By Jeni Miller
As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches in 2017, those involved with The Wittenberg Project are moving steadily toward completion of this venue for Lutheran education and platform for Gospel proclamation in Wittenberg, Germany — the birthplace of the Reformation.
The project is being developed by the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW, a German nonprofit corporation owned by the LCMS), Concordia Publishing House and the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK, an LCMS partner church in Germany). Its purpose is to renovate Wittenberg’s Old Latin School, which celebrates its 450th birthday this year, for use as a ministry center.
The Rev. David Mahsman, LCMS missionary in Germany and managing director of the ILSW, believes that The Wittenberg Project will open doors for evangelism and the education of unchurched people in Wittenberg, as well as provide a distinctly Lutheran gathering place for those in the church.
“The goal of The Wittenberg Project is to honor our Lutheran heritage as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by nurturing and strengthening the faith of Christians and introducing the Christian faith to non-Christians,” according to the project’s business plan. “Through development of a Christian education and outreach center in the very birthplace of the Reformation, we will attract students and visitors, promote confessional-Lutheran theology, and open doors to Gospel outreach and works of mercy.”
“What can be more exciting and worthwhile than helping to deepen the faith of Christians and introducing the faith to non-Christians — and doing it in the very place used by God to restore the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ to the church and to the world 500 years ago?” Mahsman asked.
With 2017 fast approaching, ILSW leaders say the timing couldn’t be better, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity couldn’t be rarer for involvement in a project of this size and scope.
And then there’s the location.
“This Old Latin School is situated right next door to St. Mary’s [Church], where Luther preached more than 2,000 sermons, and close to the Castle Church, where he nailed the 95 Theses,” said Bob Claus, an advisory member of the ILSW. “Between 2015 and 2017, hundreds of thousands of visitors will come through Wittenberg, and a logical place for them to start their exploration will be the renovated Old Latin School.”
With collaboration and fellowship opportunities with LCMS partner churches on the rise, ILSW leaders say The Wittenberg Project also provides a way for the LCMS to work with the SELK and other partner churches around the world to make Gospel proclamation and catechesis a priority.
Recently the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, director of LCMS Church Relations, discovered an article in a large German newspaper detailing why 95 percent of German people have stopped attending church. The reason? Because the state church stopped preaching the Gospel.
“This is an opportunity to be a Gospel beacon during the big celebration in Germany celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017,” said the Rev. David Bueltmann, president emeritus of the LCMS Central Illinois District and ILSW advisory member. “Germany has actually been celebrating the Luther Decade since 2007. It is interesting that the Germans are very proud of Martin Luther for many reasons, but that does not include his theology. He did much for the German people, among them are education and the German language, but we want to help them understand the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. What better way to introduce the Good News than to be a part of the celebration so they can hear the rest of the story about Martin Luther.”
“Lutherans in the U.S. should care that a record low number of people regularly hear the Gospel in Wittenberg,” said LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison. “We ought to care that there is not a conservative Lutheran option for Christians in Wittenberg — and we are planting a congregation there. We ought to care that the true faith was rediscovered by Luther in Wittenberg, our catechism was written there, Luther preached several thousand sermons there, and now for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we will be there confessing the very same faith — not watered down, not post-modernized, not deconstructed — that Luther himself believed and confessed: Christ the God-man, for all.”
Ready to renovate
“The Wittenberg Project is renovating the Old Latin School for the purpose of providing a place for confessional Lutheran education in the heart of the home of the Reformation,” explained the Rev. Michael Kumm, chairman of the ILSW Supervisory Board. “The building will provide sleeping rooms and lecture/meeting space for college and university students, seminary students and pastors and laymen from around the world to come and study our Lutheran heritage and confession. We are working with the Concordia University System to set up a curriculum for ‘J-terms’ and other opportunities for students to come to Wittenberg to study.”
Demolition started in fall 2013 in preparation for reconstruction of the historic building that will house project programs.
The ILSW board met in Wittenberg in January 2014 with interested mission partners and donors and the project engineers, architect and archeologists who have worked on the project, to make decisions on the renovation and enter into a management agreement with the director of a neighboring entity, Colleg Wittenberg.
“We are progressing on all fronts,” Mahsman said. “We are at work on the building, which will be our ministry center, and we are working on the program and on attracting students to Wittenberg, as well as on ideas for Gospel outreach in a very difficult mission field. Many walls, floors and ceilings have been torn out, the roof has been removed, and work has begun on the ‘shell’ construction, that is, the ‘skeleton’ of the building. Just as the fund drive begins in earnest, so will the renovation of our 450-year-old building.”
Following renovation, the estimated completion and opening of the center is anticipated in May 2015. The project’s timeline allows the building to be established and open in advance of the arrival of the many visitors the city anticipates in connection with the 2017 Reformation anniversary.
LCMS members invited
“I’ve watched a number of capital projects and campaigns incubate in my career,” said Mark Hofman, executive director of LCMS Mission Advancement. “This is a good one. The underlying business plan for the Old Latin School creates sustainable opportunities to reach people with the Gospel that are aligned with the mission, vision and values of the LCMS.”
The campaign to support the Old Latin School renovation will “go public” on May 1, according to Hofman. LCMS congregations, schools and households will be invited to participate in the project through charitable gifts and offerings. “We will also be announcing opportunities to have gifts matched, as well as to associate gifts of various amounts with components of the renovation itself through a naming-rights plan. And because of the generous support of pace-setting donors thus far, we are well on our way to funding the project entirely with gifts designated for The Wittenberg Project.”
“This is a great project because it will be supported by the generous gifts of God’s people,” Bueltmann said. “It is not being funded by Synod’s annual operating budget or with regular offerings to missions, but by people who see the need for such an outreach center in this key area where the Reformation started.”
“God opened a remarkable door,” Harrison said. “We had to walk through. On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we have the best real estate in the world to proclaim the Christ of the Scriptures and the truth of the Lutheran Confessions. We are so busy with inquiries from potential partner church bodies around the world, and with mission opportunities, that we can’t keep up. Every Lutheran pastor and leader in the world has a heart for Wittenberg. We have a place — self supporting — to gather and inspire Lutherans from around the world, as well as our own young people, the pastors and people of the LCMS and anyone who wants to grow in the faith and be energized for the mission of sharing Christ and expanding the Lutheran church.”
For more information on The Wittenberg Project, visit thewittenbergproject.org.
Deaconess Jeni Miller is a freelance writer and member of The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
Posted March 31, 2014