by Roy S. Askins
This is a story of two churches in two cities in two very different parts of the world prevailing against discord and strife wrought by Satan.
In Sri Lanka
In the island country of Sri Lanka off the tip of India, lush green tea plantations blanket the upcountry hilltops, soothing the senses like a cup of tea steeped from leaves plucked by barefoot workers. Among the gentle curves of mountains are the calm, gentle and strong people of the Lanka Lutheran Church.
The LCMS began work in Sri Lanka in 1927 as a natural outgrowth of its work in India. The Lanka Lutheran Church became a partner church in 2001.
In this sleepy locale, Satan sowed discord. He stirred wicked men to steal property, slander the church and assault family members of church leaders. He sifted the Lanka Lutherans, and yet they remain faithful.
In the face of evil, the Lanka Lutherans remain grounded in the Word of God. “Martin Luther stood for the Word alone because the Word alone is strong,” said the Rev. S. Devanesan, treasurer of the Lanka Lutheran Church. “Through the Word, Martin Luther brought reform to the church.”
To heal and protect the church, the Lanka Lutherans seek deeper theological study for pastors. This training prepares them to proclaim the Word for the souls placed in their care.
The Rev. Roger James, LCMS missionary to Sri Lanka and South Asia area director, provides ongoing theological education for the eight vicars and three pastors of the Lanka Lutheran Church.
In a recent class on the Augsburg Confession, James said, “Every heresy begins with ‘We believe the Bible.’ Thus, the church makes, studies and holds to confessions that keep her true to scriptural teaching.”
He explained that to combat false teachings, the church returned to Scripture and then set forth the proper interpretation of the Bible in creeds and confessions for all Christians.
In addition to regular teaching, James also visits congregations and homes as opportunities arise. The vicars, who serve local preaching stations, join him and learn to pray the psalms in the homes of the people they serve. After sharing a psalm and prayer, James blesses one or more members of the household.
Theological education for the Lanka Lutherans has been difficult. Vicar P. Gnanakumar studied over 12 years in different programs while he served as a vicar and evangelist. He began in the Lanka Lutheran Church seminary, but it later closed. He then landed in a different program at Lanka Bible College, from which he expects to graduate this summer.
Gnanakumar knows the need for Lutheran theological education. This became clear when he simultaneously studied the topic of Christian worship from Lanka Bible College and from the Rev. Dr. Wilfred Karsten, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Moline, Ill., who has traveled to Sri Lanka 16 times to provide short-term theological education.
He saw a clear difference between the two teachings on worship. At Lanka Bible College, worship centered on the expression and emotion of worshipers. “But Lutherans understand the worship service differently,” said Gnanakumar. For Lutherans, “the congregation participates, but God is coming, and we focus primarily on Christ and God, not ourselves.”
In sprawling Mexico City, which is steeped in hot light and Latin hues, an urban cacophony surrounds the mission work of the Rev. Daniel Conrad and Tyler McMiller. Here, Satan attacks the church in similar ways to Sri Lanka.
Conrad, an LCMS missionary to Mexico, provides pre-seminary training and mentoring to men interested in becoming pastors in the Lutheran Synod of Mexico (SLM). The LCMS has been working in Mexico since 1940, and the SLM became a partner church in 1968.
Trained Lutheran pastors are scarce in Mexico because no new pastors have been ordained in the last 15 years. Until about a year and a half ago, the SLM lacked its own route to ordination, so pastors who retired or died were not replaced easily. To prevent churches from closing, laymen stood up to provide for the church. These faithful men do not consecrate or baptize, but they lead services and read sermons written by Conrad or other pastors.
However, church leaders who do not understand the Word of God are not properly equipped to teach others. “In order to feed the people spiritually, you have to be trained adequately. It’s hard to feed a people spiritually when you’re not trained yourself,” Conrad said.
That’s why the SLM sent four men to begin their studies at Seminario Concordia in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last August. The LCMS is assisting with this by providing a yearly stipend of $7,500 to each of the men to help them pay for the five-year program.
But since not all of the laymen are able to leave their homes to study at a seminary, 12 others have started a new distance-education program, which is operated jointly by Seminario Concordia and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. Conrad provides mentoring to these 12 men as they progress through their online studies.
Conrad uses the analogy of a skyscraper to explain the need for orthodox teaching in the Word of God and the catechism.
“Everyone loves the beautiful windows and architecture,” he said, “but how often do people go down to the basement and praise the basement? And yet, without the basement, the entire building cannot stand.”
One of the men that Conrad is working with is Alejandro Arevalo. He led his congregation, El Buen Pastor, through a particularly difficult struggle. He made a bold confession that ran contrary to the predominant culture. Conrad has started building a foundation of catechetical and scriptural knowledge with Arevalo, on which his seminary education will build.
On a Friday night, Conrad sat with Arevalo at the kitchen table following a dinner of homemade tacos and sliced avocados. In the adjacent room, McMiller plucked at his guitar, teaching Arevalo’s two teenage sons a few notes after catechism class.
Both Conrad and McMiller traveled hours by bus and train to reach the family’s home. It’s just the way of life in congested Mexico City.
“Pastor Conrad’s work is about helping these guys be the Lutherans they really want to be,” McMiller said.
Whether in Sri Lanka, Mexico, the United States or elsewhere, Satan will attack the Body of Christ. But Jesus promises that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” His Church (Matt. 16:18). Thanks to assistance with theological education, these two church bodies are not alone.
About Sri Lanka:
The Rev. Roy S. Askins is director of Communications for the Synod’s Asia Pacific and Southern Asia and Oceania regions.
Erik M. Lunsford, manager of Photojournalism for LCMS Communications, also contributed to this article.