By Joe Isenhower Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ST. LOUIS — It was a grand celebration as the International Lutheran Laymen’s League (LLL), which carries out work as Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM), marked its 100th anniversary Oct. 21-23 at St. Louis Union Station and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis — with some 900 participants from around the world.
“What a fabulous anniversary for a fabulous organization,” Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison told the audience at the celebration’s opening Oktoberfest.
Harrison and LCMS Office of National Mission Executive Director Rev. Bart Day were among those congratulating LLL/LHM.
“We face many challenges and we have no illusions about the challenges that we face,” Harrison said. “The future of the Gospel in the United States is going to be a very interesting and challenging one.”
He spoke of having just returned from Germany, where the Synod’s partner church, the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, had “not grown in decades.”
But Harrison continued that the recent influx of Muslims into Germany has resulted in positive growth because of “[former] Muslims who are being baptized and joining our partner church,” which drew applause from the assembly.
“The Lord is in His heaven, Jesus Christ is risen from the grave and the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Never forget it,” he said. “Let’s speak it — every one of us to our neighbor, everywhere we go.”
Harrison thanked the LLL “for leading the way in this charge for the sake of the Gospel.”
12 lay founders
The Lutheran Laymen’s League was formed by a dozen laymen who spearheaded what became a successful campaign to retire a $100,000 Synod debt at the time of the 1917 LCMS convention in Milwaukee.
Those laymen continued their efforts to help the Synod by setting up a fund to support meagerly paid pastors, retired pastors with no or little pensions, and pastors’ widows.
In 1930, the LLL launched (and still sponsors) its radio program “The Lutheran Hour,” described at the celebration by its former speaker Rev. Dr. Kenneth Klaus as “the world’s longest continuously-run religious broadcast.”
In the early 1950s, the LLL and the Synod began “This is the Life” — the Emmy-winning religious TV drama on the air for more than 35 years. Plans call for relaunching many of those original drama programs in syndication, as well as producing new episodes.
Today, LHM reaches about 51 million people with the Gospel each week, according to Kurt Buchholz, its CEO and president.
In his remarks on behalf of the Synod, Day spoke of the 100-year anniversary as “a pretty amazing milestone … 100 years of God’s people, specifically the lay men and lay women of the LCMS coming together to assure that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be preached and proclaimed to the very ends of the earth.”
‘Always … about Jesus’
“It has been and always will remain, for you, about Jesus — that simple and yet life-changing message of the Gospel,” Day told the LHM-anniversary audience. “And so, sharing the faith formally over the airwaves — whether that is ‘The Lutheran Hour’ or winsomely in our living rooms as when I was a child who enjoyed watching ‘This is the Life’ — or whether it’s the equipping of Christians to share their simple faith in words and witness in their daily lives, … that is what we’re here to celebrate.”
Day thanked the LLL for being an auxiliary of the LCMS — “a very special status afforded only to the LLL and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.” He observed that LCMS Bylaw 6.1.1 refers to an auxiliary as being an arm of the Synod, as he thanked the LLL and LHM for being “an arm that aids the Synod specifically in programs that extend the ministry and mission of the Church.”
He mentioned the 12 founders forming the LLL to retire the Synod’s $100,000 debt of 1917. But he added that “a part of that work, often forgotten,” was the LLL’s turning over to the Synod in 1920 more than $2 million and later adding another $500,000 “to establish what is still today known as the Lutheran Laymen’s League Endowment.”
That endowment, Day explained, was set aside to be used for “our veterans of the cross — incapacitated pastors, professors, teachers and the widows and orphans of deceased pastors, professors and teachers.” He said that today the fund stands at over $2.8 million.
“More importantly,” Day said, “those dollars are still doing what they were set aside to do all those years ago. … And so, thank you for that enduring work of love and care and support for the retired workers of the Church.”
Klaus was the first of numerous speakers leading off a Saturday-morning celebration session with the theme of “Called.”
He reminisced about sitting with the late Rev. Dr. Oswald C.J. Hoffmann — also a former speaker — asking Hoffmann if he “ever got tired of going out.”
“The way I look at it, if I don’t go out, who will?” Hoffmann replied.
“If not me, then who?” Klaus repeated to the assembly. “If not now, then when?” He said the affirmative answers to those questions have characterized the LLL’s Gospel proclamation over its entire history.
“As this organization celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is right and proper to look back at the past and thank God for what He has brought about,” Klaus concluded.
Seltz: ‘Boast in the Lord’
Current “Lutheran Hour” Speaker Rev. Dr. Gregory P. Seltz encouraged the audience to “boast in the Lord. … We are called by God to repent and believe … and to be in mission for Him. … He is worthy of our boasting, and that is what the LLL is all about.”
Seltz spotlighted the “why” of the LLL founders retiring the 1917 Synod debt.
It was “because they didn’t want the [Gospel] message to die, but to be publicly proclaimed.” … Then [the LLL] just kept pushing the message forward,” he said.
“God chose you to boast about Him,” Seltz said. “This is just 100 years of what we’ve done in the past; and we’ll do it another 100 years into the future. … It’s the message and the message alone. We have to figure out new ways to get the message out.”
The Rev. Dr. Douglas Rutt, director of LHM’s International Ministries, pointed out that LHM has more than 35 ministry centers throughout the world, “bringing Christ to those who do not know Him.”
Introducing ministry-center directors to the assembly, Rutt noted that they “are cultural insiders where they are” who tailor messages and ministries for the local populations — “guaranteeing maximum effect for outreach.” He added that ministry centers also “provide a way for indigenous people to respond, including [with their permission] referrals to local communities of faith.”
Connecting to Christian communities
Each year, LHM connects some 15,000 people to Christian communities worldwide, according to its website.
“This is how we carry out ‘bringing Christ to the nations and the nations to the church,’ ” Rutt said, quoting LHM’s mission statement and familiar catchphrase.
“This unique ministry model requires tremendous men and women of faith to carry it out and make it successful, often in the face of danger,” Rutt said of the ministry-center staff members and volunteers.
He also said that to date, LHM has sponsored 93 international volunteer trips, in partnership with ministry centers.
Rutt reminded the assembly that ministry-center leaders were poised to offer more information about the work in their countries at the celebration event’s “International Village.”
Saturday-afternoon speakers, addressing the theme “Equipped,” were:
- the Rev. Matt Popovits, pastor of Our Saviour New York, with parishes in New York City.
Noting that the entire Church has lost respect and prominence among its “neighbors” over the last 100 years, Popovits spoke of neighbors who, “like us,” reflect “humanity’s unending struggle” for self-righteousness. He laid out three traits of the “new neighbors”: that they are skeptical, pragmatic and indulgent; distracted with technology; and burdened with the pressure to succeed.
“There will always be a great need for self-righteous people to hear the right message — of Christ’s forgiveness,” Popovits said.
“Your neighbor has changed, but the message has not,” he said, adding that in the past 100 years, “faithful Lutheran men and women in the LLL embraced technology and put their hands around creativity. They held in their hearts a willingness to do whatever it took to love their neighbor and to communicate God’s message of mercy in an effective way. They were creative, innovative and continually trying to understand the needs of their neighbor. They created a platform to carry an uncompromised message into the world for a century. And that’s our task today.”
- the Rev. Greg Finke, founder and executive director of Dwelling 1:14, “a non-profit ministry that trains congregational leaders to disciple their people to join Jesus on His mission in the places [where] they already live, work and go to school,” according to the program book for the anniversary weekend.
Reminding the anniversary audience that the United States is “the third-largest mission field in the world,” Finke said that “the mission is when you go home” and that “within 50 yards of where most people live, work or go to school is someone who doesn’t know Jesus.
“But most people are not trained to effectively witness” to others, he continued.
“My friends,” Finke said, “Jesus has this. The reason people are afraid to do this back home is that they forgot they’re joining Jesus on His mission.”
“What is your job in what God wants to accomplish in your neighborhood?” Finke asked. “Love your neighbor [and] give of yourself for the good of your neighbor. Go into your neighborhood and start to know the folks God has placed around you. … The main thing missing in mission is friendship in Jesus.”
“When you have a story about Jesus and share it, that’s witness,” Finke said.
- Cindy Steinbeck, a vineyard owner in Paso Robles, Calif., and a former LCMS director of Christian education.
Steinbeck showed the audience a piece of grapevine root stock, likening it to Christ, the Vine. She explained how a bud is cut away from its original branch and grafted into the root stock to become the branch of the vine from which the fruit of the harvest comes for wine-making. She explained that in the grafting process, both the branch and vine “bleed, healing to become one plant.”
“This is a picture of Baptism,” she continued. “You and I have been cut away from the old, grafted into the Vine [Jesus]. … Our holiness comes not by what we do, but in Whose life we dwell. “We are missionaries together in God’s vineyard, doing the work of the Father, that He has called us to do.”
- the Rev. Michael Newman, a mission and ministry facilitator with the LCMS Texas District, who spoke on “launching from the LHM legacy.”
Newman said he was “enthralled” with the story of how the LLL formed out of helping the Synod retire its $100,000 debt and went on to set up the fund to help church professionals and their families. But he said he meets many people who do not know this or much else of the Synod’s story.
He recalled the Old Testament cry of God to His people to “remember … not just recalling, but living in the miracle of the story, to draw confidence and energy from it.”
“Tell the story so everybody knows about God’s miraculous grace,” Newman then urged the assembly.
Of the LLL founders retiring the debt, he said, “It wasn’t about the money. It was the fact that this debt was preventing their church from proliferating the mission and multiplying the Gospel in the nation and around the world.”
He added that $100,000 in 1917 would equal $2 million in 2016; and the $2 million-plus the LLL gave the Synod in 1920 was the equivalent of more than $40 million today.
Newman said that like the 12 founders, those who started “The Lutheran Hour” and “This is the Life,” as well as LHM ministry-center staff who face “real dangers,” today’s Lutherans should be “fearless.”
“If we are going to launch from the legacy of Lutheran Hour Ministries,” he said, “we need to be passionate personally about the Good News of Jesus Christ in our lives.”
‘This is the Life’
At Saturday evening’s celebration gala, Seltz facilitated a discussion with “This is the Life” producer Rev. Dr. Ardon Albrecht and Gary Hall, a television producer who is working to syndicate episodes of the series and produce new ones.
Albrecht often induced laughter and applause — and fought back tears at least once — as he reminisced about how actors (including Dean Jagger, Jack Nicholson, Gary Collins and Angie Dickinson), production crew members and others involved in “This is the Life” grew to respect the Gospel-sharing intent of the TV drama. He related how some of them who were not Christian came to faith while and after working on the program.
Seltz, who also delivered the message during Sunday morning’s closing worship at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, noted “how these Gospel stories show the power of their message.”
Hall spoke of the series as “mean[ing] so much to me as a child” and said that “This is the Life” “still moves people.”
Buchholz — LHM’s president and CEO since 2013 — announced at the end of Saturday’s gala that the Lutheran Legacy Foundation has challenged LHM to raise $1 million in gifts that the foundation would match “40 cents on the dollar” for LHM’s “endowment for public proclamation.”
Into the future
“Today, we’ve talked and heard about the 100-year legacy of the Lutheran Laymen’s League and Lutheran Hour Ministries,” Buchholz said, adding that “God is positioning us for the next 100 years.”
“As technology continues to advance, work is opening up for us,” he said. “We believe that in the next 15 to 20 years, our generation has the opportunity to reach everyone in the world with a contextualized Gospel message. This is what the digital mission field is opening for us. This is something that we can strive for. Technology is moving so quickly that we believe this could be a reality.”
“We said at the beginning of this celebration that the strength behind Lutheran Hour Ministries and the Lutheran Laymen’s League is its people — 86,000 household members,” Buchholz recalled.
He continued that from talking with many of those members at LLL district conventions and in other settings, staff and other leaders have heard “one loud and clear message [about] what God is putting on our hearts for the future.
“They’re saying, ‘we’re seeing our children and grandchildren walking away from the Church and we don’t see the Church going after them.’ ”
Buchholz explained that to reach “the next generation,” LHM is “moving onto digital platforms — not just to do things digitally, but to go where those next generations are already going. … We’re working mightily hard to develop programming to take the Gospel message out to where people are going to get their information, using the technology of today.
“And so, this is an exciting time,” Buchholz said. “It’s not a time to just look back and say, ‘Oh, 100 years — great — we’re just gonna coast.’ But it’s a time to say, ‘Wow, God has put something huge in front of us and He’s saying ‘follow Me.’
“The message is the same. The medium is different, but the result is the same — that people will come to faith in Jesus Christ and heaven will be filled. … We hope that today has been a blessing to you. We hope that you not only honor the history of the original 12 founders and those who came after them, but that you see yourselves as those 12 for today.”
Posted November 17, 2016 / Updated November 18, 2016