Letter from the Director for April 2018




My head and heart were full as I returned home from Chicago after the second phase of the pastoral summit on April 11, followed by an all-day, in-person meeting of the board of Lutheran CORE.  At the summit we heard from six outstanding presenters, who are serving God in very different settings, each one of them being very effective in their own setting.  The day certainly showed us that while certain principles remain the same, and the Gospel is good news for all people, the methods used need to be different, and the style, emphases, and giftedness of the leaders need to be different, for the church to be able to reach all sorts of different kinds of people.

The purpose of the summit was to hear from several different people who are doing something unique and effective to raise up leaders, including pastors, for the future.  We began by hearing from Scott Grorud, pastor of an LCMC congregation in southwestern Minnesota.  It was exciting to hear about what he is doing to raise up young people to do ministry and to provide leadership for ministry.  He told of a very thorough program of faith formation, which begins with the very young.  Fourth graders attend a weekly Bible study in addition to Sunday School, which is overseen by adults but is student led.  Incoming eighth graders are invited to a leadership retreat, to prepare them to be role models for incoming seventh graders.  A youth band helps lead worship, so that confirmation students see youth who are just a little bit older than they are in leadership roles.  High school juniors and seniors gather very early in the morning one day a week to read and discuss theology.  An outreach to college students helps them stay in contact with their home congregation and supports them in their faith in an increasingly hostile environment.  Through a summer internship program college students are involved in children’s and youth ministries, read and discuss theology, receive leadership training, and are mentored.  

We then heard by Skype from Jari Rankinen, director of the Theological Institute of Finland.  This organization was started in 1987 by several orthodox mission societies to provide support and Biblical, confessional Lutheran training for orthodox seminarians, to supplement the education they are receiving from the state church seminary, which is a part of the state university system.

Every Monday morning about one hundred fifty students receive an email describing classes in Biblical studies and theology that will be offered during the upcoming week.  Attendance at those classes ranges in number from five to twenty-five, and the classes are held in rooms in the center of Helsinki, so they are near the university and thus easy for the students to get to.  Last year twenty-five different people taught the classes.  Most of them have doctoral degrees in theology, and many of them are professors at the state church seminary.  Students receive their degree from the university rather than the institute.  There are about two thousand people who support the institute with their prayers and financially.  We were very grateful for current day technology as we were able to hear from and engage in conversation with someone in a time zone eight hours ahead of us.    

Both Scott and Jari are very effective in their own particular setting, and yet how different their settings are.  Scott described his church in southwestern Minnesota as being in the heart of deep, dark Lutheranism, so it is only to be expected that certain methods will work there that will not work elsewhere.  Jari lives in a country that is traditionally Lutheran and where a strong majority of the people are members of the Lutheran church, but only about one percent of the population there attend church on any one given Sunday.  A very different approach is needed – one that supports orthodoxy in a setting that is very indifferent if not hostile towards orthodoxy.

Another very different approach in a very different kind of setting was described by our third presenter, Brian Hughes, pastor of an ELCA congregation in Maryland.  Brian describes his county as 90% unchurched, which is very different from deep, dark Lutheranism.  He said, “The church culture has been bled out.” 

Brian began by asking what it must have been like for the early fifth century Christians in Britain when they saw the Roman church leaders sailing down the Thames River, leaving Britain to return to Rome.  What were the Christians in Britain going to do now?  Christian communities were isolated and surrounded by nonbelievers, so they had to form small groups of people who would learn and practice the faith without the “structural church” headquartered in Rome.  He then compared their situation with the position of Christians today.  Christians today are surrounded by nonbelievers, and church structures and methods that have worked in the past do not work any longer – at least not in most settings.  They have sailed down the Thames.  What are we going to do now?  After describing what happened in the development of Celtic Christianity – a lay led, monastic movement that kept the faith alive – Brian then told of how he is working to develop a similar network of equipped and empowered lay ministers.  He quoted from the words of Jesus, who said, “The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14: 12).  Brian told some amazing stories of lay people in his congregation doing amazing ministry, and then asked whether pastors today are willing to let go of ministry roles and to release, equip, and empower lay people to do ministry – even “greater things” kinds of ministry. 

After lunch we heard from three more presenters.  First, we heard from Gary Pecuch, director of youth ministries at an NALC congregation in Ohio.  Gary and his wife are a blessing to the larger church as they lead their faith webinar seminars for the NALC as well as for the Southern Ohio Synod of the ELCA.  One of the things that Gary emphasized most strongly is that faith formation must begin at a very early age.  A congregation needs to “major in little people ministry.”  He told of how a person’s interests and identity are solidified by the age of twelve, so we need to immerse young people in the life of the church well before that age.  He spoke of the concept of “early and often.”  Confirmation ministry needs to be the sharpest, best ministry in the church.  If a church does confirmation well, chances are that young people will stick with the church or return to it later.  Gary mentioned that many churches want to start with ministry to high schoolers, because theirs are the parents who are panicking.  But the strength of a congregation’s high school ministry will never rise higher than the strength of that congregation’s early elementary ministry.  Gary also spoke of the need for the digital church.  He said that churches who do not embrace technology are either dead or dying.  Finally, he talked about the importance of children and youth having quality relationships with every age group within the church.  He identifies the relational voids that young people have in their lives, and then works to connect young people with the people in the congregation who will help fill that relational void. 

Our fifth presenter was Julie Smith, pastor of an LCMC congregation in Minnesota, member of the LCMC board of trustees, and dean of students at St. Paul Seminary.  Julie talked about the original vision that led to the founding of the seminary – that of training preachers of the Gospel, producing pastors who are deeply grounded in Lutheran theology to serve God in the church and in the world.  Their program is one of contextually based education – learning in place.  The concepts students learn they immediately live out in some fashion in their own ministry setting.  She spoke of one criticism of residential education – it removes people from the real church and replaces it with an idealized church that does not exist.  Pastors can end up hating the real church because it is not their ideal.  The faculty and staff are also all embedded in congregations, which keeps their teaching real.  Mentoring is central to this kind of education.  Not only are the students learning and doing simultaneously, they are also constantly being fed by mentoring pastors.  And the mentors themselves are constantly encouraged to learn, refresh, and deepen what they know, which experience reinvigorates their own ministry.  Congregations invest in theological education in more ways than just sending a check.  They see the development of the person right in their midst, from student to pastor.  This approach also creates transparency in what the professors are teaching, because it is so “immediately there” for congregations.  One significant challenge in this approach is the loss of community and collegiality.  Students need to find other ways to connect with one another.  The seminary holds an annual theological conference, which they encourage all students and faculty to attend. 

Our final presenter was Jeff Christopherson, vice president of Send Network, which is a ministry of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church.  We were grateful that we could have conversation with and learn from not only our fellow Lutherans of different church body affiliations here in the United States, but also from a Lutheran from another part of the world and even from a non-Lutheran.  This conversation also was by Skype.  Again we were very grateful for the wonders of modern day technology.   

Jeff began by sharing how the Southern Baptist Church planted seven hundred new mission starts last year, but then lost at least the same number of churches, so that even while planting that many, they are not able to keep up.  He said that what is needed in our post-Christian world is not addition – not just the planting of new churches – but multiplication – planting new churches that then will go out and plant more new churches.  What is needed is not inadequately fueling all church plants, but instead jet-fueling those who will be the most effective.  His organization has developed a system for assessing the skills and preparedness of potential church planters and reviewing various locations and situations in order to reserve most of the resources for the most unchurched urban areas here in the United States.  They carefully assess whether potential church planters have a vibrant relationship with Jesus, patience, tenacity, perseverance, and ability to endure pain.  They then participate in a three-year program of intense training.  Jeff shared that the goal is that four percent of the churches will be truly “multiplying” churches, and that ten percent will be more classic “reproducing/additive” churches.  Together that percentage of churches can produce a “tipping point,” where there will be sufficient energy and resources to succeed.  He concluded by sharing that a church planter needs to have a clear sense of call to this work, a high value for personal evangelism, and the ability to figure out not only how to win people for Jesus Christ, but then also how to develop these people into disciples who will win others for the Lord. 

Summaries of these presentations can be found as part of the phase two section under the pastoral formation tab on our website, www.lutherancore.org.  Audio recordings of the presentations will soon be available on our website. 

As you can imagine, our minds were swirling by the end of the day.  The next day the Lutheran CORE board met all day to process what we had heard and to begin to think through what happens next.

One thing that came to the top was this.  For a long time we have been hearing about how many of the ministries that used to be “feeder programs” that would encourage young people to go to seminary and consider becoming a pastor no longer exist, or are not encouraging young people to become the kind of orthodox, outreach-oriented pastor that orthodox, outreach-oriented churches are looking for.  We have also been hearing about how the first place where future pastors are formed is within the Christian home and within the local congregation.  And yet what we are also hearing about is pastors who are not encouraging young people to become pastors because they themselves are not happy about being pastors.  They are not encouraging young people to prepare for ministry because they themselves are burned out and/or are cynical about ministry.  And many parents are not encouraging their children to become pastors because of the bad experiences that they themselves have had in church and because they want their children to be more financially successful.

I am reminded of how the apostle Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “Grace be with you all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 6: 24).  But then about one generation later the author of the book of Revelation writes to the church in Ephesus, “I know your works, your toil, and your patient endurance.  You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not.  You are bearing up for the sake of my name.  You have not grown weary.”  But then he says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2: 2-4).  What the church at Ephesus was commended for during one generation had been lost by the next generation.   

Those who are involved with Lutheran CORE, LCMC, the NALC, and all others who have been a part of the renewal movement within the Lutheran Church have worked hard, have patiently endured, have not tolerated false teaching, are bearing up, and have not grown weary.  But is there any way in which we have abandoned our first love?  If we are going to have pastors in the future who fervently believe that the Bible is the Word of God and who are passionately committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, do we who are pastors, or retired pastors, or other workers or leaders in the church, need to rekindle our first love – our love for Christ, our love for the Church as the Body of Christ, and our love for ministry, the work of Christ in the world?

Blessings in Christ as we rekindle our first love,

Dennis D. Nelson

President of the Board and Director of Lutheran CORE


Devotion for Thursday, April 19, 2018

“Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them; let all who are around Him bring gifts to Him who is to be feared. He will cut off the spirit of princes; He is feared by the kings of the earth.” (Psalm 76:11-12)

The Lord is good and the Sovereign God of all. Those in this world who hold positions of power are there only by the grace of God. All power and authority belongs to Him. Come then into His presence and give your offerings, for all you give was really His first. He graciously supplies that we may have abundance and calls us to share what He first gave to us.

Lord, help me see the truth that You are God. You ask us to come into Your loving presence and live according to Your will. Lead me, O Lord, away from the things of this world and help me see in You the hope You alone can give. Guide me according to Your purpose to live according to Your law that I might grow in the righteousness You give through grace. You alone are to be feared.

Lord Jesus, You who has all authority and power, have come humbly that we may follow where You lead. Guide me, O Lord, according to Your will that I would forever hold fast to Your goodness, grace and mercy. Help me now and always to see in You the hope of salvation and to humbly submit as You submitted for the glory of the Father. Guide me today into the Father’s will. Amen.