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God feeds his flock in a time of crisis

After earlier placing restrictions on the size of public gatherings, today Wisconsin governor Tony Evers issued an even more restrictive “Safer at Home” directive. The directive effectively closes all Wisconsin businesses and entities other than those that are deemed essential. Other states have issued, or likely will issue, similar directives.

Already after the first restrictions were imposed, many WELS congregations found ways to continue to serve their members with God’s Word and with new and different types of worship formats. I am thankful at the way so many of our congregations have put these things into place with only brief notice, and pray they will be able to continue in those efforts.

On Sunday, my wife and I worshiped via an online worship service provided by my home congregation. The service that was broadcast was a complete service with the normal liturgy, hymns, and prayers. Before we began, we wondered just how “worshipful” such a service would be. But by the time the service was over, we agreed that it was one of the most meaningful and moving worship experiences we had ever had.

First, we were reminded that the power of God’s Word and the comfort of the gospel is not in any way diminished by the way it is delivered. We heard law and gospel. We were assured of our forgiveness in Christ. We were directed as always to the cross and empty tomb. Our faith was nourished and our trust in God’s unchanging promises was strengthened.

Second, I couldn’t help but think that being prevented from gathering physically with other believers helped to renew our appreciation for corporate worship, where believers gather not only to be strengthened by the means of grace, but also to provide encouragement and love to each other. Perhaps God will use this experience to lead our WELS members to never take public worship for granted again. Perhaps he also will use this entire crisis as a time to draw many in our nation to see the value of faith and the Word of God.

Finally, we were not alone in this experience. Congregations around the synod moved quickly to see to it that the Word of God would not be silenced. Worship services were streamed live in many places. Devotions and sermons were posted online. Materials and words of comfort and instruction were sent via e-mail. Pastors assured their members that they continued to be ready to serve their flocks whenever called upon to do so.

I pray that the need for online remote worship will end soon. In the meantime, I will join you in thanking God that his Word will not be silenced. As he told us, “[My Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

Guideline for pastors and congregational leaders

Communication
In a time of crisis or national emergency, it’s vitally important to find ways to communicate with your members to keep them informed, especially those who are at high risk. Many congregations have very quickly taken steps to do this. If you do not have the means to communicate in place, it is important that you put one into place that includes telephone, e-mail, text messaging, website, and social media. You may wish to identify members of your congregation who have expertise in information technology. If you have the means in place, congregational leadership should map out specific timetables and strategies to communicate with members.

  • E-mail: If you do not have a complete or up-to-date listing of members’ e-mail addresses, begin efforts to gather that information as soon as possible and create an e-mail list for your congregation. Encourage members who do not have an e-mail account to set up a free account and learn how to use it.
  • Church website and social media: If your congregation has a website or has a presence on social media, be sure to take full advantage of these tools. Place important notices in a prominent place on the home page of your website. You can include links to a special webpage that provides information on your plans and contingencies. All types of social media should be considered, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Worship
God’s people naturally desire the comfort and guidance of God’s Word as well as the encouragement of fellow Christians. This is especially true in times of crisis. However, because of government efforts to halt the spread of the virus, mandated limits to the size of public gatherings have resulted in the need to suspend regular worship services in many congregations.

This does not mean that worship needs to stop. Congregations are already finding creative ways to keep their people connected to the Word. Live streaming worship, Facebook Live, and sermons posted on websites are being used to serve members. If your congregation is still trying to determine how to do that, I suggest you contact other congregations that have found appropriate ways to continue serving the worship needs of their people. It’s a time when we can learn from and help each other.

Communion
Since restrictions on gatherings vary from place to place, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper will in some places need to be modified, depending on government restrictions and medical guidelines. Some congregations, if allowed by state and local authorities, are gathering in small groups and taking great care to practice good hygiene and recommended “social distancing.”

In other places, even small gatherings are not allowed. There have been questions about how we should proceed when it comes to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when members cannot gather at church.

Regardless of the specific situation in which your congregation finds itself, here are a couple of things to remember. First, while Christians desire to be strengthened and comforted by the Lord’s Supper, we also recognize that there are times when the normal celebration of Communion is not possible. For Christians serving in a war zone, for church members who are in a medically induced coma, for believers who are home-bound because of sickness or infirmity, the normal celebration of the Lord’s Supper with other believers may not be an option. But in those cases we take comfort in knowing that we have the means of grace in two forms—Word and sacrament. The forgiveness conveyed and assured by the written or spoken Word of God is no less powerful and effective than the sacrament. In some cases, private Communion may certainly be available.

Second, we also recognize that there is no scriptural definition or requirement for how frequently Christians should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus simply encourages us to receive the Lord’s Supper regularly and often. There may be times such as this that, temporarily, the Lord’s Supper may not be available as often as we would like or desire. For that reason, the Conference of Presidents is urging patience with the following advice:

“We encourage our congregations at this time to reserve the distribution of the Lord’s Supper for its regular and normal use within the gathering of the body of believers (realizing that some changes in procedure may be made) or distributed privately by the pastor to individuals in need, as is the customary practice. We urge congregations to refrain from initiating novel approaches for celebration of the sacrament.”

If you have specific questions, please contact your district president.

Pastoral care
There is no real substitute for in-person pastoral care. But pastors can communicate with their flocks and communicate the comfort and guidance of God’s Word in ways that do not violate quarantines or require physical contact. Videos, podcasts, and e-mail are some of the ways that pastoral contact can be maintained.

Of course, pastors do have the responsibility to minister to their people even when it may put them at risk. Common sense will guide a pastor in not taking unnecessary risks involving his own health or the health of those he serves. When it becomes necessary for a faithful pastor to carry out his pastoral responsibilities, he will place himself firmly into the hands of a gracious God for protection.

Outreach to the community

Another article in this issue of Together will give some practical suggestions of ways that congregations and their members can show Christian love and be salt and light in their communities.

Finally, continue to trust in our gracious God and in his promises. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder

 

 

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Bearing fruit in a time of need

In his book The Rise of Christianity, Dr. Rodney Stark estimates that Christianity grew an average of 40 percent per decade for the first few centuries of its existence. To put that in perspective, if WELS grew at that rate, in two generations we would have over two million members.

How did that happen? Christianity was started by misfits from the armpit of the Roman Empire. Christianity didn’t worship in opulent temples. Early believers worshiped in homes. Christianity had no sociological advantages. Becoming a Christian made it likely you would experience ridicule or even persecution. How does Christianity explode in those circumstances?

The gospel. The gospel was entirely unique. There were plenty of religions that talked about powerful gods who demanded you offer sacrifices to them. The gospel told of an all-powerful God who became weak and sacrificed himself for you. Other religions offered some version of life after death, but it was always conditional. Do good work; get a good eternity. You faced death with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. The gospel offered physical resurrection and eternity in paradise entirely on the basis of Christ’s work, not your own. His death and his resurrection meant you had assurance now. You faced death confidently, knowing you were going to an infinitely better place.

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world” (1:6). The supernatural power and beauty of the gospel—that is what caused the early church to explode.

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t simply that the early Christians proclaimed the gospel. By the way they lived their lives, they gained an audience for the gospel. A good example of this occurred during a pandemic.

In the early fourth century, the historian Eusebius wrote about a plague that was rolling over the eastern half of the Empire. Healthy people would flee the cities for the safety of the countryside. But one group largely stayed behind—Christians. “All day long, [Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.” Eusebius states that as people witnessed this compassion, “[the Christians’] deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.” There are dozens of examples of history noting how Christians took care of the sick. It didn’t matter if the sick person was a Christian or pagan.

Christians were known to care for the poor too. The Roman Emperor Julian wanted to wipe out Christianity and re-institute emperor worship. After a few years of trying, Julian wrote a letter to a pagan priest in which he explained why he now believed Christianity would take over the empire. “[Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well. All men see that our people lack aid from us.” Christians showed levels of mercy and benevolence that won them an audience. When people would ask Christians, “Why do you do what you do?” they could share the gospel.

COVID-19 is undeniably awful. Many thousands are going to die. The economies of the world are in shambles. It is bad. However, COVID-19 is also an amazing opportunity. It is, first and foremost, an opportunity to serve Christ by serving our fellow man in whatever way they need.

  • Maybe you contact all the at-risk residents on your block—the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, etc.—and offer to make all their grocery store runs for them. (You can leave the bags on the porch, ring the bell, then step back ten feet to make sure they get them.)
  • If you live near a single-parent hospital worker or first responder, maybe you offer to watch their child when they need to work.
  • Maybe you pick up your dinner a couple nights a week from the mom-and-pop restaurant that could easily go out of business in the lockdown.
  • Is there a single person you know who is shuttered up, perhaps a widow or widower? Maybe you set aside 20 minutes a day to talk to them on the phone or FaceTime. Have your kids do the same. Help them deal with the crushing loneliness.
  • If the federal government ends up giving funds to citizens and you don’t really need it to survive, maybe you give yours away to others who are hit harder by the economic downturn than your family.
  • Do you own a business? When this is over, hire all you can. Don’t consider the bottom line. If you can hire, hire.

As we seize those God-given opportunities to serve our neighbor, perhaps Christ will give us another opportunity—to share why we do what we do . . . to share the hope we have.

You probably know that American Christianity is falling apart. People have been leaving the church in droves over the last three decades, especially younger generations. There have been multiple studies about why this is happening. One of the biggest reasons is many people think Christianity is irrelevant. COVID-19 is an opportunity to prove that is the furthest thing from the truth! If Americans are caught in a nexus of needs and fears, fine.

Let us be the ones who step up first to meet those needs.

Let us be the ones to explain why we need not fear anything.

Let us do all this, not because we want to grow by 40 percent. Let us do this simply because we are the body of Christ. We do what he would do. And we want him glorified. “They glorified the God of the Christians.”

In these challenging days ahead, may the Spirit strengthen your faith with his unbreakable promises. May Christ give you health and compassion.

Submitted by Rev. Jon Hein, director of WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling

 

 

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Update from WELS Missions

WELS World Missions has always had very straightforward marching orders. Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20). This commission is clear, and we are always eager and thankful for the partnership we have to carry out this work on behalf of WELS. In these times it is good to focus on the bookends that Jesus provides as he gives his Great Commission; “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The arrival of this virus has unsettled all of us with its surprising speed and reach. But our Lord is not unsettled or surprised. We trust Jesus who has authority over this disease and has promised to always be with us. We know this all fits into his plan for our eternal good.

With that confidence WELS World Missions has been readjusting to its new realities. Here is an update for you from your World Missions.

  1. All of our missionaries at this time are safe. World travel via most normal international routes has been shut down for the immediate future. Our missionaries are aware and are settling in to their homes overseas for however long this lasts. Our Missions office stands ready to assist if local regulations or security requires a move. Mission families who have students in schools and universities in the United States may not be able to reunite until after travel restrictions are eased. We thank God for the family and friends who are hosting those kids.
  2. All of our national church partners are dealing with their local rules and regulations. Many will have to call off worship services as countries scramble to curb the spread of the virus.
  3. Reports are coming from our sister churches around the globe of connections and service to their communities in these trying times. From online gatherings in East Asia to churches handing out face masks and delivering supplies to the homebound to online camaraderie across borders in Latin America, it is easy to see how the Lord of the church is using his salt and light sprinkled throughout the world to help those living in darkness catch a glimpse of his wonderful light. We pray that God use all of us in these circumstances to not only look to our own needs but also to serve the needs of others.

May God shower his Spirit upon you and give you peace, comfort and joy through the salvation won for us by Christ!

Serving with you,
WELS World Missions

 

 

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Resources from WELS and NPH

WELS and Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) are offering several resources for free to help you stay connected to your Lord, to your church, and to WELS during this time of unrest and change. Resources include hymn downloads, Sunday school materials, digital access to Forward in Christ magazine, and access to Kids Connection and WELS Connection videos.

Hymnal/music options
Eighty hymns from Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal are now available to download for free from NPH. According to Mr. Jeremy Bakken, NPH director of worship and sacred music, these resources will help enable hymn singing for families at home, whether for their personal family worship or to participate with their church’s online worship.

Downloads for these hymns include digital options (PDF and TIFF) as well as audio files of piano and organ accompaniments (M4A). Taken from the Lent and Easter sections as well as the Redeemer, Trust, Faith, Prayer, and Nation sections, all available hymns are in the public domain or have been granted permission for their use.

“We don’t know how long the current crisis will last. With David, we ask ‘How long, LORD?’ (Psalm 13:1). But with him we also trust in God’s unfailing love and rejoice in his salvation,” says Bakken. “We pray these free resources will assist individuals and families with their devotional time, as well as help congregations holding services exclusively online for a time, to ‘sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me’ (Psalm 13:6).”

Individuals interested in having Christian Worship for at-home use can also purchase up to five copies of this hymnal at 50 percent off.

Sunday school materials
Parents can now download six weeks of Christ-Light lessons for free, compliments of Northwestern Publishing House, so they can offer Sunday school at home.

Bible stories offered follow the life of Jesus, including several of his miracles and the events of Holy Week and Easter. Besides the student lessons, parents can download coloring sheets and other activities as well as a teacher’s guide to help them share the lesson with their children. Different levels are available for children ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to grade six.

Devotional resources
Forward in Christ (FIC), the synod’s official magazine, is offering free digital access to the March and April issues for both subscribers and non-subscribers. Both issues are available now.

“We have learned new concepts lately such as self-quarantine; social distancing; and one that might not be so new, financial upheaval,” says Rev. John Braun, FIC executive editor. “But in all the nuances, we remain in God’s care—connected to each other in faith—and look for strength from God’s Word. Our prayer is that Forward in Christ may help you as you face today’s challenges.”

The most recent editions of Kids Connection will also be available to view. Created to complement the WELS Connection monthly video news magazine, Kids Connection encourages children and their families to “stay connected to Jesus” through Christ-centered stories and segments presented by two teenage hosts. Parents can use the September 2019 through March 2020 monthly videos at home with their children as part of their daily devotional life.

WELS also offers many free devotional options, including a daily devotion that can be e-mailed directly to you.

Congregational resource
WELS Communication Services is also releasing the March WELS Connection early for online viewing. Since many churches have suspended meeting in person for the next few weeks, congregations that haven’t had time to show the WELS Connection this month can direct their members to view it online. Pastors can also share this direct link to the video via e-mail to their members or download the video and add it to their church’s website.

“During this unprecedented time, Communication Services is working to provide you with resources that will assist you in staying connected to God’s Word,” says Mr. Lee Hitter, WELS’ director of communication. “Pastors, please let your members know that these resources are available to them. And everyone, please share these encouragements with your friends and family to help them during these trying times.”

 

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Spiritual and mental health support

With Americans told to stay home—away from church, school, and in some cases work—in an anxiety-inducing time, WELS ministries are creating and making available resources to help. Here are a few that we found. If your ministry, school, or congregation is offering spiritual or Christian educational resources that can be used by individuals and families, let us know! We’ll continue to add to this list; check back often!

Christian Family Solutions
Christian Family Solutions has been “healing and helping people in need through the ministry of Jesus Christ” since 1965. This mission remains their focus during the COVID-19 situation. They are committed to serving communities with help, healing, and hope.

COVID-19 has certainly changed life as we know it, and Christian Family Solutions continues to provide counseling services and mental health treatment for those in need. They are equipped and ready to serve. All counseling clinic visits have shifted to appointments via secure video counseling, a service they have been offering for nearly 12 years.

The increased opportunity to connect virtually means that WELS pastors and ministry staff can still refer people through the Member Assistance Program. Members can still connect to their counselor, and students can continue treatment outside of school.

Recognizing that finances may be a concern, Christian Family Solutions is removing that barrier by working with insurance companies, who are eliminating copays and taking special measures during this national public health emergency. Anyone who needs counseling should contact the intake staff at Christian Family Solutions on their website by clicking on “REQUEST APPOINTMENT.”

On their website you will also find resources, including videos, blogs, and pamphlets for churches and schools to distribute to their families. These Christ-centered materials are designed to instill calm and increase resilience during this challenging time.

Though the future is uncertain, we remain steadfast in our Savior. It is important to be purveyors of calm in this suddenly chaotic world. Christian Family Solutions is equipped to serve “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), confident that COVID-19 will bring an abundance of opportunity to share hope in Christ with individuals, families, churches, and communities.

Martin Luther College
Martin Luther College will continue livestreaming daily chapel services Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m. (central). Campus Pastor John Boeder says, “Whether you’re in California or Alaska or Georgia or Green Bay or New Ulm, by the miracle of modern technology we can gather to sing and worship and listen and pray. Chapel will be a welcome break in a day of distance learning. It will bring us together in Christ and strengthen us for serving him.”

Luther Preparatory School
Luther Preparatory School, Watertown, Wis., is live streaming its morning chapel services Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. (central). Students are doing online learning during the closing.

The Lutheran Home Association
The Lutheran Home Association (TLHA) has devotional resources for adults as well as young children. Read Christian life devotions. Parents are welcome to receive a collection of simple Bible stories for teaching children. Just e-mail jcm@tlha.org for more information. “We are privileged to serve God’s people during this time of uncertainty,” says Rev. Joel Gaertner, TLHA vice president of ministry.

Time of Grace
Time of Grace has videos, devotions, a blog, and more to help keep Christian’s focused on Christ. Time of Grace started posting devotions for families with grade-school aged children on its Grace Talks Facebook group. Rev. Mike Novotny wrote a series of 11 devotions related to the coronavirus. They were just posted on YouVersion as a Bible study plan and Time of Grace will be publishing them starting this Sunday as Daily Grace Moments devotions. In addition, Rev. Jeremy Mattek is recording a video each weekday evening that will be distributed on Time of Grace’s Facebook page, Facebook group, and on Time of Grace Instagram. These three to five minute videos give some biblical encouragement at the end of the day.

Koine Worship Media
Koine Worship Media, which produces various forms of media to be used in worship, is temporarily lifting restrictions on using videos during a livestream or prepared recording of a service. Read more from their Facebook page.

One Minute Bible Bits
Professor Stephen Geiger, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, posted a series of 52 short videos on various topics from the Bible and doctrine.

Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Pilgrim is posting daily video devotions, including a kid’s devotion, to its Facebook page.

First Steps, Oconomowoc, Wis.
First Steps, the child care ministry of St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wis., is posting Bible Time and education videos to its Facebook page.

Bread for Beggars online festival
Bread for Beggars is featuring WELS musicians nightly live on Facebook.

5toThrive
Dr. Rhoda Wolle, dean of student success and associate professor of education at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wis., produces a blog and podcast series called 5toThrive. A recent podcast titled “Resources for Learning from Home” can help families and educators while kids are home from school.

Livestreamed services from WELS Churches
If you’re looking for worship-from-home opportunities, view a listing of WELS churches that live stream services.

Worship radio broadcasts
You can search the WELS Yearbook online for congregations that offer a radio broadcast of their services. Search for churches in your area and select “Church (with worship broadcast).”

 

 

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Online giving options

Congregations are increasingly seeking out options for online giving to meet the preferences of members across generations. The current COVID-19 pandemic has made finding a donation platform even more urgent as restrictions on public gatherings have temporarily moved many worship services online.

These platforms offer an array of popular giving options:

  • Online donations—set up a page to collect one-time and recurring gifts via credit card or electronic funds transfer (EFT) from checking or savings accounts
  • Recurring gift program—an amount is automatically withdrawn for offerings or tuition from the member’s bank account or credit card on a regular basis
  • Text to Give—members can text a phone number to give a dollar amount; this is charged to their phone bill

Comparing vendors typically requires contacting each company to negotiate options and pricing—and the pricing structure is a little complex (e.g., a set fee plus a percentage of transactions). Another factor to consider is how well the software coordinates with your church database.

There is no WELS-endorsed vendor, but many congregations use Vanco’s GivePlus program because of their familiarity with Vanco’s past SimplyGiving program for gathering offerings electronically. You can review the Vanco platform at the St. John’s, Wauwatosa, and St. Marcus, Milwaukee, websites. Other vendors used by WELS churches include RebelGive and Realm. RebelGive has a simple interface and annual price (fees are covered by member donations). Realm goes beyond online giving to also coordinate and collect member information, church communications, and events.

Once you have an online donation page, it’s easy to make this available to members via the offerings section of the bulletin or a digital display as a QR code by following these simple steps. You can learn more about online giving from this WELSTech Podcast (minutes 6:15-12:45) and by contacting Ministry of Christian Giving at mcg@wels.net or 800-827-5482.

Note regarding donations to WELS: In view of Wisconsin Governor Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, our WELS Center for Mission and Ministry employees will be working from home until further notice. During this time, acknowledgment letters for gifts by check or cash will not be prepared and mailed. We thank you for your understanding and will send such letters as soon as practical after our office is reopened. (Online gifts will continue to be immediately acknowledged by e-mail.)

 

 

 

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