By Roger Drinnon
More than 160 participants, including pastors and lay leaders representing 24 states plus representatives of the LCMS Office of National Mission (ONM), attended the 2015 National Rural & Small Town Mission (RSTM) Conference Nov. 5-7 in Kansas City, Mo.
This year’s theme, “Standing in the Harvest Fields,” based on Matt. 13:3-30, was reflected throughout 30-plus breakout sessions, five plenary sessions and three Bible studies during the three-day conference.
Weed-seed, gentle Jesus, Jiminy Cricket
Among the highlights of the conference were the morning Bible studies from John 4:35 that were led by the Rev. Dr. Ken Klaus, speaker emeritus of “The Lutheran Hour.” During the first study, “Harvest Fields: Lift Up Your Eyes and See … How They’ve Changed the Changeless Christ,” Klaus explained how modern-day misperceptions about Christ have made it difficult to reach the lost with the true Gospel, including those living in rural areas and small towns.
He provided several examples of “weed-seed” in the harvest field — how certain denominations, some megachurch preachers, extremely wealthy televangelists and the overall American popular culture propagate flawed theology in various iterations. This includes a spreading misconception that the Gospel should be used toward achieving prosperity through works in this worldly life. Other examples included the mistaken belief in “gentle Jesus” — one who is permissible toward modern behaviors to the point where forgiveness of sins is not needed. Klaus referenced several other misconceptions, including what he dubbed “Jiminy Cricket” theology, where one likens prayer to “wishing upon a star” to fulfill personal desires.
He said such misconceptions are so prevalent these days that they have become significant barriers to reaching others with the Word of God.
The Great Commission in RSTM
During a session relating the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to the context of RSTM, the Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, senior pastor of Zion Lutheran Church and School in Mayer, Minn., said Lutherans need to be able to explain their theology without succumbing to pressures to make it more socially accommodating.
“Using worldly culture to bring people in doesn’t work and can harm the faithful by corrupting them,” he said.
Woodford said some church movements under the banner of outreach have led to an American culture fraught with flawed beliefs, including “moralistic therapeutic deism” that research shows is a prevalent belief system among younger Americans. Precepts of moralistic therapeutic deism include that the purpose of religion is to make one happy and to feel good about oneself in this life and that God exists primarily to help people in times of need.
Faith and stewardship
The Rev. Heath Curtis, coordinator for the ONM’s Stewardship Ministry, gave a presentation titled “Active Stewardship in the Rural Parish,” which looked at the changing demographics of the Synod and factors behind the 40-year decline in membership, particularly the most significant factors over the past two decades. He included information from two research reports: “Generational Generosity, A Report to the LCMS,” by Dr. Ryan MacPherson, and “The LCMS in the Face of Demographic and Social Change,” by Dr. George Hawley. Curtis said the researchers’ objective findings indicate that a low birth rate among LCMS Lutherans in their child-bearing years is the root cause of the decline.
“For the past decade [and for 18 of the past 20 years], the Synod has been losing membership every year. Of course, there are many factors that go into a church’s rate of increase or decrease,” said Curtis. “Our researchers address [those factors] and many others, but both researchers conclude that the overwhelming reason for our decline is a lack of natural growth … children who are never born cannot go out and tell the Good News about Jesus [to others].”
He said some LCMS Lutherans have expressed a misperception that congregations are not doing a very good job of evangelism. He said the data indicate the Synod is on par with other major Christian denominations when it comes to evangelism. Curtis said although the decline will continue for the next decade or more, congregations can be optimistic in the long term with the assurance that faith in Christ will prevail.
“There is no quick-fix for the LCMS’ demographic decline,” he said. “The long-term solution is to always be faithful — be faithful to the calling that the Lord has given to us. Part of being faithful is telling the Good News of Jesus and receiving God’s gift of life with generosity.”
Military families, veterans and RSTM
Chaplain (U.S. Navy Capt. Ret.) Craig G. Muehler, director of the Synod’s Ministry to the Armed Forces, said LCMS Lutherans can help U.S. service members, veterans and their families, as the nation has been involved in constant armed conflict for more than 25 years.
“The largest part of our military — 18- to 24-year-old men — come from rural areas and often end up there after serving,” said Muehler.
Muehler said service members often return from combat environments having incurred “moral injury” by participating in or by witnessing the horrors of war, leading to as many as 22 suicides a day among veterans.
He said military families need help during deployments, and service members also struggle with post-military employment, adding, “Lutherans need to be present” among service members, veterans and their families.
Navy Chaplain (Cmdr.) Mike Moreno provided information on the Synod’s Operation Barnabas ministry. Operation Barnabas provides care to reserve chaplains, their families and congregations as well as training and guidance to local congregations to provide care and support to military members, their families and veterans in local communities.
Moreno encouraged conference participants to recognize veterans in their congregations at least once a year, to reach out to military members in their local communities and also to care for pastors who deploy as military chaplains.
Conference participants — leaders and laity — seemed to agree the event was worthwhile.
“There has been an absolute wealth of ideas and wisdom shared from folks that have been doing this for a while and folks who are new coming up with good ideas, and they are passionate about sharing them,” said the Rev. Jon-Michael Schweigert, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Knob Noster, Mo.
“It is always exciting to see all the representatives of rural and small-town congregations who are passionate about reaching out with Christ’s love to their communities,” said Amy Gerdts, RSTM coordinator. “We strive to provide a unique opportunity that meets the needs of the rural and small-town culture by offering them an opportunity to interact with experienced lay leaders and church workers who have served [in rural and small town settings].”
The Rev. Todd Kollbaum, RSTM director for the ONM, said one conference participant approached to say he was thankful for the conference, adding there was a sense of hope during the conference.
“I think that solidified for us that this is what we intend for [these conferences],” said Kollbaum.
RSTM provides training and resources aimed at helping rural and small-town congregations assess community needs and search for opportunities to engage communities through acts of witness and mercy. For more information, visit lcms.org/rstm.
Roger Drinnon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is manager of Editorial Services for LCMS Communications.
Posted Nov. 24, 2015