By Cheryl Magness
Congregation members, workers and leaders from across The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) listened, shared and learned during the Making Disciples for Life (MDFL) virtual gathering held via Zoom the evenings of Jan. 11–14. The online event offered a variety of session formats, including live and recorded presentations, on a wide range of topics.
In the conference welcome video, LCMS Office of National Mission (ONM) Executive Director Rev. Robert Zagore described the event as an outcome of the 2019 Synod convention, which called for providing resources “to equip the church to carry out her mission until our Lord comes back: to retain the faithful, to chase after the lost [and] to bring the Good News of salvation and hope to a dying world.” Zagore invited attendees to offer feedback on how future events could best serve the church.
On the second evening of the conference, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison rapidly recounted the history of the Christian church, noting that the church has always had its share of challenges.
“We see this, of course, in the life of Christ,” Harrison said. “The entire establishment in Jerusalem was intent on eliminating Jesus and His Gospel. … If you ask the women [at Jesus’ crucifixion] … what they thought was happening, they would have said, ‘It’s over; our hope is gone; He’s dead.’
“And yet, right in the midst of that cross … God was achieving His most glorious act … accomplishing His purposes, dying for the sins of the world.”
Harrison turned to the present, noting both encouraging developments (for example, the growth of confessional Lutheranism and Christianity around the world) and challenges (declining demographics and political/cultural pressures). He concluded that, no matter what comes, “We are the church. It is our task to proclaim the Gospel … to recognize and assert the value of all life … [and] to be people of the Bible, who know and read the Scriptures continually.”
‘Cut to the heart’
In a session on COVID-19 and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Steven Hokana, assistant director of LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces, spoke about PTSD as something that can affect not only military personnel, first responders and others in dangerous professions, but also anyone who has experienced trauma, including something like COVID-19. He added, however, that PTSD cannot be self-diagnosed but requires a clinical diagnosis.
Hokana discussed warning signs of PTSD and other mental health disorders and the importance of a collaborative approach that melds behavioral health with the Christian faith. He told a story about the death of Martin and Katie Luther’s daughter, Magdalena, observing that “Luther understood Anfechtung, or being ‘cut to the heart.’ All of us understand Anfechtung. You can’t walk on this side of heaven for any period of time where you haven’t felt that deep, deep cut.”
Hokana then gave suggestions for how to assist and minister to those who are dealing with PTSD or other challenges that “cut to the heart.”
“God is not the author [of Anfechtung],” Hokana said, “but God journeys with us through all our seasons,” including our seasons of Anfechtung. Although Hokana’s session was focused on PTSD, the strategies he offered could be applied to anyone who is experiencing difficulties due to COVID-19 or other struggles.
“Remember that what you’re experiencing is temporary, and it will pass,” Hokana said. “You’re loved and cared for, and the saints are praying for you. Focus on what you can do right now to plan for the future. Don’t abandon God’s Word. Explore the rich heritage we have as Lutherans. Take joy in what you do.”
In another session, this one on COVID and worship, Director of LCMS Worship and International Center Chaplain Rev. Sean Daenzer heard a variety of concerns from session participants, including how social distancing is affecting in-person worship and how online worship is affecting congregational life.
Daenzer noted that the past year has contributed to a sense of uncertainty about many things and encouraged humility and “showing Christian patience to one another.” Adding that “not all practices that could be done in worship are responsible,” he emphasized the importance of repentance and forgiveness: “Whenever we see our own sins and failures nailed to the cross in Christ’s body, that’s the best way I know to recover the ability to give sound counsel and wisdom to one another and to do it compassionately rather than high-handedly.”
Daenzer reminded participants of the necessity of boldly confessing our hope in Christ, adding that such boldness should not be confused “with rashness and a cavalier spirit … not foolishness”; rather, it “comes from Christ’s resurrection, vindicating and testifying by the Father’s own power and demonstration that all of Christ’s words and the Holy Scriptures are true and trustworthy.
“We expect and look to various authorities for wisdom on how to minimize risk from this disease,” Daenzer said. But “woe to the church, to me, then, if I do not also exercise the church’s special authority to preach and proclaim the peace which this world cannot give, a peace which pastors sing over the casket at every funeral … : ‘I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies, yet shall he live.’”
Variety of topics and resources
Each of the live conference sessions fell under one of four formats: plenary (one speaker, without audience interaction); Q&A (one or more speakers responding to questions submitted before or during the session); spotlight (large meeting with one or more speakers presenting a featured resource and responding to questions via chat); or tabletop (small-group discussion facilitated by the host).
The conference also included almost 40 pre-recorded sessions on a variety of topics and ministry areas from LCMS International Center staff and other Synod leaders. The Rev. Dr. Mark Wood, director of LCMS Witness & Outreach Ministry, noted that the conference content will remain available to premium pass registrants for 60 days after its conclusion, so it’s not too late to register and gain access to all the sessions (visit lcms-mdfl.org).
“I would encourage church workers and lay leaders to use and share the recorded materials in their congregations. Recorded sessions could be used as resources for boards and committees as well as for topical Bible studies,” Wood said.
The Rev. Azor Cigelske, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in New Holstein, Wis., said he was motivated to register because “any conference that helps us to better understand [the Great Commission] is of interest to me.” Cigelske attended sessions on outreach to inactive members, home devotions, racism and the Q&A with Harrison.
“I found all of them beneficial,” Cigelske said, “and the ministering to inactives, in particular, as a need our congregation has. Our Board of Elders has now committed to exploring the ‘Shepherding Our Strays’ materials that the Synod is offering. I plan to watch many more sessions over the next weeks.”
Jeff Zoellick, director of church ministry at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Carol Stream, Ill., said he appreciated the virtual aspect of the conference. “The cost was great, I didn’t have to travel and I was able to meet with others from across the country. The evening aspect was good because I didn’t need to take time away from the office.”
Zoellick attended sessions on addressing congregational decline, reaching inactive members, incarnational theology in a digital culture, returning to church after COVID, research on millennials, and worship during COVID. “The resources [on] addressing congregational development and decline are excellent,” Zoellick said. “They are perfect for where we are as a congregation as we look to call a new pastor.”
For more information about Making Disciples for Life, visit lcms.org/making-disciples.
Posted Jan. 27, 2021