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: 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 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:/ download-worship/worship-the-lord-renovation-projects/. Numerous photos of the LPS project are at gallery.



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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: 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 ( 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

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”

“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

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


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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

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.”

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

Acoustics in the Worship Space

A nine-part series of articles by consultant Scott Riedel is available at 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, 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

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

“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

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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.


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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.


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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

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

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

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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

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.

The Wittenberg Psalter

A new way of singing psalms is available for free download at 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

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:

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 More info at 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).

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 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.

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



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 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 for more information.

Previous Conferences

Resources—presentation outlines, worship folders, photos, audio excerpts—are available at


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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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Keep the Symbols Alive

The Twelve Days were nearly over. It would soon be time to pack up the ornaments and take down the Christmas tree. So for a few more minutes that evening I sat staring and pondering. I considered my (pseudo-) tree’s evergreen (like) branches and their connection to the Tree of Life and eternity. I squinted at the strings of lights and thought, “Jesus is the Light of the world…” “The light shines in the darkness…” I took in the glassy bulbs reflecting the Light to the world and the crafted ornaments picturing the details of the Christmas story or pointing to the cross. I enjoyed the beautiful Christian symbolism of the tree that took me a little farther into my celebration of Christ and of Christmas.

How many people who put up Christmas trees in their homes think about—or even know—the symbolism there? I’m guessing that it’s not a really high percentage. Many Americans put up a Christmas tree out of habit, because it’s what we do in our culture. It’s part of the appropriate “decoration” for the season.

So, is the symbolism of the Christmas tree dying? It’s certainly not as meaningful anymore. Symbolism is not effective if nobody thinks about or understands it. The symbol becomes mere decoration.

We don’t want this to happen to symbols in our worship. We can’t let them die. Many congregations have symbolic artwork in their worship spaces. Are those art pieces effective? Do members appreciate what the symbols represent? Do they even notice them anymore? The symbols in our churches are more than mere decoration. Worship lives can be deepened by symbols, but only if worshipers are tuned in to the bigger thoughts behind the art they see.

What Makes a Symbol?

Before we go further, what makes a symbol? It is helpful to think about the distinction between a symbol and a sign.

planeThis airplane shape is a sign. It’s a simple, literal representation of something we know, something tangible. Even somebody who hasn’t been educated in the meaning of this graphic has a pretty good idea the image is telling her that she is close to an airport. There is nothing more to it than that.

power buttonThis power emblem is more of a symbol. Because power is an intangible concept, not something we can easily picture, a clever graphic designer developed this set of shapes to represent the idea. Now a widely used identifier, this image is helpful to those who know that you can power up your electronic device by pressing such a labeled button. It is, however, not so useful to anyone who doesn’t understand what the shapes represent. (It’s also not a very deep symbol. The concept of electrical power has lost a lot of its mystery as we have become more dependent upon it in our everyday lives.)

Symbols open us up to concepts that are difficult or even impossible for us to understand.

While signs are meant to be easily read, symbols are designed to take one deeper. That’s the beauty of them. Symbols represent ideas, and their visual connections open us up, if even slightly, to concepts that are difficult or even impossible for us to understand.

Making connections—this is the blessing of symbolism in our worship lives. Since the God we worship and so many aspects of faith are beyond words and pictures, beyond reason and understanding, symbols can help build bridges between our lives of reality and our lives of faith and thus strengthen our worship. We have a cross symbol in the chancel to help us think about Jesus and his sacrifice for us. We have the open book symbol on the lectern to picture God’s Word as a means of grace and a guide for our lives. We have the descending dove on the font to remind us of the Holy Spirit and his saving and sanctifying work in us through Word and Sacrament. We have….

Symbols can help build bridges between our lives of reality and our lives of faith.

What do you have? What are the symbols in your worship space? Look at them again with a fresh eye. Ponder them and consider how you can use them to make connections in worship.

The Need for Symbol Education

Many people will look right past worship symbols unless they are taught and reviewed often. A good number of our Christian symbols come from the early Christian church and the Middle Ages, when symbols were used and taught regularly. Most people of that time were illiterate—that is, not able to read and write—but they were quite biblically literate and knowledgeable about the symbolic images that were before them; the church used art to teach truths and to direct spiritual thinking.

That is not the case today. While we live in a very highly text literate and visual culture, we don’t live in a symbolic culture or a symbolically literate culture or a biblically literate culture. Of the thousands of images that come at us every day in print or on screens, most are straightforward and meant to be read easily; few are fashioned to be considered for deep meaning or even to be looked at for more than a quick couple of seconds. Today’s image-overloaded Americans are not accustomed to symbolic thinking—or they don’t take the time for it.

Today’s image-overloaded Americans are not accustomed to symbolic thinking.

quatrefoilPowerful symbols can be right in front of us and go unnoticed. It took me years to understand that, in the sanctuary at St. John, Jefferson, the quatrefoil, a four-lobed leaf or flower, is the dominant symbol. Oh, I saw quatrefoils…everywhere. They make up the shape of the windows in the doors that separate the narthex from the nave.

They are carved into the altar and the reredos behind the altar. Dozens of quatrefoils ring the tops of each of our light fixtures. Dozens more line the molding that transitions the walls to the ceiling. Flowers with four petals are the focal point of the stained glass windows in our transepts. When I saw them, though, either I didn’t think about them, or I thought about them as a dominant decorative motif for the sanctuary—but not as symbols. I’m sure most of our members were of the same mind. Once I learned that the quatrefoil is a symbol of the gospel, the four lobes representing the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I was surprised both at how oblivious I had been and at how beautifully our church designers worked to show the predominance of the gospel in our worship by including not just one, but hundreds of these symbolic shapes in our worship space! Now I love the quatrefoil symbol; I think about it often and point it out to others, too.

I was surprised both at how oblivious I had been and at how beautifully our church designers worked to show the predominance of the gospel in our worship.

In Practice

So, how do we guide 21st century Christians to such “Aha!” moments and deeper worship through symbolism? Here are a few practical thoughts for symbol education.

As Jesus used much symbolic language in his teachings, much of our Christian symbolism is borrowed from his words. Vine and branches, bread, light, salt. Filling ears with Jesus’ picture language in lessons and sermons is natural in worship, and it is also easy to direct eyes to a connecting image in a stained glass window or on a banner. Pointing out a sanctuary symbol in the introduction to a service, a hymn, a sermon, or a lesson decodes the presence of that symbol.

A good portion of our symbolism ties to the church year. When we enter a new season, my pastor, as part of his introduction to the service, points out that the paraments in our chancel have changed and gives a brief explanation of the new color’s meaning. There are ample opportunities to teach just like this in each passing season: explaining the Advent wreath as part of the midweek Advent service’s candle lighting ceremony; noting your altar’s empty cross on Easter; highlighting your stole’s intertwined rings on Trinity Sunday.

Worship folders and bulletins provide a great space for printed images along with explanations, especially if one’s worship space does not house a lot of symbolic artwork. A worship folder’s cover art with symbolism that ties to the week’s lessons or hymns helps set the theme of the day; a sentence or two about the artwork will help make a secure connection. With today’s word processing software and in our Google Image age, copyright-free graphics for Christian symbols are easy to find, copy, and paste into several sections of worship folders and bulletins.

After thinking about and presenting on the topic of Christian symbolism at the 2011 Worship Conference, I started a special section in our bulletin called “Symbol of the Week.” Here’s the first entry, from the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A:

psd-shiny-white-pearl-icon 2Symbol of the Week: Many of our Christian symbols come from Jesus’ teaching and parables—like the parables of the treasure, the net, or the pearl that we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. The pearl “of great value,” which in Jesus’ parable symbolizes the kingdom of God, has also come to represent anything that is rare and of great value in our spiritual lives, including the Word of God and even Jesus himself. Enjoy the pearls that come to you today in your worship.

Most of the time the “Symbol of the Week” was connected to the theme of the day or to a reference in one of the Scripture lessons. Other times the highlighted symbol was seasonal or one of the symbols in our worship space that would otherwise not be reviewed. This section was included in the bulletin for the rest of that three-year cycle of lessons. It will probably come back again someday, but maybe, for variety’s sake, as an educational piece in our church’s monthly newsletter.

Like other spiritual education that the church provides, opportunities for symbol teaching will come outside of worship time, too. Bible study sessions provide opportunities to present Christian symbols and their explanations in many discussions. As a visual learner and lover of art, I like to include some type of image on nearly every PowerPoint slide in my Bible study presentations. I can’t help then but regularly take a minute to point out symbolism or connections. I often get a thoughtful “Oh…” when we make the picture a part of our discussion. Sometimes, even before I get to it, somebody will comment on or ask a question about an image.

Once in a while—again, because I love art and my Bible study attendees appreciate it—an “art break” occurs in the middle of a lesson to show photos of artwork (famous or not-so) that connect with the section of Scripture we’re discussing. It’s a good way to point out symbolism in the art that is not commonly used in our churches today.

Of course, a full study on Christian symbols, their origin and their meaning, is good to have every once in a while on a Bible study schedule. The resources listed with this article give information on materials that would be helpful for such a study.

Consider also how important it is to teach Christian symbolism as part of Catechism lessons and Bible information classes. The growing Christians in these classes can greatly benefit from visual education tied to the doctrines they are learning. Catechism books include a lot of graphics already. Handouts or other visual aids can include more.

We let symbols live by making lessons on Christian symbolism part of the curriculum in our Lutheran elementary schools. Where do these lessons fit? Are they part of Bible lessons, devotions, classroom decoration, art classes? One principal under whom I served had a unit on Christian symbolism as part of his upper grade religion course each year. The study of Christian symbols became such a special topic to him that he has explored more deeply in personal study and has given well-received presentations on symbolism at churches in our area.

Don’t Assume

Teaching and reviewing Christian symbolism is beneficial at all levels. Even our most faithful members may not grasp basic presentations of symbolism. For our last Reformation Festival I set up a symbolic display of the means of grace: the baptismal font on a stand, a big open Bible next to it. Somebody asked our congregational president what was going on, why the font was raised up. Our president relayed this conversation and asked me to be sure to explain whatever symbolism is presented, no matter how simple. I was a little surprised, but I should know better.

You see, I can present artistic symbolism in banners, sanctuary displays, graphics—I can even challenge with uncommon symbolism, like a pelican (Christ’s atonement) or pomegranate (the Resurrection)—but those efforts are wasted if the connecting meaning is only in my head and in nobody else’s. I can’t be like the pop singer who writes cryptic ballads filled with figurative language and then brushes off the baffled questions of fans with, “Whatever it means to you is what it means.” In worship, symbolic meaning is not open to interpretation. It must be explained. It must be clear.

Only then do the symbols live.

Efforts are wasted if the connecting meaning is only in my head and in nobody else’s.

Back to the Tree

The Christmas tree I was pondering had an unusual ornament perched on it—a goldfinch. I happened to find the tiny bird ornament two summers ago at Bronner’s Christmas Store in Frankenmuth, Michigan, not long after I had learned about its symbolism. While visitors to my house might look at the ornament and say, “Hmm. Beautiful bird,” I look at it and think: Goldfinches eat thorns and thistles—yes, those thorns and thistles listed as consequences of the fall into sin in Genesis 3. Goldfinches devour them, destroy them, just as my Savior Jesus destroys the curse of sin for me. I have another symbol that I now love.

I have put the goldfinch ornament away. But I’ll think about what it means to me when it comes out again next year. That symbolism will live with me every time I see it.

Written by Peter Schaewe

Peter is staff minister and art teacher at St. John, Jefferson, WI, and has served as the Worship Arts chair for the last five worship conferences. He is a graduate of Martin Luther College and holds a B.F.A. in painting and drawing from UW-Milwaukee.

Symbolism Resources

  • Murray, Peter and Linda. Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art. Awesome resource…not just for symbolism, but for any topic related to Christian art.
  • Gray, Doug. Christian Symbology. Much of this book is on
  • Fergusson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. —Very comprehensive. It seems like a lot of the websites I found on Christian symbols are “quoting” from this book.
  • Baldock, John. The Elements of Christian Symbolism. The first part of this book is more philosophical with a good explanation of the nature of symbolism.
  • Steffler, Alva William. Symbols of the Christian Faith.
  • Stoner, Marcia. Symbols of Faith: Teaching Images of the Christian Faith. This book includes symbol patterns and activities for teaching symbolism. The cover says that it is “for intergenerational use,” so don’t think that it’s just fun stuff for kids.
  • Taylor, Richard. How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals. In addition to information on symbols, this book has summaries of Bible events and people that one might encounter when looking at art in churches.
  • VanderMeer, Harriet. Rings, Kings, and Butterflies: Lessons on Christian Symbols for Children.—Comes with a CD with of images you can use for your publications
  • Whitemore, Carroll E. Symbols of the Church. A thin but full book… It’s a quick reference.
  • Dover Publications has a book called Christian Symbols that includes a CD with 456 royalty-free pieces of clip art.
    WELS member Ian Welch is a graphic artist with a site full of art for your worship folders for each Sunday of the church year along with information and art on symbols.
    View symbols from the stained glass windows of WELS churches. Photographed and posted by Pastor Robert Koester.
    See Christian Symbology by Doug Gray above… It’s the same thing.
    A fairly comprehensive listing of symbols with information, pictures (not great but usable) and available patterns for free by email or for purchase on CD.
  • (Images)
    Type in key words, and you’ll find resources and images that you can copy and paste into documents for educational purposes.
  • A Catalog of Christian Symbols—my presentation handout from the 2014 Worship Conference.



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Rebel With a Cause

The Virtue of Being a Rebel

If we take a quick scan through the 2013 TEDx Youth San Diego program, we notice some similarities between the guest speakers. Matthew Emerzian, among other things, is author of Every Monday Matters – 52 Ways to Make a Difference. Shaka Senghor recently published Live in Peace: A Youth Guide to Turning Hurt into Hope. Brittany Wenger is a biology and computer science freshman at Duke who won several awards for Breast Cancer awareness and fundraising projects. Martina Gray offers yoga instruction to bring peace and alignment into the lives of her students. David Joseph, a UCLA junior, co-founded Northern Uganda Medical Mission. And so what do we get when we bridge TED talks (the world’s most popular platform for brilliant people sharing ideas on technology, entertainment, and design) with Millennials?1 We get a full slate of brilliant people interested in causes, interested in being parts of little revolutions for social and global change. It’s not enough to simply be brilliant. You need to be both brilliant and changing the world, both a renaissance man and a rebel.2

Rebellion against the status quo or against being another cog in the machine is important to Millennials.

Which ought to tell us that causes3 are highly valued and play a major role in how Millennials identify themselves. Somehow rebellion against the status quo or against being another cog in the machine or against being another brick in the wall is important. Simply take a look at any book, web article, or newspaper column concerning business tactics for a millennial demographic. For one example:

“90 percent of millennials are likely to switch from one brand to another—even when price and quality are equal—if the second supports a cause…. Millennials are prepared to reward socially responsible companies; they are more likely to trust these companies, seek their employment and buy or recommend their products to others. According to a Cone study, after learning that a company is socially and/or environmentally responsible:

  • 83 percent are likely to trust the company more
  • 79 percent are likely to purchase that company’s products
  • 44 percent are likely to actively pursue working at that company
  • 74 percent are more likely to pay attention to that company’s message because it has a deep commitment to a cause.”4

In an age of mass conformism and consumerism and information, one major millennial cardinal virtue is being a rebel, someone willing to stand for just causes and stand against negative practices. And this affects even acts as simple as choosing one brand over another. The major vice, then, is inactivity in the face of information that demands a clear response.

Come, Follow Me. Be a Rebel.

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. Consider the following ways Scripture pictures the gospel:

How do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world?

Gospel as mystery. Paul writes in Colossians 1:25-27 that to be an evangelist is to present “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations … Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When you’re sharing the gospel, you’re busting free a mystery that’s been largely hidden from the world. You’re in the know of a life-changing message, the world’s only hope for glory. If you’ve ever talked to a Millennial passionate about this or that particular cause, she acts as if she’s letting you in on a secret, maybe a secret the government or the corporations don’t want you to hear (and in some cases she may be right!). And she’s so excited to subvert the powers-that-be who don’t want you to know. Feel the energy millennial rebels have, and remind yourself that you can bring the same energy to the pulpit when you bust free your Mystery and subvert the powers of Satan that don’t want your audience to know the Mystery.

Millennials want to love something bigger than themselves and their possessions. They’re striving for a transcendent purpose.

Gospel as radical shift. John writes in his first letter (2:15-17) “Do not love the world or anything in the world…. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Part of the desire to be wrapped up in a cause is the desire to escape North American complacency, consumerism, and economic self-centeredness. Millennials want to love something bigger than themselves and their possessions. They’re striving for a transcendent purpose. And that’s exactly what God tells us we have. As children of God, we serve purposes far greater than what common experiences would lead us to believe. Doing God’s will, especially his will to bust out the mystery of the gospel, takes priority over everything, and so John urges us to not let love for earthly things trump our love to carry out our transcendent purpose as evangelists. God asks us to radically shift our priorities, and this shift is something the Millennial is attracted to, a shift the Millennial is very ready to make in her life for lesser causes.

Gospel as invasion. The actual state of affairs in this world is far different than what it appears to be. As his English audience is dealing with World War II and its aftermath, C.S. Lewis writes concerning how Christians view the world,

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends.”5

In a very real sense, Christianity is about rebellion: it’s about the Holy Spirit creating faith in our hearts that cling to the promise that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil on the cross, and now creates in us the ability to take part in the final invasion of the enemy’s territory. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are praying that we share the revolutionary gospel message that will defeat the strongholds of Satan in the hearts of our friends and family (2 Corinthians 10:4) and will set free one more soul from bondage (Luke 4:18). If Millennials are looking for a cause to make real change in this world, a cause that ends slavery, cruelty, and suppression, tell them to look no further, and invite them to be part of the invasion. It will look different than any other invasion, since his Kingdom is not of this world. But it’s an invasion of far greater scope than any the world has ever seen.

The Gospel ministry as the ultimate cause. Here we state the obvious: If a Millennial wants to be part of a cause that matters, nothing comes close to the cause of the gospel. It’s a mystery to much of the world (and to many of our friends and families) about how God through the incarnation is reclaiming the world from sin, death, and the devil, and to be part of this cause requires a radical life shift that only the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to begin. And so how do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world? Simply tell it to them, in all its epic glory as Scripture presents it.

Come, Follow Me. Be a Rebel Without a Cause.

Far more than simply being one of many causes a person could champion in their life, it turns out that the gospel is the mother (literally) of all righteous causes. The real reason a person ought to care for our planet is that it was created by God for us to steward. The real reason a person ought to care for outcasts, the poor, and those who cannot defend themselves is that God not only created them, but he loves them and died for them. And so, for the Christian, each human has the infinite value of the blood that Christ desires to clothe them with. This makes the Christian gospel cause the mother and logical source for tons of lesser causes. Consider the impact Genesis 1 has on environmentalism, or Psalms 51 and 139 on the pro-life movement, Deuteronomy 15:11 and Acts 20:35 on the needy and poor, Jesus’ ministry of compassion on the sick (e.g. Mark 5:25-29) on support for medical research and care for the sick, passages like James 1:27 on orphanages and foster care, and the list will go on until Christ comes back. Scripture is an endless source of imperatives for earthly change.6

The gospel is the mother of all righteous causes.

But if it were only an endless source of imperatives, then it would be an endless source of crushing guilt. The truly unique aspect of our faith is not that it gives justification to so many causes, but rather that, when we fail over and over again to stand up for the things we ought to, Scripture turns out to also be an endless source of gospel, reminding us constantly that we’re forgiven for our inability to be the justice and righteousness and change this world needs. We’re forgiven for not taking the time that we should have for the person in need, or to be educated about this or that issue, or to change aspects of our lifestyle to improve the lives of others. Regardless of whether or not we know how much we’re really called to do in a given situation (do I really need to sew my own clothes rather than take the chances the clothes I buy in stores come from sweat shops?), God’s law makes it clear we rarely do enough, but that Christ has done it all perfectly. And he gives us that life of perfect love, service, and action. Jesus was the perfect rebel so that we wouldn’t need to be. And he now calls us to stand with him against those that would harm his children.

Opportunities for the Church

God calls us to be (theological) rebels and stand with him against sin and the devil. Scripture provides many pictures to help us describe the gospel this way. This gospel message (along with God’s law) gives not only justification for all righteous causes, but also forgives us and renews us when we fall short ourselves in standing up for the poor, the outcast, and the defenseless. If, then, the gospel has everything the rebel Millennial is looking for, why do we have so much trouble connecting with her? Besides the fact that the enemy works hard in the hearts of unbelievers, and besides the fact that the gospel will always remain foolishness to the sin-bound heart, here are two areas we might be able to work on.

God calls us to be (theological) rebels and stand with him against sin and the devil.

Is your church full of slactivists? Just about everyone wants to call him or herself an engaged, caring individual. Very few people want to be that person who doesn’t care about the world or his community or who doesn’t make informed decisions. And so from football players wearing pink ribbons to the over fifteen-thousand 5K runs each year in the U.S. alone, our culture and economy give us plenty of opportunities to look like and feel like we’re making a difference, no matter how small. But the rebel Millennial often distinguishes between people who legitimately make changes in their lives to better their community and the world, and those who do enough to simply feel good about themselves, cleverly termed slactivists. Obviously, there is no exact science in knowing how much is enough, and making this distinction is dangerous, at times cruel, and often unfounded. But the fact remains that for many Millennials, among the chief places slactivists gather are churches. After all the church is full of hypocrites. Although it’s that way by design (he came for the sick, not the healthy), the charge against the church as a home for slactivists is something we ought to be aware of. Let it renew our vigor to put on the new self, to seek out visitors because we love them and really want to help them, and especially to help us and our congregations be honest about our own sins and the need to take them to the cross. Homiletic application abounds as we confess our own sins of slactivism at times (which is really just falling short of the second table of the law). Use the challenge of slactivism as an opportunity to grow in our mindful preaching and guest awareness.

For many Millennials, among the chief places slactivists gather are churches.

Issues, not organizations. It’s almost stereotypical, but it’s clearly taught that “millennials care about issues, not organizations.”7  In other words, millennials don’t want to be part of a club for the sake of being part of a club. They don’t want to just be. They want to be about something. If a congregation appears too self-centered and not focused externally on the community and world around it, and particularly on the issues around it, the rebel Millennial will not consider being an active member of the congregation.

Addressing this concern from the pulpit naturally flows from a good understanding of the nature of the church and the nature of the pastor. After all, the church is really not about creating an organization (although the body of Christ is a necessary and wonderful byproduct of the gospel); it’s about dealing with an issue: sin. And if that’s the case, then nothing is more important than clear communication about where church offerings go. We are here to bind the broken-hearted (Isaiah 61:1), welcome the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), and bring a peace to this earth (Luke 2:14) that only the gospel can bring. If a Millennial sees your church as simply funding an organization, they won’t find that attractive. If they see your church as getting things done and making progress on an issue, even if that issue is spiritual rather than social, political, or environmental, they just might want to know how they can join forces with your group of rebels and make a difference.

Written by Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson received an MA in philosophy from Marquette University, was an adjunct professor of philosophy at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and worked with several WELS campus ministries before graduating in 2013 from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He now serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and its campus ministry, illuminé.

Preaching in the context of worship

Following are comments from a study released in September 2015.8  The first of five themes is related to worship. The study is pertinent to the entire PTW millennial series. BG

  • Millennials don’t need worship to be entertained. Many are attracted to ritual and high forms of worship. “Contemporary worship was a Boomer response to their parents. Millennials are attracted to the ancient modern9.”
  • Millennials are drawn to more traditional and ancient forms of worship, which symbolize a connection to something bigger than themselves.
  • Are you trying too hard? How much emphasis are you putting on “contemporary” worship styles that may be turning off Millennials?
  • Engagement does not, however, necessarily mean a high-tech worship service. Authenticity means more than form, and many Millennials are attracted to more traditional forms of worship as important symbols of belonging to a community.

Many studies refer to Millennials as persons born from 1980 to 2000, marked particularly by growing up in the information and technology age. We will use this definition. William Strauss and Neil Howe are credited with introducing and first defining the term in Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, (New York, NY: Vintage Original, 2000).

We do not define the term rebel as our two-kingdom theology understands the term and strongly rejects, a political dissident, but rather how the term is understood more broadly by Millennials and in common popular media, someone who marches to the beat of their own drum, is no part of the status quo, or refuses to be objectified or commercialized.

We define cause as any issue or subject that groups of people try to influence other people to either support or reject. Causes include social causes (organized care for the poor or homeless, pro-life and pro-choice advocacy, etc.), environmentalism, medical research awareness and support, and virtually anything else groups have organized fundraisers for or advocated change in behavior to address.

Christie Barakat, “Cause-Related Marketing and the Millennial Mindset,”Social Times,, accessed January 20, 2016. Citing research from “The 2006 Cone Millennial Cause Study,” Cone Inc. in collaboration with AMP Agency,, accessed January 8, 2016.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (NY: HarperOne, 2002), p. 46.

Our desire to be part of causes, then, is a reflection of the natural knowledge of God, the law within driving us to care for others. This makes causes an apt place to begin preaching law to the unbeliever. For example, “(a) You say you care for cause X. (b) If that’s truly a cause worth caring for despite whether people care for it, then it’s because it follows from a transcendent law: love your neighbors as yourself. (c) You know this law, because it was written in your heart by the law giver. (d) And you know as well as anyone that you can’t keep that law perfectly.”

Randy Hawthorne, “Understanding What Motivates Millennials to Give to Your NPO,” Nonprofit Hub,, accessed January 8, 2016.

The report, Engaging Millennials in Ministry, is available at The Siebert Foundation is perhaps best known in WELS circles for being a sponsor of the annual Change or Die Conference.

Robert Webber’s term. But, as he says, not the traditionalism of the 50s. And not “hymnal and organ autopilot.”


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Freeing the voice

 A physical therapy analogy

The current series of WTL articles is a potpourri of practical items for pastors, musicians, and worship planners. Here’s an article that is valuable equally for pastors who speak (and sing) and for choir directors, cantors, soloists. It contains a wealth of practical advice—advice, however, that may be rather technical, causing the reader to wonder if improvement can come without coaching. Some ideas will be helpful without much struggle. Some will require focused attention. Some might prod the speaker or singer to seek assistance from a qualified vocal coach. The online videos mentioned on page four can be helpful.

Think of a person experiencing shoulder trouble. The physical therapy solution requires doing just the right exercises in just the right way. Correct form and weight are critical to resolve the problem and avoid further pain or damage. – Bryan Gerlach

Freeing the Voice

A pastor once shared with me the vocal challenges he faced each week. He preached for the early service, taught a Bible class, and then preached for the second service. Add to this an evening service during the week and other classes. He developed a hoarse voice each week in his attempt to communicate emotion by raising and lowering his pitch. This left him wondering what he was doing incorrectly as he projected his voice.

In the past two years I have worked with two called workers who were seeking to take voice lessons to correct their vocal technique. Their voices were tight, sore, and exhausted. I found one common thread while working with both pastors and a Lutheran elementary school teacher. Their overall body tension and unregulated air flow caused them to “over” sing or speak in order to project their sound. One pastor needed complete vocal rest during the week. The teacher had to wear a microphone while speaking in the classroom.

The point to these stories is that many people experience faulty vocal techniques and are unsure how to correct them. This article offers guidance to help you “free your voice.”

A voice teacher once told me, “The human voice is the only instrument that you have one opportunity to care for. If you damage your voice, you do not have the opportunity to replace it.” This is an important concept for us who use our voices to the glory of God both in worship and for our profession. We need to use our voices in a healthy manner each time we sing or speak.

What does healthy mean?

Healthy means using your voice to the best of your God-given ability. It’s a stewardship issue similar to other ways we take care of the body and health that God has given us: diet, exercise, rest. The goal is a healthy voice for a lifetime of faithful use and service. You can accomplish this goal by understanding the anatomy involved in freely resonating your voice.

Healthy means using your voice to the best of your God-given ability.


Good alignment in how you stand or sit can affect how your body produces a singing or speaking tone. Poor alignment can cause undue pressure on your larynx (voice box). Alignment starts by lengthening your spine which will in turn release tension in your lower back muscles. This happens because the abdominal and lower back muscles are supporting your skeletal structure. You help the breathing process by widening your shoulders and allowing your rib cage to expand. You reduce tension in the muscles where your skull and vertebra are connected by lengthening them along the back of your neck. This lengthening also allows your chin to stay level with the floor as you produce vocal tone. Your vocal tract works freely and consistently when you take time to align yourself.


Well-supported breathing is another area that needs to be addressed in order to free the voice. Irritation in the vocal folds and cords may be caused by too much air being expelled while singing or speaking. Expelling too little air produces a harsh tone in your voice. This is sometimes referred to as a “glottal attack.” Both techniques—too much or too little air—can cause serious and even permanent damage.

How can you regulate air flow while singing or speaking?


Diaphragm illustration

The diaphragm is an important muscle that separates your abdominal muscles and your thoracic cavity (the area that contains your heart and lungs). What does your diaphragm do? It is a muscle that is involved during the inhalation process of your breathing. If you release your lower abdominal muscles in an outward and forward motion, your diaphragm would contract (drop down as the abdominal muscles are displaced outward). Your body then would naturally form a vacuum which draws the air into your lungs. As you sing or speak, your diaphragm relaxes in an upward motion and eventually rests in a domed shape under your rib cage. Your abdominal and lower back muscles slow down the process of your diaphragm returning to its resting position. This process supports your vocalization and evens out your airflow.

An exercise that you can use to perform “diaphragmatic” breathing begins with proper alignment. After your body is aligned, blow air through your mouth as if you are trying to cool off a warm beverage. At the same exact time, you should feel your abdominal muscles relaxing upward toward your ribcage as the air is leaving your body. It’s as if the air is slowly leaking out of a balloon while it deflates. Inhalation begins by releasing your lower abdominal muscles and allowing the navel to spring outward. As this happens, air will quietly enter the lungs through your nose and mouth. You are harnessing your air and are ready to support your vocal tone. This process should continue through each vocal phrase.


Many people believe if we use more air, we produce more sound. It is not the amount of breath that determines whether we are heard at the back of the room. What matters is how we use that breath, combined with the skill of developing natural resonance.

Resonance is defined as amplification of the original sound.  Natural resonance allows a person to carry their vocalization over the space they are trying to fill. The path of resonance begins with an even airflow through the larynx. The larynx makes a buzzing sound which travels up the back of the throat to the mouth. Three areas in the mouth that affect your vocal tone are the soft palate, the hard palate, and the tongue. The soft palate is the soft tissue constituting the back of the roof of your mouth. The hard palate is the dome-shaped roof of your mouth. It is a sensitive surface that can be a focal point for the sound wave arising from the vocal folds. This is the area where the sound wave converts into vocal tone. The sensitivity of the hard palate is a very useful tool for enhancing the speaking voice when lecturing or preaching, and it is essential for singing.

Freeing up space between the tongue and the hard and soft palates is the key to making resonance successful. This space allows vocalization to amplify without adding tension or stress to the vocal tract. Your vocal tone exits your body through two areas: your mouth and your nose. Here are some issues that can develop bad vocal habits and also how to correct them.

MOUTH – Vocal tone is distorted or strained if the tongue is pulled back and away from the opening of your mouth. The tongue arches upward toward the back of the throat. This improper use of the tongue is visible when the pitch of your voice is in the higher range of singing or speaking. You can see space between the tip of the tongue and the lower front teeth. This unnatural position will lift the larynx into a higher position in your throat because of connective tissue and ligaments. This is detrimental to your overall vocal health. In choirs, you may see an indicator of this when people lift their eyebrows while singing. One obvious visual cue that a director can notice is when singers lift their chins and you see the muscles straining around the larynx. This usually happens in an attempt to sing higher pitches in the vocalist’s range. If a public speaker or singer continues to use their higher range in this manner, they will develop permanent damage to their voice.

How do you correct this misuse of the tongue and larynx?

You need to connect coordination between the tongue and the jaw. The goal is to relax the tongue and allow it to lay flat in a neutral position across the lower teeth and jaw. The tongue should be as “flat as the state of Texas”—both broad and wide. Each time the jaw releases to vocalize vowels, the tongue should move fluidly with the lower jaw. This assures that the larynx remains in a low position and is relaxed while singing and speaking. A recommended exercise to build tongue and jaw coordination is “Hee, ah.” The tongue lies flat in the mouth as you fluidly move the jaw between the vowel sounds of “ee” and “ah” (Example 1).  You ascend each time you sing the phrase by half-steps.


Example 1

NOSE – Vocal tone sounds nasal if you allow the sound wave to travel through the nasal cavity and the mouth.

How do you close off the area to the nose so that the sound wave is distributed through the mouth?
The soft palate needs to be lifted to close off resonance through the nasal cavity. It is like a trap door. The sound wave will travel directly to the hard palate if the soft palate is lifted. An easy way to lift the soft palate is to say the word “hung.” Now add the syllable “ah” after the word hung, which sounds like “hung-ah”. You will feel the soft palate lift and lower itself in the back of your hard palate. The “Ng” hum is an exercise used to strengthen the soft palate to stay in an upright position. Pick a neutral pitch. I suggest G below middle C for the men and G above middle C for the women. Sing the word “hung” and hold the “ng” sound as you descend down the 5 note scale. Keep the tongue flat and relaxed in the bottom of the mouth. This is very important. (Example 2)


Example 2

This exercise develops the ability to keep the soft palate lifted in a dome shape across the back of the throat. By simply learning to include an appropriately domed soft palate in every vowel shape, the singer or speaker can close off the resonance through the nose and de-nasalize the voice.

Resonance is the end result of a developmental process. It is not something we either have or don’t have. We can build a resonant singing or speaking voice. Opening your vocal tract by freeing up the space in your mouth will allow you to resonate naturally, easily, and fully across the space that you are trying to fill with sound. This illustration shows what an open vocal tract looks like.


Path of Resonance


A review of the information above in a simplified manner is as follows:

  • Align your body
  • Utilize diaphragmatic breathing to even out the airflow which passes through the larynx
  • The larynx buzzes producing a sound wave
  • The soft palate should be lifted
  • The tongue should be flat and relaxed, moving fluidly with the jaw over vowel sounds
  • The sound wave is focused on the hard palate and converts to vocal tone
  • Vocal tone resonating from the hard palate allows sound waves to travel through the mouth and amplifies the voice in a relaxed manner

These seven components take time and practice to coordinate. Each one is essential to opening up the vocal tract and “freeing the voice.” Together they will allow you to resonate efficiently and to the best of your God-given ability. If you do have vocal issues that cause discomfort or pain, please seek medical assistance. Do not wait. You have been given only one voice to use for God’s glory. God bless your continued efforts in sharing the Gospel through Word and song.

By Natosha Cole

Natosha Cole is a voice teacher and the Cantate Choral Director at Manitowoc Lutheran High School with over 20 years of experience teaching voice. A member of the distinguished National Association of Teachers of Singing, she is a 1996 graduate of Martin Luther College and studied vocal performance at Arizona State University.

Additional resources

Natosha Cole provides video content at the link below. If you are accessing this from a paper copy of WTL, search YouTube for the title: Improving Vocal Resonance and Freeing the Voice   (

The first 15 minutes explore concepts described above. Then follows additional content especially helpful for singers and choir directors. Two additional videos are available on YouTube from presentations to WELS choir directors.

The Voice – Pedagogy and Technique

Choral Director and Voice Teacher: Working Together

Four resources from Natosha Cole shared at the 2014 conference are available at Follow the “Worship Conference” link and then click on “2014 Conference on Worship, Music, and the Arts” to open up a list of all available handouts.

See also under “Worship the Lord Newsletter” numbers 53 and 54 in the series “Challenges for the Lutheran Church Choir.”

Preacher testimonial

I remember occasionally having a sore voice after preaching. The main reason I sought voice coaching, though, was because I wanted to become a better singer.

I was amazed at what voice lessons did for me over time. I didn’t know how to “sing from the diaphragm.” But voice lessons helped me to understand and put that concept into practice. I’m still a novice. But after practicing for a year, I can feel the air expand my ribcage when I breathe in. I’ve learned to regulate the exhale. In choir I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement. I can sing more than one line without taking a second breath. Singing high notes is also easier.

Voice coaching has taught me that the proper use of my voice does not require major effort. To sing or speak loudly, I used to make the effort from my throat. Now, I simply let the air release from my ribcage, open my mouth wider, and the sound comes out louder. Through voice lessons, I now appreciate that my voice is like a natural wind instrument.

Besides singing improvement, I feel the timber of my speaking voice has improved. To my ears, my voice sounds richer. Since voice lessons, I have not had a sore voice from preaching. I highly recommend voice training for called workers.

Teacher testimonial

About six years ago, I began experiencing pain in my vocal cords and dealt with voice loss almost every month. I would feel relief on the weekends. But after an hour of teaching on Monday morning I would begin losing my voice again and feel the pain in my vocal cords. Even normal talking in conversations became difficult. After seeing an ear, nose and throat specialist, who informed me I will always struggle with swollen vocal cords, I decided my last option was voice lessons. I took one year of voice lessons and faithfully did the exercises needed to improve breathing habits and to relieve tension as I sing or speak. Lessons were once a week, and I was able to go the entire year without losing my voice. I could project more, and it was easier for me to be heard.

But now this year my schedule does not allow time for the lessons, and I am struggling with chronic voice loss and the pain of swollen vocal cords again. I have not been consistently using the exercises this year.

There is definitely a correlation between strength of voice and exercises for it.


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Preaching to the biblically ignorant…

…without seeming biblically arrogant

For many generations, preachers could assume a decent amount of biblical understanding from their hearers. Pastors could mention a name like Abraham or Zacchaeus without having to explain who they were or what they did. People generally knew their Bibles better than some do today.

A change was first apparent in confirmation classes. Year after year, a growing percentage of kids did not know anything about Abraham, Moses, Daniel, or Paul. They had no concept of Old Testament and New Testament. Trying to find Exodus was a chore. Initially we blamed poor parenting as the culprit.

Then we discovered it was not just a handful of isolated incidents. Biblical ignorance became a defining characteristic of an entire generation. Perhaps it was the parenting. Perhaps it was the local church. Perhaps it was a combination. Rather than dwelling on what brought us here, it is better to figure out a plan for going forward. The question to address first is this:

Should our style of preaching change to accommodate a generation that is biblically ignorant?

Let’s work through some common myths that might shape the way we answer that question.

Myth #1: I don’t have any biblically ignorant people in my church.

If you believe this, you will eventually be correct. Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.

Over the course of 30 years church leaders believed that the only people who came to their church were well-versed, biblically-founded Christians. It never crossed their minds that someone biblically illiterate might wander through the doors. At every service and in every sermon, the pastors communicated in such a way that would engage and challenge the spiritually informed people who gathered there. They didn’t explain things in a way that a biblically ignorant person could understand. Now after 30 years, what kind of a church would you have?

I believe that this church would be one of the most biblically-literate churches around. Granting that this church is Bible-based and the pastors taught the Bible well, another significant factor might be at play. This church would have attracted people who already knew the Bible and were loyal to the church’s doctrinal stance before they even met the pastor. Guests who were biblically ignorant and doctrinally ungrounded would have difficulties connecting to such a church.

So if you believe there are no biblically ignorant people in your church, you will eventually be correct. Rather than ask if there are such people in your church, ask if you want them to be there. With that desire, we can overcome a few myths fairly easily.

If you believe there are no biblically ignorant people in your church, you will eventually be correct.

Myth #2: If I preach down to the level of the ignorant, they will remain ignorant.

Preaching to their level does not mean you minimize the gospel or water down the law. It means you communicate the word clearly and show them how it applies to their lives. We will talk about practical ways to do that in a moment, but for now consider the importance of doing it.

These are souls who have not been reached. They are ignorant not because they woke up one day and decided the Bible was not important to them. Most of them are ignorant because the Bible doesn’t make sense to them. It’s a foreign language to them. They do not miss what they do not know. Any given Sunday might be the first time someone is hearing the message.

When you preach at their level, you show them what they have been missing. You connect them to the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit will sow and grow their faith. The Spirit will nurture a new man who thirsts for God’s Word, which in turn will overpower the old man’s contented ignorance.

Myth #3: If I adopt a style that engages the ignorant, I will bore the literate.

I can confidently tell you on the basis of plenty of anecdotal evidence that mature Christians enjoy a preaching style that engages the biblically ignorant. Here is why I think they enjoy it. The language of the shepherd becomes the language of his sheep. The words you regularly use will become their vocabulary. The way you explain things will shape the way they look at things.

Mature Christians enjoy a preaching style that engages the biblically ignorant.

The point is that even if you have a consistent audience of informed Christians, they will consistently interact with biblically ignorant people five or six days per week. Teach them how to converse with such people by demonstrating it from the pulpit. Then the language used on Sunday can be put to use on Monday.

Myth #4: I don’t have enough time to explain everything.

It will absolutely require more time. It will require you to think like an uninformed person—even like an unbeliever. It will force you to find words and phrases that communicate God’s timeless truths to people with no biblical background. This requires a great deal of mental effort. You will question if you can afford the time to do this. But in light of myth #1, there is a better question. Can you afford to not do this?

It is not your job to preach the entire Bible every week. It is not your burden to defend the supremacy, inerrancy, and efficacy of Scripture on a weekly basis. It is  your job to be a clear window to the gospel of Jesus.

Some practical tips follow on how to speak to the level of the biblically ignorant without coming across as biblically arrogant.

Tip #1: Rethink the atmosphere you create.

I wish that engaging those with little Bible knowledge was as easy as switching a few words in our vocabulary—which does help, as we will see. But we have to start deeper than that. The biblically ignorant who are determining if your church is for them pay attention first not to the words you say, but to how you say them.

Most pastors are wired completely opposite. When you visit a church, you evaluate it based on doctrine. If the church is a solid Lutheran church, there is not much evaluation to do. But if you have ever gone to a wedding or funeral at a different church, how did you feel? No matter what that church did to make you feel comfortable, you probably felt out of place and awkward. That’s because we pastors evaluate churches on the basis of doctrine.

Those who are biblically ignorant cannot do this. The first thing they pay attention to isn’t what  you say, but how  you say it. While the implications of this could warrant an entire article, here’s just one connection that is pertinent to the title of this one. What does your atmosphere communicate to those who are biblically ignorant? Does it communicate a loving desire to reach them on their level, or does it suggest an arrogance that requires them to reach yours? The remaining tips narrow in on specific parts of the sermon that are worthy of attention.

Tip #2: Rethink your introduction.

The purpose of the introduction is to find a point of connection with the listeners. We preachers often leverage our introductions to connect with people on a biblical level. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I am preaching about Samson’s final feat. I introduce the sermon by talking about a character from The Avengers  that will surely get the attention of the younger crowd: Iron Man. I show a picture of Iron Man as a visual aid. After highlighting Iron Man’s unique strength and how he used it, I immediately transition to talk about Samson’s unique strength and how he used it. Then I announce my theme and parts: God makes you strong. Strong to live. Strong to die.

Illustration: Iron Man is strong → Connection: Samson was strong → Theme: God makes you strong

In this model, the illustration which is widely recognized is immediately  connected to a detail in the text. This is not inherently bad or wrong. It immediately connects people to the text, which is great for those people who are familiar with the Bible and eager to hear it.

But what about people who are not familiar with the Bible and perhaps a bit skeptical about it?

In the introduction above, the illustration doesn’t apply to them unless they own a fully-functioning Iron Man suit. The connection is difficult for them to make because they have no context yet for Samson. The result is that they might contemplate scenes from The Avengers  more than your message.

The traditional way to use the introduction is to gather people around the text. An alternative way to use the introduction is to gather people around an issue resolved by the text.

For example, a sermon on Samson’s last feat could start with a dialogue about the mercy rule—the rule that ends or shortens the game when a team is completely outmatched and everybody knows it. What if you could apply the mercy rule to life when your career, health, or relationships seem to be beyond repair? Perhaps you recently went through something where it seemed like God was working against you—like you were down and out, and there was no way you could possibly win. In a moment I will show you why a guy named Samson had every right to feel that way. But when you see what God did through him, you will discover that even when you are down, you are never out.

Illustration: Mercy rule → Connection: Common tension → Theme: You are never out

The illustration is something biblically ignorant people can relate to, and the connection is something they have all experienced.

Gather people around an issue resolved by the text. This draws everyone in, regardless of biblical knowledge, and it creates a sense of urgency in which everyone leans into the text to discover the solution.

Gather people around an issue resolved by the text. This draws everyone in, regardless of biblical knowledge.

Tip #3: Rethink your vocabulary.

If you are not careful with your vocabulary—especially overused insider words and phrases—it’s easy to cause disconnect and bring ambiguity to your message. Here are a few examples.

“The text before us this Sunday…”

Use of this phrase could be a homiletical shortcut that undermines the authenticity that Millennials are searching for. If what you are preaching on is just a “text,” you don’t need to explain where it came from or what it is. It’s just there. Somebody put it in front of you, and now you have to deal with it.

Tell them what “the text” really is. It is God’s living, powerful word. It is from God’s library of books and letters of which he himself is the Alpha and Omega. What you have is the best news that anyone could hear.

Try banning this phrase altogether and see what it forces you to do. You will likely be more specific about the way you refer to the Bible, and that’s always a good thing.

“This part of the Bible reminds us that…”

What are you communicating with the word remind ? On a theological level, the Bible does not repeat something we already know. It is earth-shattering news that deserves urgent attention no matter how often we hear it. The word remind  can deflect hearers away from that sense of urgency.

On an interpersonal level, you are implying that the hearers should  know what you are reminding them of. But what if they don’t know? What are you implying about them?


Pay attention to pronoun usage. When preachers use “we,” they often mean everyone in the room. Be careful, though. By default, Millennials and most guests interpret “we” as a reference to the pastor and the members of his church. Big difference.

There are appropriate times to talk about yourself and the members of your church, such as when you are welcoming guests or sharing a congregational vision.

There are also times when “we” could make a good statement sound arrogant. For example: “We know that we are forgiven because of what Jesus did for us.” This might be heard as an attitude of arrogance to those who don’t feel like part of the “we.”

“We read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.”

Textual introductions like this create confusion for the scripturally uniformed by opening up a lot of questions. “Who is Paul? Why did he write a letter? Why is it my business to read his letter? What is a Corinthian?”

“What is a Corinthian?”

Take the time to tell people what they are hearing. Set it in its historical context. “This was a message written by the most influential first century Christian missionary to a group of struggling Christians in a bustling city called Corinth.” This shows your authentic interest in what you are about to read.


That was you completely ignoring a detail in the text that you did not want to take time to explain. You decided to skip it, hoping that nobody would notice.

Better to highlight such details. It should be expected that God’s story contains details that are odd or difficult. Rather than skipping over them, acknowledge them. Offer at least a brief explanation so that people can learn from the challenging detail.

If we ignore the oddities or imply that people just need to believe everything in the Bible without mentally processing it, we risk creating an atmosphere of biblical arrogance which could reinforce biblical ignorance.

“Here are a few other passages that support this.”

With some Millennials you don’t need to prove yourself. If you feel that a truth is unusual enough that it needs reinforcement, just share that you have been convinced by studying the many places where the Bible speaks about it. If you feel compelled, list the references you studied. Tell them where to look it up for themselves.

If it aids in the joy of their discovery, walk through one auxiliary passage that provides exceptional clarity on the issue. Digging into one passage with context is better than sprinting through several with none.

Jesus created an atmosphere of grace where everyone was welcome.


Right now you might feel that these tips overemphasize some very minor points. I acknowledge these are little things, but a bunch of little things contribute to an atmosphere.

That is what the Pharisees hated about Jesus. Their accusation that he welcomed sinners was telling. He did lots of little things to create an atmosphere where sinners felt welcome. Don’t think that Jesus had it easier than we do. He encountered guilty people who should have known better  and people who should not have been so ignorant  of the truth.

For these kinds of people, Jesus created an atmosphere of grace where everyone was welcome. He gathered people around issues that he alone could resolve. He ran towards messes that he alone could fix. Many of these were temporal in nature rather than spiritual. But by engaging them Jesus drew people toward the problem of sin for which he was the remedy by his life, death, and resurrection.

By Matt Ewart

Matt Ewart is a 2006 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He is one of two pastors who serve at Bethlehem Lutheran in Lakeville, MN. He is passionate about communication techniques that engage people of all backgrounds.

Next steps
  1. As you read through the Gospels, pay attention to the atmosphere Jesus created for ignorant “sinners.” How did he communicate to help them make sense of the message?
  2. Answer the question: “Do I want my church to attract the biblically ignorant?” Is there anything about the answer that scares you or makes you hesitate? Why?
  3. Use the tips in this article to build a framework for personal evaluation. Include people of all ages in the evaluation process. Nothing apart from the Word is too sacred to evaluate, but use wisdom when making changes.

Banish everything alien?

The examples in this article are not from a list of things to banish from preaching so that messages have no trace of anything alien. Millennials, like seekers of all time, will have much to learn as they explore the message and culture of Christianity and confessional Lutheranism. But the examples in this article do illustrate points on which greater awareness might increase a listener’s interest in receiving a message. BG.


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Preaching the Law without being judgmental

The Unique Challenge Millennials Present to Preaching Law

Millennials are Extra Sensitive to Judgment

Cable television entrepreneur Bob Buford discussed the uniqueness of Millennials in a fascinating interview conducted with researcher David Kinnaman for his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Noting the shift in the self-assessment of various generations, he said that, in his surveying, when the Elder generation was asked to describe themselves, the most commonly used words/phrases were: “World War II and Depression, smarter, honest, work ethic, and values and morals.” Boomers described their generation using terms like “work ethic, respectful, values and morals, and smarter.” Busters (or Gen X) used terms like “technology use, work ethic, conservative or traditional, smarter, and respectful.” And then he noted Millennials. The phrases they most commonly used? “Technology use, music and pop culture, liberal or tolerant, smarter, and clothes.” He concluded, “Where has respectful gone? Where is work ethic? To me, this shows that the next generation is not just sort of different; they are DISCONTINUOUSLY different.” 1

“The next generation is not just sort of different; they are DISCONTINUOUSLY different.”

It might be interesting to pursue the reasons why each generation automatically assumes itself “smarter” than the previous or why something as superficial as “clothes” is a prominent self-identification for Millennials. But for our preaching purposes, let’s take note of the Millennial self-assessment of “tolerant.”

Theologically conservative, traditionally oriented Christians tend to cringe at the very sound of the word “tolerance.”

But let’s not be too quick here.

Tolerance itself is a fully godly trait. The Apostle Paul, writing to some (hypocritically) self-righteous and judgmental Jews, said, “Do you show contempt for the riches of (God’s) kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Within the premise of the gospel is the idea that God doesn’t merely send lightning bolts down upon me when I’m behaving badly. He’s patient with me. He stays with me. And he seeks to win my heart over to the truth. He doesn’t just shut me down and cut me off. Instead, for a time, God tolerates me, guiding me to repent of my untruth, see the beauty of his mercy, and voluntarily conform to his will.

Furthermore, some tolerance is necessary for differing peoples to exist peaceably in the same space. This is the basis for civilization.

The point is this: a younger generation’s preference for inclusiveness is certainly not inherently wrong nor should it ever be scolded as such. This tolerant disposition is, however, a little misguided. This is where you, the preacher, help them navigate a better path for life by shining the light of God’s Word.

The Tension in Preaching the Law

Millennials have grown up with a society devoid of moral universals. Again, if they have a cultural North Star for behavior, it’s tolerance. I’m not suggesting they don’t all have an innate knowledge of morality from God (Romans 2:14-15). I’m suggesting the culture they’ve grown up in hasn’t reinforced that natural moral code the way it had in previous generations.

Additionally, their open-minded disposition is the natural reaction of a generation that has grown up with peers who are significantly more diverse—ethnically, religiously, relationally, and sexually—than their parents and grandparents. They have zero patience for mistreatment of those who are different. Inclusiveness, diversity, and political correctness are ideals that have shaped Millennials.

Before we tackle the challenge of how to preach the law, it’s worth reminding ourselves that statements of inclusion are important to communicating the gospel clearly. Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). John says, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). Jesus himself says, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). These are clear statements of gospel inclusion. The gospel is so overwhelmingly inclusive that it works for EVERYONE. It’s intrinsically inclusive. Let’s not be too quick to stomp out a good, but often misguided trait of Millennials.

Finally, perhaps the most influential factor in the differences between the Millennial mindset and that of previous generations is the widespread dissolution of the family unit. Kids today are eight times more likely to come into the world without married parents than were Boomers. Without that natural, God-given parental unit in place as an authority in their lives, Millennials take longer to grow up, are highly skeptical of authorities, and will generally only trust you after personal, relational investment.

Since they understandably distrust traditional authority structures, Millennials rely heavily upon what feels right. What seems fair is more powerful to them than what someone tells them is objectively right.

For example, it’s difficult to convince Millennials that illegally downloading copyrighted music online is objectively wrong. The rationale could go somewhere along these lines: many musicians are disgustingly wealthy anyways; music is just the collection of sounds and ideas which should be free; why should wealthier people have more access to such things? Whatever the objective reality, it doesn’t seem fair to them.

As an illustration of the rapidly increasing influence of Millennials, keep in mind that they’ve gotten their way on this issue. Starting with Napster back in 2000, the music industry could not stop Millennials from getting music for free. This is the basis for today’s popular, free ad-sponsored music services like Pandora and Spotify.

Millennials possess a liberal-mindedness that is constantly pushing for fair. They will outright reject any authority structure that carries an insider/outsider type of mentality, and many of them are convinced that Christian churches embody such a temperament.

Millennials grew up hating the relational dissolution they experienced with their parents. They often feel that many truth claims are unquantifiable. So rather than bicker, Millennials prefer to constantly push for unity. Boomers were often skeptical of others but caustic in their attitudes. Millennials want to get along. They are forgiving and relational and have great difficulty understanding why other generations don’t feel the same way. They love family. They long for togetherness. They hate constant negative speech about other political parties, have no time for comments that suggest racial bias, and will opt out of any Christian church that is obsessed with pointing out the flaws in other Christian churches.

Rather than bicker, Millennials prefer to constantly push for unity.

With these factors in mind, the obvious challenge to preaching the law then is that every pronouncement of the law is saying that something in us isn’t right. The listener recognizes that he/she is further from ideal than previously thought and it feels like rejection—an unsubstantiated, uncaring push to the outside.

Overcoming the Challenge

Attitude – You’re No Better

It sometimes seems like “don’t judge” (Matthew 7:1) has now surpassed John 3:16 as the most frequently echoed scriptural sentiment in a morally relativistic generation.

While it’s true that this section of the Bible (as others) does not prohibit moral judgment, the point remains: we aren’t the final judges of God’s law. We are merely witnesses to God’s grace. Consequently, if the gospel is true, then I never have the right to look down on another person as inferior to me because we are both sinners saved exclusively by the grace of God in the work of Christ Jesus. Showing an aura of condescension while sharing the law with someone harms your ability to rightly preach the gospel, because it seems you don’t understand the gospel yourself. Sinners are saved by grace alone. It works the same way for every single one of us.

This means that all human beings are fundamentally more alike than we are different. Guess who loves the sound of that? Inclusive Millennials.

All human beings are fundamentally more alike than we are different.

Technique – Affirm the Good, Correct the Bad

Okay. Okay. Yes, we all know Millennials have work to do on their problem with moral relativism. But before immediately correcting their inconsistent and illogical attempts at morality, let’s start with a positive: these young adults are eager to find a point of commonality rather than a point of contention. This is drastically different from previous generations. Many Christians and Christian churches in the twentieth century largely defined their faith and denominational affiliation on the basis of what they were not, e.g. a Lutheran was not a Catholic because…. A Baptist was not a Lutheran because…. Certainly such doctrinal differences are serious and at some point need to be worked through, but Millennials don’t want to start there. Many older WELS members often do appear to want to start there.

Doctrinal differences are serious … but Millennials don’t want to start there.

When confronting a misguided common belief in culture, consider the methodology that Timothy Keller proposes:

Our premises must be drawn wholly from the Bible, yet we will always find some things in a culture’s beliefs that are roughly true, things on which we can build our critique. We will communicate something like this: “You see this ‘A’ belief you have? The Bible says the same thing – so we agree. However if ‘A’ is true, then why do you not believe ‘B’? The Bible teaches ‘B,’ and if ‘A’ is true, then it is not right, fair, or consistent for you to reject ‘B.’ If you believe this – how can you not believe that?” We reveal inconsistencies in the cultural beliefs and assumptions about reality. With the authority of the Bible we allow one part of the culture – along with the Bible – to critique another part. The persuasive force comes from basing our critique on something we can affirm within our culture. 2

Let me offer some examples of what Keller is talking about.

Example 1 – Tolerance. What if someone says, “I think you’re being intolerant—and therefore, unloving—of other beliefs and other Christians by not (e.g.) allowing them to commune with us.” At that point you can agree that the gospel does promote radical, almost otherworldly, inclusiveness. However, tolerance of beliefs really has nothing to do with it. In fact, by saying that I’m being “narrow-minded” or “intolerant,” you’re being just as intolerant of my beliefs as you claim I’m being of yours. Neither of us is more or less tolerant than the other. Both of us are claiming authoritative spiritual insight. At that point, you’ve both affirmed their desire for a good, gospel-flavored attitude of inclusion, but corrected their misguided application of what is or is not unfair judgment.

To someone who possesses any of the humility necessary for learning, this then affords you the opportunity to walk through 1 Corinthians 10-11, at which point they might well see how loving, compassionate, and beautiful the idea of close Communion really is. If your approach is “That’s just wrong,” you’ll run into a Nietzschean Millennial distrust of authority and institutional power plays.

Example 2 – Evolution. I regularly use this teaching technique on the issue of macroevolution. Most young adults operate with “macroevolutionary beliefs” since that’s what they learned in their science textbooks. However, most young adults also often have compassion for the oppression of human rights around the world. So I establish that such human sensitivity (an ‘A’ belief for them) is a wonderful attribute, but gently point out how this is inconsistent with their ‘B’ belief of evolution. Evolution is predicated on the idea of “survival of the fittest” and “the strong eat the weak.” So if you believe in macroevolution, you cannot logically say that it is wrong for a stronger country in the Middle East to devour a weaker country. That’s merely the advancement of the species, natural selection. At that point, their ‘A’ belief trumps their ‘B’ belief, and they feel compelled to correct the cognitive dissonance. I don’t know that I’ve ever explained macroevolution to a young adult that way and not had them say, “Hmm. That’s interesting.”

Example 3 – Identity. We live in a time and place where students grow up hearing in their biology classes that their lives are accidental—as Bertrand Russell said, “accidental collocations of atoms.” And then these same students hear in their psychology classes, “You just need to have more self-esteem.” As a preacher, it’s important and not that difficult to point out the internal consistency of such beliefs. “No wonder you feel so worthless! You’re not an accident! The King of the Cosmos knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). Not only that, God’s only Son sacrificed his life in order to save your life. That is what you’re worth to God! Don’t you dare let a bitter philosopher or arrogant biologist who doesn’t know for certain what happened a hundred years ago, let alone thousands or millions of years ago, tell you you’re an accident.” The ‘A’ belief here is the idea that human life is valuable. The ‘B’ belief is that mankind sprung about through a chemical happenstance. Further illustrate that anything without design is purposeless. Then ask them if they feel like their life has or should have purpose? If so, then they must necessarily be designed.

Affirm the good. Gently walk them through what is incorrect.

Notice that in each of those examples there is no condemning “You’re wrong!” speech. Millennials will put up a defense mechanism against that. You can’t just tell them that they’re wrong. You have to show them the inconsistency of their beliefs. You have to show them a better, truer way.

Jesus is THE Way

So you come to the average person in the twenty-first century and you tell them that they need Jesus. They ask why. You start talking to them about the Ten Commandments—how sex outside of marriage is wrong, how greediness is wrong, how lying and disrespect are wrong. The Millennial is much more inclined than people of a previous generation to say, “What are you talking about? Who are you to judge? This is just who I am.” All you end up doing is arguing about moral relativism.

On the other hand, try saying, “Everyone in the world is serving a master. We sacrifice to this master—our time, our energy, our wealth—at the expense of many other good things in life. But many of those masters (e.g. career, romance, social approval, etc.) will enslave you and curse you and disappoint you. But Jesus is the only master who can fully satisfy you and put into perspective all competitors—also those who tempt Christians. And when we fail him and yet turn to him for rescue, he’ll forgive us and demonstrate even greater love” (Romans 5:20-21).

Preaching the law has subtly transformed from harping on how certain behaviors are wrong (though they are), to showing how following Jesus is better.

This could be followed by an explanation of how God’s laws, far from being oppressive, are really given in love to lead toward human flourishing.

Example 1 – The Necessity of Restriction. An old preaching illustration of this is the fish in the fishbowl. A fish needs restrictions to live. Since it can only live in water, it needs walls that hold the water together. If you decide you’re going to liberate a fish by freeing it from its fishbowl and tossing it out onto the ground, it will flop about until its life is squeezed out. The fish needed those restrictions to live. True freedom then is not the absence of restrictions, but rather includes the presence of restrictions that lead to our health and well-being.

Example 2 – The Law of Design. Something which is designed only works when used in accordance with its intended purpose. For instance, I’m not particularly handy. I keep my tools in a zippered pouch, if that tells you anything. I once tried to remove a stripped screw from my wall with the backside of the hammer, i.e. the claw. I ended up ripping the dry wall apart. When you use something in a way other than how it was designed, it’s not productive. It’s destructive. You’ll destroy your life if you don’t use it the way God designed it to be used. God’s laws help explain our design.

In summary, 1) tolerance is not all bad, 2) don’t just tell but show Millennials, and 3) explain how we all will have a master, but Jesus is the only worthy master of our lives. His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3) but beautiful. After all, Jesus is the one person who perfectly followed his Father’s will, and just look at the beauty he brought to mankind by doing so.

Written by James Hein

James Hein is a 2008 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He serves at Resurrection and Life Lutheran, a multisite congregation in Rochester, MN. He thoroughly enjoys the challenges and blessings of ministering to Millennials.

1    Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pgs. 37-38.
2    Timothy Keller, Center Church, pg. 125.

Read more from Pastor Hein

To read more of Pastor Hein’s thoughts on ministering to Millenials, visit and search “Millenials.”


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Voices raised with keys and strings

“How will it go? What will people think?” These questions were on my mind prior to making a presentation at our synod’s 2011 National Conference on Worship, Music and the Arts. With the kind assistance of Dr. Kermit Moldenhauer, I had prepared new musical settings of the canticles found in the historic liturgy, settings written for piano and guitar. 1 Being far less than professional in both guitar and vocal performance, the thought of playing and singing in front of a group was doing a little number on my nerves. All in all, it turned out that the two sessions went well.

Four years later, this article reviews a 2014 worship conference presentation which expanded on the one just described. With Mr. Mark Davidson on the piano bench, I led two groups through 24 samples of hymns and songs written for piano and guitar. 2 Based on that event and other experiences, it is a privilege to share a few observations.

Repertory and Instrumental Performance

There is no shortage of worship music written for “keys and strings.” With the stipulation that texts must be scripturally sound, the question becomes, “Which solid titles/texts have music written for both instruments?” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal included guitar chords for only 12 of 623 hymns. The guitar edition for Christian Worship: Supplement had a much higher percentage: 70 of 85. To be noted, however, is that not every one of those 70 supplement hymns was written with guitar accompaniment in mind. The same is true of any number of recent hymnals where guitar chords are available for every hymn or song. Without delving into technical detail, it is true that someone can analyze the chord structure of the keyboard settings and manufacture matching guitar chords. The questions become whether or not the resulting combination works musically, and whether or not the guitarist can actually manage to play the matching chords.

One of the main purposes of “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” was to provide a sample playlist where such questions were taken out of play. The guitar chords of the sample pieces were accessible to guitarists who play at an average or less than average skill level. The hymns and songs featured in the sessions were written in such a way that both instruments were intended to be combined.

That intent may not always be readily apparent. Early in the first session, an example arose which put a smile on my face because I expected it to happen. Rather than playing strictly from the accompaniment, Mr. Davidson was improvising the piano performance in a way that better suited the guitar accompaniment. Noting that the piano score was different, one attendee asked which score he was using and where it could be acquired. I had to acknowledge that not every congregation will have a keyboardist who can improvise in this way.

This is, however, part of the mix in seeking to have keys and strings accompaniment for worship. The well-known tune HYFRYDOL (CW 365) is available from Oregon Catholic Press (OCP #91192) as a score for unison singing, keyboard, guitar, and trumpet in Bb. The lead sheet (text, guitar chords, and melody only) carries this note at the bottom of the page: “When guitar and keyboard play together, keyboardists should improvise using the guitar chords above the melody.” While such a note does not mean that this is the only way that such tunes can be played, worship planners with limited musical background will benefit from understanding whether or not their congregations’ musicians can improvise.

Perhaps one of the easiest test cases for exploring a piano/guitar combination in worship is two pieces from the version of Morning Praise published by NPH in Christian Worship New Service Settings (M. Haugen; downloadable instrumental parts OL-033039E). Both the Venite and the Te Deum have an easy complementary guitar arrangement.

That brings up one further item to address in terms of WELS worship planners and repertory. Of 24 pieces sampled during the session, only four came straight out of Christian Worship resources, and less than half were Christian Worship titles. As we walk together in a synod, I have the confidence that Christian brothers and sisters will devote themselves to choosing texts which match our Christian and Lutheran confession. As worship planners search for solid texts which are also available with the instrumentation under discussion, where can we best point them?

Just to be clear (if it isn’t obvious), the sample playlist of our session had no intention of being comprehensive. After vetting the texts, the titles were chosen primarily on the basis of a compatible arrangement for both piano and guitar. An ongoing question for WELS worship leaders is: “Do we give people a fish or teach people to fish?” Do we best tell people where to look for quality piano and guitar worship music, or do we generate a list and put individual pieces in their hands?

I don’t believe it’s wrong to ask that question. Nor do I believe it’s necessarily the right question. Some congregations have people who, without advice or assistance, know where to go and who can secure quality worship music for this genre of performance. Other congregations have people who would prefer not to be given directions where to go but who would derive greater benefit from being given specific titles, links, etc.—the actual music. A difficulty with the latter is that subjectivity will always be a factor, both for those who generate “the approved list of materials” and for those who are on the receiving end of such lists (“Why did or didn’t they include such-and-such a title?”).

A better question is to ask about balance. It wouldn’t be desirable to limit congregations’ repertory to 30 hymns which work well with piano and guitar simply because those are the hymns which can be identified or performed or made available. Nor would it necessarily be desirable to always accompany every hymn or liturgical song with these particular instruments (or to endlessly search for such settings), as if the hymns and songs weren’t written with organ accompaniment in mind. Balance comes into play when we recognize that, for both music and available musicians, one genre doesn’t need to cover all repertory. We’re perhaps not doing our best worship planning when, in search of piano and guitar accompaniment, our first consideration is “What can we find out there?”

Seldom if ever is Lutheran worship planning going to be easy. Ask any pastor or music minister how easy it is to pick hymns or line up choir music for a year. It takes time and effort. For two reasons (one of which comes later), I maintain that the best starting point for corporate worship music accompanied by piano and guitar is our church body’s published hymnal and its accompanying resources. The reason for starting there is that we already know what’s there—texts carefully chosen for use in our churches. If we don’t yet have a high percentage of 711 existing hymns, plus liturgical music, written specifically for piano and guitar, I recommend both patience and a commitment to keep working at it.

I will admit that the guitarist part of me would probably prefer to have a complete set of all of our hymns and liturgy songs written specifically for the combination of piano and guitar. But again, ask the members of Koiné or Branches Band (groups which have worked almost exclusively with CW/CWS texts) how much work it takes to produce a strong “keys and strings” arrangement that can also be used by others. It is no small task. It is a task on which the current hymnal project has its eye. While the current hymnal project may not be able to promise “a complete set,” it will be pursuing the matter in terms of both piano and guitar editions as well as other instruments.

Congregational Performance

Making a worship conference presentation is like preaching to the choir. At these sessions the attendees served as the choir. While much of the sample playlist was brand new to them, strong singing voices and ability to read music meant that the selections were well sung. Since this is obviously not always the case at the local congregation, those results were surely a bit skewed.

As much as I personally enjoy playing guitar along with the piano to accompany worship, and as well as the singing at the sessions went, I do not mean to write in a way that puts organ accompaniment in a bad light. Apart from people’s personal preferences for accompaniment and apart from concerns about the ability of the organist, there are strong arguments for putting the organ at the top of the list as the premier accompaniment instrument for public worship. At the same time, at both of my worship conference presentations, 2011 and 2014, it was easy to sense something in the room. While I didn’t take a poll of how many organists were in the room, comments and discussion revealed how some felt: “In addition to the organists who serve our congregation so faithfully and so well, perhaps this is a way that I, a non-organist, can serve the Lord and the church.”

“Perhaps this is a way that I, a non-organist, can serve the Lord and the church.”

Introducing practices into the worship life of a congregation calls for the greatest care and patience. I recall the first time I played guitar in a public service in the 1990s. After the first performance, I didn’t play again for another year, not because it was not well-received, but because I didn’t want to push. I also took things slowly because I was the guitarist. Especially since I was the pastor, I didn’t believe it was my place to play in church just because I could play the instrument. I would rather be asked to serve in that way than to imply that I really ought to be able to serve in that way.

With that kind of “public worship thinking” understood, I would hope that worship conference presentations such as “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” would lead to congregational conversations about utilizing the gifts of as many of the congregation’s instrumentalists as possible. Some common sense is necessary when it comes to deciding on which instruments are commended or not for use in public worship. In light of different skill levels, the same is true of which instrumentalists are asked to serve (or perhaps, as difficult as it may be, not asked to serve). But as the efforts are expended to educate the congregation in advance and to avoid the pitfalls and to work out all the bugs, watch how much the ownership of and appreciation for public worship increases for both instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists alike as individuals join the congregation’s local orchestra, be they one or two or many.

An article recapping a presentation entitled “Voices Raised with Keys and Strings” would miss the mark if the first two words weren’t also emphasized. To do so, I acknowledge the efforts of the conference presentation keyboardist, Mr. Mark Davidson, and of Rev. Aaron Christie, both of whom serve at the congregation where I now hold membership, Trinity Lutheran in Waukesha, WI. In large part, their worship planning was responsible for many of the selections in this presentation. The ensemble at Trinity ensemble includes piano and guitar, along with mic’d cantors—and also at times trumpet, percussion, digital keyboard, violin, cello, and bass guitar.

In most cases the assembly sings along with the cantors—hymns, psalms, or service music which they have sung before, just with different instruments.

When that ensemble comes together (every other month on average), its selections number between six to nine pieces per service. The selections have never been anthems; they are always either hymns or service music (canticles, psalms, verses of the day). Performing from a dedicated music space at the front right section of a large nave, the ensemble seeks to “raise voices.” In most cases the assembly sings along with the cantors—hymns, psalms, or service music which they have sung before, just with different instruments. Trinity in Waukesha is by no means the only place using this approach. I write favorably about this approach not because I am a part of it but because it is transferable to the Lutheran congregations and schools whose worship leaders are reading this article. This approach focuses on the body of hymns and service music which is common in our church body.

Adequate rehearsal time is essential.

Adequate rehearsal time is essential. None are the times when this ensemble has played without individual and group rehearsal. It takes a lot of work. Few are the times when this ensemble has played that I haven’t spent time figuring out guitar chords by playing piano chords, transposing music to an easier key for the guitar, or organizing and marking up music for performance.

While there are some unique items about the dedicated worship space and the sound system which I could address (such as iPad controlled mixing capabilities), here’s what I appreciate most about this ensemble. It is both set up and executed to involve the worshiping assembly. This is the second reason that the best starting point for corporate worship music accompanied by piano and guitar is our church body’s published hymnal and its accompanying resources. Familiar tunes make for success when leading the congregation with different instruments. With a guitar on my lap and a monitor amp allowing me to hear myself play, I can’t always judge how the singing is going, but comments indicate that it is going well, due in part to good mixing, but due in greater part to the use of familiar hymns and service music. In a setting which is blessed to have a magnificent pipe organ and gifted organists, occasional scheduling of this ensemble has allowed people to find “a new dimension in the world of sound” (CW 248:2).

Familiar tunes make for success when leading the congregation with different instruments.

It has taken a few years for me to become marginally adept at performing most of a service’s worship music as a guitarist, in combination with a pianist, in what remains a familiar Lutheran worship service. Unlike the weeks before the worship conference in 2011, I no longer find myself worrying or wondering, “How will it go?” or “What will people think?” I now find myself hoping and praying for something definitely more significant and decidedly more focused: “Will this strengthen the singing? Will it carry the text more forcefully toward the rafters and more deeply into the hearts of both hearers and singers?” To combine piano and guitar in accompaniment is by no means the only or best way for that to happen, but for that to happen is by all means the best reason to combine piano and guitar in accompaniment.

Occasional scheduling of this ensemble has allowed people to find “a new dimension in the world of sound.”

Written by Michael Schultz

Pastor Schultz has served WELS congregations in Flagstaff, AZ and Lawrenceville, GA. He chaired the hymns subcommittee for Christian Worship: Supplement, compiled its guitar edition, and currently serves as project director for a new WELS hymnal. Some of his compositions, arrangements, and hymns are available at

  1     Throughout this article, references to “piano and guitar” are not intended to be exclusive. Many, if not most, of the arrangements from the conference sessions included options for a number of other instruments. Limiting the language of the article to “piano and guitar” simply reflects the session title and the instruments used during the sessions.

  2     A repertoire list from this presentation is available at Audio samples are available for many of the selections. Recordings from publishers  are not always reliable to show potential in a given parish. The vocal style may be too soloistic or too much a pop style. Your choir or a soloist may use a different vocal style. The instrumentation may be too complicated (and thus too difficult) or too busy. For example, too much percussion may make a song seem less appropriate. But the same song will “work” with less percussion.

Beyond Strumming

Search for three volumes with the title Beyond Strumming. From the publisher’s description: “Liturgical guitar method series. Provides both the music reading skills and guitar techniques demanded of today’s liturgical guitarist. Book includes compact disc.”

Without endorsing every point but noting that much of the liturgical music is transferable to Lutheran circles, readers might be interested to know that Michael Joncas, David Haas, Marty Haugen, and others were featured in a one-hour documentary on KSMQ public television—On Eagles’ Wings: Minnesota’s Sacred Music. Search for the title on YouTube. It’s about far more than guitars. But note this quote at 17:37: “While in some cases guitars were well played and invited the people’s participation, in other places very amateur guitarists played and gave sacred music a bad name.”

“By Faith”

A double CD of highlights from the 2014 worship conference would make a fine Christmas gift for church musicians. Search NPH for the title track (above)—a hymn anthem by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. Additional tracks are available by free download at

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Building Part-Singing Skills in Children’s Choirs

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment.”

Singing for Lutherans, Garrison Keillor

Much of my childhood was spent as a “choir orphan.” There are many memories of time spent in a church balcony with my parents, relatives, and family friends who served as choir directors, organists, and various singers in every section of the choir. Family gatherings always included group singing, with repertoire spanning the gamut from beloved hymns to folk songs and other familiar songs common to Americans. As a result of this rich upbringing, there are moments today that I lament the loss of this communal singing tradition in the lives of my fellow Americans. It has been suggested that the church may be one of the last places where people engage in group singing!

Without the tradition of group singing, it stands to reason that children have also lost exposure to part-singing that has been an integral part of the church’s song. While the media inundates us with music and singing in all forms, our children are often merely spectators as opposed to creators of God’s gift of music. Music making becomes something that belongs exclusively to the musically gifted. Yet, in my work with children and high school students, it quickly becomes apparent that choral singing is still an enriching experience for young singers. Combine the Word of God with the beauty of choral singing and watch young singer’s eyes grow wide with wonder! Watch the eyes of congregation members grow moist from the honest proclamation of the Gospel through beautiful treble singing!

How do we establish solid part-singing skills in children, equipping them for a lifetime of joyous praise to our almighty God? Part-singing is a developmental skill that can be cultivated through careful teaching and selection of music. It is easy to assume that if we ask children to open their hymnals to a simple hymn such as “Glory Be to Jesus” and sing the soprano and alto line, they should immediately sound angelic! Nothing could be further from the truth and many a director has left the rehearsal discouraged that their children “can’t sing.” The secret to building good part-singing skills is in the selection of music where the parts are independent, with movement and tonal relationships that qualify each part as a melody unto itself. Traditional hymn settings use parallel harmony, which is challenging for children who have not had training in part-singing. Even alto parts in parallel harmony that hover around three to four repeated notes can confound young singers because they have no sense of a melody taking place.

When we teach part-singing skills, we are developing the ear and its capacity to hear one or more parts while singing another. Unless children (and adults!) are able to acquire these inner hearing skills, part-singing will be a difficult and frustrating experience. Singing experiences that employ independent part writing give children something to “hold on to,” which in turn builds inner hearing. By following a sequence of steps with appropriate repertoire, all children can learn to sing in parts. Think of these steps as a pyramid, beginning at the bottom and working to the top.

Four-Part Parallel Harmony

Three-Part Parallel Harmony

Four-Part Rounds, Canons, Countermelodies, etc.

Two-Part Parallel Harmony

Three-Part Rounds, Canons, Countermelodies, etc.

Two-Part Partner Songs

Two-Part Counter-melodies and Descants

Two-Part Rounds

Ostinato (a short musical pattern that repeats)

Shared Melody Songs

Singing with Beat and Rhythm

In-Tune Singing

Teachers of primary grades (K4-Grade 2) begin this process with the first three steps in the sequence. It is crucial that children become in-tune, independent singers by the time they reach third grade. While teachers of older children can establish these foundational skills, the process becomes more difficult as children age. There is no substitute for attention to the use of head-voice and beautiful unison singing in primary grades! Children begin to build part-singing skills when they sing a song while tapping the beat, rhythm, or simple rhythmic ostinato pattern. Singing a song while performing simple movement is also part singing. Call-and-response songs, echo songs, chain-phrase singing, and antiphonal singing are all examples of shared melody songs that establish a foundation for future part-singing. Examples can come not only from sacred literature but also from the vast body of children’s folksong repertoire.

If solid preliminary work has been done in the primary grades and at least 90% of a group of children are in-tune singers, the real work of part-singing can begin. Rounds are a wonderful way to build part-singing skills and children cannot sing too many of them. Ostinatos are short melodic patterns that repeat over the course of a song or section of a song. Many excellent collections of rounds are available with both sacred and secular examples. It is also easy to create an ostinato from a short phrase of a round.

When introducing songs utilizing rounds or ostinatos, begin with a careful teaching sequence:

  • Teach the main melody until the children are able to sing it confidently without the piano or teacher.
  • Have the class sing the song while the teacher sings the ostinato or second part of the round.
  • Switch parts. The teacher sings the song or leads the round and the class sings the ostinato or second part of the round.
  • Divide the class in two sections and perform in two parts. It is helpful to place a couple of strong singers in the first group to begin the round or sing the melody. These singers will support their classmates while the teacher brings in the second group. The second part in a round or the ostinato is always more challenging for young singers.
  • Switch groups.
  • It should be a goal for the teacher to stop singing with children and simply conduct as soon as possible. The end result should be a children’s performance.
  • Other applications in this process include:
  • Have a small semi-section of children lead the group while the rest of the class follows.
  • Have a soloist lead the group while the rest of the class follows.
  • Have two semi-sections sing the song in parts.
  • Have two soloists sing the song in parts.

All singing of rounds and ostinatos should be done without piano. This enables children to hear themselves and the other part clearly. Good inner hearing skills will be stronger if children hear only themselves and their group. Furthermore, a piano will often “muddy the waters” for many children and they will not know which notes are theirs. The end result of such a cappella singing will be more confident and independent singers.

If children falter, simply try again. If the song continues to fall apart, back up and re-establish the last successful step. Don’t try to complete the whole process in one setting. Most likely, it will take several “chunks” within successive rehearsals to work through this sequence, and there is no need to rush the process. When training the ear, repetition and reinforcement are important. The learning process should be one of joy and discovery, and children will be excited and intrigued by what they hear. If the ensemble is successful at each step of the process, the singers will almost always be self-motivated.

Once singers are successful with rounds and ostinatos, venture into countermelodies, descants, and partner songs. At this point, you can move freely from one compositional device to another. Singers in Grades 4-8 will be successful with these songs if a firm foundation of earlier skills has been established. Songs with countermelodies have a familiar melody (hymn tune) paired with another independent melody. Each melody is introduced separately in unison and then combined together. A descant is a higher melody that is paired with a familiar melody. Partner songs are two established songs that sound good when sung simultaneously. Children love part-singing and will accept the challenge of each song. Once again, a process for establishing skills can be followed:

  • Teach both parts to everyone. Most of these songs have equal vocal ranges in both parts, so there is no “soprano” or “alto.” Use such terminology as “Treble 1 and 2” or “Part 1 and 2.”
  • When putting parts together for the first time, the teacher can sing one part while the group sings the other part. If one melody is a familiar hymn, let the children begin with the hymn. When singers are comfortable singing those two parts with their teacher, switch parts.
  • When children are confident singing in parts with their teacher, divide the group into two parts.
  • If at any point the song breaks down or the harmony sounds “fuzzy,” try again or back up and reinforce a previous step.

Once singers have experienced several types of part writing, simply teach the music in parts from the beginning and employ the previous steps when challenges arise.

What about boys? Part-singing is intriguing and satisfying for boys and can be a strong motivator to keep singing. Encourage (insist!) boys to sing in their “high voice” until vocal change happens naturally around Grades 7-8. Talk to boys about vocal change and the importance of staying in their “high voices” until vocal change occurs. Offer encouragement and support when voices begin to move down. It is often more effective to have changed or changing voices sing the higher part one octave lower if the ensemble is doing two-part work. However, if students are experienced part-singers, it will be possible for a choir to do three-part music with independent parts, including octavos labeled “three-part mixed.” These arrangements can be a perfect fit for changing boys’ voices. How exciting for those young men to have their own part! Furthermore, high school choir directors will be thrilled when well-prepared tenors and basses arrive at their high school program.

As the rehearsal process progresses, take the time to work on other choral skills such as good breathing, phrasing, tall vowels and crisp diction, and sensitive dynamics and articulation. Each of those choral elements will improve intonation and bring warmth and vitality to the choral sound. Children know when they sound good and they will work hard for directors who bring out their best! Aspire for musicality and artistry, and make the connection between the scriptural text and how the composer chose to craft the piece. It is amazing the spiritual insights child singers will bring to their work! The same children will then give heartfelt performances that are truly the “living voice of the Gospel.”

How does a director know if singers are ready to move to parallel harmony in two, three, and four parts? If children are learning multiple songs utilizing independent part writing quickly, effectively, and confidently, they might be ready for parallel writing. When moving to parallel harmony, look for octavos that approach two-or-more parallel parts from the unison and then return to unison writing within a phrase or section. This will ground singers while their ears adjust to the parallel harmony. Warm-ups in solfege (do, re, mi, etc.) using chordal patterns found in the music can help establish the sound in young ears prior to singing it in the music. Utilize past rehearsal process steps when necessary. By this time in the part-singing process, children’s ears will be pretty keen and the process moves faster and smoother.

May these steps to successful part-singing be applied to adult choirs? Absolutely! If an adult choir constantly sounds “fuzzy” or sings individual parts well but cannot hold their parts in a group when singing parallel harmony, it could be that their part-singing skills are not as developed as they need to be for traditional SATB choral writing. Look for music that employs independent part writing in at least part of the octavo. While it can be a treasure hunt, much fine SATB music exists that employs rounds, descants, countermelodies, and partner songs. SATB octavos that employ occasional doubling of the soprano-tenor parts and/or alto-bass parts or voice leading utilizing imitation also lend support to older singers. In addition, two-part mixed or SAB settings can build necessary inner hearing skills. Rounds with more musical substance exist and can be used as part of the warm-up routine. With a little intervention, adult choirs can improve their part-singing skills in musically satisfying ways.

Building good part-singing skills in young singers takes time. It takes time to research the perfect octavo that satisfies not only the liturgical season of the year and the lectionary for a particular worship service, but the appropriate level of part-singing skills for the intended choir. There are many sensitive composers and arrangers of children’s sacred choral literature featured in almost every publisher’s catalog. Careful planning of repertoire and rehearsals will manage learning time efficiently and allow children to grow in their choral skills without being rushed. With patience and time, all children may experience the thrill of making joyful noises to the Lord. Children are most capable of proclaiming a powerful witness of the Gospel through their music. May we lead them to proclaim with the psalmist:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. Psalm 89:1

Written by Marjorie Flanagan

Marjorie serves as the Fine Arts Coordinator and Choral Director at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, where she teaches Freshman Choir, Church Music, and Musicianship through Handbells. She directs the Jubilation Handbell Choir and coordinates several elementary school music activities. She received her Bachelor of Music degree and Kodály Certificate from Alverno College and a Master of Church Music degree from Concordia University Wisconsin.

Children’s Sacred Choral Repertoire Using Independent Part Writing

The following octavos are examples of beginning part-singing literature.

Melody Sharing

This Little Light of Mine
Arranged by Mark Patterson
Choristers Guild CGA1108

The Lord is My Light
Michael Bedford
Choristers Guild CGA878
(There are brief excursions to parallel harmony, but they make so much sense that children are bound to be successful.)


Savior of the Nations, Come
Linda Moeller

Christ Be My Leader
Michael Bedford
Augsburg 0-8006-77439


Silent Night
Mark Patterson
Choristers Guild CGA 1315

Children of the Heavenly Father
Jeremy Bakken
Choristers Guild CGA 1380


An Invitation for Advent
Ruth Elaine Schram/Douglas Nolan
Shawnee Press 35029815

The Lord’s My Shepherd
John Eggert
NPH 28N6015


A Christmas Introit (Hodie Christus Natus Est)
Audrey Snyder
Shawnee Press 35029816

What Wondrous Love Is This?
from “Children Rejoice and Sing, Volume 1”
Jeffrey Blersch
Concordia 97-7074
(Both Volumes 1 and 2 of “Children Rejoice and Sing” contain excellent arrangements for beginning part singers.)

Partner Songs

Yesu Kwetu ni Rafiki (What a Friend We Have in Jesus)
Mark Burrows
Choristers Guild CGA 1234

Away in a Manger
from “Children Rejoice and Sing, Volume 1”
Jeffrey Blersch
Concordia 97-7074

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Exegizing your audience

By Mike Geiger

This issue of Preach the Word begins a new series: preaching to Millennials while maintaining connection with other generations. This series, planned in cooperation with the Commission on Evangelism, departs from previous custom with a different writer for each issue. 

Mike Geiger is a 1997 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He served an exploratory outreach setting in Cary, North Carolina for 12 years before accepting his current call to serve as pastor of adult discipleship and outreach at Good Shepherd in Burnsville, MN. He serves on the WELS Commission on Evangelism. He writes not as the expert but to encourage and spark a discussion of how we can better communicate the saving Gospel of Jesus to the millennial generation.

Exegesis. It’s what every preacher does every time (I pray) before he preaches. He spends significant time in the original languages of the text to draw out the meaning and clear interpretation of the text. How can a preacher expound on a specific text, proclaim clearly specific law and specific gospel, appropriate and apply the truth of Scripture, unless he first invests time to do a careful exegesis of the text? In fact our seminary training has focused us on mastering the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. We’ve invested hours of learning to understand sentence structures, verb forms, and hundreds of vocables. Even though some of these skills may have slipped and we have relegated some of our exegetical work to the help of software such as Logos, we still take great care every week to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). Exegizing the text allows us to carefully mine the Scriptures in order to clearly communicate the truth of God’s Word from that particular text to the particular people God has gathered before us that week.

But…even if we have done a thorough textual exegesis, could we perhaps have shortchanged our exegizing so that unclear communication of God’s Word takes place when we stand before God’s people?

I’m not talking about getting out A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Robertson) or the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Brown, Driver, Briggs) and rememorizing verb forms and vocables (although it might not be a bad idea). I am suggesting that communicating the Word of God involves a speaker and a hearer. I am suggesting that just as we shortchange the Word of God by doing a superficial exegesis of the text, we perhaps also miss clearly communicating God’s timeless truth if we fail to exegize our audience…the people to whom we speak.

he Word of God is changeless and timeless. The people to whom we preach changes from week to week or year to year, from community to community, from culture to culture, from generation to generation. How God’s Word applies to one, perhaps, is not an application to which another relates. The terminology we choose for one audience, may go over the head of another. The application and appropriation of God’s Word for one generation may not be the same application and appropriation another generation understands.

In this volume of Preach the Word, the Commission on Evangelism in partnership with the Commission on Worship and various writers will tackle an audience that is found in our churches but which, sadly to some degree, may be drifting from our churches. And yet we eagerly desire for this audience to gather regularly around the Means of Grace.

Who are these people? They are the Millennials.

First of all, these are souls who matter to Jesus and therefore matter to us. They are worth understanding so that we can be instruments of God’s Spirit to communicate saving truth to them and equip others to do the same. These are individuals who need the message of God’s grace as much as the next person, but don’t always think the way we think, value what we value, or understand what we understand. Nonetheless, they are worth listening to…so that they will listen to what God wants them to know and believe. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Understand, what follows are generalizations. In your ministry context you may well find exceptions. A thorough “audience exegesis” must happen in your community and with the individuals to whom God has called you to bring the Word of Truth. However, generalizations are a place to start in our exegizing of our audience. Consider each of these descriptions as food for thought as you craft a message to connect in a relevant way to this demographic of souls.

So, who are these individuals, the Millennials?

This demographic of individuals born from 1980 to 2000 (approximately) is having an increasing influence and impact on the culture around us. Their thought processes, their values, and their interests are overshadowing what previous generations have thought, valued, and found of interest. So if our clergy culture and learning as well as our main audience for preaching are dominantly Baby Boomers and Generation X’rs, it’s time to broaden our awareness and exegize the audience of the Millennials.

To give you a start, here is a Top 10 List of Millennial generation generalities:

  1. They grew up in a post-Christian era (Gen X’rs left the church but were raised in the church. Many Millennials have had no connection to the church.)
  2. They are biblically illiterate. Key stories and biblical terminology are not in their awareness.
  3. They do not have a biblical worldview. Secular humanism has molded their worldview.
  4. They often see Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical (Secularization. White, p. 48).
  5. They see spirituality as “anything an individual desires it to be—a private affair to be developed as one sees fit” (Privatization. White, p. 49).
  6. They are “confronted with a staggering number of ideologies and faith options competing for their attention” (Pluralization. White, p. 50).
  7. They are interested in truth but want to experience the truth more than being told what truth is. They want to know if the truth you present works for you and for others.
  8. They are more interested in rallying around a cause than perpetuating a program. They want to make a difference, a positive impact, not just be busy in a church program.
  9. They aren’t necessarily committed to a congregation, but desire to have community. The institution is not important…social connections are.
  10. They are interested in what you have to say, but more interested in who you are. Are you being authentic, sharing your questions and struggles?

My personal awareness of the work I need to do to better exegize this audience came on New Year’s Eve this past year. As we were enjoying the evening waiting for midnight we were playing iHeart Radio top songs for 2014. My 10 year old daughter was singing along to some. I was completely clueless. Just looking at the Billboard Top 100 leads me to realize people like Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, John Legend, and Iggy Azalea are people who are somewhat foreign to my mind, but readily influencing the minds of Millennials and others. I too have some work to do to exegize my audience.

You, preacher, wouldn’t be the first one to understand the importance of knowing your audience to reach them with the Gospel. Inspired speakers and writers throughout the Scripture took the changeless truth to changing audiences. Not every audience receives information the same way as another. Consider the Apostle Paul. To the Jews in Thessalonica (Acts 17:20) he reasoned with them to show that Jesus was the Messiah. To the Greeks in Athens (Acts 17:16ff) he started his “sermon” with the natural knowledge of God. To the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) he rightly divided the Word of Truth to divide law and gospel so the gospel was free from attachments of the law. You might say all of them had the purpose of proclaiming God’s grace…but it was done differently because of different audiences.

As a preacher, see this as a challenge to be embraced rather than an issue we hope will go away. It might be easier if we could just preach to Lutherans who have grown up in WELS and have our shared tenets of faith ready at a moment’s recall. It might perhaps be easier…but that is not what God has called us to do. The Lord Jesus knew that every people of every generation was important, so he commissioned all his followers, including preachers: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This commission includes different cultures and different generations.

For a textual exegesis you have resources on your book shelf or Logos on your computer. Wouldn’t it be great to have resources for understanding Millennials and others in your audience easily available on your book shelf or at the click of a mouse?

Some beginning work can be done with a click of your mouse or purchasing a few books. Simply typing “Understanding Millennials” into a Google search will give you many websites that parse the information for different applications. Try “Preaching to Millennials” and you will connect with another set of articles. From our WELS fellowship, check out Pastor James Hein’s blog series on Millennials ( To add to your library, you might pick up a few books such as The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White. (The Commission on Evangelism focused on this book for a year to study this demographic and our need to connect with it.) James White offers a blog that is worth subscribing to called “Church and Culture.” See also You Lost Me by David Kinnaman or The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom Rainer. These books will give you the results of interviews and research to glean insights into this generation.

But let’s not neglect the reality that the best exegesis of your audience comes when we follow Christ’s directive to “go.” God has sent you to a context and community of ministry. This is where the generalities of blog posts and books become the reality of the people to whom God has called you to preach the gospel.

Start with the Millennials who are in your congregation or have drifted from attending regularly—perhaps a good “excuse” to make an elder visit. Take time to ask questions and to listen to their responses. Spend some time in your community. Sit in a Starbucks or Caribou; observe and interact. Talk to your high school teens about what they listen to, watch, or pay attention to. Or perhaps hang out at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store if your community has one. The goal? Exegize the audience in your community.

If you are a preacher from the Boomer or Gen X generation, you don’t need to embrace all the millennial mindset, but it would be wise to understand it and adapt your preaching to connect with it. Certainly in our desire to connect with any generation we will ask what is permissible, but perhaps not beneficial. But we will always carry the heart of the Apostle Paul who was willing to become a Jew to the Jew to win the Jew and a Greek to the Greek to win the Greek. Can I become a Millennial to win the Millennial?

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings
(1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

So for the sake of the Gospel, the power it has for salvation, and the soul of the Millennial, let’s embark on this preaching adventure together.

Written by Mike Geiger

Upcoming Topics
  1. TOPIC: Preaching to the Biblically Ignorant without Being Biblically Arrogant
    Purpose: Assist the preacher in communicating biblical persons, language and terms to an audience that may have little or no awareness of the same.
  2. TOPIC: Preaching the Law without Being Judgmental
    Purpose: To help the preacher hone a skill to be clear about God’s law, but present it in a non-judgmental way.
  3. TOPIC: Preaching with a Cause
    Purpose: To help the preacher communicate in sermons the vital “cause” of Christianity and its personal benefit for people (especially in eternity).
  4. TOPIC: The “Sermon” after the Sermon
    Purpose: As a preacher expounds the Word of God, God’s Spirit gives people something to believe AND live. How does your preaching encourage individuals throughout their week to live a sermon of the Christian life so others may see and “praise their Father in heaven.”
  5. TOPIC: Including the Story in your Preaching
    Purpose: Give the preacher ideas that while the greatest story ever told is Jesus Christ, the second best stories are the impact Jesus Christ has on lives. Give examples of how we might use testimony in preaching.
Upcoming Topics

We invite interaction on the new Worship blog site: Can we have some constructive dialogue around the articles and the issues? The authors don’t profess to have all the answers. They don’t claim their insights are more powerful than the gospel or make it more powerful. We just want to communicate the power of the gospel to the millennial generation as best we can.

Exegizing your audience

Three tasks of a Good Missionary (Rise of the Nones, p. 114)

  1. Learn the language: educate yourself on how to talk in a way that people can understand and to which they can relate and eventually respond.
  2. Study the culture: become so sensitized to that culture that you can operate effectively within it.
  3. Translate the gospel: translate it into its own cultural context so that it can be heard, understood, and appropriated.

Kinnaman, David, and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church—and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.

Rainer, Thom S., and Jess W. Rainer. The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation. Nashville: B&H Pub. Group, 2011.

White, James Emery. The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014.


Forasteros, JR. “Preaching to Unchurched Millennials.” Preaching to Unchurched Millennials. Norville Rogers, 19 May 2015,

“Generational Differences.” Springer Reference (2011): n. pag. Generational Differences Chart. West Midland Family Center,

Hein, James. “Ministering to Millennials.” Bread for Beggars. James Hein, 29 April 2015,

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