It is always a joy when you go to a Pastors’ conference and leave with a sense of energy and enthusiasm for ministry. Over my twenty-eight years of ministry, I have been to my share of such events. They have been a mixed bag. To quote Forrest Gump, they “are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.” Some are definitely worth your time. Others are mediocre, but since you have the chance to see old friends, you don’t mind. Others leave you positively frustrated. Of all the conferences I have attended, good, bad and indifferent, I must say that the NALC Pastors’ Conference held in Orlando, Florida, from February 15 to 18, was one of the best.
Although I am not a pastor in the NALC, I was able to attend as a representative of Lutheran CORE. The theme of the conference was: “Always Be Ready: Apologetics in Real Life,” based on 1 Peter 3:15. The keynote address was given by the Rev. Dr. Mark Mattes, with plenary addresses by Rev. Dr. Maurice Lee, Rev. Dr. Dennis DiMauro, and Rev. Dr. Thomas Jacobson. Each speaker addressed the topic of apologetics from a different perspective. Rather than giving a full synopsis of every presentation, I will mention what were the highlights for me.
Mark Mattes identified one of the major mistakes that Christians made in the second half of the 20th Century. This was to adopt the world view of unbelievers and skeptics, in an attempt to show that the Christian faith can be made to fit into those worldviews. Instead of arguing against people from the point of view of modernity or post-modernity, we should argue with them from the point of view of the Christian faith. Our goal should be to help people see what difference it would make if the Christian worldview were true.
Maurice Lee reminded us of the approach taken by Justin Martyr. As his name indicates, Justin Martyr was not only an apologist, but died as a martyr. Justin sought to refute false rumors about Christianity and engaged with pagan philosophers like Socrates and Plato. However, he had a third strategy. This was to describe what happens in the liturgy of the Eucharist. In addition to saying what Christianity is not, we need a picture of what it is. There is no better place to find this than weekly Sunday worship. The same is true in 2022.
Dennis DiMauro recounted an experience he had while doing door to door evangelism. A young man whom he met shocked him. He wasn’t interested in general information about Christ, or the Church. What he wanted to know was what had happened in Pastor DiMauro’s own life to make him believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He reminded us that while there are intellectual arguments and rhetorical strategies that can be helpful, what is most important is being able “to give an account for the faith that is in us.” Lutherans tend to shy away from the term testimony. Nevertheless, we need to be able to testify to what God has done for us.
Thomas Jacobson reminded us of the class differences that need to be taken into account in reaching the unchurched. Lutherans have tended to follow Schleiermacher by focusing on the “cultured despisers” of Christianity. The problem is that the largest group of un-churched people in America today are not the cultured people of the upper middle-class. They are the blue collar and the poor. In recent decades, church attendance remained fairly stable among the successful and well to do. Meanwhile, among the poorer classes, the bottom has fallen out. We need to find a way to speak to them too.
While at the NALC Pastors’ Conference, I was also able to attend two break-out sessions. The first was led by Rev. Doctor Russell Lackey of Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. He spoke about the NEXUS Institute, a summer theological institute for high school youth, which is held each summer at Grand View. (This summer it will be held on June 12-18.) Pastor Lackey shared information about research that has been done on such summer theological institutes. This research was cross-denominational, cross-cultural, and multi-faith. It indicated that summer theological institutes are very effective. As many as 25% of young people who attend these summer theological institutes end up entering the ministry in their respective religious communities. With the growing shortage of ministers in the Lutheran Church today, institutes like NEXUS are extremely valuable.
In the summer of 2022, there are twenty-five spots for young people at NEXUS. Bishop Dan Selbo challenged the pastors at the conference to make sure that there will be fifty attending NEXUS in 2023. I was so impressed that I rushed home and nominated a young person from my congregation for this year’s institute.
The second break-out session that I attended featured Pastor Dave Keener. It was an introduction to the newest phase of the Life-to-Life Discipleship. I was excited to hear that the NALC is developing its own resources for Discipleship ministry. These resources will be tailored specifically for Lutheran congregations. The first will be a 24 week-long introductory curriculum on discipleship. Those resources are meant to be available on the NALC website in the near future.
Of course, like most conferences, there was good fellowship. I was able to reconnect with old friends and make new friends. I also enjoyed visiting my hometown of Orlando, where I was born in 1964. As I returned home, I was grateful for the six insights that I shared above. They either confirmed what I am already doing or gave me new areas of ministry to explore. If you have never been to the NALC Pastors’ Conference before, I encourage you to attend next year. I also encourage you to get in touch with the speakers above if you want to learn more about what they shared.
Rev. David Charlton
Vice-President, Lutheran CORE
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Dave. It WAS good to see you my old friend at the Conference. I would say to all CORE pastors that we would be glad to have you attend the NALC pastors conference.
Thank you, Douglas, for the fellowship and also for the invitation to all CORE pastors.