As I am writing these articles in 2017 in response to questions about the NALC and our shared ministry, the question this month is one recently posed by a Roman Catholic bishop. In our conversation about the NALC, he asked, “Explain to me the Core Value of being Congregationally Focused?”
The notion of a church body being “focused on congregations” was something new to a Roman Catholic, used to a more hierarchical focus. Having just returned from our NALC Lutheran Week where representatives from 250 congregations gathered together for theological education, a mission festival and our Convocation, it seems useful to spend a bit of time considering, “What does it mean to be Congregationally Focused.”
In explaining the NALC’s four Core Values, the NALC website states: “We strive to be a church that is organized to facilitate the ministries of local congregations in a posture of servanthood and a spirit of partnership, through the provision of resources, connections and information.”
What is important is that this Core Value reminds us that mission and ministry happen in local contexts as congregations reach out person-to person — life-to-life” as we say in our discipleship initiative.
We have a Bishop, deans and Mission Districts to “facilitate the ministries of local congregations.” We do this “in a posture of servanthood and a spirit of partnership.” This means congregations do not exist to serve a hierarchy, but all in the NALC serve in a “spirit of partnership.”
Unfortunately, not all understand Congregationally Focused in this way.
It is a mistake to understand Congregationally Focused to mean “congregationally independent.” There are “independent” congregations in Christianity, and there are associations of independent congregations. However, this is not how the NALC understands Congregationally Focused; nor is this how we understand the Church, the Body of Christ, or the Lutheran understanding of the local congregation.
The NALC’s constitution states:
3.04 To carry out its witness to the world, the Church structures itself both as congregations and in wider and more universal bodies. The NALC derives its character and polity both from the sanction of its congregations and from its nature as a manifestation of the universal assembly of all believers. The NALC understands itself to be within the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
This interconnectedness is well-explained by St. Paul in Romans 12:1-8, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. Although Paul is speaking of the interrelationship of individual baptized Christians, it is clear that it relates, as well, to the whole Body of Christ in the world. All are baptized into Christ, all have been given gifts to build up the Body of Christ and to glorify God in the world. God did not create us to live as single, solitary Christians in the world, but as members of the one Body of Christ. Similarly, God intends that each community of faith be connected with each other.
This is true for each congregation in the NALC, but it is also true that God intends the NALC to be connected with and seeking fellowship in Christ with other Christian communities. Which brings us to our annual NALC Lutheran Week just completed in Nashville, Tenn.
What a gift and blessing it was to gather with more than 650 other Lutherans representing 250 congregations for learning, inspiration, challenge and deliberation!
It is one of the strengths of the NALC that every congregation may send their pastor and at least one delegate to participate fully in the Convocation of our church body.
In the past, we yearned for a voice in the deliberation and decision-making of our predecessor church bodies. In the past, it was common for pastors and congregations to sense that decisions were being made “on-high,” then forced upon members who disagreed with these decisions.
The NALC was constituted to involve each and every pastor and congregation in discernment, deliberation and decision-making. Every major decision of the NALC Convocation requires ratification by a two-thirds majority of NALC congregations.
But is every congregation involved and participating fully? As I said, out of our 421 NALC congregations, 250 were represented at the Convocation. That means 171 of our congregations were not represented by a pastor or lay delegate.
It is unfortunate that some congregations and pastors continue to misunderstand Congregationally Focused as “congregationally independent!” We have congregations that have never participated in any aspect of our Lutheran Week — have never participated in our annual Mission Festival, have never sent pastor or lay delegate to our annual Convocation.
And yet, it may be these very same congregations and pastors who have a sense they are isolated, alone and without resources for mission, outreach and renewal. Yes, there is a financial cost to participating in the Lutheran Week. Yes, small congregations with tight budgets may find it a challenge to fund the participation of their pastor and lay delegate each year in the Lutheran Week. Yes, this is why the NALC as a whole subsidizes the Lutheran Week to keep congregational costs as low as possible. But it’s worth it! The Lutheran Week is worth every penny!
At the Lutheran Week in Nashville, participants heard deep and meaningful teaching about the redeeming work of Jesus, our Savior and Lord. At the Mission Festival, the theme was “Renewing Congregations Through the Word of God,” as we heard from pastors, congregations and international church leaders how the Holy Spirit is working through God’s Holy Word to renew, energize and grow congregations in faith and numbers. If your congregation is stagnant, in decline and in need of renewal, you missed a wonderful opportunity if no one represented your congregation at the Mission Festival.
As part of the Mission Festival, congregations of each Mission District met for an evening of reflection and conversation about the challenges and blessings of ministry in your area, in your context for ministry.
Throughout the week, we were built up as Bishop Bradosky shared his vision and commitment to the Great Commission, challenging us and encouraging us to join together in the NALC as we seek to be disciples and make disciples.
We heard two powerful sermons in our Lutheran Week worship by President Yonas Yigezu of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, the largest and fastest growing Lutheran body in the world, and by Presiding Bishop Fredrick Shoo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, the second-largest Lutheran church body in the world. As we face troubling and unique challenges in our North American, increasingly secular context, these sermons uplifted us as we sought to hold fast to the truth and authority of God’s Word in the face of opposition and persecution.
Throughout, we heard about “Moments of Mission” calendars and notecards presenting mission around the world, focused on the NALC’s Great Commission Society. We were reminded and invited to live out our Core Value of being Mission Driven, by becoming a member of the society with regular donations throughout the year to support our mission congregations, global workers and missions of all kinds.
By the way, notecards and 2018 calendars are still available. Contact the NALC Administrative Office at [email protected] or 651-633- 6004 to order.
All of this, and so much more, was offered at our 2017 Lutheran Week.
What was most moving, however, were the continual testimonies of average, ordinary NALC Lutherans who commented, in elevators, in hallways, at mealtime, “I never knew what a blessing it would be to participate in the Lutheran Week. I’m taking so much home with me, I hope I can come represent our congregation again next year!”
Pastor George Johnson, senior pastor of Shepherd of the Woods Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, Fla., summed it up adequately saying, as I paraphrase, “In the past, national assemblies were places where the larger church showcased the larger church, national activities and the need for funding the national church. At the NALC Lutheran Week, the focus is on resourcing and encouraging the local congregation.”
That does sum it up! That’s what it means that the NALC is Congregationally Focused. The NALC is, thankfully, more than a loose grouping of independent congregations. The NALC is an interconnected community of congregations with a faithful Bishop, shared mission and ministry, ecumenical and international inter-Lutheran relationships and commitments. The NALC, in all its parts, serves in “a spirit of partnership,” focused on resourcing and encouraging the local congregation.
The NALC Lutheran Week is one important means through which this congregational focus is manifested. Plan now for your congregation to participate in our 2018 Lutheran Week, Aug. 13-17 in Denver, Colo.
In the meantime, get involved in your local Mission District. Invite your Mission District dean to visit your congregation. Partner with other NALC congregations in your area. Send someone to the Congregational Renewal Conference in Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 13-14. Encourage your pastor to attend the NALC Pastors Conference in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 30-Feb. 1. Join the NALC Great Commission Society.
Together, we are the Body of Christ. Together, we are the North American Lutheran Church. Thanks be to God!