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2020 hindsight

Well, that didn’t go according to plan.

We began 2020 with a well thought out strategy, a good mix of outreach and in-reach efforts. We’d pull together with four big seasonal events to attract the community and engage our members. In the off months we’d look for quick wins – joining in the next 5K, hosting a game night, perhaps even bowling (as embarrassing as that would be for me). We met as a church to identify coordinators and volunteers. Everything was falling into place. Ready, set, go!

We never got to “go.”

Survive & Thrive after Quarantine webinar

Like churches across the country, the unexpected sidelined our plans. No community Easter brunch. No door-to-door introductions and invitations. No 5K’s, no concerts, no strawberry socials. Our focus shifted from the myriad of possibilities before us to managing the practical concerns of simply worshiping together. One step forward, two steps back.

But would you believe the Lord still brought blessing?

By necessity, our live-streaming capabilities matured rather quickly as online worship services moved from the confines of our website to the open spaces of Facebook. With our in-person events canceled, we pivoted into the all-digital event arena and hosted our first ever webinar: Survive & Thrive after Quarantine, an online event intended to help our community see COVID through a Christian lens. We got used to fellowship on Zoom and, in time, to worshiping six feet apart. Simply put, we shelved our big plans and rolled with the opportunities God placed before us.

And the Lord brought blessings – unplanned, unexpected, unforeseen blessings. Our online worship allowed us to connect with prospect families we might never have met otherwise. Zoom Bible studies kept us growing together even from a distance. Phone calls, text messages, email, and even snail mail were tools for mutual encouragement.

Ascension’s Christmas Festival

And as in-person events came back, the Lord gave us more opportunities. We swapped our planned indoor family Christmas event for an outdoor, socially-distanced Christmas festival, complete with individually packaged cookies, free raffles, and live music. Long-time members of Ascension and new friends rolled up their sleeves and donned their masks to enjoy the Christmas season with a much-needed sense of semi-normalcy. The Lord gave us good weather, a good turnout, good fun, and good contacts.

2020 was a challenging year to try to hit the ground running as a home mission restart. It’s humbling to so quickly shelve your first-ever ministry plan. But it’s far more humbling—and inspiring—to see the blessing the Lord Jesus pours out apart from our planning. We’re excited to bring several families into membership early this year and begin classes with several more, all blessings realized in the chaos of COVID.

Last year didn’t go according to plan—well, not our plan. And as it turns out, that’s a good thing.

Written by Rev. Ben Berger, home missionary at Ascension Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania


 

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Mission congregations offer aid during the pandemic

WELS Christian Aid and Relief and WELS Home Missions have teamed up to offer more than $160,000 in pandemic relief matching grants to 24 mission congregations that are offering aid to those in their communities who are struggling. Grants were allocated in January.

“Our mission is to relieve suffering, to reach out to those who have been hit hard by something and help them through it, while we reflect the love of Jesus and gain opportunities to share the good news of Jesus as their Savior,” says Rev. Daniel Sims, director of WELS Christian Aid and Relief. “It’s easy to look at the pandemic as a problem—and it is—but it’s also a tremendous opportunity to do exactly what our mission is set to do.”

These home missions were creative with their ideas, offering plans to provide food and supplies to families in need and counseling and support groups for those struggling with their mental health. Many are partnering with other community organizations, working closely with local homeless shelters and schools in their area.

Hope in the Heights, Houston, Texas, a home mission that started in 2019, is supporting its local Chamber of Commerce’s Adopt-a-Teacher program, which provides teachers with needed supplies, personal gifts, support, and prayers during these trying times. “With all the stress that teachers have been under, we thought it would be a nice thing to help them out,” says Mr. Mark Hartman, a lay member at Hope. The congregation decided to support teachers from two of the schools in the congregation’s target area.

Besides helping the teachers, Hope asked each teacher to nominate two families who are struggling because of the pandemic so that Hope could provide groceries to those families.

Hope was so excited about the program that it decided to get started even before the grant money came through. “I just bought groceries for our 18th family since we started [last November],” says Hartman. “We’re glad this grant program came up—not only for the resources—but just to spur us on to come up with an idea to help our community.”

He continues, “When a program like this comes along, it gives you the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t have to worry about my budget, I can just go and bless these people in my community.’ ”

And people are appreciative of that help. One local elementary teacher e-mailed, saying, “I have had the pleasure of hearing the cheerful stories from my students that you purchased groceries for. I wish you could see the look on their faces! I wanted to thank you for your generosity and kindness. This is definitely what this world needs more of.” Another said, “I am truly humbled and blessed that a church and its congregation wanted to help teachers—and especially me.”

Learn more about Christian Aid and Relief at wels.net/relief. Learn more about Home Missions at wels.net/missions.

 

 

 

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And he brought him to Jesus

What Andrew had found made everything else on the to-do list fade away. This discovery was of such importance that Andrew went right away to find his brother Peter. The discovery wasn’t a what, but a who. Andrew told Peter that they had found the Messiah (John 1:41-42). What greater thing can a person do for a sibling than to bring them to Jesus?

Bible information class in Mandarin at Reformation in San Diego

Many Chinese Christians freely use the term “brother” when they talk about a friend in the faith. When John, a Chinese member of Reformation Lutheran Church in San Diego, brought his Chinese friend Mark to a Thanksgiving church event, Mark was introduced as a brother in the faith. During the Thanksgiving event, Mark and his family enjoyed playing games with other brothers and sisters. The event was a reminder for everyone in attendance that we are always able to give thanks when Jesus is our focus. Mark’s family also heard a clear law and gospel message in Mandarin from Vicar David Choi (from our sister synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod).

Mark was eager to talk with the pastors and vicar afterward to learn more about the life of a pastor. The desire has been in Mark’s heart to find a path to study for full-time ministry. The pastors and vicar at Reformation have been able to share more information with Mark about our synod’s Pastoral Studies Institute (PSI) – a possible path for Mark to study for the pastoral ministry.

The first step is for Mark to study Reformation’s Bible information class and become a member. Thanks to translation efforts in the past, Reformation’s membership courses are available in Mandarin. Mark’s studies are well under way, and he is cherishing the time to be brought closer to Jesus.

Andrew and Peter would go on to share the truths they had learned from Jesus. They brought others to Jesus by sharing what Jesus had taught them. These brothers knew the best they could offer anyone would be to welcome them into the family of believers with the Good News of Jesus.

All of us have friends we can invite to join the family in spending time with Jesus. How might that person we invite respond when Jesus speaks to them? How might God use that person in the future to reach out to others? God continues to amaze us in the ways his gospel changes hearts and lives. May we all continue to follow Andrew’s example of prioritizing an invitation to those around us to join us as we spend time with Jesus.

Please keep Mark, John, Vicar Choi, and the growing outreach ministry to our Chinese neighbors in San Diego in your prayers.

Written by Rev. Neil Birkholz, WELS Asian ministry consultant and Associate Pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA

Learn more about Asian outreach occurring throughout North America at wels.net/asianministry.


 

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So much more than a burial

The body of late Evangelist Chitanzane Kantokoma Mapulanga was laid to rest on December 6, 2020. The coffin was lowered. The dirt was heaped. Wreaths were placed.

Evangelist and Mrs. Mapulanga – December 2016

But the funeral was so much more than a burial. It was a “witness to a stricken world.”

In Christ, who tasted death for us
We rise above our natural grief
And witness to a stricken world
The strength and splendor of belief. – CW #607

Some say that the best evangelism opportunities in Malawi are funerals. Why? Because the masses gather. Not just the fellow members of the deceased’s home church, but the entire community. Crowds of people. And as you can well imagine, a variety of faiths in need of a message whether they realize it or not. What better time to share the gospel of Jesus?

That is exactly what Pastor Khwima Msiska did.

He preached 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, “. . . the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Pastors Msowoya and Msiska

Pastor Msiska could have hijacked the sermon time and simply highlighted how much Evangelist Mapulanga had accomplished during his personal and ministry years. God had given the Evangelist a total eight decades spanning from 1940 to 2020. There would have been plenty to say. After all, just in his gospel ministry of serving the Lutheran Church of Central Africa, how many sermons did Evangelist Mapulanga preach? How many babies and adults did he baptize? How many member visits had he made? How many people of the Lutheran church had he comforted, corrected, rebuked, and trained in righteousness? Over decades of service, how many kilometers had he pedaled and miles had he walked to serve the Lord’s people?

But Pastor Msiska didn’t dwell on those things. For that matter, neither did the Liturgist Pastor Msowoya nor any other speaker. The funeral focus was not about the man Mapulanga but about the God man Jesus Christ. Both Lutheran Church of Central Africa pastors answered very clearly the questions that are most important: What had Jesus done for Evangelist Mapulanga? What had the Promised One accomplished? Why did Christ die on the cross? What does Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death mean for him, and me, when I die? 

Ah, now that’s something to talk about. And sing about.

And that is what the Lutheran women and men did. The preacher and the liturgist were not the only ones witnessing to the stricken world. So were the many people who attended the funeral and are longing for Christ’s coming. We arrived at the funeral home at 9 a.m. We departed at 4 p.m. And for the better part of seven hours, people were singing. Why?

Because there was something to sing about! The funeral was so much more than a burial. It was a witness to a stricken world that there is hope beyond the grave. There is life after death. There is a crown of righteousness in store. No wonder the family of God longs for their Brother’s appearing on the last day! We are not just waiting for Jesus Christ to come again, but desiring it, yearning for it. Looking forward to it, patiently but with anticipation.

One day our fight will be over. Our race will be finished. And we will live no longer by faith, but by sight.

Missionary Holtz with Evangelist Mapulanga

And so with the strength and splendor of belief, the men and women lifted up their voices. They sang at the funeral home, at the mortuary, walking to the cemetery, and huddled around the grave. The day was one of song, and the songs were ones of witness. And the witness was to Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, so will Evangelist Mapulanga. Because Jesus paid the penalty of sin, we don’t have to. Because Jesus gave up his crown, we will wear one!

A gift of grace.

Until the Lord calls us home as he did Evangelist Mapulanga on December 4, we will still have graves to dig, funerals to attend, and loved ones to bid goodbye. We will mourn. Hearts will ache. Tears will flow.

But not without hope.

So we will also have sermons to preach and songs to sing and a witness to give. Because there is a world out there stricken with sin and in need of a Savior. No matter in which country our loved ones die, let the masses and the crowds come to our Christian funerals! It’s so much more than a burial.

Written by Rev. John Holtz, world missionary on the WELS One Africa Team


 

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A head-start on the restart

Our mission in Wesley Chapel chose to get a head-start on the restart that every church is experiencing right now. Two years ago the members of Emmanuel in Zephyrhills, Fla., decided to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. They chose to sell their property and everything but the hymnals, font, and communion set. They chose to work with their District Mission Board, call a home missionary, and spend time as a wandering church. . . a restarting church that would find a way to evangelize nearby Wesley Chapel, Tampa’s booming northern suburb.

I accepted the call to the Wesley Chapel home mission a week before the March shutdown. We knew back then we were joining a church choosing to restart. The group had taken this leap of faith and was seeking a shepherd for their next steps. Members dreamed of the future, but first we needed to answer some fundamental questions: What is the Bible’s blueprint for a church? What’s absolutely critical, and what can we let go? What ministries and programs should we offer? How will we invite the community? As 2020 wraps up, our group is still studying God’s answers to those questions, and we’re still studying our Wesley Chapel mission field. We plan to spend 2021 setting up our primary ministries.

What’s changed since March is that every church is now forced to answer similar questions: Why do we gather? Are we essential? What will we offer online? Is it worth restarting that program or not? See! Our group was just ahead of the pack!

Home missionary Phil Hunter’s installation – poolside!

Our Wesley Chapel home mission has navigated the same practical puzzles as all other churches (meeting location, online worship, safety measures, etc.) Again we just happen to be very flexible–for such a time as this! We didn’t own a building anyways, so we were prepared for simple services in unusual locations. We met in a family’s yard. We held a poolside installation service. We now lease space from a beautiful new school and meet on their covered patio. We adjust the sound system for each new space, laugh at ourselves when the candles won’t light, and consider it all part of the adventure. We’ll likely own another facility soon, but for now we enjoy a camaraderie with Christians across the ages and the globe who worship outdoors or meet in houses.

The pandemic has not hindered our home mission start. However, it has slowed down our communication. In normal times, we could all gather for a meal and an open forum or brainstorming session. Now it’s an in-person forum for some, a Zoom meeting for others, an e-mail and online form for others who can’t Zoom, plus letters and phone calls for the few beautiful souls who have managed to avoid the internet. It is still possible to gather input and distribute info. . . but it takes more time and effort. In the big picture, that’s a pretty easy yoke for us to bear.

A final bit of news: A new name for this new church year. We spent a month gathering name suggestions. Our leaders discussed them, compared them to other area churches, and narrowed them down to a final four. We took those finalists and surveyed area WELS school kids, core group members, and dozens of people at parks and stores around Wesley Chapel. The result of that research is a name that’s both fresh and iconic, appealing to WELS kids and unchurched families, and connects well with Biblical imagery and local geography: Citrus Grove Lutheran Church, launching in late 2021 here in Wesley Chapel, Fla.

Jesus bless your church’s restart. . . and ours!

Written by Rev. Phil Hunter, home missionary at Citrus Grove Lutheran Church in Wesley Chapel, Fla. 


 

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Update from Vietnam

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lord is always with his church. Christians in the Hmong Fellowship Church in Vietnam are continuing to reach out to lost souls. In 2020, the Holy Spirit brought more than 12,000 Hmong people throughout Vietnam to faith in Jesus. The Hmong Fellowship Church has grown from 126,000 to 138,000 members.

Rev. Zang, one of the Hmong leaders, said, “Most of the pastors in the Hmong Fellowship Church have heard many scary things through television and radio about the impact of COVID-19, but they see it as less dangerous when compared to the lost souls who have no chance to hear the gospel before they die.”

Rev. Fong and his evangelism team reached out to many villages in his area. The Lord blessed their efforts, and they were able to establish nine new mission congregations.

The Lord also has provided a way for WELS to continue training the Hmong Fellowship Church leaders. In November, the Vietnam mission team responded to the request of the Hmong Fellowship Church and offered Zoom training to 57 students. WELS provided phones and internet connectivity when needed to allow these students to participate in online training classes. Rev. Joel Nitz taught the gospel of Mark, and Rev. Bounkeo Lor taught law and gospel. Instruction via Zoom is something new for the Hmong Fellowship Church, but the students were very excited. Some students even asked permission for their wives and parents to join the training as well.

While the Hmong Fellowship Church has been tremendously blessed, there are also some big challenges ahead. More than 1,360 leaders are waiting for someone to train them in the Word of God. They are also waiting to build more churches for new believers to worship their Lord. Lor explains that the Hmong Fellowship Church leaders are very skilled at doing evangelism in their communities. With proper training and materials, these men will continue to share God’s Word.

The theological education center building project in Vietnam is still active but has been delayed due to COVID-19. Once Lor is able to visit Vietnam, he will arrange a Zoom or face-to-face meeting, if possible, between WELS and Vietnamese representatives. The government also wants to make this project happen as quickly as possible.

Lor shares that brothers and sisters in Vietnam send their greetings and say, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” to all WELS members. They appreciate your help and support, especially to train their leaders in the Word of God. They also ask for your continued support and prayers.

Read more from Pastor Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator, in this Missions Blog from December 10.

 

 

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2020 blessings in Vietnam

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20b

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lord is always with his church. Our brothers and sisters in the Hmong Fellowship Church in Vietnam are not stopping reaching out to lost souls. Pastor Zang said, “Most of the pastors in the Hmong Fellowship Church are farmers, and they know very little about germs. They have heard many scary things through television and radio about the impact of COVID-19, but they see it as less dangerous when compared to the lost souls that have no chance to hear the gospel before they die. The souls will be condemned eternally to hell without hearing the word of God.” In 2020, more than 12,000 have come to be believers in Jesus.

Pastor Fong burns a pagan altar

In 2020, Pastor Fong and his evangelism team reached out to many villages in his area. The Lord has blessed their outreach tremendously. They were able to establish nine new mission congregations in nearby villages. Fong said, “We proclaimed the Word and cast demons out of some people that were brought to us. The people had sought help from shamans in their community, but they couldn’t drive out the demons. In Christ’s name, we were able to drive out the demons and heal the sick.” Besides this, they also burned the pagan altars of the unbelievers to prove to the community that Christ has power to overcome Satan. In some cultures, you don’t dare to burn the altars in which sacrifices are offered to the devil because they think that they will bring curses to their family.

Despite the pandemic, the Lord has provided a way for the WELS to continue training the Hmong Fellowship Church church leaders. The last WELS trip to Vietnam was in January 2020. In November, the Vietnam mission team responded to the request of Hmong Fellowship Church and offered Zoom training to 57 students in Hanoi. Rev. Joel Nitz teaches the gospel of Mark and I teach Law and Gospel. The students are divided into two groups. Each group spends eight hours per week online. Due to poor Wi-Fi connections, some students have had to travel to the city to get a better connection. They have never utilized technology to assist in their ministry before. Instruction via Zoom is something new for them. It took me two days to guide the students in how to use the program. Praise be to God, they finally learned how to use it! Due to their excitement, some students have asked permission for their wives and parents to join our training as well. They are welcome in Christ’s name!

During the training. Rev. Nitz asked the students to recall the blessings in their lives given to them through Christ. Pastor Tsheej and Ntsuablooj said, “The biggest blessing in my life is the opportunity to be part of WELS training in Vietnam.” Pastor Nukhai said, “The more I learn from WELS, the more I feel like I know nothing about the Scriptures. There is so much to learn. If I look back to the last eight years, before I received WELS training, I saw a dark path in front of me. But now I see a clear path before and after me. I will dedicate my whole life to learning from WELS, God-willing.”

WELS’ teaching has helped the church leaders identify the false teaching in Vietnam. Thanks be to God for the well-trained pastors in WELS! The Hmong Fellowship Church has grown from 126,000 to 138,000 in 2020. To Christ alone be the glory!

Zoom training

The Hmong Fellowship Church has been tremendously blessed; however, there are also some big challenges ahead of them. More than 1,360 leaders are waiting for someone to train them in the Word of God. They are also waiting to build more churches for new believers to worship their Lord. Evangelism work is the priority for them. They are very skilled in doing evangelism in their community. With proper training and materials, these men will continue to share God’s word.

The building project in Vietnam is still active but has been delayed due to COVID-19. Once I visit Vietnam, I will arrange a Zoom or face-to-face meeting (God-willing) between WELS representatives and the representatives in Vietnam. The government also wants to make this project happen as quickly as possible.

Our brothers and sisters in Vietnam send their greetings and say, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” to all WELS members. They appreciate your help and support, especially to train their leaders in the word of God. They also ask for your continued support and prayers.

Finally, I would also like to thank our members in WELS for your continued support for the work in Vietnam. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. May the Lord of the Church send more workers to harvest his fields. May the Lord continue to bless our leaders, members, and the work in the U.S. and around the world so that the lost souls may be saved through faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Written by Rev. Bounkeo Lor, Hmong Asia ministry coordinator


 

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Perfect timing

The timing seemed awful. Missionary Joel Sutton and his family and I had only been in our new mission field in Paraguay for a few months. We had just found housing, but it certainly didn’t feel like “home” yet. We were really looking forward to changing that: getting to know our neighbors, traveling a bit in the country, making connections in the community.

Then the pandemic hit. Paraguay´s government issued a “total isolation” policy. We could leave our houses to get food or medicine, but that was about it. So much for our plans of getting established in a new mission field! From our perspective, the timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been much worse.

But God’s timing is always perfect. We were locked in our homes, but so were people all across the world. Many were scared and searching for answers. The Latin America missions team had just rolled out a new, Academia Cristo Bible study app for smartphones. . . and downloads surged. Sign-ups for our online Bible training courses surged too. Zoom classes with 10-20 students before the pandemic were now filled with 40-50. God was reaching more souls with the gospel all over Latin America!

One of those souls was Lester Soto from Managua, Nicaragua (pictured above). He had downloaded our app just after the pandemic hit and signed up for our live classes in April. When I met with him after class one day via Zoom, he admitted that he had been putting off his relationship with God for a long time. But God had used events in his life to lead him to search for the truth, and he found us online. More importantly, his Savior found him. “I was lost,” Lester said. “But now I know Jesus did everything for me. I have a spiritual peace I’ve never had before.” He told me he wanted to join one of our churches. When I said we didn’t have a church in Managua yet, he said he wanted to help start one.

Over the course of the pandemic, Lester was able to take 11 online Bible courses with us. He’s now gathering a group in his home to share with them what he is learning. And he’s not the only one: I could tell you about Eduardo from Bolivia (pictured), José from Ecuador, Benjamín from Colombia, and others—all of whom found us during the pandemic and are now working to plant churches where they live.

It might not always seem like it to us, but God’s timing is always perfect. The Christmas story reminds us of this. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, miles from home, with a barn for their hotel room. That doesn’t seem like the best moment for the Savior to be born! But there in Bethlehem was precisely where and when God had promised it would happen (Micah 5:2). In God’s eyes, the timing was perfect: “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son…” (Galatians 4:4)

In our case, having just arrived in a new mission field did not seem like the best moment for God to allow the pandemic to happen. But just ask Lester, Eduardo, José, Benjamín, or any of the countless others across the globe that God has used the pandemic to reach or grow with the gospel. I’m sure they’ll all tell you. . . God’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Written by Rev. Abe Degner, world missionary on the Latin America missions team who resides in Asunción, Paraguay. 

Want to learn more about world mission work in Latin America? Visit wels.net/latin-america to learn how Academia Cristo, an online training tool used by the Latin America missions team, is reaching millions of Spanish-speaking people with the gospel.


 

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Growing God’s garden

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

– Galatians 6:9,10

Not everything grows down here. This past quarantine, my wife and I, like millions or other amateur gardeners and do-it-yourselfers, decided to plant a garden. After a few weekends, several hours, and countless trips to Lowe’s, we had our own budding garden, with okra, raspberries, zucchini, tomatoes, and grapes.

But not everything grows down here. The peonies failed to thrive. A dogwood tree and an elephant ear rotted in the boggy clay. A few berry bushes withered; one snapped at the base with a gentle pinch.

It’s easy to grow weary of that kind of work, isn’t it? To toss the gloves in the garage and ignore the yard. All that caring, feeding, and nurturing, only to have the fate of a crop slip from your hands. What went wrong? The soil? The seeds? Did I do something wrong? Could anything grow here? Could anything grow now?

A little amateur gardening experience leads us to appreciate some of God’s great truths about his kingdom and how it grows: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” – Mark 4:26,27

Have you felt the same way? Pastors and members alike have spent time maintaining interpersonal bridges; exploring mysterious livestream glitches and problems; calling, texting, and brainstorming to find some way of hanging onto everyone. At times, church work can feel like starting a broken lawnmower. Bursts of energy trying to get something going, only to puzzle over what the problem could be.

Worship at May River

Not everything grows down here. What grows near you? Do you feel fatigued? Perhaps a creeping sense of futility? Frustration?

There’s a reason Paul says not to get weary. Because while not everything grows immediately, some things do. And they grow. . . and they grow. . . and they grow, bearing far more fruit than one might imagine. As I write this, we are currently on our second crop of Okra. The first grew to a height of four feet. After we chopped them down in September, another crop appeared.

How much more wonderful to see what God is doing with souls here! Even in the midst of a pandemic, God blessed us with the opportunity to finish teaching Bible information class to seven adults and two of their teens now enrolled in catechism classes.

Beyond that, God’s people continue to bear fruit. New members step up into service and longtime members keep serving. God’s people still make it a priority to clean, decorate, coordinate, serve, and pray for one another. After church, you overhear members building one another up. In the midst of uncertainty and tension in our nation, generosity holds strong. In uncertain times, God still works in beautiful ways.

No, not everything has grown. The new, thoughtful sermon series, your friendly invite, the hours spent tweaking the tech may not have yielded results (yet). But God still promises—yes, even in a pandemic—that his Word produces fruit.

Just as every hardship is an opportunity to gain a better grip, a deeper appreciation of God’s promises, so he nurtures and tends a young home mission congregation. He draws us closer and closer to his Word. He shapes our hearts, gently tugging us from our own strength and capabilities, laying us back on his shoulder for his grace every day. And in our Savior Jesus, we regain a fresh sense of optimism and hope. As we turn, again and again, to his promises, we catch our breath and make our way back out to the fields, ready for the harvest.

Written by Rev. Erik Janke, home missionary at May River Lutheran Church in Bluffton, South Carolina

Want to learn more about the ministry at May River? Watch Pastor Janke’s Moments with Missionaries video update from Taste and See.


 

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WELS Home Missions team expanding

Over the past several months, the WELS Missions team has expanded, welcoming three mission counselors to support the work of our home missionaries, mission congregations, and campus ministries across North America.

Rev. Keith Free, administrator of WELS Home Missions, says, “Home Missions is excited that these three men recently accepted counselor calls. Each pastor—Neil Birkholz, Dan Lindner, and Wayne Uhlhorn—provides years of ministry experience in his respective field. We pray the Lord will use their unique gifts to enhance and expand the ministries they support.”

In June 2020, Rev. Neil Birkholz accepted the call to serve as the WELS Asian ministry consultant for WELS Joint Missions, after serving as a missionary in East Asia for six years. Birkholz’s new role is based out of Reformation, San Diego, Calif., where he serves as an associate pastor in addition to his position in WELS Missions.

In this newly created role, Birkholz assists North American congregations in designing and implementing outreach programs to reach their Asian community members, in addition to working with individuals to improve their personal Asian intercultural witnessing skills. Another key part of his work is equipping international high school and university students to share the gospel when they return to their home countries.

Birkholz also supports the mutual work between world mission efforts in Asia and home mission efforts to Asian people in North America. He says, “When I visit WELS churches, there exists a desire to answer the call of the Great Commission by making disciples of all nations. With God’s blessing, our churches and schools will be places where people from all backgrounds are welcomed to know their Savior. We pray that through these efforts God would use our Asian brothers and sisters in the faith to take the gospel to places and peoples in Asia that we cannot reach at this time.”

Rev. Dan Lindner recently accepted the call to serve as campus ministry mission counselor, starting in his new role Nov. 1. He previously served as a parish pastor at St. John’s, Minneapolis, Minn.; campus ministry pastor at True North (the WELS campus ministry at the University of Minnesota); and as vice chairman of the WELS Campus Ministry Committee.

In this brand-new role, Lindner will work to strengthen and support existing campus ministries, encourage high school students (both domestic and international) to connect with a campus ministry, work with congregations to start and maintain active campus ministry programs, and equip domestic and international students to share their faith with family and friends wherever they call home.

“The Campus Ministry Committee wants the young adults from our synod who attend college to continue to walk faithfully with their Savior,” notes Lindner. “We also want all people to know about their Savior. College and university campuses are vast mission fields.” Lindner is grateful for the privilege of helping called workers and congregations with campus ministries as an encourager and equipper with tools, resources, and a listening ear. “My hope is that the Lord blesses the partnership in the gospel that we have across our church body as we work together to serve our WELS students and those they encounter on their campuses.”

Rev. Wayne Uhlhorn (pictured at top of page) accepted the call to serve as a home mission counselor in late October 2020 and will begin his new position Jan. 1, 2021. Uhlhorn is currently a parish pastor at Beautiful Saviour, Carlsbad, Calif., and previously served as the Board for Home Missions chairman. He will be one of four home mission counselors who assist home mission congregations throughout North America.

In his role, Uhlhorn will work with four district mission boards to find, evaluate, and develop new home mission locations. In addition, once new home mission congregations are established, Uhlhorn will provide onsite assistance to the congregations and counseling and training to the new missionaries who are called to serve them. This support is crucial in guiding mission congregations on the way to becoming self-supporting congregations.

“I’m no church expert or mission guru, but I have served WELS congregations from coast to coast, and I have been on the ‘other side’—the mission board side of things,” says Uhlhorn. “And so whatever a pastor or a congregation or a district mission board needs, I am willing to do that to help them find souls who do not know Christ as their Savior and give them every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with those people.”

Free concludes, “Opportunities continue to abound to share the gospel. Looking to capitalize on ripe fields in North America, the WELS Missions team is thankful that the Lord has provided these three men to serve in counselor roles. May their respective ministries be blessed so more souls hear about our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Learn more about WELS Home Missions at wels.net/missions.

 

 

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How long does it take to build a church?

How long does it take to build a church?

182 years. It took 182 years to construct the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.

182 years is a long time. It probably felt like a dreadfully long time to workers in Year eight or nine of the project. It must have seemed like it was going to take forever. By the time Year 50 rolled around, how many of the original workers had retired? How many lifetimes did it take to complete this church-building work? Finally, the people in 1345 AD got to see the completed structure.

How long does it take to build a church? Not the church-structure, but the church-church. The people. How long does it take to build a congregation?

One year to explore the field. Another year to plant the first seeds and assemble a core group. A third year to plan and execute a launch. By year five, that mission is off and running. By year 6 or 7 or 10, that mission is standing on its own two feet. Time to move on to the next one.

Mission core group in 1993

Praise God when that timetable works out! Praise God for the mission starts that “catch” quickly like a spark in tinder and flare up into a roaring fire!

Praise God also for the “slow-burning” missions. Praise God for the church-building work that follows a cathedral-like timetable. Praise God for the missions that take lifetimes to grow.

But how?

If you are building a cathedral, stopping to measure your progress every few minutes only makes the goal feel out of reach. The row of stones set in place seems pitifully small. The edifice pictured in the building plan seems impossibly large.

Instead, let the builders just keep building. Let gospel work proceed at a steady pace. Let each living stone built on the foundation of Christ and his Word be set in place carefully and lovingly, yet urgently. Let the pace of the workers be diligent and energetic. And then…let the progress of the work rest in the hands of God.

Finally, in God’s good time, after all the halting human labor by frail human hands is finished, we will get to see the completed masterpiece that God himself constructed.

To Him alone be glory!

Home Missionary David Boettcher serves the dual-parish mission of St. John’s, Wetaskiwin, and Mighty Fortress, Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, which plans to become self-supporting in 2022. For the many years of mission subsidy, these Christians are grateful for the patient and generous support through WELS Home Missions and the many members who have donated to Christ’s church. Thank you! 


 

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Pandemic proclamation

In 1918, the United States experienced a pandemic. The Spanish Flu Pandemic was terrible. How bad was it? By many estimates, 1/3 of the world’s population was infected and 5% of the entire world’s population died. However, the Lord brought something good out of that terrible pandemic. As Missionary Guenther rode to various Apache camps, doing what he could do for the sick by applying the homemade remedies of skunk oil and tar paper, he came upon the ailing Chief Alchesay. The Holy Spirit worked in the conversations about Jesus that followed, and when he recovered, Alchesay founded and dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Open Bible on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona.

Just over 100 years later, we are in the midst of another pandemic. If our missionaries today tried to ride around town on horseback applying skunk oil and wrapping the sick in tar paper, getting arrested may be the kindest reaction they would receive. But the Lord has opened other doors to share the same good news about Jesus.

Under the banner of Native Christians, our mission field has been working on new ways to share Jesus. And with all of our reservation churches still unable to worship as normal (and some not in person yet at all), sharing the gospel digitally has taken on fresh importance. The pandemic has given us a wonderful opportunity to work on ways to share without gathering in person.

Part of our plan to reach Native people inside and outside of our reservations in Arizona included completely overhauling our website and providing a platform for us to share our Bible study resources. Local member Kasheena Miles has been able to build the site from start to finish, and her filmmaker/entrepreneur husband Douglas Jr. (both pictured) supplied the excellent photos and videos. With their help, our pastors are now able to reach a much wider audience with the gospel.

The website is one piece of our effort to create a Native Christians Network. We are actively seeking Native people to reach them with the gospel and offering sound Bible training to anyone interested, no matter where they live. Through our website and social media, our gospel reach is expanding. Pray that our generous Lord continues to give us more Alchesays, and pray that our efforts continue to be successful.

If you’d like to see the website and get the latest updates on our field, please visit www.nativechristians.org

Written by Missionary Dan Rautenberg, field coordinator on the Apache reservations in Arizona


 

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Christ-centered wedding blessings

Greetings from East Asia! I want to share with you that God is still working powerfully here in East Asia even during these very trying and special times. COVID-19 has pretty much shut down international travel, yet I feel so blessed that I have been able to remain both safe and healthy here in East Asia during these unusual times.

While most may look back on 2020 as a challenging year, my new wife Christine and I will look back on all the blessings God has poured out on us during these past months. As my Asia Lutheran Seminary classes and opportunities to meet friends face-to-face became limited in February through April, opportunities to spend more time with Christine and lead online studies became greater. While most Bible study friends confined themselves to their homes and socialized mostly on social media in one of our four weekly online studies, Christine and I were excited to explore the empty parks and travel to see each other on the traffic-free roads. Even while large gatherings were banned, we fell deeper in love. We were soon engaged and were trying to figure out how to hold a wedding in such special times. One of our plans was to invite our friends to a secluded park and have an outdoor wedding, but the logistics of bringing chairs, tables, and a shelter seemed too much. Finally, in the middle of July, we were referred to a banquet hall that was just given permission to open their doors to group gatherings (as long as the virus situation in our city stayed under control). We booked our wedding for August 8 and invited our friends. We thought maybe 100 friends might be able to join. . .  within the couple weeks we used to finalize all the details, we had 260 friends asking to join our special day. Many friends were so excited to have this chance to see each other and celebrate something so joyful after months of isolation.

By God’s grace we were able to hold our wedding on August 8th, 2020. Throughout our planning, we made an effort to put God first and desired every detail to point to God and his glory. We knew that there would be many of our friends in attendance who were not believers and several who knew very little about Christ and his redemptive work for all mankind. Other friends in attendance had been studying God’s Word with us for some time, but had not yet come to place their faith in Jesus and call themselves a believer.

Our preparations were blessed. The Holy Spirit was working powerfully during our wedding service. One brother who held onto a quarrel with the pastor of our wedding was moved by his preaching and servant-like attitude and reconciled the difference in the days after the wedding. Another friend that had been attending Bible studies for over three years was moved to be baptized. When Christine and I were moving from table to table to greet and toast the guests, she told us about her desire to be baptized. Praise God for moving her, through our Christ-centered wedding service, to want to join the fellowship of believers! Christine and I made our way to the stage in front of the banquet hall, this time accompanied by our friend. Christine held the microphone as I had the privilege of pouring the water connected to our Triune God’s name over our friend’s head. We sang Amazing Grace for the second time that day, and this time my friend could personally relate to the words, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”

What a privilege to see the Holy Spirit working so powerfully here in East Asia and around the world. We give God all the glory and honor for changing our lives and those around us to follow him and praise his name.

May God continue to bless the work he is doing here in East Asia. Thank you for all of your support and prayers. It is our privilege to see the answers to your prayers.

Written by Mike, evangelist with Friends Network and partner of our work in East Asia 


 

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Faces of Faith – Brother Peter

Before our church found Lutheranism, there were constant religious disputes within the church. The truth was unclear, and it brought great losses to believers and their lives. We were learning to pray to God, and we asked him to enable us to understand his truth and provide a place to learn. God provided a Lutheran brother from a different area to teach us English. One of the members of our church met him by chance, and he came to our church to help us. At the same time, I met Dave, another Lutheran who came here to preach for more than a year at our church. He lived in a different region and served as an English teacher. He saw the problems at our church and was willing to help us. He taught us Law and Gospel and helped us understand why our church was so confused. Many church members felt guilty and dared not speak out, but Dave made us more aware of the preciousness of God’s salvation. He continued to preach the gospel and brought many believers to the church. Because of him, a lot of people believe Jesus. Dave also introduced Asia Lutheran Seminary (ALS) to us, and he recommended that I study at ALS. Dave helped us for seven years before going back to the United States. However, I know that he is not resting. He is still preaching the gospel, leading groups, and bringing more souls to know our God.

I learned a lot of truth from Bible and knowledge that I didn’t know before when I enrolled in the Diploma of Christian Studies program through ALS. I got to know the ALS faculty and the dedication and love of the teachers. I truly felt a spirit of humility and dedication in them. In order not to delay our study, ALS also asked other bilingual ALS students to teach us. I am very grateful!

Although COVID affected our learning process, we are seeing that Asia Lutheran Seminary is also working hard to help us in various ways. They provided a Chinese-speaking teacher (an East Asia missionary) who is helping and encouraging me to continue preaching the gospel. May God bless the missionaries, teachers, and my classmates at ALS so that they can be filled with God’s love and increase their ability to serve!

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Eight years of blessings in Lafayette, Indiana

The weatherman said that Saturday, October 3rd, was going to be a beautiful, sunny 70 degree day in Lafayette, Ind. He also said that about Monday, October 5th. But Sunday, October 4th was predicted to be a rainy, cold, and windy 45 degree day. That was the day our leadership team had chosen for our outdoor service and picnic lunch at Prophetstown State Park to celebrate our eight year anniversary as a congregation. People texted, “Pastor, are we going to postpone this? Weather doesn’t look good.” We didn’t have a contingency plan because we figured, “It’s a large covered shelter with space for 150. We’ll be fine!” I texted back, “Bring your jackets and blankets.” When we arrived it was colder than 45 degrees. The wind was blowing across the prairie grass of the state park with nothing to stop it. . . and it was raining.

They say that Lutherans are hearty people, and I guess “they” are correct. Keep in mind that we average about 40 on a Sunday morning in our storefront worship space. That morning, 55 people showed up with jackets and blankets, including 11 students from our Purdue campus ministry group and 7 prospects. Three of our young people played brass, and three others played violin to lead those gathered in the hymns. I did feel bad for the instrumentalists, barely able to keep their lips and fingers warm enough to play, but they sounded great in spite of the circumstances.

That Sunday I preached the final part of my sermon series, “Why we do what we do in the Divine Service” and focused on Numbers 6:22-27, “The Blessing.” For the past eight years the LORD has put his name on his people at Lamb of God Lutheran Church. For the past eight years the Lord has blessed Lamb of God by shining his face on us and looking on us with favor. The past eight years the Lord has given us peace. Now, we need his name to be on us more than ever as we look to the future of our ministry. God-willing, by the end of this year, we will close on an existing facility in West Lafayette and move out of our storefront sometime in 2021.

In February 2020, the pastor of Immanuel Reformed Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette called my office and said, “Hey, I heard you’re looking for a new piece of property or existing facility. We’d like to sell our property to you!” Our leadership team, members of the church, and the district mission board toured the facility. The members agree to pursue the purchase of this property.  We are currently in the negotiating stages of our purchase. I ask for your prayers, that this new facility will be a great location for us to better reach out and serve our great Lafayette/West Lafayette community and Purdue University. Stay tuned!

Written by Rev. Paul Horn, home missionary at Lamb of God Lutheran Church in Lafayette, Ind.           


 

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I could not find Jesus, but he found me

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is the name of an autobiography written by a Muslim who used to be an ardent defender of Islam. While we do not agree with all of the writer’s theology, the book describes how Nabeel Quereshi became a believer in Jesus and an evangelist to Muslims. The title of Nabeel’s book could be used for another Muslim man who has become my friend.

*Names changed for security reasons*

Habib attended a madrassah (a Muslim school of learning) for three years. He shared with me:

“I never stopped reading the Koran (the holy book of Islam). One day I read surah 19 (the word for chapter in the Koran) ayah 21 (the word for verse) called Maryam (the Muslim name for Mary). I learned that Issa (the Muslim name for Jesus) was born of a virgin and that he came to this world for the people. When I read this, I was overwhelmed. I wanted to learn more about Jesus. My teacher told me, ‘You don’t need to know about Jesus. Learn about Mohammed. Jesus came for the Israelites, not you.’ In spite of his warning, I read more and more.

The Imam at my mosque called me and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to the prayer times? You used to sing the verses of the Koran for everyone to hear. I heard you became a Christian.’ Shortly after that I went to the barbershop in my village and the barber told me, ‘Everyone is complaining about you. They say you do not pray (Muslims have five daily calls to prayer). You do not read the Koran.’ My barber was sympathetic and told me to go to the Catholic church. When I entered the Catholic church, a man confronted me and said, ‘What are you doing here? Muslims are not allowed inside our church. Go to the mosque.’ I told him, ‘I am a Christian.’ He said, ‘We do not share Jesus with Muslim people.’ I did not know what to do.

Soon I met a humble Christian brother who gave me a Bible. I read the Bible day and night. I felt it was written for me. I also became part of a small group of Christians and was baptized. Then I learned that the imam at my mosque—and the village elders—made a sharia (“law”) judgment against me. They summoned me to a meeting. They said, ‘If you do not renounce Christianity and return to Islam, we will kick you out of the village.’ I remembered Jesus’ words, ‘Whoever denies me before men, him will I also deny before my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 10:33). I told the imam and the village elders, ‘Yes, I am a Christian. I will never leave Jesus. I will never leave this truth.’

They isolated my family from the rest of the community. My father went to the mosque for the daily calls to prayer, but they would not let him enter the mosque. They told him, ‘You cannot enter the mosque, because your son is a Christian.’ This upset my father very much. He began to beat me and told me I must become a Muslim again. I could not live with my parents so I had to find a way to make a living. I started a study circle and became an academic coach. This was going well until people told the parents of my students that I was a Christian. The parents stopped sending their children. I had no job. Finally I found work at a fish market where I brought water in buckets to splash on the fish.

Only my mother would talk to me. I shared the gospel with her—and in time she became a Christian. My father became angry with her and deserted her. She was alone and the people in our village began to persecute her. Now I care for my mother. She cooks meals for me. We pray that one day my father will become a Christian too.

God opened the door for me to study at a Bible school. We are working with this Bible school to teach students and to prepare them to be evangelists. I never had such in-depth learning. It was profound. Now I am sharing the gospel in a new area. I am thankful for the bike I was given. I ride this bicycle to six villages where we tell the people about Jesus. We are starting churches in these communities.

Against impossible odds I became a Christian. I was in a madrassah and never stopped reading the Koran. I could not find Jesus, but he found me. Now I want the whole world to know about Jesus.”

Written by WELS’ friendly counselor to South Asia


 

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Home missions faithfully moving forward

Two young WELS mission congregations launched their first public worship services in September.

“Even in the face of the difficulties of COVID-19, our home missionaries and members are faithfully sharing God’s Word in weekly worship following appropriate health guidelines,” says Rev. Keith Free, administrator of WELS Home Missions. “Extra efforts are worth it so that we have more opportunities to tell people about Jesus Christ.”

On Sept. 13, Hope, Houston, Texas, held its opening service in a local dance studio. WELS Board for Home Missions authorized funding for this new mission in a growing urban neighborhood in Houston in May 2019. Rev. Andrew Nemmers was assigned to serve the congregation, which is made up of a dedicated group of core members that have been meeting monthly for Bible study since 2015.

Nemmers notes, “Even though this was not how we anticipated starting worship—several core group families unable to join in person, everyone wearing masks, and social distancing—our first service was definitely successful! After months of not being able to gather in person, it was incredibly uplifting to be able to gather together around the Word again. We are excited to see what God has in store for us as we continue worshiping together and reaching out to our community.”

Members of Sure Foundation, Brandon, S.D., opened their ministry center on Sept. 18 and then held their grand opening worship service at a local hotel on Sept. 20.

“After a year of meeting, working, connecting, and planning, there was a great deal of excitement from the core group of Sure Foundation as well as some prospects from the Brandon community,” says Rev. Craig Wilke, Sure Foundation’s home missionary. “We are incredibly excited to continue to reach out to the community of Brandon and to proclaim the comforting message of our Sure Foundation, Jesus.”

Two other home mission congregations celebrated milestones on Sept. 27. Christ the Rock, Hutto, Texas, and St. Paul, Adams-Friendship, Wis., both dedicated their new worship facilities. WELS Church Extension Fund, Inc., helped provide funding for both locations.

For more information on WELS Home Missions, visit wels.net/homemissions.

 

 

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Good bones

I don’t know about you, but one of the most dangerous things I did during this pandemic was to turn on Home and Garden Television (HGTV). I know, I live on the edge, but hear me out. HGTV is dangerous because it gave me ideas, and ideas led to trips to Harbor Freight, and trips to Harbor Freight led to purchasing 28-foot scaffolding, and scaffolding may have led to teenagers performing front-flips onto giant bean bags. I told you that HGTV was dangerous!

In spite of the great dangers involved in watching home improvement shows. . . I still do it. I try to quit, but there is an allure to seeing a project take shape. In all the shows, I love the phrase, This place has good bones.” Good bones means you have something solid to work with. It means you know it is going to be incredible in the end.

About two years ago, the members of Carbon Valley Lutheran in Firestone, Colorado, started our own rehabilitation ride. After years of searching, we found some good bones”  at a former plant nursery—an all-steel structure, 3 ½ acres, commercial zoning, sewer, water, parking lot, street lights, landscaping, and water tap all were there. We could work with this.

But there’s another reason HGTV is dangerous. It inspires you to take that leap of renovation faith without really showing all the time and work that goes into the final project. And yet that work is really what gets you to the big reveal. Don’t worry, we didn’t stop being a church. We continued worshiping in a local elementary school, strengthening the faith of our members. We reached out to our community through service projects and local festivals. We raised money through the generosity of our people. We asked the right questions and walked through the loan and town processes. We rolled with the twists and turns and ultimately stepped out on faith.

Outdoor worship at their new location

And when the pandemic took our public school location, the bones of our building became our impromptu worship location. We worshiped outdoors in the middle of our steel structure. We watched as the roof and walls were stripped. We saw the foundation piers being dug. We heard the concrete slabs being cut. And the big reveal hasn’t happened yet. But it’s coming.

God does amazing things with bones, even more amazing than transforming an old plant nursery into a sanctuary. God brings bones to life through the perfect life of his son Jesus, and he builds up believers to make an impact on communities. He’s doing that very thing in us at Carbon Valley Lutheran and through our new building that will be used for generations to come. And he still builds up the body of believers to share Christ with their community. So much so, that we’ve even had five families visit us in the “bones” of our new building.

Written by Tim Spiegelberg, home missionary at Carbon Valley Lutheran Church in Firestone, Colo.

Want to watch Carbon Valley’s building progress? Check out Carbon Valley’s Facebook page to see pictures.


 

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A lifeless body, a life-giving opportunity

The gospel is like water. It will always find a way to break through boundaries that seem impossible. In an area where preaching the gospel is hard to do, the Holy Spirit will inspire and open the ways so that people can hear that good news.

Friends carrying the casket

In a country like Indonesia, it is not easy to find opportunities to preach the gospel. We can not leave tracts in some places, nor doing street evangelism. However, the opportunity is always there. Indonesian people like to socialize, are close to neighbors and friends, and have a high sense of commitment to communal work. When a friend or neighbor needs some help, they will come to help as much as they can. At least once a month, people in a neighborhood will gather to discuss things that happened or work together for the good of their community. People here like to connect and interact.

Some special moments of life—like birth, marriage, or death—are shared not only within the family, but also by neighbors and friends. In a moment of sorrow, like the death of a family member, people will especially show their sympathy. They will come to the deceased person’s house to offer their condolences to the bereaved family. Some of them will come to the funeral ceremony. However, there is something special in this moment, especially when a good Christian dies.

What do we see when a Christian dies? Basically, there is no difference in comparison to other people: sadness, tears, and a sense of loss. People will come and solemnly follow the funeral rites. Even the closest neighbors will join the family in accompanying the deceased to the grave. At the funeral service, songs of praise to God are uttered, words of comfort regarding faith will be preached, and the hope of eternal life in Christ is proclaimed. What makes a Christian funeral different is the hope we have that Jesus has redeemed the late believer by his death on the cross. The family left behind shows their belief that their loved one is already with Jesus in heaven, and that death is only a temporary separation. Sadness is certainly felt, but hope that springs from faith silently creeps into the heart and brings comfort. This is what distinguishes the funeral rites of believers from non-believers.

Friends and neighbors helping bury their friend

The funeral service is an opportunity for many people, whether Christians or not, to sit and listen to the hope of the Christian faith. But why would people want to come to a Christian funeral if they are not Christian? Why would they show us this kindness to their Christian neighbors? In a community that highly values solidarity and good relations, such friends simply want to show respect.

While we are still alive we can touch the lives of others by living a good Christian life, demonstrating our faith through good works, being an example of love, and bearing the fruits of the Spirit. But even our death can become a vehicle that impacts the lives of others in a spiritual way. After we breath our last, our lifeless bones most likely will never be used by God, like those of Elisha to give life to one who is dead (2 Kings 13:21). However, our funeral service provides an opportunity for our pastors to preach the gospel freely, without restriction, in a solemn moment, not only for the Christians but also for non-Christians. The result is that all the people who are present will hear Jesus’ name and the good news of forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is the gospel message used by the Spirit to call people to faith in Christ, to bring dead souls to life both here on earth and forever in eternity.

Written by Ester S.W., Multi-Language Productions (MLP) coordinator in Indonesia


 

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Home Missions funds three new missions

WELS Board for Home Missions met at the end of September and authorized funding for three new missions as well as two restarts. An additional congregation will receive support from Home Missions but no funding.

“Moved by the love of our Savior, Home Missions wanted to move forward because we know the Lord hasn’t directed us to just share the gospel when life is humming along but to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in difficult times as well,” says Rev. Keith Free, administrator of WELS Board for Home Missions. “Regardless of the circumstances in this world, God’s people know what their Lord has directed them to do—tell more people about the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. We ask the Lord to bless us to do just that.”

The new missions being funded include:

  • Amarillo, Texas: Located 130 miles from the nearest WELS church, a group of 15 WELS members form the core group reaching out in Amarillo, Texas. The WELS pastor from Lubbock, Texas, comes to Amarillo twice a month to serve the members with God’s Word and his sacraments.
  • North Liberty, Iowa: North Liberty, Iowa, is a multi-site ministry with Good Shepherd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A dedicated core group of 20 members began worshiping in July 2017 at the North Liberty Community Center. Home Missions funding will allow Good Shepherd to call a second pastor to help its outreach efforts.
  • West San Antonio, Texas: Ten families from Our Savior, San Antonio, Texas, make up the committed core group at this new mission, which began worshiping together in March 2020. They held three in-person services at an elementary school with an average of 40 people in attendance before the pandemic hit.

“My heart goes out to our young mission churches because they lost some momentum in reaching out to people who had shown interest in learning more about their Savior,” says Rev. Wayne Uhlhorn, chairman of WELS Board for Home Missions. “But our missionaries are resourceful and persistent and found ways to stay connected to them and reach out in creative ways with the gospel.”

The three restarts that Home Missions is now supporting include Dix Hills, N.Y.; Santa Clarita, Calif.; and Burlington, Iowa (unsubsidized).

For more information, visit wels.net/homemissions.

 

 

 

 

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Update – Hmong outreach in Vietnam

But God’s word is not chained.

2 Timothy 2:9b

Since 2014, WELS Pastor Bounkeo Lor has made regular trips to Vietnam to train the leaders of the Hmong Fellowship Church. God blessed that work, and WELS adopted the ministry in 2015.  The true grace and peace of Jesus proclaimed to the Hmong leaders had a profound positive effect. They wanted more of our training. The government of Vietnam recognized the value of our training and gave us permission to build a training center in Hanoi. Learn more at wels.net/vietnamhmongoutreach.

The gospel training would have continued and the building construction would have progressed in 2020, but COVID-19 ground everything to a halt. Since early 2020, we have not made a single training visit to Vietnam and the building project could not move forward.

Because of these obstacles, the WELS Vietnam planning group explored the possibility of using online training for the Hmong Fellowship Church leaders. If we could not visit Vietnam in person, we could visit Vietnam on Zoom. The Vietnam planning group has decided to provide the technology and access to make this happen for the 60 leaders who are eager to continue their studies.

Soon all Hmong Fellowship Church leaders will be provided phones and internet connection to allow them to participate in online training classes. The men will remain at home or travel to nearby places with adequate internet. They will continue a planned course on law and gospel, and they will also participate in a study of the gospel of Mark to share with rural congregations. The free course of the gospel continues because God’s Word is not chained.

Written by Rev. Joel Nitz, Hmong Asia missionary


 

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Upside down

We’ve probably all heard it a number of times these last few months: the disruptions of COVID-19 have left us feeling like things have been turned upside down.

If you happened to say something along those lines while you were sitting next to Christopher, a young man who just recently joined our church, he’d understand exactly what you mean. In fact, he may even understand that truth better than you.

Because there was a time in Christopher’s life when God literally turned him upside down. It was only a few years ago, while he was living in Michigan. He was driving to visit his girlfriend when the combination of slick roads, high speeds, and a sharp turn left him upside down in a ditch. And if you asked Christopher about it, he’d tell you that being upside down in his car was a monumental—and wonderful—turning point in his life.

Looking back on it now, he sees God’s gracious hand in that pivotal moment. He sees a loving God bringing him even closer to the family of the girl who is now his wife. He sees a patient God using a life-threatening moment to teach him to re-prioritize the truly important parts of his life. He sees a gracious God directing all things—even a car on a slippery road—so that an undeserving sinner would be rescued from real spiritual danger. When he thinks about those moments upside down in his car, he can’t help but give thanks to the God who used them to bring him into contact with his Word.

That’s where Christopher found out just how gracious and loving his God is. He joined our church family at Living Shepherd in Laramie, Wyoming, a few weeks ago, after eagerly studying that Word. He’s still learning, of course. He’s daily rejoicing in the amazing miracle that took place on the cross, where Jesus paid for his sin; and at the empty tomb, where God declared him not guilty for all eternity. He’s soaking it up, relishing the beauty of a God who works all things for the eternal good of his people.

There’s a lot more to Christopher’s story—he could probably write a long and fascinating book about his life. Before God flipped his life upside down, he was fighting a daily battle against the demons of alcohol, the persistence of guilt, and the darkness of Satanism. That is what made his upside down experience so pivotal. He would describe it as the key chapter in the book of his life, so far. And he’d likely tell you that even these “upside down” times of COVID-19 are opportunities for God to work amazing miracles in the lives of his people.

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


 

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Meet the Mohlkes

Twenty-nine years ago, my wife Leslie and I were preparing to go to Africa to serve as a newly assigned missionary. We had three children ages four, two, and four months. The other two children would be born a few years later while living in Zambia. We were young and excited. I was eager to start working as an African missionary, and my wife was wondering how best to care for our young family, knowing that her skills as a registered nurse would come in very handy.

The Mohlke family in Zambia in the late 1990s

Now, all the kids are grown, four of the five children are married, and five grandchildren have been added to the family; and Leslie and I are getting ready to move again to Africa. This time I am going to serve as the leader of WELS World Mission’s One Africa Team. The One Africa Team consists of all the missionaries serving in Africa who work with various sister synods to share the good news of Jesus throughout the continent. Now days, this work usually takes the form of offering training and encouragement to those who serve as ministers of the gospel in our sister synods.

This is quite different from what I was called to do 29 years ago. Back then, my main job was to preach, teach, baptize, and offer the Lord’s supper to village congregations which did not have their own pastors. This meant driving out to the village areas at least four days per week and visiting at least two congregations each day for worship and/or Bible study. Between my visits, the congregations were faithfully served by laymen who preached from a sermon book and taught Sunday school and confirmation classes using books prepared for them. Through these men congregations were started, grew, and became strong.

As I return to Africa, many of those men are fully trained pastors and leaders in the Lutheran Seminary and their synod. Now WELS missionaries are not needed to serve as pastors in local congregations, but they are used to train and encourage ministers of the gospel in church bodies throughout the continent.

Missionary Mohlke and his wife Leslie

I am eager and feel blessed to take on the work of leading this group. I thank God for the years I served in Zambia, and I thank God for the past 20 years I have served while living in the United States. I am thankful for the things I learned as I served St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School in Norfolk, Neb. I am thankful for the experiences I had serving Messiah Lutheran Church in Nampa, Ida., especially what I learned about well-planned and organized outreach. I also served ten years on the Board for World Missions, four of those years as chairman. It was so enlightening to understand WELS World Missions not only as a missionary on the field, but also at the administrative level. I also feel that I will put to good use what I experienced serving as director of the Apache Christian Training School. That experience reminded me of how important it is that missionaries aren’t sent to be pastors for people; but rather they are sent to work with people to develop strong forms of ministry that best serve the needs of that community.

I am thankful to the Lord for giving me this opportunity to serve as the One Africa Team leader. I am thankful that the Lord has given me a wife that is so supportive and willing to return to Africa. Without her support, understanding, and willingness to serve, none of this would be possible.

Written by Howard Mohlke, new leader of the One Africa Team

Missionary Mohlke and Leslie are currently living in Nebraska while their paperwork is being processed for their move to Malawi. He and his wife Leslie will reside in Lilongwe, Malawi, on the campus of the Lutheran Bible Institute.


 

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Faces of Faith – Katherine

Sometimes mission connections happen in very interesting ways. Every year, Spirit of Life in Caledonia, Mich., hosts a booth at the local Davenport College Panther Palooza event. It’s an event where freshmen go to learn about opportunities to serve, learn, and work in the community. During that event we were publicizing a women’s self-defense class being held at Spirit of Life. Little did we know, God would bless us with a new member and a really great friend.

Katherine Campoverde was studying to be a recreational therapist at Davenport. She was Catholic growing up in Ecuador, and she had family in New York City as well. She spoke to us and visited the church that next Sunday. After some weeks, Katherine went through class to join our Lutheran church. For a few years we enjoyed having her as part of our church—but upon graduation, Katherine moved back to NYC for work. It was bittersweet for us because we wished her the best, but we were also concerned about Katherine’s connection with the church. We don’t have all that many congregations in NYC.

When Katherine arrived in NYC, we stayed in touch. I looked up her address in the WELS church locator and discovered a great blessing: Katherine was living less than 2 miles from Sure Foundation Lutheran Church, our WELS home mission congregation in Woodside. I immediately grabbed the phone and called the pastor there. And after a few short weeks, Katherine was connected. An even greater blessing was that Sure Foundation has Spanish services every week. Now Katherine could not only worship, but she also brought her father to worship for him to hear God’s Word in their first language.

But the interesting connections continued. Katherine’s mother still lives in Ecuador. So while she was on a trip to visit her mother, she introduced her to our world missionary living in Ecuador as well.

Recently Katherine had the opportunity to come back to visit us here at Spirit of Life, and she was welcomed with open arms. It’s really interesting to see how God works. He blessed our congregation to do some outreach at a local college. We shared the Word and Sacrament together with a new member. Little did we know the impact that would have in another congregation in NYC and possibly all the way down in Ecuador. God’s Word is so amazing, and his plans for our life are too.

What a blessing it is to have mission congregations around our synod who can connect and serve believers even when school and work causes them to move!

Written by Allen Kirschbaum, home missionary at Spirit of Life Lutheran Church in Caledonia, Mich. 


 

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Campus Ministry: My second family

Do you remember how you felt your very first week of college? Maybe you were excited about starting, making lots of friends, and feeling confident about all your classes. For me, I was the exact opposite. I was nervous, lonely, and honestly a little scared about the prospect of being on my own. It didn’t help that I didn’t know anyone at all on campus, and I was going to a non-Christian school for the first time in my life. I didn’t feel any better as I left my dorm room for the campus ministry Bible study for the first time. Several times I considered running back to my room and taking a nap, but I pushed myself to go because I knew I needed to be surrounded by believers during this challenging time.

Two years later, I’m no longer nervous to go to Bible study. Instead, I look forward to it. Bible study is the perfect break from school, work, and all the other distractions in life. The people in my Bible study are more than acquaintances I see once a week; they are my friends, confidants, and second family. They have helped me through roommate concerns and relationship problems, sickness, and the loss of loved ones. The relationship status of “second family” didn’t come quickly, but it did come naturally. We made an effort to spend time together outside of Bible study by playing games, conversing in our campus center, and preparing Lenten/Advent meals together. We also made a habit of preparing a meal or having a potluck together off campus in order to help relieve the stress that school can bring. Another way we have built our friendships is by going to church together. Several members of the group will plan to go to church together on Sunday mornings and during Lenten/Advent season. We have unofficially claimed a pew near the front of Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, which we call the “MSOE pew”.

Rebekah and her friend Katie in the “MSOE pew” at Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wis

Not even a pandemic was able to stop our campus ministry group from getting together and continuing to grow our community. We used Zoom to meet once a week for Bible study, refreshing our hearts and souls. Just like before, this time was used not only for spiritual purposes, but also to play games and talk after Bible study was over. The games especially were a source of endless laughter as we learned, for people who already can’t really draw, playing Pictionary is much harder when you play it with a computer mouse.

This campus ministry program means the world to me. I am so thankful that I am a part of such a wonderful group and that God has placed these people in my life. It is so refreshing to be in the habit of meeting together and encouraging one another to show God and his love in our lives, as Paul urges us in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching.” I praise God every day for The Point of Grace campus ministry group at MSOE, and for the entire family of believers all around the world.

Written by Rebekah Bartels, a junior at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wis., and member of The Point of Grace campus ministry


 

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TELL: Truth brings peace

In 2018, WELS World Mission’s Multi-Language Productions had a vision to reach the world with the gospel in a new way. Their vision was to equip people with the truth of God’s word using digital resources in English. Like the Latin America mission field’s Academia Cristo in Spanish, TELL would use English to reach people through social media, self-led Bible lessons, and live video classrooms.

Live classes with TELL Missionary, Dan Laitinen

Three years later, God has blessed that vision. The TELL Network has 1.2 million followers and likes on its main Facebook page. Across the globe there are 7,000 active users working on self-led Bible lessons on the TELL app and website. Currently I am the only full-time TELL missionary. I meet several times a week with students from Africa, India, and Philippines.

One student, Samuel, is from Guinea, Africa. He is a school teacher with a wife and children. “My greatest desire is to be well-equipped for mission work,” says Samuel, “I won’t miss this opportunity by God’s grace.”

Samuel and his family

Like thousands of others, Samuel found TELL on Facebook. TELL’s Facebook team posts daily Bible passages and short devotional videos by national pastors from WELS world mission fields called #TELLtalks. The team answers questions online and invites people to start free Bible training on the TELL app or website.

Samuel downloaded the TELL app, and within seconds began the first self-learning course. He completed three self-learning courses: Spiritual Healing, Truth Brings Peace, and Introduction to the Bible. Each course has nine lessons that include a Bible reading, teaching video and quiz.

When Samuel completed the self-learning courses (TELL Tier 1), he received his first certificate. Then a TELL missionary contacted Samuel. He congratulated him and invited Samuel to join him in the live online classes (TELL Tier 2).

Today Samuel is meeting twice a week in a video classroom with a TELL instructor and other students. Students go in-depth learning about the work of Jesus, Old and New Testament history, and Law and Gospel. Each course takes about a month. There are eleven courses in TELL tier 2.

Samuel’s radio broadcast

TELL tier 3 are live courses too. They focus on how to share the gospel in your community: gathering, teaching and discipling. God-willing, some day the TELL instructor, along with a missionary in Africa, will visit Samuel to grow the relationship and support Samuel as he starts a small group.

When Samuel began TELL, he had been praying for just that: an opportunity to share the gospel. Since then, God opened a door! A friend gave Samuel air-time on the local radio station. Every Sunday evening Samuel takes the Bible lesson he has learned with TELL and reuses them on-air to an audience of up to half-a-million people. Many of whom haven’t heard the gospel before.

By God’s grace, Samuel has found a place where he receives real gospel training right from God’s word. “I used to believe in a gospel that was preaching prosperity and miracles mostly,” Samuel says, “But I discovered this misleads believers. It focuses on earthly things and makes us forget heavenly things. Now I’m mission-minded.”

Written by Dan Laitinen, Multi-Language Productions missionary for TELL (Think, Evaluate, Learn, Lead) 


 

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His message always finds a way

In the same way my word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty. Rather, it will accomplish whatever I please, and it will succeed in the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:11

A year ago in July of 2019, I was installed as the first pastor of a new home mission in Mansfield, Ohio: Risen Savior Lutheran Church.

Interior remodeling at Risen Savior

Getting situated with my family, planning for the remodeling of our church building (purchased from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod for $1), getting to know my new members, and taking a tour of the Ohio State Reformatory (a right of passage for Mansfieldians who appreciate the city’s claim to fame as the filming location for The Shawshank Redemption) filled up the first few months.

Planning began that would help the congregation spread the gospel message out to the community.  There were so many great plans and new ideas for reaching new potential members. Community events in March, a big Easter celebration, and the grand opening of the newly remodeled church. Postcards were mailed out and a big weekend planned for knocking on doors to introduce ourselves and meet the locals. The core members (10 families) were filled with excitement.

Unfortunately, our efforts came to an unexpected standstill when Covid-19 led to community-wide shutdowns and isolation for many individuals and families. It was time to switch gears. We had to find new avenues to share the gospel message.

Risen Savior’s church set-up

Now, I’m not a computer guy. In fact, I am—for all intents and purposes—technologically illiterate. Videos and social media became the avenue for the foreseeable future, which was certainly not in my wheelhouse. Recording and downloading services for the current members, creating digital devotions for both members and prospects, reaching out to members and prospects via phone, email, and social media, while trying to forge ahead with our building remodel. All of these skills had to be learned, and learned quickly. It was overwhelming and quite the challenge to say the least.

Knocking on doors, inviting friends to church, helping with community events, and simply chatting with people met in everyday life vanished. This is where the Risen Savior members took over.

Our mission outreach tools became Facebook, YouTube, Google, and Zoom, instead of our typical in-person approach. While sharing simple devotions and Sunday services with the members, I quickly realized that these weekly messages were not simply for them. The digital resources were being shared on members’ social media platforms to their family and friends. Even our members who were stuck at home could still be involved with hearing and sharing the message!

On any given pre-pandemic Sunday, an average of 15 people heard the word of God in our building.  Once technology took over and the members began sharing, the weekly number  rose to over 500 different people hearing the gospel message. In the days and months ahead, we will continue to see how God blesses these efforts.

Over the past few months, the world has changed and along with it our outreach ministry, but the word of our God is still strong and powerful. His message always finds a way, and it does so through every member of his church in small, seemingly insignificant acts every single day. We are reminded of this fact in Isaiah 55:11, “In the same way my word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty. Rather, it will accomplish whatever I please, and it will succeed in the purpose for which I sent it.”

I look forward to a future of serving this community. I am excited to witness our Savior’s message spread through the continued efforts of Risen Savior members. And I can forge ahead trusting that our Lord’s Word will not return to him empty, no matter the challenges placed before us. To God be the Glory!

Written by Brad Wright, home missionary at Risen Savior Lutheran Church in Mansfield, Ohio


 

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Outreach to the not so lost

Kaitlin was an energetic young freshman. I was a brand-new campus pastor. Both of us were trying to find our place. She had come to Wisconsin Lutheran College from the east coast, not really knowing anyone, but she made some good friends pretty quickly. I was still trying to figure out what campus ministry at a Lutheran college meant. I knew that it meant chapel and Bible studies, but I’m not sure that I anticipated how much it meant outreach.

Kaitlin (left)

It was only a couple weeks into school when Kaitlin came to my office and said, “I don’t really know what confirmation is but I think I want that.” Doesn’t outreach usually mean that I have to go reaching out? Knocking on doors? Sending mass mailings? My first prospect in my new ministry just showed up. I was floored!

We proceeded to spend the next several weeks going through Bible Information Class at the same time that she was in theology class, attending chapel everyday, and attending every single Bible class that she was offered. She was on fire! Our one-on-one time together was awesome. She had a religious background, but it perhaps wasn’t as formal as she would have liked it to be. She knew she had faith in Jesus, but it seemed to me that she wasn’t quite sure what that even meant. But she sure wanted to know!

When it came time to wrap up our class, the question of confirmation came up. She and I drove to a few WELS churches in the area, and she got connected with a local church and was formally confirmed.

Fast forward a few years, and she was eager to connect with WELS Women’s Ministry to organize an event where the women could discuss different ministry options. She continued to attend every Bible study she could and regularly attended chapel. She went through some tough times and was there for her friends when they went through tough times. She worked through the challenging decisions around choosing a major and then deciding what to do after graduation. But through it all, she kept Christ at the center. She never lost sight of the big picture that God is love and that God loved her first, so she was good no matter what.

Sometimes students come to college with a faith background that is rock solid. Sometimes it just looks rock solid on the outside. College is a time when students start asking some big time life questions, and those questions aren’t limited to career choices. Sometimes those questions center around faith. “What do I believe? Why do I say that I believe that if I don’t really get that?” There are plenty of voices out there that would be more than willing to answer those questions in a way that would drive a wedge between that students and their Savior.

But isn’t this the value of Campus Ministry in the WELS? God-willing, campus ministry is a place where students can wrestle with things that they wrestle with every day regardless of where they are. God-willing, campus ministry is a place where that wrestling happens in the context of Jesus Christ and him crucified and that students are led to struggle under the cross of Christ and guided by his word! Outreach in campus ministry isn’t just about reaching the lost (although it is), it’s about being there with God’s comforting grace for the found in the good days and the bad. God grant us 100 more years of reaching with the cross of Christ.

Written by Greg Lyon, campus ministry pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wis. 


 

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Here I am Lord, send me

Everyone has a dream job. From traveling the world to being a billionaire, we all desire a unique outcome for our lives. My dream job is to do mission work. . . travel to developing countries to help people physically and spiritually. Coming into public college at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, I expected to push that dream back until after graduation.

UW-River Falls Mission Journeys team at Divine Peace in Rockwall, Tex.

By the end of my freshman year, my expectation was proven wrong by a simple video. After a Sunday service in May of 2019, a video explaining the WELS Mission Journeys program was shown. These few minutes of information inspired some of our campus ministry students to go on a mission trip. Almost immediately, I took the opportunity to fulfill my dream and worked tirelessly to give myself and some of my fellow campus ministry students the opportunity to do mission work. Come January 2020, four campus ministry members and our pastor were trained and ready to serve as missionaries. Once packed, we set our van on the 17-hour drive to Divine Peace Lutheran Church, a home mission congregation in Rockwall, Texas.

Getting to know the members of Divine Peace

This week long mission trip proved to be beneficial for all involved. We canvassed for hours, painted the offices, redid the parking spaces in the parking lot, and experienced God’s love in many ways. Our host families gave us a chance to get to know the hands and feet of God’s kingdom in Rockwall, Texas.

Through these connections we were able to gain insight into what living as a WELS Lutheran is like when outside the Midwest. We got to listen to live music, drove a 1916 Model T, learned to two-step at a honkytonk, and went to a Bible study called “The Bible on Tap”. This trip taught each of us that getting the physical work done is important, but taking the opportunity for fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ is far more important.

Fun at the Fort Worth Stockyards

My lifelong dream is to be a missionary. Maybe I will never make it to another country, but I know now that even a small mission trip like this can change someone’s life. Here I am, a junior in college, and now president of the WELS Campus Ministry Club at UW-River Falls. Here I am, a 20-year-old, on the committee working to merge two congregations in my hometown. These roles only happened because I followed my passion for the gospel when I saw a video about WELS Mission Journeys and went on a short-term mission trip. As I walk towards this dream job, I say with a full heart, “Here am I Lord, send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

Written by Miriam Zarling, campus ministry student leader at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls and alumna of Shoreland Lutheran High School in Somers, Wis. UW-River Falls is served through the campus ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in River Falls, Wis. 


 

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Pandemic blessings and challenges in Russia

So, how are you handling the pandemic? Let me share just a little bit about how God led us through the past six months in Russia.

Challenges

Stress and loneliness

My wife Jennifer had barely completed her 14-day quarantine after the World Missionary Wives Conference in Spain when the Novosibirsk governor declared strict self-isolation requirements for our region. People were allowed to leave their apartments only to go to the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, walk their dogs, and carry out trash. For six weeks people adopted stray dogs and fought for the privilege of taking out garbage!

On a more serious note, many worried about their health and the well-being of their extended families. People lost their jobs as normal routines ground to a halt. Worst of all, after March 29, we could not gather with our brothers and sisters at church. I’m guessing that many of our struggles in Russia were similar to challenges you faced in the United States.

8th grade distance learning

At first the quarantine seemed like good news for our youngest son, Peter. The governor’s declaration called for an extra week of spring vacation. So of course, Peter put off doing his homework. But then we got word that the order had changed and that distance learning would begin the next day! Peter had to scramble to get his homework done. Meanwhile, teachers and schools scrambled to teach online classes – a completely new experience for everyone. The next three weeks were chaotic because each teacher chose a different platform for teaching and collecting homework. Jennifer and Peter spent many hours figuring out computer logistics so they could get lectures, readings, and homework assignments. Our whole family celebrated May 27th when the school year finally came to an end.

Travel restrictions

Our Russian pastors wanted to comfort their people, especially older members. But the fear of spreading a dangerous disease prevented us from travelling. Instead they led devotions and prayers by telephone. Special legal documents allowed us to travel for work, but even these papers only permitted us to travel within city limits. Police cars sat at the edge of the city to enforce travel restrictions. I could not visit Iskitim or Tomsk. National borders were closed, so trips to Albania and Bulgaria to visit our sister churches were cancelled.

Tamara appreciates online worship services and devotions

Personal issues

Because of closed borders, we decided at first to postpone our furlough until next year. There was just one problem: Peter was planning to start high school in Wisconsin. We started searching for ways to send Peter to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. We are grateful that WELS World Missions convinced us to find a way to travel back to the U.S. as a family. Jennifer and I spent many hours in June and July searching for a way to travel to the U.S. Most years planning the trip is half the fun, but this year all routes were closed.

I confess that our family struggled with stress and worry, fears and feelings of helplessness. But God was near! “Do you really trust me? Do you really believe I’m almighty and loving – that I haven’t forgotten you? You know who I am. Take another look at my Son’s cross. I am with you, even when you can’t feel my warm smile!” It’s true! Even now. Especially now. God is pouring out blessings.

Blessings

Sharing Jesus online

The Russian church had a website before COVID-19, but the quarantine pushed us to enhance the way we share the gospel online. We began streaming Sunday morning worship services with better audio/video. We posted mid-week devotions on Christ’s resurrection, David the Man of God, and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Our members started sharing digital comfort with their isolated friends and relatives. WELS Christian Aid and Relief provided funding so we could purchase modest cell phones for shut-in members. Our Iskitim grandmas were delighted with the opportunity to see worship services and devotions from their own homes. Our most technologically savvy granny made sure that our members in Iskitim were able to connect online to each other and to the gospel.

Luke and Andre

Local seminary

Travel restrictions allowed me more time to work with our seminary student, Andre Gydkov. The two of us spent many hours studying Biblical doctrine. . . everything from the Trinity to the person of Christ, from God’s creation and the fall into sin to the High Priest who reconciled us with God. We also discussed a wide range of topics that fall outside of formal seminary curriculum, but which are vital for soul-ministry.

Peter’s Confirmation

My son Peter and I had ample opportunity to work our way through catechism classes. We discussed the chief parts of our faith and explored practical ways for Peter to dive into his adult life of faith. At the very end of July, we organized an at-home confirmation. We invited Andre and his daughter and set up a video call so that our stateside family could witness Peter’s vows and encourage him on his special day.

God provides an open door

Peter’s Confirmation

After weeks of struggle and prayer, we saw God’s answer. At just the right time, Russia opened her borders to Great Britain so that we could travel to the U.S. through London. We spent two weeks self-isolating near Jennifer’s side of the family in Nebraska. And now just this week we traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin, and met with Peter’s faculty advisor at Fox Valley Lutheran High School. We’re grateful that God allowed us to travel together so that we can help Peter get ready for a completely new and exciting chapter in his life. We’re also looking forward to spending time with our older daughters and offering them our love and encouragement.

God is in control

Without a doubt, the past six months have been a time of testing. God is asking, “What is most important to you? Do you really believe in my power, in my love? Will you trust me?” This season is providing us with special opportunity to remember God’s great promises and share his rock-solid comfort with others. We know Jesus is with us. We know he will give us joy and strength so that we can be his lights in a dark world longing for hope.

Please keep us in your prayers. Please pray that God would bless our time here in the States. We have much that needs to be done! Please pray that God finds a way for us to return to our mission field in his good time.

Written by Luke Wolfgramm, world missionary in Russia


 

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