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June 2016 lead article
Of course, this was not always the case.
Many of you know that we used to have very large urban congregations, especially in the upper Midwest cities of Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Our own Concordia was in the city, too. But times have changed. As German Lutherans moved out of the city, the churches and schools went with them. Those who remained in the city struggled to reach the African American, Hispanic, and other immigrant groups that moved in.
None of this is news to you.
The question is, does it matter? Should we continue to focus on our suburban and rural ministries and cede our cities to other denominations and religious groups? I don’t think so, and there are a growing number of people in our Synod who don’t think so either. And I’m grateful to God for that.
Consider this: in the last dozen years, all of our congregations in Milwaukee that are primarily white have declined, and some have closed. In fact, in a statistical study of those churches I found a 50% decrease in worship attendance in those 12 years (2002-2014). But there is good news: the number of worshipers from immigrant communities dramatically increased in that same time period. This includes churches like Zion International (comprised mainly of French-speaking African immigrants), Chapel of the Cross (which hosts a Karenni (Burmese) service every week), and St. Martini (which recently has seen massive increases in the number of Hispanics worshiping and entering the church through baptism and confirmation.)
So how can we keep this momentum going? One way is through the work of LINC, and its executive director here in Milwaukee, Rev. Joe Robb. LINC-Milwaukee works with LINC-Houston, an LCMS RSO, and focuses on planting and re-planting churches in urban areas. Recently, Pastor Robb has been working with our own Pastor Afam Ikanih, to investigate planting a church for the formerly incarcerated on the south side of Milwaukee. To learn more about LINC’s work, you can contact Pastor Robb at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another way to support urban ministry is to support our urban Lutheran schools. Long gone is the urban model of Lutheran kids in Lutheran schools. Now, Lutheran schools are mission outposts that are on the front lines of bringing Jesus to the kids and families of our urban areas. For more information on one group, LUMIN, that operates six urban Lutheran schools, visit their website: www.luminschools.org.
Another way to help keep momentum growing is to consider adopting an immigrant family that’s coming to Southeastern Wisconsin. Ministry to immigrants very often starts with hospitality. Check out Lutheran Social Services’ website for more information on helping immigrants: https://www.lsswis.org/LSS/Outreach/Refugee-Immigrant-Services
A final way is to consider a relationship with one of our urban churches or schools. Many in the rural and suburban areas of our District simply don’t know the challenges of urban ministry. Invite a pastor or principal to share his or her story with you, or visit one of the city congregations or schools to see first-hand. Mutual encouragement and cooperation is a great first-step!
Our cities are not going away. Urbanization is only expected to grow. As a church body, the more we invest in supporting urban ministries, the more relevant we will be as a multicultural synod united in our confession of Jesus Christ.
May 2016 lead article
Bad News, Good News.
As I’m writing this, it’s been a year since my cancer diagnosis. The wild swings from bad news to good news have been, well, crazy. You have cancer, but we can operate! We took out some of the cancer, but it’s already spreading. The chemo is working. The chemo is not working. Radiation won’t work. Radiation might work! The tumor is growing. The tumor is shrinking! The cancer is back!
Lord, Have Mercy.
And He has!
Most of life is filled with an ongoing onslaught of bad news and good news. Sometimes the swings are worse than others. But you can’t avoid it. In a sinful world, there will be bad news. And with a gracious God, there will be good news.
Theologically, of course, this is the core of our Lutheran teaching. The bad news is that we are sinners: conceived in it, born with it, actively pursuing it. The good news is that Jesus took that sin upon Himself and paid for it on the cross. We are free from sin’s curse and control!
And now we proclaim the same, simple Law/Gospel message. Bad news, good news. Evangelism programs come and go. New preaching styles and approaches pop up here and there. Outreach strategies change as the culture changes.
But, in the end, the message of God’s Word is still bad news, good news. Sin is sin. And it’s bad. Grace is grace. And it’s so good.
And here’s the beauty of the good news that is the foundation of our lives: it never goes away, no matter what bad news may come at us. No matter what Satan throws at us. No matter what our sinful flesh falls into. Jesus Christ died and rose to bring us forgiveness, life and salvation.
God grant us the courage to keep proclaiming this simple message of bad news and good news: from the pulpit, in our personal relationships, and in the communities that we are called to reach. There will be a growing temptation in our culture to not talk about sin. But we must. And there will be an even larger temptation in our culture to stop trying to engage unbelievers with the truth, but we must. God grant us the strength and courage to keep proclaiming bad news and good news, until that Day when it’s all good news for all eternity.
March 2016 lead article
I have the bad habit of slipping into “either-or” thinking, convincing myself that there is only one side of an issue that deserves my attention and support. And it usually works this way: somebody offers up an opinion that I feel is too one-sided. So I take the other side. You know, to balance it out. If they say white, I say black. If they say right, I say wrong. If they say yes, then I say no!
It’s an especially bad habit because the very idea of balancing out the other side is subjective, biased, and, well, unbalanced.
This happens in our culture in too many ways to count. Black lives matter. No, blue lives matter. Is it possible that both African Americans and Police Officers matter? I think so.
Poverty is the issue in the city. No, immorality … opportunity … jobs … education. Um, yes?
In the church, the way this plays out is even more sad. Because we take sides that need not be taken. In fact, often taking sides misses the point. Much of Lutheran theology emphasizes keeping things in tension. Without resolution. Two Kingdoms. Law and Gospel. Faith and Works.
Lutheran theology also abhors legalism, turning a both-and into an either-or. When we demand one option when God has given us freedom for many options, we venture into dangerous spiritual waters.
In mission and ministry, my either-or thinking can miss what God does every single day: He works both-and for His glory and His purposes.
OK, that’s the easy part. Now apply with rabid self-awareness:
- Have I used either-or thinking when both-and is the answer?
- Have I tried to resolve tension that ought not to be resolved?
- Have I definitively answered a question that God hasn’t?
- Is my either-or thinking hindering our church’s mission? How?
- Could both-and thinking multiply our opportunities to expand the mission? How?
Above all, Lutheran theology points to Jesus who both perfectly kept the law and willingly suffered and died. Both for us, and for the world.
February 2016 lead article
A Reconfigured Life
Pete Rose isn’t getting into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame anytime soon. Despite the fact that he is the all-time hits leader with more than 4,000, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, has denied his request to be reinstated from his lifetime ban.
The reason? Manfred put it this way: Pete Rose “hasn’t presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life.” You see, what got Rose into big trouble in the first place was that he bet on baseball games, including baseball games in which he was one of the managers. Rose admittedly still bets on baseball.
Manfred is looking for more than a simple, “I’m sorry.”
And this is what is so interesting to me. Though he may call it “evidence of a reconfigured life,” what Manfred is really looking for from Rose is repentance.
Because repentance is more than a simple, “I’m sorry.” “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” John the Baptist would have us remember. Repentance is a changing of the mind, going in a completely different direction. Beyond a simple apology, repentance is a changed life.
But here’s the thing: repentance is a gift. A gift from God. Because on my own, I can’t recognize the seriousness of my sin (let alone change my life) any more than a blind person can make himself see or a dead person can make himself live.
God grant me repentance. God show me my sins through your Word of Law. And grant me forgiveness and salvation through your Word of Gospel.
What follows? A Reconfigured Life! A Spirit-led life! A life that seeks to honor God. A life that is reconfigured around loving God and loving neighbor.
We’re about to enter the season of Lent. Repentance is a year-round thing, but in this penitential season especially we pray that that God would grant us repentance, that He would help us to see the reality of our sin, and the seriousness of our sin. And we pray that He would deliver forgiveness to us by Word and Sacrament, so that we might live that reconfigured life.
Lots of people feel sorry for Pete Rose. It’s been long enough, they say. Let him in the Hall of Fame, they say. Look at all those hits! Kinda like the sinner who tries to point to his own good works as evidence for why God should let him into heaven. It doesn’t work that way…
God grant us repentance and forgiveness, and God grant us the boldness to preach repentance and forgiveness in His name to all nations.
January 2016 lead article
Thank God for Immigrants and Refugees
One of the many very cool things I’m privileged to do in my job is spend a lot of time with immigrants and refugees. As many of you know, we are blessed to have a number of Word and Sacrament ministries among people of many cultures and ethnicities – people who were not born in this country. Africans, Asians, Hispanics. We have more than a dozen ordained Lutheran pastors serving in SWD who were born elsewhere, along with numerous new Lutheran laypeople who have come to know Jesus through their ministries.
Thank God for immigrants and refugees.
The stories of these fellow believers, pastors and people alike, are a testimony to the grace of God. Many spent time in refugee camps. Others were in danger from hostile military regimes. Some were just looking for a better life.
One of these brothers in Christ, Edmundo Rosales, works a full-time job as a butcher in Racine. In his spare time he takes online classes with the Center for Hispanic Studies through the St. Louis Seminary. And he helps lead worship at his congregation, Santa Cruz. He’s a very hardworking disciple of Jesus. And so is his wife, who hopes to be a deaconess one day.
Thank God for immigrants and refugees.
Others of our brothers and sisters in Christ endured frightening abuse. Nearly all experienced poverty like most of us can’t imagine. They worked hard to get an education. And racism? Bigotry? Discrimination? Not all that unusual, frankly.
My ancestors who emigrated spoke German and Finnish. They wanted basically the same thing that these immigrants and refugees are still looking for. In God’s amazing plan, he used the freedoms of this land as a perfect place for the Gospel of His Son to be spread.
The stories continue to amaze in SWD. Immigrants from Mexico, Burma, and the Congo are being baptized and confirmed. Hmong congregations are looking to reach out to new communities in our District. Anglo congregations are working together to reach the immigrants in their communities.
We’re not getting all that many Germans and Finns coming to our shores. Or Italians, Irish, or Norwegians, either. But does it matter? Let’s share the Gospel with whomever the Lord brings to us. After all, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” (Acts 17:26, NIV)
Thank God for immigrants and refugees!
December 2015 lead article
Advent and Fear
At lunch with a friend recently, we began to detail how quickly it seemed things were falling apart in our world. The attacks in Paris were fresh in our minds, but the homosexual marriage debate, Planned Parenthood videos and American attitudes toward Christianity weren’t far behind.
Like aging men do, we lamented how difficult things would be for our kids and grandkids one day in this crazy new world. We wondered how bad things would actually get.
Where are we going?
At the root of our conversation, I’m afraid, was fear. Fear that the Muslim extremists, or the pagans, or the secularists were winning. Fear that our kids and grandkids might be overcome by these enemies in the future.
I’m not proud of my fear. But it’s there.
Which is why it’s a great time for Advent! I don’t need to remind you of the oft-shared phrase “Do not be afraid” found in those first couple of chapters of Luke. God was coming … and it was understandable for that to cause some fear! But God was coming humbly. He was coming in grace and truth. He was coming with healing in His wings. And He was coming to save, to forgive, to rescue. He was coming as He had promised. He was coming as a baby born of a virgin. And His coming, and His presence, meant that His people didn’t need to be afraid.
Thanks, Jesus. I needed that.
Fear is a funny thing. It causes us to act and think differently without us even knowing why. It causes us to be reactive and knee-jerk in our response to things instead of proactive and thoughtful. And let’s not forget, fear is caused by sin. Our sin, the sin of the world around us. It makes us worried for the future. It causes us to wonder where our hope lies.
But “perfect love casts out fear.” His perfect love. And perfect love is found in the coming of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ continues to come to us. In Word and Sacrament, He drives away our fear. He reminds us of the victory that is ours because of His death and resurrection. He comes to bring repentance, and forgiveness, and new life.
The things that cause you to fear are as unique as you are. Jesus is the answer to each and every one of your fears.
There is one final Advent. I pray it happens soon. And you and I need not fear that Coming of our Lord Jesus, for He will come to take us home to the new heavens and the new earth.
Do not be afraid. Amen, come Lord Jesus!
November 2015 lead article…
The Lutheran Reformation was about freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from the fear of death. Freedom from the power of the devil. Freedom to serve my neighbor as God gives me gifts and opportunities. Freedom that only Jesus Christ can give, won by Him through cross and empty tomb. Freedom that I can only understand through the faith that has been given me.
And freedom from a tyrannical church that burdens consciences with rules and regulations that are neither Scriptural nor godly. Freedom from the need to save myself. Freedom from the need to please man.
And that message of freedom continues to have a profound effect upon those whose earthly freedoms have been taken away.
I’m constantly amazed at the opportunities that God has provided for us in the South Wisconsin District to preach and teach the Gospel of freedom to the incarcerated. Pastor Afam Ikanih continues to do amazing work in the House of Correction in Franklin. He regularly gets an audience with men and women who have not only had their personal freedoms taken away, but men and women who struggle with their slavery to the sinfulness that dwells in them. Hopelessness is a common thing in prison. The weight of crimes committed is a serious thing. And only Jesus can take that weight away. But when that message is shared; Wow! Lives are changed. Hopelessness turns to hope. Death to life. Slavery to freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!”
Recently, Pastor Ikanih and I met with a representative of Concordia University to talk about ways for students to get involved with and support this prison ministry. Praise God!
A few months ago we were given another incredible opportunity to preach and teach the Gospel of freedom to the incarcerated. Rev. Ryan Willis, an LCMS chaplain working at the Oxford, Wisconsin, Federal Correctional Institution reached out to my office with an intriguing problem: they had an influx (over 300!) of Hispanic prisoners because of the closing of a federal facility in Texas. Would we be able to provide a Spanish-speaking pastor to lead a monthly worship service? I was thrilled when Pastors Sims, Novelli, and Prada said “yes!” Just this past month, Pastor Alfonso Prada of St. Martini traveled to Oxford to share the Gospel with twelve inmates. Worship, confession/absolution, prayer and praise. Real freedom for those prisoners who – like all of us – have been enslaved by sin.
Are there opportunities for you to reach out in local jails or prisons? Is there a prison ministry that you can support in your area? Would you like to help sponsor one of our SWD prison ministries? Is there a way to involve your laypeople in serving at a local prison or jail?
The Day is coming when Christ returns and ushers us into the new heavens and the new earth, where freedom will be complete and eternal. Until that Day, we will continue to have opportunity to preach spiritual freedom through faith in Christ alone, to those with and without temporal freedom. God grant us the boldness to speak the Gospel of freedom everywhere we can.
October 2015 lead article…
Every One His Witness
I’ve purposely stolen the title of a seminar that we are hosting on Saturday, November 14th, 2015, at the SWD office (look for details below!) I’m sure that Rev. Mark Wood, the presenter at that seminar from the International Center in St. Louis, won’t mind.
Of course, we all know that we are his witnesses. Jesus said to his disciples in Acts 1:8:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (ESV)
We know that those words don’t apply to the apostles alone, nor to pastors and teachers alone, but to all the baptized. We have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in us through Baptism, the Spirit that gives us power to be witnesses of Jesus Christ.
And we see this in the book of Acts. In chapter 8, a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem. And the church was “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1, ESV, emphasis mine) And “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (Acts 8:4, ESV, emphasis mine) That is, God’s people preached the Word, witnessed to the saving power of Jesus Christ, wherever the Spirit took them.
Fast-forward a couple thousand years. God’s people are still witnesses. And we still are called to preach the Word. No, we are not all pastors who publicly preach and teach and administer the sacraments. That office is distinct from the priesthood of all believers. But we are all priests of the Most High God. We are all preachers. Make no mistake. To be a witness is to speak, to confess, to share, to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9, ESV)
And the importance of God’s people sharing the Word as witnesses in their daily lives is so important as our culture crumbles, and as the Church loses its place of prominence in society.
Because so many people are no longer going to church. They aren’t seeking out the Word. They don’t feel the need for “organized religion.” The numbers of people who have never been to church is on the rise. And the number of people who have left the church – and with prejudice – is going up, too. And so our “strategy” for reaching this culture has to include God’s people actively witnessing to their faith in Jesus among family, neighbors, co-workers, friends. Though we desperately desire them to worship with us, we also understand that it may indeed take a number of conversations, over weeks, months or years, to get them by God’s grace to that point. We are His deployed preachers, to “go about preaching the Word” as Luke tells us in Acts 8.
But far from a legalistic demand that is placed upon us, this witnessing to our Savior’s love is a privilege that the Spirit Himself enables us to do. The emphasis isn’t on our ability to convince or convert anyone. Hardly. We share the Word, and the Spirit does His work, as He sees fit.
Is any of this new to you? I doubt it. It’s a core teaching of creedal Christianity. We are confessors. We preach. We “proclaim His excellencies” as His priests.
In commenting on I Peter 2:8-9, Luther wrote: “A priest must be God’s messenger and must have a command from God to proclaim His Word. You must, says Peter, exercise the chief function of a priest, that is to proclaim the wonderful deed God has performed for you to bring you out of darkness into the light.” (Luther’s Works, AE 30:64)
Witnesses? Yep. Preachers and priests. Indeed. God grant us the strength to share His Word of salvation through faith in Christ alone, the crucified and risen One!
September 2015 lead article…
One of the interesting aspects of my journey into the world of cancer has been the response of so many friends and family members who want to help: what can we do? Our response as a family has been pretty consistent: pray! Occasionally we’ll get the facial expression that says, “Sure, ok, we’ll pray, but what can we do?”
We are so wired for action, for activity, for, you know, getting something done.
But when the enemy is cancer, I assure you that the best thing you can do for me, or for anyone else with the hideous disease, is to pray.
Why? One simple word: dependence. We are dependent creatures. Dependent on the God who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us. It’s not so much about us getting things done. It’s about trusting in God who gets things done in us and through us. Which is why I’ve prayed the Kyrie a million times since my diagnosis: Lord, have Mercy. Christ, have Mercy. Lord, have Mercy.
Which brings me in a strange sort of way to the mission calling of the church.
I would suggest that one begins to approach mission, outreach and evangelism in the same way one approaches a cancer diagnosis: on your knees. We are dependent. We are called to trust in the One who gets things done in us and through us. The One who created, redeemed, and sanctifies us. Which is why prayer is a great place for an individual, or a congregation, to start when it comes to mission.
Mission and prayer need to go together. They are inseparable. Let’s look at a few reasons why:
- Reaching out to God in prayer for mission reminds us that mission is God’s thing. Missio Dei. We ask God to do His work in us and through us. He doesn’t need us, but we pray for the opportunity to get in on what He’s doing.
- Reaching out to God in prayer for mission reminds us that His plans and our plans are not co-equal. We have our ideas, our preferable future, our target audience … and His might be completely different. In prayer we seek His will, not our own.
- Reaching out to God in prayer for mission orients us away from ourselves and to the lost, the mission field. So much of healthy congregational ministry depends on an outward – not only an inward – focus. Prayer for mission helps.
So what can we do, practically, to be more engaged in prayer for mission?
- Make sure you include petitions in the prayer of the church specifically for reaching out to those who don’t know Jesus.
- Share the needs of missionaries and mission agencies regularly.
- Thank and praise God for stories of success on the mission field, wherever that mission field is.
- Consider more focused times of prayer – even a prayer service – where God’s people can concentrate more specifically in prayer for the mission of the church.
- Encourage your Bible studies and small groups to be focused on prayer for mission.
- Talk about prayer more intentionally: in sermons, Bible classes, confirmation classes…urging God’s people to pray for the Gospel to be spread and the Kingdom to grow.
- Prayer chains, prayer journals, prayer groups. These are still tried and true ways for God’s people to keep mission-focused prayer at the forefront.
Prayer places us humbly on our knees in expectation that the God who hears our prayers will answer our prayers. And He will give us plenty of opportunities to work, and work hard, as we share the Good News near and far. Freed from what we want to do, and what we have to accomplish, we will be available for what God in His grace will do for us and through us, as we hold out the precious Word of Life.
Lord, have Mercy. Christ, have Mercy. Lord, have Mercy.
August 2015 lead article…
Holy Ghost is one of those beautiful old Lutheran churches in Milwaukee that just drips with history. It’s not hard to imagine the well-dressed German Lutheran families walking a few blocks through the neighborhood to hear a Law/Gospel sermon and sing some familiar old Lutheran hymns with hundreds of fellow believers on a Sunday morning in the early 1900s. Ask around suburban churches in the area, and you’ll find more than a few, including some pastors, who trace their roots back to Holy Ghost.
Fast-forward a hundred years.
Eighth and Concordia is a different neighborhood now. Urban blight, some might say. There’s some senior housing right next door, and a number of old houses in various states of repair (or disrepair). Honestly? Not the safest neighborhood statistically in Milwaukee. Its residents understand urban violence and decay. And more than a few might have predicted some decades ago that Holy Ghost would be closed by now.
There’s still Law/Gospel sermons being heard in this historic Lutheran church, and some old familiar Lutheran hymns, too. German Lutherans are harder to find. But Lutherans? They’re there! Pastor Elijah Ndon, a Nigerian pastor with a solid grasp of the theology of grace and an African flair for delivery is still proclaiming the truths of God’s precious Word. The pews aren’t as full as a hundred years ago. And the dozens who do show up aren’t all lifelong German Lutherans. More like African Americans from the community who have found a church that proclaims God’s Word clearly. This is not a story of the faithful dozen holding on. This is the story of a church reaching its neighborhood and bringing people in to hear the Gospel. Baptisms, adult confirmations, guests invited by friends who found a church home at Holy Ghost. Those are some of the stories that I heard on a recent Wednesday morning at Holy Ghost.
Wednesdays are a big day at Holy Ghost. Food pantry, clothing pantry and Bible study. Come for food and clothing, stay for the Word! And they stay! More than 25 gathered around Pastor Ndon, Bibles at the ready, as the group talked about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). Some great discussion (“Do we really have to forgive every time?” “Aren’t we like those Pharisees so often?”) was punctuated with prayer and an invitation to a prayer service that evening and worship on Sundays at 9 a.m.
Pastor Ndon is one of those guys who give Lutheran pastors a good name. He labors without the full-time salary that most of us have come to expect. The resources for his church don’t come close to what most of us enjoy. The District helps out some, and faithful members – some of them longtime, faithful members – still give of their tithes and offerings. And Pastor Ndon just labors on. Preaching, teaching, reaching. Holding out the gifts of God for the people of God. And the same Holy Spirit that was active at the turn of the 20th century is active today…calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
What’s the future for Holy Ghost? Hard to say. The challenges are very real. But this church by God’s grace isn’t shrinking into a shell wishing for the good old days that aren’t coming back. It’s facing its neighborhood’s need for Jesus head-on. And I for one was glad to see it on this particular Wednesday. Thank you, Jesus! And thank you SWD for supporting congregations like Holy Ghost.
July 2015 lead article…
My family moved to Brookfield, Wisconsin (from Wauwatosa) when I was in middle school. In the 1980s Brookfield was a very typical white, middle-class suburb. It was a great place to grow up. I got my first job as a caddy at Westmoor Country Club across from Brookfield Square mall. I’m pretty sure every single member at that prestigious club was white. And so was every caddy. That’s just the way it was. The Milwaukee area has always been highly segregated, and the 1980s were no different. I never thought much of it.
This morning I traveled back to Brookfield. Not to my old neighborhood, but to one of my favorite churches in our South Wisconsin District, Brookfield Lutheran Church. Their Senior Pastor, Rob Mrosko, is a good friend from Seminary, but that’s not the only reason I love this church.
Frankly, in my opinion, Brookfield Lutheran is helping to transform its community. And in so doing, it’s helping its community to look more like John’s vision in Revelation with people from “every nation, tribe, people and language.”
It’s VBS week at BLC. As Rob and I snuck into his office for some conversation, we weaved in and out of groups of kids scurrying to the next VBS station. The sheer number of kids was impressive – over 500. But what put a smile on my face was the diversity of kids at that VBS.
For several years, BLC has been supporting POBLO missionaries Praveen and Priya Manuel from India. There’s a large and growing Indian population not far away in Waukesha that they are faithfully reaching with the Gospel, with the help and support of BLC. Praveen and Priya couldn’t help but share the excitement that they picked up 50 Indian kids on the bus that morning, along with a number of their parents as volunteers, for VBS. ESL classes, sewing classes, cultural exchange gatherings…all happening at a church that wants to reach its new neighbors with the love of Jesus.
But it’s not just Indians. Pastor Mrosko shared that some of his members invited several Japanese families that had moved into the neighborhood. And Bethany Lutheran Church in Milwaukee (Pastor Chris Ikanih and Pastor Ben Adetiba), whom BLC has supported in so many ways for so many years, brought several busloads of kids out for VBS. Inner city African American kids who don’t get much chance to get out of the city were hearing about Jesus in a safe and nurturing environment.
Maybe the most interesting group that came wasn’t expected at all. You see, BLC’s VBS features LCMS missionaries from Thailand, who are sharing about their mission work in that land. Bethany advertised this Thailand-themed VBS to its community. There’s a group that has moved into Bethany’s neighborhood in Milwaukee that knows all about Thailand, because that’s where they lived as refugees. The Karen are a minority ethnic group from Burma who have been heavily persecuted by the Burmese government. Many who have spent their entire lives in refugee camps in Thailand are now getting a chance to come to America, and Milwaukee has a large and growing population. And a bunch of them came on the bus out to Brookfield…to hear about Jesus.
Someday, the diversity of the Kingdom of God will be on full display as people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” worship the Lamb who was slain. I cannot wait for that day. But when I catch a glimpse of the future in a place like BLC, I can only thank and praise my God that He’s reminded me of what is coming.
Growing up in Brookfield was great. But seeing what Jesus Christ is doing through His church in Brookfield is so much better. Thank you, Jesus!
June 2015 lead article…
You’ve likely heard the stories in the media over the last several weeks about two individuals who have gone to drastic measures to alter their identities. Bruce Jenner, former Olympic champion and recent reality-TV star has announced to the world that he identifies as a woman. His new name is Caitlyn, and after a few high-profile interviews, he’s comfortable presenting himself to the world as a woman.
Just recently, a woman who was the head of her Spokane, Washington NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapter admitted – after her parents outed her – that she isn’t African American at all. Rather, she’s a white woman who identifies with being African American. The reality of her deception and the controversy it caused led her to step down from her position.
As I’m writing this, news is coming out about a young white man who entered an historically black church in South Carolina and killed 9 people, wounding many others. Reportedly, it was a hate crime against African Americans. Finding his identify in his own skin color, he lashed out in violence at those different from him.
Where does your identity come from? We live in a culture where so many people are drastically searching for their own identity. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose? How do I fit in? The above examples are frightening, frankly, not just because of how drastic they are, but because of how many Americans not only accept this kind of identity change, but celebrate it and encourage it.
But should we be surprised?
The capacity of any human being’s sinful nature to grasp for an identity that is not rooted in God’s creation, Christ’s redemption, and the Spirit’s indwelling is limitless. If I don’t know who I am, then the sky’s the limit – or hell is the depth – of where I can search for an identity.
But how do we respond?
Here is where I urge caution, compassion, and mission. In a culture such as ours that is fleeing God’s Word and promises, the number of people who will flaunt his purposes for humanity is going to continue to explode. We’ve only just begun. But as His people, remember that morality, behavior, and understanding of real identity, only comes through faith in Christ. We ought not expect our unbelieving neighbors to get it! How can they? This is where caution comes in. Be careful of your judgments. Oh, yes, it’s clear that these behaviors are sinful. But not so sinful that they are worse than other sins, and not so sinful that they are beyond the forgiveness and grace won by Christ. And compassion is a must, too. Compassion for people who are wandering in unbelief and its horrendous consequences. These people need Jesus, plain and simple. They need his compassionate call to repentance, and his compassionate promise of forgiveness.
Finally, mission. In an age like this, a conservative, confessional church like ours can lapse into an arrogant judgment of culture. We become only what we’re against. Though we speak of the power of the Gospel, we live like the sins of our culture hold the real power. We become victims of a godless society.
But the church is not new to pagan culture. The solution is God’s people – rooted in the clear identity of their Baptism into Christ – reaching out to the pagan culture with a Word of Law and Gospel, repentance and forgiveness.
When the culture’s sins are so huge, there’s a temptation to diminish our own sinfulness. Resist that temptation and repent regularly, being called back to your identity as a child of God through Baptism, with a living faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose.
Identity only comes through Christ. Praise and thank your God that you know who you are: a redeemed and loved baptized child of God! As you live out your identity in your various callings in life, look for opportunities to share what Christ has done for you for so many of our neighbors who are wandering without a true identity!
Read the entire issue of the June 2015 Mission Update e-newsletter
May 2015 lead article…
Sometimes God is very subtle, and sometimes He is not. A few weeks ago I was able to see more clearly than I ever have how beautifully He works through Lutheran Christian education. God made it pretty obvious.
Now, mind you, this isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson. In fact, I’ve been learning it my whole life. You see, I’ve graduated from Lutheran grade school, Lutheran high school, Lutheran college, and twice from Lutheran seminary. My mom and my wife are Lutheran teachers. I’ve served 3 congregations with Lutheran elementary schools, and two of them had Lutheran pre-schools and childcare and supported Lutheran high schools as well. It shouldn’t be so hard to figure this out, but I’m slow.
The way God made this all pretty obvious was my schedule. Within a few days I spoke at a Lutheran elementary school, Lutheran high school, and Lutheran university. The elementary school was one of our LUMIN Choice schools. Wow. To see the smiling faces—black, white, Hispanic—was moving enough, but to hear them interact during my message, shout out answers they learned from the Bible, and sing “The Lamb” in the most beautiful way ever, sealed it. One kid came up after chapel and thanked me for coming. Now, mind you, this particular LUMIN school is far from traditional. But Jesus Christ is shared in word and deed. And as we prayed Luther’s morning prayer and the Lord’s prayer together, I doubt our Savior was concerned about how traditional it was.
I led chapel at one of our local Lutheran high schools. Particularly exciting was to see a former member of mine who was filling in as a substitute teacher after recently graduating from one of our Concordias. I was reminded of how many of our Lutheran students become Lutheran teachers. Even more exciting was hearing from a theology teacher a couple days after that chapel about a student who approached him about being baptized. Like so many countless kids across our Synod, this child came to a Lutheran school not knowing Christ and was found by Him there. Praise God!
I also had a chance to speak at CUW. Rev. Dr. Ron Mudge invited me to talk to his pre-seminary students about ministry, especially cross-cultural and urban ministry. I remember what I was like in college. I don’t remember being so thoughtful in my college years about the contemporary challenges that face the church, and the clear Word of God that is the only answer to those challenges. That room full of pre-seminary students gave me hope for our church body. And leaving Concordia that evening looking out over Lake Michigan and the gorgeous campus reminded me of how much God has blessed the Concordias, and in particular our CUW. Every day the Word is taught, preached, and shared.
I suppose there’s one more recent teachable moment with Lutheran education. My wife teaches 3s and 4s in an LCMS pre-school. As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for surgery in a couple of days. My wife reached out to the parents of her preschoolers and shared what was going on. She also shared how she has been talking to the kids and praying with the kids. Some of these parents are believers, some are not. But Jesus is being talked about and talked to. And the Word works, even in the hearts of the youngest disciples. Praise God that some of the children who have come to this particular childcare have been baptized as a result.
I have three kids in Lutheran schools, two in elementary school and one in high school. I thank God that what we teach at home is being reinforced every single day. I rejoice when I hear my kids practicing their memory work. I can’t wait for our middle child to be confirmed in a few weeks.
Lutheran schools and mission go together. Oh, sometimes we drop the ball and don’t get everything right. We’re still sinners, after all. But the combination of teachers and students gathered around God’s Word is a beautiful thing.
Thanks for reminding me, Lord. I’m still teachable!
Read the entire May 2015 issue of the Mission Update e-newsletter.
April 2015 lead article…
Of all the time periods in the Scriptures that I would love to know more about, the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension ranks right near the top. It’s an odd interval. Jesus is alive! But his disciples are struggling to figure out what that means. Jesus is here! They can see him and touch him, share some fish with him, but then he’s gone again. The Apostle Paul fills il-consuming and restricting. True worship of the One, true God is also all-consuming…but it is freeing.
God grant you repentance for your idolatry. God grant you forgiveness for your idolatry. And God grant that you share in the promise of Jesus: “and repentance and forgiveness will be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
Read the entire July 2014 Mission Update e-newsletter
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June 2014 lead article…
Are you ready for it?
“There is an inverse relationship between the closure rate and the growth of a denomination. The lower the closure rate, the more likely the denomination is declining. The higher the closure rate, the more likely the denomination is growing.”[i]
Denominations that close churches are more likely to be growing. Denominations that don’t close churches are more likely to be declining.
Now, at this point, I could throw at you all kinds of data around this topic. Of particular interest might be where the LCMS fits in this spectrum. I’ll let you guess about that one. Of more interest to me is the concept itself.
Back to the inverse relationship: “The instinct to never to let a church die actually discourages energy from being directed toward the development of new churches.” [ii]
I think this really speaks to the situation that we find ourselves in today, in the American church in general and in the LCMS in particular. It’s a sad thing when a church dies. I would argue that it’s much sadder when new churches aren’t planted.
The Church is eternal. “One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church.” We confess it in the Nicene Creed. We believe in the Church. But individual congregations have never been given the burden of being eternal. I’ve been a member of about 10 congregations in my life, in four states and a foreign country. My future in the new heavens and the new earth won’t include official membership in a Trinity or a St. John, a St. Paul or Immanuel or Faith. But my membership in the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church, secured at Baptism with the gift of faith in Jesus that’s been nourished by Word and Sacrament for four decades, is sure. Churches close. The Church marches on.
And in a culture that is veering away from Christianity at an historically high speed, we are going to see more churches close. It’s a fact. The better question becomes, are we going to see more new churches open, or not?
I realize that this whole conversation makes some uncomfortable, even angry. I’ve seen it as I’ve talked about the massive decline of our churches, and our desire in SWD to plant new churches. I understand the anger.
But hear me out. It’s time to plant. And let me give you some short, sweet reasons why:
1) New churches reach new believers. For a host of reasons, including the burdens of tradition and perception. It’s hard for lots of people in our world to walk into a church, especially when they have all kinds of pre-conceived ideas about what that church is (which may or may not be accurate). New churches tend to be more focused on reaching new people. Generations of statistics bear this out.
2) New churches bring life to the Church. A new church brings hope, joy, and energy to the whole Church. The stories of new people coming to faith in Christ by the power of the Spirit are powerful stories. They lift everyone up.
3) New churches tend to read their culture more effectively. A church planter needs to know the culture that he is trying to reach. That doesn’t mean “old” churches don’t or can’t do this…it’s a matter of priority and intentionality.
Now, at this point you should be saying, “Who cares what Kelm thinks?” I agree. Completely. Trust me. But maybe you should trust what 96% of the voters to the 2013 LCMS National Convention said. That’s the number who agreed with Resolution 1-04A, “To encourage Church Multiplication as Means of Making New Disciples.” Here are the resolved statements:
Resolved, That congregations and their leaders continually ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest fields, especially asking that the Lord open their eyes to see the plentiful harvest fields around them; and be it further
Resolved, That congregations and their leaders be encouraged to work in cooperation with other congregations and their circuits to determine the opportunity to multiply churches locally; and be it further
Resolved, That congregations be encouraged to support church multiplication efforts in their districts with their prayers, offerings, and other support for new church starts in the districts; and be it finally
Resolved, That congregations explore and utilize the resources available from the LCMS Board for National Mission in these multiplication efforts.
My only hope at this point is that there isn’t an inverse relationship between the percentage with which a Synodical Resolution passes and the energy and effort directed toward fulfilling that resolution.
[i] Olson, David T. “The American Church in Crisis.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, p. 124.
Read the entire June 2014 issue of the Mission Update e-newsletter.
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