Brazil’s Lutherans united against COVID-19

IELB President Geraldo Walmir Schüler leads worship online for the Second Sunday of Easter.

BRAZIL – Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing in March 2020, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brazil (Igreja Evangélica Luterana do Brasil – IELB) has been concerned with helping its members and pastors acclimatize to the current reality the world is facing. With the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, IELB President Geraldo Walmir Schüler encouraged congregations to suspend all onsite activities, including worship services. At the same time, the church made available to congregations a variety of resources to assist their ministry work during the pandemic.

Worship services were organized with the assistance of IELB’s communication agency IELBcom and pastors from the church’s national board, and transmitted live via the web radio station Cristo Para Todos (CPT) on Sunday mornings. Services were rebroadcast Sunday evenings. Since June, Cristo Para Todos has been highlighting the efforts of IELB congregations across the country who are broadcasting their own services. Every week, CPT’s Facebook page highlights the worship schedule of one of the IELB’s 59 districts, and on Sunday broadcasts the worship service from one of that district’s congregations.

While many IELB congregations have been livestreaming services and Bible studies for some time, others have only begun using this tool in response to the coronavirus. To assist pastors and congregations with this new work, IELBcom produced and made available technical tutorials to assist with recording and livestreaming as well as sharing CPT materials via social media. The latter tutorials were an adaptation from the “Media Training” workshop, which has been taught by the IELB’s communications department to students of Concórdia Seminary in São Leopoldo since 2017.

Moreover, many CPT radio programs have addressed the current crisis, providing guidance on how the church can help everyone to deal with the pandemics with caution, common sense, faith, and hope in God the Creator. (CPT podcasts are available in Portuguese here).

The Department of Christian Education had also increased the number of home worship service materials available from monthly to weekly, and the blog Criança Cristã (“Christian Child”) provides devotion and activities for children. In addition, the IELB’s website, with help from Editora Concórdia (the IELB’s publishing house) and Hora Luterana (Brazil’s Lutheran Hour), offers several materials to promote spiritual growth for the whole family.

In partnership with Editora Concórdia, the IELB celebrated its 116th anniversary on June 24, 2020—a celebration held online for the first time. The celebration had a special guest, the Brazilian musician and Lutheran, Carlos Magrão, and drew approximately 20,800 viewers via the IELB’s YouTube channel.

One of the IELB’s web conferences for church leaders.

The board of the IELB has also organized twenty-four web conferences in order to consult with congregational leaders and pastors from the entire country, gathering about 1,500 participants from all 59 districts through the end of July. “In these online meetings the Board has listened to reports on the situation in each place, answered questions, and provided information on what is being planned nationwide,” notes Aline Gehm Koller Albrecht, Vice President of Communications. “These moments bring stimulus, comfort in the Word of God, and encouragement to the Church to keep facing these challenging times, united and standing firm in Christ Jesus.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

President of the Malagasy Lutheran Church passes on to glory

FLM President David Rakotonirina following his election in 2016.

MADAGASCAR – Rev. Dr. David Rakotonirina, President of the Malagasy Lutheran Church (Fiangonana Loterana Malagasy – FLM) passed on to glory suddenly on July 11, 2020 from COVID-19 after a brief stay in hospital.

A funeral service for President Rakotonirina was held on July 12, 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a funeral open to the public was not possible, but the service was streamed online.

“President David Rakotonirina was a respected and committed confessional Lutheran churchman, and a good friend,” said Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). “Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended,” Dr. Quill said, quoting the hymn by Simon Dach. He further asked Lutherans around the world to keep David’s wife and family, as well as the Malagasy church, in their prayers.

FLM media marking the passing of President David Rakotonirina.

In addition to serving as President of the FLM, President Rakotonirina had assumed the presidency of the Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar (FFKM) in January 2020. In that position, he had encouraged the government to take greater steps to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus, and urged churchgoers to follow government health directives. The Malagasy Lutheran Church itself had distributed food, medicine, and prevention kits through its hospitals and health centres to various areas of the country.

Dr. Rakotonirina received his Master of Theology degree from the Graduate School of Theology in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar in 1997. He served in congregational ministry from 1997-2006. From 2006-2010, he served as president of the seminary Sekoly Teolojikam-Paritany Loterana Atsimoniavoko, while also pursuing graduate studies through Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana (CTSFW).

President Rakotonirina speaks during the 2018 ILC World Conference in Belgium.

Dr. Rakotonirina became President of the FLM’s Antananarivo Synod in 2012. On September 13, 2016, Dr. Rakotonirina was elected President of the Malagasy Lutheran Church. CTSFW awarded him an honourary doctorate of divinity in May 2018. He was also the recipient of several national awards from the nation of Madagascar.

During Dr. Rakotonirina’s presidency, the FLM pursued greater relationship with confessional Lutherans worldwide. In May 2018, the church voted to pursue altar and pulpit fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Later the same year, the Malagasy Lutheran Church was accepted into full membership of the International Lutheran Council on September 26, 2018, during the ILC’s World Conference meeting in Antwerp, Belgium.

The Malagasy Lutheran Church is one of the largest and fastest growing Lutheran church bodies in the world. The International Lutheran Council, of which the FLM is a member, is a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies and groups which proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the basis of an unconditional commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the inspired and infallible Word of God and to the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord as the true and faithful exposition of the Word of God.

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COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Germany and Nicaragua

WORLD – Lutherans across the world continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with spiritual and physical care. In this post, we highlight the response of member churches of the International Lutheran Council in Germany and Nicaragua.

Germany

Bethlehem Church in Hanover, Germany live-streams the divine service.

Germany has reported 183,564 cases of COVID-19, with 8,605 deaths. The country acted quickly to enact lockdown measures after the disease began to spread, leading to the closure of schools, the closure of national borders, and the imposition of curfews and stay-home orders in various parts of the country. Restrictions were also placed on church gatherings. Recently, some of these pandemic containment measures have begun to be relaxed.

From the beginning of the crisis, Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) has worked hard to provide continued pastoral care to members in unusual circumstances. A special crisis group was struck to provide pastors and congregations guidance and assistance about how to deal with the situation, as well as offering comfort and spiritual guidance. Churches moved quickly to offer services and other programs online, as well as offering services over the phone for older parishioners. Devotional resources for holding home services have also been made available.

“All the things that developed in our congregations with the various online services are a cause for much gratitude,” noted SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt. “How many possibilities are suddenly arising in our congregations which⁠—without this insidious virus⁠—we would likely never have thought of.” Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

The SELK was clear from the beginning the Lord’s Supper could not be consecrated online. Some churches have been able to resume in-church services since May 17, albeit with reduced numbers of parishioners, so pastors are working hard to administer communion to members who have gone without—sometimes conducting two or three services each Sunday in order to accommodate the reduced number of participants allowed to attend each service.

In this time of turmoil, Bishop Voigt encourages Christians to take comfort in the words of Jesus Christ: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“In these days,” Bishop Voigt comments, “may this promise be our strong consolation.”

Nicaragua

The ILSN shares a message for Easter Sunday via social media.

Nicaragua currently reports 370 cases of COVID-19 and 35 deaths. The country has refrained from mandating the social distancing and quarantine measures common in other parts of the world.

The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua – ILSN) reports widespread concerns that there may be more sick than currently verified by testing. In the midst of this unease, the church is offering spiritual support and guidance to people as they are able.

The ILSN took steps early on to keep members and their communities safe, suspending normal church meetings and activities. Large gatherings were suspended, with pastors instead meeting with small groups of people at a time to administer the means of grace. They have also distributed printed devotional material as well as offering services and messages online.

Some programs have had to be suspended for the time being, including the church’s large education program for children. The children’s feeding program, however, continues to be offered by deaconesses and volunteers, as it supports people in some of the poorest parts of the country. The program has been adapted to follow appropriate safety guidelines: rather than gathering children together in church buildings for meals, prepackaged food items are instead being delivered to the houses of impoverished children and families.

“We see how blessed our deaconesses in Nicaragua are in their dedication and service to the poor in their communities,” notes a recent update on the ILSN situation via The Canadian Lutheran magazine. “Their faith has opened their eyes to the needs of the people, and has inspired and led them to find ways to address those needs, even in the face of a daunting pandemic.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Russia and Togo

Participating in Easter worship online, with ELCR General Secretary Pastor Mikhail Ivanov broadcasting from St. Mary Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

WORLD – The member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to reach out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today we highlight the work of ILC member churches in Russia and in Togo.

Russia

Russia now reports 187,859 cases of COVID-19 as well as 1,723 deaths so far. Different areas have enacted quarantines and lockdown procedures, with many citizens ordered to self-isolate, and a do-not-work order runs at least through May 11, 2020.

Rev. Igor Alisov of St. Trinity in Moscow prepares to lead evening devotions online.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria (ELCR) has moved much of its work online during this situation. On a daily basis, several congregations (and two dozen on Sundays) are live-streaming or publishing record videos of worship services, theology classes, Bible studies, confirmation classes, devotions, and more. Each week, Bishop Ivan Laptev and General Secretary Mikhail Ivanv go live online, answering viewers’ questions.

“The Church is exploring a new missions field in the internet,” the church reports. “The Word of God has come to every home. And even secular specialists—through the expertise in internet technologies—are becoming involved in the work of Christ.”

Other ongoing activities include online meetings of youth and the publication of Bible classes for children. The Theological Institute has implemented distance education programs.

The church is also reaching out with practical care as well, providing support for those in need of material assistance who have no other means of support.

“We are longing to meet with one another again, and with Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion,” the church reports. In the meantime, “we continue to pray, praise, and worship together as we joyfully celebrate the Easter season.”

Togo

In Togo, 145 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, as well as 10 deaths. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, several official measures have been taken, with gatherings restricted to 15 people are fewer.

Rev. Remy Lari Lamboni holds a worship service with five members of his parish in Sankpong, Togo.

The Lutheran Church of Togo (Église Luthérienne du Togo – ELT) faces a difficult situation ministering to its members during this crisis. “The coronavirus pandemic has affected our church negatively,” notes President Kolani Lambon Lare. “The public celebration of Holy Communion, Baptism, weddings, conventions, Sunday schools, and church meetings are all stopped.”

In remote areas, some pastors have been permitted to hold small gatherings of five to ten people. During these services, church members are asked to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash with hand sanitizer. Some pastors are also able to provide baptism and holy communion in small family settings.

The church has no website, complicating their outreach to church members. The ELT has turned to WhatsApp to share devotions with members every Wednesday and Sunday. President Lare has also encouraged members to study their Bibles at home, and to pray against the pandemic.

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Ghana and Haiti

ELCG President John Donkoh leads evening devotions online.

WORLD – Lutherans continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the globe. In this report, we focus on the response of ILC member churches in Ghana and Haiti.

Ghana

Ghana has reported 2,719 cases of COVID-19, with 18 deaths. In response to the crisis, the country banned all public gatherings on March 15, including worship services. Several regions have been gone into partial lockdown or quarantine.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana (ELCG) has urged its members to follow all government protocols and remain at home. At the same time, the church is working to identify members at risk because of the lockdowns. “We note that in some communities, the majority of people live from hand to mouth, and cannot stay at home and isolate themselves, because that would bring about their swift starvation,” notes ELCG President John Donkoh. Thanks to support from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the ELCG is rolling out a range of various activities to reach out to the needy and less privileged in their communities.

COVID-19 awareness material shared online from the ELCG’s National Lutheran Youth Executives.

The church is also launching an interactive online program in collaboration with the Lutheran Media Ministry, to keep faith alive for youth, women, compassion children, and their parents. Each Sunday, regional pastors preach in turns live via Facebook, and sermons are translated into local Ghanaian languages where broadcasts are taking place. At the same time, the church encourages its members to also engage in personal study of Scripture, to pray, and to continue studying the Catechism.

The Lutheran Media Ministry Studio in Accra is also assisting with Christ-centered programs to share the good news of Jesus with the whole country. From Maundy Thursday through Easter, the church presented a series of messages on suffering, death, and the resurrection of Christ to the nation via FM radio.

The church is also responding to questions of faith and fear from the general public as well as major media on various theological topics.

“This is a very challenging time, but we don’t lose heart because Jesus has overcome the world,” says ELCG President Donkoh. “The period of lockdown has been uncomfortable for many…. People are grieving that life has not worked out as they had hoped.”

“We seem to be living in a broken world,” he continues. “A world with bad news. COVID-19 is indeed disorganizing our normal life.” And yet, he says, “the Holy Spirit through the blessed Word relieves us from the fear of death, and gives us the power to triumph over this great and final foe. Through the great power of the Gospel—the good news of Jesus’ blessed death for those who are subject to death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead—we are gifted with hope in this world.”

Haiti

The country of Haiti has reported 100 cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths so far. To arrest the spread of the disease, the Haitian government has restricted gatherings of more than 10 people, including at churches.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti (Église Évangélique Luthérienne d’Haiti – ELCH) is reaching out to people during this difficult situation, which is aggravated by recent instability in the region. The church reports that a lack of infrastructure in the nation also creates challenges; a majority of the population, for example, do not have access to electricity.

The ELCH is relying on WhatsApp—a form of communication in widespread use in the country—to distribute messages, sermons, and other information to congregation members. But this is often an imperfect solution, as those without regular access to electricity may not be able to read or hear sermons until several days later.

Visitations are also prohibited in order to prevent the spread of disease, effectively preventing pastors from visiting the sick.

“In this time of distress, we focus on God,” notes ELCH Secretary Thomas Bernard. “As we are battling with this pandemic, God is the only one who can save us with His message of grace and forgiveness. As Christian leaders, we encourage our members to remain faithful in times of suffering because through suffering we may be equipped to comfort others. We know that even in times of suffering, ‘God is still our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble.’”

ELCH President Eliona Bernard sends greetings to Lutherans around the world, encouraging pastors and church leaders: “May our Lord continue to equip and strengthen you all so that you continue to faithfully serve His flocks!”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in the Philippines, Russia, and South Africa

LCP President Antonio Reyes leads Easter worship for residents in the immediate vicinity of the Lutheran Center in Tiaong, Quezon Province, where he and his wife were stranded when the nation-wide quarantine began. The church here has also been distributing rice, milk, and hygienic products.

WORLD – The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect nations around the world, and churches are responding with practical and spiritual care. In this report, we highlight the work of International Lutheran Council (ILC) member churches in the Philippines, Russia, and South Africa.

Philippines

The Philippines has reported 9,485 cases of COVID-19 so far, with 623 deaths. The country entered into quarantine measures on March 15, 2020 in order to combat the spread of the disease, and those measures have been extended at least through May 15. Authorities have called on citizens to refrain from attending mass gatherings and to ensure social distancing.

In response to the spread of COVID-19, the Lutheran Church in the Philippines (LCP) responded immediately, encouraging all members of the church to abide by and respect the government’s directions. Through the church’s website and social media channels, the LCP has published a wide variety of resources to assist church members during this time of crisis. These resources have included the broadcast of worship services online, the publication of written devotionals and sermons, and posting regular prayers and inspirational articles.

Faith Lutheran Church in Batuan City, Philippines, distributes face masks to local residents as part of their practical support during the coronavirus pandemic.

On the local level, pastors and congregations are also reaching out with practical support to the people in their communities. Faith Lutheran Church in Batuan City, for example, has distributed face masks, as well as food supplies, to families in need. Similar distributions of foods and other necessities have taken place in Tiaong, Quezon Province; Patag, Opol, Misamis Oriental; and in Sitio Suapog Barangay Camachile, Bulacan, among other locations.

In a prayer posted on the LCP website, President Antonio Reyes writes the following: “I come to You in behalf of those affected by COVID-19. You are the Great Physician and healer. You have healed people of old and You can do the same today.”

“Protect those serving on the frontline around the world: doctors, nurses, and others in the medical profession,” he continues. “Protect and bless the government representatives. Give wisdom and good health to those working for the antidote of the virus, that they may develop the cure.”

“Lastly, I pray for Your mercy and grace in Jesus, because it is really You who heals our sickness… Help us to be patient… Come, Lord Jesus, save us from this predicament. Amen.”

Russia

Russia reports 145, 268 cases of COVID-19 as well as 1,356 deaths so far. Different regions have enacted quarantines and lockdown procedures, with many citizens ordered to self-isolate.

SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin leads Easter worship in Novosibirsk, Russia.

As late as Easter, the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) noted that its churches were still able to be open, even as they worked diligently to comply with sanitary requirements, doing everything possible to ensure the safety of members.

In an Easter letter to all parishes of the church, SELC Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin asked members to reflect not only on their physical health during the crisis but also on their spiritual health. “After all,” he wrote, “not only temporary health but also eternal life is given to us by a God who has died for us and has risen, for Whom no doors can be an obstacle.”

Noting that the current pandemic meant many parishioners were unable to attend church, Bishop Lytkin encouraged members to remember that the Eucharist will be waiting for them when they are finally able to return to church. “If current circumstances and restrictions keep you from this for the time being, please remember that in the church every service with the Holy Communion is a little Easter. And this is the main joy of Easter: Christ has risen to be with us and not to leave us; therefore, He is always waiting for us at the altar.”

South Africa

South Africa has reported 7,220 cases of COVID-19 and 138 deaths. A national lockdown began on March 26, 2020, with the country entering into a period of gradual easing of restrictions beginning on May 1.

LCSA Bishop S.M.A. Modise Maragelo leads members in a live-streamed service.

From the beginning, the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (LCSA) called on its members to heed government calls for lockdown, with the Office of the Bishop postponing and suspending all church activities.

Like many other churches around the world, the LCSA has embraced a number of various mediums of communication to ensure continued spiritual care for members. This has included recording and live-streaming sermons, as well as sending regular messages to members via the church’s Facebook page.

Individual members and congregations have also reached out to the needy with food parcels where possible.

“It could seem at times as if things were out of control,” acknowledged LCSA Bishop S.M.A. Modise Maragelo. “But things never get beyond the control or the reach of God. Because of the fact that He is in control, we can always look to Him and we can always trust Him.”

“We trust God to give compassion and dedication to medical professionals,” he continued, “and wisdom to researchers as the world faces this pandemic.”

“Fear and panic have been the order of the day,” he said. “Yet there is hope because God is still alive and still in control.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Wittenberg Outreach during COVID-19

GERMANY – Like many churches and organizations around the world, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School (OLS) in Wittenberg has been dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Together we rejoice in the victorious resurrection and gracious reign of our Lord Jesus Christ over all, even as we mourn the suffering worldwide under the pandemic,” writes Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Weber, Managing Director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), in an Easter update. “Lord, have mercy.”

Worship services across Germany have been banned to help curb the spread of the disease, but Dr. Weber continues to reach out to the people of Wittenberg with mp3 sermons. In normal times, the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School provides a place for people to learn, grow, study, meet, retreat, and experience the Gospel in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation.

Like many businesses, the bookstore at the Center was closed for an extended period due to government regulations, and was only able to reopen on April 20. But the hospitality business—including hotels—remains suspended indefinitely, significantly impacting that aspect of the International Lutheran Center’s work.

“We are still very much in shut-down mode here in Luthercity,” Dr. Weber notes. “Things have practically come to a standstill: no tourists, no buses, no ships on the river, no cyclists, the market square deserted, and parking bays available all over.” With tourism suspended, the work of the ILSW in sharing the Reformation witness to the Gospel has been complicated. Several future events scheduled to take place at the Center also remain up in the air.

Dr. Weber encourages Christians everywhere to pray for those affected by COVID-19. “We prayerfully bring before God those suffering and facing hardships due to this pandemic,” he says. “May the Triune God continue to grant healing and salvation as we call on Him in our good Lord Jesus’ name. We pray for a vaccine son. We thank Him for those many people who have been healed and who continue on the way of recovery.”

The International Lutheran Council is part-owner of the ILSW and the International Lutheran Center at the Old Latin School in Wittenberg. For more information on its vital work, visit www.oldlatinschool.org. You can support the ILWS through online giving via the ILC website. Just select “Wittenberg Outreach.”

You can also donate by mail:

International Lutheran Council
P.O. Box 18775
St. Louis, MO 63118

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC Churches in Australia and New Zealand, Sweden, and the USA

LCA Bishop John Henderson records a Holy Week message.

CANADA – Member churches of the International Lutheran Council around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with practical and spiritual care.

Today we highlight the ministry of three member churches in Australia and New Zealand, in Sweden, and in the United States.

Australia and New Zealand

To date Australia has reported 6,645 cases of COVID-19 and 71 deaths, while New Zealand has reported 1,445 cases of COVID-19 and 13 deaths. Like many nations, both Australia and New Zealand have instituted numerous containment measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including border restrictions and a prohibition on gatherings. New Zealand instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

Directions from governments have required the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA), including the Lutheran Church of New Zealand (LCNZ), to suspend weekly worship services and public gatherings. On the local level, individual congregations are providing regular pastoral and spiritual care through recordings of Services of the Word, and care teams make regular phone contact with members.

“This enforced physical isolation seems to be increasing our hunger and drive for our church community,” notes LCA Bishop John Henderson in a letter to the church. “Maybe we are feeling just a little like the first believers in the early church, when they could not get enough of the Gospel.”

The LCA/NZ has published a dedicated COVID-19 Response webpage providing comprehensive information and support for the church, including links to government information and support. The site also has messages from the national bishop, regular news updates, devotional materials, pastoral guidance on matters related to sacramental practice, and Church@Home (a dedicated landing page providing resources to keep faith alive at home, connect with the community, and stay safe during this time of physical isolation). The LCA website and social media also includes additional devotional and prayer resources.

The LCA is further negotiating with community television stations in each state to show regular church services, including specific indigenous services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Lutheran Media continues to share “Messages of Hope” across several radio networks in Australia and New Zealand.

In this time, Bishop Henderson says, “We experience a sense of loss, of sadness, and uncertainty. We can be tempted to clutch at straws and seek comfort elsewhere than trusting in God.” But, he stresses, we must take those cares and concerns to God. “I encourage each of us to take all that to the throne of grace, and let it land at the feet of our Saviour…. You are not alone. You help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Sweden

Sweden has reported 15,322 cases of COVID-19, and 1,765 deaths. The country has closed schools and universities, banned visits to nursing homes, and limited public gatherings to fifty people or less.

Easter service broadcast live from the Mission Province’s Immanuel Parish in Göteborg, Sweden.

The Mission Province (Missionsprovinsen) in Sweden is offering pastoral care in the midst of the pandemic. “It has had a great impact on our daily lives,” says Bishop Bengt Ädahl. “Persons over the age of 70 are recommended not to come to church, and pastors over the age of 70 are recommended not to conduct services.”

Most, but not all, congregations are still holding services. Some congregations are broadcasting services online via social media and YouTube. Pastors are also providing pastoral care through home-visits, where they offer communion to those unable to attend church.

Bishop Ädahl has sent letters to clergy with recommendations about pastoral care as well as a prayer for use during the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, the Mission Province is holding many of its board meetings by conference call and video-calls.

“It is important in this time that the Gospel of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ, is preached to people and that He is worshipped,” said Bishop Ädahl. “It is also important that church members pray at home, and read the Word of God and other good Christian literature. We encourage people to do this in their daily life.”

United States of America

The total number of reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States has risen to 794,347, with 43,115 deaths. Different states have different regulations in effect to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with many limiting the total number of people allowed to participate in public events while others have banned public events altogether.

LCMS President Matthew Harrison provides a word of comfort in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) reports that the coronavirus has had a dramatic impact on its ministry. While the church does not have authority to direct congregations to close, LCMS President Matthew Harrison has encouraged all members to obey the 4th and 5th Commandments.

“I’m very proud of our pastors, church workers, and congregations,” says President Harrison. “Far and away, they have been engaged, working as hard as possible to offer online options to parishioners, offering the Sacrament where possible to many small groups.” While the LCMS has encouraged its congregations as they offer Gospel-outreach in new ways given the situation, President Harrison, the church’s Commission for Theology and Church Relations, and the systematics departments of the LCMS’ two seminaries have all advised against the novel practice of in-home consecration of communion elements while watching online services.

“Pastors are hurting because they can’t be at the deathbed to comfort the faithful, or even have funeral services,” laments President Harrison. “But they know that the Lord Christ most often and most dramatically blesses through the cross. It will be a joyous day when we are back together in church to receive the gifts of Christ.”

The LCMS’ seminaries and universities have all switched to online classes, and staff at the LCMS’ International Centre are working from home. The LCMS has also temporarily pulled many of its mission personnel and their families from world areas.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has made available a wide variety of resources related to the pandemic, including devotional resources for families and individuals, as well as care for pastors and church workers.  Record numbers of members are engaging with the LCMS’ social media accounts and websites. Among other resources, the LCMS is providing daily Bible studies on Facebook.

Almost all resources of the LCMS Office of National Mission have been focused towards the COVID-19 crisis. Mercy agencies are doing important work under very challenging situations, caring for thousands upon thousands. And the church is also partnering with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to provide funding for Soldiers of the Cross, a longstanding program which assists church workers. Requests for that funding have been increasing.

“We also think of and pray for in these days our millions of Lutheran partners and friends around the globe,” notes President Harrison. “Christ is risen!”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Canada, Rwanda, and South Africa

LCC President Timothy Teuscher brings Easter greetings online.

WORLD – As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, member churches of the International Lutheran Council continue to respond with practical and spiritual support. Today, we look at the response of ILC member churches in Canada, Rwanda, and South Africa.

Canada

Canada has reported 35,708 total cases of COVID-19, and 1,618 deaths. Different provinces have set different regulations to curb the spread of the disease, including required quarantine periods for those travelling out of province, closing national borders, and limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public. There is no deadline yet indicated for lifting of these measures.

Lutheran Church–Canada has been proactive in responding to the changing situation, providing guidance for members across the country. In a letter on March 19, LCC recommended all congregations temporarily suspend services and other group events for the time being. The letter highlights four of the Ten Commandments especially applicable to the current crisis: the Fourth, the Fifth, the Second, and the Third Commandments.

“The latter one was the primary challenge facing us,” notes LCC President Timothy Teuscher. It was important, he says, to assist churches in “providing new and various ways for our people to hear God’s Word and so receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which Christ offers and bestows upon us apart from the normal and ordinary Divine Service.” Many congregations are now offering services, sermons, Bible Studies, and more online.

LCC has also gathered a number of resources for pastors and people on the synodical website, which continue to be augmented with new material. They include devotional and congregational resources developed by LCC, along with links to various resources made available by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Concordia Publishing House. Among other materials, LCC has also provided written sermons, and video services and devotions prepared by President Teuscher and LCC’s Mission Executive. These resources are intended to supplement material offered pastors to congregants on the local level.

Lutheran Church–Canada also revamped the latest issue of its national magazine, The Canadian Lutheran, to focus entirely on providing spiritual resources for church members during the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue includes devotional articles, a guide to home devotions, prayers, and links to more resources. Pastors have been encouraged to drop the magazine off at the homes of members, but you can also see the magazine for free online.

Meanwhile, LCC is continuing to find ways to serve its congregations. “Our administrator, office manager, and financial people continue to provide assistance to our congregations and pastors who are or may be experiencing financial hardships,” says President Teuscher. To that end, LCC has revamped its national website to accept online donations for individual congregations, and is providing up-to-date information from the government concerning its wage-subsidy program. Currently LCC continues to be financially able to meet its commitments for international and national missions.

President Teuscher notes that he continues to meet via conference call weekly with the Vice-President, Regional Pastors, the Communications Director, and Executive Staff “to receive updates, information, and above all to pray for and with one another in these uncertain and difficult times.” In particular, he points to this prayerful hymn composed by Martin Rinckart, who served during the famine and epidemic that broke out during the Thirty Years’ War and who wrote these words following the death of his wife:

Now thank we all our God With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.

Oh, may this bounteous God Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts And blessed peace to cheer us
And keep us in His grace And guide us when perplexed
And free us from all ills In this world and the next! – LSB 895:1-2

Rwanda

The country of Rwanda has reported 147 total cases of COVID-19, with no deaths so far. Residents are not allowed to travel between cities, and all but essential workers are required to stay home, except for necessary movements like purchasing food or medicine. These measures have been extended at least until the end of April.

The local LMA-STH pastor in Sovu, Rwanda holds a small Easter celebration in his home.

The Lutheran Mission in Africa–Synod of a Thousand Hills (LMA-STH) is facing severe difficulties as a result of the crisis. The church body is small and very young; its ability to operate is dependent on regular offerings. As people cannot gather in churches at this time, there are no offerings. What is more, many members of the church are poor and are facing economic suffering as a result of work closures. “We have nothing with which to support them,” laments Bishop Selestine Seburikoko.

Pastors are still able to provide limited services to some members, including Bible Studies, but very few are now able to offer Holy Communion. They share messages of hope through phone calls to those members who have phones. They also offer, as they are able, limited sanitary support and food to neighbouring homes.

“Our confident hope is in God, who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead,” says Bishop Seburikoko. He offers us the following passage from Romans 8:28 for our comfort and consolation: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”

South Africa (FELSISA)

At present, the nation of South Africa has reported 3,158 cases of COVID-19. A total of 54 people have died so far. A nationwide lockdown continues in effect at least until the end of April.

Rev. Kurt Schnackenberg, a FELSISA pastor serving St. John’s Lutheran Parish in Shelly Beach, South Africa, preaches online for Easter Sunday.

The lockdown has had a major impact on the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA). “With all gatherings being banned, no church services could be held in a period that included Holy Week, culminating in the Easter celebrations,” notes FELSISA Bishop Deiter Reinstorf. “Realizing that the temporary measures introduced by the president had the sole purpose of stemming the tide of the virus, and was not directed against the church, FELSISA’s leadership suspended all services.”

In the absence of regular services, the pastors of FELSISA have responded by using online media to reach members of their congregations: through livestreamed services and sermons; through video recordings; and through WhapsApp audio recordings. “The joyful realization soon dawned that this was a divine opportunity to reach far more people than before,” says Bishop Reinstorf. “Recordings are being forwarded to friends and family members who do not always gather in church, and we hope that the comforting message of the Gospel might lead to greater church attendance after the lockdown.”

Economic challenges arising from the lockdown threaten both individual members and smaller churches. “Despite the call to show generosity in difficult times and to continue with joyful thanksgiving by electronic fund transfers, the continued existence of some smaller congregations is threatened, as the future—in particular for small business owners—is bleak,” notes Bishop Reinstorf. In order to assist poorer communities, the FELSISA has introduced a “Solidarity Fund” in support of struggling congregations.

“This is a time to have faith, and for the Church of Christ to be a light to the world,” encourages Bishop Reinstorf. “This can only happen through the Word of God and His Spirit. We therefore humble ourselves before God, acknowledge our dependency on Him, call for mercy, rejoice in our salvation in Jesus Christ, and pray that God may use even the COVID-19 pandemic to our benefit to the salvation of mankind.”

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For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

Essay: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitization of the Church

NOTE: Since the writing of the article there has been some developments locally in Siberia. When writing about possible suspension of the regular worship services, I thought about it as a theoretical possibility, based on what was happening elsewhere. Well, now it is a reality for Siberian Lutherans also. The governor of the Novosibirsk region has issued an order to stop all religious gatherings beginning from Saturday, April 18. The last service with the Lord’s Supper was conducted in St Andrew’s parish in Novosibirsk on Friday evening, April 17. Siberian Lutherans are very fortunate as compared to the Russian Orthodox in that they were able to celebrate Easter service in an almost normal mode in most of the parishes of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC); Eastern Orthodox Easter is one week later this year. As it stands now, no laypeople may enter the church buildings and take part in any religious ceremonies. Of course, as Lutherans, we can’t conduct the Eucharist with no laypeople present. Mass is not a sacrifice, it is about eating and drinking. So what shall we do now? Local pastors including those who are Seminary instructors would divide the area of larger Novosibirsk into parts based on where they are located, and so they will visit parishioners in their homes and serve Holy Communion to them as they are able. Siberian Lutherans are determined to do their best not to leave their people without spiritual care. ~AS

This is a document which was prepared for the Russian speaking Lutheran context in view of the questions the people of the Church had related to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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COVID-19 Pandemic and the Digitalization of the Church

by Alexey Streltsov

Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov

In 2020 A.D., the Church of God throughout all the world encountered a special trial that especially fell in the time of Lent, and now it looks like it will continue also through the Easter season, and perhaps beyond.

The rapidly growing threat of a dangerous viral contagion (or a declaration of such threat) has put the usual conduct of regular church services in jeopardy. These problems may have to do either with specific parish circumstances (like the temporary termination of rent in the case of our Moscow SELC parish), or with regional regulations of the authorities (for example, in St. Petersburg, where SELC does not have any parishes, but where all gatherings of people are now prohibited).

Practically every day brings additional news. We do not know what will happen tomorrow. In this context, the churches are likely to react ad hoc by making decisions spontaneously, or at least without serious preliminary reflection.

The main question that confronts the churches at the present time is the following: What do we do in the case that it’s no longer possible to conduct services, or if most people can’t get to them because of unforeseen circumstances even if the services do continue?

In many cases, a workaround has been implemented by means of a temporary transfer of services to a digital format.

A few people are trying to conduct sacraments over the Internet. Such cases have become widely discussed and, as a rule, are getting a very negative reaction. Such cases, when people attempt to conduct Baptism and the Lord’s Supper over the Internet, are rare and extreme.

The more typical situation looks like this: a minister conducts a service (without Holy Communion) on the church premises. He can be alone in the church, or accompanied by one or several assistants. Whatever happens at the altar is recorded on a camcorder, and is instantly displayed online via social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, or Vkontakte. It might be that there are a few other people in the church besides the liturgist, but it’s not that relevant here.

Parishioners are invited to participate in the services right from their homes by connecting to the live broadcast. In some cases, it is impossible to view a service online due to technical problems or some other reasons. In such cases, parishioners may watch it at some other time by clicking a link.

Are such decisions concerning the temporary “digitization” of the Church correct? It depends on how one understands the Church herself, that is, what the Church actually is. According to the universally recognized definition of the Church among Lutherans, which is given in the 7th Article of the Augsburg Confession, the Church is the gathering of the faithful, among whom the Word of God is preached purely and the Holy Sacraments are distributed rightly, according to the ordinances of God’s Word. This gathering happens in a specific location where people are physically present in one and the same place. The early Church, both in the New Testament and in the texts of the earliest Church authors, habitually used the language of gathering “for the same” or for the “common-union” ( ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸepi to auto in Greek), which meant gathering for the Divine Service.

According to traditional ecclesiastical understanding and theology, characterized first and foremost by faith in God incarnate, the created things do matter. Body, things bodily, things fleshy do matter. Specific place matters.

At all times, God has acted salvifically through specific people, specific circumstances, and specific places. Before the Incarnation, the special place of God’s presence was Israel, and within Israel: Jerusalem, and then the Temple, within which there was the Holy place, and, finally, the Holy of Holies, where as it was proclaimed in divine revelation that Yahweh (the Lord) was present between the horns of the altar.

Now, there is no single place in the geographical sense for the faithful to receive the grace of God. Nevertheless, in every case, it is a particular and concrete place, that is, that place where the Word is pronounced and the Sacraments are distributed. This is what the priests of the church speak and do. There are specific places in Novosibirsk and Tuim, Novokuznetsk and Chita, and so forth, to speak of SELC parishes. In each of those places, there is a pulpit and an altar. And in each case, one and the same Church is gathered. The Church, which is one, is present in this place in her fullness, although there are different individuals within each gathering. This fullness, this completeness, this catholicity of the Church is due to the complete presence of Christ, whom the priest proclaims in preaching, and whom he administers in Holy Communion.

So, what happens during an attempt to transfer Church and the church gathering to a digital mode? At a minimum, there is a loss of significance of particularity of place in people’s perception, a loss of the concreteness of liturgical space, and a detriment of understanding by the faithful of the way of God’s presence in the world.

From the earliest times, the Church fought Gnostic influences in her midst, that is, those attempts at “spiritualization” of the Christian faith. In the early Church, Gnostics and Manichaeans claimed the presence of a “divine spark” within them that made services unnecessary. Gnostics ridiculed the Eucharist. In the early Medieval times, there were influences of Neoplatonism, in which a man was invited to ascend to God in his soul, instead of meeting Him in the means of salvation as the incarnate God who came to earth and bound Himself to His presence in particular places for the salvation of the people—although God, by nature, is omnipresent, and not subject to spatial limitations. Another danger of this spiritualization at the time was represented by the excesses of monastic asceticism. The monks fled to the desert in order to gain a special insight, and to sense the divine presence in their lives by way of strict spiritual discipline.

The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli proposed spiritualization at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Bodily things were of little importance for Zwingli: “The flesh is of no help at all,” he said, and God is spirit, and He acts as He wills and where He wills. This was understood by the Zwinglians as an action detached from the physical realm. In this case, any possible connection between the heavenly and the earthly is no more than the association between reality and symbolic representation of this reality, which is inherently conditional according to Zwingli. In other words, the heavenly things can happen in the absence of any earthly representation, while the earthly things have no inherent significance. “The flesh is of no help at all.” Martin Luther considered this “spiritualistic” teaching of Zwingli to be the fruit of the devil.

Today’s temptation comes from the world of digital technology.

When we disrupt liturgical space, when we deprive specific sacred place of its sacred nature, when we try to represent the Divine Service as a kind of theater or circus, or as a function that can be reduced to the sound vibrations of the air, or to a footage sequence, we consciously or unconsciously change our perception of what the Church is.

Modern digital technologies are a great blessing that the Church has at her disposal. Radio and TV programs, films, TV Channels, multiple resources on the Internet—all those are an aid in the work of the Church’s evangelism in the wide sense.

The question, however, is whether it is done along with the traditional service, or instead of the traditional service. This is a very important question.

If it is impossible to conduct a service, then it can’t be done. One cannot perform something instead of a common liturgy and just call it “liturgy” anyway. If at least “two or three” cannot gather in one place, then Christ cannot be there in the sense in which He promised to be present in a Eucharistic gathering.

Therefore, in this case, one cannot pretend that everything is (almost like) normal, and that it is possible by a slight adjustment to conduct services in a digital mode as though everything were just fine.

A digital service becomes a surrogate of the church service. A danger of such Internet services is that people would come up with a valid question: “Was it a viable option after all?” And if it were a fine opportunity to pursue, what would prevent anyone from to continuing to do it in the future?

A number of areas of human activity are already being transferred, or will be transferred, whether fully or partially, into a digital mode. Perhaps, the COVID-19 situation will serve as a trigger for these further changes. The Church, however, cannot be subject to digitization due to her non-digital nature.

The ancient Pythagoreans thought that the whole world could be reduced to numbers, and described by numbers. Modern proponents of the Internet-church suppose that in the absence of traditional services, one could, in principle, get by with some online broadcasting. The danger here is that such actions would throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case, the baby being the bodily, creaturely dimension of the Church.

When there are no church services in the Church, it is an egregious thing. This is a crisis (the Greek word “crisis” means judgment). It is not just a minor warning sign, it is a loud bell calling us to repentance and to correction of our lives. The meaning of Lent is to show us that we won’t survive without God. God forbid us from being spiritually complacent! Rather, being bereft of an opportunity to attend regular church services, let us experience true spiritual hunger for the Divine Service, for the gathering of faithful brothers and sisters, where we might have a living connection with God through the gifts that God himself has appointed for usage in a particular place. God grant us to forsake false spiritual satiety and any sense that God owes something to us, and that the Church owes something to us!

As a faithful bride to her Lord, the Church acts according to her calling. She can’t simply stop being the Church. She can’t act in an unchurchly way. That would be an obvious contradiction, an impossibility.

God, however, promised not to leave His faithful. Even in the absence (temporary absence!) of church services, He will not leave the faithful!

If it is permitted for you to move about, get in touch with your priest and request communion to be administered to you. He will come. You will get Word and Sacrament in a home-service format.

If, for whatever reason, that is not possible, there will always be the prescribed readings according to the Church’s calendar, as well as home prayers.

You could ask the priest to send a text of a sermon. The reading of such a sermon (whether privately, or read aloud by the head of the household) would be instructive for the soul.

If you are currently conducting readings of Scripture and joint prayers in the family setting, then you may keep on doing the same, perhaps, with some additions in view of the absence of the main services. If not, now is the time to learn such spiritual discipline and prayer practice!

This time of quarantine, this time of external limitations, may continue for a while. Perhaps, it will last longer than we hoped for. However, it will not last forever. And at first opportunity, the doors of the Church will be opened once again, and the priests will conduct services just as they were doing before!

Fr. Alexey Streltsov
Judica, 2020.

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Rev. Dr. Alexey Streltsov is Rector of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Sibera (Russia), a theological institute of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). An earlier version of this essay was first published on Gottesdienst, where it is also available in Russian.

For more news and information from the International Lutheran Council about the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.