If COVID has taught the LCMS one thing, it is that all ministry is local. Local layfolk, pastors, teachers, and other commissioned ministers make ministry happen.
During conventions, we elect leaders to all kinds of leadership roles; in reality, what congregations do locally matters much more than what happens almost anywhere else.
Through the COVID experience, the foundation of our denomination – congregations themselves – figured that out. We made it happen and should all be proud of what Christ did through us through the pandemic.
Understandably, we didn’t do it all alone. Others did their best to support local ministries.
In the end, without much of a national plan or guidance, our congregations proved themselves again to be our Synod.
This was a true “bottom-up” pandemic ministry response – what our LCMS forefathers and mothers envisioned when they founded our unique, American church 175 years ago. (See the Guest Essay “Are We a Top-Down or a Bottom-Up Synod?”)
ARTICLE III AND ARTICLE VII AT WORK
LCMS congregations can be thankful that our Constitution envisions the primacy of the local congregation and requires the support role of our national church leaders. Just read Article III (Objectives) and VII (Relationship Between Synod and Its Members).
These two gems from our Constitution remind all of us why any of us are here.
Words like Article III’s “strengthen,” “provide,” “aid,” and “encourage” remind us what Synod is to do. Our Synod exists to focus on supporting local congregations and their needs. Article VII’s “self-governance” and “advisory” determine how this supportive work is to be done by our regional and national church leaders.
Article VII gives more direction to all of us. “Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned” is not a declaration of independence from others in Synod. Instead, it describes our relationship with one another and the importance of the local congregation in the LCMS.
CREATIVE RESPONSES TO LOCAL CHALLENGES
Congregations need support for what we are doing locally. More than any other time in my 40 years of ministry, our local congregations’ COVID responses proved the genius of our Synod.
Churches didn’t wait for answers coming from elsewhere. Instead, we all viewed our local situations, pivoted our ministries, and used the pandemic to become the hands and feet of Jesus to our people and our communities.
Despite all that the pandemic threw at us, LCMS congregations came up with some pretty creative responses. Though our ministry contexts are varied, we all figured out how to live-stream to those quarantined at home, do minister with masks, and make hospital visits and front porch shut-in calls.
We kept our schools and preschools open for both in-person and online learning, navigated PPP loans, and figured out how to pay our pastors and teachers pretty much on our own.
We connected with our members and communities to help them through life struggles using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The challenge of isolation brought creative, God-directed responses to specific local contexts by individual congregations.
IT’S ABOUT HOPE
And we brought hope. Though divided by culture, context, and geography, congregations responded creatively. Moreover, we were united in our confession of faith and work of expanding Christ’s Kingdom in our communities.
We brought the kind of God-has-not-forgotten-us hope the disciples needed to hear on Easter night and along the road to Emmaus.
We needed to hear it, too – and we blessed our communities with the positive, Jesus-proclaiming hope we shared.
The word “hope” captures the core of our faith.
Jeremiah talked about the “hope and future” God planned for His people (Jeremiah 29:11). We used his words to remind us to look beyond our present reality to our future blessings.
David talked about his hope in Psalm 62, explaining that “waiting quietly” on the Lord both models our hope and encourages its development. We used David’s words to mature as followers of Jesus and know that one day there will be green pastures, quiet waters – and that our souls will be restored.
While the process can be painful, Paul reminded us that the kind of hope we have “will not disappoint us” (Romans 5:1-5). It’s a kind of future hope that puts trust in God’s forever promises and faces today’s challenges with confidence in His power and love (Romans 8:18-39).
LUTHERAN PROUD (BUT NOT TOO PROUD)
And although it may go against our Lutheran nature to bemoan pride as arrogance, we have reason to be proud of what God accomplished through us in our local congregations. Praise God!
However, let’s not rest on our local laurels too long. Don’t let our pride regarding the past keep us from following God’s call to us to work in the future.
The harvest is still white (John 4:34-36). God has more for us to accomplish this side of heaven. We have a great 175-year history and a great future – together.
The task ahead may seem daunting. Figuring out how to turn around a declining denomination will be hard. It would be much easier to care for our local congregation and forget about our national and international work.
Instead, let’s take pride in our COVID response and press into God’s Kingdom work. Let’s “throw the net over the other side” (John 21:6) and get ready to receive His miraculous catch of fish.
We can’t sit and wait for someone else to act before we do. Congregations can’t wait for our national leadership to develop a plan. We have to move Christ’s Kingdom forward now and tell our leaders what we need them to do to support our work.
TOGETHER BY GOD’S DESIGN
And we can’t do it alone as individual congregations.
We need one another. We are better together and knit together by God for this purpose. As St. Paul describes us, we are the Body of Christ given different gifts “so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12).
All of us must put aside our self-interests and our apathy towards things national and pitch in for our common ministries. We need to spend ourselves out for the sake of our common witness and ministry. It’s easy to forget that God did not build us to be alone in the Body of Christ. His vision is bigger. Ours must be, too.
Count us in. In our work in the coming years, Our Congregations – Our Synod will do our best to support the larger vision our LCMS founders enshrined in our Constitution. We will live out our Articles III and VII relationships. We will press forward with creative responses to local needs. And we will encourage you to do the same.
Rev. Charles S. Mueller, Jr.