By Joe Isenhower Jr.
TAMPA, Fla. — The Synod’s three “critical targets” of revitalizing congregations, planting new congregations, and enhancing the focus on stewardship received major emphasis at the Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s annual 2009 Fall Leadership Conference here Nov. 20-22, along with Christ’s mandate to “make disciples of all nations.”
“Together in Christ — Rejoicing for Eternity” was the conference theme.
The church’s work in those emphases and to make disciples outweigh the negative effects of challenges such as the economy, Synod President Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick and LCEF President Merle Freitag told the 650 conference participants.
“These emphases come at a critical time in the life of the church and also in the life of our country,” Kieschnick said in his address at the opening banquet Nov. 20.
“It is no secret that we are living in challenging times. We remain in the grip of a tenuous economy,” he continued, reminding his audience that “purse strings” throughout the church have been tightened, “church workers are leaving and losing their positions in ministry due to dwindling congregational offerings. The lay men and women of our congregations have felt the pinch of lost jobs, decreased salaries, and at least partially depleted retirement plans.
“At the same time,” Kieschnick said, “the mission fields that lie before us have never been riper.”
He cited the report of a recent American Religious Identification Survey, which found that, since 1990, the number of Americans who call themselves Christians has decreased more than 11 percent, almost all church denominations have lost members, and the number of people who claim no religion has increased by 8 percent, to a total of 15 percent of the population.
Although he said some might be tempted to “look at this information and say, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ ” he prefers to “look at the church and the world” and conclude that “the harvest is plentiful.
“I’m not doing so naively or without understanding the gravity of our current situation,” Kieschnick said. “But, knowing the God that is for us and knowing that the world has no power over us, I refuse to be gripped by any fear of the difficult times in which we live or by the all-too-often grim nature of current trends.
“People of God, we have a mission to accomplish — to make disciples for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Kieschnick told the audience. “We have churches to plant, congregations to energize, and stewards to groom. If accomplishing this mission means that we have to expend every last breath in our bodies and every last penny in our pockets, then so be it.”
Freitag recalled that at the 2008 Fall Leadership Conference, he spoke of combinations of factors affecting the economy as analogous to a “perfect storm,” but that “Christians (Lutherans) respond differently than non-Christians in time of economic crisis.
“We can only theorize that the recession is over,” Freitag told 2009 conference attendees, as he noted that recent data showed that the gross domestic product rose by 3.5 percent in a three-month period and worker productivity increased, while unemployment remained high. He cited other economic indicators, including the declining strength of the U.S. dollar and “extraordinary” government spending that may impact inflation and further influence a turnaround.
Freitag also emphasized that while church membership figures reported by Synod congregations in the period of 2005-08 show a decline of about 125,000, per-member giving increased by 3.6 percent.
“It seems we have fewer people giving more,” he said.
Freitag also recalled that a year earlier, he reported to the fall conference that LCEF’s investment portfolio “declined along with the rest of the stock market last fall.”
In the meantime, “LCEF has adopted and is working to recover the value lost, [with] no significant impact on LCEF’s ability to accomplish its mission,” Freitag said.
“Only time and perspective will allow us to judge accurately the beginning and end of recessions,” he said.
“Christians have a Higher Authority” than the impact of the economy, when it comes to ministry, Freitag observed. “As LCMS members, we forge ahead and while being conscious of the economy, we maintain our drive to fulfill the Great Commission and at the same time pray for His guidance.”
He then highlighted several areas in which LCEF supports ministries of Synod congregations and schools. They include:
- School Marketing Resources, a service that helps schools develop a marketing plan and provides customized supporting material.
- Consecrated Stewards, which teaches congregations to implement biblical, whole-life stewardship principles and practices in support of a “stewardship renaissance” in the Synod.
- NAILS, the Laborers For Christ program component for college-age participants.
- K.I.D.S. Count, a stewardship curriculum resource for educators of students through the eighth grade.
- The Mission Planting Revolving Fund for new missions.
Freitag also mentioned the Funding Academy, a Synod-sponsored training program for school administrators, business managers, and key staff.
“The Christian church will have a number of challenges in the future,” Freitag said at the end of his presentation. “The successful churches will be those that keep the mission in front of them at all times.”
“You and I have been sent — the Great Commission is all we need,” he said.
Freitag, who retires Jan. 15, thanked the LCEF Board of Directors, district and national staffs, and members for their support in the 11-plus years of his presidency and said he is “privileged to have worked in this part of the vineyard.”
He also introduced to the conference Rich Robertson of Peachtree City, Ga., who will succeed him as president.
Three keynote speakers addressed the Synod’s critical targets:
- Dr. Bob Roberts of Keller, Texas, on planting new churches;
- Keith Ogorek, Indianapolis, stewardship; and
- Dr. Paul Borden, San Ramon, Calif., revitalizing congregations.
“When it’s all said and done, if we’re not sharing our faith, forget it,” said Roberts, senior pastor of a Texas church that has planted 117 other congregations and “adopted” entire nations. He is founder of Glocal.net, an association of church leaders that promotes a “global church multiplication movement that connects the body of Christ worldwide.”
“All religions are in all places today,” Roberts said, adding that makes “reaching out … much more difficult.” But he advised that instead of relying only on pastors to plant churches, “every disciple should be seen as a church planter.”
He stressed the importance of advancing Christianity worldwide to counter the numerical decline of church attendance in the United States, and called on U.S. Christians to make their churches “bringers of hope and the Gospel, rather than places of goods and services for members.”
“We need to focus on the Great Commission and being disciples,” Roberts said. “Denominations don’t go away. We need them; but we need to remember that the lowest common denominator is the disciple.”
Ogorek is vice president of marketing for Author Solutions, a publishing company that concentrates on blending the need for marketing based on a Christian worldview.
He said that stewardship may be seen in terms of the use of time, talents, and treasure; as giving; and as giving an account at the end.
But he added he believes there is something more important — to see stewardship’s purpose being to cultivate and keep.
Drawing on agricultural images, Ogorek said that stewardship cultivation means to “create an environment for growth,” while keeping involves “protecting the plant and its environment so that what’s growing can continue growing.”
And when cultivation and keeping continue, responsible use of God’s gifts — stewardship — “flourishes,” he added.
“God’s redemptive work in us [created in His image] as stewards, causes all under our care to flourish,” Ogorek said.
He also presented seven principles for understanding stewardship as keeping and caring.
Borden, a church-growth consultant and executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches, an association of 215 West Coast churches, said he notices that many struggling congregations exhibit little hope.
“I’m convinced the reason there is little hope is that often our vision is skewed. Sometimes churches have too many visions, or the vision is incomplete. For many, the problem is not lack of vision, but incomplete vision.”
Noting that Christian churches are growing worldwide except on the three continents first touched by the Reformation — Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand, Borden said, “Our competition is not another religion, but the local Barnes and Noble, Target, or Wal-Mart.”
“The purpose of the church primarily is to depopulate Satan’s ZIP code,” Borden said. “Worship, preaching, fellowship, and Christian schools are all important,” he said, “but [many congregations have] taken the ends to the means, instead of making disciples for Christ.”
Katie Stam, Miss America 2009 and a member of an LCMS congregation — Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour, Ind. — told the LCEF audience at the President’s Prayer Breakfast Saturday morning that “every opportunity I’ve had to talk about my faith with [those in] my Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod” has been a highlight of her reign.
“All of us in this room have something very important and common: we are all Christians,” said Stam, a communications major at the University of Indianapolis who said she first aspired to be Miss America as a 3-year-old.
“We are all taught so many valuable, wonderful lessons through the church — lessons that we will pass on to our children, that we will take to eternal life,” she said.
She explained that although her schedule this year often keeps her from attending weekend worship services, her faith had “done nothing but increase” since being crowned Miss America last Jan. 24 in Las Vegas.
As she’s traveled the country promoting her personal platform of a passion for service and as “goodwill ambassador” for the Children’s Miracle Network, Stam said she “can honestly say that I am carrying out the work that … God has put before me.”
Cindy Newkirk, a Lutheran who earned a master’s degree in Reformation history from Concordia University, Irvine, Calif., and now with her husband operates a 350-acre vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., was keynote speaker for the Nov. 22 women’s luncheon.
She shared stories describing the life and care of grapevines as she quoted Bible verses that include grapevine and vineyard images to convey their meaning in relation to faith and the church.
“These verses are real,” Newkirk said, “and these verses are life.”
Fall conference participants also attended small-group sessions led by plenary speakers and others on topics such as “The Multiplying Church,” “Church Planting,” “Plowing Fields [for outreach] in Rural America,” “Planting Gospel Seeds/Serving Human Needs,” “Faith Aflame/360 Degree Stewardship,” “Building Ministry Support Beyond the Offering Plate,” and “Transforming Congregations: National Perspective.”
Several attendees shared their impressions of the conference with Reporter.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Elizabeth (Liz) DeMik of Alexandria, Va., wrote in an e-mail.
A first-time conference attendee with her husband, Thomas A. DeMik (a voting delegate), she said, “The speakers, presentations and workshops were very good. It brought together LCMS disciples and leaders from all over the country, from churches of many sizes. It was a very Spirit-filled, positive, grace-filled experience. Who can argue over our need to share the Gospel?”
Sylvia Knight, a voting delegate from Santa Ana, Calif., attending her ninth fall conference, said Roberts “opened my eyes as to the real ‘Jesus movement’ … around the world and how we here in the West need to start our second Jesus movement by becoming disciples in our own circles; sharing God’s Word by example, if not directly by sharing our own beliefs with others.”
Knight, who is administrative assistant for the Pacific Southwest Church Extension Fund, added that she also “totally enjoyed” Newkirk, finding her description of vineyards “fascinating.”
“We’ve all heard the analogies of the vineyards in comparison to God in our life,” Knight said, “[but] her take on it was shared with such passion that it was like hearing it for the first time.”
She said she’s come to appreciate these fall conferences as “a time of reconnecting and renewing relationships [that are] very important in all areas of our lives.”
A member of the Board of Managers for the Kansas District Church Extension Fund, Mark Zillinger of Topeka said this was the eighth fall conference he’s attended since 2000.
He described the 2009 conference as “one of the best … very well organized with a good mix of speakers.”
Deciding to attend workshops led by Roberts and Borden “due to their excellent keynote addresses,” Zillinger said they both “presented outside-the-box thinking of how to focus on ministry of the church and how to do it effectively. They shared the successes and challenges they’ve met. Churches need to learn from the challenges they face, to make adjustments.”
He said he also “appreciate[d] the opportunity to hear directly from the synodical president [about] the vision and mission of the LCMS. He does a great job of clearly providing information about our church body and how the many churches support the overall ministry.”
Concerning LCEF, Zillinger told Reporter it “provides such a wide range of services that help provide space and place for ministry. I know of no other organization that is so uniquely structured to provide this ministry. The support of the investors enables this ministry to continue and grow.”
LCEF honored a number of individuals, congregations, and districts with awards presented during the conference. They include: