Learning from the Global Church
Rev. Dr. Paul Mueller
Executive Director, Center for Applied Lutheran Leadership (CALL)
Concordia University, Portland, OR
Paul Mueller is a LCMS pastor who was called to serve as a missionary to Liberia. Later he became the LCMS mission director for all of Africa. He has a Ph.D. in Missiology from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. He also taught theology for twelve years at Concordia University in St. Paul.
This paper was written and presented for a conference hosted by the Texas District as they multiply lay leaders and evangelists and begin new missional ministries.
What might the global church teach us about lay leadership, ministry, and outreach? Based on my international ministry experience, I was asked to share the following: what did I observe, create, develop, and/or learn related to effective missional practices during my time of leadership in Africa, particularly as it relates to the lay movement in Africa, and how did it contribute to the spread of the Gospel and the proliferation of the church?
Most of what will be shared in this paper will not come from CPH books or Lutheran theological writings, but will come from boots on the ground experiences. And I expect that you will find after you read this paper that I don’t fit the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) traditional voice you might find in some corners of the LCMS. Well actually, that is probably where you will find people like me – in the corners, on the fringes, but not in the center. But it might be just for that reason I was asked to share at the conference. One thing I have been known not to be is shy. I am not afraid to express my opinion (anymore), which of course, readers are free to ignore, debate, or with which to agree and take and move it to action.
As you read this paper, please take this suggestion to heart: don’t focus on the minutiae, the details which I share which don’t seem to perfectly fit your particular context. But do consider the principles, and apply them appropriately.
And two others pieces of wisdom which I hope you will take to heart: First, it’s better to create something that others criticize than to create nothing and criticize others. In our church tribe, we have a tendency to do the 2nd – offer up critique without giving valuable recommendations other than suggesting we continue to do the same things we have done in the past, only better. So I encourage you as you begin to develop missional ministry and leadership to be creative, innovative, bold, courageous, and daring.
And the second bit of wisdom which I learned from Facebook of all places is this: “In times of change, the learners become the leaders while the learned are the leaders of a world that no longer exists.” If you are in a leadership position, be wary of your wisdom. The world is definitely in times of change and those people in the midst of it, navigating it, invested deeply in it, and learning while they do are the leaders within it. We may need to listen more than we need to lead.
Part 1 – Learning from the Global Church
The three areas of international mission ministry in the first part of this paper which inform ministry come from the following contexts:
- a) Liberia, W. Africa missionary ministry;
- b) The EECMY model;
- c) Brief insights from Viet Nam.
Part two will spend time on issues which I believe hinder/help outreach ministry. Though they will come out of international experiences and practices, I am a firm believer that they impact our own mission ministry on this side of ocean, especially since our world is becoming more and more diverse with people who continue to hold to cultural values and worldviews which connect more closely with their own history than that of the traditional American ones.
I then end with some ideas we have been bantering about in the Northwest (NOW) District of the LCMS – the land of the nones. I live in Portland, one of the most unchurched cities in the nation. In fact in the area of Portland where I live, it is estimated that 95% of the people are not church attenders. As much as many believe the Midwest is no longer the Bible belt, the NOW as well as the Northeast are bastions of nones, unchurched people, and non-Christians. The NOW has been living outside the Bible belt for decades. In fact, out of the 230 or so congregations in the NOW District, only 14 have more than 400 members. Think about that for a moment – only 14 have more than 400 members. In our tribe, normally only 1/3rd of a membership worships/Sunday. That means only 14 congregations worship 150 or more people/Sunday in our neck of the woods..
Liberia, W. Africa Ministry
I served in Liberia among the Kisi nation from 1983-1990 as an evangelistic missionary: responsibilities included planting churches and training the future leaders. After 6 mo of language learning, I was told to do expand my ministry, and using a model for asking permission from a village to begin, two communities of worshipping communities were started before Christmas. Another was added by Easter 1985, and ended with seven by my first furlough – a little over 3½ yrs after arriving in Liberia.
At the beginning, I lead the worship services: one on Friday, and two on Sunday – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The services were basic – remember, these were not Christian people coming to services. The Good News was good, but also new news. This was a new spirituality about another Spirit of which they did not know, about a final sacrifice of a person named Jesus, not a necessary human sacrifice which needed to be repeated, about a Spiritual Power who was accessible without going through the Bush Devil. So the moment might be considered more a study, a telling of the Biblical narrative. I did that by choosing a narrative which seemed to connect with the life of the people and then I connected it to Christ. The Old Testament was a great resource of stories which connected very well to the Liberian context and spirituality. I didn’t do this right out of the seminary. No one taught me what to do, how to choose narratives, or even why I should do it that way versus the way we are still taught at the seminary. I was on my own, so I learned plenty from simply being immersed in the context. And I got better and better at this ministry.
I then also started membership classes for those who wanted to learn/know more and eventually who were baptized and became communicant members in the local gathered community of faith. The classes were taught without books, without written words – no one could read. I used picture books. Sometimes I taught those classes before/after services, sometimes on different days during the week.
But I got out of that “business” by the 3rd year. How? Once a village had a worshipping community with baptized and communing members, they chose from among themselves their leaders. They normally chose two, but it was not uncommon for three or even four men to be chosen to serve. There were a few which only had one – but that was uncommon. And those chosen had the blessing of the non-Christian chief who was involved in their selection. Those men were their pastors and led them faithfully each week. Once/month, all leaders and communities of faith gathered for a Big Sunday, the celebration rotating from village to village. On Big Sunday we celebrated communion, baptisms, and any other important events. It ended with a big meal prepared for everyone who attended.. Often it included a larger meeting of the members who made decisions about ministry. I often absented myself from that meeting.
Each week I held leadership training with the ones who were chosen to lead the communities of faith. Again, since very few of these leaders could read, I did the teaching orally. We would go through the texts for the upcoming Sunday together, talk about/discuss the stories, and apply the teaching they heard to the local context.
We also spent time discussing how they could be faithful leaders in their villages, dealing with issues they encountered. We would close with food – they brought the rice, I brought the soup from my own pocket, not from mission budget. After our meal, we would close the training, and then we played some soccer. We usually started training around 1/2pm, finished teaching by 4/5pm, ate some food when it was cooked, played some soccer, and people left around 6/7pm to return to their villages. Some of the men enrolled in TEE (Theological Education by Extension) courses I taught, and successful graduates received certificates from the Lutheran Seminary in Obot Idim, Nigeria.
When I went on furlough, they not only continued all the normal work, but they (and what I mean by “they” are the people in the faith communities as well as the leaders, Acts 8 people sharing the Good News as they moved from place to place) also planted 4 more faith communities, baptizing individuals who had accepted Christ. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper was tough – no wine was available upcountry. Missionaries normally brought it with them from the capitol city where it could be found. And it was very expensive – $10/bottle for people earning less than $2/day. But even when the missionary wasn’t around during furlough, they tried to celebrate it when they could. Accessing wine – that is the fruit of the vine – is still a significant hurdle in upcountry contexts.
When I returned from furlough, leaders continued to plant village congregations. I spent my time developing leadership courses – doctrine and preaching courses – and then training the local leadership. By the time we were evacuated out of the country in May 1990 due to the civil war, there were 14 villages with worshipping communities. There were about 20-25 leaders leading village congregations, teaching memberships classes, baptizing new believers, and some taking book-based leadership courses.
So a few questions: Do you know the name of the Lutheran seminary in Liberia? How many pastors did we have in Liberia? Answers: there is no seminary, and there were no ordained pastors.
The point I am making is simply this: lay persons (we called them Lay Preachers) did all the work in the villages. Not one was ordained. When we were there, an ordained missionary (myself) was able to supervise them. But when we were evacuated in 1990 due to the war and when I was on furlough, ministry remained ordained-less, and that for over five years during and after the war. In fact, one of the Lay Preachers during the midst of the war, fled to Sierra Leone and then into Guinea. While in Guinea, he planted over 50 village faith communities, preached in many other places, and baptized many people. He was single handedly responsible for developing the foundation of the Lutheran Church in Guinea and the reason the LCMS entered Guinea. Until that moment, no other Protestant denomination was allowed into Guinea except the Christian Missionary Alliance. And there was no ordained leadership in its midst.
After the war when people returned to Liberia, Lutheran Christians and Lay Preachers set down solid roots back in their villages – all done with few ordained pastors. Ministry was led by Lay Preachers. This is how it is described by the church itself:
The Evangelical Lutheran Church Liberia Synod’s (ELCLS) understanding of the pastoral call is that all pastors are called by God through their local congregations to lead them, and their members call them “pastors.” The congregation calls them through careful observation of their character and way of living among the villagers. This person is also observed to have some leadership abilities. And they can lead their people despite a lack of formal education. They are also called lay pastors/preachers. These men later received some small level of Biblical Studies and are taught the Sunday preaching lessons to help prepare them for Sunday preaching.
And those few that were eventually ordained had received some basic training in Sierra Leone at the Coordinating Center for Theological Studies (CCTS), or at the Kenyan, S. African, Nigerian, or Ghanaian Lutheran Seminaries. And the protocols for ordination were quite different than ours in the states, especially at CCTS. Training – yes. Book learning – minimal, but yes. But before they could attend CCTS, they needed to have planted two faith communities. They needed to be serving in ministry. They were then allowed to attend.
Eventually, the man who started all the work in Guinea ended up in the Lutheran seminary in Kenya, returned to Liberia, was ordained, and was elected President of the Lutheran Church in Liberia. Now there are 140 congregations and close to 20,000 members. They now have 17 pastors, the rest are Lay Preachers. I was present at the service when 4-5 Lay Preachers were ordained and brought into the church to bring that number closer to 17, and that was in 2008. And the church is growing – maybe not as fast as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), but it makes the LCMS look like a snail. The passion for mission is palatable, or in the phrase that Rev. Dr. Kou Seying is fond of using, they had not lost the “freshness of the Gospel.” All they do – and I do mean everything – is centered around populating heaven. And this is done with lay people allowed to plant, baptize, preach, teach, have authority, and make decisions. If you want to experience a green light, Acts 14 church – this is it: a church with un-ordained, and even un-appointed leadership like Paul and Barnabas met during their missionary journeys. And Paul and Barnabas simply made that which was already a reality more official by laying on hands and recognizing those local leaders as such.
What I learned rather quickly was that ordination does not make a pastor or for that matter a Lay Preacher into a pastor. What makes a pastor are the gifts enumerated in Timothy and Titus being present. Is knowing the Bible important? Without a doubt – and for the most part, that is the focus of most of the training and knowledge many of these village Lay Preachers receive. They have learned the doctrines of Scripture by listening to others – orally transmitted. They may have accessed the catechism and wrestled some with the written doctrine – justification by grace through faith, distinction between Law/Gospel, real presence in the Lord’s Supper (not really an issue in an animistic society), infant baptism – and some have been able to attend church-wide conferences with a visiting teacher on Biblical topics, but they know their Bible and its stories. And they are passionate about populating heaven. They want others to meet Jesus and realize eternity, the “freshness of the Gospel” is still fresh!
Compare that to our own training. Ours is centered on doctrine and history and book learning on how to do ministry. We get a year of practice under our belts in vicarage, but hardly ever as the sole leader, the one on whom people rely. It is most often in a supporting role, and only for 9-12 months. Few if any of us have started a faith community, let alone as a prerequisite for entering training. Yet the protocols we have in place for receiving a certificate for ordination often weed out those who have been blessed with the gifts!
Let me tell you a short story. It is centered on the perception of the validity of these Liberian leaders and their ministries by some of our LCMS clergy. While I attended CTS in Ft. Wayne completing my PhD in Missiology, the seminary held a symposium. I don’t remember the title, but pastors from across the US attended. There were probably around 200 in attendance. During one question and answer panel moment where a missionary was describing to the audience just what I described to you, a man asked a question about the ministry leadership in Liberia. He wanted to know what these guys were called. The missionary noted they were called Lay Preachers. The questioner pressed for more clarity – were they pastors? If they were doing baptisms, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, were they not pastors? The missionary acquiesced to the label, indicating that one could call them pastors if desired. The man asking the question then asked to see the ordination service, the bulletin which included the worship service in which these men were ordained. Without that, their validity, and of course the validity of their ministry, was in question. I almost blurted out laughing. The request was so absurd on several levels, the least of which was the ability of anyone in any service being able to read any printed materials even if made available.
This is where some in our church find themselves in the conversation. And from my assessment, LCMS top leadership holds a view somewhat similar to this one man’s perspective at the symposium. I could tell more stories about a vibrant church – planting faith communities in the bush, holding revival type weekends in places all around the Liberian countryside, beginning schools, reaching out to families affected by the Ebola crisis, and almost all of it done with lay persons. Yet that model of ministry is not embraced, celebrated, or even allowed here on our American soil without strings attached.
The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY)
Let me just dabble in Ethiopia. Most leaders in the EECMY are not ordained pastors. They are evangelists and lay persons. In fact, a dissertation I read from an EECMY pastor clearly indicated that the pastors are not the reason for the EECMY’s growth. It is the result of lay persons who are “expected” to share their faith. The writer did indicate that there are some, though few, who are lifting up a clergy-centered focus (in MHO – the death knell of a mission minded church since we normally define clergy as pastors, that is shepherds – those who take care of the found sheep), but by far, the overwhelming majority, including the present and past presidents, understand the vital role lay persons play in the creation of new Christians.
And the expectation isn’t driven out of directions, rules, laws, or required training on how to do so. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out, in the west “We have regarded witness as a demand laid upon us instead of seeing it as a gift promised to us. We have made the missionary imperative into a law, a heavy burden laid upon the conscience of Christians, whereas the New Testament sees it as a gracious gift . . . There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament corresponding to the almost frantic appeals for missionary activity which have been common in Protestant missionary practice.” You don’t find that in the EECMY. Their expectation is the same that Paul and Peter and the apostles had: people of faith are proclaimers of that faith – they just are. Disciples make disciples. As Michael Breen has said, “If you plant a church, you might get disciples, but if you make disciples, you will always get a church.”
And any humanly designed models or protocols that stifle that passion, gets in its way, hinders the free movement of the Gospel, or limits the freedom of Christian lay persons to not only proclaim the Good News to unbelievers but also their ability to gather and praise and pray and study and worship and preach and teach put in place by the institution needs to be examined and removed or adjusted. Unfortunately in my humble opinion, the LCMS embraces using a “model” for mission rather than trusting the heartbeat and DNA of faith which drives toward mission. And our LCMS model includes rules and specific training and regulations driven by a clergy-centered posture which shapes the model. Ecclesiology drives missiology rather than the other way around. We then end up with a stilted, stifled, unevangelistic people of God who trust in an organization and trained ordained leaders to “save” the world.
If you don’t believe me, consider this for a moment: the EECMY, a 59 yr old church body, which was instituted as a National Church in 1959, 112 years after the LCMS, has 8500 congregations, 4000 preaching stations, and over 8 million members. It regularly adds a 150,000 new people yearly to its membership, all in a country of 80 million people. On the other hand, the LCMS has been around since 1847 – over 160 years – has 6000 congregations, few if any preaching stations (we really don’t allow that type of institution because you can’t truly “preach” unless you are ordained), and less than 2 million members. It regularly loses thousands each and every year, all in a country of 315 million!
In addition, partnerships the EECMY has developed would not be allowed in the LCMS, let alone be considered. Unity in doctrine mitigates against the type of partnerships the EECMY regularly creates. For example, even though the LCMS was not in a partnership agreement with the EECMY at the time, we were allowed and encouraged to begin Mission Training Centers in areas of Ethiopia where preaching stations were multiplying, and were given the green light to do the theological training for the lay evangelists/persons and the few pastors who served gathered people. Can you imagine the LCMS allowing that type of partnership to exist here?
The partnership list (and this only a part) is outrageous: Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Catholic Church, Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia, and a founding member of the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA), Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE), Joint Relief Partnership (JRP), and is/has developed a contract with the Islamic Supreme Council of Ethiopia.
And those are just the ones in Ethiopia. Their 35-40 International Partners include Lutheran World Federation, All Africa Conference of Churches, World Council of Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Swedish Evangelical Mission, Church of Sweden, Norwegian Lutheran Mission, Norwegian Missionary Society, Lutheran Free Church of Norway, Danish Evangelical Mission, Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, Finnish Lutheran Mission, Evangelical Lutheran Mission (Germany), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Viet Nam Ministry
Finally, let me briefly describe the church I met in Viet Nam. While serving there several times in a training role for lay pastors and ordained pastors, I was struck by the typical, western model of Sunday morning practice I experienced.
But let me set the context. I was teaching for the Lutheran Institute of Southeast Asia (LISA), the last time in Ho Chi Minh City. The church there is a quiet organization. It is not boastful or loud. And one of the reasons it is postured as such is due to the constant watchful eye of the government over its work. The communist government has eyes and ears everywhere. And though churches are allowed to exist, they do so quietly and at their own peril.
But for that reason, the Sunday morning experience struck me strange. As we gathered, the pastor came out dressed in his gowns into a room with pews and seating for 50 people. There was an altar, candles, a pulpit from which to preach, a piano with a hymnal and songs which sounded an awful lot like American tunes despite Vietnamese words. The look and feel and sound was very similar to the western model from where they learned it. And just like the LCMS, there were very few people in attendance!
When I got to class that Monday morning, I asked the leaders about their services. I wanted to be certain I was understanding their context correctly. Finding I hadn’t butchered their context with my own interpretation too much, I asked them to re-imagine what “church” on Sunday morning might look like rather than its present form. In effect, I challenged them to throw off the western model (and ignore the pressure from the west to be like Mike) and put in place a different model. Rather than gather for worship in the typical way, I suggested they gather to train the faithful to be missionaries in their own spaces – their work, their homes, their gathering places – wherever they live. In a communist country with eyes watching them, they would need to learn how to share their faith in smaller gatherings of four or five rather than the 15-25 people on Sunday mornings. I challenged them to spend one year of Sunday mornings doing nothing more than developing the willing to be those missionaries in their own spaces, gathering one or two or three or four people. Those missionaries with the few they had gathered would study Scripture, pray, worship, and be New Testament missionaries, just like those in Acts 8:1-4. Even if only ½ of those who attended the Sunday morning experience would agree to participate, those 7-12 people would eventually develop a “congregation” of 50 people – double the number presently gathering on a Sunday morning in a specific place. And missionary work is infectious. Those who are new, who find Christ in their life, and see the relational model used to share that faith might also become leaders of a few – multiplying the saved without bringing too much attention to themselves from the government.
The point I was trying to make with them was that they needed to quit doing what we (LCMS) do. Rather, and especially in that context, they needed to be the ecclesia in the community, not in the church building on Sunday. Redirecting their energies and using their Sunday mornings as a moment to develop and disciple leadership who bring Christ to their communities and then be given the freedom to gather in small communities and teach and preach under the radar might find a good result.
I don’t think they took my advice. The pressure from the partner church to look like the west is huge. But there are faith communities who are re-imagining church – changing it from a place where one goes to consume to a place where one goes to prepare – not a destination point, but a departure point.
Part Two – Applying What the Global Church Teaches Us
In this second part of the paper, I hope to accomplish two things: First, I will share some do’s and don’ts which I also shared at the multi ethnic symposium in 2017. I believe they are just as relevant to any new ministry – ethnic or not.
Secondly, I want to share Portland’s context and how a vision there might proceed. As I noted earlier in the paper, Portland is 20-30 years ahead of the Bible belt. I am a Midwest boy – born and bred there. Moving to Portland helped me realize how different the church is received and embraced or ignored or marginalized in places around the US. The NOW has been processing for a long time how the marginalized and ignored church can be viable. We don’t do it well, but we have been challenged and have tried to respond – sometime with the help of the institutional church, at other times quite at odds with it. So, I will share a vision for church in a place where apathy and even hostility toward the church is palpable.
Living in Exile – Ethnic Leaders Have Something to Teach Us
Regardless of how one labels or describes it, the church is no longer the center of the universe. It is living in a post-Christendom or post-modern world, or as Rev. Dr. Seying noted, a pre-Christian world, but ultimately living in exile. And it has no idea how to do so. In my lifetime and yours, the LCMS has never been marginalized; never been pushed to the fringes. The church has worked and served and ministered in a world which respected and listened to its voice. The church has had privileged status. Add to that our white privilege – and the church has had a relatively easy row to hoe.
In addition, our mid-20th century stateside evangelistic efforts devolved into finding missionaries who could navigate the cross-cultural realties far away in distant lands. Most of us in the LCMS grew up as children in a world when 98% of the United States claimed Christianity. The local work of the church was simply caring for the found sheep, and that work relegated to the trained clergy or commissioned ministers of religion. We have never needed to share our faith therefore never needed to learn how to do so. And now when we find ourselves marginalized in public venues among many who have negative impressions of church, we are at a loss on how to respond. We are not only exiled, but are so without the tools to navigate that reality.
Many Christians around the world today understand how to live in that world as exiles, marginalized and sidelined. Christians are jailed for being Christian. Churches are burned. Police halt gatherings. Governments give preference to non-Christian requests. They experience the persecution of the church, yet these modern day Christians in exile still git ‘er dun.
Let me return to Viet Nam for a bit. A few months before I taught in Ho Chi Minh City, the Christian leadership development program was called into question by the public authorities when they showed up in the classroom. The LCMS missionary was teaching at that moment when they arrived. Try to put yourself in his shoes!
That missionary was also the one who received me in Ho Chi Minh City a few months later. He was subsequently told by the local Christian leaders it would be best if he was not around while I taught. And I was told that we might have some visitors – and not the kind one is glad to see in your worship or teaching moment. How many of you even think about that type of possible persecution in America? By the way, that missionary was recently denied visas by the Vietnamese government because of religious activities. The family is now back in the states looking for reassignment.
Depending upon the new communities in which you begin new ministries, might I suggest you find leaders in your midst who know exactly how that feels, how that works, and how to manipulate the system in order to remain a ministry in those places? These wise, seasoned leaders understand that the church is not a given, that the ministry is always in jeopardy, that in a moment’s notice, the doors might close and/or someone could be hustled off to the police station. Take advantage of their wisdom as the marginalized church moves forward. For as confident as we are about our theology, we have much to learn about how to live that same theology in a new world which we have never experienced.
Partnership – What Is It?
Let me share with you a short definition of partnership which has served me well. Shared Risk + Shared Responsibility = Shared Rewards. Partnerships need to be built on trust and mutual admiration for one another. Each partner brings to the table the resources, gifts, skills, and wisdom that they are able to supply in an honest, transparent, conversation and dialogue. No partner can assume authority and power over another simply because it seems to bring more to the table/partnership.
What does that mean? One partner cannot determine the criteria for what is enough shared risk or shared responsibility or how much shared reward each partner receives in the equation. Each partner must recognize what the other partners are able to share as their capacity to do so. If one partner determines the criteria for what is enough shared, that partner then becomes a super partner with more power and voice. In the church, that is not a partnership. It is a contract and often interpreted as a power play. True partnership cannot exist if one party is perceived to hold the power and authority, is the final arbiter of decisions that need to be made, or if one or more parties are afraid to voice opinion, afraid to share vision, or afraid to participate fully because they believe rewards will be changed if they do. Those scenarios describe an unbalanced partnership. Partnerships. Are. Not. One. Way. As you begin new ministries, consider how a true partnership might be forged. It will serve you well.
Who Holds and Has Access to Leadership Authority and Power?
As congregations and districts embark on their missional endeavors and they intersect with other cultures and ethnicities, this topic is very important. In the LCMS, it is quite obvious who is in charge and holds the leadership and decision making powers. As many studies have shown, the LCMS is 95%+ white. And people in leadership reflect that reality even more starkly.
This fact is no different in our local congregations, faith communities, or as new ministry is envisioned by a group of well-intentioned people. Local leadership on the church council or the chairs and members of committees reflect that same reality – almost all are members of the local white congregation or community.
One of the most obvious structural issues to address in any faith community formation is found in the question, “Who has the authority, the power, the vote?” So consider any board or committee you form in new (and even old) endeavors: how many people on those committees vote? And when the votes are counted, how many of them represent the white dominant culture?, or the people bringing ministry into the community? If 51% of the votes are white votes or those promoting the idea, you can imagine how the vote will proceed.
Be wise as leadership votes are imagined. Remember the community to be reached. Realize the vast potential of including a majority of voting voices who live the community life in which ministry is to begin.
Seeing the Biblical World through Different Cultural Lenses
Let me share another issue which rankles our sensitivities and with which I will spend a bit more time. It has to do with understanding and interpreting Scripture, and it manifests itself in which theological issues we address, how we do so, as well as the forms which our answers take.
Let me begin with my own experiences as the former Regional Director for and local missionary in Africa. The use of Luther’s catechism was a handy resource. However, the “What Does This Mean?” explanations and follow-up questions later in the text address some issues which were insignificant to the local Africans. And there are several (if not many) questions barely addressed or, more often, not addressed at all. Your new ministries will not be as successful if the Biblical truths spoken and preached address only the lives of the American context and worldview.
For example, there is little, if anything, in the catechism addressing polygamy, evil spirits, healings, sacrifice, local government forms, or communal life versus an individualistic life – all important issues in Africa, yet Scriptures are brimming with those stories. The Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod has a service for destroying household gods because it is a significant part of life in Asia, but there is only a line or two in the catechism about “graven images.” Russians do something similar with a glass of vodka and a piece of brown bread. Yet we have nothing to offer, and when we do believe we have something to offer, it has often been developed by western leaders who have never lived the questions being addressed but still believe they serve as Biblical experts on the topic.
We have defined and explained sin from an individualistic guilt culture which connects quite well in a traditional American or Western context. But much of the immigrant world lives in a collective, community, honor and shame-based culture where an act of sin or evil requires bringing shame to the family or group before sin matters, not just simply breaking a rule/commandment and subsequently feeling individually guilty about that act.
How do you manage and implement Matthew 18, where the first step is approaching the other individual one on one when you live in a context where doing so is very inappropriate and forgiveness requires community involvement to solve interpersonal relationship problems?
While at the seminary, I was told quite clearly that there was only one point of comparison, one main teaching or main truth in any of the parables. And that truth was exegetically dug out of the text with questions formed by a western worldview. But when the Scriptures are being read and interpreted by other people, other culture groups – and I don’t just mean other ethnicities, but other cultures in USA – multiple comparisons and truths are identified. They are asking different and significant questions of the story and narrative.
While serving in Liberia, we studied the narrative of Joseph. I was taught as a young boy in Sunday School that the main teaching of the Joseph narrative was that despite the hardship, the difficult moments in Joseph’s life, he persevered with God’s help, that God never left him, that God had his back the entire 20+ years of that journey. It taught me that I needed to continue to trust in God and His mysterious ways even when the road seemed difficult. God is in control. I quickly found out that the Liberian Christians had a different main teaching. It was clear to them that Joseph, as a man of God, continued to care for his family, never forgetting them, even though they had done despicable things to him – selling him into slavery and precipitating all the fall-out that followed. Despite how Joseph (and people today) may have wanted revenge for being treated so poorly, a man of God will still love and protect and take care of his family. To the Liberian, Joseph’s life story clearly implied that taking care of one’s family is fundamentally important. It emerged as the moral of the story because their worldview, shaped by a community focus, not an individual focus, reigns supreme, and family is so very important.
Our first Christmas pageant, acted out by members in the congregations, was quite different from the ones seen in the west. Though it included dramatic scenes from all the appropriate parts of the Christmas narrative, the centerpiece of the story was not of the shepherds bowing before the baby with Mary and Joseph gathered around the manger with oxen and mules and sheep and the angels standing watch while we sang Silent Night. Rather, it was the narrative of King Herod going “crazy” (at least, that was how it was dramatized by the actors) over the fact that a new king had been born, told to him by wise men from the east. And fulfilling his decree to kill all boys under 2yrs old had the actors in the pageant lively carrying out that command, running around the thatched roof church, poking spears and homemade shotguns into the corners and crevices of the place. I missed out on my warm and fuzzy Christmas manger scene. The Liberian Christians focused on a different point in the story.
In fact, the heartfelt sorrow we feel for Joseph, and Mary who gives birth to a baby in a stable and places the baby in a manger is completely lost on the Kisi people among whom I worked, for when a woman gives birth there, they go to the field and she gives birth in the farm kitchen, a lean-to thatched roof hut on a grass mat in the dirt. And we wonder why they are not in awe at the story of Mary and Joseph the way we tell it in our worship services.
When we finally reached Easter, our service consisted of walking from a mud hut where we worshipped into the jungle about a ¼ mile from the village where the leaders had erected a cross out of tree limbs and upon which they had fashioned and placed a crown of thorns out of some very nasty thorn vines. We sat around the cross and sang songs, read the passion story, prayed, and finally left. On Easter, we did a similar thing, but when we were finishing the service around the cross, the leaders poured kerosene on the cross and lit it on fire. Now imagine this picture – a sea of black faces singing and praising God while a cross burned in the middle of them. Dorothy, we are not in Selma, Alabama anymore!
As you enter communities, ask the question of the people in the community – what issues need to be addressed through the eyes of Scripture as they know it in this community? And once the questions are known, ask the community to help find the answers.
But probably much more significant is the following. In the west, and specifically among those people who grew up in the church, we emphasize facts and systematic structures and proof texts and doctrine and by so doing ignore the rest of the person. We simply do not know how to connect facts and faith with the real starting point for many who come to America from other places across the globe as well as many of those in the younger generations who define and interpret life in different categories than we have in the past – the heart, soul, body, emotions, and what we call “social justice..” For many people, God is in all those moments – with the beggar on the street, with the homeless child living in the car, with the abused mom, with the single dad. The historical church goer in America sees these as governmentally addressed social issues, but not necessarily places where God is present. Americans just don’t live with God in every moment.. For many people on this planet, all life is extraordinary. All life is supernatural. There is no separation between the physical, empirical world and the spiritual world.
Let me tell you a story about an exorcism where the spiritual and physical collide, an act we in the LCMS are hesitant to address and surely do not understand, yet is a common reality in many cultures around the world. Pastor Lee, HMong co-pastor with Steve, a white pastor at a local church in the Midwest, phoned up Steve and asked if he wanted to attend a HMong exorcism with him for a young lady. Steve was hesitant, but decided that going and then knowing about such ministry is important if he was also to connect with the HMong population. As the exorcism proceeded, Rev. Lee began to read Mark 5, the story of the demoniac in the tombs named Legion, for “we are many.” The story continues with the demons cast out into the pigs which headed for the water and drowned. Pastor Lee turned to the demon possessed woman and asked, “Do you understand this story which I am reading to you?” Her response was, “I was there.” If that doesn’t put goose bumps on your arms, I don’t know what will.
Structures, Strategies, Methods, Forms, and Styles
Let me move on to another, significant stumbling block for successful ministries in the LCMS I mentioned earlier: reliance and often insistence on specific forms, styles, methods, strategies, and structures. For example, while attending a conference in South Africa, a leader from one of the LCMS seminaries led morning worship. Each day we did matins. The form is rather static. We stood for much of the worship. At one point during the day, the Bishop of the Lutheran Church of South Africa, in a conversation about using drums in worship, asked why we were told to stand for worship, especially when the Gospel was read. The response was that the form shows respect to God. The Bishop then noted that among the Zulu, when the chief arrives in the room, respect is shown by sitting down. Rather than using the appropriate form for the dominant Zulu members present which communicated the awesome respect reserved for God, the powerful western leadership in that room decided, unknowingly, that using their traditional way to show respect was appropriate. They simply assumed that their form was universal. They had not learned the cultural patterns of the South African Zulu. And when they did realize the difference, they continued to practice their same form the following days. They were not able to allow for that powerful local model to influence their future practice.
While serving in Africa, I witnessed at Lutheran seminaries visiting western instructors teaching western structures and forms of worship. Students learn to chant the liturgy with tunes and harmonies and metrics foreign to their own tunes and harmonies and metrics which they learned from childhood in their own home. Liberian Lutheran leadership admitted to me just recently that they have adopted forms and styles of the LCMS without a clear reason for doing so other than they believe partnership is based on similar forms and styles.
And the models used in international contexts which are quite popular, contextual, and successful are not valued in the West. In fact, the models and forms, though often praised and applauded as they are implemented internationally (though the LCMS is beginning to push its weight around and insisting that our understanding of ecclesiology is what others must also embrace), are ridiculed or severely limited when attempting to implement them in our own local mission fields. Church planters and pastors who arrive in the West and have not studied theology through an accredited institution, attended a seminary, or in our specific Western context, Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology or Specific Ministry Pastor models, are not given the permission or credentials to serve as church planting missional leaders as they were doing without the appropriate training we in the West decide is necessary including all the fiscal burdens associated with that training. And if some leaders are given permission to lead, it is usually with strings attached. They can lead, but are not given permission to do so in the ways they did back in their homes – as lay pastors in Word and Sacrament ministries. An additional set of humanly defined rules and regulations are placed on them if they desire to continue leading people into God’s mission.. In an article describing Roland Allen’s evaluation of western missionary models, Allen believed western culture and tradition had trumped the Biblical necessities. And it is these contemporary developments that hinder the expansion of the church.
This was most obvious in our recent decision to halt the Licensed Lay Deacon (LLD) ministry – at least for those men who were trained and developed as LLDs through Mission Training Center (MTC), were over 50yrs old, had been faithfully serving for at least two years, with over 50% of that time in clergy supervised, congregationally “called” word and sacrament ministries – and this decision directed toward mostly white American men, not ethnic communities. They were told to stop unless they agreed to 1) become ordained, and 2) attend a week-long class to prepare them for a colloquy interview with no certainty of passing, all in order to continue doing the same thing were already doing, even though they had been doing so at the request of the congregation, and filling a significant need for responsible word and sacrament ministry in places where ordained ministry is not possible to supply. In effect, LCMS Inc. told them that their previous ministry was less than adequate since they were not ordained, and even if they did not feel God calling them, they must enter the ordained ministry in order to continue in that ministry. And by the way, those under 50yrs old are required to attend SMP or the residential seminary if they wished to continue. IMHO, the tail wagging the dog.
And though the LCMS report also indicated that situations like these will continue to grow, it also encouraged the LCMS to add a position entitled “Evangelist” which might help to mitigate that reality. I am not opposed to official synodical Evangelists being trained to reach lost people. But it gives people in the pew the option of breathing a great sigh of relief that once again, the trained leadership in the church will take on the responsibility of outreach ministry, removing that marvelous work from them.
In addition, people who begin to connect with those in the community quickly discover that the forms and types of ministries which they have highlighted and developed for their own faith communities do not meet the local needs. People, and especially non-white ethnic groups, desire ministry programs which help them navigate issues most of us in this room have never addressed: immigration issues (green cards, work permits, government requirements), finding jobs and job interviewing, employer expectations of employees, security, accessing education, housing, ESL, time requirements, and many others we often pigeon hole as social ministry or social justice.
When discussing social ministry, a congregation’s normal activity is limited, and is realized in gathering bags of food for the food bank or heading to the nursing home to serve. In addition, their normal practice for developing new ministries does not allow it to nimbly reimagine and then refocus its ministries to reflect the need. Check a church calendar and you will notice that most ministries revolve around youth group activities, small groups, Sunday school, committee meetings, Bible studies, and maybe pre-schools/elementary schools. These ministries are very different than the ministry needs of many populations in America. It is important for any faith community development activity to ask the communities in which they are entering what would be most helpful and then boldly begin to develop those ministries in partnership with the leaders in the community.
Let me close this paper with a brief overview of Portland and new ways to imagine church, faith communities and ministries, and leadership.
As noted earlier, the NOW District has only 14 congregations which have 400 members or more. That means the majority of the congregations in the district worship less than 150 people, most worshipping 75-100 people. But with limited resources – both people and money – their options are few when beginning with the same model we have used for decades. What might be done?
I believe it begins with re-imagining the church, not as institution, but as ecclesia, the people of God. As many know, the word in the NT translated “church” is ecclesia. And in all but two instances, it means a group of people selected out to be different. However, when we speak the word “church” in our Scripture readings in our worship services, listeners attach the primary meaning to it: a place where people worship, an address, a building. We have lost the true meaning of ecclesia and have developed and provided models of ministry founded on an institutional model of church centered on an address where a building is provided. Those institutional models have also defined church and its metrics for us in terms of size, worship forms, by-laws and constitutions, reports, activities, and numbers associated with those activities (baptisms, communicant members, baptized members, worship attendance, confirmations, SS attendance, Bible Study attendance).
The NOW District is beginning to consider other models for church based on ecclesia. Imagine with me for a moment the following: a small group of people not defined by size or place or space or programs or how to be the church during the gathered moments. It is defined as the ecclesia, a community of faith who faithfully gather during the week to study, pray, learn, discuss, share, worship, eat, baptize, and even share the Lord’s Supper as they are being developed into disciples who then strategize how to be the ecclesia making disciples in the community.
The group’s ministry is not when or where the group is gathered, but it takes place in their own spaces, when they move into the neighborhood: work, home, social engagements. There are no programs delivered out of the gathered group, no committees or boards formed to deal with issues. There are no Sunday Schools or Adult Bible classes or youth events or Easter Eggs hunts or Christmas programs. They don’t meet to make quilts or pack boxes for poor kids overseas. They don’t flyer the community and invite them to the first worship service or print the bulletin so no one gets lost during a structured worship moment. As the group gathers, they hear the Word and study it, they talk about their lives, the lives they touch, and how God is using them in their personal relationships to bring Christ into their local conversations. And they draw strength from Christ and from one another to continue to be those voices of grace and hope in those spaces.
This gathering began because someone shared Christ at work and the person was interested in learning more. Soon, another heard and had questions, so the first person offered to host a moment in his house where they could talk without the boss or others overhearing them and accuse them of being offensive in the workplace. That little beginning included food, the Bible, and a lot of unanswered questions as they searched together for answers to the questions being raised. But people became Christian through that little beginning and others were included as time went on. This is ecclesia. It is church. It makes a difference because the people who gather are invested in their own spaces with other people they know who are invited to continue the Christian conversation in the gathered community.
This sounds like a small group ministry. Some call it house church. And in some ways – it is. But it is more than that. Our LCMS doesn’t allow for this model of church to be recognized as church or even practiced for that matter – the LCMS doesn’t allow preaching, baptism, or Lord’s Supper without an ordained ministry present. As an aside, can you imagine the large voting block that would be created in the LCMS if these smaller communities of faith were recognized as official congregations? So imagine with me if we removed some of the rules and regulations by which we define church in our tribe. Martin Luther identified what he called the seven “marks” of the Church: (1) God’s Word; (2) Holy Baptism; (3) the Sacrament of the Altar; (4) the Office of the Keys; (5) called ministers; (6) prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God; and (7) the sacred cross.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with most of this list. I do, however, have a problem with mandating it be implemented according to protocols and rules our tribe has developed.
For example, called ministers who publicly serve the flock – no problem. But we, the LCMS tribe, add ordination as the litmus test by which one is approved to be called. Again, I am not against finding a way to guarantee, as best we can, that called leaders are gifted in the way described by Paul in Timothy and Titus. But we have developed a model which is hyper-clerical, eliminating gifted leaders from ministry simply because they have not followed our own, non-Biblical, humanly created protocols and fiscal realities for being called by a congregation into ministry, the LLD decision a perfect example of this hyper-clericalism. In the gathered ecclesia I described, an ordained person (at least as we define one in our tribe) would not be present due to several factors, therefore eliminating this community of faith from being considered church, let alone gathering and practicing what was described. Yet, there are churches – and most of them western models of church – all over the world which do not have ordained pastors (again – as we define that certification) leading them.
Can these ecclesia be considered church? Are they real? Even if an ordained pastor is not present to supervise them, let alone lead them when they gather? I am becoming more and more convinced that our model of institutionalized churched has become a millstone around God’s missional neck. Yeah – I know – God will prevail. He is God after all. But why do we need to be a stumbling block in His way?
So, if you haven’t yet deduced my particular persuasion in these matters, let me end with my personal opinion. We spend so much time criticizing and attacking Christians and models which are different, even those among our own tribe, that those who still do not know Jesus live and die without Him because we are expend so much energy and time trying to get the message and the structure right and forcing others to comply rather than getting the message out! We are so convinced that if we, and those we arrogantly oversee, do not have it perfect, God’s Spirit cannot work and the result will be a faith which damns rather than saves. We need to quit making ourselves so important, quit believing that we are the gatekeeper of the Spirit’s work, quit the arrogant posturing which indicates that only we have the correct answer to all the questions being asked.
If we are about His Kingdom building, and not our kingdom building, focused on people meeting Jesus and the claims He has on their life, then we need to get out of His way and let Him do His work even if at times it might press us to reexamine our own truth rather than begin with an assumption that we are right and they are wrong and thus free to condemn or criticize. I believe Gamliel was wise – maybe, just maybe we should take his advice, and that might mean giving advice only when we are asked.
I surely do not have this all wrapped up in a nice package and bow. I have much to learn. But we need to engage these courageous conversations for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of those who still do not cherish Christ as their Savior. If God’s Good News in Christ Jesus is finally about gathering all people in heaven, we need to allow that vision to guide our decisions.