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For the generations to come

Dear Friend,

“Will my grandchildren have a place to go to church?”

As I travel around our synod, I am often asked questions like that. WELS members see their local congregation aging and perhaps getting smaller every year. They learn of a WELS church in the next town that had to close its doors and hear rumors another nearby church will soon do the same.

So, naturally, they wonder. When their children or grandchildren are older, will there still be a WELS church in the area that they can attend?

The challenges facing WELS are not unique. American Christianity has been in decline for 60 years. The decline caught up to WELS about 30 years ago.

For the first 140 years of WELS’ existence it grew almost every year, peaking at over 421,000. But since 1990, WELS has lost members almost every year. At the end of 2017, WELS had 359,000 members, a decline of 62,000 souls from WELS’ height.

Possible decline in membership

Also troubling is that the rate of decline is accelerating. In the 90s WELS lost approximately four-tenths of one percent of its members each year. Since 2000, WELS is losing just over one percent of its members annually.

WELS still has almost 1,300 congregations nationwide; however, if nothing changes, in two generations WELS would be down to only about 500 congregations. In just one generation, WELS would lose another 73,000 members.

This isn’t about WELS, however. It is about the gospel. It is about souls.

When a congregation closes, the tragedy is not that a beautiful old building is lost, but that a center for gospel proclamation no longer exists. Moreover, the work WELS does collectively depends upon our synod having a strong backbone of congregations to support those joint efforts: opening new home missions, sending missionaries around the world, and having a strong ministerial education system. If that backbone of congregations crumbles, it adversely affects our worldwide gospel efforts.

As I mentioned, the rate of decline is accelerating. Therefore, the time to act is now.

That is where WELS Congregational Services comes in.

Congregational Services exists to help congregations engage in faithful and fruitful ministry. The six commissions within Congregational Services have worked together to produce an extremely aggressive five-year plan to help WELS congregations meet these challenges. We are calling it For the Generations to Come.

The plan has two components: “open the front door” and “shut the back door.” Let me explain.

We need congregations to more widely “open the front door.” In other words, we need to increase our evangelism efforts. We want to proclaim the gospel to more souls, so that the Holy Spirit might pull more people into the Church. Each of the six commissions is developing resources to aid congregations in that effort.

  • The Commissions on Lutheran Schools and Evangelism jointly developed Telling the Next Generation, a program that trains congregations in how to utilize preschools and elementary schools for evangelism.
  • The Commission on Congregational Counseling is developing resources to help rural congregations revitalize their ministry, possibly by teaming with other WELS congregations.
  • The Commission on Special Ministries is expanding evangelism efforts to those with special needs: the developmentally disabled, the blind, the imprisoned, etc.
  • All the commissions are working to produce C18, a synodwide initiative that has the goal of reaching one million souls with the gospel on Christmas Eve 2018.

We also need to “shut the back door.” A “back door loss” is when a member simply slips away from church. Over the past 20 years, WELS has averaged approximately 8,000 back door losses each year, close to a quarter-million members total. Following are some of the efforts to “shut the back door.”

  • The Commission on Discipleship is developing programs aimed at increasing family devotional life and the spiritual leadership of fathers, by far the two most influential factors in retaining young Christians.
  • The Commission on Worship is producing resources that will help congregations achieve the next level of excellence in their worship.
  • The Commission on Congregational Counseling has produced Ministering to Millennials, a program that helps congregations take steps to retain those younger members.
  • The Commissions on Evangelism, Discipleship, and Lutheran Schools are jointly working to develop an apologetics curriculum to prepare our young people to face the humanistic worldview they will encounter at secular universities or in the workforce.

These are just a fraction of the initiatives underway in the comprehensive plan to “open the front door” and “close the back door.”

We need your help.

First, we need your prayers. Any increase in faith or statistics is the work of the Holy Spirit; however, the way the Holy Spirit typically works is through believers as they share the gospel. Please pray that Christ Jesus would give us the strength and the courage to increase our gospel efforts.

Second, we need your service. When I talk about increasing our gospel efforts, I am not talking simply about the 1,400 pastors and 2,400 teachers. I’m talking about the 359,000 saints within our church body. We might be down in size, but that is still a formidable spiritual army! We all must strive to do all we can to serve our dying world with the life-giving gospel.

Finally, we need your support. For the Generations to Come includes plans for dozens of programs and initiatives to “open the front door” and “close the back door” over the next five years. These new resources will be disseminated in two ways: through an online resource center we are building and, when necessary, through on-site, one-on-one consultations. To carry out everything we hope to accomplish in that five-year plan, Congregational Services would need an additional one million dollars in gifts. We humbly ask for your help.

A gift to For the Generations to Come is unique in that it has the potential to help your local congregation as it makes use of the programs Congregational Services provides. It would also have a substantially wider impact, helping us in our effort to stabilize that backbone of WELS congregations, which enables us to conduct worldwide gospel ministry.

If the Lord of the Church would bless our increased gospel efforts, it would not take much to reverse things. Just a slight reduction in back-door losses and a slight increase in adult confirmations would mean large, long-term blessings. That is up to the Holy Spirit.

But again, the Spirit does his work through us. So, for the sake of the One who did all he possibly could on the cross for us, let us do all we can with the gospel: nurturing our children and grandchildren and reaching our community with the Savior’s truth and love.

As we do, we have Christ’s promise to be with us. He has been with us in the past. He will be with us for the generations to come.

In Christ,
Jonathan Hein
Director, Commission on Congregational Counseling

Outreach film bulk order deadline extended

Due to popular demand, the deadline for bulk rate orders of To the Ends of the Earth, the outreach film that tells the story of the apostle Paul and his work in Philippi, has been extended.

Now congregations and groups have until Sept. 28 to order quantities of 100 DVDs at a low bulk rate of $200 per box, plus shipping. Bulk orders that have been placed on or before Sept. 7 are shipping now. Orders placed by Sept. 28 will ship the first week of October.

More than 600 congregations have already ordered over 50,000 copies of the movie at this bulk rate.

“We are going to hand out DVDs at events in our area such as street festivals, etc.,” says Rev. Joel Petermann, pastor at Zion, Torrance, Calif. “It is our hope and prayer that those who watch this video will hear its gospel message and want to know more about Jesus so we can follow up with Bible class invitations and worship invitations.”

Petermann also notes that the outreach emphasis in the film will serve as a precursor to the upcoming C18 effort, a synodwide outreach campaign to reach one million people with the gospel message during the Christmas season. Film resources, including worship materials; adult, small group, teen, and children Bible studies; an Advent by Candlelight program; and personal reflections, discuss how to witness and share your faith.

“We hope the film reaffirms a mission mindset among our members,” says Rev. Michael Vogel, pastor at St. Paul, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “We will be doing a six-week sermon series and Bible study on the film in October and November. We will use the DVDs as part of our welcome package for visitors. We also will encourage our members to take one and share it with family and friends.”

Worship materials also can be used as an option for celebrating the synodwide Mission and Ministry Sunday planned for Oct. 21. All congregations received a free DVD of the film for this purpose.

To the Ends of the Earth is the final installment in a series of four outreach movies that are a collaboration between WELS Commission on Evangelism, WELS Commission on Discipleship, Northwestern Publishing House, WELS Multi-Language Publications, and Boettcher+Trinklein Television, Inc. Learn more, bulk order copies, and watch a film preview at wels.net/totheendsoftheearth.

 

 

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Social media expands reach and offers more connections

It started with wanting to offer more women in a congregation the opportunity to study together.

Corissa Nelson, wife of the pastor at Good Shepherd, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, decided to start a midweek women’s Bible class using 2000 Demons by Professor E. Allen Sorum as the base of the study. With short chapters, already included questions, and a riveting topic, the book seemed a perfect fit.

The problem: finding time during the week when most women could meet. Also congregation members are scattered, many living at least half an hour from church.

The solution: social media.

Nelson decided to create a Facebook group where she would post a question or two a day related to that week’s reading. Members of the group could comment and share their thoughts and ideas. While a small group from the church still met in person each week, this allowed more people who couldn’t make weekday meetings to participate.

But Nelson didn’t stop there. “Once I realized that we had bridged those miles, I determined we could invite anyone to be in the study,” she says. As part of the WELS Women’s Ministry Development Committee, Nelson thought offering this online opportunity for Bible study would be a great way to build community for all WELS women. So WELS Women’s Ministry began promoting this Bible study opportunity on its Facebook page.

More than 600 women from around the country (and even some from abroad) joined the group throughout the course of the monthlong Bible study, which concluded this past February. Nelson said between 300 to 500 of these were active, returning often to the site even if they didn’t always post comments.

Nelson says that having this broader group involved helped Good Shepherd, a smaller, isolated congregation, feel more connected to the synod and other WELS members. “They were able to connect with other mature Christians and learn from them,” she says.

Others commented on Facebook that they too had difficulty getting to a Bible study and appreciated this additional opportunity to study God’s Word. “Although it’s not as perfect as everyone sitting around a table and sharing ideas, it really can encourage more people to have some personal study and connect with other women,” says Nelson.

Nelson is offering another women’s Bible study, which will start April 9. This one, written by her husband Rev. Marques Nelson, will be on getting women involved in evangelism, based on the book of Acts. To join, go to facebook.com/groups/WMStudyGSLCR.

Learn more about WELS Women’s Ministry at wels.net/women.

New director of discipleship joins Congregational Services

“Encouraging and equipping congregations for faithful and fruitful gospel ministry.”

That’s how Rev. Donn Dobberstein describes his new position as the director of discipleship for WELS’ Congregational Services. In this new role, Dobberstein will serve the WELS Commissions on Adult Discipleship and Youth and Family Ministry. These commissions coordinate WELS Women’s Ministry, the Interactive Faith online Bible study series, marriage enrichment programs, the biennial international youth rally, the Kids Connection video series, and other ministry resources.

Dobberstein is not a stranger to Congregational Services, having served as the chairman of the Commission on Evangelism for the past 10 years. He also says, “Twenty-two years in parish mission settings have given me ministry experiences showing the importance of and the connection between ‘making disciples’ and ‘continuing to disciple.’ Evangelism and nurture are not at odds with each other but are complementary.”

Dobberstein served as pastor at Our Savior’s, Port Orange, Fla., for the past 17 years. He and his wife, Beth, moved from Port Orange to the Milwaukee, Wis., area in November as he began his work at the WELS Center for Mission and Ministry in Waukesha, Wis. The couple have four children, two of whom still live at home.

Dobberstein clearly feels a sense of urgency for this ministry. He notes, “After years of the position being ‘dormant,’ clarifying a sense of direction and vision will be a priority. Evaluating and prioritizing resources needed for WELS congregations will help us set goals for the next five years. My intention is to listen and learn, support and serve my fellow coworkers and God’s people. I believe God has given us a unique moment in his kingdom that can be seized that, God-willing, can lead to ministry activity.”