By Robert Schmidt
Ninety-four new congregations joined the Missouri Synod in 2003. Of these, sixty-two were made up of non-white ethnic groups. I have had the privilege of working with one of these new congregations. It started about five years ago among some dedicated Oromo people from central and southern Ethiopia. Seven immigrants met in a living room and prayed for God’s blessing to begin a church. It now has up to eighty in Sunday worship and is led by five lay preachers with varying degrees of Biblical knowledge. The chief elder has been certified as a licensed deacon and, with another of the leaders, is enrolled in Concordia Seminary’s Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT). Several of the leaders are eager to go back to Ethiopia and do mission work there.
New congregations such as these have the potential to profoundly reshape the missionary program of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. For nearly its entire history the LCMS has done international mission work through a synodical board which made plans, responded to challenges, called and placed missionaries and called forth from American congregations the funds to do mission work at home and abroad. As such the synod’s mission board was a bit like the church of Antioch, which sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3).
However, that is not the only missionary model in the New Testament. Neither the church in Colossae nor the one in Laodicea were begun by Paul. Instead, they were probably begun by converts like Epaphras. The Colossian Mission Model is a celebration of churches planted by others, some of whom we may know and others we may not. Such churches seem to arise spontaneously through the working of the Holy Spirit on the hearts and lives of believers. Some congregations serving immigrants have arisen here in the United States, and through their members other congregations are planted in the lands from which they came. How might the LCMS respond with an “evangelical imagination” to the Colossian Mission Model?
Christians with an evangelical imagination can recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing through others with whom we have little or no organizational connection. Paul so recognized the congregations in Colossae and Laodicea. Yes, he had heard what was happening through his fellow prisoners. New ethnic congregations are coming into being in the United States in a marvelous way. Robert Scudieri, director for North American missions, reported that Christ Assembly Lutheran Church in Staten Island, N.Y., has started ten congregations in eight years. A local Vietnamese congregation is in contact with a number of new mission starts in Vietnam. Oromo congregations relate to other immigrant ministries in Berlin, Germany; Stavanger, Norway; and many newly planted congregations in Ethiopia. Some of these congregations belong to the LCMS, but many do not. Some have affiliated with other denominations, and others remain independent. However, as with the Colossians, people in these other congregations are known and trusted as fellow believers. As such we recognize them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul thanked God for the faith of the Colossian Christians. They had heard the Gospel and now were filled with the hope of eternal life and of the love they had for all the saints. Amazing stories of faith are also told by the many immigrants coming to our shores. Many have been the victims of extreme hardships in and out of refugee camps; some have been tortured; others know of family members who have died for their faith. As they daily face the difficulties of adjusting to life in America, they praise God for all of their blessings. Theirs is the faith in Christ’s love and forgiveness that has been tested by fire. It has a confessional authenticity that is clearly seen regardless of their organizational affiliations.
The congregation in Colossae was not without its problems or doctrinal difficulties. The spiritual climate of Colossae was filled with the notion that while Jesus was nice, he was only another of those many spirits from the one divine reality. In addressing that concern, Paul retells the Gospel story and applies it to their situation. Christ is the very image of the invisible God; in him all things in heaven and earth were created. Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things in earth and heaven by making peace through the blood of the cross.
Ethnic congregations at home and those they may plant abroad will also grow up in alien spiritual settings. Mission congregations always do. Instead of criticizing the darkness, however, Christians with an evangelical imagination can follow Paul in retelling the Gospel with an application to those particular settings. In Ethiopia it might be against the politicizing of the faith; in America it might be against forsaking Christ for materialism, the gods made with our hands.
Not content merely to recognize and rejoice with the Colossians, Paul related to them by sending Tychicus and Onesimus to them. He wanted to support them in their ministries with the encouraging words of these servants of God. New ethnic congregations in America and overseas need support as well. Even if it is no more than encouraging words, prayers and a bit of local financial support, it will be well appreciated and further strengthen our common bond in the Gospel.