. We used the same hymns, Scripture readings, even much of the same rite of dedication from the original dedication in February 1980. The theme for the project, and the occasion’s sermon text, was Psalm 26:8—“Lord, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.”

And that love for God’s house was evident that rededication day. There were tears, smiles, and hugs. There was sense of accomplishment and a feeling of humility. There was Word and sacraments as the congregation heard the gospel, tasted the gospel, and witnessed an infant washed with the gospel. There were gifts given by God to his people—forgiveness and grace. And there was a gift given by God’s people to their Lord—a refurbished sanctuary dedicated to his honor, glory, and praise. “‘Tis Thine for us, ‘tis ours for Thee” (Come, Jesus, from the Sapphire Throne, TLH 634:2).

And pictures were taken, just like at a wedding, because the rededication of this sanctuary was a snapshot in time of a sacred event. The sanctuary looked as joyous, stunning, and well-dressed as ever—same beautiful church, with a new, updated look.

I suppose the comparison would be to a husband and wife renewing their vows. They probably aren’t wearing the same clothes they wore years ago on their wedding day. Their outfits are new, their look updated. They are the same attractive couple as in the original wedding photos—still beautiful, still the same people—but no longer locked into that moment in time.

St. John’s sanctuary no longer looks locked in the 1970s. It’s still the same beautiful church, the same dignified house of worship it was at its 1980 dedication. But now some new photos can be added to the album—photos of an attractive, refurbished space with a fresh look and a new outfit, a place where God will continue visiting his people and where people will continue meeting with God.

And this renovated sanctuary is where the people of St. John’s will worship, until it needs refurbishing again, or until we make it to the sanctuary that needs no refurbishment committee—the holy, heavenly dwelling of the Most High God, where Jesus will someday bring us to live with him for eternity, and where all Christians will joyfully exclaim, “Lord, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.”

By Kirk Lahmann

Pastor Lahmann has served at St. John’s in Burlington, WI since graduating from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2009.

Additonal Photos

Additional photos and the dedicatory service folder are available at https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.


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Preach the Word – Challenges to Lectionary Preaching

Treasures Old and New

Challenges to Lectionary Preaching

Rich characters, rich locations, and great writing. That’s what makes for a great book series. At least that’s what author Anthony Horowitz claims is the reason for the continued popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. (Horowitz has written a new book for the series nearly 100 years since the last installment was written by Doyle.) The idea behind his comments is that the author of a series creates stories within a story, bringing the reader along through the more immediate and long-term conflicts and resolutions of the storyline. With each new book, a little more of the greater story is told.

Not surprisingly, such approaches to writing are but a secular and faded reflection of the greatest book ever written. After all, biblical characters and locations are indescribably rich and the writing is, well, divine as the divine story is told. That is why early Christians, as they gathered for worship, imitated the synagogue tradition of reading selections from Scripture in public worship. As previously mentioned (PTW 21.1), early church father Justin Martyr, describes near the middle of the second century:

And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place…and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader [lector] has finished, the president [pastor] in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things.

Since then, the lectionary has been developed, revised, updated, and expanded. Each and every Sunday, selections from the biblical “series” are shared with God’s people that we may “so hear them, read, learn them, and take them to heart.” This rich treasure is God’s power for the “joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people” as his story is told Sunday by Sunday within the story of his life through the progression of the Church Year.

Not all that glitters is gold

While the selected portions of the lectionary are the inspired Word of God, the choosing, pairing, and placing—the crafting—of the selected Word for a given service or Sunday is not inspired. Much of the Church Year is influenced by the annual telling of the life of Christ. The readings for the festival half of the Church Year, in particular the gospel readings, almost select themselves. Many gospel readings have obvious connections to Old Testament selections. But selections for the non-festival half of the Church Year and the selections for the Second Reading throughout the year, have presented many challenges.

One of the more challenging aspects of lectionary preaching, based in the historic practice quoted above, is the presence of lectio continua selections in the ILCW-based lectionary of Christian Worship. Experienced preachers know the challenge of finding common threads between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew chapter 5 and the opening chapters to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians during the season of Epiphany Year A. Of equal challenge is tying together the practical applications of God’s relationship with his people in Ephesians chapters 4-6 with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and subsequent discourse on the Bread of Life in John chapter 6 (Sundays after Pentecost Year B).

Others have expressed the challenge of reading lectionary selections from the Scriptures which are difficult to understand or are unclear, especially without lengthy explanation. When such selections also serve as the sermon text, the preacher is able to take the time to explain, illustrate, and summarize the truths to be found in the selection. But if the reading is presented with little or no explanation, hearers are left questioning rather than assured and comforted.1

At the same time, the absence of certain passages or selections makes it difficult to bring in certain aspects of the whole counsel of God. A lack of emphasis on Bible History prompted the creation of the Supplemental Lectionary. (See Treasures from the Archive below). Others have cited a lack of selections focusing on the family unit. Certainly, anyone could question why a certain selection was chosen over another selection for almost any given Sunday.

But perhaps most challenging of all is seeing the flow and progression of the lectionary from one Sunday into the next. As an example, consider the seasons of End Time and Advent. This author has often been asked by fellow preachers to differentiate between the two seasons in a meaningful way. Indeed, it is easy to take a broad approach to the two seasons and summarize all eight weeks with the words “Jesus Is Coming” only to find the wealth of the seasonal selections already spent by Christ the King Sunday. Many a pastor has intimated that the Sundays “all say the same thing!” Sadly, such a broad approach to these seasons usually finds its impetus in a busy schedule, a cursory text study, a predilection for the obvious, or all of the above.

Most challenging of all is seeing the flow and progression of the lectionary from one Sunday into the next.

It would be easy, at this point, to simply encourage a more thorough search of the biblical storeroom for the sake of discovering the richness to be found in the lectionary selections.

(And that is good advice!) A former professor told us to let the Sundays of End Time and Advent speak for themselves without borrowing from the Sundays before or after. (Also good advice!) But consider taking a step back from the individual Sundays, the individual seasons, indeed from the individual years in the three-year cycle, and look at them as a whole.

The following example of progression builds on the resources found in the 2008 revision of Planning Christian Worship.2 All selections from the lectionary for these two seasons point us to the coming again of our Lord Jesus. Yet each year we are reminded that we live in the End Times by God’s grace as the end of the Church Year approaches. Then with the turn of the new Church Year, we are invited to receive God’s grace with ready hearts.

End Time – Reformation: Lord, Keep Us Faithful to the Word!
Year A: In the face of persecution
Year B: With unwavering commitment
Year C: Standing in the truth

End Time 2 – Last Judgment: Lord, Keep Us Mindful of the Judgment!
Year A: Longing for redemption
Year B: Rejoicing in the resurrection
Year C: Confident in innocence

End Time 3 – Saints Triumphant: Lord, Keep Us Watchful for Our Triumph!
Year A: Through these latter days
Year B: In full knowledge and eager expectation
Year C: Confident in our relationship

End Time 4 – Christ the King: Lord, Keep Us Joyful in Our King!
Year A: At the fulfillment of God’s Plan
Year B: Awaiting his triumphant return
Year C: Sure in the Promise

Advent 1: Keep Watch, for the Lord will come again
Year A: Unexpectedly
Year B: At an unknown time
Year C: Forewarned by signs

Advent 2: The Forerunner Prepares: Christ is coming
Year A: He is near—repent!
Year B: He is powerful—be baptized!
Year C: He is coming—prepare!

Advent 3: The Forerunner Explains: The Christ is here!
Year A: To his disciples
Year B: To the religious leaders
Year C: To the people

Advent 4: The Promised Virgin Birth of Christ
Year A: To Joseph
Year B: To Mary
Year C: The Magnificat

Seeing all eight weeks of the three-year cycle in a concise format helps the preacher to see the progression from one Sunday to the next and from one season to the next, setting in motion yet again the annual celebration of God’s grace to us in Christ.

This, of course, is only one example. Other seasons and emphases may also challenge the preacher (and worship planners) to find a clear progression of thought. Professor Emeritus Dan Deutschlander, author of the revised Planning Christian Worship Year B, offers this explanation for the Sundays after Pentecost. It serves well for anyone struggling to find the progression of thought in the lectionary selections at other times in the Church Year:

Each season begins with a general theme that more or less unites the readings for that season. Then each succeeding Sunday tries to develop that theme. During the Pentecost season, one will generally find that there is a major break in the train of thought after about seven or eight weeks, and a new theme will emerge; the new theme will still be built on what preceded and anticipate what is yet to come. It should be expected that some themes and some Sundays will work out better than others; what follows is just one man’s attempt to help unify the service in the context of the liturgical year and of the pericope series, as the inventors of pericope series intended. The themes presented are by no means the only ones possible; if the reader comes up with other and better ones, he should by all means use them.

Fixed value

It may, at first, seem counterproductive to this PTW series to mention the aforementioned challenges to lectionary preaching. They may cause a preacher to ignore, set aside, or devalue the lectionary itself. In recent feedback to the first issue of this volume of PTW, a brother in ministry stated that he doesn’t “trust the lectionary.” Others have stated that they feel almost handcuffed by their conscience to use the appointed readings.

This series is intended to encourage the preacher to fix a value on the selection and curation of biblical readings that has taken place over decades and centuries.

Certainly, this series is not intended to obligate the preacher to a slavish adherence to some other human’s selections of God’s Word for a given Sunday. Rather, this series is intended to encourage the preacher to fix a value on the selection and curation of biblical readings that has taken place over decades and centuries, the development of a series of biblical readings that proclaim what God has done for his people within the liturgical cycle of the life of Christ.

Planning Christian Worship can help the struggling:

If the preacher feels overwhelmed by the majesty of the text and all that it has to offer, if he is perplexed about where to begin, at sea over which of the number of points he wants to try to make from God’s Word, he may find what follows of some use. If the preacher worries that he is saying the same thing every Sunday, what follows may be helpful as he tries to make each Sunday God’s unique visit with us that it should be. If the preacher is anxious that he not miss presenting a particular doctrine or that he not overwork another doctrine at the expense of the rest of the corpus doctrinae, then too what follows may serve a purpose; for every effort has been made, as aforesaid, to present all of the body doctrine in its proper sequence during the course of the year.

“If the preacher worries that he is saying the same thing every Sunday…”

Even then, a preacher may feel that the lectionary is not serving the specific needs of his congregation. But before moving away from the lectionary to serve the preacher’s ideas, consider recrafting what has already been developed. Take the time to see how the Sunday themes progress rather than assuming they do not. Set aside the lectio continua readings for a season or a series of weeks and choose a reading for each Sunday which supports, enhances, or more closely fits the theme and Gospel of the day.3 Replace an unclear or challenging reading with a selection that more clearly conveys an identical or similar point. These are easy fixes to some of the aforementioned challenges and will greatly enrich the value of the lectionary selections for the preacher and his listeners.

Other approaches will require more crafting. For example, if an emphasis seems to be missing, select a fitting key passage. More often than not, that passage will be part of or in the same book as a lectio continua selection during one of the lectionary cycles. Then craft a series which includes the key passage and the desired emphasis within the lectio continua.4 In this way, specific emphases can be covered without stepping outside the lectionary.

Another approach to include a missing emphasis would be to select readings for a specific Sunday with a Proper frame of mind. In other words, be sure to craft the aspects of the Sunday in terms of the whole service, not just a single reading. Select a set of readings, a Prayer of the Day, and a Psalm of the Day that cohesively proclaim the emphasis. Carefully choose a Sunday that makes fitting connections to the season of the Church Year or to the Sundays before and after the special emphasis Sunday. Such efforts guard against a flavor-of-the-day approach chosen by the whimsy of the pastor while valuing the treasure of the Word found in the careful crafting of the lectionary.

There are many challenges to preaching the lectionary. It is but a tool used to pull treasured and crafted gold from the storehouse of the Holy Word. The lectionary may have its detractors, but in various forms has served God’s people for nearly two thousand years. In some ways, the lectionary is like a painting of a biblical subject by Michelangelo or Rembrandt. I may not agree with the artist’s perspective, theology, or representation, but his artistry and craftsmanship engender a deeper appreciation for the subject matter. More than rich characters and rich locations, this is the treasure of the divine Word displayed and enjoyed through the emphases of the liturgical Church Year.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following excerpt was published as a review of the 2008 Christian Worship Supplement lectionary.

We believe, teach, and confess that God’s Word is central to everything we do, including our worship. That has led us to critically evaluate how well we are proclaiming God’s Word in our worship. This led to most churches moving from the one year historic lectionary to the three year ILCW series. It led the committee that prepared Christian Worship to clarify and “clean up” the End Times portion of ILCW. With the publishing of a hymnal supplement, a critical evaluation of our proclamation of the Word was made once again. (For detailed information on the process used by the Rites Committee, see the May/June 2004 issue of Preach the Word.)

Their two main goals:

  • Emphasize a single theme with all three lessons, including the second lesson. Many of the ILCW second lessons were chosen to give an overview of certain Epistles over a period of weeks.
  • Replace some of the many lessons from the Old Testament prophets with familiar Bible stories. The prophet Isaiah is used over 50 times in the three year cycle. By comparison, there are less than 20 lessons from Genesis.

Some general observations about the new choices:

  • Some of the changes are minor. Epiphany 2, Isaiah 49:1-6, has been changed to Isaiah 49:1-7; Pentecost 8, Isaiah 55:10-11 has been changed to Isaiah 55:10-13. These generally provide a little more context or a little fuller reading to carry out the theme of the day.
  • Other changes are more significant. Advent 1, Isaiah 2:1-5 has been changed to Ge 6:9-22, 7:11-23; Epiphany 4, Micah 6:1-8, has been changed to Daniel 3:13-27.
  • Overall some very good work and good thought has been put into the supplemental lessons. They do a much better job of emphasizing a single theme for the Sunday. No matter which lesson is the basis for preaching, the emphasis for that Sunday will remain the same.

There are some concerns of which pastors should be aware:

  • Most of the new lessons are longer, sometimes considerably, than those they replace. Congregations with multiple services need to consider this in planning the overall time of their worship hour.
  • When preaching on these texts, many will be challenged because of the amount of study necessary. The time-taxed preacher may want to pick out the few most significant verses of the longer texts, exegize just those few verses, and use the rest as context.

I would encourage anyone to make use of these supplemental lessons. There may be a given Sunday when the Christian Worship lessons are preferable. I know that we will be using the supplemental lessons extensively to give our people a larger taste of the whole counsel of God. I am thrilled to see young children relate well to familiar stories. As a congregation with many people new to Scripture, I appreciate the added opportunity to make use of some of the familiar stories many of us learned in Sunday School.

Pastor David Clark – Volume 12, No.1

1 Of a similar, if not an ironically and mildly humorous, note are the occasions when a Gospel Reading ends with stern law. An extreme example would be the Gospel Reading for Last Judgment Year C – Luke 19:11-27. Verse 27 concludes, “…and kill them in front of me.” It is quickly followed with the acclamation, “This is the Gospel of our Lord.”

2 Available at: https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/planning- christian-worship-revision/. Two additional citations from PCW are from this same source.

3 Or if you regularly use the hymnal’s lectionary, substitute just for a season the options in Christian Worship Supplement.

4 An example is available at https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/ preach-the-word-volume-21/

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Renovation: Luther Prep, Watertown, Wisconsin

Fifty years ago, the chapel on the Watertown campus was the worship gem in the WELS worker training system. It was a newly-built, neo-gothic structure with a fine neo-baroque Schlicker pipe organ of modest size. The organ, dedicated on March 14, 1963, was supported by a fine acoustical environment. It led the robust singing of the student body for decades. The sound and sheer volume of the singing gave me and my classmates goose bumps the first time we attended chapel as freshmen at Northwestern College. The Watertown chapel served up life-giving truth and life-long memories to thousands of called workers in WELS.

Gradually, the rest of the WELS worker training campuses caught up with—and surpassed—the chapel at Watertown. Michigan Lutheran Seminary reconfigured her old gym into a chapel/auditorium with good acoustics and a moveable 180-degree seating pattern. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary installed a Martin Ott pipe organ and would later redo the entire chapel, earning a design award.1 Martin Luther College worshiped for decades in an auditorium until the New Ulm campus was blessed in 2010 with the Chapel of the Christ.2 All of these chapel projects have been welcome upgrades to our worker training system. They are molding and shaping the next generation’s expectations for public worship in WELS. Our synod is richly blessed as a result.

Over the years, while other chapels were improved, the Watertown chapel began to show her age. It received some attention during the mid-1990’s at the time of amalgamation when Martin Luther Preparatory School and Northwestern Preparatory School were combined on the Watertown campus as Luther Preparatory School. At that time, a link was built between the Library-Science Building and the main Classroom Building. The size of the chapel immediately became an issue. LPS enjoyed the blessing—and significant challenge—of having more students than the chapel could hold. The solution was the installation of a large, sloped, carpeted balcony. The seating issue was solved, but the acoustics of the chapel were drastically altered. The organ’s voice was dampened and could barely be heard underneath the balcony. The students’ singing was significantly impacted…and not for the better.

Chapel Before

Since amalgamation, other chapel improvements were generally piecemeal and not carried out with a view toward the whole. The sound system was upgraded, but the controls remained in the sacristy. Large black speakers were at odds with the wood and glass of the room. Little white space-age looking speakers were installed under the balcony to try to accommodate the poor acoustics. New lighting was installed, but with a different fixture style and light intensity than the older fixtures. Pews were mixed, some from the original chapel, others installed post-amalgamation. The sacristy, really a storage room, remained untouched. During a visit in 2014 I was surprised to see that neither the room nor its contents had changed since college graduation back in 1993!

The genesis of the chapel project

The chapel project began as yet another minor improvement. The 1950’s blond wood laminate on the altar and pulpit was beginning to chip, bubble up, and peel away. It was originally envisioned that the “new” pulpit would utilize parts of the old and generally look like the old. The laminate of the reredos was in good shape, but the altar itself needed significant work. The initial proposal for a new but not very different pulpit and altar was estimated at $2,000-4,000. The chapel had no baptismal font. The initial proposal kept a “?” behind the baptismal font, noting that it would be good for “both symbolic and practical use.” It was thought that these items could be provided as a graduating class gift.

Along with cosmetic furniture repair, another urgently needed improvement was being discussed. The pipe organ had received no major maintenance since it was installed in 1963. The organ was inspected by Dr. Edward Meyer in the fall of 2008. His report noted many maintenance issues. The organ chamber had accumulated 55 years of dust. The organ needed to be re-leathered. The keyboards needed minor repairs. More ominous, however, were the “long-range” issues. The air lines needed to be replaced. The entire electrical system needed to be upgraded. The cloth-covered, low-voltage wires were a fire waiting to happen.

Dr. Meyer’s report also addressed serious acoustical issues:

When the organ was acquired, the chapel interior did not have the 1995-balcony, nor did it have carpet in any area. The organ was designed for the space and it served well in that environment. It was bright, strong, transparent, and supported the hearty singing of 300+ men easily. The room acoustics have been drastically altered since that time…. The balcony overhang hinders sound from reaching the worship space beneath it. The soft floor covering near the altar and in front of the first pews absorbs a generous amount of sound—both vocal and instrumental. The result is an organ that is no longer fully capable of carrying out its originally intended roles as it once had.

Dr. Meyer’s report then listed five acoustical suggestions to enhance the room. The report concluded with a recommendation to expand the tonal variety of the organ. The additional stops would have cost another $150,000. In short, Dr. Meyer’s report gave the LPS administration about $190,000 of things to think about—not including the acoustical recommendations. It became obvious that the chapel needed more than new laminate on the furnishings. It needed a complete overhaul.

“Let’s do it right”

With a proposal in hand for partially-new chancel furnishings, with another proposal for organ maintenance under discussion, with acoustical enhancements being proposed that would alter the look of the chapel, and with the 150th anniversary of the Watertown campus on the horizon, the LPS administration decided to seek some independent counsel. With two sons enrolled at LPS, I was asked to serve as chapel consultant. President Crass expressed a strong desire to “do things right.” The next year was filled with questions of what was “right” for the Watertown campus, her students, and the church body she serves. These conversations were a blessing. The results of these conversations we commend to the Lord of the Church and the constituency of WELS.

The first question the project had to answer concerned the organ. The organ had longevity on its side. No one really wanted to be done with it. But the maintenance issues would need to be taken seriously. If we performed all needed maintenance and brought the electrical issues up to code, the total cost would have been well-north of $100,000 and would have cannibalized over half of the project’s original budget. That’s a lot of money to invest in an organ that everyone knew was inadequate for the post-1995 space. Should we just live with it? Opt for an electric organ? What about installing a used pipe organ? How about a minor expansion of the current instrument? All these options were explored and eventually rejected. None of them were quite right for LPS.

The organ issue bled into larger issues with the room itself. What about the acoustics? It would be poor stewardship to sink money into the organ while the room remained acoustically unfit. The acoustical question raised the issue of flooring, a mix of carpet and tile. (This then led to another issue: asbestos!) Study of flooring options raised the practical question of pew removal and reinstallation. Should we really reinstall pews that were in worse shape than the chancel furnishings that started the project in the first place? The administration of LPS became convinced that this was the right time to opt for new pews as part of ongoing campus maintenance. The rest of the project would be paid for through the synod-wide thank offering that was underway to celebrate the campus’s 150th anniversary.

The school administration hoped that something could be finished for the 150th anniversary year. The first element completed was the new baptistry. I proposed the baptistry concept to the administration after preaching for chapel. I noticed the beautiful tower with six windows just to the east of the main entrance doors. (The only thing in the tower, however, was a donated kitchen table on which students placed their books and backpacks.) About the same time, Prof. Robert Bock visited Trinity, Waukesha for the baptism of his granddaughter. During coffee hour, he commented that there were six stained glass windows from the pre-1995 chapel in a crate in the basement of the cafeteria. About the same time, my son came home from LPS one Friday eager to show a video of an international student being baptized at a chapel service. I noticed that a stainless-steel bowl was used for the water. At Taste of Ministry Day, I found out that the Scharf family’s popcorn bowl was used for the baptism.

The baptistry, “a theologically rich center point”

A plan came together. The six stained glass windows from the pre-1995 chapel windows were framed in wood and hung in the six clear glass windows. The mix of stained and clear glass balances color and light. The six windows are hung thematically: Two windows picture the Word of God, two the Church, and two the sacraments. Instead of catching dust in the cafeteria basement, these windows now catch light in the center of the campus. The used kitchen table was replaced with a beautiful wooden baptismal base designed by Massmann Studios. The base was a labor of love by Matthew Staude, a NPS alumnus. His craftsmanship and attention to detail are a beauty to behold. The popcorn bowl has been replaced with a substantial stone basin inscribed with the Latin words BAPTIZANTES EOS IN NOMINE PATRIS + FILII + SPIRITUS SANCTI, a nod to the classical heritage of the campus. It is hoped that the baptistry, underwritten by a gift from the NWC Alumni Society, will serve as a theologically rich center point on the campus for the next 150 years.

Stone basin with Latin from Mt 28:19

Meanwhile, the organ plank in the project began to take on a new life. Once again, the school administration expressed a wish to do things “right.” LPS certainly does things “right” when it comes to training future church workers in general—and church musicians in particular. LPS trains more students in organ than any other high school in America. WELS needs these young musicians. The chapel organ, used several hours a day by multiple musicians, needed to become a higher priority. When issues of cost were discussed, it was noted that the school had, in the past, spent significant resources on items deemed important to the school’s mission (especially the athletic fields). The organ portion of the project was handled much like it would be in a WELS parish. The organ wasn’t paid for out of the school’s budget or the LPS150 special offering for chapel renovation and tuition assistance. It was paid for by additional gifts from the Lord’s people who hold in their hearts a special love for LPS’s music program. The organ was dedicated with a plaque thanking God for the teaching ministries of Prof. and Mrs. Franklin Zabell. Prof. Zabell now sings with the choirs of heaven. Mrs. Zabell continues to teach a new generation of organists to lead choirs on earth.

After several interviews, the organ contract was awarded to Berghaus Pipe Organ Builders of Bellwood, IL. The new instrument used almost all the pipes of the old Schlicker organ, added several new ranks of pipes from an Italian Ruffati instrument that Berghaus had recently acquired, as well as a few ranks of new pipework. The new Berghaus instrument still has two manuals, but now has 33 ranks of pipes (1871 total pipes) and 33 stops. Its expanded tonal resources are ideal as a teaching instrument. Its robust tone fills the chapel without being overpowering. The new instrument inspires singing and has the gravitas to truly lead the assembly’s song. The organ footprint now takes up both sides of the chancel. The Great and Pedal divisions are to the left where the old Schlicker pipes stood. The Swell division is to the right where the old sacristy/storage room stood.

The organ now speaks directly into the sanctuary, rather than being enclosed in a room that opened only into the chancel. Two more benefits were realized as a result of the organ case’s new footprint: 1) Two additional stained glass windows, previously hidden in the pipe room and sacristy, are now visible to worshipers. 2) The chancel steps have been reconfigured (widened and deepened) so that choirs can now sing from the steps with the organ providing direct support.

Repairs to pulpit and altar were the initial focus of the chapel project. Attention to these primary furnishings expanded to include: altar, pulpit/ambo, processional cross stand, paschal candle stand, pastoral chairs and tables, candle bases, and hymn boards—all fashioned out of white oak instead of blonde laminate. These furnishings were designed by Massmann Studios and crafted by Matthew Staude. The pulpit and altar are both topped with stone, truly worthy of a school of the prophets. Ours is an enduring message!

Doing the project right meant not doing some things at all, for now. We did not enhance the sound system or improve the lighting. Why? No more money in the budget. It was decided that these two elements could be handled at a later date as resources become available.

The Watertown campus has been a blessing to WELS for 150 years. May she serve us well for another 150 years! May the Lord pour out his blessing upon those who preach, play, and sing—that our children would be inspired to tell the children’s children the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord!

By Aaron Christie

Pastor Christie serves at Trinity, Waukesha, WI, where he plans worship and plays organ and piano. He is a member of the Commission on Worship and the Institute for Worship and Outreach, a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment, and chairs the Hymnody Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project. He holds the Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin and served as a consultant for the Luther Prep renovation project.

Renovation pointers learned from the LPS chapel project

These pointers apply to any renovation project.

  1. Focus not only on the initial impetus for renovation. Keep an eye on what the proposed renovation does to the entire worship space.
  2. Keep your ear on acoustical issues. Good acoustics can easily be destroyed. The new carpet under your feet will look nice and sound terrible. Spend the money to get an acoustical study done early in the project. It is money well spent. Opt for floor coverings that both look nice and sound nice. (Hint: tile)
  3. Don’t cut corners. Instead, view your renovation as one chapter of your sanctuary’s entire lifetime. Accomplish what you can with excellence. Leave the rest for a separate phase that can be done when God provides the resources. One project, well-done, often serves as an encouragement for additional upgrades in the future.
  4. Don’t be afraid to enlist professional consultants and/or worship leaders in WELS. They are here to serve. An outside set of eyes and a lifetime of different experiences often prove helpful to building committees that are seeing things up-close and very personal.

Worship Conference Resources

Various items are available at the Worship Website: workshop handouts, service folders, repertoire lists, presentation files (both PowerPoint and PDF versions), and photos. A double CD of musical highlights should be available in December – a great gift-giving option. Check NPH for the title “A Mighty Fortress.”

1 See Worship the Lord #21, September 2006, available in the WTL online archives. The LPS chapel dedication worship folder is available at https:/worship.welsrc.net/ download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/. Numerous photos of the LPS project are at https://www.lps.wels.net/page/chapel-renovation-photo- gallery.

2 https://mlc-wels.edu/history/chapel-of-the-christ/


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Preach the Word – The Blessings of Lectionary Preaching

Treasures Old and New

The Blessings of Lectionary Preaching

Where it all comes from, no one really knows for sure. Every time you think that there couldn’t possibly be more, more is revealed from the depths of the mythical storeroom. It really is the stuff of legend. All of it saved, stored, treasured, and later brought forth in thankful celebration and joyful affirmation.

I’m writing, of course, about my father-in-law’s collection of Greyhound Lines paraphernalia. (Okay, maybe you didn’t see that coming. But his family certainly has known this for many years.) His connection with Greyhound began in 1965 when he first started driving the Chicago to Milwaukee route by night and teaching in an elementary school classroom by day. He eventually drove full-time, rising within the company to become Director of Safety, training other drivers and setting a standard of safety excellence within the industry. One particularly fond memory is of meeting John Madden after training the drivers for his “Madden Cruiser.”

One can easily imagine the awards, recognitions, mementos, and corporate gear he accumulated over more than 30 years of service. Actually, one really can’t imagine it all. From that mythical storeroom have come watches, bus route posters, bus banks, belt buckles, note pads, hats, pens, photos, and so much more. Each item is connected to a memory, an experience, an accomplishment, or an insight. It doesn’t matter how many questions you ask, there are always new stories to be heard and treasured items to share.

As this article is being written, Pentecost 10A is quickly approaching. The Gospel appointed for the Sunday is from Matthew 13. Matthew recounts how Jesus not only instructed about the kingdom of God with parables and explained their meanings but also explained how this approach was fulfillment of prophecy, part of the Father’s divine plan. He then makes this statement, “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

To the disciples, who grew up in a generation of contradicting and confusing spiritual teachers, these words must have been a revelation. Indeed they were a divine revelation as Jesus himself taught “with authority” about the kingdom, revealing the heart and will of the Father. Through bold proclamation and ready parables Jesus made the connections from the Old Testament to the New, from Moses and the Prophets to fulfillment in the very presence of the people, from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Each and every Sunday, each and every preacher has the very same opportunity to bring forth “new treasures as well as old” from the immeasurable depths of the biblical storeroom. Each treasured item brought forth is connected to remembrance of what God has done for his people, the human experience of divine plans, the accomplishment of salvation, and insight into the work of the Spirit empowering the Body of Christ. This and more is all there to behold as His Story is told afresh and treasured items are brought forth in thankful celebration and joyful affirmation.

Frank Senn writes of this relationship between celebration and affirmation as previously proposed by philosopher Josef Pieper (Christian Liturgy, p.20). In essence, he proposes that by proclaiming the gospel, our new creation in Christ is affirmed. As our new creation is affirmed, the result is thankful celebration. In other words, as we bring forth “new treasures as well as old” from the storeroom of God’s Word, the result is Spirit-wrought affirmation and celebration. Peter brought forth treasure in Acts 2. Paul brought forth treasure in Acts 13. Jesus brought forth treasure in Matthew 13. (There are many more examples.) But Jesus also brought forth treasure beyond just the hillsides of Galilee and his journeys in Judea. He brought forth treasure (along with the apostles) within the framework of the synagogue worship rite (Luke 4).

In Volume 4, No. 4 of Preach the Word, James Tiefel makes the connection between Jesus’ preaching within the framework of the synagogue worship rite and the Lutheran preacher’s opportunity to preach within the framework of the Lutheran liturgy. (See Treasures from the Archive in this issue or the aforementioned volume for the entire article: worship.welsrc.net/archived-resources.) Luther Reed further explains the blessings of preaching which is closely connected to the appointed readings, themes, and seasons of the Church Year:

By building upon the thought of the lessons, the Sermon becomes the climax of the Office (Service) of the Word. By relating the Sermon and the Service of any one day to the cycle of the church’s year, completeness and strength are gained…. The liturgy with its varied and harmonious structure supports and strengthens the Sermon (The Lutheran Liturgy p.306-7).

The reason for this strength of relationship is found in the clear proclamation of the gospel in both Word and Sacrament within the liturgical context. The Ordinary summarizes and proclaims the life of Christ. The sacraments assure and celebrate the life of Christ “for you” and in you. The Propers bring out the details and give special focus to the life of Christ each Sunday throughout the Church Year. The development of this focus was no accident. It is intentionally by design.

As believers have gathered for worship, they have developed and adopted forms which mostly clearly proclaim the gospel. Consider the development of the lectionary. Acts tells us that first century believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). By the second century, Justin Martyr describes “Lord’s Day” (Sunday) readings from “the memoirs of the apostles or the prophets as long as time permits” (First Apology chapter 67). Soon, specific readings were selected for annual festival services like Christmas and Easter. Then, “octaves” (eight Sundays) were added to the festivals before, after, or on either side of the festival resulting in festival seasons. Last to develop were the readings assigned to the “time of the church” half of the Church Year. By the time of Gregory the Great (late sixth century), the Roman Ordo had been established. With only minor adjustments along the way, the Ordo became the basis for the “Historic Lectionary” which served the Western Church for centuries. It was amended by the Reformers and continues to find use in some churches today. In addition, a number of more recent lectionaries were developed including the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship’s three-year series. (This series has been adopted and enhanced by Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal and Christian Worship Supplement.) Luther Reed describes the value of the selected readings of the lectionary:

The mature judgement of the church has retained them because their use is a guarantee of sound and complete teaching of fundamental Christian truth. Altogether they constitute a solid block of fundamental material…[and] are a most important part of the common liturgical inheritance of the universal church, with a continuous history of nearly fifteen hundred years” (The Lutheran Liturgy p. 291).

The preacher, of course, is free to preach on whatever text he deems appropriate for God’s flock. He is not required to preach on John 1 for Christmas Day, First Corinthians during Epiphany, or the Gospel of Matthew on the Sundays of the year of our Lord 2017. Specific circumstances, needs, and emphases may bring the preacher to the treasure storeroom for the good of the local gathering without turning to the appointed texts for the following Sunday. But the difference between lectionary preaching and non-lectionary preaching would be like the difference between bringing raw gold from the treasure storeroom and bringing out sculpted works of art. Both have immeasurable value but the former requires shaping and honing to achieve beauty similar to the latter which has already been crafted into specific beauty for the occasion.

Certainly, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Preaching will certainly include all of these “uses” for God’s Word as the preacher summarizes, expounds, and applies the text. But “throughout history the Church has indicated that the primary objective of its primary gathering is to put the Gospel to use in Word and Sacrament as a natural outgrowth of Christian faith and life” (WELS School of Worship Enrichment). As the lectionary presents the gospel within the liturgical context, the preacher does well to use it on a regular basis as a way to bring forth the treasure of God’s Word in keeping with this primary worship objective.

With this volume of Preach the Word, we begin a look at preaching with the expressed purpose of bringing forth Treasures Old and New through lectionary preaching. Research leading up to this focus indicates that there was a desire to strengthen preaching from the lectionary within the liturgical context. Comments included references to how the Sunday’s fit together, how to better preach the Church Year, finding doctrinal connections in the lectionary, and developing thematic series for worship based on the lectionary readings. There is much to explore in the months ahead.

The lectionary presents the gospel within the liturgical context.

For now, consider that lectionary preaching is closely aligned with worship planning. In fact, the best place to start are the revised Planning Christian Worship resources available through the Commission on Worship’s website (worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/planning-christian-worship-revision). Read through the selected scriptures, especially the Gospel, and the summary paragraphs while keeping in mind the identified Theme of the Day. Often, the Prayer of the Day and the Hymn of the Day can also help tie the readings together.

But don’t pick a text yet.

Next, consider the readings and Theme of the Day in consideration of the season in the Church Year. How do these readings prepare, support, or enhance the overall message of the season? How do these readings build on the readings from the previous Sundays? How do they anticipate the readings for the Sundays to come? If the readings are part of a lectio continua, what obvious threads run through each selection? Is there opportunity for a series on this particular book? If the readings are from the gospel, how does this account fit into the synoptic gospels? What is the prophetic and fulfillment connection between the First Reading and the Gospel? Where is Jesus in his ministry? What opportunity is there to bring the listeners into the account? (Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah is of particular help with this.)

But don’t pick a text yet.

Next, consider the service itself. What ready connections are to be found between the readings and the Ordinary, between the readings and the prayers, between the readings and the hymn suggestions? (I admit that many times I have chosen a hymn on the “wrong” Sunday simply because I didn’t look ahead.)

But don’t pick a text yet.

Finally, consider factors beyond the liturgical resources in view of the liturgical resources. This is where local needs and challenges, special emphases and themes are taken into consideration. We have all been tempted at times to start here when an issue needs to be addressed. But as a preacher with now 20 years of preaching experience, I can’t tell you how many times the lectionary provided the exact Word of the Lord for the Lord’s people exactly when they needed to hear it. As you look first to the lectionary to provide what is needed, you will likely not need to look beyond it.

Now, pick a text and begin your text study process.

Within the process suggested above for choosing a text, there is plenty of room for more questions to be asked, more considerations to be made, and more resources to explore. These aspects and others will be covered, Lord willing, over the next year. As we do so, we will explore some creative ways to preach the lectionary while connecting to the “varied and harmonious” emphases of the liturgical year. In addition, supporting articles from past issues of Preach the Word will be summarized in a feature called Treasures from the Archive. It is my prayer that these efforts will enrich your lectionary preaching to the joyful affirmation and thankful celebration of God’s holy people. Preach the Word as you bring forth from its storeroom treasures old and new.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

Pastor Gawrisch served for 14 years at Christ Lutheran, North Saint Paul, MN before taking a call to New Life in Shoreview, MN. He serves on the Minnesota District Worship Committee, the Schools of Worship Enrichment team, the Rites Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project, and with the Commission on Congregational Counseling’s Self-Assessment and Adjustment Program.

Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following is a summary of a past article which supports the main article in this issue.

Jesus preached on mountainsides and from fishing boats more often than he did in public worship. But at times both he and his apostles preached in synagogues, and synagogue worship was carried out with a standard ritual. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus certainly wasn’t bound to observe the synagogue’s ritual. Nevertheless:

  • He respected the synagogue’s order.
  • He respected the synagogue’s ceremony.
  • He respected the synagogue’s customs.

There are no rules here, no New Testament ceremonial laws. There is an example here, however, of how the greatest preacher preached in the context of ritual.

The Ritual of Lutheranism

The order of service we use in public worship is not that of the Old Testament synagogue, but a version of the rite used in the Christian church since the second century. The early Church formed its worship rite to highlight what it knew Christians needed the most, Word and Sacrament.

The western rite, the order of worship we usually call the liturgy, consists of the Ordinary and the Proper, both of which serve the Word and the Sacrament. The Ordinary is a set of five song texts (one of the texts, the Creed, is spoken in our version of the liturgy) that repeat the central themes of salvation Sunday by Sunday. The Proper is a set of lessons, songs, and prayers that retell Jesus’ life and work on a year by year basis.

Preaching that Respects the Liturgy

How might 21st century Lutheran preachers imitate the respect Jesus had for the ritual of public worship in his day?

  • Preach on the basis of a text that respects the liturgy’s Proper. The lessons, prayers, and hymns chosen for the various Sundays of the church year intend to carry a theme. The preacher respects that theme by allowing it to come through in his sermon.
  • Allow the ceremony of the liturgy to remain intact. The liturgy anticipates that all three lessons will be read consecutively and that they will be adorned and highlighted by the Psalm, Verse, and Hymn of the Day.
  • The liturgy has two central foci, the Word and the Sacrament. Both the Ordinary and the Proper focus on those two means of grace. The architecture of Christian churches since the time of Constantine takes these same two highlights into consideration.*

Most WELS preachers…preach within the context of the Liturgy. What are the implications for this kind of preaching? How does the liturgical context affect the sermon’s style and form? How can we preach the Word and respect the liturgy at the same time? Jesus gives us some examples, and we are wise to apply his practice to our own.

James Tiefel, Volume 4, No. 4

*Since Reformation times baptisms are usually administered in church, giving public worship a third central focus.


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Renovation: Green Bay, Wisconsin

Our congregation’s chancel renovation story isn’t a success story. It’s just a story. But it’s a story about God’s work among his people, and that makes it a story worth telling.

A Generous Offer

St. Paul was founded in 1883 by a faithful band of Lutherans who were on the orthodox side of the election controversy. Since 1953, services have been held in mid-town Green Bay in a beautiful, stained glass-bedeckled neogothic building with gray concrete walls reminiscent of a castle. The congregation saw visible growth in the early to mid 20th century, but there was a Protéstant-related shake-up in the early 1980s, and the aftershocks were felt for some time. Though faithful leaders and dedicated laypeople continued to do their best with gifts the Lord provided, and though the congregation continued to enjoy a number of bright moments, a slow and steady decline in membership and worship attendance over the next few decades led some to become worried. Is the Lord still at work among us?

In 2012, a generous member anonymously offered $200,000 in matching funds to renovate the front of the church. There were practical reasons for the offer. The wood finish of the chancel furnishings and reredos were showing signs of age. Communion traffic patterns and a short communion rail meant that Communion distribution occupied an unnecessarily large block of service time. A number of aging members were struggling to climb the three steps into the chancel to approach the rail. Though the person offering the gift preferred that the renovated space look a certain way, he also graciously expressed his desire that the congregation work through the matter, support the effort, and decide how the chancel should look.

Encouraged by the anonymous offer, the conversation attracted more voices, together with more expressions of personal preference, all of which fell neatly into one of two categories, either It’s time for a change! or I wouldn’t change a thing! And while there were practical reasons to renovate, there were also practical reasons to spend money in a different way. An aging building like ours needed attention in other places just to function properly.

But the conversation kept moving forward. Since our aging chancel furnishings were covered by a thin wood veneer that wouldn’t allow for refinishing, and since it was desirable to receive Communion on the main floor level, we talked about new chancel furnishings and new flooring up front. It wasn’t long before we were talking about new flooring for the whole church, more space between pews, a balcony redesign, and lighting improvements. The plan took shape, and the work began. During the renovation we were able to move the pews downstairs to the fellowship hall and temporarily hold services there.

A Principled Approach

A congregation that had seen relatively few changes over the past number of decades now found themselves dealing with a number of changes all at once. It wasn’t just the proposed changes to our worship space. New staff was serving in leadership positions. An increasing number of Latinos and other ethnicities made for a changing demographic in our church neighborhood. Some who had been worried in the past were now excited. But another group was alarmed by so much change, and now they were the ones dealing with the temptation to worry. Is the Lord still at work among us?

Before (See After above.)

It’s the root of all congregational worry, isn’t it? Whether the perception is that the changes are too many or too few: Is the Lord still at work among us?

We knew Scripture’s answer. The Lord was at work among us through his means of grace. There may have been disagreements over how much should be changed, but we all agreed on the blessings of Baptism and the power of Communion. We all believed that God’s Word would not return to him empty. The renovation of font, altar, and pulpit was the perfect time for the congregation to remember the doctrine of the means of grace, and we did so in our sermons, our Bible classes, and our conversations. It was freeing to remember that this project was not primarily about preferences. It was about the Gospel.

It was freeing to remember that this project was not primarily about preferences. It was about the Gospel.

Even our decision about flooring was related to the means of grace. We wanted to let the word of Christ dwell richly in people as they taught and admonished one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit (Colossians 3:16). A sound system can help people in the pew hear the preacher up front. But no sound system in the world can help people hear those sitting in the pews around them. We needed a space that was acoustically reverberant. A liturgically-minded acoustical consultant encouraged us to take out the carpet that was in our chancel and in our aisles and to install hard-surfaced flooring material. Some people weren’t so sure about this idea. Some members were afraid church would become too noisy, or that the floor would be slippery in winter. The tech who tuned our sound system counseled us to add carpet, not take it away. Even the workers who installed our new floor said, “Are you sure you want this?” But we stuck to our guns.

We needed a space that was acoustically reverberant.

A Blessing from God

This principled, means of grace-focused approach to our renovation was a true blessing for us all, but from a pastoral perspective it didn’t make the work any easier. Just the opposite. To actively encourage a means of grace emphasis meant being involved with the whole project, which required a staggering time commitment. And the pressure involved in bringing people together sometimes has a way of leaving a leader feeling trapped in the middle.

In fact, as wonderful as the project was, it wasn’t easy for any of us. When a congregation receives a large gift, it is indeed a great blessing from God’s hand, but perhaps not in the way some expect. To those who are given much, much is required. In our setting, people were forced to wrestle with painful questions. Are we too stuck on memories? Are we too intent on making ourselves look awesome? Are we too worried about what other people think of us? Are we not worried enough? Behind them all was one big question that none of us could escape: What is most important to you?

The Lord was uncovering false gods in our hearts and refocusing us on the means of grace.

Through it all, the Lord was at work. He was at work most clearly and most powerfully week after week through his means of grace. This would have been true whether we renovated or not. But he was also at work in the project itself, especially in all the fine messes we got ourselves into. In every discussion and disagreement, he was uncovering false gods in our hearts and refocusing us on the means of grace we intended to highlight in our project. Tears were shed. Forgiveness was spoken.

The cross in the floor assures us of why it is that we sinners can approach God’s throne of grace.

In January of 2016, we dedicated the renovated space with a special service focusing on God’s gracious promise to be present among us in Word and Sacraments. Attractive new ceramic tile covered the whole floor. Lighting in church was not brighter, just less yellow, and the change in hue made everything look better, including printed words on the page. The former altar was now a part of the reredos, and a new free-standing altar stood in the middle of the chancel. The matching pulpit and lectern which had occupied each side of the chancel had been removed and replaced by a new baptism font and ambo. Next to the font stood a paschal candle. Next to the ambo stood a processional cross. The chancel floor design visually connects the altar to the place in front of the first pew from where people would receive Communion. Ambo, font, and altar were finished in a darker color, the color of the church ceiling, to set them apart from the lighter-colored reredos behind them. The cross in the reredos was visually tied to altar, font, and ambo by means of that same color. The reredos and the candelabras in front of it were touched up in their original lighter color. It was a day of thanksgiving and great joy.

An Ongoing Challenge

Now that our project is done, we have an ongoing challenge before us, a challenge we were facing already before the renovation. We can’t let the furnishings and the symbols in our church become more important to us than the message they’re intended to convey. We must continue to find ways to teach the meaning of our symbols and the purpose they serve, lest any of us begin to value created things more than the Creator.

We must continue to find ways to teach the meaning of our symbols.

The challenge isn’t ours alone. Whether you are worshiping with a large, established congregation or with a little band of new Christians, whether your space for gathering is ornate or sparse, people benefit from explanations of why they do what they do and why their church is decorated and furnished the way it is.

The following paragraphs were originally printed in our dedication booklet to explain the symbols in our church. (This booklet, with numerous photos, and the dedication worship folder are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.)

CROSS: He was pierced for our transgressions—Isaiah 53:5

A cross occupies the central place in our chancel. Our life in this world and the next depends on what Jesus accomplished for us by his suffering and death. By the shedding of his blood, he has atoned for the sins of all people.

FONT: All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ—Galatians 3:27

Martin Luther said, “Baptism is so full of consolation and grace that heaven and earth cannot understand it.” Though a person is only baptized once, Holy Baptism brings daily blessings. Every day our sinful nature needs to be drowned in repentance before God, and every day our Baptism is a resurrection from the dead (Romans 6:3-6). In our struggle against sin, our Baptism tells us who we are, children of God, through faith in Jesus. The victory is already ours. The font is a symbol for all this. Even before a word in church is spoken, the Baptism font speaks for itself.

PASCHAL CANDLE: Because I live, you also will live—John 14:19

Located near the Baptism font, the paschal candle is a symbol of the resurrection. It is lit on the Sundays of Easter and whenever there is a baptism or a funeral. Christ is risen!

ALTAR: This is my body; this is my blood—Matthew 26:26,28

Sacrifices offered on Old Testament altars foreshadowed the one sacrifice by which Jesus atoned for the sins of the world. The altar in our church is more than a table from which we serve Holy Communion. The altar serves as a symbol of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and of God’s abiding presence. Our freestanding altar allows the pastor to face the congregation as he consecrates the bread and wine.

AMBO: The Lord said, “Say whatever I command you”—Jeremiah 1:7

Good preaching takes hard work, but it is not the preacher that gives a sermon its power; it is the Word of God that he preaches. An ambo is a symbol for the proclamation of God’s Word. It functions as both a lectern (from which scripture lessons are read) and a pulpit (from which sermons are preached). When a preacher stands behind the ambo he is inviting the congregation to remember that the message they are hearing from him didn’t originate with him. He is preaching the Word of God.

PROCESSIONAL CROSS: We preach Christ crucified—1 Corinthians 1:23

Next to our ambo is a raised cross, signifying to all that the suffering and death of our Savior Jesus Christ is at the heart of every sermon preached. When the cross is used in procession, we are reminded of Jesus’ gracious promise to be with us who have gathered in his name.

NEW FLOOR: You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood—1 Peter 2:9

Each believer has the privilege and the responsibility of proclaiming what God has done for them in Christ. When believers gather together in worship, that message is begging to be heard from them. By replacing carpeted areas with ceramic tile, we’ve livened our acoustical environment in a way that enables worshipers to hear not only the preacher who stands up in front of them but also the preachers who are speaking and singing in the pews around them.

CHANCEL: The front of our church preaches a sermon without words. Baptism, Communion, and God’s Word are symbolized by three furnishings of matching color. Each of these three pieces is connected in color to the central cross above and behind them. If God’s Son Jesus had not gone to his cross, Baptism could not save us, Communion could not feed our souls, and God’s Word could not set us free. But Jesus has suffered and died for us, and now every promise of God is “Yes” in Christ.

When you come to church and your endurance has been stretched thin by the troubles of this world and your heart is weighed down by sin and guilt, “listen” to that sermon with your eyes. In your baptism, God has proclaimed you his child, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. In Communion, the Lord sets his table for you and serves you the forgiveness and the fellowship with him for which you long. The Word of God you will hear is the truth, and the truth will set you free. Each of these symbols is located in a space that spills out onto the main floor, on which a tile floor cross invites you and all your fellow worshipers to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence so that you may receive mercy and find grace to help you in your time of need.

A Story Worth Telling

Over a year has passed since our dedication service. Concerns about the floor being slippery or the space being too noisy were completely unfounded. Congregational speaking and singing is noticeably louder and heartier. Replacing the floor provided us an opportunity to install a hearing loop, which has been of benefit for many. We’ve created means of grace focal points by means of color and careful placement and by condensing the pulpit/lectern combination to just one ambo. But what do people think of the chancel? Does everybody like what we did? The majority of people are happy and appreciative of the end results, including many who weren’t so sure to begin with. Still, if everybody loved what we did, it wouldn’t be ministry, would it? Though the debates and arguments have gone away, some are still quietly concerned that too much is changing around here, and others are quietly concerned that we aren’t changing enough. But like every other ministry story, this one isn’t about what people like. It is a story about God’s work among us, and that’s what makes it a story worth telling.

If everybody loved what we did, it wouldn’t be ministry, would it?

Whether you have an opportunity to renovate or not, the Lord is always at work among his people. What a blessing it is to know that his church everywhere will not only survive, it will triumph! Under his blessing, every mess is worth it, every tight spot, every extra bit of effort expended to bring God’s people together around what is most important each week. Our labor in the Lord is not in vain!

By Jon Zabell

Pastor Zabell serves St. Paul, Green Bay, WI. He is chairman of both the WELS Commission on Worship and the WELS Hymnal Project and is a consultant for the synod’s Schools of Worship Enrichment. He was a member of the Hymnal Supplement Committee and chaired the Supplement Introduction Committee.


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Preach the Word – Receiving the Preaching of Others…

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Receiving the Preaching of Others as Preaching for Me

“Those shoes don’t look right under an alb. Come on, man. Show a little care about your appearance.”

“You just read the Gospel before the hymn. Why are you reading it again? Hmm. I wonder how the guest preacher at my place is doing. And let me check my watch to see how long this guy is going to go.”

“Ooh, man, you missed an opportunity there. You should have said….”

“Really? That’s the illustration you used? That sounds like one of those canned ones from sermonillustrations.com.”

“You’re circling buddy. Bring it home. Just say ‘Amen.’”

Okay, preachers, how many of those thoughts have swirled through your mind as you were listening to one of your brothers preach? Whether it’s listening to a conference sermon or your associate, would you agree that it’s difficult to really listen to a sermon? Or more accurately, it’s difficult to pay attention to a sermon. Have you found it all too easy for those thoughts to take up way too much cranial time? And what is the upshot of any of those thoughts?

Throughout this series we’ve been talking about correctly handling the word of truth, preaching specific law and specific gospel, letting them see Jesus, and trumpeting the clarity of Scripture. In this article we’ll deal with something that needs to come first. First, we must be fed. Part of being ready to correctly handle the word of truth is first receiving the preaching of others as preaching for me. In other words, I need to get past professional observing and get to listening.1 Failing to listen means failing to be fed.

That’s the warning and encouragement Paul gave Timothy. He told him to start with himself: “Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”2

As for himself, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.… I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”3 So yes, this is important. I need to be fed. But how?

Satan is active. It reminds me of the advice Screwtape gave to his demon nephew Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ classic.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him, he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains … provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes….4

Of course, Screwtape was talking about new believers instead of preachers. I’m astounded at how effective the same tactics are on me. I’m also condemned by that. How could I fall for that?

I know the answer to that question. It’s pride. We think we know better. To the younger preacher, the older guys seem so out of touch. To the older preacher, the young guys just don’t seem to learn the craft as well. And if Wormwood can get us thinking about either, we’re missing the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. More precisely, I’m missing the power of God for the salvation of ME!

Let’s learn from Paul here. If anyone had reason to get full of himself, it was Paul. The effects of his preaching were unprecedented: demons driven out, illnesses healed, churches planted, missionaries sent, Gentiles turning to Jesus! But Paul knew the reality. He knew what he needed to hear. He wrote to young Timothy:

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy.”5 Paul remembered he didn’t deserve his privilege to preach. And he knew he needed to remind himself of that often. He went on: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”6

So, how do I listen to preaching and take it to heart…for me? It starts with repentance. “Lord Jesus, remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. Forgive my pride and overwhelm me by your grace that I may hear the proclamation of the preacher as your good news to my heart. No matter how it is presented, or what distractions around me present themselves, let me hear your Word.”7

Forgive my pride and overwhelm me by your grace.

There! Pride squelched. Sins forgiven. Ears open. That should send Wormwood packing, right?

Well, not so fast. That devil has more weapons in his arsenal than pride. Preachers, any of these sound familiar?

“Man, this preacher is talented. Where does he come up with these fantastic illustrations?”

“I wish I would have as much time as he obviously has to perfect my sermons.”

“If only my mind would memorize as well as his.”

“Man, look at these people in his congregation. They all seem so normal. If only my people were more…”

You see what’s happening here too, don’t you? He’s just moved on to the second of the Seven Deadly Sins—Envy. He’ll keep going through the list if we let him. Of course, the answer to this is the same: repentance.

So now, as repentant, redeemed children of God who know how important it is to listen to the Word, how can we grow in this? How can we drown that old Adam so that next time Wormwood’s attacks fall on deaf ears? How can we build up the new man to run in such a way as to get the prize?

How can we drown that old Adam so that next time Wormwood’s attacks fall on deaf ears?

The answer is the other side of the same coin. It is seeing the forgiveness that Jesus has won. It is seeing the grace of God that forgives and gives. Paul called it grace that was given to him to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.8 It’s realizing how true that is. My privilege to preach is nothing but grace. God is doing the work. Jesus sent his disciples out in Matthew 10 telling them not to worry, because “It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”9 Paul wrote, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.”10

Brothers, remember this truth. Then, make it a point, the next time you have an opportunity to listen to a sermon, to pray. Pray that God curb your pride and envy. Pray that he bless the preacher. Pray that he let you…listen.

Thanks guys, for the opportunity to write this past volume of Preach the Word. I hope you got out of it at least a fraction of what I gained from doing it. May God continue to bless your handling the Word of Truth.

In Christ,

Written by Jonathan Scharf

I asked my circuit brothers their best advice on how to get from a professional to personal listening to other preachers. Here’s what they said:

“It’s like the Nike ad. Just do it.”

“Listen a lot to one preacher. You get over it.”

“Sure we listen to sermons at conferences, but why not a more regular habit of it? Listen to a preacher for a burst of time and then move on to another preacher; it’s amazing the stuff I can learn.”

“Close your eyes.”11

“Listen to seminary chapel every day.”

“Take notes. Write down the law and Gospel that you are hearing.”

“Practice ahead of time. Listen and read a bunch of them online. Make that part of your habit.”


“It’s probably the same advice I give to those who would say our service is boring: Get into the Word daily. The more you are in the Word, the more you will know the Word, the more you get out of the Word, the more you’ll get out of the service. That same thing applies to hearing the sermon.”

Walther’s Law and Gospel

Throughout this series, I’ve included quotations from CFW Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel to highlight the thoughts of the article. This issue, I’m quoting part of the last paragraph of the book. The professor speaks to the hearts of his students as they prepare to go and be pastors. Notice where he starts, in the heart of the preacher.

“Whoever, now, receives Him and believes in Him, that is, whoever takes comfort in the fact that for the sake of His Son, God will be merciful to him, will forgive his sins, and grant him eternal salvation, etc., – whoever is engaged in this preaching of the pure Gospel and thus directs men to Christ, the only Mediator between God and men, he, as a preacher, is doing the will of God. That is the genuine fruit by which no one is deceived or duped.”

Preach the Clear Word—an example:

With each issue I am including a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that I hope demonstrates some of what we’re talking about. Since this issue is all about you receiving preaching as preaching for you, I’m giving you a challenge. Just read this and take it to heart. Don’t analyze or tear apart or think of how you might use it. Let yourself come back and do that later if you want to. But right now, pray for strength and then…listen.

This is a section from a sermon on 1 Kings 3:5-12 for Christian Education Sunday, which fell on Pentecost 10A. The theme of the sermon is “What do you want?” We pick up after going down a list of things God expects of us. The full text of the sermon is available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

If we’re honest, we’re right there with Solomon, “I’m not fit for the task”. Verse 7, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.” “I don’t know how to do what you’re asking me, Lord. I need your help.”

Actually, more accurately, he answered, “Lord, I need you.” Do you see how that changes it? Instead of focusing on what we want, the question is changed to who we want.

I mean, everyone knows Solomon asked for wisdom, right? Well, kind of. But really, the Hebrew word for wisdom isn’t there. What he asked for was, real literally, a heart that hears. As he was speaking with God he asked for a heart that hears God. Now, he wanted a heart that hears in order to govern God’s people with wisdom and distinguish between right and wrong—that’s why he wanted it—but what he asked for was a heart that hears God.

Think of how powerful that is. Instead of a what, he asked for a whom. Instead of riches he asked for relationship. Now, before, I said that Solomon asked for the equivalent of more wishes. Do you see what I mean? He asked that he’d be able to hear God—that he would keep listening, and in so doing, he’d have God’s power and God’s presence. And God was pleased with that request. So he told Solomon what that would result in. With God, he would have all the other things that could be considered good—riches, fame, wisdom, power, money, money, and more money. That’s if you consider an annual income of more than 25 tons of gold riches. Solomon didn’t ask for a what, he asked for a whom. He asked to be able to hear God.

So—now back to you and me. What does that mean?

What are we asking for? God has given us the open offer of prayer. What do we ask for? Tell me, do you fall into the same trap I too often do? Is your answer to what you want so self-serving that it ignores the giver for the gift? “I want happiness Lord, I want health.” Maybe even, “I want you to bless someone else.” Yes, those are great things, but if we’re looking at God as a vending machine, we’re missing the real blessing. And then, if we don’t get what we ask for—it seems like God failed. It seems pointless to ask, and faith is shaken, and our prayer did more harm to us than good. Instead of asking God to hear us with our list of demands, let’s ask for a heart that hears God. Let’s ask Him for a relationship with Him.

And then, before we hear anything else, we’ll hear his love. Instead of living like all the other voices matter more, we’ll hear his forgiveness and realize what he means to us. Because he is pleased to give that gift—a hearing heart, a heart that pays attention to God’s Word, trained by God’s voice, governed by God’s will—so that we can carry out our duties. Let’s ask for God with us.

And let’s live that answer. Let’s let our hearts hear. Is it starting to make sense why this is the text for Christian Education Sunday?

1 President Wendland made a good point in his essay, Speaking and Listening in Love: “We pastors are talkers. We are preachers, proclaimers, heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ. Through careful training and by long experience we have learned how to analyze and communicate” (Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 112.4, page 245). He went on to make the point that we don’t always do the best at listening.

2 1 Timothy 4

3 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

4 Screwtape Letters. C.S. Lewis, pages 3-4 – a collection of fictional letters from an experienced demon to his younger nephew, Wormwood. The “patient” is the person on whom the demon is working.

5 1 Timothy 1:13

6 1 Timothy 1:15-17

7 I’m reminded of the prayer before the sermon at the national conference worship in Uruk Uso, Nigeria. The preacher came out and led the people in prayer in which they were instructed to yell out, “Go away sleepiness!” and several other encouragements for watchfulness and attention. It was a great reminder for everyone of the importance of what was about to happen (the sermon).

8 Ephesians 3:18

9 Matthew 10:20

10 1 Corinthians 2:13

11 Although some might argue this is testing God after hearing the prayer of the Nigerian preacher.


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Renovation: Woodbridge, Virginia

“Will it have bathrooms?”

This was a key question. Our congregation had been meeting in a rented, one room, 1850 church building without running water. Now we looked to purchase and renovate a previous day care facility as a church. The answer was “Yes”! The purchase was made. But then the work of renovation began.

Our previous 1850 building, which had doubled as a hospital in the Civil War, lacked many basic and functional components of a worship space. But at least it looked like a church. The space projected a sense of reverence when worshipers entered. Granted, that sense might be skewered when they sat on a loose nail in a 100-year-old pew, but overall the facility proclaimed itself to be a place of worship.

The new building didn’t look like a church.

The new building didn’t look like a church. There were no high, arching ceilings or obvious sanctuary space. And the bathrooms? They had running water, but the toilets were designed for the average two-year-old and were only about 18 inches high. The facility was located on land that a teenage George Washington had once surveyed. As we surveyed the scene in present day, we realized that a top to bottom renovation was needed.

“Where do we begin?”

Every room in the building needed to be addressed. Walls needed to be knocked out. New toilets needed to be installed. New flooring and paint and ceilings and doors needed to be ordered. It was exciting!

But it was also daunting. How would we make a one story, former daycare into a space that encourages worship and fellowship? How would we make the sanctuary appear to be a place for worship, and not just a converted cafeteria or multipurpose room?

How would we make all of these decisions? How would a volunteer building committee, the members of which had high demand day jobs in the shadow of Washington, D.C., wade through the scope and sequence of such a project? How would we work together and divide the duties without the duties dividing us?

How would we work together and divide the duties without the duties dividing us?

And, since we were a growing but still relatively small congregation, a WELS mission outpost, how would we pay for all of this?

We realized that we needed help. We decided to search for a consultant to guide us.

Soon after, we learned that not all consultants are the same. Some did not return our phone calls (probably due to the relatively small size of our congregation). Some spent a few minutes in our facility and suggested we simply carpet everything, sanctuary included, because “it would be the cheapest.” One consultant, who had worked on designing exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, suggested that we install a six foot high white marble monument with baptismal font. It was a nice idea, but would have blown our budget before a single drop of water graced our basin. Some suggested we install as small of an altar platform (or “stage”, as they would often refer to it) as possible to cram as many people into our sanctuary as possible. In the end, most of the potential consultants that we interviewed had never seen a typical Lutheran worship service nor seemed interested in listening and learning about what would truly enhance our worship space.

We learned that not all consultants are the same.

That changed when Paul Barribeau of Groth Design Group, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, returned my phone call. We talked for an hour and a half during our first conversation. He listened. He learned about our space and goals. He considered the limitations and opportunities that our budget afforded. He understood what liturgical worship that strove to balance reverence and relevance would require in a facility. Having obtained a degree in classical languages, a Master of Divinity, and a master’s degree in architecture, he understood both mission minded, excellent liturgical worship and a balanced budget. We knew that we had our man.

…both mission minded, excellent liturgical worship and a balanced budget…

His first step was to visit us onsite. During this visit, he gave a presentation to the congregation which explained the principals of church renovation and shared success stories complete with before and after pictures of previous projects. You could feel the excitement in the air as our congregation began to dream of the future of our space. Questions of “how are we going to do this?” became replaced with excited exclamations of “I can’t wait to see how it will turn out!”

Soon after, we used our Sunday morning Bible study to consider the principles and purposes for our project. We studied God’s blueprints for the temple, not to try and replicate what the Israelites had done, but rather to reinforce the truth that God did not apologize for calling his people to use the best gifts at their disposal for the house that would represent his name. We studied Haggai and considered how both the furnishings and financing of our facility could serve to proclaim our faith and to honor God. As the Israelites of old, we were comforted by his promises to be with us as we moved forward. We considered what aspects of our well-furnished homes would also work well in God’s house. For example, many of our homes have high end, top quality countertops on which to prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What, then, should the table that holds the sacrament in God’s house be like? How could it honor God and draw attention to the gifts he wants to give us?

We emphasized that the purpose of our project was to honor God and give glory to his name, not our name. We pondered how our facility could be a visible witness to the world around us about his love for us and our love for him. This helped move mindsets from questions such as “What would be good enough (and least expensive)?” to questions such as “How can we responsibly yet reverently use our resources to honor our Redeemer? What is the best that we can do to thank him who gave us all?”

“What is the best that we can do to thank him who gave us all?”

As we studied God’s Word as a congregation and worked with our consultant as a building committee, we were able to formulate a plan and procedure for the decision-making process. Our consultant knew which decisions needed to be made first. Much in the same way that a pastor systematically knows the steps needed to create and craft a sermon, our consultant knew which decisions needed to be made in what order. He was able to break these steps down into manageable portions for our committee in a sequence that would address the most impactful decisions first.

At each step, he provided our design committee with two or three possibilities for each decision, explaining clearly the pros and cons of each. As our committee met and systematically worked through each decision in the weeks and months to come, an excited momentum formed. Committee meetings were filled with enthusiasm and anticipation. As decisions were made, a sense of progress and accomplishment grew. That progress, and, as much as possible pictures of the progress were shared with the congregation through periodic emails, announcements, and bulletin inserts. And yes, we kept everything in budget!

What was the result? A space that conveyed relevance and reverence. A place of worship and welcome.

What did that look like for us?

We wanted a look that was clean and timeless. We wanted a feeling of reverence and relevance. We wanted to project a sense of warmth and connection. Many of our people work among millions in massive Washington D.C. buildings, including the United States Capital and the Pentagon. They aren’t necessarily looking for that same experience on Sunday morning. Many are not looking to worship amid thousands or even hundreds in a huge building on a Sunday morning. They appreciate the feel of community that a smaller space can bring. They want to feel connected to others.

For a secular example, consider the popularity of Starbucks. Most patrons are not excited about drinking a latte in a facility that seats 600 people. Instead, they will gladly seek a Starbucks not only for the quality of coffee but also for the feel of comfort, coziness, and community in the space. This same desire for closeness and community is often expressed by those commuting in our community of millions.

That being said, our people and community also like things that are well done. They see through the tacky and trite. They want timeless.

To implement these goals, our seating was positioned in three sections around the altar platform. The three sections of pews remind us that we gather together around the Word and sacrament in worship. While our focus remains on the altar and cross, this seating arrangement also helps us to see one another and provide mutual encouragement and interaction in our worship experience. This three-section layout of seating around the altar echoes some of the earliest church designs in Christianity.

Altar in front of reredos wall

A clear maple wood reredos wall was installed which suggests an open book or the opening leaves of a door. The angle of the wall centers attention on the cross, while the door image reinforces the hospitality of the congregation and the call to worship. The book-like image reminds us that we have a faith founded on the Word of God, and are called to share that Word with our community.

Practically speaking, the hard wood bounces sound back to the congregation when prayers are spoken or psalms are chanted in the direction of the altar.

The windows have no coverings. This helps to bring in as much natural light as possible, reminding us of Christ, the Light of the world, who shines upon us. It also reminds us that we are to share the message that is proclaimed in worship with the neighborhood and world outside of our building, inviting new faces to join in the assembly of the blessed.

We installed a large, white oval around the ceiling in our rectangular, four cornered sanctuary. This oval, with recessed lighting and a dark blue ceiling to frame it, gives the visual impression of a higher ceiling. Historically, the square or rectangle is the symbol of the earth or of the mortal realm. (Think about how we still use language of this: the earth has “four corners” and “four winds.”) The symbol of the divine or eternal is the circle or oval—a shape without beginning or end. The oval within the rectangular shape of the room acknowledges that in worship the earthly and heavenly/divine meet, as Jesus himself is with us in Word and sacrament.

We used high quality, vinyl tile flooring that does not require buffing or waxing. It was very important that we avoided carpet, as any fabric in a one story room would easily deaden the sound so that we could not hear each other singing. Consider how this is purposefully accomplished in a funeral home, where heavily carpeted, one story rooms serve to muffle the sounds of crying from the assembly. The laminate flooring also works well for clean up in a congregation full of Cheerio-eating toddlers.

Hand-blown glass font

The light wood tones of our altar allow the color of our paraments to pop. These paraments were hand-sewn in Belgium and picked with the aid of a liturgical consultant. Especially striking is a hand-blown glass baptismal font, in a vibrant blue with a texture that looks like flowing water. This font is uncovered and in prominent position in the sanctuary.

In our entire facility, you will not find a single white, off-white, or beige wall. Why? These colors, though often considered “safe” or “light” by some, actually tend to convey a sense of institution and harshness. We wanted to project warmth and welcome. Our walls are a combination of tans, rich blues, and greens. The paint colors were suggested by our professional consultant, and planned to work in harmony with each other throughout the entire facility. This use of warm colors is one of the most consistently noticed and appreciated features of our building by first time visitors. To return to a previous illustration, think about what color scheme you see at your local Starbucks or Panera. You don’t see white walls. You see a palate of warm colors that work in harmony throughout the building, encouraging visitors to linger.

What did we learn through the process?

We learned that it is important to recognize what will work well and be appropriate for your own space and place. Most people think about what a church should look like in terms of the church they grew up in, and for many WELS members, that is a large, stained glass laden neo-gothic mini cathedral in the upper Midwest. The same design elements that make such a building beautiful there might not work in a smaller building on a smaller scale with a smaller budget on the coasts. That is fine. Timeless beauty which directs eyes, minds, and hearts to the timeless truths of the gospel can still be accomplished in a smaller, non-traditional space. Small steps on limited resources can still lead to someplace wonderful!

Timeless beauty … can still be accomplished in a smaller, non-traditional space.

Small churches might think that consultants are for big churches with big budgets. I would argue the opposite. The more limited your budget, the more important it is to make decisions that will bring you the most value for every dollar spent. A consultant can not only help you to spend your money wisely, but spend it in ways that will actually equip and enhance your endeavors for years to come. As a side note, the few decisions that we made without the aid of our consultant, though not greatly important, took much longer and resulted in much more toil and agony. When a committee of volunteers with full time jobs and no professional training in large scale, multi-use public building design and decoration needs to formulate ideas from scratch (and attempt to agree on those ideas), the process will often be painful and the result will usually be less than desired.

The finished facility has allowed for consistently increasing worship attendance, educational programs, and fellowship. More importantly, it has encouraged us to gather around Word and sacrament and proclaim God’s love to the world around us. Our congregation’s habits have dramatically changed on Sunday mornings, as well. Instead of entering worship at the last second possible and then hustling out of a cramped, one room 1850 church building as soon as possible after worship to find a facility with bathrooms or recover from pew wounds, our congregation lingers before and after worship and enjoys fellowship with one another. In fact, they enjoy fellowship in our facility so much that at times it is a struggle to get worshipers to enter the sanctuary on time, as they are so happy to talk with one another in the comfortable, warm, well-appointed narthex or fellowship hall. On the flip side, some take an extended time to exit the sanctuary after worship, as they enjoy being surrounded with visible symbols of their Savior’s love, post service music that rings in an acoustically excellent environment, and the welcoming atmosphere of their family in Christ.

We give thanks to our gracious God, who allowed us to renovate an existing space into a place brimming not just with bathrooms, but with beautiful symbols of Word and warmth.

By Jon Bergemann

Jon Bergemann has served as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Woodbridge, VA (near Washington, D.C.) since graduation from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2003. He serves on the Commission on Adult Discipleship and the North Atlantic District Worship Committee. He is also a member of the NIV2011- ESV-HCSB translation review group, a consultant for the Commission on Congregational Counseling, and a mentor in the Pastor Partners Program. 

Additional photos of the renovation project are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects.


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Preach the Word – Preach the Clear Word

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach the Clear Word

I was in the largest ballroom I had ever seen. It was in the hotel where a few years earlier, my kids and I had snuck in just to ride the glass elevator to the top floor and look down on that huge inner atrium. But this time the place was full. Literally thousands of scholars packed the ballroom.

Then the keynote speaker began. The man spoke as if he were putting his life on the line. At the very least he was risking his scholarly reputation. He was speaking as the big opening presentation for the plenary session of the AAR/SBL1 annual meeting held in Atlanta a little over a year ago. It was the IBR2 Annual Lecture. He was addressing thousands of people who made their livelihood studying and teaching and writing about the Bible, thousands of people who bought his books.

Here is what was so dangerous. I know I’m over-simplifying it, but it seemed to me that he was proposing that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to consider the possibility that perhaps the LORD had something to do with the origin of the Old Testament. Now, he didn’t go so far as to say anything about verbal inspiration, but he said it’s time to think about at least some influence. Maybe there is some semblance of unity. His point was that with all of the methods of criticism postmodernism had suggested, perhaps Historical Criticism had gone too far in reaction. As he put it, “the postmodern tsunami has so destabilized biblical studies that Historical Criticism has hung around as the accepted standard,” to the end that YHWH had become one unknown to us.3 He walked through Psalm 93 and showed that, at the very least, the writer or writers of the Psalm thought that God had something to do with it.

I was sitting in the audience thinking: “I can’t believe he thinks that needs to be proven. Isn’t that what it says? How on earth could you think anything else when reading it?” During most of his presentation I was saying in my head, “Duh!” And he wasn’t going nearly far enough. But then came the questions from the floor, accusing him of basically denying the research that has already been so clearly proven. And I wondered, what’s the point of studying Scripture if you really think it has no authority except for the parts to which you choose to give authority?4 The confusion and angst caused by such raping of the text leaves victims. What confidence can someone have of God’s promises if you could never be sure which ones he really spoke, if any?

So, as we continue our effort “to correctly handle the word of truth,” this issue we’ll want to avoid causing that damage. We’ll want to be clear about what that Word of Truth is. In other words, we’ll look at the clarity of Scripture. And I may just get up on my soapbox about the word “interpretation.”

As you might guess, this was a key theme discovered in my interview with the seekers you’ve heard from in previous issues. These believers who found Lutheran teaching as an answer to prayer were asked what they saw as different. The first answer summed it up pretty well: “It’s wonderful to finally just be coming at it from the basis that the Bible is true.” They spoke about things they had heard and accepted previously just because their pastors had spoken them. Some, they admit, should have been obvious, like: “Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean it is true.” But then there were others that didn’t seem quite as brash until you see what was done with them:

  • “For the sake of time, let me tell you what I believe this says.”
  • “Let me tell you what this says. You might not see it.”
  • And then sometimes it was just the little things, like getting used to hearing “The Church of God teaches…” vs. “The Bible teaches…”.

“It’s wonderful to finally just be coming at it from the basis that the Bible is true.”

They all agreed about the refreshing shock they received in Bible Information Class. At the start of our first lesson, we go through the goals and expectations of the class. The primary goal is to learn in each class what the Bible teaches about each topic. While different people have different views about Scripture, I tell them that we believe the Bible is God’s Word completely, and so our goal is to see what the Bible teaches. Whether you believe it is true or not, that’s between you and the Holy Spirit working in your heart.

Then for the rest of the classes, I keep trying to answer questions with “This is what the Bible says,” and they get used to that. I’m not saying that that’s the only way to present something, but if I could encourage one thing when it comes to how we speak and teach, it would be that. Don’t hide behind WELS. I know it is meant well, but when I hear someone describe the WELS teaching on something, I cringe. I hear over and over in my head the conversation with my seekers about how dangerous that is. Why not just call it the “biblical teaching”? Yes, WELS teaches close communion, but it is because of what God’s Word says, not because President Schroeder said so.

I keep trying to answer questions with “This is what the Bible says.”

Yes, I appreciate all the wonderful blessings God has given our synod in preachers and teachers committed to mining the depths of Scripture and formulating truths built firmly on its truth. I’m not ashamed of WELS. Yet, I have learned how people hear that and have seen the confusion when someone takes confidence in a teaching because it comes from WELS instead of from the Bible. At that point it makes it easy to just brush differing teachings off as a matter of interpretation.5

Just to drive home the point that the Word is clear, I do the same thing each time in that first lesson of Bible Information Class. I make sure to go fishing until someone bites and asks a question questioning Scripture. It usually happens when we are learning who God is and I have them read Exodus 34:6-7.6 “Wait a second. Is that right? Does that mean he punishes the kids who did nothing wrong?” Or, “But that doesn’t sound fair, punishing children for sins of fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Then we get a lesson in “interpreting” Scripture. We let God answer the question and turn to Deuteronomy 5 where God restates it and adds “of those who hate me” on the end.7 Then I tell them the people of Israel had that same question, and we turn to Ezekiel 18. There they hear God so clearly explain that each individual is responsible in their own personal relationship with God—“the soul that sins is the one that will die.” Sure we get a chance to talk about the responsibility of parents to pass on good things (truth of God’s Word). We talk about the dangers of what our bad examples do to our kids. But the biggest lesson they are taught is that God’s Word is clear even if we don’t see it at first blush.

God’s Word is clear even if we don’t see it at first blush.

We don’t have to argue about how different denominations interpret things or resolve to “agree to disagree.” We can go instead ad fontes—to the source, to Scripture—and look for the answers there. I love how Martin Luther presents it so clearly in his comments on Psalm 37.

We can go instead ad fontes and look for the answers there.

“There is not a plainer book on earth than the Holy Scriptures. It is, in comparison with all other books, what the sun is compared with all other luminaries. The papists are giving us their twaddle about the Scriptures for the sole purpose of leading us away from the Scriptures and raising up themselves as masters over us in order to force us to believe their preaching of dreams. It is an abomination, a disgraceful defamation of Holy Writ and the entire Christian Church, to say that the Holy Scriptures are obscure, that they are not clear enough to be understood by everybody and to enable everybody to teach and prove what he believes.”8

So simple. And to think the church had almost forgotten. The Word is clear. Preach it! As we celebrate Reformation 500 this year, praise God that he gave us Martin Luther and all the rest. Praise God that he reminded us to correctly handle the word of truth by preaching the clear Word.

Until next time,

Written by Jonathan Scharf

Walther’s Law and Gospel

In his classic Law and Gospel, CFW Walther brings home the importance of the confidence we can have in Scripture. This is how he opens his eighth evening lecture:

“If the Holy Scriptures were really so obscure a book that the meaning of all those passages which form the basis of articles of the Christian Creed could not be definitely ascertained, and if, as a result of this, we should have to acknowledge that without some other authority it would be impossible to decide which of two or several interpretations of Scripture-passages is the only correct one, if these conditions, I say, were true, the Scriptures could not be the Word of God. How could a book that leaves us groping in darkness and uncertainty regarding its essential contents serve as a revelation?”

Preach the Clear Word—an example:

With each issue I am including a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that I hope demonstrates some of what we’re talking about. As we look forward to the commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession on June 25th, we have opportunity to celebrate the clarity of God’s Word. This is from a sermon on Isaiah 55:10-11, a portion of the First Lesson appointed for that occasion. The theme—if you want to call it that—is, “What Good Are Words?” Part I is “Consider the Source.” Here is the first part of Part II: “Consider the Substance.” The full text of the sermon can be found at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

Consider the Source. And Consider the Substance. Think about what he says. In our text he says his Word accomplishes his desires (and you know that his desire is that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth) and achieves his purposes. And what is the purpose of his Word? What is this Word all about? John gives the answer in his first letter – 1 John 5:12-13 12He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

What is the substance? Eternal life. Everything in here—from the account of Adam and Eve to John’s Revelation—from the history of Israel to the letters to the churches. Every last syllable of this Word is written that you may know that you have eternal life. This is here to give you confidence, which is important because our enemies want anything but that. The devil, the world and our sinful flesh repeat their lies again and again hoping that you’ll forget the source and listen to them. But God’s Word keeps going out—and it comes back bearing fruit.

When you can’t put out of your mind the hurtful words you spoke in anger, the LORD says that he has long ago put them out of his. When you look at yourself and see the filth and failure, the LORD tells you that he sees you as a beautiful bride, free from spot and blame. When your guilt follows close by your side wherever you go, the LORD has put it in black and white that he has removed that sin as far as the east is from the west.

When you realize the debt your failures owe—you open up His Word and hear him declare it paid. “It is finished.” “The blood of Jesus his Son purifies us from all sin.” Sins paid for. That’s what God’s Word says. So when you consider the source and you come here with all your baggage, you hear God’s voice—“I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the baggage is gone.

And then you step forward and your Savior says, “Take and eat… Take and drink. This is my blood of the new covenant, given to you for the forgiveness of sins.” And as powerfully as God’s Word brought light into being, he brings light and love and hope and confidence into your heart.

What good are words? When they are God’s, when you realize the source and hear the substance—they do not return to him empty but accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

1 American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature – The AAR is the world’s largest association of scholars in the field of religious studies, with over 10,000 members. The SBL boasts 8500 from 80 countries. Each year they host an annual meeting with over 400 meetings/events/presentations for over 10,000 participants. In November of 2015, it was hosted in Atlanta and a member gave me admission to it as my birthday present, knowing I was, as he put it, “a language nerd.”

2 Institute for Biblical Research

3 This was his closing slide: “In too much OT study YHWH comes to us as one unknown. Epistemologically, if I am right, this is the wrong way round. We come to him as ones unknown, crawling back from the far country, where we had wasted our substance on riotous but ruinous historicism. But the swinehusks—the ‘assured results of modern criticism’—reminded us of that knowledge which arrogance had all but obliterated, and we began the journey home. But when we approach, as we propose to do in this paper, we will find him running to us as one clothed in the garments of the ANE and yet as one well known, whom we had spurned in the name of scholarship or even of faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more. And the ring on our finger and the shoes on our feet assure us that, in celebrating his kingdom and feasting at his table, we shall discover again and again not only who he is but [also] who we ourselves are: as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live.” https://prezi.com/j0xj8iw_i4n2/old-testament-origins-and-the-question-of-god

4 To be fair, there were also Bible-believing scholars in the room. I appreciated one gentlemen on a panel discussing CS Lewis in one of the workshops answering another panelist who wanted to distinguish that the Bible wasn’t the Word of God but tells us about the Word, who is Jesus. Very succinctly he said, “Jesus said it is the Word of God. If that’s wrong, he is either a lunatic or a liar. And he’s not, so you are wrong.”

5 That’s when I get on my soapbox talking about how often that word gets used to excuse people saying whatever they want to say regardless of what God’s Word says. You’re lucky I have a limited word count.

6 Exodus 34:6-7 – “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘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. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (NIV 1984).

7 Deuteronomy 5:10 – “I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” (NIV 1984).

8 Page 59, CFW Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, CPH, 1986.


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Renovation: Morton Grove, Illinois

Jerusalem, Morton Grove was founded in 1902 on the north edge of Chicago. Back then it was a farming community made up of mostly German immigrants. A first sanctuary was built in 1903 and renovated in 1929 after a fire destroyed much of the interior. Arch-shaped, stained-glass windows were added at that time. They were fabricated by the Milwaukee studios of Carl Reimann, who provided many Wisconsin Synod sanctuaries of that era with iconic, biblical scenes as depicted by German artist Heinrich Hofmann.

After the Great Depression and World War II, Morton Grove ceased being a sleepy, farming village and instead became part of a bustling, metropolitan area. Families snatched up the tidy rows of new suburban housing. Many new residents were Lutherans seeking a new church home. Baby-boom families flocked to utilize Jerusalem’s quickly growing grade school. The membership swelled to nearly 800 at its height, and soon the old 1903 structure was deemed inadequate and in need of replacement.

Under the leadership of Pastor George Boldt, who had been installed in 1955, the congregation resolved to build a new sanctuary, laying its cornerstone in 1963. The new church would double the congregation’s seating capacity and provide additional room for the school’s gospel ministry as well. Reimann’s stained-glass windows were preserved and set within a panoply of multi-colored rectangles along the west wall of the worship space, but everything else was new.

This new sanctuary served the congregation well for forty years, but by the turn of the millennium what had been new was no longer. The basic structure of the sanctuary was still solid and sound. In many ways it was even timeless, with its red-brick walls and rich, wooden ceilings. But what was considered cutting-edge in the 1960s was no longer modern, and what had once been considered an ecclesiastical luxury—such as red carpeting down the aisles and in the chancel—was now identified by leaders as a serious impediment to both ministry and maintenance.

The intervening years had also taken its toll on Jerusalem’s membership, due in large part to a steep rise in the cost of residing in an inner-ring Chicago suburb. Pastor Boldt famously joked about “Mortgage Grove,” but the flight of Jerusalem members to Chicago’s far-reaching suburbs and a severely-declining birthrate now compelled the congregation to view gospel ministry differently. By the early 2000s, Jerusalem’s membership numbers had fallen to less than 400, and worship attendance had fallen in kind.

It was becoming clear that the congregation could no longer rely on growth from within. The Lord Jesus was graciously leading his people in Morton Grove to reach out with the gospel in a determined way. And what opportunities he was providing! The surrounding community now included mostly-professional people from all walks of life and from many tribes and nations. In recent years, many immigrants from East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Mideast have moved into the area. This required the members of Jerusalem to reconsider their approach to ministry and mission through their church and school. As part of the overall ministry reconsideration, it was time for the congregation to evaluate its worship space and to ask questions about our current sanctuary’s function and form. Many members desired to improve the function of the sanctuary, to allow for more flexibility of use, and to enhance the beauty of the sanctuary.


When the new sanctuary was built in 1963, the latest technologies in lighting were utilized. While the congregation experienced an improvement over the lighting provided in the 1903 building, this system still left the sanctuary quite dim. Dark red carpeting was placed in the aisles. The only natural light into the sanctuary was mostly provided through the west-facing stained glass windows, meaning that morning services saw little in the way of sunshine. Older members had difficulty seeing their hymnals, and the shadowy sanctuary was less than inviting to the visiting eye.

When the first phase of sanctuary renovation work began in the summer of 2008, the lighting system was the first item addressed. New pendants shed much additional light on the floor, adding vibrancy the space. Perhaps most striking, however, was the light these pendants cast upward on a lovely sanctuary ceiling that had too long dwelt in darkness. Proper lighting alone has done a world of good and enhanced the congregation’s worship greatly.

Before: a dark 1960s chancel

Small spotlights were also installed which highlight three stone reliefs symbolizing the Trinity on the east wall of the sanctuary. Cove lighting along the sanctuary perimeter provided additional warmth to the worship setting. An easy-to-use control panel made lighting entirely dimmable. This panel makes it possible to set up a variety of lighting levels for the sanctuary as well as to focus spot lighting on select areas. This has enabled us to have a variety of lighting schemes for special services such as Tenebrae on Good Friday and Candlelight Services on Christmas Eve.

Before the installation of new lighting, the chancel area was rather dim. New spotlight track lighting brightened the chancel significantly. One long time member commented on how he never realized how beautiful the brick and stone work looked in the chancel area until after the new lighting was installed. Another member expressed that the chancel has a more comfortable and intimate feel when going to communion.

Seating and Flooring

After: a well-lit and inviting space

The second issue to be tackled was seating. The 1963 sanctuary was designed to provide comfortable seating for an assembly of 300 people, all with affixed pews. But with attendance in a single Sunday service now rarely exceeding 125 people, a former ministry necessity had become a ministry hindrance. Worshipers would often be welcomed to an empty-looking sanctuary, giving the wrong impression that Jerusalem was a less-than-vital congregation. Some longtime members had also become accustomed to sitting in the rear of the sanctuary under the balcony, meaning that the main seating area was often sparsely populated. The pews had been placed closely together which made it difficult for some members to get in and out of the pews.

Ultimately it was decided to remove the pews from the under the balcony to bring worshipers together in the main seating area. This also provided a flexible gathering space in the back of the sanctuary that could be used for overflow seating, classroom space during the week, and small fellowship gatherings. Several rows of pews were removed from the main seating area to provide more comfortable leg room. The pews nearest the chancel and those in the balcony were replaced with interlocking, upholstered chairs to offer flexibility, especially for musicians and other service participants. Space was also provided throughout the sanctuary for physically-handicapped seating, when necessary.

This second phase of renovation commenced in the summer of 2009 and included new sanctuary flooring. The red aisle carpeting was completely removed along with the crumbling asbestos floor tile under the pews. In its place ceramic tile was laid, with different colors and sizes for the aisles (large gray tile) and under the pews (standard cream-color tile). A checkered border between the tile added aesthetic interest, as did a mosaic of the Luther Rose near the entry.

The Luther Rose mosaic near the entry serves as a focal point as worshipers enter the center aisle. Some first-time visitors have noticed it and asked what the symbolism is all about. One member says that when she invites a friend to church, she points them to the Luther Rose mosaic and explains how it symbolizes our faith in Christ and the blessings he brings.

When the chancel flooring was similarly replaced during a third phase in the spring of 2011, two mosaic Jerusalem crosses added to the sanctuary’s Christian symbolism. Not only did the ceramic tile provide beauty (especially through light refraction), durability, and ease of maintenance, it improved the sanctuary acoustics dramatically, making electronic amplification virtually unnecessary.

A member commented about acoustical improvement after the new tile flooring was installed: “When we first came to Jerusalem, I was dismayed by the acoustics. I thought the congregation just wasn’t much for singing. After the changes were made I realized that the carpeting was soaking up all the sound!”

Musicians have commented that the improved acoustics have made playing more enjoyable. The sound of singing and instrumental music is definitely more lively. Before the renovations, one musician would often hear from worshipers that they had trouble hearing any instruments. Another musician, who plays violin, notices the difference. She comments about how she “appreciates the presence the violin now has; it’s there, giving me feedback, resonating through the sanctuary, the natural tones of my instrument flowing out and returning to me, lifting my playing.”

Artistic and Musical Enhancements

Over the next several years, the congregation concentrated on smaller projects that would enhance the worship space through artistic and musical expression. New banners were purchased to highlight the changing seasons of the Church Year and their different biblical themes that symbolize and inform the Christian life. The sacristy was renovated to provide a better working space for the altar guild, including cabinetry to store the paraments and banners. A grand piano was placed near the chancel to provide variety in the leading of worship. An historic 1904 copy of Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ in Gethsemane was restored and regained a place of prominence in the sanctuary. This painting had hung behind the altar in Jerusalem’s first sanctuary and was spared in the 1929 fire. For many years it had been relegated to a balcony stairwell, collecting dust and going unnoticed. Now it was hung again in the sanctuary, viewable upon entry as an explicit reminder of Jesus’ patient suffering for our salvation.

Stained Glass Window Renovation

Stained glass windows

A final touch to Jerusalem’s sanctuary renovation work was provided in 2015 when the stained glass windows were repaired and expanded with the help of the Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, WI. The biblical scenes that had once been set in arched frames in Jerusalem’s first sanctuary now received similar artistic settings that outshone their predecessors, as the Hofmann depictions were supplied with their original context. The addition of south-facing windows that illustrated Jesus’ birth and crucifixion, alongside scenes of his baptism and institution of Holy Communion, highlighted significant events in his work of salvation that had not been included in the original set of 1929 windows. These high vertical windows in the rear of the sanctuary were crowned with scenes of the two great kings of Jerusalem, David and Jesus, a reminder of the heavenly Jerusalem to which the eyes of faith are fixed and over which our Savior reigns forever and ever.

The beauty of the windows attracts the eye’s attention and provides good talking points with visitors, members, and children—much like the Luther Rose mosaic. Some visitors have commented on the windows and asked about them. This provides an opportunity to share the gospel message which the windows convey and that the members of Jerusalem want this good news to be the heart and focus of our mission, ministry, and worship.


When some of the changes to the sanctuary were first proposed, some felt that they were not needed or at least didn’t need to be a high priority. The thought was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After the work was complete, one member commented on changed attitudes: “The renovations have helped many people, especially myself, realize that change can be good when trying to give God our best and reach out to the community. Many people who visit say, ‘Your church is beautiful.’ While the church’s goal isn’t to be materialistic about the beauty, artistry can give glory to God and serve as a ministry tool. It can be appealing for people who come in off the street and see what’s inside.”

Cultural expectations are high in Morton Grove. Many improvements have made Jerusalem’s worship space inviting for members and visitors while also providing facility flexibility for gospel ministry in a fluid, metropolitan setting.

Written by Peter Prange

Peter Prange is pastor at Bethany, Kenosha, WI. He previously served at Jerusalem, Morton Grove, IL when a renovation project was begun. His service to the church at large includes the committee that prepared Christian Worship Supplement and co-authoring Jars of Clay, a history of Wisconsin Lutheran seminary. He served on the Commission on Inter-Church Relations from 2004-2017.

The final renovation work at Jerusalem wasn’t finished until after Prange had accepted a call away. Some insights into the blessings of the completed project, woven into the article above, come from Jerusalem’s current pastor, Jonathan Kehren.

Additional photos of the renovation project are available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects.

Acoustics in the Worship Space

A nine-part series of articles by consultant Scott Riedel is available at riedelassociates.com. Riedel’s company has served numerous WELS clients (and not only regarding acoustics), including Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Martin Luther College, Luther Preparatory School, and Michigan Lutheran Seminary.

Renovation, gospel impact, challenges, blessings

Pastor Prange comments on measurable outcomes from this remodeling project, one that didn’t have a simplistic “build it and they will come” strategy.

Jerusalem’s everlasting struggle will be its low visibility and trying to do ministry in what has become a strongly secular community with a very low tolerance for basic biblical truths, much less those that are more challenging.

The truth is that, in terms of gospel ministry impact, a school renovation Jerusalem undertook had a much greater positive impact on their ministry than the sanctuary renovation, opening some doors for introducing people to Jesus and/or deepening their understanding of the gospel. Even now, school enrollment is maxing out, while the membership and worship attendance continue to decline (but with a slight uptick in 2016). Transitioning people from school to church has been a challenge.

If your congregation is unsure about what priorities should receive highest attention and when, check out various options from WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, ccc.welsrc.net. For a variety of resources to help with improving transition from school (LES or early childhood) to church, find “Telling the Next Generation: Utilizing Schools for Outreach” at cls.welsrc.net.

Here are three resources that might be helpful when people have questions about the value and cost of excellence. All are available at worship.welsrc.net.

“Sermon at the Dedication of the Seminary Chapel Organ,” by James Tiefel, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Fall 1991, v88.4. Look under “Valuable Worship Reading.” Excerpt:

So, when we dedicate ourselves to what is lovely and worthy of praise, we are really doing it on the basis of nothing less than an apostolic encouragement…. We do not have to invent some convoluted defense for the joy we feel as we pursue art and music—and that is right, when we pursue a musical instrument—which are lovely and worthy of praise…. We can enjoy and strive for those things which even unbelievers—to say nothing of countless believers—consider to be among the highest forms of artistic expression known to man and among the noblest contributions western civilization has ever made to society…. We can use our time and engage our energy and spend our money on what is also lovely and praiseworthy among human beings.

“Excellence for Christ in All Things,” by Aaron Christie in Worship the Lord No. 42, May 2010. Excerpt:

When our new sanctuary was built, a few voices raised questions about the granite top on our altar. But dozens of members’ homes have granite counter tops. If dozens of members’ children eat Cheerios at a granite-topped breakfast bar, might the Lord’s Supper be worth the same level of quality? The granite top on the new altar wasn’t opulent. It is simply putting into practice what David said to Nathan: “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2). In our suburban American context, the granite altar top was excellent, not opulent.

“Excellence in Worship,” by James Huebner, the keynote address from the 1999 WELS national worship conference. Look under “Valuable Worship Reading.”



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Preach the Word – Preach text-specific and hearer-specific gospel

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach Text-Specific and Hearer-Specific
Specific Gospel

“He is properly prepared who believes these words: ‘Given’ and ‘Poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is not prepared, because the words ‘for you’ require nothing but hearts that believe.”1 I’m sure you recognize this excerpt. In describing the miraculous gift of Holy Communion, Luther zeroes in on the heart of what is so spectacular in the Sacrament: “For you.” For me.

“God so loved the world…” is only valuable to me because I am included in that “world.” “Christ is risen!” is only a celebration for me because that same Christ promised me, “Because I live, you also will live.”2 Jesus being seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but also in the one to come, with all things under his feet, is only wonderful because this all happened “for the church,” of which I am a part.3

To correctly handle the word of truth, we must preach text-specific AND hearer-specific specific gospel. In other words, we strive to mine from the text the clear good news of salvation and present it to our people where they’re at after hearing specific law preaching.4 It’s more than the “Jesus drop”5 shortcut that is so tempting after you’ve stung your hearers with specific law. It’s the comfort this text and this context gives. It’s the gospel. It’s God’s love in this situation. When the preacher of that gospel knows his people, his goal is to get them to understand that this grace is “for you.” He wants to drive them to want to hear it again and read their Bible more.

But how? I love how one of my brother pastors described his definition of a good preacher: “He’s been eating it up so his breath smells like the Bible.” So to preach text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel, you first have to know both—the text and your hearers. The text includes not just the pericope at hand, but the whole of Scripture. You’ve heard it before for your personal walk with God—but the side effects of it are powerful in your preaching as well. Eat up Scripture so that your breath smells like the Bible.

“He’s been eating it up so his breath smells like the Bible.”

Consider Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. This section of Scripture is coming up as the first reading in Year A for Easter 2 and 3, so let’s take a walk through it. Let’s learn from a powerful preacher, preaching an effective sermon. I don’t call it effective because 3000 were baptized that day as a result of it. Peter’s sermon is effective because it clearly proclaims law and gospel. What numerical effect God chooses is up to him, thank God!

So, set the stage: Fifty days after the resurrection, ten days after the Ascension. The disciples have been on that roller coaster between fear and faith. Peter has mourned his failure and been so personally and preciously restored with Jesus’ “Feed my lambs.”6 Then their world and their city were rocked by the sound of the wind. Fire marked those who were speaking. The crowd was in turmoil, confused and trying to make sense of what was going on. That’s where the appointed lesson begins.

“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.”7 (Pause for a moment and consider the power of the gospel for Peter that he was even able to do this. If you haven’t read footnote 6 yet, do that now.) Peter’s next words aren’t included in the assigned pericope (although they do show up on Pentecost Sunday a few weeks later). Basically, Peter debunks the drunk disciples hypothesis and explains that the amazing thing they are seeing is actually a fulfillment of prophecy. Joel had said the Holy Spirit would be active like this until the end, the Day of the Lord’s Judgment. Peter then concludes his quotation of Joel: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Basically, we’ve now heard Peter’s introduction (catching the attention of the hearers and dispelling reasons not to listen) and his text. So what does he say now to these hearers whose attention he has?

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” Peter draws in his hearers. They couldn’t help but agree that, yes, God did some special things through Jesus. Time and again in the Gospels that was made clear as “news about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.”8 As for Jerusalem, “The whole city was stirred”9 when they saw what he did. Peter’s preaching, inspired by the Spirit, is hearer-specific.

He goes on: 23“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Not only did Peter put the hearers at the scene, he preached specific law. Even though you couldn’t help but admit that Jesus was something special from God, you put him to death. Peter pulls no punches in specific law for that particular group—the one in Jerusalem that had just committed this atrocity.

As the law is specific, it serves as foil to the good news. You killed him, but he didn’t stay dead: 24“God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Since Jesus was who he was, death could not hold the Holy One. But notice, Peter doesn’t just let this float out there. He now starts working to get the hearers to understand the ramifications of this information and apply those ramifications to their lives. He starts by quoting their own source of authority, God’s Word. In fact, he uses David’s prophecy about the Holy One who would not see decay or be abandoned to the grave.10 Then he goes on.

29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” So he shows them proof of this good news from the Word. Now he will start to show them how they are brought into the celebration of it.

32“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” There is no disputing this. If he wasn’t alive, they all know the body would have been produced. The Word had spread. You can imagine Peter making that sweeping gesture, “We are all witnesses of the fact.” He goes on celebrating the ascension in verses 33-35 and then concludes:

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The text from Joel that Peter started with ended: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Now Peter ends by proving who this Lord is. And the people got it. It was Jesus who walked and worked among them. But they killed him. The law and gospel had both very specifically been preached. So they react:

37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

For three thousand people, the Holy Spirit worked through Peter’s words that struck home in their hearts, and there was faith. Of course, we aren’t speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit like Peter was. But we can certainly learn from how God used Peter and we can study and prepare to follow his lead in preaching text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel.

We can do that by asking ourselves and asking our texts some questions about what is specific to our texts. Your hearers know that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Yet in his Word he finds thousands of ways to describe how astounding that love is, and how astounding it is “for me.” Try these on for size:

  • What is unique about the good news in this text? What words or phrases or pictures set it apart from other ways I’ve heard the gospel explained?
  • What is surprising about God’s reaction or action here? What factors make it surprising?
  • How have hymn-writers handled this text?11
  • If the message of the cross is foolishness to the world, what would the world hate about this aspect of Jesus and what he has done for me?
  • How is the gospel offensive in this text? In other words, in talking about this at a Christmas party with my wife’s co-worker, what might I be tempted to soften and “make sense of” so that they don’t think we’re weird?12

“In his Word he finds thousands of ways to describe how astounding that love is, and how astounding it is “for me.”

Christ has died! Christ is Risen! Christ will come again!13 For you. May God bless your preparation and your preaching of text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel.

Written by Jonathan Scharf

Walther’s Thesis IX

I’ve found for my hearers in the Bible Belt that Walther’s Thesis IX with comments have helped me preach hearer-specific specific gospel for those whose religious upbringing has been obedience driven and who have been taught that the power of their prayers is in the power of their praying.

Thesis IX—“In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.” Pg. 127

“In the first place, the sects neither believe nor teach a real and complete reconciliation of man with God because they regard our heavenly Father as being a God very hard to deal with, whose heart must be softened by passionate cries and bitter tears. That amounts to a denial of Jesus Christ, who has long ago turned the heart of God to men by reconciling the entire world with Him. God does nothing by halves. In Christ He loves all sinners without exception. The sins of every sinner are canceled. Every debt has been liquidated. There is no longer anything that a poor sinner has to fear when he approaches his heavenly Father, with whom he has been reconciled by Christ.” Pg. 135

Text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look ahead to Easter 3A and a sermon on Peter’s Pentecost sermon. The theme of this sermon on Acts 2:14a, 32-41 is “Cut to the Heart!”14

In this Acts lesson, Peter does the same thing. He calls his hearers murderers—but then he answers the questions their hearts can’t help but ask: “What can we do?” And his answer isn’t something to do but what is done for them, to them. “Repent!” He says. “Change your heart.”

Isn’t that what God just did with the power of His word, changing them from those who thought they had it all going on to those begging for God’s answer? And then Peter says, “Be baptized”—again something that only has power because of what God has put into it. Look at how he describes what happens:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. That’s not something their work could get. That’s only a gift from the one who died to pay for that forgiveness and prayed that they might receive it. Did you ever think about that? Your baptism is God answering Jesus’ prayer from the cross—“Father, forgive them.” And Peter goes on:

And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. You receive the gift of faith—something that only comes through the Holy Spirit. So when they asked what they had to do—Peter just shows them what has been done. In fact, he calls it a promise. Look at verse 39: The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

As much as only God’s law can cut to our hearts through all of our defenses and excuses, notice how Peter makes clear that only the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection can cut to the heart and heal.

Just like in a surgery, the surgeon has to cut in order to fix what is wrong, removing what is blocking or broken before they can replace what is needed. Praise God that he has given his Word and has given us the opportunity to hear his Word and take it to heart, that it might cut out all of our foolishness. He then replaces what has been cut out with the power and love of God, the forgiveness he won and paid for fully and freely, the position as his child he earned and gave to you in your baptism, the sweet, sweet healing balm of the gospel. Like the hymnwriter put it:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

May God’s law always cut to the heart, so that we may always cherish the healing Gospel truth that Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Alleluia. Amen.

1Luther’s Small Catechism. I was reminded of the importance of this by a comment from my panel of former “seekers” who found great joy in properly divided law and gospel. Cindy spoke of the difference, saying, “Now, for me, it’s not always trying to figure it out, ‘What’s he doing with me?’ anymore. It’s just being confident that he is for me.”
2John 14:19
3Ephesians 4:20-23
4See PTW Vol. 20, No. 3.
5That generic mention of Jesus’ work without doing the work of wrestling with the text and finding the unique way that God’s love for sinners is evident.
6John 21 – Talk about specific gospel for me as a preacher when I consider all the times I haven’t perfectly preached specific gospel! Peter, in his self-focus and desire for power, had preached some bad sermons. In the High Priest’s courtyard his sermon was self-preservation. In the upper room, it was fear instead of victory. I have preached some bad sermons, so have you—in our preparation for them, in our attitude about them, in our failure to apply them to ourselves and live them. So what does Jesus do? He makes Peter a meal and then shows him how unconditional, how certain, how promising the gospel is. Making sure Peter knows how personally it is for him (“Do you love me?”) he preaches love and forgiveness and promise and purpose and power in giving him the command: “Preach!” Peter you are so forgiven that you will now be my washed and cleansed perfect representative. “Feed my lambs.” Sound familiar, shepherds? Restored by Jesus, and fed by Word and sacrament: “Preach the Word.” That’s how much he loves you.
7The appointed readings are: Acts 2:14a, 22-32 for Easter 2A and Acts 2:14a, 32-41 for Easter 3A.
8Mark 1:28
9Mathew 21:10
10Psalm 16:8-11 quoted in Acts 2:25-28.
11I’ve found so often that our hymn-writers have ways of phrasing things that so succinctly get to the heart of the good news in a text. I’ve been rewarded during my text studies, even just for my personal growth, by checking Mike Schultz’s index to scripture references in hymns, Christian Worship Manual, pages 939-971.
12Not that we ever would soften it, but when is it that the little voice in your head is shouting “Danger!”?
13An acclamation quoted in “This is the Threefold Truth” by Fred Pratt Green, CW 406.
14The full text of the sermon can be found at http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

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Renovation: Maumee, Ohio

Resurrection’s first service was held celebrating Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, 1983. After worshiping at a fire station, shopping center, and YMCA, our sanctuary was constructed in 1991. Rather than building a WEF facility (worship-education-fellowship), the congregation pushed to build a sanctuary that would be large enough for the church to grow into. The tradeoff for more square footage was used furnishings.

The century-old altar was from a WELS church in Michigan. It was painted white with gold accents and had a reredos with intricate carved spires. The altar, along with the matching pulpit, lectern, and font, was beautiful, but out of place in the architecture of the rest of the building. The pews were from a Catholic church, and seasoned members knew which seats to stay clear of to avoid being pinched. The vacuum-tube organ was a hand-me-down from a church that had itself received it as a hand-me-down, and the Communion rail was from a church in Green Bay. Even before the sanctuary was dedicated, there was hope that when the time was right the furnishings would be updated.

Ten years later, it was time to start work on another building project—an expansion including a fellowship hall, four classrooms, offices, bathrooms, and an excellent kitchen. Renovating the sanctuary at the same time was also considered, but an expansion and a sanctuary renovation were too much to do all at once. The fellowship hall expansion was dedicated in 2006.

When I arrived in 2010, the members were eager to see if it might finally be time to complete the renovation. They had heard enough visitors over the last four years remark, “What a nice kitchen you have!” While well-intended, those words were the kind of backwards compliment that sticks in the craw of Lutherans who want the most memorable part of Resurrection to be our worship life together in the sanctuary—not the kitchen.

And so, the idea of renovating the sanctuary was on the table at the council meeting nine days after I was installed as pastor. Within four months, a committee was working to design a sanctuary that would emphasize Christ. Our architect and liturgical consultant understood that Lutheran worship centers around the means of grace and were able to help us design a layout and furnishings that fit with and proclaimed our faith. Two and a half years later, on Easter Sunday 2013, we celebrated our 30th Anniversary in our new sanctuary.

A Building & a Church

One of my seminary classmates reminded me recently: “Building the building is a lot easier than building the Church.” That’s because the Church isn’t made out of bricks and mortar. It’s made out of people. As difficult as it is to have 160 people agree about paint colors, it’s even harder to change one human heart.

One of the dangers of an article like this is that it can come across as a rosy fairy tale of success. Yes, we completed our sanctuary renovation, and yes, I’m happy to share some of our joys. But a renovated sanctuary has not solved all our problems, because in the end our greatest struggle at Resurrection never was the fact that our sanctuary couldn’t live up to the kitchen.

The greatest struggle is in applying God’s Word to people’s hearts. No building project can do that; it has to be the Holy Spirit’s work. That work was going on here at Resurrection long before we updated our sanctuary, and I’m praying it will continue long after. Then why renovate? Because our building is a tool to use in ministering to people. We want a sanctuary that, to the best of our ability, points people through Word and sacraments to Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and hope we have in him.

Things That Needed Some Work

One of the challenges of a renovation is working within the constraints of what already exists. For us, that meant the exterior walls and the steel posts supporting the roof had to stay put. But inside, we had much more flexibility. Because of our history, no one here at Resurrection was emotionally attached to the pews, and there were no “gewidmet von” plaques on the candlesticks. Not that the whole process was emotionally easy…we had plenty of things to work through together. But for the most part we had a blank slate as everything needed an update. Here are some of the areas we addressed:

Font, Altar & Pulpit

The new font, altar, and pulpit are now in a line on the central aisle. As you walk into the sanctuary, the means of grace are visually emphasized one after another: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, God’s Word. After seeing the limited options in church furniture catalogs, it was exciting to design our own furnishings with our consultants. The pulpit can be popped up on castors and moved for special events (for example when the Seminary Chorus came for a concert). The free-standing altar and the font share a matching octagonal design. The heavy sandalwood stone tops are from a quarry in Colorado. Neighboring Toledo is nicknamed “Glass City” because of the history of that industry here, so we had our font bowl handmade by a local glass artist. On the ring of the bowl is a paraphrase of Romans 6:4,5…one more way to emphasize the resurrection at Resurrection.


Altar and font – before

Aside from the chancel furniture and a pair of vinyl-on-canvas banners, our sanctuary didn’t have any artwork. Our architect liked to refer to the huge, bare, back wall as the “sea of drywall.” Our renovation addressed this in two ways. First we added architectural detail—the kind of things that bring the room together without demanding your attention. Wainscoting wraps the room. Pilasters ring the back half, and a stained oak organ chamber façade has replaced the “sea of drywall.” We saved the eye-catching artwork for emphasizing Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, and the means of grace. A crucifix is suspended over the altar, and a new stained glass window of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on Easter gives the whole space the flavor of Resurrection. In the year after the renovation we were able to add new paraments on the pulpit, banners flanking the stained glass window, and a paschal candle. While it’s easy for artwork to be the first thing to be cut from a budget, I’m glad we were able to keep these as part of our renovation. Our art preaches a silent sermon at every service and is now part of the mental image when people think of Resurrection.


At one committee meeting, I presented a report on my dream instruments: to replace our aging upright piano with a Yamaha C2 grand piano, and to replace our vacuum-tube organ with a pipe organ. The very next meeting, one of our committee members reported: “I know a guy who wants to trade his Yamaha grand piano straight up for a Harley.” While we didn’t have a Harley to trade, it was true that a man 45 minutes away had bought a new Yamaha for his new recording studio. The studio had folded, leaving a man who didn’t play piano with a Yamaha C2 in his living room. It has amazed me again and again how God has a way of meeting our needs in ways we never knew were so close to home. We’re still waiting for the organ, though as part of the renovation we did finish an organ chamber that’s ready to receive pipes someday.


It takes some careful thought to find the acoustical sweet spot that’s clear for speech and at the same time reverberant for music and congregational participation. After receiving recommendations from our acoustical consultant, we replaced carpet with tile, thickened the drywall on walls and ceiling, and added 3D architectural features to diffuse slapback and flutter echoes. We added an audio loop system for people with hearing loss and worked to improve my mic’s performance in our sound system. It’s hard to say exactly how the new space would sound without those changes, and some of our members would prefer a lower reverb time. But for me proof came the first Sunday in the new sanctuary. On the way out, someone asked, “Was the piano mic’d?” I responded, “No. That’s just the room.”

Sanctuary – before


Previously, the choir gathered in the back corner around the piano. The computer desk and AV equipment were out in the open with wires all over the place. Two small sacristy closets provided limited storage but had no function for worship. Now, the old pews have been replaced with moveable seating. We have a dedicated music area made possible by removing the sacristy closets. Our new AV room is organized and can be locked.


Buzzing fluorescent lights and can lights in the ceiling were replaced with LED spotlights, halogen uplights, and fluorescent pendants. All the fixtures are dimmable for special services.


Worn carpet was replaced with tile. A favorite detail in the project is how our architect patterned the tile to emphasize different areas of the room. It’s like a map directing the flow of worship and drawing your eyes to the font and altar.

Four Things I Wrestled With

We’re not the only ones who have addressed these sorts of things. So rather than going into more detail on any of them, here are four things I wrestled with specific to our renovation but common to many projects:

One Room Or Two

One of our first major decisions was how to lay out the new sanctuary. Many churches are long, narrow rectangles with the means of grace set off behind a railing at one end. Some call this a “two room” design. While I haven’t seen WELS churches with a rood screen or iconostasis (as in some Anglican or Eastern Orthodox churches), I have seen churches where the pastor’s chair and the altar are separated from the congregation by not one but two sets of railings. To what extent should the pastor and the means of grace be separate from the people?

In a one-room design, the means of grace are placed among the people. A one-room design can still be a rectangle. But instead of a chancel at the end of the rectangle, font, altar, and pulpit are in the middle of one of the long sides with the people gathered on three sides. (Think of the MLC and WLS chapels.)

Since our existing footprint was basically a square, our best one-room design option was to place font, altar, and pulpit on the center aisle axis. Much more could be written about the pros and cons of each design, but one thing I like about the one-room design is how it brings people closer spatially to the means of grace and closer to one another. It is the same Baptism with the same blessings whether the font is far away behind a railing or within arm’s reach every time you enter the room. But psychologically there’s a difference between the two.

However, that closeness brings with it another question:

Solitude & Community

Sanctuary – after

Along with being a mix of young and old, men and women, rich and poor, our congregation is a mix of extroverts and introverts. Some people thrive on being with others; others want to blend in, be anonymous, and hope that no one outside their circle of close friends will stop to talk to them. So in designing a place for people to be together for worship, to what extent should worshipers be aware of the people around them?

In some designs, it’s possible for someone to sit in a pew and see nothing but backs of heads for the entire service. Not that the focus of worship is on each other. The focus is on Christ, crucified and risen, given through the means of grace. That, however, doesn’t exclude awareness that public worship is about more than just my personal relationship with God. We are members of the Church. In my daily devotions it is just me and God. But on a Sunday morning it is not just me. I am together with my Christian family.

In our sanctuary, pews are at a 45° angle to the main aisle, and two smaller banks of chairs face each other directly, with the altar in the middle. We don’t spend the service staring at each other, but we do see other faces. We commune in a complete circle around the altar, so that the crucifix is above, Christ’s body and blood in the middle on the altar, and fellow Christians on all sides. This has been a significant adjustment for people who would prefer not to be noticed. As I’ve worked through this pastorally, I still wonder: is this too much to ask of an introvert?

Empty Cross Or Crucifix

One of the most difficult decisions was whether to have an empty cross or crucifix. As Americans, it’s hard not to be influenced by the Reformed compunction about images. “It’s too Catholic!” Others wondered why we couldn’t just have Easter. I was expecting those two objections and felt I needed to push back somewhat, especially against the theology of glory embedded in the second.

The more I thought about it, however, the more it hit me that it’s also a matter of law and gospel. Every time I watch The Passion of the Christ, I feel that Mel Gibson is trying to make me feel guiltier and guiltier as Jesus is struck again…and again…and again. I saw plenty of crucifix designs where Christ is contorted in agony, as if it were a competition in the grotesque. “This crucifix ought to make you feel really, really bad!” I think for many people a crucifix is a symbol of law. They miss God’s love and grace there. If that’s the case, why would you want to hang a reminder of your guilt in your church? Doesn’t your conscience do that already?

In the end we do have a crucifix. Our renovation committee and the majority of our congregation were in favor. But I still wonder if I could have done more pastorally for those who were or are troubled by it. It hangs prominently over our altar as a visual reminder that, although many in our world may not, we boldly preach Christ crucified. It is balanced by a stained glass window of Jesus on Easter, so that Christ crucified and risen really is the focal point, not only of our message, but of our artwork as well. I’ve made it a conscious goal in my preaching to reference Christ on the cross: while people may think of their sins when they see the crucifix, they may think even more of God’s love and absolution.

Planning & Giving

Throughout our renovation I wrestled with the Catch 22 between giving and planning. The circle goes like this: You can’t draw up realistic plans without knowing how much people are able and willing to give. At the same time, people have a hard time giving without seeing the plans. So how do you begin?

In our renovation, we had to just jump in that circle and work through several cycles of planning and giving. We still have a large mortgage from the 2006 fellowship hall expansion, so we needed to complete the project without borrowing. It would have been easier if we would have known we were borrowing a certain amount of money, and that therefore was our budget. Instead, we needed to continually update plans to the unknown—what our congregation would be able and willing to give. That’s not the most efficient process. It means we had to rework the same plans several times. But sometimes working together with others is more important than efficiency.

Why Renovate Old Churches

It’s been four years now since we finished construction. Sometimes the question still haunts me: Was it worth it? The time? The financial and relational stress on our congregation?

It’s been four years now since we finished construction. Sometimes the question still haunts me: Was it worth it? The time? The financial and relational stress on our congregation?
Recently at catechism class two kids, a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader, started talking about the renovation. I didn’t prompt them. They would have been second and third graders at the time. They talked about the old pews. About the old, white altar. About the canvas banners. They talked about how glad they were that we renovated the sanctuary. That they liked to worship there. If for another generation Christ crucified and risen can be proclaimed … that’s why we renovate old churches.

Written by Timothy Nass

Timothy Nass has served at Resurrection in Maumee, Ohio since 2010 and is a member of the Michigan District Commission on Worship.

2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

Kenosha, WI (June 13-16) and Irvine, CA (June 27-30). Worship enrichment for everyone: laypeople, musicians, pastors, teachers, and youth. wels.net/national-worship-conference


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Redesign and Creative Use: Hugo, Minnesota

This architectural series is intended to present the experiences of renovating churches as they seek to make new use of existing structures for expanded ministry. As such, one might wonder why a new build facility is included in the series. But while the Hugo project was not a renovation of an existing structure, it is an example of meeting challenges through redesign and creative use of multipurpose space.

A Little History

Christ Lutheran was a founding church in the city of North St. Paul in 1887. After 115 years of faithful ministry in the community, 2002 brought an opportunity to expand Christ Lutheran’s reach to a growing community 13 miles to the north.

Hugo, Minnesota, had been a sleepy little crossroads town settled in 1850 and organized in 1870. Over the next 130 years, it remained largely agrarian and unchanged. But urban sprawl and improved roads brought suburban development. By the time of the millennium, population growth projections forecasted an exponential increase over the next 20 years. Clearly, this was a golden opportunity to connect people with the gospel.

And yet, this potential mission field was not within the parish reach of any WELS church. In fact, there were just three existing churches of any denomination within city limits. Christ Lutheran leadership recognized an opportunity for multi-site ministry, and by late 2005 a group of worshipers was meeting in the gym of the local public elementary school.

It wasn’t long before the anticipation of increased enrollment led the local school district to build a second elementary school. It would be a state-of-the-art facility and would include a cafetorium—a large gathering space serving as both cafeteria and auditorium. Its vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, polished woods and terrazzo floors would be ideal for Sunday worship. We were blessed to be able to secure Sunday morning rental of the new facility.

When the facility became available to us, it lived up to the hype. There was plenty of space for gathering, worship, and fellowship. The school provided chairs for seating, tables for eating, and even decent acoustics for singing. And if all of this wasn’t enough, the entrance was through a cross-bearing clock tower.1 Our first gathering for worship in the new space was two days before the school opened for students. For years members would joke that it was our building and we just let the school district use it during the week. It was a blessing for which we are thankful, but it did set the expectations for facility rather high if we were to ever build a Hugo campus of our own.

A Vision

As time passed and the Word was proclaimed, it became clear that there was an opportunity to be seized and a need to be met. While we made use of local gathering places like coffee shops and the community room at a local credit union, meeting space during the week was sorely needed. Guests and members alike expressed hesitance to commit to a church that continued to rent a facility rather than build. Further, families in worship, demographic research, and outreach events helped us to see the growing opportunity for sharing the gospel through child care and Christian education. Work began in earnest to develop a vision for the future long before the purchase of land for future ministry. Hugo outreach opportunities looked like they would come through childcare and a permanent presence in the community.

Facility to support this vision included a dedicated sanctuary for worship, childcare facilities for 100+ children, as well as 16 classrooms and a gymnasium for a Lutheran Elementary School. It was fun to dream, and we pray that this all-inclusive vision can one day be realized in God’s time and way. But available resources dictated a phased approach over ten to fifteen years. That left us with the challenge of seizing the childcare opportunity in a timely way, yet providing gathering space for worship and midweek events—and on a limited budget.

A Challenge

We were blessed to work with local architectural and building firms with excellent reputations. The architect helped us design a facility that would meet our needs. But it didn’t come without challenges.

Childcare facility regulations are specific regarding square footage and accoutrements. So many square feet are needed for each student and each level. Teacher-to-student ratios dictate the needed number of classrooms. Bathrooms, security requirements, kitchen regulations, and a host of other factors were largely set for us. In fact, this part of the building would prove the easiest to design. But the challenge was designing a building that would meet this specific ministry need while remaining flexible for church use throughout the week and ready for future expansion.

Working with our architect, our building committee set to work designing meeting, office, and multi-purpose space. This proved to be difficult. How do you provide gathering space that is suitable for Sunday morning worship, yet also suitable for play space during the week? How do you offer a secure facility for children, yet make the building accessible for guests and members? How do you build a kitchen space that can serve regulated meals for childcare students during the week, yet convenient enough for church fellowship events? How do you design a worship space that clearly proclaims the power and permanence of the Means of Grace, yet is flexible enough to host a community dinner or a childcare center kiddy dance?

These and similar questions kept our architect and building committee in near constant discussion. Multiple plans were drawn. Rooms were moved and re-shaped. Height, space, acoustics, technology, security, and a host of other aspects all needed to be considered. We knew God had a path for us, but we seemed to be stuck.

Centered on Christ

There is a phrase that has been proposed in the design of ecclesiastical buildings: Form follows function follows faith.2 Basically, the design of the building supports the ministry of the congregation. The ministry of the congregation is reflective of the faith which the congregation confesses. To this point, our building committee and architect had embraced “form” and “function.” But it wasn’t until we had some help and fully embraced the “faith” aspect of the phrase, that our design finally came together.

Form follows function follows faith.

The “help” came in the form of a liturgical consultant. Whether you’re renovating existing space or building new, a liturgical consultant is a tremendous help. The liturgical consultant team helped us clarify and prioritize what was truly needed to carry out the ministry we intended in the worship space. They asked thought-provoking questions. They educated our team on how light, color, and materials communicate the message of our faith. They pointed to symbols, shapes, furniture, art, and placement of such things as opportunity to point to Christ. These conversations led us to a focal point from which everything else would find centrality.

Hugo, MN - Baptismal Font

A living water font in a prominent location.

In Hugo the dominant spiritual influence is a non-denominational church with Baptist roots. This multi-campus mega-church welcomes thousands on a Sunday yet downplays the gospel in Word and sacrament. We knew early on that our confessional stance on the Means of Grace would make us distinctive in the community. We knew that we had a remarkable opportunity for future baptisms through the childcare center, and we wanted a living water font in a prominent location. The design came together when our liturgical consultants suggested a particular placement for the font. This became our focal point.

The suggestion was to place the font at the intersection of two axes: 1) the axis between the main entrance and multi-purpose space altar; and 2) the axis between the childcare center and a dedicated sanctuary to be built some time, and Lord willing, in the future. This concept shifted some rooms and moved some walls, but the placement of the font and subsequent building design would form a geometric cross. Driving the point home, the consultants further suggested hanging a suspended cross over the font. Above both, emphasizing our focal point, would be a clerestory. In the completed building the font and cross will be visible, whether from the altar, the main hall of the childcare center, or the entrance. Parents bringing their children to the center will pass within feet the focal point. These three features (font, suspended cross, clerestory) combine not only as the focal point for everyone who enters the building but also as its symbolic and geometric center, clearly proclaiming that baptism is at the heart of our mission and ministry at Christ Lutheran Church and Cornerstone Childcare Center.

Font at intersection of two axes in three phase plan.

Font at intersection of two axes in three phase plan.

Multi-Purpose—What Does This Mean?

With the placement of the font, the rest of the building fell into place. There was one exception: the multi-purpose space. We already knew that the space would need to include the typical furniture found in a Lutheran sanctuary. We also knew that we wanted these pieces to have a certain gravitas, emphasizing the power and permanence of the gospel. And yet much of it had to be movable to allow for multiple uses of the space throughout the week.

This led to a frank discussion about how the room would be used (actually, not just potentially) both by the congregation and by the childcare center. The question that needed an answer was this: Would the childcare center need the multipurpose space for active play? In other words, did it need to serve as a gymnasium as well as a sanctuary? As it turned out, it didn’t.

In order for the multi-purpose space to be considered as play space for the children, it had to be within the center itself and its security features. But because of design needs, the multi-purpose space would have to be outside the security features of the childcare center. By regulation, then, any time spent in the multi-purpose space would be considered a field trip and the space would be unusable for regular play. This was welcome news for the building committee as it struggled to balance church and child ministry. But there was more work to be done.

Not needing the space to serve as a gymnasium didn’t mean that flexibility within the space was no longer necessary. It just meant that we no longer needed to be concerned with flying discs and bouncing balls damaging furniture and walls. The space needed to be designed for acoustical balance, technological advances, positional seating, movable appointments, and adjustable lighting. It needed to be a do-it-all kind of room. A seemingly impossible task.

Bringing It All Together

It is important to note at this point, that we had a great team: architect, liturgical consultant, builder, and building committee. As a team we brought it all together through frank discussions, open conversations, and willingness to see alternative perspectives. This became increasingly clear when we hooked into a major snag.

We had finalized a design which included three phases:

  • Phase 1 – Childcare center with meeting and multi-purpose space for worship
  • Phase 2 – Dedicated sanctuary and gathering space for worship
  • Phase 3 – Classrooms and gymnasium for the addition of a grade school

It was a beautiful design giving us everything we were looking for. But when the job was put out for bids by the builder, the bids came back significantly higher than the architect and builder had anticipated. A slight increase in bids might have been expected, but the recession of 2008 had forced many contractors to scale back their workforce or to shut down completely. Consequently, though there were fewer building permits being pulled, there were also fewer workers to do the building. Contractors were able and needed to charge more for the work.

There was nothing we could do. We didn’t have the funding to build what we had designed. We had to go back to the drawing board and scale back on the features, materials, and square footage in order to bring the cost of Phase 1 into line with our budget.

This is where “team” became so important. After some tense moments of questioning and head scratching, we were able to begin redesigning together. The architect went to work moving walls and adjusting space in conjunction with building committee priorities. Building committee members reassessed technology needs and worked with designers to adjust and reposition components and access points. The liturgical consultants went through several drafts of furniture design in order to balance our desire for gravitas with our need for mobility. Musician space, traffic flow, ceiling height, window placement, and a long list of others factors all had to be reexamined and modified. It was stated above that while the Hugo project was a new build, it ended up being a near-complete redesign, one might even call it a renovation. Yet by God’s grace, the building once again took shape. In the final analysis we were still able to incorporate nearly everything we had wanted.

Worth It

As mentioned above, our desire was to have a living water baptismal font. This proved to be quite a challenge with an elegant solution. The floor of the multipurpose space is stained and polished concrete. Only around the base of the font, however, is the concrete stained in a design that highlights the cross and four gospels, thus designating the space as something special. Centrally recessed in the concrete is access to electricity. The font is designed to rise above it. Within the base of the font is a reservoir for distilled water. The water is pumped up to pool in an art-glass bowl. From there, the water gently spills over the sides, running down into another bowl. This bowl is formed in the hand-chiseled stone top of the font base. From there, the water returns to the reservoir. Because all of this is enclosed within the font, it can moved, if necessary.

Yet as impressive as the design is in its elegance and functionality, we were overjoyed to see how the glass bowl reflects the natural light, how the water dances down the sides, and how the solidity of the font captured the very gravitas we sought. Even so, the greatest joy was yet to come.

Around the inside lip of the stone bowl is chiseled a summary of Galatians 3:27. It reads “Baptized into Christ + Clothed with Christ.” These words were chosen both for the miracle they describe and for the simple explanation they provide for the emphasis we place on baptism. It was our prayer that these words would serve as a focal point and conversation center for discussions with parents about the baptisms of their children.

The conversations started immediately and continue to happen. Children love to stand at the font and watch the light play with the water as they are reminded of their own baptisms. (And yes, the occasional hand reaches out to touch the water.) Guests to the childcare center often ask of the significance of the “fountain.” And parents bring their children to be baptized. One couple connected with the childcare center asked about the font. Standing alongside it, one of our pastors was able to use the passage and the font to describe the miracle that takes place through water and the Word. The couple shared that they had sporadically attended the local mega-church. But they also admitted that they had been uncomfortable with that church’s teaching on baptism. Both felt that there was more to baptism than an ordinance of commitment. Only a few weeks later their daughter was baptized.

This is what kingdom work is all about. In the midst of challenges it can be difficult to see what the Lord has in store. He calls on us to cast the net of his gospel, promising that the results will be according to his will. Today, the childcare center is full. Dozens of souls have been washed clean through water and the Word. Thousands of souls have received nourishment through Word and sacrament. Souls are saved. Hearts are healed. Eternity is assured. It is our prayer that in this way the Lord continues to use the font, the facility, the members, and the ministry of Christ Lutheran to proclaim the gospel and share the good news of salvation through Jesus.

Written by Joel Gawrisch

Joel Gawrisch served for 14 years at Christ Lutheran before taking a call to New Life in Shoreview, Minnesota. He serves on the Minnesota District Worship Committee, the Schools of Worship Enrichment team, the Rites Committee for the new hymnal project, and with the Commission on Congregational Counseling’s Self-Assessment and Adjustment Program.

1 A local developer team of brothers had donated the property to the school with the stipulation that the building would incorporate a clock tower of their design. The sons of a Methodist pastor, the developers designed the tower to clearly incorporate a cross behind the clock face.
2 The original concept “form follows function” was first authored by American architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924). Sullivan is considered to be the “father of skyscrapers.”

2017 National Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts

Kenosha, WI (June 13-16) and Irvine, CA (June 27-30). Something for everyone: lay leaders, musicians, pastors, teachers; Children’s Choir and High School Honor Choir. wels.net/national-worship-conference.


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Preach the Word – Preach specific law as law

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach Specific Law as Law

You are preachers. So let me ask you: What’s the worst reaction to a sermon you’ve experienced? Is it the councilman standing in the back where you can see the steam rising off his bald head as you approach afterward? Or maybe it was when he just left the building altogether? Or was it worse when you saw the woman breaking down in tears over on the side? Or when the prospect was offended by what you said? While I get it, none of those are fun—I’d throw another option into the mix…the yawn.

Jesus himself called the members of the church at Laodicea on the carpet for that one: “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So because you are luke-warm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”1

I wish you were either one or the other. Can you relate? God’s Word produces a reaction. We know that. We can hum some choir piece that will instantly put the words of Isaiah 55 swirling in our heads. “As the snow falls from heaven…this is my Word.”2  We know his Word produces a reaction, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 So when you see the yawn, when you sense apathy, aaarrrrghhh.4 What did I do to prevent the Word from being heard? Why aren’t you people listening to me?!

That’s a good question. In our most recent circuit meeting, we had a roundtable discussion on a couple of the topics I’ll be tackling in this volume of PTW. I asked the men gathered around the table what sermons have been most powerful for them as listeners, the most impactful. Then I asked them why. What made them connect to you?

Across the board, the first thing they all mentioned was what I had come up with as my own answer for the question: Specific law. I’ll let their words speak:

  • “The more stinging the law, the more specific, the more my attention is focused. In fact, if the law isn’t specific, sadly, you probably don’t have my attention.”
  • “When the preacher finds the way to cut through the idea that ‘that’s for those people, not me.’”
  • “When there is a clear malady I can relate to.”
  • “If I don’t hear that specific law that pushes me into the corner and tells me this is what you’ve done—I feel that they haven’t put the time in …to preach my soul into the depths of hell so you could bring me up again. You didn’t put the time in to let Jesus shine in this sermon. That’s why I came to be fed.”

The more stinging the law, the more specific, the more my attention is focused.

And then they came right back around to talking about how we have to hold ourselves to that same standard too. The old question was revisited: “What’s the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon?” The answer: “About 5 hours.”

I think we can all agree with the goal we talked about in the last issue of this newsletter. Our goal in every sermon is “That they would see Jesus.”5  And as Lutherans, I think we can also agree with the truth that this happens when we first realize our need for him. Helping people see Jesus happens when we come to grips with our own need to see him. As God so often demonstrates in his Word, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”6 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”7 We’re talking about the God who, as Mary said, “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”8

Walther hit that with his sixth thesis: “In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness.”9 Your goal is to let them see Jesus, and that happens when the law does its work first, not a general statement that “sin is bad,” but the reality of what it does.

The law is not gospel. It is not a solution, something that makes your life better if you just do it right. The damage of that kind of preaching came to life for me in my discussion with my panel of former seekers that I introduced in the last issue. I’ll let them make this point:

  • “I now understand why we are to be ‘convicted of our sins,’ not as reason to get me to do something like come to the altar call, where I’d find no relief.”
  • “I was afraid of hell. I was afraid of God, so I would do what they told me to do. Even communion was used as a weapon, ‘You’d better be good so you don’t eat and drink damnation.’”
  • “I have never felt pressured to perform here, but most of my life I had felt pressured. Looking back, it felt a little like a time-share presentation, like they were trying to pressure me into doing something. I remember one sermon on the cost benefit analysis of tithing. And I listened to that and thanked the preacher for it! But here the emphasis isn’t on what you need to do today as much as just teaching how to apply the Word and live it daily.”
  • “I don’t look at the law anymore and wait for God to pat me on the back or the preacher to point out what good I did, or someone else did. That’s not what it is for.”

The job we have is not to brush over the law with soft broad strokes but to pierce the heart.

No, the law is preparatory. And that doesn’t soften it. You know that. By God’s grace you’ve experienced that. The gospel is the sweetest and predominates when I’ve first been stung by the law, stung deeply and specifically. The job we have is not to brush over the law with soft broad strokes but to pierce the heart. Sometimes I find that hard to do. It’s not that there’s a text that doesn’t point out my failures or my inherent weakness and ineptitude. I haven’t found that yet. It’s hard to do when I start to fear that my hearers may take it too personally, when I fear some of the reactions I mentioned in the first paragraph.

I remember early on in my ministry writing and re-writing a specific law paragraph in a sermon because it hit too close to home. It was one of those texts that so directly addressed something going on in the congregation. And I didn’t want to make people mad. I didn’t want them to think I had gone and found that text just because I wanted to yell at them about this. But then I realized: this is God’s Word, and his law is specific. I just had to realize that God’s Word would work like he promised. That kind of specific law either produces anger or tears or both.

Permit a few more insights from my panel of seekers discussing the joy of hearing law and gospel properly divided (or at least hearing someone trying for it). You’ll notice they started talking about the liturgy as well as the preaching, another place they had come to appreciate the clear proclamation of law and its gospel answer so consistently:

  • “I’m so grateful that I can sit in church and admit that I am a sinner. It’s so different from what I used to do, pretending holiness—constantly afraid that someone would see through the front I was putting on.”
  • “A good service is not works, but worship.”
  • “Even without raising hands (this is from a former Pentecostal) God is there, in the emphasis of the service, in his Word. God is there.”
  • And then my favorite: “Like you always say, it’s ‘because he loves us’. God’s not waiting to smack you upside the head. He stings us with his law because he loves us.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how do we get there? I can’t pretend that I’ve got all the answers for that. The comments my panel made about the preaching here probably make it sound better than it is. Please understand, it just makes clear how bad their previous experiences were that my attempts at properly dividing law and gospel were so astounding in comparison. But in an effort to help us all together strive for clear law preaching to prepare hearts for the gospel, consider a checklist. This is based on one that Pastor Daron Lindemann shared with me that he uses as he prepares his sermons.10 The goal is to ensure that our sermons preach law messages that are specific, not generic, explicit, not vague. This was developed due to the realization that it is too easy to slip to the latter, even for us WELS preachers.

  • Explicit law and gospel are first and foremost textual. They are not clichés and platitudes. They seek to proclaim the beautiful, scriptural, true commands or promises that are first and foremost found in the text and supported grammatically.
  • Explicit law and gospel reflect not just the grammar, but the color, flavor, and tone of the text. Inspirational? Hard-hitting? Narrative? Meditational? Go there.
  • Explicit law doesn’t make generalizations (“we all do this”) or ask questions like “Have you cheated on your taxes?” which statistically allow some people to say that they have not sinned in this way and thus promotes Pharisaism. Explicit law is not afraid to use the second person instead of the first person when preaching the law.
  • Explicit law does not let anyone escape because it funnels to the first commandment and the heart.
  • Explicit law uses the third use of the law in its applications and is careful, again, to remain faithful to the text.
  • Explicit law doesn’t feel the need to preach the entire story of the fall and all its consequences in every sermon. It dives deep and enters the narrow rather than wading in the familiar, safe shallows. We have an entire church year and lectionary. Let’s use each Sunday for what it’s worth.
  • Explicit law is not merely saying “you’re going to hell for doing that.” Hell is not the primary punishment for sin. The punishment for sin is a broken relationship with God, which is manifested eternally in hell.
  • Explicit law and gospel often, but not always, cause a listener to say, “I felt like you were talking to me.”
  • Explicit law and gospel often, but not always, develop a sermon theme or at least main points where a listener can look at the theme or main points and say, “Based on that, I think _______ is the sermon text.” And they’d be right.
  • Explicit law and gospel are specific and focused, rather than general and broad. They would find it difficult to be used in another sermon.
  • Explicit law is not afraid to use the third use of the law and doesn’t overreact to the Evangelicals. It gives the Christian a hook from the text for living the gospel.

Using this checklist may not guarantee you that you never see the yawn. But it is my prayer that they encourage you to preach the stinging law that God’s Word presents, that you might see yourselves as “wretched, poor, blind and naked,” so that you may buy from him “gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” Then, to him who overcomes he gives the right to sit with him on his throne just as he overcame and sat down with the Father on his throne.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”11

Written by Jonathan Scharf

Walther’s Law & Gospel

“However, let the Law once force its way into a person’s heart, and that heart will strain with all its force against God. The person will become furious at God for asking such impossible things of him” (14).

Four Branches

As you constantly hone your preaching craft, take advantage of the new resource put out by the Seminary’s “Grow in Grace.” Beginning September, 2016, the “Four Branches” monthly newsletter has been emailed to all pastors in our ministerium. Each issue features articles on Biblical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology. You can access the previous issues and articles at wls.wels.net/grow-in-grace/the-four-branches-review.

Law as law—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look ahead to Ash Wednesday, a day when specific and explicit law should not be hard to preach. This is a sermon on Genesis 3:1912 with the theme: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In this section of the sermon, the law focuses more on the condition and result of sin than the activity of it.

God had said to the serpent, “You will crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life,” and then he tells Adam— “You, man, are dust” and humanity has been running from him who holds the power of death ever since, as he slithers along ready to consume us. And we just are not fast enough.

Adam knew this death, the death of his perfect trust in God, comfort with God, the death of his perfect relationship with his wife. He would hold death in his arms as his son died at the hand of his brother. Driven from the garden, he would no longer be able to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

And we are right there too, aren’t we? We recall what sin has done to our lives, where the thorns and thistles bring sweat to our brows, where chaos and confusion reign in our world, where our bodies slowly die through sickness and disease, aging and pain. Sin has driven us from relationships and good habits, driven us to drink or to lie or to look for value or pleasure in the wrong places. Sin has driven us from loving, trusting connections, and not just with others, but with our eternal God. Sin has driven us from the tree of life in the middle of that Garden. Driven from the Garden, but like Adam, not driven to despair.

How do I know? Look at the very next verse of Genesis 3. Right after God told Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you will return,” Moses records what happened next. Verse 20: “Adam named his wife Eve.” Life. That’s what her name means. Life. God had just told Adam—Remember death. And he names her “Life.”

The full sermon is at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20.

1 Revelation 3:14-16
2 “This is My Word,” Pepper Choplin
3 1 Corinthians 1:23
4 I think that’s how you spell frustration, right?
5 Thesis XXV, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. “In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”
6 Luke 5:4
7 Matthew 9:12
8 Luke 1:52
9 The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel.
10 Give Pastor Lindemann credit for anything useful here. I’ll take the blame for the rest as I modified it a bit.
11 From Jesus’ letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-22.
12 Many thanks to Pastor Michael Kober for his conference sermon on this text that gave food for thought as I prepared this sermon.

June 2017 Worship Conferences

Here’s a sampling of the 60 presentations available in Kenosha, WI and Irvine, CA. The first two are directly related to preaching.

  • 21st Century Preaching to Millennials and Other Generations Too
    James Hein
  • Communicating Christ in the 21st Century
    Mark Paustian
  • Different Styles of Psalmody for the New Hymnal
    Dan Witte and Grace Hennig
  • Strategic Planning and Worship Enrichment
    Joel Gawrisch
  • Striving for Balance in Worship
    Jon Micheel
  • Worship and Outreach at Mount Horeb, WI
    Jonathan Bauer
  • Worship and Outreach at Sharpsburg, GA
    Jonathan Schroeder

Details are at wels.net/national-worship-conference.

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.



Renovation: Liverpool, New York

“Was this a house before it became a church?” “Isn’t that a dentist’s office?” “I didn’t know there was a church there.” Back in 2005 when we restarted Cross of Christ as a mission, one of the biggest challenges was establishing a community identity. After ten years without a full-time pastor, the congregation’s identity in the community was that they worshiped in a very small, dark brown building set far back from the road with a giant maple tree towering over it. To those in WELS circles, we were striving to re-establish our identity in the community while maintaining a classic 1981 WEF unit that still had the original orange carpet.

A Practical Concept with Unintended Consequences

During the boom years of planting missions back in the 1970s and 1980s, a WEF facility (Worship-Education-Fellowship) was the typical “next step” for WELS mission congregations when they transitioned from rented space to their first permanent space. At the time, the WEF unit was a practical concept that was intended to be a flexible “starter” facility for missions which would expand their multi-purpose building as they grew. Unfortunately in many cases, this practical concept had unintended consequences.

WEF congregations often found themselves saddled with debt, which hindered timely expansion. This often resulted in the “starter” church unintentionally becoming permanent and future phases being put on the back burner. Because they were intended as transitional buildings, WEF units were not typically designed with the best quality. They became difficult to maintain after years, even decades, of wear and tear from multi-purpose usage. As congregations grew, the WEF unit’s size, typically under 2,100 sq. ft., often limited the available space for growth and flexibility in worship, education, and other areas of ministry. In fact, it was not unusual for a mission congregation to already be outgrowing its WEF by the time the facility was dedicated. As you can imagine, restarting a mission with an aging WEF unit was going to be a challenge.

The Need for Space

Some improvements provided a clearer identity to our community that benefited our outreach efforts: clearing trees, repainting the building white with brown trim, and paving the parking lot. But these improvements did not address the key weakness of a WEF unit—available space for worship, education, outreach, and other areas of ministry in a growing congregation. Within five years of the restart, it became clear that an expansion and renovation of the facility was desperately needed. Whenever attendance reached 60-70, our gathering space and musical space diminished considerably. One Easter Sunday the choir had to stand in the back corner tucked around the organ and piano since there was no other room to stand. Fellowship after worship, which played a key role in post-worship contacts with guests, required breaking down a sizable portion of the worship space to make room for standing and chatting over refreshments with scant room for tables and chairs for seating. During the late spring through fall, this issue could be somewhat relieved if people stepped outside, but winters in Central New York can be harsh when large amounts of snow descend on the area.

Our study committee sought an approach that we described as “Lutheran flexibility.”

As the Lord blessed our mission efforts and with these increasing challenges in mind, Cross of Christ formed a study committee in 2011 to determine what we would need to do to expand and renovate our WEF facility for a growing congregation. We determined that we needed “a clearly defined and liturgically-themed sanctuary that has some flexibility for other uses, with the WEF being converted into multi-purpose ministry space.” At the same time, we were mindful of the fact that our budget would be limited. As we discussed the concept that we would present to potential architects, our study committee sought an approach that we described as “Lutheran flexibility.” This would be demonstrated in the design of a dedicated worship space, which focused worshipers on the cross and on the means of grace with font, altar, and ambo, while providing flexible seating for 150-200 using interlocking chairs. The worship space would be designed with an emphasis on “beauty in simplicity” with natural light built into the design—a necessity in our area especially in winter. More adequate space would be provided at the rear for musicians, instruments, and choir. The WEF unit would be converted to flexible education, fellowship, outreach, and gathering space, while needed offices and storage would be part of the link between the buildings. Most importantly, we wanted our finished facility to clearly and unmistakably identify us as a Christ-centered church in our community. Thankfully the Lord provided a local architect, who was willing and able to work with us to develop our concept, even though ours was the first church he ever designed.

We wanted our finished facility to clearly and unmistakably identify us as a Christ-centered church.

Three years of ups and downs, challenges and blessings, passed before shovels went in the ground for our expansion and renovation. Unexpectedly high costs for the original design and some confusion with the financing led to downsizing that design and a one-year delay on the project. That extra time, however, allowed us to gain valuable knowledge in an architectural design that beautifully emphasizes the use of the means of grace while providing flexible functionality for all areas of ministry. In late 2014, with financing approved, Builders for Christ1 came onboard to assist us with renovating our WEF and adding 2,600 sq. ft. of worship and office space. Upon that approval, sub-committees were formed to make decisions for the interior of the sanctuary, the interior of the renovation, the exterior of the building, and for construction.

More Than We Imagined

We broke ground on Easter Sunday 2015 and work went quickly. What resulted from all that planning and studying and deciding and building was breathtaking for everyone who knew the former facility.


Exterior before

Our original worship space was a rectangular box with tight aisles and metal folding chairs that typically seated 50-60 people and no more than 80. Our new sanctuary fans out around the main focal point of the raised chancel area. Rows of flexible interlocking chairs provide seating for 90 with room for up to 150+. The wide aisles and the increased space between seating rows provides much more freedom and flexibility of movement, especially for families with young children.

Our original worship space had four narrow windows that provided limited natural light. Our new sanctuary is bathed in natural light from a large 10’x10’x10.5’ cupola that opens above the center of the sanctuary at the peak of the roofline drawing your eyes heavenward as you walk into the sanctuary. Twelve 4’ tall windows ring the cupola providing natural light at all times of day. At the rear of the sanctuary a set of 10’ tall windows brings in the morning light and allows passers-by to see into our sanctuary. Probably the most unique feature that brings in natural light is the two 9’x6’ cross windows that stand on either side of the raised chancel area. Both were originally installed with frosted glass, but a member with training in stained glass design is creating panels that will be installed on the interior side of the windows. During the day natural light shines through them into our sanctuary. At night, both cross windows are lit up from the inside for the passing public to see. Even during construction, the visible cross windows were the most recognized aspect of our design that people in our community have mentioned.2

At night, both cross windows are lit up from the inside for the passing public to see.


Exterior after

Our original worship space had small pendant lights hanging from an elevated ceiling in one half of the main room, while the back half had fluorescent lights in a dropped ceiling. The new sanctuary is much more well-lit and balanced with its lighting. Two rows of tall pendant lights follow the seating line towards the chancel area. Two pendant lights above the chancel area shine directly above the ambo and the font on either side of the altar drawing the eye to these symbols of the means of grace. An LED directional light shines on the large wooden cross hanging on the back wall of the chancel. Bronze-colored wall sconces ring the sanctuary with indirect light and LED strip lighting provides indirect light upwards from the base of the cupola. This new lighting design proved to be particularly powerful during our Tenebrae service on Good Friday as the different sets of lights were dimmed during the service, while one single light shone on the cross at the end of the service.

Our approach to chancel area design was “beauty in simplicity” with a clear emphasis on what God accomplishes through the means of grace.


Interior before

The chancel area of our original worship space was set tight against one wall at the end of the main room. There was limited space for liturgical movement largely due to the amount of furniture in that space—a very wide pulpit, a sizable lectern and altar, a font that was not part of the original set, and a set of unwieldy communion rails that had been donated from another church. During the Christmas season, the space shrunk even more with the addition of a Christmas tree. The new chancel is spacious and allows for easy movement from ambo to free-standing altar to font—even during the Christmas season and even with the construction of a small sacristy at the back of the chancel. During construction, the decision was made to eliminate communion rails from the chancel area due to certain space needs. This decision was welcomed by elderly members since it was difficult for them to kneel for the Lord’s Supper in our previous sanctuary.

Our approach to chancel area design was “beauty in simplicity” with a clear emphasis on what God accomplishes through the means of grace. WELS artisans Charis Carmichael Braun and her husband Andrew assisted with the design of chancel furnishings that are both modern and timeless with a prominent ambo and font stand3 that frame the free-standing altar. A Waterford crystal bowl serves as the baptismal font with the paschal candle on a dark wood stand behind the font. Behind the free-standing altar hangs the primary focal point of our new sanctuary—a 9’ tall cross made of white oak with dark walnut inlay matching the other furnishings which were created by Bill and Helen Rose of Builders for Christ. Wood colors were chosen to set off the vivid liturgical colors of the paraments. The center cross is framed by the two cross windows serving as a visual reminder of the three crosses on Golgotha, while also serving as a visual reminder of the triune God. The center window in the cross on the left has an open hand that symbolizes God the Father, while the center window in the cross on the right has a dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The center cross serves as a reminder of what Christ accomplished on the cross.


Interior after

Our original worship space had fair acoustics. Years before the restart, the ceiling over the primary worship space was raised using dry wall, but a dropped ceiling remained at the rear of the worship space. Being such a relatively small space for a congregation that has always enjoyed singing, poor acoustics could be overcome, although the farther back you sat, the worse the sound got. The piano and organ were also located in the back corner of the room. After the dry wall went up, we discovered how live our sanctuary was with its 12’ high walls, elevated ceiling, concrete flooring, and fanned-out angles. For people sitting on either side of the sanctuary, there was even a noticeable delay, and our elderly members had difficulty hearing due to the reverb. For flooring we selected luxury vinyl tile with a wood grain finish over the raised chancel area and for the large center aisle from the chancel area to the entrance of the sanctuary. Under the seating area, high-grade commercial carpeting was installed. The flooring materials combined with the interlocking seating provided just enough control of the acoustics to provide a reasonable balance for sound—both musical and spoken.

We did not have a functional sound system in the original sanctuary. With the new sanctuary, a basic sound system was installed, piping sound to a new cry room and classroom area, and we began using an over-the-ear mic. We also installed an Audio Induction Loop System to provide clear sound for people with T-coil equipped hearing aids. We continue to tweak our sound system and have plans to expand our live streaming capabilities. A dedicated “organ nook” was created at the rear of the sanctuary. We also received the gift of a new Yamaha upright piano to replace one that had served for many years in the original worship space.

The interior of our original facility was rather dark with lots of dark oak or dark wood trim and finish. So the expanded and renovated facility was intentionally brightened up with light colors in every room. In the new gathering area, which used to be the rear of the main WEF room, the dropped ceilings were raised with new indirect lighting hung from the ceiling brightening up the entire room. New commercial carpeting replaced the original orange carpeting. The new larger gathering area is now a bright and pleasant space that serves a variety of purposes from fellowship after worship to education and meeting space at other times throughout the week.

With the assistance of Builders for Christ, kitchen space was redesigned to be more open while providing twice as much cabinet and countertop space and new appliances. Classroom space went from temporary dividers set up around tables in the back of the WEF to a new classroom area where the former chancel used to be. While the main entryway remained the same size, it was redesigned to improve the flow of traffic for adults and children. New storefront doors with large window panes replaced doors that had very narrow windows and allowed very little light. Ceramic tile replaced aging linoleum in the entryway. Around the exterior of the original WEF doorway a member installed a beautiful stonework design. A 6’ white cross stands atop the cupola and is visible for all who travel past our busy intersection.

A Clear Identity

Seven months after groundbreaking we celebrated the dedication of our new facility along with the fortieth anniversary of our founding. This writer enjoyed seeing the “Wow!” reactions of so many friends and former members who remembered the original facility and were amazed at what they saw the Lord had accomplished. It was a most joyful event with nearly 150 people joining us for our celebration—and every one of them fit comfortably in our new sanctuary.

In the year that has passed since our dedication, we have had many opportunities to chat with neighbors in our community. No longer do we find the confusion that people had years before. Our neighbors know who we are. They had watched as our new building went up and they were generally pleased to see it happen. People have pulled into the parking lot just to look at the crosses. We always tell them it’s even more beautiful on the inside. While buildings shape who we are, we pray that this new building clearly identifies who we are in Christ—his people gathered around Word and water and meal and sent out to take the saving message of Christ crucified to our world.

Written by Jeremiah J. Gumm

Jeremiah has served at Cross of Christ in Liverpool, New York since he graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2005. He currently serves also as secretary of the North Atlantic District and as a member of the seminary’s Pastor Partners Mentoring Leadership Team.

 Additional pictures are available at http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/.

1 www.kingdomworkers.com/buildersforchrist.php
2 The cross windows were a late addition, suggested by a member at a Q&A session during our pre-building Capital Campaign.
3 The matching design of the font stand and the base of the ambo was inspired by the font at Calvary in Dallas, TX presented in the March 2007 issue of Worship the Lord. worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/wtl-church-architecture/

The Wittenberg Psalter

A new way of singing psalms is available for free download at worship.welsrc.net. This collection features resources for celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and beyond. It uses the concept of “formulary tones” (as developed by Paul Bunjes) to set psalm texts to music derived from Reformation-era chorale tunes, many by Martin Luther. The texts are identical to those in Christian Worship, but without refrains. The composer, Steven J. Rhode, states: “The Wittenberg Psalter is a collection of unison psalm settings for congregation, choir, and/or soloist.” He recognizes that—due to perceived difficulty—they “may not be appropriate for every congregation” and provides various options for usage. Be sure to read “About the Wittenberg Psalter,” provided by the composer.


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Preach the Word – That they would see him

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

That They Would See Him

Mitch thought it was a nervous habit. He had noticed it ever since this woman he was dating started bringing him to her Lutheran church. The preacher would rub the top of the pulpit with his hand as he preached. He certainly never started a sermon without his hand feeling the grain of the wood. And it didn’t change as Mitch went through Bible Information Class and got to know the pastor a bit more and then became a member. It got to the point where it seemed natural for the preacher to be rubbing the pulpit as he preached. It wasn’t until Mitch became an elder with the responsibility of helping to set some things up for worship that he noticed it. There in the wood, where the faithful pastor so often rubbed, were words scratched into the surface. “That they would see him.”

The only other thing I know about Mitch’s former LCMS pastor was that he steered Mitch to find a WELS church when he moved to Georgia because he was confident of what would be taught there. But even with so little to go on, I think I like the guy. “That they would see him.” That they would see Jesus. What a motto! What a great reminder for us preachers!

“That they would see him.”

It calls to my mind another great preacher. The apostle Paul once summed up his message: “But we preach Christ crucified.”1 And while that’s a great verse to emphasize in this article, it hits home even more when you consider its context. It carves in wood the motto, “that they would see him,” as the job of the preacher.

You know the section. Paul appeals to us in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that we agree with one another and that there be no divisions, that we be perfectly united in mind and thought. He reports hearing of divisions, people liking one preacher over another, battling between traditions and ceremonies and rituals, finding all sorts of ways to exalt themselves by exalting their pastor.

“But we preach Christ crucified.”

And as hard as it would have been for me to do, Paul refuses to play into it. He refuses to let them compare speaking styles or even personal history with the leaders. He says those outside of the church look for things like that (“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom”). But not us. “We preach Christ crucified.” Our preaching is all “that they would see Jesus.”

I wish. As easy as it is to say and agree to, wrestling with this topic has made me realize even more how difficult it is for me to do. I’ve failed too often. True story: just yesterday I went along with my vicar to watch him doing his first shut-in calls. On one of them, I listened to one of our more outspoken shut-ins tell him how much she loved reading his first sermon when it came to her email. She then went on and on about how she always loves reading my associate’s sermons. Sounds great, right? Try telling that to my ugly pride that wanted to shout out, “What about mine? They asked me to write for Preach the Word. You should like mine too!” Thankfully, I knew that wasn’t the kind of thing you should say out loud, so I didn’t. But that didn’t stop it from going through my mind.

Then today I sat down with my notes to write and felt the edge of that double-edged sword. Does my pride actually want people to like my preaching more than my brother’s in the ministry? Am I trying to get some to follow Paul and others Cephas? “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”2

In the July/August 2016 Preach the Word, Pastor Patterson encouraged telling stories to tell The Story, but warned about stories that don’t “let them see Jesus.” Thanks, Don. I always need that reminder. As simple as it sounds, correctly handling the word of truth demands that I preach “that they would see him.” Maybe I should carve that into our ambo. At least, let me keep it before me as I write. Let them see him.

When we write and preach our sermons with the goal that they are well-crafted and beautiful, moving and memorable, we miss it. When we struggle and sweat to write and preach well-crafted and beautiful, moving and memorable sermons so that the hearers see Jesus, that’s what we’re talking about.

Do you see the difference? It’s in the heart. It’s the difference between using the tools of communication to show how good I am at communicating and using all the tools in our possession to show the simplicity of Jesus’ love. That’s why Paul goes on and on about the wisdom of the world and foolishness of God. That’s why he has us consider3 what we were by human standards (not much) so that we can praise God for what he has made us: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

So Paul goes on explaining that he didn’t come with eloquence or human wisdom. He did that on purpose: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”4 Again, his goal was “that they would see Jesus,” not him, “that they would see Jesus,” not be impressed by the followers he’s won, “that they would see Jesus,” not his amazing skills. May that be our goal as well.

Do they see him?

Last issue, I promised that I’d share with you some of my interview with six “seekers” who have found Lutheran preaching after listening to seemingly everything else. In one of the questions, I asked them to contrast what they’ve heard from WELS preachers5 with whatever else they’ve heard.

Tom said, for him, listening to preaching now was “No longer about searching, but now about growing.” You see, years ago, he came to Bible Information Class (BIC) because we showed up at his door at the right time. He had been growing in the frustration of not feeling like he was being taught the truth where he was worshiping, and so he was going less often. Before we had even completed the BIC materials, he had purchased his own copy of the Confessions. In fact, he so appreciated the stability and certainty of teaching and preaching he was now hearing that, on the Sunday of his confirmation, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me his new tattoo of Luther’s seal.

After Tom explained that key difference in what he was receiving, one of the other gentlemen at the table explained why that was. He had been trained to preach in his former church (same denomination as Tom’s had been). He summed up the training to prepare sermons with a three-step method.

  • First, empathize with what people are going through.
  • Second, discuss current events that relate.
  • Third, find a Bible passage that says something similar.

Another former preacher (very different denomination) agreed and said his seminary training was much the same. They both discussed how rare it was to hear expository preaching that starts with a text and lets that speak. But they also said it is the only way that lets God’s Word speak instead of trying to make it say what you want it to say.

Here’s where Donna jumped in, having been what she describes as “all in” in several different denominations previously in her searching. She described looking back at what she had been taught in the past and now asking herself, “How did you fall for that?” She related that even with decades of searching, she had no idea that something like Lutheran law/gospel preaching and teaching existed. She believed what her pastors had said because she didn’t know any better. She described how natural it sounded then, but how horrendous to her now, when her preacher would say things like: “For the sake of time, let me tell you what I believe” or “Let me tell you what this says,” instead of letting the Word say what it says so simply. Donna kept coming back to that question: “How did I fall for that?” I’ll say this. It was an understatement when she said, “It’s not like I’m dumb.”

Consistently in our discussion, the entire panel was nodding in agreement with various comments, even though the six of them represented at least five different denominations. There seemed to be much in common with “what else” is out there. Their experiences were eerily similar. They echoed Donna’s thought: “How did I fall for that?”

And the answer they came up with? It was a difference in philosophy of preaching to which they had become accustomed. They weren’t aware there was anything better out there. In chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, right after resolving to know nothing but Jesus, Paul says this, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” My panel described their faith that had too often rested on “what the preacher said” instead of “what God’s Word said.” What a great reminder for me to make sure I stayed in that second category. What a great reminder to make sure that every time I preach, my goal be to “let them see Jesus.” That happens in expository preaching, because, after all, as Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”6

In Walther’s Law and Gospel, he addressed this same discussion my panel had 130 years earlier. Here’s how he spoke to their conversation: “When you hear some sectarian preach, you may say, ‘what he said was the truth,’ and yet you do not feel satisfied. Here is the key for unlocking this mystery: the preacher did not rightly divide Law and Gospel, and hence everything went wrong” (32).

In this issue we’ve focused more on the gospel side, letting the gospel predominate. I pray that you might have that vision of the preacher with his hand on the etched wood in your mind as I do when I consider my sermons. “Let them see him.”

Next issue, we’ll wrestle some more with this correct handling of the Word of Truth and highlight especially our use of the law. Until then, let’s celebrate the privilege and pleasure we have in the simplicity of our job. We just tell them about Jesus. Here’s how Luther describes it. (A portion this quote can be found on the base of the Luther statue at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.)

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing: the Word did everything.7

That Word lets them see him.

“Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16)

Written by Jonathan Scharf

1 1 Corinthians 1:23
2 1 Corinthians 2:20
3 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
4 1 Corinthians 2:2
5 Permit a disclaimer explaining the way the question was worded. Of course, it is not only WELS preaching that proclaims Christ, and there are plenty of WELS pastors that from time to time get in the way of “letting them see Jesus.” It is not the WELSness of it, but the Christ-centered nature of preaching we’re discussing. For the sake of the question though—I asked them to contrast the nature of preaching they heard from our pastors and vicars with “everything else,” which in their experience, was not so Christ-centered.
6 John 5:39
7 Luther’s Works vol. 51, pg. 77

Walther’s Law & Gospel, pg. 135

In the first place, the sects neither believe nor teach a real and complete reconciliation of man with God because they regard our heavenly Father as being a God very hard to deal with, whose heart must be softened by passionate cries and bitter tears. That amounts to a denial of Jesus Christ, who has long ago turned the heart of God to men by reconciling the entire world with Him. God does nothing by halves. In Christ He loves all sinners without exception. The sins of every sinner are canceled. Every debt has been liquidated. There is no longer anything that a poor sinner has to fear when he approaches his heavenly Father, with whom he has been reconciled by Christ.

Four Branches

As you constantly hone your preaching craft, take advantage of the new resource put out by the Seminary’s “Grow in Grace.” Beginning September, 2016, the “Four Branches” monthly newsletter has been emailed to all pastors in our ministerium. Each issue features articles on Biblical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology. You can access the previous issues and articles at www.wls.wels.net/grow-in-grace/the-four-branches-review.

That they would see him—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet from a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look forward to Christmas Eve. This is from a sermon on Luke 2 with the theme: “Mary did you know?” Earlier the sermon explored the reality behind the front we put up at Christmas and in our lives. The full sermon is at: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20.

The sign that your Savior is here…the sign that God has come to keep his promises and save you, is that you will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in an animals’ feed trough.

Why? Because he came here to know trouble. He came here to know our trouble. All that junk we described in our lives—the broken relationships, the guilty feelings, our coping mechanisms and the problems they cause—all of them—we brought on ourselves. God promised that the wages of sin is death, and we sinned—as a race and as individuals. We fall short of perfect love and generosity. We fall short of clean living and holy speech. We fall short of pure intentions and clean motives. We sin. So we have death and all its symptoms coming—we earned the guilty feelings and the shame, the sickness, and loss.

But not him. That child in the manger was pure—not because he was a cute little kid, but because he was and is God’s eternal Son—the Great I AM. So he was born without the failure we entered with. He just had to endure its frustration because he came to be our substitute, to be what the angel called him, our Savior.

That’s why the angels in the fields could not help but trumpet the truth, breaking out in song—glory to God in the highest—peace on earth. That’s why the shepherds could not help but share it. God sent his Son to be our Savior.

Lectionary on Google Calendars

Three new calendars for upcoming years A, B, and C are available at worship.welsrc.net. More info at welstechwiki.gapps.wels.net/planning-policy/lectionary-gcal. For each Sunday and Major Festival the calendar entry includes:

  • Lessons and Psalm, including Supplemental Readings
  • Prayer of the Day
  • Verse of the Day
  • Hymn of the Day
  • Church year color

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.



Renovation: Hartford, Wisconsin

This issue launches a new series on renovation projects. It will feature projects from churches small and large. Often the concepts, goals, and process behind a renovation are most important, not the particulars of design or size. These are transferable and helpful for churches of any size.—Bryan Gerlach

Designing and constructing a brand new church building is an exciting endeavor for a congregation. Consider the average mission start-up. After worshiping for years in a rented facility—setting up and taking down, week after week—it is exhilarating when members get to sit in real pews in a real church they designed and built from the ground up. Every detail of that new construction was carefully weighed and researched. All that meticulous work resulted in a brand new church that stands ready to meet the needs of God’s worshiping people.

That’s the opportunity for mission start-up congregations which have recently built or eagerly anticipate a new build in the future. They get to start from scratch. However, the vast majority of our churches are well past the start-up phase. The average age of a WELS congregation is 70 years old. If the unique character, design, or size of an aging sanctuary presents challenges to worshipers, starting from scratch and building a brand new church isn’t a reasonable option for most congregations. A smart, thoughtful renovation just might be the answer.

A smart, thoughtful renovation just might be the answer.

If you’ve spent time surfing the Internet looking through the residential properties for sale in your community, you’ve noticed that a huge selling point is to have a recently renovated kitchen or bathroom. Those two rooms are seen as vital assets in a home. Getting those two rooms right makes a huge difference in the real estate world.

What is the most vital space on your entire campus? It’s the church sanctuary. Because of the amount of invaluable time members and guests spend within its walls, the sanctuary is most important. Because of the divine gifts that God gives us in that sacred place, the sanctuary is most important. Getting this worship space right has always been the goal of our Lutheran congregations, whether starting from scratch, maintaining an established church, or tackling a renovation project to enhance an aging building.

Saving the Best for Last
Hartford WI - Before

Hartford, WI – Before

Peace Lutheran in Hartford, Wisconsin is a large congregation with a large sanctuary. Over the past several decades, substantial improvements have been made to the campus. But the sanctuary itself had undergone only a handful of minor, cosmetic changes. Within recent years our members constructed a large and useful gathering space, added extra bathrooms and a new office wing, expanded our school by building an early childhood addition, made improvements to our athletic fields, and redesigned the parking lot. The majority of our campus was appropriately maintained and kept up-to-date. At the very center stood the sanctuary, the most important space. It was functional. But it was outdated. While the congregation was not eager to embark upon another capital improvement project, it would move forward if there were smart and compelling reasons to do so.

We needed to answer the question: What does “outdated” mean? Was it just a matter of replacing some worn carpeting and painting a few walls? Or were there deeper challenges our people faced because of an aging building? Were we just getting tired of the décor or was the design of the building presenting obstacles to our worshipers?

It was functional. But it was outdated.

It should be noted: Our committee was made up of a cross section of church members. None of us entered this task with any preconceived notions. In fact, to a person, we all loved our church and could be content to keep everything as is. At the same time, we were eager to begin looking at our sanctuary with new, objective eyes.

Problems that Needed Attention

It didn’t take us long to realize that we wanted and needed more than new paint and carpeting. Yes, our sanctuary was still beautiful, functional, and well-maintained. But some elements of a 1960s design were not just out of style but in the way. We knew it would be wise to make some improvements, but it was eye-opening when we started to list all the deficits.

Some elements of a 1960s design were not just out of style but in the way.

  • A fifty year-old building meant fifty year-old wiring and light fixtures. Our worship space was dim, making it difficult for some to read or see the minister’s face. Because of this, the videos posted to our website and recorded for our shut-ins were poor in quality.
  • The majority of the sanctuary was carpeted. This created a comfortable environment, but it also deadened the acoustics.
  • The wooden pews were beautiful. However they were starting to show substantial cracking and signs of wear. In addition, the fixed locations meant narrow aisles, little flexibility, and few locations for special needs seating.
  • The baptismal font was functional, crafted decades ago by an accomplished carpenter. But it was brittle and worn, even after several attempts to spruce it up.
  • Our communion practice required members to navigate steps on the way to the communion rail, to kneel, and then descend the steps afterwards. This was a challenge for many of our senior members.
  • We weren’t heavily using projection or other technologies in worship. But in order to make that a viable option, we’d need some thoughtful improvements.
  • There were some visual distractions: When big giant speakers were en vogue, we installed two. They sounded great, but they hung right over our chancel—two big, bright white speakers that caught the eye when we really wanted the cross to catch the eye. We also had several sprinkler pipes that wrapped around our gorgeous wooden beams, causing an out-of-place industrial look.

These were some of the challenges and obstacles we hoped our renovation project would tackle and solve. Right from the start we realized this was more than a makeover. We weren’t just redecorating for a fresher look, scratching the itch of newer is better. Instead, we were making improvements that would improve the worship experience. Certainly we wanted the sanctuary to be visually appealing, but above all we wanted any and every change to help worshipers to see God’s Word better, to hear the proclamation of God’s Word more clearly, to receive the sacrament more easily, and to focus on Jesus more centrally.

We believe we have accomplished these goals.

A Warmer Well-Lit Space

With the help of a lighting engineer, we vastly improved our lighting in ways that were practical, aesthetic, and dramatic.

Directional lighting in the chancel now draws attention toward the font, the cross, the altar, and the ambo. The gospel in Word and sacrament are literally in the spotlight! Improved lighting up front helps people to see better the preacher’s facial expressions, which also come across nicely on our video feed that is sent to the parent’s room and eventually to our website.

With a combination of dimmable direct and indirect lighting in the nave, the space is now a brighter environment that conveys warmth, energy, and vitality. Plain and simple: light helps people see, it draws attention to important things, it provides warmth and vibrancy, and it can even add a bit of drama. Imagine the options for a candlelight, Tenebrae, or sunrise service.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, we see a cost savings in utilities as a result of new fixtures and energy efficient bulbs.

Helping Others to Hear and Be Heard

Verbal communication, whether spoken or sung, is crucial in our Lutheran worship.

  • God speaks to us through his Word and through his called servants.
  • We speak to God with our prayers and praises.
  • We speak to and encourage each other as we join our voices in word and song.

It is vitally important that all these channels are clearly heard by all. Three areas offered big gains for us in the sound department.

Flooring: We went from predominantly carpet that gobbled up sound to a solid surface throughout—a mixture of ceramic tile and “luxury vinyl”1. In the planning stage there was concern that the hard surface would give a sterile, institutional feel and create an echo chamber of clippity-cloppity sounds from shoes and high heels. I am happy to report that neither concern was legitimate.

Technology: We eagerly traded in our refrigerator-sized speakers and installed a pair of low profile speakers, our pastoral staff shifted from the lapel microphone to a head-worn mic, and our sound system was completely overhauled. An Audio Induction Loop System was installed under our flooring tile. This allows people with T-coil equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants to receive a clear audio signal wirelessly from the church’s sound system.

Experts: To make sure our new acoustically live space didn’t impede intelligibility, a consultant worked with us and our A/V contractor. Strategically placed sound diffusion and absorption features were added. Experts using measurement tools and software were able to make all the proper adjustments and set the calibrations just right for both speaking and singing. The results have been positively noticeable and energizing. Choir and congregational singing has never sounded clearer or better.

All Are Welcome

Because of the steps and the communion rail, our previous traffic pattern for receiving the supper excluded some from the flow and made it difficult for many others. That was remedied by moving the reception of communion down to floor level. Now almost every single member is able to approach the table—with wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches—without having to navigate steps.

One slight drawback is saying good-bye to the practice of kneeling for communion, which was dear to many. However, the inclusiveness and ease of our new pattern has overshadowed that one concession.

While our old, beautiful pews could have been reused, they were replaced with new, sleeker versions, which in turn offer a bit more space to sit and stand. The pews were also angled slightly, promoting a sense of community, offering better sight lines as we communicate with each other, and encouraging congregational singing. Pew chairs make up the first few rows in the front and in the back of church. This creates additional and moveable locations for those with special needs and offers much flexibility for funerals, weddings, children’s services, etc. This past Easter we squeezed 560+ people into our sanctuary for one service. It wasn’t optimal seating for such a large group, but the flexible pew chairs permitted us to maximize the use of additional folding chairs. We got more out of our square footage than our old fixed pews would have allowed.

Choir and congregational singing has never sounded clearer or better.

Highlighting What Matters Most

The eye-sore sprinkler pipes were repositioned and covered with beautiful wooden beams. New doors replaced old and weathered ones. Stained glass windows, outlined with a dated aluminum border, received fresh oak fascia. However, the project was not about covering up some unsightly elements. It was about bringing into plain sight those things which matter most.

Hartford WI baptismal font

Hartford, WI baptismal font

We had the privilege of working with a Lutheran firm that listened to our ideas and designed customized chancel furnishings: a 13-foot free-hanging mahogany cross, a 9-foot by 4-foot free standing altar, a baptismal font with a 350 pound Bedford stone bowl, and a prominent ambo. All handmade, inscribed, etched, and inlaid with liturgical artwork—these fixtures are the visual focus of worship. They are appropriately lighted as a vivid and beautiful reminder of the ways Christ comes to us. Although not visible from every pew, the inscriptions and artwork when seen up close preach sermons all on their own.

Full Circle

At the start of the renovation process, our leadership told our members: “We are speaking with experienced consultants about making some common sense improvements to our worship space, which may include better lighting, easier access to communion, acoustics/sound/video enhancements, and updated chancel furnishings.”

Today, descriptive words like shadowy, dim, outdated, and inaccessible have been replaced with words like inviting, vibrant, and alive. As Lutheran designers, builders, and remodelers have done in the past, we have tried to glorify God and adorn his house with a Christ-centered focus. Because the sanctuary is the room that is most important, we worked to get it right. For the members of Peace Lutheran in Hartford, Wisconsin, a smart, thoughtful renovation was the answer.

We have tried to glorify God and adorn his house with a Christ-centered focus

Written by Aaron Steinbrenner

Aaron serves at Peace in Hartford, Wisconsin and currently is circuit pastor in the Hartford Circuit.  He has also served in the South Central District at Redeemer in Edna, Texas.

1 A high level of quality allows vinyl to be a legitimate surface for church projects. Just like laminate flooring some years back, vinyl now comes in more options that resemble natural solid surfaces (stone, woodgrain, etc), and it is available in different sizes (squares, rectangle tiles, and larger panels). homerenovations.about.com/od/vinylflooring/ss/Luxury-Vinyl-Tile.htm

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

It’s important for church leaders or renovation committee to communicate clearly and often with the people.

Church renovations can be polarizing endeavors. What’s wrong with our church the way it is? We’re not going to change anything, are we? Couldn’t we spend this money on something else more necessary than a remodeling project? These are questions even the most well-intended and connected member may have. They require careful answers.

Renovation committee members aren’t church sanctuary experts. But after months of study and countless tours to other churches, they absorb a huge amount of information about liturgical worship and the worship space. What took months to be absorbed by a committee member cannot be shared with others through one or two bulletin inserts.

Once the project starts, show pictures of every stage of the process (demolition, construction, flooring, pew installation, arrival of furnishings). If volunteers show up to clean the work area or provide services that defray the overall cost, highlight those efforts.

When the project is complete, consider creating a commemorative booklet that explains the changes and the new furnishings. (Ours is available at worship.welsrc.net in the Worship the Lord archive, along with additional photos.)

Assistance from Trained, Outside Eyes

We found working with consultants not merely helpful but necessary and worth the extra cost.

On one tier, we brought in consultants from our WELS circles. With just a phone call to our district worship coordinator, we were able to bring in a brother with helpful insights into Lutheran liturgical worship. He attended one of our services and gave us honest and objective feedback. At our request, he addressed our committee, walked us through a Church Renovation for Dummies presentation, and helped prepare us for the upcoming phases of our project.

That led to the second tier. When it comes to remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, a skilled DYI’er can tackle it. He can call in a friend or look up a YouTube video if he gets in over his head. Remodeling a sanctuary is in a totally different class. We hired a consultant who had both new build and renovation experience in liturgical worship spaces. He understood the centrality of the means of grace, and he assisted us in highlighting the gospel. We didn’t use his full slate of services. But even his partial involvement brought a cache of great ideas, just the right amount of penetrating questions we needed to answer, and volumes of resource information—for example, contractor leads, updates on latest code regulations, and decoration insights.

The third tier of consultants also proved invaluable. Experts and consultants in lighting and acoustics helped us achieve just the right balance in both of those crucial areas.

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Preach the Word – Proclaim the Truth as Truth

A new volume welcomes a new writer. Pastor Jonathan Scharf is husband to Janette, father to Andrew, Abi, Hannah, and Malachi, and pastor for the saints at Abiding Grace in Covington, GA. He serves as Circuit Pastor of the Peachtree Circuit, Chairman of the Cottonbelt Conference’s Program Committee, Chairman of the South Atlantic District’s Commission on Evangelism, a member of the Scripture Committee (lectionary) for the new hymnal project, and an advisor for the Synod’s Commission on Congregational Counseling. He has been privileged to preach for the last 13 years for many new Christians at a growing mission congregation in an area where Lutheran preaching is rare.

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Proclaim the Truth as Truth

It made me physically sick. Now, I like to think I have an exceptionally strong stomach. I’m the kind of guy who is a big believer in the “5-second rule” no matter the setting. I have little regard for expiration dates on food. But this physically turned my stomach. Thinking of the thousands, maybe even millions of people who were being fed rancid “meat,” it made me sick. It gave me a new appreciation for the preaching your listeners get to hear but saddened me to think how rare that is. It also motivated me to do whatever I could so that we don’t lose the gift of the meat of gospel preaching.

The context? I was attending the annual Institute for Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University1 as a representative of the Scripture Committee of our new hymnal project. The Institute is “an ecumenical conference on liturgical renewal for the church today,” but a majority of the preachers and presenters were from the ELCA. The whole purpose of the Institute that year was to explore the lectionary and its formation. Scholars from around the world were sharing and learning. I picked up quite a bit on the history of the lectionary. The campus was beautiful, the chapel stunning, the people friendly, the music powerful and the liturgy so familiar, but the preaching…made me sick. And there was much preaching at a conference designed to demonstrate what they were teaching about liturgy and lectionary.

The liturgy clearly proclaimed law and gospel, sin and grace, as it does no matter no matter who is handling it. The problem came when preachers expounded texts. I heard a sermon that seemed to be on the importance of recycling. Another seemed to be on the importance of reading. But the one that brought tears to my eyes as I recalled it later and prayed for the people who are being fed that was one whose text was the latter part of John 20. The sermon even quoted the Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion. I certainly expected to hear the gospel expounded; I figured there was no way to preach on this without telling me that Jesus died to pay for my sins and rose to guarantee me heaven.

Sadly, I was wrong. The message preached on Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection was that we have this story so that we can make sense of the suffering in our lives and the senseless things that happen, so that we can handle the junk and grief of this world, knowing that it will somehow be okay. The message was not that there is divine sense in that “senseless” death, that Jesus is God’s Son who took our place on the cross. The message was that you can always say, “at least I don’t have it that bad” when we think of Christ’s suffering.

The message was not that there is divine sense in that “senseless” death, that Jesus is God’s Son who took our place on the cross.

And what made it worse was the refrain “as the story goes” any time historical fact of scripture was mentioned. It was as if the preacher wanted to leave open the possibility that this is all nothing more than a story. He called it a powerful story, but he saw the power in how it can help us cope rather than in what was accomplished. His exact words were “the death and weakness of Christ are more for us to relate to rather than to redeem.”2

Had I not heard it, I would assume that this description is exaggeration. But, sad to say, I did hear it. I was there. It was that bad. And the rest of the conference verified it as respected leaders spoke of the veracity of Scripture as something up for debate. One presenter pondered which parts of the Bible people should know and what they should believe: “Should we study Deuteronomic theology where God punishes bad guys and blesses good guys? Should we talk about the contradictions? Or the things we don’t agree with anymore?”3

In my notes I wrote: “I can’t believe she’s saying this out loud.” She seemed to mock the thought that you’ll be saved if you accept this story as a historically accurate description of our sin’s payment, implying, “We’re so past that.”

But I’m not. I pray we never get past that. That’s why, when I was asked to write this volume of Preach the Word, I chose this topic. It’s not that I think I can offer anything new or exciting to the conversation. But if as is often said, “We are always, ever, only one generation away from losing the gospel” from a “famine of hearing the Word of the Lord,”4 then I want to do what is in my power to help encourage you in the other direction.

“Ever only one generation away from losing the gospel.”

I pray that this series will do what Paul encouraged his fellow preacher in 2 Timothy 2:14-15: “Keep reminding them of these things…. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” The things he wanted them reminded of include “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead….this is my gospel.”5

I pray that this series will do what Paul encouraged his fellow preacher in 2 Timothy 2:14-15: “Keep reminding them of these things….”

Since I’m not going for anything new here, I decided to re-read a classic: Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. I also checked the seminary essay file.6 When I re-read Walther, I was struck by the regular repetition of the simple truths of God’s plan, even in the preface and introduction by the translator. Here’s an example:

The sinner’s rescue from his wretched condition by God’s gospel plan consists in this, that the sinner is told not only that God loves him spite of his sin, but that He so loves the sinner, who is by nature a child of wrath, as to sacrifice His own Son for him and to send the Holy Spirit into his heart to produce in him repentance over his sins and faith in the divine forgiveness of his sins.7

At the end of the preface something bowled me over. It was signed “W.H.T. Dau. Valparaiso University, Thanksgiving Day, 1928.”

“Ever only one generation away from losing the gospel.” The man who preserved for us one of the seminal pieces of literature for our gospel preaching did so while president at Valparaiso University. That same campus, 85 short years later, offered advice to preachers not to mention Mother’s Day on Mother’s Day for fear of alienating all the lesbians in the room who may not think that the only thing to do in life is to be a mother.8

There’s just something different there. Paul’s words in Galatians9 ring in my ears: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.”

How did it happen? I am convinced that it sprang from a desire to reach people for Christ. But then method was placed above message. Instead of trusting the faithful message, the focus was placed on the people they were trying to reach. One session at the Valparaiso conference described new lectionaries, including things like the so very green “Season of Creation” so that we can try to connect with environmental crises.10 While we are free to choose which sections of Scripture to read in worship, the discussion of new lectionaries seemed to neglect key truths that must be proclaimed and to focus instead on what groups of people might want to hear.

In an essay for a 2002 Minnesota District Pastor’s Conference, Thomas Trapp took up this topic, reminding us that content is key to preaching.

“Unless spiritual knowledge and the Spirit himself speak through the preachers… the final result will be that everyone preaches his own whims, and instead of the gospel and its exposition, we shall again have sermons on blue ducks” [Martin Luther]. More and more people in our culture are sick of “blue duck” sermons. Many are looking for solid, absolute truth. By God’s grace, we have it and are called to preach it. We do not preach it, of course, because it may be popular; we preach it because it is God’s Word, popular or not.”11

That was driven home to me again at the opening worship for our 2016 WELS International Youth Rally.12 Even though he was speaking to 2,500 youth and their leaders, the preacher didn’t feel a need to talk about the fact that children are the future. He didn’t need to tout the power of positive thinking or squeeze in our responsibility to the earth. In clear and simple language, the preacher never hesitated to restate the simple truths of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Those young people received a solid meal of soul-nourishing meat.

The previous volume of Preach the Word studied the topic of reaching Millennials with our preaching. We were constantly encouraged to proclaim law and gospel, sin and grace. In our efforts to reach people who may think differently, praise God that we need not wonder about the message that will reach them.

“Never once were we encouraged to do anything but proclaim law and gospel, sin and grace.”

Volume 20 of Preach the Word will remind us again of the only effective tool—God’s powerful Word with its two teachings, law and gospel. We’ll hear from some interviews of Christians who have been searching for preaching of the truth and hear their stories of how rare it is, encouraging us to keep up this law and gospel stuff. And we’ll have some examples of preaching the simple truth in timely ways. I pray that God bless us through our journey together this year.

Written by Jonathan Scharf

1 April 28-30, 2014
2 From notes on the opening sermon
3 From notes on the presentation “Mystery Manifest; Christ in the Lectionary”
4 Amos 8:11-12
5 2 Timothy 2:8
6 wls.wels.net/essay. Both of these are time well spent and great ways to reinforce commitment to correctly handle the word of truth.
7 Preface and Introduction, p. XX
8 From notes on the presentation “Preaching the Imagery of Liturgical Time”: “Preachers use stories and images not to stuff their hearer’s heads with facts, slogans, and memorized verses, but to surround the assembly with mysteries that give faith—all to be dissected and put back together in new forms to fit with our lives.”
9 Galatians 1:6-7a
10 “Josiah, the Lectionary, and the Dangers of Forgetting Our Story”
11 Preaching God’s Word to the 21st Century Worshiper, p. 9; WLS essay file.
12 June 28-July 1, 2016 in Fort Collins, CO. The preacher was John Boggs.

Looking forward to an upcoming meal

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look forward to Reformation. This is from a sermon on Romans 3:19-28 with the theme: Keeping it Real.

So God’s law says—“shut your mouth for a second—realize you sin and what that means. You owe God—that’s it—nothing short of hell. As much as you protest what you deserve, you do deserve it.”

I know our society doesn’t help us there, telling us we all deserve great things, everybody deserves a trophy. Whether it’s the people receiving the handouts thinking they deserve to be taken care of by the government or those who aren’t receiving handouts that are upset because those who are have such an “easy life” while “I work so hard.” Paul says just be quiet. Look at the mirror of the law—you are not righteous—you deserve nothing. Period.

“But wait a second pastor. I do this and that. I work hard. I deserve…” NO—God says: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” Be real and realize what God’s Word says about our lives—it’s SIN. Look at any human in the spotlight of the law and you see SIN—disgusting SIN. In the rapist…SIN. In the mass murderer…SIN. In the adulterer…SIN. In the boss …SIN. In the hard working employee…SIN. In the overburdened mom…SIN. In the philanthropist…SIN. In the theater shooter and in the volunteer worker…SIN. In this preacher…SIN. And in every person sitting in the congregation…SIN.

So tell your pride to stop it. Tell your hurt and offended ego to just be quiet. That’s what the law does. It tells you to stop making excuses. It shows you all your righteousness is worthless. So be real. Realize you’re sunk. Are you listening, or did you tune me out a few minutes ago because you didn’t like what you were hearing? Either way—listen now—you need to hear what comes next. You need to “Keep it real!”

This is verse 21. “But…” Ahh what a glorious word! BUT. Paul just beat us up and shut us down. He just put us in our place of fear and wrath and condemnation. But then he says “BUT.” For us who had no solution—because no one can be righteous, no matter how many laws they keep—for us condemned because we’ve messed up and we know it—if we’re real with ourselves—to us he says “BUT”.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law (not based on our keeping the law, a righteousness that doesn’t depend on how good we’ve been, that righteousness…) has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. (This righteousness is what God’s Word always has been and always will be about. It’s not a bunch of rules for us to keep to get right with God; it’s the story of how God has made us right with God.) Verse 22: This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (All of us are sinners. And hear what he just said: all of us are justified—declared not guilty). 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

Do you see who Jesus is? He is not the one sent to show us how to live a good life. He is not the one who came to expand our minds. God presented him as a sacrifice—nothing less—the actual sacrifice that actually pays for our failures of the law. His perfect life and his innocent death atone us. They make us “at one” with God. Really!

Flashback to Volume 5.1 from 2001, by John Koelpin

The Scriptures offer the preacher an alternative to the influential style. In his Word, God describes preaching as “proclamation.” The word is κηρύσσω in the New Testament. Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, defines κηρύσσω in this way, “to proclaim after the manner of a herald; always with a suggestion of formality, gravity, and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed.” The herald wasn’t in the business of making a pitch to his audience. He didn’t offer up his message for argument or persuasion….

Proclamation is the style God has handed to us. Preachers, then, are not salesmen for the latest “get to heaven quick” scheme, but heralds of the truths which God has laid down in his Word. These truths, whether law or gospel, take hold in the heart of the hearer by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of the presentation.

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Worship and the Right Brain

So, Honey, what did you think about that service?” his wife inquired as the family drove home after Ash Wednesday worship. Their congregation included the imposition of ashes for the first time, and it seemed like a natural topic to bring up on the way home.

“I’m not sold on the ashes yet. I mean, I don’t think there was anything wrong with it, but it just didn’t do much for me. What did you think about it?”

“I loved it! It was so powerful seeing all of God’s people come back to their seats with cross-shaped ashes on their foreheads. And I got a little emotional when the pastor said to me, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ But I thought it was a powerful message of repentance.”

Their teenage son chimed in from the back of the car: “I thought it was a little creepy that the pastor was basically telling each one of us that we’re going to die. And did you hear him get choked up when his kids came up?”

“It was a little uncomfortable having him stand so close to me to put the ashes on my head, but I liked it,” their recently confirmed daughter said.

Their fifth grade son finally added his two cents worth: “I liked that I could participate. It was different, but it was kind of interesting.”

The preceding family conversation may be fictitious, but it does reflect some of the different reactions worship leaders will encounter when their congregations enter more deeply into the realm of rite, ritual, ceremony, and symbolism in worship.

Do you like artistic expression in worship, or do you prefer the service to be simple and straightforward?

Experiences like the imposition of ashes and other worship rituals are often discussed as a dichotomy: Do you like “high church” or “low church”? Do you like artistic expression in worship, or do you prefer the service to be simple and straightforward? To those dichotomies, add discussions about emotions in worship or the concern that some ceremonies might be misunderstood, and you can see how this topic is ripe for debate!

We best understand and appreciate worship’s ceremonies, symbols, and rituals when we understand them as forms of communication.

There is another way to consider this topic that will avoid false dichotomies and move the discussion into a more profitable sphere. We best understand and appreciate worship’s ceremonies, symbols, and rituals when we understand them as forms of communication. Different forms of communication interact differently with the two hemispheres of our brain. Understanding how the mind processes information, we see how rituals and symbolism in worship are uniquely designed to communicate to the right hemisphere of the brain, while the words of worship communicate to the left hemisphere.

Rituals and symbolism in worship are uniquely designed to communicate to the right hemisphere of the brain.

Two Hemispheres

In popular language, people sometimes speak about the “left brain” and the “right brain.” In reality, of course, we do not have two brains, but two hemispheres that serve unique purposes and that work together to help us function. The psychologist Bessel van der Kock gives a concise summary.

We now know that the two halves of the brain do speak different languages. The right is intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial, and actual, and the left is linguistic, sequential, and analytical. While the left half of the brain does all the talking, the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking. The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants. We know the left hemisphere has come online when children start to understand language and learn how to speak (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 44).

Not only does the right hemisphere begin to develop earlier than the left, but it also reaches its full development much sooner: the right hemisphere reaches its full development around age three, while the left may continue until age 29. In other words, the affective or emotional side is at its full potential long before the cognitive or logical side is even close to half way there. (This goes a long way to explain toddler temper tantrums and the sometimes illogical choices our teenage children make!) Finally, by God’s design, each gender tends to favor one hemisphere over the other: a woman’s right hemisphere is generally more dominant than the left hemisphere, while the opposite tends to be true for men.

We recognize the importance of engaging both hemispheres in various aspects of our ministries. Seminary students learn to develop Catechism lessons that achieve a cognitive goal (students learned the main point) and an affective goal (students deepened their appreciation for God’s grace). As preachers, we deliver sermons that are not just aimed at the “head” (left brain) but also at the “heart” (right brain). In the same way, worship will best communicate to all of God’s gathered people when it seeks to speak to both the left and right halves of the brain.

Some challenges

We in WELS are blessed with a ministry educational system that is second to none—high standards and rigorous curriculum for future pastors. Four years of Greek, two of Hebrew, and a well-balanced liberal arts education precede our seminary years, where we then hone Greek and Hebrew exegetical skills so that we can say with confidence “Thus saith the Lord.”

As we shape and sharpen our skills, notice which hemisphere of the brain is primarily active: the left. A great deal of our pastoral work involves the left brain—sermon studies and writing, Catechism instruction and Bible classes, reports, newsletter articles, and more. Because so much of our work is left brain activity, it is understandably easy for us to omit consideration of engaging the right brain equally in our worship life.

Our background also leads us to favor left-brain thinking. Past generations of Lutherans often viewed ceremony and ritual as Roman Catholic instead of universal catholic or a tool to engage the right brain in worship. August Pieper’s (d. 1946) rebuttal to the liturgical and ceremonial tendencies of the Missouri Synod shaped synodical thinking: “Wir sind von dem Wisconsin Synode; wir machen kein ‘show.’” Ceremony, which engages the right brain, was simply not seen as a part of WELS practice. On a larger scale, post-Enlightenment Western culture tends to value the activity of the left brain over the right. Notice that when public school budget cuts are proposed, music and the arts are the first to take a hit!

Even with these challenges, we still recognize the importance of the right brain in communication and interpersonal interactions. How many friendly conversations over email or social media have taken a turn for the worse because a statement read by the recipient was not interpreted through the emotions of the writer? A winking emoji might help, but typed text is a difficult medium for communicating emotions, and the emotional content of a message carries a great deal of meaning that nuances a literal reading of words. Sometimes it takes a follow-up phone call where voice inflection can be heard, or a meeting over coffee where facial gestures can be seen, to adequately clear up the confusion. As further evidence, consider the advertising campaign of a Phoenix firm that makes video recordings of court depositions. Three pictures depicting different facial expressions strongly validate the ad’s headline: 93% of communication is non-verbal. Why use the firm’s recording services?  A typed manuscript of a witness’s statements gives only a small portion of their overall communication. Their eye rolls, sighs, and shocked looks on a video tell far more than quotations on a sheet of paper.

93% of communication is non-verbal.

Right Brain and Everyday Life

Right brain communication can be as simple as a smile. The verbal greeting, “Welcome!” carries more weight accompanied by a smile and a warm tone of voice than the same greeting offered with a monotone voice and an expressionless face. When my children run to the front door and shout “Daddy’s home!” or when my wife greets me with a hug and a kiss at the end of the work day, I sense warmth, love, and sincerity far more than if my entrance were met only with words. In fact, if those end-of-day gestures are missing, I might surmise that something is wrong. Every gesture, facial expression, vocal inflection, and simple ritual that is a part of our default daily routine speaks messages that are often louder than words, and these messages are comprehended by the right brain.

Symbols such as the American flag carry great meaning when we view them from the perspective of the right brain. Hardly anyone views the flag’s 13 stripes and 50 stars as only a statement about 13 original colonies and 50 present states—and if they did, they would be viewing the flag from an exclusively left brain perspective. The veteran sees a symbol of the nation he loves and the ultimate sacrifice fellow soldiers made to defend our nation. The flag in procession in an Independence Day parade may bring that veteran to tears, because the flag says so much more than 13 colonies and 50 states. The immigrant who has begun the path to citizenship sees the flag as a symbol of the freedom that he now enjoys in the United States.

Ceremonies have a way of saying “This is important!” far more powerfully than if we simply state “This is important!” When the boyfriend ceremonially gets down on one knee and opens the little box toward his beloved while gazing into her eyes, he will do well not to explain the symbolic statement of kneeling or the symbolism implied by diamonds set into a gold circle. If he actually engaged in left brain communication during the marriage proposal, at best he would be accused of being a romantic clod, and at worst he might lose the girl!

We even use ceremonies to express the (relative) importance of a sports championship. Pomp and circumstance surrounds the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the Super Bowl. As the appointed “processional music” begins, a previous Super Bowl MVP, often “vested” in his Hall of Fame jacket, processes forward with the symbolic object to the “chancel” (stage), where it is presented to the team owner as a symbol of victory. Imagine the reaction from fans if someone suggested getting rid of the post-game ceremony. I doubt the idea to ditch the ceremony would be well-received! We engage in ceremonies like these to state the significance and importance of the event we are celebrating. Words alone seem insufficient.

Right Brain and Lutheran Worship

If gestures, tone of voice, symbolism, and ceremony are effective right-brain focused methods of communication in secular settings as diverse as public parades, marriage proposals, and sports championships, it goes without saying that all of these things can also be effective means of communication in public worship.

Our Creator God, who designed the human mind, certainly encouraged the proclamation of his gospel message through right-brain communication. Consider the daily sacrifices in the Old Testament and the message those sacrifices proclaimed. Consider especially the Day of Atonement. The bull and the goat that were slaughtered and whose blood was sprinkled on the atonement cover; the scapegoat that had the people’s sins “transferred” to it and then was carried out into the wilderness to die—these God-prescribed ceremonies from Leviticus 16 surely made an emotional impact on the people who witnessed them! The writer to the Hebrews connects the dots and reveals the meaning of this visually impactful ceremony: “[Jesus] did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (9:12). Old Testament believers didn’t have had the benefit of New Testament 20/20 hindsight, but they did have the vivid and striking visual sermon of the sacrifice whose blood would be shed and the substitute who would take on their sins and be led out of the community to die on their behalf.

Old Testament worship is descriptive for us, not prescriptive. But even though it is only descriptive, it is nevertheless instructive for us as we plan worship in ways that will communicate to both head and heart. Permit a personal example to show how we can make a right-brain impact in worship while still faithfully communicating the words and message of the gospel to the left brain.

Old Testament worship is descriptive for us, not prescriptive. But even though it is only descriptive, it is nevertheless instructive.

On June 29, 1997, worship at Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee celebrated that day’s minor festival, the Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul. I was there as a guest for the service, which was held in conjunction with a conference sponsored by the Commission on Worship. The order of worship included a bit more liturgical music and ceremony than a typical summer service at Grace. Seeing a procession during the opening hymn and celebrating a minor festival were new experiences to me, and I still remember the day as if it were yesterday.

The recessional hymn, “Lord, When Your Glory I Shall See” (Christian Worship, 219), made the most impact on me. With Christ’s cross was held up high, we concluded a service that remembered two great saints whose examples of faith were held up for us to emulate. As we sang the hymn, so many elements of the service struck me in a unique way. The closing hymn tune is by Kurt Eggert, under whom I had the privilege to sing in the Lutheran Chorale of Milwaukee during his last year as its director. The hymn brought to mind a pastor whose example I appreciated and wanted to emulate—a fitting personal application on a day when we considered Peter and Paul and their examples of faith. The dignity of the recession, the beauty of the processional cross, the message of the morning, the festive celebration of the Sacrament, and the personal connection of the hymn all combined to create an emotional and memorable moment for me.

The beauty and artistry of the service proclaimed the good news of Christ to my heart affectively even as Scripture, sermon, and song texts proclaimed that same gospel to my head cognitively.

But that moment was more than a modest tear-producing conclusion to a service. With a number of devotional and personal thoughts swirling through my mind as the assembly sang the closing hymn, the beauty and artistry of the service proclaimed the good news of Christ to my heart affectively even as Scripture, sermon, and song texts proclaimed that same gospel to my head cognitively. The service demonstrated that speaking to the head and heart is not either/or but both/and.

Instead of listing practical ways to add ceremony to your services, I’ve shared a personal anecdote. Why? Because the focus of this article is not so much on ideas for worship as it is about the impact of right brain communication. Right brain communication in worship is not about following the rubrics as much as it is about confidently using gestures, symbolism, and ceremony, and allowing them to speak for themselves to God’s people gathered for worship. How that looks may differ from Citrus Heights to Cedarburg. But when we consider how much of communication is non-verbal (and therefore aimed at the right brain), and when we also consider the large percentage of worshipers who are right-brain dominant, we will be less inclined to view this discussion along old dichotomies and more encouraged to see the beautiful possibilities that lie before us in Lutheran worship.

God bless your left- and right-brain communication efforts to his glory!

By Johnold Strey

Pastor Strey served congregations in California for 15 years before accepting a call this summer to Crown of Life in Hubertus, WI. A 2001 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, he received a master’s degree in Pastoral Liturgy and Liturgical Music from Santa Clara University in 2009. He served as the Arizona-California District Worship Coordinator for ten years, and presently serves as a presenter for the Schools of Worship Enrichment and as a member of the WELS Hymnal Project’s Rites Committee. He is currently writing a book on worship to be published by NPH.

 2017 Worship Conference

June 13-16, 2017 – Carthage College, Kenosha, WI
With smaller satellite sites later in June and July at Sharpsburg, GA (near Atlanta) and Irvine, CA (Orange County).
See wels.net/events/worshipconference for more information.

Previous Conferences

Resources—presentation outlines, worship folders, photos, audio excerpts—are available at worship.welsrc.net.


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Storytelling in Our Preaching

We all want to be better preachers, so we all want to be better story tellers. Storytelling, whether in personal testimonies or in parabolic tales, is a powerful way to garner the involuntary attention of your people. We’ve all drifted when listening to a sermon and then felt ourselves drawn back when we could tell the preacher was beginning a story. We just can’t help but listen. Stories are memorable too.

The Jesus Metanarrative

God is the greatest story teller of all. His book is one giant metanarrative about Christ and his salvation. It’s communicated through hundreds of smaller stories all chained together from beginning to end. It’s the greatest story ever told. His metanarrative isn’t even rivaled by Tolkien’s trilogy. As evangelical preachers we will want to keep telling God’s metanarrative in some fashion every time we preach. If we aren’t constantly telling the story of Christ and his salvation as the source from which all true spirituality flows, we are just orators, entertainers, philosophers, gurus, or pundits.

One giant metanarrative about Christ and his salvation.

It’s easier to forget than we think. It still seems like yesterday, but it happened several years ago. I had worked with a vicar all week on his sermon, and when the day came for him to preach, I sat in the pew embarrassed. Jesus Christ was nowhere in the entire sermon. It was an Old Testament story with a powerful example of certain aspects of faith. But even after our two Lutheran heads spent all week on it, neither of us had linked it to Christ in any way. Wow! I was flabbergasted. Christ has to be included in every evangelical sermon. By “included” I don’t mean forced in. I mean that Christ and his work are the metanarrative from which every sermon text is taken. We simply must find a way to include that for our people.

Want an example? Let’s say you are preaching from 1 Samuel 17 about David’s battle with Goliath. What a great story! Insights about living the bold Christian life are oozing out of it. But Jesus isn’t mentioned. However, Jesus is David’s strength. His grace made David bold. Here’s one way to include God’s metanarrative when preaching this story:

David had Goliath, the giant, fuming threats and sarcasm at him from his gargantuan frame. But David knew that the God who had already saved him from the bear and the lion would save him from Goliath too. And if God didn’t save him from death in that moment, David still knew he was saved for heaven, because he lived in God’s grace. He even wrote psalms about it. So, David stepped into Goliath’s shadow. His confidence in God dwarfed his fears. We can step into the shadow of our giant problems too with confidence in Christ that dwarfs our fears. We can all think of times that God has delivered us from our “lions” and “bears”. His past deliverance assures us of his saving presence today. Also, we live in God’s grace just as David did. We live in the shadow of the cross, and that shadow is bigger than the shadow of the giant problems threatening us.

Do you see? The Jesus found in the whole Bible (metanarrative) made David brave by his grace, and that same Jesus by his grace makes us brave too. When we preach the great stories of faith, Jesus is always behind the hero and us. Don’t forget to include the Jesus metanarrative.

Your Own Stories

But also, don’t be afraid to tell your own stories to drive the main points in God’s Word home. Stories make God’s Word sticky in the heart. To make sure that our storytelling really does make God’s Word sticky, we must have more than a logical connection between the story and the Word of God. We need to get at the pathos of the text with our story. Here is an example:

Stories make God’s Word sticky in the heart.

Imagine preaching from Acts 20:24. Paul says to the Ephesian elders, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” In your introduction, you tell the story of how William B. Travis drew the line in the sand at the Alamo in 1836 and asked his men if they were willing to defend the Alamo to their deaths. If they were willing, he urged them to step across the line. And then you say, “Folks, in this passage from Acts 20:24, Paul is saying that he crossed over the line.”

We need to get at the pathos of the text with our story.

If that is how you told the story and connected it to Paul, do you see how it is only a logical connection? The logic is: Travis crossed the line and so did Paul. But the pathos of the story is still down there in the sand. It never made it to the heart. Here is the same illustration told in order to touch the heart.

It has been said that if you don’t have anything you would die for, then you don’t really have anything to live for either. This became clear in February of 1836 when William B. Travis, a 26-year-old lawyer, had a ragtag group of 189 volunteers holed up in the Alamo while Santa Anna, the Mexican general, surrounded the little mission with 2000 men and demanded surrender. Travis knew his own men might surrender at any moment, so he showed them how to really live by taking out his sword and drawing a line in the sand. He stepped over it and passionately told his men why he was willing to fight to the death for Texas independence. “We are going to die,” he began. “Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death. If we surrender, they will execute us. If we rush out and fight them, we will be slaughtered. But if we stay in this fort and defend it, we will take many Mexicans with us and help free our country. Who will stay and defend this mission with me?” One by one the men found something in their hearts large enough to live for by being willing to die for it too. 187 of them stepped over the line. Jim Bowie had to be carried over on a cot. And only one man, a French mercenary who was a hired gun, refused. He snuck out in the dark of that night and lived to tell the story. All 188 men that stayed died, but they died having something to live for too. They took down 600 Mexican men with them. More importantly, their valor made many more Texans join the fight for independence which they won two months later.

(Pause) Did you hear what Travis said? He said, “We are all going to die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” Doesn’t that sound like something Paul would say? Paul knew his life on earth was short. He embraced death as an inevitable end. But by faith he was choosing to die by serving Christ with his whole being instead of sporadically and partially serving himself. Jesus is a whole lot larger than Texas independence, isn’t he? He is not just something to live for. He is the big someone to live for, because he lived and died for us! When we keep that in mind every day, we will have a reason to live boldly, and we will have a reason to die proudly at any moment. Jesus once said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Right here folks, we have found the reason to live! Here’s the line. Will you step over it!

Maybe you can see how the pathos of the illustration is in harmony with the pathos of the text. They meet in the heart and not just the head of the listener. That’s when the sermon point becomes much stickier.

Personal stories … make you real to people.

Let’s talk about a preacher using personal stories in sermons. We ought to bring some personal stories into our preaching for several reasons. First of all, they make you real to people. They know you are real, but they aren’t so sure that you are comfortable being real. If they believe you are real, then your message is real to them too. Secondly, stories show that you live in the same house you build for them. It makes your preaching easier to believe if you believe it with all your heart and show it in your life. We are talking about removing obstacles here. Thirdly, stories make it almost completely impossible for them to tune you out. That way you can really drive a point home with a personal story. I once heard a saying about preachers and stories that I cannot get out of my head. It goes like this, “A sermon prepared in the head reaches a head. A sermon prepared in the heart reaches a heart. And a sermon prepared in the life reaches a life.” If in your own life God has taught you the truth found in your sermon text, then find a way to tell how he did that. It’s powerful. Stories about what God taught someone you know or what he taught you through those people are helpful too. Here is an example:

This story is an introduction to 1 John 2:15-17.

Recently I attended a visitation at a funeral home, and I arrived a little early, even before the family got there. The lady that worked the front door was a 75-year-old woman who had moved to town to live in a small, modestly furnished house behind her son’s home. She had been a woman of means before. She and her deceased husband had accumulated a lot of possessions from their travels. They once owned a large spacious home in Abilene, Texas on a hill overlooking their acreage. She said to me, “You know, it hit me one day that I didn’t really get anything from all this stuff all around me. Without my husband there it meant very little to me. So, I just sold it all. Everything! I sold the land, the house, and everything in it. Then I told my son,” ‘I just want a little house with one of everything.’”

Then she got real serious and looked at me and said, “Do you know what the funny thing is? As each possession sold, I felt a little bit closer to God. It turns out that all those things were between him and me and I never knew it.” As she said those words it hit me, “That’s why the stuff in my garage and everywhere else in my house is getting me down. It is getting between God and me.” But right now it hits me again. That woman was learning what John is telling us here, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17). I want the same cleansing that woman received. Don’t you want it too?

The story this woman told me drove home the didactic truth John is teaching in his letter. Her story made it stickier. It seems like the letters in the New Testament lend themselves more readily to stories that will stick them to our hearts.

Story Telling Mistakes

Of course there are ways you could really blow telling a personal story. If you have a tendency to tell stories where you are the hero and not just a deeply flawed but deeply loved child of God, then you are misusing personal story telling. Your people may have a hard time tuning you out when you tell your story, but they won’t tune in to your point from God’s Word if they are thinking you are an insecure braggart.

Another mistake is telling a story that really doesn’t illustrate the truth of the text but you tell it anyway. So, like Cinderella’s stepsisters who crammed their foot into the glass slipper, you force the story into your sermon. I’d save yourself and your hearers and not tell it.

They won’t tune in to your point from God’s Word if they are thinking you are an insecure braggart.

Here’s another mistake: sometimes the climax of the story is not really about the point the preacher wants to make with the story. Some other part of the story illustrates the point but not the climax. So, the climax and the sermon point are in dissonance with one another. That spells disaster for the audience’s retention of your point. Even with a properly told story the people are going to remember the story and its climax more than they will ever remember the point you make with it. So, you want the climax and the point to be inseparable. That way you are attaching emotions to your point in order to make it stick in the heart. You want to be able to say the sermon point right after the climax. The listener will be pleased that you helped them remember the point and its great value. They might even thank you later for going to the trouble.

You want the climax and the point to be inseparable.

Perhaps the worst way to blow telling a personal story is to tell it about someone you know without permission to do so, or to tell a story that is embarrassing for the person in the story as well as those listening to it. Telling stories is like playing with electricity. It is very powerful, and when handled poorly, it does terrible damage.

We also, need to know when not to tell a story. I would suggest that when preaching narratives and parables we should be very reluctant to tell many, if any, stories. God’s stories are far better, far more important, and far more powerful than any of our own stories.

You can tell too many stories in a sermon. It’s best to have only one or two. One really big story at the beginning that is revisited a couple times as you expound the text does wonders to make the message stick. Using the example from the sermon introduction above that introduced 1 John 2:14-15, you could repeat a key thought multiple times in your sermon: “If it’s getting between you and God, then take it out to the garage sale and declutter your soul!” That way you will tap into the opening story with that one phrase and reawaken their emotional connection to the text.

There is so much more to say about storytelling in our preaching, but we’ve run out of room and time. Just remember, Jesus told common stories to common folks in order to save and grow their souls. You and I can tell stories too, as long as we do it well. God bless your preaching and your storytelling.

“A sermon prepared in the head reaches a head. A sermon prepared in the heart reaches a heart. And a sermon prepared in the life reaches a life.”

Written by Don Patterson

Don Patterson is a 1992 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He is one of three pastors at Holy Word Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. He has helped 18 vicars hone their preaching skills. He is passionate about preaching to the heart and not just the head. While this article is part of a series on preaching to Millennials, the insights apply to all preaching.


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God does not prescribe the forms of full-time representative ministry, but the most common and most all-encompassing form in our circles is the parish pastor. What are the responsibilities of the typical pastor? “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction … do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tm 4:2,5). A pastor is to use the Holy Scriptures “for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:16), and “to equip God’s people for works of service” (Eph 4:12), and much, much more.

Some days the pastor is primarily the presider and preacher. Some days he is primarily a teacher or consoler of souls or equipper of saints or rebuker of the impenitent. Some days he is primarily an administrator. But one ministry situation requires all possible pastoral roles at the same time: weddings. Yes, he is the presider and preacher during a wedding and in that setting also doing the work of an evangelist. But wedding preparation calls for all of his pastoral and professional gifts and skills.

Wedding preparation calls for all of his pastoral and professional gifts and skills.

Some couples are prospects, or one is a member and the future spouse is not, and the “evangelist hat” is on during Bible Information Class. All too often couples are cohabitating before marriage, requiring the “rebuker hat” and “patient-loving-instructor hat.” Pre-marriage instruction time involves his “teacher hat.”

But when emotions are running high in anticipation of the big day, “The day I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl,” and bride-zilla has a chorus of strong-willed cheerleaders from her mother to her bridesmaids to back her up, every ounce of pastoral care and tact is needed to hang on to the mast of a Christ-centered wedding amid the wind and waves of the wedding preparation storm.

Every ounce of pastoral care and tact is needed to hang on to the mast of a Christ-centered wedding amid the wind and waves of the wedding preparation storm.

Whether you have only one wedding each year or whether half your Saturdays are filled with weddings, the pastor will have a wedding planning meeting with each couple. The goals include getting better acquainted and planning the particulars of date, time of service, size of the wedding party, little kids or not, facilities-use guidelines—and especially making sure the worship is Christ-centered. And that, dear brothers, is the key.

For that reason—that is, to keep Jesus at the center of wedding worship—we ask couples, who giddily announce their engagement, for three things: a date for the wedding, attendance at the pre-marriage seminar (and non-members to give serious consideration to the Bible Information Class), and a Wedding Checklist meeting. It’s that last one where all pastoral and professional skills come to bear, and it’s the tone of the pastor, his listening ear, his caring heart, his winsome smile, and his patience that make all the difference.

Compiling a list of items for the Wedding Checklist meeting is not brain surgery. After hearing the couple’s “story” and getting better acquainted (if both are not life-long members or if the pastor is rather new to the congregation), the Wedding Checklist includes:

  • Name, address, phone numbers, email. The pastor is able to address a live-together situation or offer congratulations for going God’s way and not living together.
  • Date and time of the service. Offer advice about a lengthy lag between worship and the evening meal—no mandates but simply consideration for out-of-town guests who will wonder what to do for three hours between service and reception and for aging relatives whose evening meals are earlier than 7:45pm…after the father of the bride, the bridesmaids, and groomsmen have delivered their TMI speeches.
  • Photographer. I am only interested in whether the pictures are before or after the service (or both) since that helps guide advice about the time schedule for the day. The couple does not need to hear cautions about the photographer disrupting worship by wandering down the aisles and peeking out between the groomsmen to get a good angle of the bridesmaids. That conversation is directly with the photographer on the day.
  • The service (see below).
  • Printed worship folder. While Christian Worship provides the order of worship, printing the “Call to Worship” and prayers with the rest of the service in outline fashion helps non-churched guests follow along. This part of the conversation can deal with a couple’s inquiry about writing their own vows. I also state that they may print their own folders, but I ask them to use our template. I mention that if they desire and purchase special paper, we will print the service folder for free.
  • Number of attendants.
  • Number of ushers.
  • Children. The three-year-old niece may be cuter than a button in her little dress while tossing silk flower petals, and the five-year-old nephew may be handsome in his mini-tux carrying a pillow with a (fake) ring attached. But because of humorous or disruptive experiences, I suggest that any child eight or younger can walk in before the bride but will need both a “starter” and a “target” to sit with during the service.
  • Procession. The Wedding Checklist describes two options for bridesmaids: 1) walk in alone, or 2) walk in escorted by groomsmen. I note the couple’s decision so that the rehearsal goes smoother with such predetermined decisions not debated during the rehearsal.
  • Facilities use guidelines. By expressing concern about Aunt Matilda slipping from her walker on rice that has been thrown and concern for the bride getting birdseed in her hair or eye, the pastor can share guidelines which include no throwing of rice or birdseed and no moving of chancel furniture.
  • License. Share the latest state regulations regarding how and when to acquire a marriage license.

The heart of the Wedding Checklist meeting revolves around the service. I begin with a brief overview of the purpose of worship—to proclaim the saving love of the Lord Jesus—which occurs best in a vertical dialogue as God comes to us through his holy Word, and we respond to him in prayer and praise. (By praise I mean congregational participation that proclaims the truths of God’s saving love). I then make it clear that everything we do in wedding worship from start to finish is designed to be vertical, God to us and us to God. The message goes like this:

While you wouldn’t be getting married if you didn’t love each other [chuckling while saying that], that relationship is horizontal and is highlighted at the reception. So, the other expressions of love between you (the couple) and parents and family members, like handing out roses to parents, are best saved for the reception because you want wedding worship to offer to your family and guests a testimony of how much the Lord Jesus means to you…which is exactly what happens in Christ-centered, vertical worship.

Everything we do in wedding worship from start to finish is designed to be vertical, God to us and us to God.

I then share the service outline: call to worship, lessons, sermon, marriage rite, prayers, and blessing. Then I say:

We typically insert two hymns into the order of worship, and we encourage people to use hymns instead of solo singing. Many weddings tend to be passive experiences: the guy up front does all the talking, a woman in the balcony sings a solo, and all the people do is check their watches for the reception start time. By using the Christian Worship order and hymn singing, people get to participate in the call to worship, hymns, and prayers. Many guests, even non-Lutheran guests, have commented afterward, “That was different. We worshiped!” So, we’ll assign a musician to your day. That person will plan amazing Christ-centered music for walking in (processional), hymns, and walking out (recessional). If you would like to give input, you can contact that musician who will even meet with you and play some samples so you can join in choosing the processional, hymns, and recessional. [At this point I sometimes digress into a description of how planning Christ-centered worship can be done under a unified theme: e.g. the Schübler chorale by J.S. Bach, Wachet auf as the processional with the congregation singing CW 455 as the first hymn; or CW 237 after the marriage rite with Paul Manz’s God of Grace and God of Glory as the recessional; and I let the couple listen to a portion of the music from my laptop.] Some hymns are known beyond Lutheran churches and capture both the good news about Jesus and also your praise and thanks to God. Keep in mind that it is good form to remember the musician(s) with an honorarium (that’s a money gift), and at our congregation the typical rate for an organist for a wedding is $ ____.

Many guests, even non-Lutheran guests, have commented afterward, “That was different. We worshiped!”

At this point, the couple may have other questions. If they don’t bring them up, neither do I. But just in case:

  • “Can my college roommate play violin?” This is a wonderful opportunity to avoid the simple “No! That’s against WELS rules” and to share the biblical doctrine of church fellowship, something like this: “May I ask where your roommate regularly attends worship?” And after the response: “I’m sure your roommate would be honored, and it would mean a lot to you for her to participate. But the Holy Scriptures lead to the conviction that participation in worship in such a role is an expression of oneness and unity with what we believe, teach, and confess, and you would hate to put your roommate in a position to indicate that she agrees with us when she hasn’t had time to check it out or has beliefs similar but not in complete agreement with ours. A great way to involve her would be to ask her to play a piece right after the dinner speeches at the reception.”
  • “Can we have a unity candle?” Response: “Yes. But keep in mind, that only about 10% of weddings at our church have a unity candle. You are not required to have one. There is no historic Lutheran worship precedent for unity candles. Some feel that it’s a nice custom, so you can certainly have one. My concern is that it functions properly; I have seen the bride and groom light the center candle from their two, walk away, and then it goes out, bringing a wave of giggles. So, you can have one, but since there is no room in the chancel for a unity candle because of the chancel furniture and the wedding party, we position it on a pedestal in front of the first pew. When the service concludes with the blessing, you simply turn to each other, step down to the candle, light it, and then continue down the aisle. That way you won’t have to worry about negotiating the steps again in your long gown and wait for the maid of honor to straighten it again.”
  • “Can we have an aisle runner?” Response: “Sure! But we don’t have one. You’ll have to rent or buy one from the florist. By the way, do you know how that custom got started? It began in the days when streets were dirt or gravel. An aisle runner kept bridesmaids’ and bride’s dresses clean. Since our streets and sidewalks are paved, you’re not required to have a runner.”
  • “Can I kiss the bride after the blessing?” Response: “Why are you asking?” After their response: “Nothing in Scripture prevents that. But keep in mind that your kiss is an expression of the horizontal love between the two of you which will be highlighted at the reception. So, sure. Go ahead. But consider whether that will disrupt the flow of thought and the Christ-centered vertical message you have generated throughout the service.”
  • “Should my mother stand when I begin walking down the aisle?” Response: “Wedding services in some places tend to be bride-and-groom-centered instead of Christ-centered. That’s why I’m not a big fan of the mother standing to cue everyone. But whether she does or not will be a moot point. All your friends from work, sitting in the back, will stand before she does.”

Some additional matters to keep the focus on Christ and to honor the order in Christian Worship:

  • Gone is the question to the bride’s father standing in the aisle: “Who gives this woman…?” He just walked her down the aisle. We know—and the worship folder indicates—who he is.
  • Gone is the announcement after the blessing as the couple turns to face the congregation, “I now introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. ____________”…as if someone in the fourth pew will say, “Oh, that’s who that is. I’m at the wrong wedding.” And if anything will break the mood of Christ-centered worship, it’s an announcement guaranteed to bring a roar.

One final important part of the Wedding Checklist meeting: the rehearsal. Brides and grooms are bombarded by the wedding industry and by what they see in media with images that detract from Christ-centered worship and fix the focus on the bride (and sometimes the groom, too). They expect careful scripting of every movement of their hands and feet from procession to position at the chancel. The pastor who makes a big deal of the rehearsal—who allows for the bridesmaids and mothers to debate and dictate how the wedding party walks in and where they stand, who spends excessive time assuring proper spacing between couples (or bridesmaids) walking in, who needs the musician present to play the full processional twice (or more) for extra procession practice, who puts dimes on the floor where bridesmaids and groomsmen are to stand, who speaks through the entire service including practicing the exchange of vows at least once if not twice, and who scripts the exact timing for the bride to hand flowers to the maid of honor and the best man to hand rings to the groom—is playing right in a bride-centered culture.

Several years ago we moved wedding rehearsals to an hour and a half before the wedding. I introduce the concept at the Wedding Checklist meeting this way:

I hope you’re planning for a rehearsal dinner or groom’s dinner the night before. You are? Wonderful! That’s an excellent way for your wedding party and their significant others to get acquainted and to meet your parents. What a special night! But here’s the good news. You won’t have to arrange your time together that evening around a rehearsal. We do the rehearsal on the day of the wedding. Don’t worry! There’s really no need for it the night before since it only takes five minutes. I simply line couples (or bridesmaids if unescorted) in the aisle so they can see the order, tell them how much space to leave before following the couple ahead, and show them where to stand at the chancel step. They don’t practice walking all the way in but move up-tempo from their aisle line-up position to the chancel. Then I tell the groom where to stand. That’s it. Beyond reminding them to be comfortable by shifting their weight and describing how to meet their escort for the recessional, they do not need to know any more or practice.

Several years ago we moved wedding rehearsals to an hour and a half before the wedding.

This generates a common question: “What about not seeing the bride before the wedding?” Response: “We don’t need the bride for the rehearsal.” Then speaking to the bride: “That’s because your job is the easiest. You walk in with Dad and stand by the groom.” Most brides (and grooms, too) are relieved and thrilled. For the nervous-Nellie bride I say, “If you absolutely have to walk through the details, I’ll meet with you and your fiancé after worship the Sunday before the wedding and explain it all.”

Some future brides and even some pastors might wonder, “How will we know the timing of the processional?” Response: “If the wedding party is large and the musician has come to the end of the processional, the musician will repeat some of it. If the wedding party is small and the musician has not completed the piece, we’ll stand in the chancel and wait. We’re not in a hurry.”

For skeptics who are thinking, “I do two weddings a year. I can’t convince families to have the rehearsal on the day of the wedding.” Fine! But my encouragement is the same for a night-before rehearsal. Don’t let it play into the bride-centered culture and mindset. Keep the rehearsal at 5-10 minutes, and keep the focus on Jesus.

How many times have you heard a brother pastor say, “I’ll take ten funerals over one wedding”? I imagine one reason is that people at a funeral are more focused on the message, and wedding guests tend to be more focused on the party (reception). Why not take another look at how to work with couples and wedding preparation? See this as an excellent opportunity to put all your pastoral and professional skills in motion for one main objective—to proclaim the saving message of our crucified and risen Lord and to keep that the center of every wedding. God bless your service to his people!

Written by James Huebner

Pastor Huebner has served at Grace, Milwaukee since 1982 and has presided at nearly 300 weddings. He was elected First Vice-President of WELS in 2009 and continues to serve in that position.


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Preaching with the millennials

I am not part of the millennial generation. All four of my children are. I don’t presently serve as a parish pastor. So I more frequently “exegize” a community or congregation as opposed to the sacred text. Likely I wouldn’t be described as even an average homiletician these days. Nearly a decade away from a parish has negative implications for sermon preparation and delivery. Yet I was asked to contribute to this series with its focus on Millennials. Perhaps that’s owing to numerous interviews with Millennials during analysis of roughly 50 congregations from 2008-12. There’s also the nine year back story of working closely with mission-based pastors and congregational leaders, many of whom are Millennials.

Let Grace Predominate

So how does the pastor reach out to a generation whose cardinal virtue is rebelling against the status quo and cardinal sin is inactivity? Perhaps we could rephrase the question: How do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world? The gospel, too, is a cause, but a far greater one compared to any earthly cause the world has to offer. The practice of the Colorado Conference’s northern pastor circuit during the early 90’s was to size up one another’s preaching at the monthly study club. The routine closely paralleled that of seminary homiletics classes. Some brothers opted to show a video of the previous Sunday’s sermon. Others chose to preach “live” to our audience of ten or eleven. A reactor led discussion that might include compliments, encouragement, questions, and even gentle criticism. My turn in the rotation came around. The text was the very familiar section of Ephesians 2. I opted for more emphasis of verse 10 than what might normally be expected. In the ensuing discussion brothers wondered why a man in a mission setting would pass on an opportunity to expound grace repeatedly and extensively. Appropriate criticism. Lesson learned and still fresh in my memory.

Dr. Siegert Becker perhaps had this type of questionable homiletical practice in mind:

Preaching which does not keep Christ and his atoning work in the center of the message is not the prophetic work that God has given his church.… Only when Christ is held before the audience as Savior and Redeemer are the hearers being invited to the wedding dinner of the Lamb. Only then are they offered the fine linen, bright and clean, that will serve as their wedding garment and qualify them to remain at that celebration.1

This issue’s focus is “the sermon after the sermon,” a topic very much on the minds of millennial believers both in terms of congregational corporate practice as well as the individual Christian’s apparent sanctification between Sundays. In the account above, from roughly twenty-five years ago, I was preaching to “boomers”, Gen Xer’s, and young Millennials. I did them a disservice by choosing to emphasize human reaction at the expense of divinely initiated saving activity. You, brothers, are now addressing those same generations at later stages of their respective pilgrimages on earth. A reminder is appropriate, no matter the season or the Sunday. Accord grace its rightful position as predominant.

Guidance Sought

The aforementioned interviews from 2008-12 were standard approach in analyzing congregations before feeling competent to offer counsel regarding ministry plans and initiatives. In making the transition from parish pastor to mission counselor, I’d begun to read multiple sources in the areas of outreach, congregational polity, and cultural trends. But the Rainers’ The Millennials and J.E. White’s The Rise of the Nones weren’t yet part of a book list that I’d read and could feel comfortable in recommending to others. Now they are. My research and experience in counseling congregations isn’t nearly as extensive as that of those well-known authors. But what they found to be true about younger generations’ attitudes, both inside and outside the visible Christian church, I also heard from WELS members in the same general age grouping. Some were entirely new to Lutheranism. Others had allowed Lutheran membership to lapse for years before returning to a better spiritual path. Scribbled notes from those interviews often featured themes such as:

  • little use for rigid structure, polity, and some of our traditional activities
  • very turned off by the internal bickering that’s gone on here
  • wondered aloud if she was out of line in voting for a Democratic candidate
  • would like to find more discussion and guidance in Christian living apart from Sunday
  • left church due to what he perceived as hypocrisy and still struggles with that
  • grateful for the way she was welcomed and asked to help even before joining
  • here because a friend or co-worker’s behavior made a huge impression

Set aside any initial concerns you may have that I found commonality with two Baptist authors. Our discussion isn’t concerned with matters of conversion, sacraments, or eschatology. The issue is living as knowledgeable recipients of grace. You’ll also want to ignore bullet points that portray “typical” millennial disdain for strict polity, bickering, judgmental attitudes, and hypocrisy; views that are readily apparent in the age 16 to 36 WELS demographic. Focus instead on the positive aspects of some bullet points above. Many in this much-discussed generation are grateful for the positive influence of a spiritual mentor. They desire to be used by the Lord in bringing spirituality to the forefront in their relationships outside the church. They are looking for guidance and encouragement toward that end. Millennial believers might well agree with Bonhoeffer in describing as “cheap” any grace that justifies sin along with the sinner; grace that preaches forgiveness without requiring repentance; and grace that comes with no expectations of discipleship or cross.

Many in this much-discussed generation are grateful for the positive influence of a spiritual mentor.

Here’s the heartfelt confession of a Boomer who was too young to attend Woodstock but not young enough to avoid being exposed to much of what the Woodstock mindset “freed us from and freed us for.” I’m often embarrassed to recall that in my 20’s and early 30’s (where most Millennials find themselves now) I wasn’t seeking the guidance in appropriate decision-making that these younger brothers and sisters are seeking. For much of that stage of life I was a professional missionary, but not nearly as in tune with portraying a visual sermon as are many of the believers in my children’s generation. When I do have opportunity to preach I count it as a privilege to serve as the Lord’s mouthpiece in providing some answers to the questions that Millennials typically pose. If part of your typical Sunday audience includes those born between 1980 and 2000, think of them as perhaps pleading as did the Psalmist, “Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:8b, 10).

I wasn’t … nearly as in tune with portraying a visual sermon as are many of the believers in my children’s generation.

Authenticity Cherished

You’re reading the May/June edition of Preach the Word. The February flare up between Pope Francis and Donald Trump is a distant memory. In a sense their brief but very public spat was inane and had no lasting ramifications. The pope depicted Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border as un-Christian. Specifically he stated, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.” Trump retaliated by suggesting that during the pope’s recent trip to Mexico, government officials there had been able to influence his thinking for political purposes. “They obviously got to the pope,” Trump said. “He doesn’t know me. The pope only heard one side of the story. I am a Christian and am proud of it.”

I’d heard of the minor quarrel and gave it little thought…until the daily stop at our neighborhood Starbucks where the baristas (mostly Millennials) not only know my name but also my profession. Business for this store was unusually slow. Longer than normal conversation ensued. Two employees were curious as to what I thought of the “religious” argument between the pope and Trump. My initial answer, hastily composed because I was caught off guard but didn’t want to come across as culturally aloof, isn’t worth summarizing here. What I do recall is that both baristas (one an actively professing Christian, the other an occasional Catholic) were curious as to how either Francis or Trump could claim to be Christian. The one proposing construction of a wall seemed to be hypocritical in also claiming that he wanted to generate jobs for people who needed them. The one opposing wall construction came across as hypocritical after an aerial photo of Vatican City’s protective wall had gone viral. In their own way two “20 something” coffee shop employees were looking for two “Christian celebrities” to back up their verbal profession of faith with appropriately moral action. They weren’t asking WWJD with regard to building or not building a wall to deal with a perceived political problem. They were simply asking for two men who claimed moral high ground to provide evidence of a much-cherished characteristic in the millennial world-view: authenticity.

White is on record, repeatedly, as opposing the over-analyzation and over-generalization of a demographic group.

J.E. White is on record, repeatedly, as opposing the over-analyzation and over-generalization of a demographic group whose oldest members are in their mid-30’s. I lean in that same direction. Millennials are often characterized as not much interested in the answers offered by others, preferring instead self-discovery or even no discovery at all. In the spiritual realm, that indifferent attitude appears when a portion of Millennials, along with members of other age groups, are perfectly content to be known as “The Nones.” Estimates vary. This percentage of the U.S. population who claim no interest in affiliating with any religious group has been pegged as low as 10% and as high as 18%. I’m not indifferent about the spiritual indifference of others. I am suggesting that a large portion of the population, including roughly 50-60 million Millennials, has not found what they consider to be an authentic spiritual voice or at the very least would be willing to listen in hopes of finding one. I’m reminded of the people who’d gathered around Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue. One would have to suppose that many in the region had given up after four centuries without the presence of an authoritative prophetic voice. First century Nones? Others apparently held out hope. And that hope was rewarded. “The people were amazed at his teachings, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22).

A large portion of the population, including roughly 50-60 million Millennials, have not found what they consider to be an authentic spiritual voice.

I can’t say with certainty what lies at the heart of the supposed collective yearning among Millennials for authenticity. Perhaps 21st century life is more complex and full of deception than what my generation experienced. It’s certainly fair to say that the pace of change in daily life has accelerated. There has been a backing away from the generally accepted Judeo/Christian ethic which supposedly peaked in the mid 1950’s. Expectations of the two genders are more varied. The list goes on. The only certainties I can offer are these: Isaiah 55:11 rings as true as ever; you who read this publication are privileged to provide an authentic voice; Millennials in almost every congregation I work with are grateful for authenticity amid a world they perceive to be otherwise hypocritical.

Preaching and Walking Together

Somewhere back in the early 90’s I latched on to a variation of the “dialogical preaching” approach. Book? Magazine article? Workshop? I don’t recall the source. I don’t even recall the author’s basic premise or guidelines. I know only that those who attended our midweek Bible study liked the dialogical principle of “doing life together by doing sermons together.” Initially that took the form of our first ten minutes on Wednesdays being dedicated to reflection on last Sunday’s sermon, followed by ten minutes of offering questions about or reactions to the text for the upcoming Sunday. This arrangement eventually morphed into an entirely separate Monday gathering of one hour in which a handful of trusted members with diverse backgrounds offered the same reflection on the past sermon and the perceived key truths that needed to be expounded clearly in next Sunday’s text. As with many good initiatives and congregational practices, our Monday study sessions eventually fell apart due to changing schedules. But for a season, I thought, we achieved the desired outcome: better focus and application in “our” sermons.

If and when the Lord leads in the direction of returning to a parish setting, I might very well seek willing lay partners—especially members who are Millennials, possibly even prospects—who would participate in similar roundtable discussions. The goal would again be piecing together sermons that serve all of us well. The possibilities within the framework of such an intergenerational dialogue seem fascinating. It’s my opportunity to ascertain if generalizations about millennial preferences have any legitimacy. It’s their opportunity to ascertain if a guy from the original “Me Generation” actually has the capacity to listen as opposed to just talking.

Suppose the focus for an upcoming Sunday was the parable of the lost son from Luke 15. I’m part of a generation that was encouraged to look inward when seeking truth—because the world didn’t need to be fixed; I did. In our sermon “research group” I interacted with sharp minds who’d discerned hypocrisy in that approach to life and preferred to look outward, emphasizing relationship and restored community. Together we discovered that we’d all overlooked the primary need to look upward. There we find authentic answers to how existence came about in the first place. There we discover that our Creator’s expectations are both right and fair. The father in the parable had no obligation, culturally, to take back a defiant son. But he welcomed his son with open arms. The Father in the real world was obligated to justly condemn but exercised unfathomable mercy. Amid so much cultural discussion of expectations, fairness, justice, and hypocrisy, we’re all forced to set aside our divergent opinions on societal “fixes” and simply ponder the Father’s grace-filled pardon.

In the lost son we are to see each of us. It was good for me as a pastor simply to listen to participants describe life that excluded God from discussion of life’s meaning, life lived apart from the support system of the visible church because it reeked of bickering and hypocrisy. In turn, it was good for millennial participants to hear the truth about the supposed hypocrites whose names made up the church roster. No names mentioned, unless one of the group’s Boomers or Lucky Few openly recounted how far one can wander from his Father in making choices during a Vietnam fire fight or as a troubled couple mulling the outcome of an unexpected pregnancy. Tim Keller is right in sizing up most of those perceived church hypocrites as “the people whose lives have been harder and who are lower on the character scale; who are more likely to recognize their need for God. We should expect that many Christians’ lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious (just as the health of people in the hospital is comparatively worse than people visiting museums).”2

Finally, in the older son we see Jesus vividly portraying the mindset of the audience with whom this parable was originally shared. With good reason the term “Pharisee” is interchangeable with “hypocrite.” Jesus made that initial connection in expounding Isaiah’s words concerning “people who honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). Though we don’t hear from the parable’s older brother words similar to those of the younger brother, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” we’d be wise collectively and individually to ponder where pharisaical judgment has crept into our own lives.

We’d be wise collectively and individually to ponder where pharisaical judgment has crept into our own lives.

In summary, if we’re willing to point out the flaws of an entire generation’s world view, we should also be willing listeners when they espouse noble goals such as authenticity, truth, and mercy. Those aren’t simply cultural values; they find their origin and clearest fulfillment in the texts preachers expound weekly. Through listening to Millennials while together grappling with Divine Truth, we’ll better serve not just one age group but the entire flock of lambs and sheep that the Spirit gathers before us weekly.

By Mark Birkholz

Mark Birkholz is a 1983 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He served an exploratory outreach setting in Thornton, Colorado for 23 years before accepting a call to Grace in Grenada. Since 2007 he has served under WELS Board for Home Missions as a mission counselor. A majority of the pastors and congregational leaders he works with are part of the millennial generation. Often as not, he learns more from them than what he imparts to them.

1    Siegbert Becker, Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song. NPH, 1985, p. 287.
2    Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Dutton, 2008, p. 54.


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