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!”

———————

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

COVID-19 and ILC churches in Chile, Japan, and the United States

Pastors, vicars, and seminarians of the the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile are offering a daily devotional study online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WORLD – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact people across the globe, member churches of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) are stepping forward to provide physical and spiritual care to the people in their nations.

The ILC is launching a new series to highlight the response of our churches to COVID-19. Despite challenges, the proclamation of the Gospel continues. Despite difficulties, the needy are still provided for in body and soul. Please, remember the churches of the International Lutheran Council in prayer as they minister to their flocks around the world.

In this first post, we consider the response of three member church bodies in Chile, Japan, and the United States.

Chile

The first case of COVID-19 in Chile was reported on March 1, 2020. Since then, the country has reported nearly 8,000 cases of COVID-19, with 92 deaths. In response to the crisis, the government has closed borders and imposed quarantines or lockdowns on several regions.

As the situation began to unfold, the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile—Iglesia Luterana Confesional de Chile (ILC-Chile)—moved to offer devotional resources online. The church offers daily devotional videos to “assist our members with the comfort of the Holy Word,” notes ILC-Chile Bishop Omar Kinas. The series features pastors, vicars, and seminary students, as a way of involving all members in the church response. The church is also offering group Bible Studies and live-streams of the Divine Service of the Word online, as well as sending activities for children.

“We understand that this is not the ideal way,” Bishop Kinas says of the online outreach. “However, we have taken advantage of technology in order to continue proclaiming the Holy Gospel.” Pastors also continue to offer private communion to members while following necessary safeguards and social-distancing measures.

The church is ministering to others in physical ways too. Donations through the churches’ Mercy Boxes have helped the CLCC to provide material support to those who have lost their jobs or are unable to leave their homes for work.

Local health authorities were also invited to use the chapel office in Cerror la Cruz, Valparaiso for a flu vaccination campaign to protect the elderly. And the local pastor’s wife, Jessica, has made and donated hundreds of masks to protect people during the pandemic.

“Although this pandemic has brought several changes and challenges, it is undoubtedly a great opportunity for our church to share with others the Crucified and Risen One, who has carried all our illnesses and bought us everlasting life,” notes Bishop Kinas. “We pray for the whole Church of Christ, that we may set our sights on the one has already destroyed the evil one, sin, and death, and has given us eternal salvation.”

Japan

Good Friday service at St. Paul Lutheran in Asahikawa, Japan.

Japan has reported more than 7,600 cases of COVID-19 and 143 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The country declared a month-long state of emergency on April 7 for Tokyo and six other prefectures.

The emergency has forced the Japan Lutheran Church (JLC) to find alternate means of reaching its members. “Due to the declaration of a state of emergency, many churches have cancelled all gatherings, including Sunday worship,” notes JLC President Shin Shimizu. “However, some churches are distributing written sermons and handouts to church members regularly. Others are posting worship services on their websites.”

The situation is a challenge, President Shimizu explains, but we find comfort in the words of Scripture. He quotes from 2 Chronicles 7:14—“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

United States of America

The United States has recorded more than 600,000 cases of COVID-19 so far, with more than 25,000 deaths. The country has closed borders, while different states have imposed different measures, including shelter-in-place orders and quarantines.

The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) reports that nearly every aspect of their ministry has been affected by the pandemics. “We have adapted our routines to tend to the sheep of Jesus Christ and do the work of an evangelist based on national, state, and local regulations,” says AALC President Pastor Curtis Leins.

AALC Pastor Jamie Strickler leads worship on Easter Sunday at a Drive-In Service at St. Timothy Lutheran in Charlestone, West Virginia.

He notes that some pastors live in jurisdictions that allow for “drive-in” services, with pastors leading worship and preaching to parishioners in their cars, with the help of sound systems. Many pastors are also recording worship services (either the full liturgy or scaled-down orders of worship) which are then shared online. Some are leading Bible studies through live-streaming, pre-recorded messages, podcats, video-blogs, and virtual classrooms.

“This is not to say that this time is free of frustration for our pastors,” President Pastor Leins explains. In particular, he says, “it is difficult and sometimes impossible to offer pastoral care to the dying and to those who mourn in these times of extreme limits.”

“We have continued to remind our pastors that the virtual experience is no substitute for direct pastoral contact, such as a phone call or a visit with proper precautions,” President Pastor Leins continues. The church has also issued a letter to its ministerium discouraging virtual celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.

The AALC published an electronic copy of its national periodical, The Evangel, before Holy Week to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic while also offering the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

In addition to spiritual support, local churches are offering practical care where possible as well. One congregation, for example, has lent its church van to transport meals for home-bound school children.

———————

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

The AALC seeks fellowship with German, Norwegian Lutherans

Participants in the AALC-SELK fellowship talks.

FORT WAYNE, Indiana – The American Association of Lutheran Churches (AALC) recently held talks with representatives of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche – SELK) on October 10-11, 2017 to discuss entering into altar and pulpit fellowship, as well as to consider potential opportunities for partnership.

Representing the SELK at the meetings were Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt and Rev. Dr. Werner Klän. Representing the AALC were Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins, Rev. Richard Shields, and Rev. Joseph Dapelo.

The meetings began the morning of October 10 on the campus of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the AALC has its national headquarters. Presiding Pastor Curtis Leins of the AALC led opening devotions. Discussions the first day focused on confessional basis and ecclesial identity, as well as the doctrines of Holy Scripture, God, sin, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, justification and sanctification, the Church, and the office of the Holy Ministry, with general agreement on the issues discussed.

Leading the SELK’s delegation was Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a growing association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide. Both SELK and the AALC are member churches of the ILC. The second day of meetings between SELK and the AALC began with devotions led by Bishop Voigt, followed by discussions on the sacraments, worship, ethics, and eschatology, with the two sides finding consensus in these areas.

Each group plans to encourage their respective church bodies to vote on entering into fellowship at coming conventions (SELK at their pastoral convention in November 2017 and the AALC at their general convention in June 2018).

Participants in the AALC-LKN fellowship talks.

Earlier in 2017, the AALC also entered into fellowship talks with Lutheran Church in Norway (Den Lutherske Kirke i Norge – LKN). March saw talks between the AALC’s President Pastor Leins, Rev. Dapelo, and Rev. Jordan Cooper and the LKN’s Bishop Torkild Msavie and Rev. Eirik-Kornelius Garnes-Lunde. On the basis of those talks, the LKN decided to enter into fellowship with the AALC. The AALC will bring the matter forward for a vote at the AALC’s general convention in June 2018. The LKN, like SELK and the AALC, is a member church of the International Lutheran Council.

———————

Eastern European Lutheran bishops meet in Ukraine

Caption: Back: Bishop Alexander Yurchenko (SELCU), Vice President Oleg Schewtschenko (SELCU), Rev. Daniel S. Johnson (LCMS-SELC), Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis (LELB), Rev. Olav Panchu (ELCIR), Valera Partizan (DELKU). Front: President Matthew C. Harrison (LCMS), Bishop Serge Maschewski (DELKU), Rev. Dr. Albert Collver (LCMS), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Rev. Andris Kraulin (ELCL), Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin (SELC).

UKRAINE – The heads of several Lutheran churches in the former Soviet Union recently met together in Ukraine for the Eastern European Bishops Conference, along with the heads of their North American partner churches.

The conference, held in Odessa in late February, was hosted by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (DELKU) and its Bishop Sergey Maschewski. DELKU, long associated with the state (territorial) Lutheran churches of Germany, has in recent years begun aligning itself with more conservative bodies like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC). In addition to the presidents of LCC and LCMS, DELKU also hosted the bishops (or their representatives) from several other Lutheran church bodies in eastern Europe, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (LELB), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania (ELCL), the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine (SELCU), and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC). The conference also welcomed a number of ecumenical guests.

Ecumenical guests at the Eastern European Lutheran Bishops Conference. (Photo: Facebook page of the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul).

During the conference, the bishops reported on their respective churches and the challenges they face. A number of these churches have to do their work over long distances: SELC, for example, is stretched out over a vast territory spanning 7,000 kilometers. DELKU, as another example, struggles with a severe clergy shortage, currently operating 28 congregations with only nine pastors. Many of these congregations are distant from the nearest neighbouring pastor or parish.

The bishops also discussed opportunities for future cooperation between their churches. “United by much of our common history and—what is of more relevance today—by similar theological outlook, we felt that there was a need for closer cooperation in the future,” explained Rev. Alexey Strelstov, rector of the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church’s seminary in Novosibirsk, Russia. Rev. Strelstov presented on education in a confessional Lutheran context on the final day of the conference.

Part of that future cooperation may well take place on theological education. One evening of the conference, the Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine invited participants to visit their seminary in Usatovo, a suburb of Odessa. Representatives of the Siberian church expressed interest in forging closer ties with SELCU on seminary education. There were discussions on assisting the Ukrainian seminary in procuring more Russian-language theological books for its library, as well as the possibility of SELC seminary professors coming to teach short-term courses in Usatovo. “The interaction between these Russian speakers, all keenly interested in the faithful biblical training of pastors, was a real joy to watch,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee. LCC has long-supported SELCU’s seminary education program.

Morning and afternoon devotions at the bishops’ conference were held in DELKU’s Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of the Apostle Paul in downtown Odessa, restored in recent years after having been destroyed by the Soviet regime decades ago. “Although this church was rebuilt on a somewhat smaller scale, it once seated 1,200 worshippers and was the centre for spiritual life of the entire German community before the communist repression,” noted LCC President Bugbee. Lutheran churches were severely persecuted during the soviet era.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church are both members of the International Lutheran Council, as are Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Ukraine is a partner church of LCC, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania are partner churches of the LCMS. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine, meanwhile, has been seeking closer relations to the LCMS in recent years.

———————

American Lutherans respond to Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage

USA – On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled that same-sex couples across the nation have a constitutional right to marry. That ruling brought expressions of concern from Christians throughout the country, including from confessional Lutheran leaders.

LCMS President Matthew Harrison responds to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
LCMS President Matthew Harrison responds to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

“Five justices cannot determine natural or divine law,” said President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in a response to the ruling. “Now shall come the time of testing for Christians faithful to the Scriptures and the divine institution of marriage.”

“The ramifications of this decision are seismic,” he continued. “Proponents will seek to drive Christians and Christian institutions out of education at all levels; they will press laws to force faithful Christian institutions and individuals to violate consciences in work practices and myriad other ways…. Christians will now begin to learn what it means to be in a state of solemn conscientious objection against the state. We will resist its imposition of falsehood upon us, even as we continue to reach out to those who continue to be harmed by the ethic of radical sexual freedom, detached from God’s blessing of marriage. And we will stand shoulder to shoulder with Christians, churches and people of good will who are resolute on this issue.”

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a member church of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), and counts more than 2.3 million members in more than 6,100 congregations. Other American member churches of the ILC include The American Association of Lutheran Churches (14,000 members) and the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod – USA. While these churches have not released public statements on the recent court ruling, both have previously affirmed their support of the biblical definition of marriage.

Other Lutherans Respond

A number of Lutheran churches outside the ILC also responded to the court ruling with concern. Bishop John F. Bradosky and General Secretary Mark C. Chavez of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) released an open letter responding to the decision. “The Supreme Court may have the power to dictate what state governments must claim to be marriage,” they write, “but it most certainly does not have the power to change what God has revealed to be true marriage, an integral part of His plan for human life which is inherent in the order of the world He has created.”

“God alone knows the long-term consequences of the decision for our nation,” they continue. “Now Christians who uphold the orthodox Christian faith and confess that God alone defines marriage must be bold to confess the truth of God’s Word without regard to the consequences.”

The NALC, comprised mostly of pastors and congregations who left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada over issues of human sexuality, biblical authority, and the nature of the Gospel, has more than 140,000 members across North America. Over the past number of years, NALC has taken part in regular dialogues with ILC member churches Lutheran Church–Canada and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Also responding to the court ruling were the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. “We are saddened that today the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling all 50 states to allow same sex marriage,” wrote President Mark Schroeder of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). “Of course, even though the highest court in the land has changed the legal definition of marriage, it has not succeeded in changing the essence of the institution that was created by God and given by him as a gift and blessing.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) released a statement on the situation via Facebook. “God has established his own criteria for what determines marriage—the intimate and lifelong union of a man and woman into one flesh, entered into by mutual consent and promise,” the release notes. “His institution of marriage is for the great benefit of our families and of our nation. No human authority—even the highest court of our land—can overthrow what the Supreme Judge of all mankind has defined as marriage.”

The WELS and the ELS are members of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference. WELS has approximately 380 thousand members, while the ELS has approximately 20 thousand. In recent years, they and the LCMS have conducted a series of informal discussions together.

———————

Discussions continue between NALC, LCMS, and LCC

NALC Executive Director Rev. Mark Chavez (NALC), Rev. Larry Vogel (LCMS), Bishop John Bradosky (NALC), Dr. David Wendel (NALC), Dr. James Nestingen (NALC), President Matthew Harrison (LCMS), First Vice-President Herbert Mueller (LCMS), Dr. Joel Lehenbauer (LCMS), Professor John Pless (LCMS), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Dr. Robert Benne (NALC).
NALC Executive Director Rev. Mark Chavez (NALC), Rev. Larry Vogel (LCMS), Bishop John Bradosky (NALC), Dr. David Wendel (NALC), Dr. James Nestingen (NALC), President Matthew Harrison (LCMS), First Vice-President Herbert Mueller (LCMS), Dr. Joel Lehenbauer (LCMS), Professor John Pless (LCMS), President Robert Bugbee (LCC), Dr. Robert Benne (NALC).

ST. LOUIS, Missouri – From December 16-17, representatives of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) met for their latest round of semi-annual discussions. The meetings were held at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and had as its theme “The Church in the Public Square.” Rev. Dr. Robert Benne of Roanoke College, a NALC theologian, served as guest lecturer for the event.

The participating churches reported on events since the last meeting in May 2013. “The relationships within this group are brotherly and cordial,” noted LCC President Robert Bugbee, “though we all recognize that we still have serious homework to do on matters where we are not in agreement.”

Since a number of the NALC participants had not visited Concordia Seminary before, its president, Rev. Dr. Dale Meyer, hosted a morning tour on the first day of meetings. President Bugbee served as chapel preacher for the seminary community that day, with a sermon entitled “The Coming Lord Kindles Patience” (based on James 5:7-11). Participants in the inter-Lutheran discussions also received an update during the meeting on a theological volume being prepared by LCMS and NALC theologians on Law and Gospel, a project coordinated by Rev Dr. James Nestingen (NALC) and Rev. Prof. John Pless (LCMS).

The NALC, comprised mostly of pastors and congregations who left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) over issues of human sexuality, biblical authority, and the nature of the Gospel, has now grown to some 140,000 members in 340 local congregations.

The first official discussion between LCMS and LCC—both members of the International Lutheran Council—and NALC began in December 2011. The next round of discussions is set for June 24-25, 2014 and will take place at LCC’s synodical headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

———————