Dear Pastors, Delegates, Members and Friends of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Greetings in the name of our beloved Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Again the nation was jolted. The Boston bombings in April invoked the somber realities of life after 9-11. What is next? Anyone—even in the heartland—who supposes immunity from the threats of terrorism suffers from acute naïveté. We find our relatively secure and robust country not only imitating Europe and the Mideast in socioeconomics; similarly we find ourselves dealing with recurring attacks from Muslim extremists and other fanatics. Yet the providential care of God for his church in a world of evil, as stated by Solomon long ago, still stands: “The Lord works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4).
Does the era of terror give occasion to limelight aspects of life we Christians cherish and foster for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom? Dr. Gene Veith suggests this in his volume Christianity in an Age of Terrorism. He writes:
Terrorism wreaks violence upon every fabric of society. This includes violating vocation. And yet, in those targeted by terrorism, vocation can be seen all the more as a precious gift of God. Not only fire fighters, police officers, and other rescue workers, but pilots and flight attendants and chaplains assumed a heroic cast in the September 11 assault… The most foundational vocation of them all, that of the family, was seen in a new light as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, children and in-laws grieved in either loss or sympathy and clung closer to each other.1
These are trying times for the Christian faith. Hardly any believer would disagree. Contending for the truth is a struggle. Arrows from Satan’s arsenal appear countless. Naturally those poisoned-tipped darts are honed on destroying the one message that alone saves: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We look around us and observe not only the subtle but open attacks on the Christian faith. There continues to be a lack of concern for human life—even for the most vulnerable, the tiny ones looking to be released from the umbilical cord. We see rampant disregard for marriage as the way God intended it. Secularization of the church. Disrespect and disdain for biblical and confessional teaching. Immorality openly celebrated. Breakdown of the family. Love for money and possessions, with little concern for the well-being of others. Who can forget, of course, the shootings in Colorado and in Connecticut, the unspeakable inhumanity of the kidnappings and rapes in Cleveland, etc.? Where does the lurid litany of lasciviousness end?
Thank God we are not millennialists! We yearn for the world to come. We are not living for a final utopian goal of a better life on planet earth. Obviously we want to assist society in moral living, when and where we can. But we would be more than delusional if we assumed our task fairly complete, were we only to pass legislation more in keeping with biblical perspectives. Luther once said: “The world resembles a drunken peasant; when you lift him into the saddle on one side, he tumbles off on the other. There is no helping the world. No matter what attitude you take, it wants to belong to the devil.”2
Then, there is arguably the most dangerous enemy of the gospel each one of us faces—yes, even for all gathered at this sacred convention: our own corrupt, sinful flesh. Our Lutheran Confessions remind us of our serious condition according to our human lineage: “By nature every one of us inherits from Adam a sinful heart, sensation, and mind-set which, in its highest powers and the light of reason, is by nature diametrically opposed to God and his highest commands and is actually enmity against God, especially in divine and spiritual matters.”3
Where is our great escape from all this sin and evil and from the assorted trials and troubles? As amazing as the escape was for those Ohio women recently, living under horrible conditions and tormented night and day by an unspeakably evil captor, we have been granted an escape of surpassingly higher proportions. In our case a ransom was paid—not only for us but for all. The ransom was paid not to the captor. What good would that do? The Evil One is not in the position of full control. He was not in any way to be placated. No, the ransom for our straying souls was paid where justice had to be met—before the throne of God. Therefore, our Rescuer became our “neighbor” but in every way was and is fully God! He did not just take us by the hand and lead us out, but he gave his holy lifeblood before the throne of God’s justice. The heavenly Father accepted the ransom! Check the empty tomb! There can be no question that our escape has been sealed.
So, why fear any more the torturing darts of our captor? We have the shield of faith that extinguishes the flaming arrows of the evil one (Ephesians 6:16). Or, as the apostle John puts it in his first epistle: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:5). Again, the same apostle reminds us of something else in connection with that great enemy, our sinful flesh. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we are to know and believe for our eternal peace this blessed fact: “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
Where is such faith to be found? From where does it come? How can we get more of it? When Peter made his bold confession of faith in Christ, the reply from our Lord was: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). You and I know that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Ultimately, isn’t this also why we are here? Isn’t this what drives us to hold another convention for our dear ELS? Isn’t this what moves us to gather each week in our sundry church buildings of varied shapes and sizes, where a sermon on sin and grace is heard, where a Table of bread and wine is prepared, where a font of living water renews and refreshes? We have a wonderful Savior, our Lord Jesus, who has entered our world. He has lived an immaculate life in the place of each of us and in the place of every sinner. He has yielded his life on Calvary’s cross as the atoning sacrifice for all sin. He has risen from the tomb as our glorious Victor. He has ascended with the promise that he will be coming again when all eyes will see him. He further promises that all believers in him will then be transported body and soul to live with him in bliss and glory forever and ever!
So, our focus as we convene—whether here in Mankato or in communities at our houses of worship—is always and only on our Redeemer. We desire that each of us here be fully engaged with Jesus, even as we together strategize on how to reach others and engage them with the Savior. The more we see Jesus, the more our faith is increased and the more we are prepared to deal with the challenges in the world around us. Our prayer is, as Jesus said in John 17, not that we would be taken out of the world—though we surely look forward to the day of our eternal transport. It is rather that we would be so sanctified through the Word of truth that we might have an impact on the lives of those around us, before the night comes when no one can work.
This includes, of course, the way we interact with our families, with those near and dear to us, those with whom we have daily contact. Our collective concern as a church is that Christ’s saving gospel be proclaimed to the nations. The commission from our Lord to his believers of all times is well known. Yet, among the “nations,” exists the most natural setting for us in having our light shine (Matthew 5:16) and in declaring the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9): the family. This year at our convention the home gets our attention. We have selected for our theme, “Engaging Families With Jesus.” Families are seeking help for the raising and training of their children. Our preschools, Lutheran elementary schools, our Sunday Schools, youth programs, the use of Bethany Lutheran College, and our congregations’ sincere interest in the lives of our young people can fill the void. Isn’t this why we are often described as “the body of Christ”? Binding together in our Gospel-centered efforts, we aim to assist families in “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).
The late Rev. Bo Giertz, once bishop in the Lutheran Church of Sweden and author of the popular Hammer of God, reflected on the “one body in Christ” aspect of Romans 12 (vv. 5–6). He said:
I’m not an isolated individual who has to take care of himself and live his own life. I’m a member connected to other members. I’m here to carry out something that other members need. The eye, ear, and hand don’t exist for their own sake. They exist so the whole body can function. That’s the way it is with us. God has incorporated us into a family, a community, a congregation, and mankind for the sake of others. In other words, God had a purpose when He put me in the situation I’m in right now.4
It is our hope and prayer that a spirited discussion of the essay, coupled with the devotions for this week, will help us see the immeasurable value of Christ in the home as expressed in the hymn, O Blest the House, Whate’er Befall. “O blest the parents who give heed/Unto their children’s foremost need/And weary not of care or cost. /May none to them and heav’n be lost!”5
Turning back to the 2011 convention, our synod adopted a strategic plan with a determined vision: In the next five years, we will learn to engage others more faithfully with Jesus. Here we are now two years into the plan. Among the goals we outlined for our membership was this key one: “View each congregation in the synod as a mission congregation.” We need to assess how we are doing. The board especially entrusted with the thrust of the plan, our Board for Home Outreach (BHO), has been busy. We are pleased that six of a scheduled eight evangelism retreats have already been conducted throughout the circuits of our synod. For the most part, the feedback has been positive. The BHO is also working with individual congregations, by way of follow-up, helping them to implement various ideas shared at the retreats. We encourage churches to be in touch with the board. A video presentation of the entire retreat is available for use. The board has other resources to share, including use of a demographic study called Percept. We also pray that, if it is the Lord’s will, the Evangelism–Missions Counselor (EMC) position would soon be filled to assist our congregations in the months ahead. There is still so much to be done in advancing the work of Christ’s kingdom at large. Every congregation and every member needs to be enlisted for prayerful support.
As most of you know, serious financial challenges face us. A special letter was sent from the president’s office to be shared with every member congregation. So that each delegate is well informed of our current need, permit me to summarize the situation. Budgeting for the ELS each year involves revenue from four main categories: congregational contributions, individual donations, grant monies from organizations (The Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans), and investment income. For many years now, the congregational contribution portion of our budget has been set at $725,000, and we perennially have had difficulty meeting this goal. The Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation found it necessary to reduce its grant monies for the ELS, including a sizable decrease for the mission work carried on by Thoughts of Faith, Inc. Further, the Thrivent Financial for Lutherans block grant will go away at the end of this calendar year. Yet, there is so much to do as we seek to bring the Good News of sinners’ redemption to many more souls through the efforts of our Board for Home Outreach and also our Board for World Outreach. So, what are we asking? Each congregation is, first of all, urged to pray for the Lord’s continued blessings on our mission efforts. Then, we are asking each parish to consider increasing its amount of financial support for our synod work. We are happy to note that a number of our churches already have done so in the past four months. Some have decided to help with a one-time increase. Others have set a percentage increase of their total annual offerings. At present, we are observing that—even on an increased congregational contribution budget ($750,000 for 2013)—the general giving is outpacing previous years. We give thanks to God for these expressions of gratitude and love.
The synod’s Assignment Committee is pleased to report that placements were made for the two seminary graduates. While it is true that in recent years the ELS has had limited call opportunities because of a lack of vacancies, the age demographic indicates 42% of our entire clergy roster (active, inactive/retired) in the 55–69 age bracket. Let us not grow lax in encouraging young men to pursue studies for the pastoral ministry. Our Lord’s words spoken so many centuries ago still stand for his church of all time: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37–38).
This past April your synod president was honored to present an essay at a free conference in Tacoma, Washington. The essay focused on lessons to be gleaned from ELS history in relation to inter-church dialogue. The Emmaus Conference for 2013 served as the third year in a row where presidents from the former Synodical Conference gave papers and reactions. President Matthew Harrison of the LCMS, President Mark Schroeder of WELS, and President Moldstad also participated in a roundtable discussion on church challenges. In December of this year, an informal meeting once again is planned where leaders from WELS, ELS and the LCMS will have opportunity to address issues that historically have separated the bodies of the former Synodical Conference. Official discussions are not envisioned; yet informal meetings can be beneficial in dispelling caricatures, staying abreast of trends and challenges, and helping ascertain if/when formal talks (e.g., involving doctrinal commissions, use of documents—exiting and new) should occur.
When the Planning and Coordinating Committee met in January, new challenges and opportunities were discussed since the time our synod adopted our “Engage Others With Jesus” plan in 2011. While there always exist challenges and opportunities, some specificity in recent years was noted. For example: New challenges for the church at large—general moral decay/increased secularization of American culture; acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage now appears entrenched; non-religious youth on the rise; youth within the church often holding competing world views; encroachment of government on religious freedom; need for wise and careful use of technology; economic instability; a new “spirituality” apart from organized religion; demographic shifts; and the great challenge of retaining youth in Lutheranism. New opportunities for the church at large—dedicated Christians moved to speak up/defend the faith; churches becoming concerned about protecting religious freedom; realization of a mission field not to be abandoned, e.g., reaching the growing homosexual community with Law and Gospel, repentance and forgiveness; increased awareness of the importance of educating our youth in the basics of the Christian faith; opportunities abounding in our own “backyards” to touch other cultures with the gospel of Christ.
Where does the ELS fit into all of this? Do we as a confessional synod in a changing and challenging world have something to offer? We certainly do. Law and gospel preaching is a noticeable strength in our congregations. Pastor Charles Keeler delivered an essay in 1987 entitled, “How the Church Can Deal with the Crisis Facing Our Young People.” In the essay he referenced this strength as our one and only God-given remedy for the real challenges before us.
All people need to be made aware of their common need for salvation through Christ. The church has no other reason for existing than to preach the truth. Only the Holy Spirit, working though the law brings this knowledge. In the schools the cry is made, “Back to the basics.” The law and the Gospel of unmerited love and forgiveness through the Son of God are the real basics for all meaningful life. Perchance we could prevent teenage suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and any other problems, what have we accomplished? We would have only bandaged the sores. The wounds underneath would continue to fester until the healing balm of the Gospel, the blood of Jesus, closed the wound and healed the sore.6
If we are convinced the only real change-agent (both for issues of present life and that to come) is God the Holy Spirit, then our efforts and energy as a synod will reflect this guiding principle. We can easily become discouraged in promoting confessional Lutheranism. We realize we are faced with financial challenges. But together as members of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod we can prioritize and re-commit to a deeper, personal and collective study of God’s Word, stressing sacramental worship, and compelling—for the sake of Christ—a sincere love for souls of every stripe and background. This is how the Holy Spirit works. There is no other way. It is the sure way. For, in all of the planting and watering God permits us to be involved with, it always is He alone who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:7).
We can weave the gospel into our conversations with our children, reminding them of their baptism and the new creatures they have become in Christ. We can weave the gospel into our conversations with fellow Christians when the conversation moves beyond weather and gets into the problems and joys they are experiencing. We can weave the gospel in one of its many facets into our conversations with unbelieving friends at work when they ask us to give a reason for our hope.7
The apostle Paul gave a description of the expansion of our Lord’s church when he wrote to the believers at Colossae. What he said alludes to Jesus’ picture of the mustard seed producing a substantial yield: “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth” (Colossians 1:6).
May our gracious Lord Jesus give us an extra measure of his Holy Spirit as we carry on the blessed work before us!
John A. Moldstad, president
1 G. E. Veith. Christianity in an Age of Terrorism (St. Louis: CPH, 2002), 33.
2 Plass, E. What Luther Says, vol. III. St. Louis: CPH, #4973; cf. WA Tischreden, No. 631.
3 Formula of Concord, Article I, Tappert edition, 510.
4 Giertz, Bo. To Live With Christ (transl. by R. Wood and B. Erickson) (St. Louis: CPH, 2008), 563.
5 Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, #190:3
6 ELS Synod Report 1987, 46.
7 Robert Koester. Gospel Motivation—More Than “Jesus Died for My Sins” (Milwaukee: NPH, 2006), 167.