By Paula Schlueter Ross
During one of four mission trips to the same region of Kenya, East Africa, over two years, Kevin Pieper heard about a community hard-hit by drought. Pieper, director of global mission and local outreach at Salem Lutheran Church in Tomball, Texas, visited villagers there, along with members of his mission team.
What they learned has haunted him since: residents ate just one meal each day, usually maize, and walked almost four miles a day to get water from a polluted river. Every one of the 100 or so people he talked to said they had had malaria within the past year, and all had “hollow eyes” and thin frames.
“Those people are on my mind constantly,” said Pieper, who plans to return to the area during a mission trip this November to help them in some way.
“This is a place that has an LCMS-affiliated church and a pastor that we’ve been working with, so I’ve got to do something,” he said.
That’s the beauty of “Congregation Connect,” a new program from LCMS World Mission that links Synod congregations with mission sites in Kenya, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hong Kong, Macau, and Peru. The idea is that a U.S. congregation will send mission teams to the same community — where they can learn what the needs are and how they can help — multiple times over five years or more.
It’s “short-term teams through long-term commitments,” says Bruce Wall, program director for short-term mission service with LCMS World Mission.
Although it’s not required, congregations in the Congregation Connect program may learn from more experienced “mentoring congregations,” such as Salem, Tomball, how to plan and carry out a short-term mission trip. Mentoring congregations even provide teams that accompany first-timers to overseas mission fields, guiding them each step of the way.
Mission teams do such things as teach English, operate a vacation Bible school, construct or repair buildings, provide medical services, take part in disaster relief, and offer help to local women — all are designed to provide opportunities for faith-sharing.
Wall says outreach activities “are developed in partnership,” according to the needs of the mission field and the sending congregation’s special gifts.
“We would like to see the Holy Spirit guide how the partnership goes forth over the five years,” he said.
Congregation Connect offers U.S.-based congregations “direct involvement in mission work” and the opportunity to “establish an ongoing relationship with people from another country or culture,” according to Wall.
People on the receiving end, he added, feel like they’re “not walking alone” because they have “brothers and sisters who care about them, even across the ocean.”
And, during mission events, pastors in mission fields often get opportunities to share the Gospel with many villagers at once.
“Just being there builds people up so much with that fellowship and that sense of community,” he said.
Those who serve get a chance to “live out their faith and help others.” It is, he added, “just letting God work through people.”
And, that work often is “amazing,” says Pieper. During a May 28-June 7 mission trip organized by Salem, Tomball, that included 41 volunteers from five LCMS congregations, they tested the eyesight of — and shared the Gospel with — 14,400 people in Kenya.
And, more than 200 of those people professed Christ as their Savior for the first time during the weeklong trip, according to Pieper.
“We feel like we’re really doing something important, and contributing in a huge way,” Pieper says. “When Jesus was here, He did two things — He wanted to meet people’s human needs, and He wanted to minister to their spiritual side. And we look at our programs in the same way.
“We treat people’s physical needs in terms of taking care of their eyes and improving their eyesight by giving them glasses,” he continued. “But then, we take time to present the Gospel to each one and try to integrate them into a Lutheran congregation.”
Salem was the “lead church” in a two-year pilot project for Congregation Connect and helped start the program in cooperation with LCMS World Mission. The 2,500-member congregation sends mission teams regularly to sites in three countries: Kenya, Honduras, and Mexico. Its work in Honduras began more than a decade ago.
Now Salem is “trying to recruit other congregations to come along with us” as “sending congregations,” says Pieper. “We’ve been doing it for over 10 years, so it’s really invaded our culture at our church,” he said. “You don’t come back the same.”
Salem’s mission teams are made up primarily of retired people — the oldest so far is 74 — and Pieper says they “make the best missionaries” because of their life experiences. More than 200 of the congregation’s members have taken part in the trips, paying only for airfare. Remaining expenses are paid by the congregation, which raises the money from fundraisers and donors “who believe in what we do,” according to Pieper.
“Any size church can do this,” he adds. Smaller congregations can band together to share expenses and workloads.
At least one mission congregation — New Hope Missions Church in Mooresville, N.C. — has joined Congregation Connect because its objective is “to be a mission outreach church,” says its pastor, Rev. Pete Varvaris.
The congregation, with fewer than 20 members, focuses on doing mission work, both locally and abroad, and plans to make its first overseas trip to Kitui, Kenya (a four-hour drive east of Nairobi), within six months of launching its first public worship this fall. (It is not working with Salem, Tomball, but independently.)
“We want to give people an opportunity to be truly blessed with the happiness that comes from focusing on someone else,” says Varvaris. Because of community advertisements, he said he expects people to join the congregation in community-service projects and mission trips “before they ever come to worship.”
“Instead of inviting them to church, we’re inviting them to do community service,” something Varvaris believes Americans are increasingly willing to do to add value to their lives.
Wall says he has 20 mission sites that he’d like to connect with LCMS congregations over the next three years, and he’s looking to expand the program to more countries. Five congregations already have sent representatives to the Congregation Connect orientation and are expected to begin serving their partnerships this year, according to Wall.
A “New Mission Reality Forum” is being planned for Oct. 13-14 in St. Louis to share information about Congregation Connect with interested congregations. More information about that event will be available later.
If your group is interested in joining Salem, Tomball, in Kenya or would like to serve under a mentoring congregation, contact Kevin Pieper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-635-2400 or Paul Althoff at email@example.com or 713-703-5659.
Posted June 24, 2009