What does it take to be a faithful church amid a turbulent culture? This was the central question discussed at the most recent Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Making Disciples for Life (MDFL) conference, held Jan. 10–12 in St. Louis.
The conference, titled “The Rock in Shifting Sands,” also had an online component. Sessions were organized along three tracks:
- Church and state, Christian citizenship and religious liberty;
- Critical theory, its manifestations and how the church should respond; and
- Discipleship, Christian education and lifelong catechesis.
The “shifting sands” of complex topics like climate change, COVID-19 and critical race theory figured prominently in the conference. Paul Steinhaus, in “Talking Christ Using Climate Change — How to Use Contemporary Conversations to Share Biblical Truth,” discussed the relationship between faith and scientific observation and explored how Christians can use contemporary issues to point people to Jesus. Steinhaus is the principal of Martin Luther High School in Northrop, Minn.
Steinhaus walked through various natural phenomena — including climate change, petroleum fields, coal deposits and evidence of an ice age — and illustrated how each can be understood in light of biblical accounts such as a worldwide flood. He then discussed how such understanding can be used to witness to Christ.
Dwight Schettler, president of Ambassadors of Reconciliation, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization, addressed some of the challenges presented by the pandemic in his presentation, “Mask(ed) Idolatry: A Practical Application of God’s Word in the Midst of COVID-19.” Schettler noted how common it is to hear of altercations that arise in stores, airplanes and other public places over face masks and other pandemic requirements. He observed that churches, unfortunately, are not immune to such conflicts. He then led participants through a study of the First, Fourth and Fifth Commandments, considering what each can tell Lutherans about how to respond to these issues.
“By His wounds, you have been healed,” Schettler said at the end of the presentation. “That’s the solution. We have the privilege of reminding each other that Christ died for you and for me, and that’s where we will find our healing and peace.”
Coming home to the church
In “Coming Home to the Lutheran Church: A Journey through Critical Theory and Transgenderism,” presenter Candace Jay Kolter recounted her time away from the church, including living as “Keith” for 15 years. Kolter described two abusive marriages; the deaths of her first husband and her daughter; her embracing of critical theory, transgenderism and paganism; and the various religious bodies and schools of thought that ensnared her before she returned to the LCMS.
“I had gone on this twisting and turning journey that only God could straighten out,” Kolter said. “I am thankful that God never gave up on me but patiently redirected me. ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’ ” (Rom. 6:23).
Kolter, who lives in South Milwaukee, Wis., returned to the LCMS in 2005. She is retired and serves on her church’s altar guild and in the handbell and adult choirs.
Hybrid format increases participation
There were almost 300 registrants for the conference, about one-third of whom attended in person and two-thirds of whom attended online. Some of the online registrations represented not individuals but church and school groups who gathered to watch together. The platform that hosted the online portion of the conference reported an 85% check-in rate, a number it said was “fantastic” by industry standards.
But according to the Rev. Dr. Mark A. Wood, director of LCMS Witness & Outreach Ministry and the conference organizer, what is more important than such numbers is the potential for this and future conferences to provide resources for the church for years to come. As more conferences are held, the best sessions from each will be permanently archived at the MDFL Resource Center, where they will be accessible at any time.
Hybrid conferences such as this one have become increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are likely to remain so beyond the pandemic because of their capacity to increase a conference’s reach while lowering its cost for many. Right now, though, they are still a relatively new phenomenon. At the conference’s opening session on Jan. 10, Wood jokingly told attendees, “Don’t think of yourselves as guinea pigs, but as innovators.”
One of those “innovators,” the Rev. William Schmidt, assistant pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Westwood, N.J., described the conference as having the best organization and selection of speakers “of any online conference I ever attended. The platform used is amazing, and the ability to immediately view other presentations … the same day was great.” Schmidt also serves as director of Mission and Ministry to Military, Veterans and Their Families for the LCMS New Jersey District.
Brenda Anderson, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Gorham, Maine, also attended virtually. “I appreciated the wide range of topics and speakers,” Anderson said. “It was easy to see and select sessions to attend. … The question and chat boxes made it easy for us online attendees to participate.”
Earl Iseler, a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., appreciated the subject matter. “It provided much needed information on the current promotion of anti-biblical, anti-Christian teaching in the U.S. and … world by the government, educational institutions, social media and entertainment,” Iseler said. “It provided information to help congregations understand … what the church is facing.”
Overall, attendees who evaluated the conference gave it a score of 4.13 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 87% of respondents rating it either “good” or “excellent.” Those who offered lower ratings specifically commented on technology issues. “The Office of National Mission [ONM] will be working closely with the platform vendor to improve the virtual component for future conferences,” Wood said.
Such attendee feedback is invaluable to the planning of future conferences. But in the conference’s closing session, the Rev. Robert Zagore, ONM executive director, reminded attendees of the pitfalls of trying to gauge the church’s “success” via earthly measures.
“We expect something different than what Jesus said, and that’s our problem,” Zagore said. “We become theologians of glory even when we don’t want to be.”
Zagore told attendees that the church’s true glory is found not in itself but in the cross of Christ.
“Every work of God is going to produce suffering because the world is going to recoil against it,” Zagore said. “The church doesn’t only bring eternal love, joy and resurrection. The church brings suffering because those who hold on to their sin will fight against anything that tries to take it away. Yet God promises that He has a plan, and that plan ends in salvation.”
Posted Feb. 23, 2022