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A growing Lutheran family

On Wednesday, the synod in convention had the joy of officially welcoming three Lutheran synods from around the world into our fellowship. All three synods were unanimously voted into fellowship with a standing ovation.

Representing the synods were Rev. Dr. Kebede Yigezu from the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia (LCE), Rev. Titus Tse from South Asian Lutheran Evangelical Mission (SALEM) in Hong Kong, and two pastors from the East Asia Lutheran Synod.

After growing up in a Christian church in Ethiopia and having an opportunity to study at a Lutheran seminary in the U.S., Kebede knew he wanted to take the solid Bible-based doctrine back with him to Ethiopia. He founded the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia in 2012 and, at the same time, added a seminary, the Maor Theological College, so that he can teach other Christian pastors, in addition to Lutheran pastors, the pure Word of God. Today, the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia has nearly 400 members and has already seen graduates from its seminary.

Kebede says the declaration of fellowship is a historic moment for the LCE. “It is by God’s grace and we are very happy; it is meaningful for us because faithfulness to Scripture is a very important matter of life and death. Jesus says ‘If you hold to my teaching . . .’ So, faithfulness to what he says, what the Scriptures say from Genesis chapter 1 to the last chapter of Revelation, is very important. We are very happy because we know that WELS is faithful to the Scriptures and is a confessional Lutheran church.”

The East Asia Lutheran Synod was established in February 2017. It was formed from five Lutheran groups and has 280 baptized members. The synod is just getting started but is already looking ahead to how it can expand and grow as well as begin international mission work.

One of the pastors said, “It’s a numerous number of people who come to convention, and it’s a blessing to see there’s a huge church group at our back to support our church even though we are very far away and in a very different situation.”

Rev. Titus Tse from the South Asian Lutheran Evangelical Mission in Hong Kong attended the convention to participate in the declaration of fellowship on behalf of SALEM. Founded in 1977, SALEM has 10 congregations and six pastors. The synod’s history is tied closely to Asia Lutheran Seminary, the WELS ministerial training school located in Hong Kong.

Tse said, “We recognize that it’s important that we’re keeping the faith, and we can share with future generations the importance of keeping the faith because of this relationship with WELS, a church that shares our faith.”

To learn more about all of WELS’ sister synods around the world, visit celc.info.

 

 

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Hein shares results of demographic survey

Rev. Jonathan Hein, director of the WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, has overseen a comprehensive demographic survey of WELS over the past two years, and he shared key findings with delegates on Wednesday afternoon.

After peaking in 1990 at more than 420,000 souls, WELS’ baptized membership has decreased by 14 percent. Communicant membership is down 9 percent. Four items were identified as contributing factors to this decline:

  • Families today are having fewer children.
  • The number of WELS members dying and going to heaven is increasing as the overall population ages.
  • It has grown increasingly difficult to retain members, especially younger members. Since 1986, WELS lost between 240,000-260,000 members through removal/excommunication or from those members joining other Christian churches. These are sometimes referred to as “back door losses.”
  • Fewer people are living in rural areas, and this is impacting more than 100 churches who now face the “50/60 challenge”—fewer than 50 people worship each week and the average age worshiping is above 60 years old.

As Hein notes, “When you hear numbers like this, it can be easy to grow discouraged. Don’t. Christ is still risen. He still sits on his throne, ruling over everything for the benefit of his church. Through Word and sacrament, he still abides with us.”

Last fall, Hein and the other members of the Congregational Services team met and discussed how to meet these challenges. “Obviously, some of the factors contributing to WELS’ statistical decline are beyond our control—for example, the rising death rate,” says Hein. “However, there are other areas where, by God’s grace and with his aid, we might be able to increase our gospel efforts—evangelism, decreasing back door losses, etc. Congregational Services has put together a five-year strategy that we pray helps congregations as they strive to meet these challenges.”

Highlights of that five-year strategy include:

  • Creating a present-day mission emphasis—The Commission on Evangelism is developing a comprehensive evangelism curriculum that congregations can use to offer annual evangelism training and encouragement. Hein reminds us, “The results of increased evangelism efforts are entirely up to the Holy Spirit. However, if he would bless those efforts, it could make a substantial impact.”
  • Better capitalizing on WELS’ historic strengths—WELS maintains one of the largest private school systems in the country. The greatest growth in the past 20 years has been in early childhood ministries, which often attract unchurched families. Only a few congregations have seen these families become members of their churches, though. The common factor among these congregations is a “harvest strategy” that includes regular contact with parents and a process of witnessing. The Commissions on Lutheran Schools and Evangelism have jointly developed a program titled “Telling the Next Generation: Utilizing Our Schools for Outreach” that helps congregations develop a zealous harvest strategy.
  • Producing resources for Millennial outreach and retention—Several WELS organizations have been studying Millennials and their worldviews. Congregational Services would like to bring those groups together to compile a “best practices” list in reaching this demographic. This task force would develop resources to help congregations retain its young adults and to reach other Millennials within the community.

“This project is a central focus for our synod going forward,” says WELS President Mark Schroeder. “You’ll hear more about specific ideas and overall progress as the plan rolls out. Remember, we have the unchanging gospel . . . and that’s at the core of everything we do.”

Hein agrees. He says, “One of the catch-phrases we use in the Commission on Congregational Counseling goes like this: ‘If we are doing all we can with the gospel, numbers don’t matter.’ The challenges before us provide us with an opportunity to examine if we are indeed ‘doing all we can with the gospel.’ Let us view the challenges facing WELS as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the mission Christ has given us, to trust in the power of his Word and sacraments, and to rejoice in the privilege that God has given us to play a role in his saving work.”

Read Hein’s full report, titled “A demographic study of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” available online. Look for additional details in the November WELS Connection.

 

 

 

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God’s expanding kingdom

On Tuesday evening, the synod convention delegates had the privilege to listen to presentations from four WELS missionaries serving around the world, including Rev. Paul Nitz, Malawi; Rev. John Hartmann; Zambia; Rev. Luke Wolfgramm, Russia; and a missionary from East Asia.

Nitz is based in Malawi and is the coordinator of the newly formed One Africa team, which is working to coordinate mission efforts across the continent for more cohesive programs and worker training.

Nitz has seen the Lutheran Church of Central Africa grow and become increasingly independent in the two decades he’s been there. Now, with the One Africa team, the mission efforts there are being taken a step further. He says, “What gets me excited is that we’re going to do work better, improve together, we’re going to know more about what each other is doing in different fields, and we’re going to collaborate and cooperate a lot more.” He says that after years of WELS missionaries helping the national churches in Africa, the missionaries and the national churches have reached more of a consultancy stage.

Wolfgramm appreciated the opportunity to present the gospel work happening in Russia to the convention. “This is the body that called me to go out and preach God’s Word on behalf of WELS, kind of like how Paul went back to Antioch after his first missionary journey to report on what was going and the believers rejoiced. That’s what it felt like last night, to come back and share all the good things God is doing in Russia,” he says.

Wolfgramm says that when WELS started mission work in Russia 25 years ago, it was a planting effort. There was no Lutheran church in Russia. Today, there are four Russian national pastors and the missionary’s role has changed to be more of a partner with the Russian church.

A missionary from East Asia talked about the growing gospel work there. “It’s really important to have an opportunity like this to speak in person, because we can’t share a lot of information digitally or online. To have an opportunity to present our work to people who can go back and share it with their congregations is really important. The important thing to know about East Asia is all the progress that has been made there. We have a synod there; we have national pastors that have graduated from the seminary and are leading their churches.”

On Wednesday morning, World Missions Administrator Rev. Larry Schlomer gave an overview of expanding opportunities to spread the gospel around the world. Since the last synod convention in 2015, WELS has made contact and been involved in some capacity with 14 new mission fields around the world. With these new fields, there are close to 50 world fields, ranging from places where WELS sends missionaries to locales with contacts from national churches to groups that are using the multitude of confessional Lutheran materials from Multi-Language Publications available.

Schlomer says, “What the Lord is doing around the world—the way he’s lining up some of these opportunities—is something I don’t think we’ve seen in our synod in a while, if ever. So it’s a real challenge for us to take a look around and see where God has placed us in the world, look at the resources he has given us, and see what we might be able to do to get the gospel to more people.”

While there are many exciting and new opportunities around the world, one of WELS’ most prominent mission fields is right here in the U.S. Chairman of the Board for Home Missions Rev. Wayne Uhlhorn says, “There’s a lot of really good mission work that’s happening right down the street in our neighborhoods and cities across America and in Canada where we can reach out with the gospel in an increasingly secular world. We’ve heard that in some of these neighborhoods, people just aren’t going to church anymore and they’re confused on what the truth is, so we can do a lot of mission work by starting new missions, expanding congregations to have a second site, and reaching people who don’t know Jesus so they can learn about salvation.”

To learn more about WELS Missions, visit wels.net/missions.

 

 

 

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Reformation celebration continues

Celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation continued on Wednesday, with presentations that highlighted Reformation history as well as shared materials and ways for congregations and individuals to celebrate the Reformation.

Rev. Michael Herbst, vice president of the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church (ELFK) in Germany, shared more about the history of our sister church and how the EFLK continues to reach out in the land of the Reformation.

Rev. John Braun, chairman of the Reformation 500 Committee, reported on available Reformation 500 resources, including Bible studies and a children’s film taken from the popular Martin Luther film, A Return to Grace: Luther’s Life and Legacy. He highlighted that the committee’s goals are to educate members on our Lutheran heritage but also to use the interest in the anniversary as a way to reach out into local communities. Learn more about these resources and special Reformation events at wels.net/reformation500.

Congregations around the synod have been sponsoring viewings of A Return to Grace as one way to educate members and reach out. Delegates were treated to a special viewing of the film on Wednesday evening, which included a question and answer period with the film’s executive producer, Mr. Steve Boettcher, and author of the companion book Luther’s Protest, Rev. John Braun. Learn more about the movie in tomorrow’s issue of “Together.”

To celebrate the anniversary, the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC) decided to prepare a new “Ninety-five Theses for the 21st century.” Fifteen pastors from around the world put together the document, which was approved by the CELC at its triennial convention in Grimma, Germany, this past summer. “The nature of these theses is very different than Luther’s original ones,” says Prof. Thomas Nass, one of the men leading the development of the theses. “It’s really the basic teachings of the Lutheran faith organized according to the Small Catechism. I think it’s what every Lutheran layperson should know.”

A video of confessional Lutherans from around the world reading some of these theses was shown to delegates Wednesday afternoon. A full video presentation of these theses will be posted online as well as streamed on Oct. 31, 2017, to give confessional Lutherans around the world an opportunity to celebrate our shared beliefs. Learn more about the CELC at celc.info.

Finally, special common chests were built by Mr. Kevin Kopplin, a member of Lord of Life, DeForest, Wis., to show how Lutherans financed their needs following the separation from the Roman Church during Martin Luther’s time. “Members deposited their offerings into the chest and elected a group of directors to manage the funds,” says Rev. John Braun. “Our world is different now. Doctrine hasn’t changed, and we still collect money to carry out the work of proclaiming the gospel and helping others. But now, banks, checks, electronic giving, and combination safes are what’s common. The common chest may have disappeared, but the idea is a part of our collections, budgets, and treasurer’s reports.”

To commemorate the Reformation anniversary, the chests were used to collect the offering from the opening worship service as well as special gifts from delegates for the three Lutheran church bodies with whom WELS declared fellowship during this convention.

 

 

 

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