Commentary: LCMS ministry to and with Asians – then, now and ahead

This month’s commentary about LCMS ministry to and with Asians coincides with Congress’ 1990 designation of May as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month” and marks the 100th anniversary year of the Synod’s starting work in China. — Ed.


 By John Mehl

One hundred years ago — on Feb. 25, 1913 — the Rev. Edward Arndt and his family stepped off a boat in Shanghai, China, and then traveled up the Yangtze River to Hankow, where the hub of LCMS work there was established. The China Mission Society initially supported Arndt’s work until the Missouri Synod officially made the work in China her second “foreign mission abroad” (non-German speaking) mission field in 1917. Such work started for the LCMS when missionaries entered India in 1895

While the Synod was involved in mission activity in Europe and Latin America before World War II, the majority of her “foreign mission abroad” work was initially focused in India, China and Nigeria. After that war — between 1946 and 1958 — there was a flurry of new foreign mission work, with much of it being focused in Asia.

Student families at Texas A&M University show the pumpkins they carved during a 2012 fall harvest party at University Lutheran Chapel. The mix of students there is indicative of the growing number of Asian students at U.S. institutions of higher learning. (Paul Hoemann)

Student families at Texas A&M University show the pumpkins they carved during a 2012 fall harvest party at University Lutheran Chapel. The mix of students there is indicative of the growing number of Asian students at U.S. institutions of higher learning. (Paul Hoemann)

Mission efforts begun in these years have resulted in LCMS partner churches including the Taiwan-based China Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Lutheran Church—Hong Kong Synod, the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Japan Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in Korea, the Gutnius Lutheran Church (Papua New Guinea), the Lutheran Church in the Philippines and the Lanka Lutheran Church (Sri Lanka).

The LCMS has always been mindful of God’s mission for all people, both foreign and domestic. True Light Lutheran Church in New York City was established in 1936 as the first Chinese Lutheran Church in America. There are now some 116 worship services, Sunday schools or Bible classes reported among congregations and mission starts in the LCMS that worship in an array of Asian languages.

Why is Asia important for the LCMS? More than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in Asia, but only about 225 million (some 6 percent) are Christians, and this number includes the 82 million Christians in the Philippines. According to a 2012 Pew Forum report, 73 percent of Americans claim to be Christian. That means that there are about the same number of Christians in a country of 300 million as there are among the 3.5 billion people in Asia.

Since 2008, the number of Asians who have come to the U.S. as immigrants has outpaced any other group (including Hispanics). And the number of Asian students at U.S. institutions of higher learning continues to grow, with statistics for the 2011-12 academic year indicating that of the total 764,495 international students in the country, 489,970 were from Asia (including 194,029 from China).

We all have a role in God’s mission. Luther said that Jesus makes Christians priests when people are “incorporated in Him by Baptism through faith, then each one, according to his calling and position, obtains the right and power of teaching and confessing before others this Word which we have obtained from Him.”

Even though not everyone has the public office and call to be a pastor, every Christian can and should proclaim God’s Word at every opportunity. While in the U.S. we have hundreds of thousands of Christians who can proclaim their faith in Jesus, we need to remain mindful of the love that Jesus has for Asian people. There are literally billions that need to hear the Good News of Jesus.

From the very beginning, LCMS mission efforts in Asia have focused on spiritual and physical needs — but always with an eye on developing church bodies that can sustain ministry and outreach from generation to generation. This continues to mean that the LCMS works to develop pastor and lay leaders to be about God’s kingdom work, but also in providing opportunities for every member of the priesthood to be involved in God’s mission.

We in the LCMS have a great fit with Asian people. The high value placed on education and the strong work ethic of Asians has made it possible for the LCMS to establish schools all over Asia that serve as mission stations for those who don’t know Christ. Some of our LCMS schools in the U.S. also have found that Asians are willing to pay for excellent education, but care must be taken to make sure that this is seen as an opportunity for ministry and not just a way to increase enrollments.

As the world flattens with easy intercontinental communication and air travel, the LCMS needs to be mindful of opportunities on higher-education institutions’ campuses, but also with the grade schools and high schools of our church. We need to send Asians back to Asia with an understanding of the love of Christ.

As we think about how to work with Asians on both sides of the ocean, we also need to recognize that cultures are different. Just as there are good and bad things in our American culture, the same can be said of Asian cultures. We need to be discerning as we approach cultural values to make sure that we don’t slide all things that are simply “different” into our “wrong” column.

North Americans can learn something from Asians about community. We tend to admire individualism and this has slipped into our faith lives, while the collective understanding of human relationships and faith is stronger in Asian cultures. We are comfortable speaking about “personal faith” and may find it easy to ignore the communities of faith. We have no trouble slipping in and out of worship, after which our “faith work” is done for the week, and the only contact we had with the community was when we passed the peace.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven,” and not “My Father.” In Scriptures we often see the community in play. Paul and Silas spoke the Word of God to the jailer and his household and then immediately he and all his family were baptized. Paul reminds us that we are “one body” (1 Cor. 12:12) and as a body, we “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Paul also says that this God is “making His appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20) so that all people might know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

The Rev. Dr. John L. Mehl is director of the Asia Pacific Region for the LCMS Office of International Mission.

Updated May 2, 2013

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