Remarks by four leaders were a highlight of LTSP’s Spring Convocation, attended by about 125 alumni
Today’s mission frontier looks and feels different in many ways from the colonial frontier American Lutheran Patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg mined to plant the church in the 1700s. But there are similarities too.
“The God who made the world still loves it,” the Rev. Stephen Bouman told more than 100 alumni gathered for the 2012 Spring Convocation at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on May 1. Bouman, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul’s Acts 17 message to the people of Athens, noted “That is the message of our mission as a church today. Through the death of Jesus the world was restored, and we are challenged to keep restoring it.”
Bouman suggested, however, that people today may be “more alone and afraid than they have ever been. He cited an article in the May 2012 issue of The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”
|Panelists (left to right) Bouman, Rajashekar, |
Neale and Miller.
“Are we more concerned about putting the story of ourselves on a Facebook wall than we are about tending to our relationships?” asked Bouman, the executive director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Congregational and Synodical Mission initiative. He was one of four panelists dealing with an afternoon theme of “Mission Now.” The two-day convocation had the overall theme of “The New Frontier: Mission Then, Mission Now.”
Bouman said a preoccupation with ourselves “makes us lonely” and added that the Lutheran Church today needs to have a global, ecumenical and interfaith focus.
Bouman told the story of a Sudanese woman, once abused and neglected in a refugee camp, who had found a home at Grace Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE, and through the church had found the power to forgive her abusers. “We have always been the church of renewal for the poor and the stranger,” Bouman said. “This Sudanese woman belongs to you and me, and we belong to her. If the Lutheran Church can’t find a way to continue to show up on this kind of issue, then God will find a church that will. We have the same holy obligation each year…If we tell immigrants and strangers to check their baggage at our (church) doors as poverty grows, then we are hypocrites.”
Bouman has co-authored a book with Ralston Deffenbaugh entitled They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration (Augsburg, 2009), which defines Lutherans as part of an immigrant church and which makes the case for immigration reform, calling on the modern-day church to a “mission of evangelical hospitality.”
“Today’s new mission starts often look different from our traditional congregations,” Bouman said. Of the 60 new starts in the current year, one-half focus on immigrant populations. Mission developers are often connected with community organizers, he said, and the focus is not only on worship but also on service, creating what he described as “a powerful front door.”
Leadership can look different too. In Hollywood, CA, the church is employing seven lay evangelists. As in Muhlenberg’s day “the church must be planted,” Bouman said. “But that requires us to go out into the community and encounter and listen to our neighbors.”
He called upon the church to be a part of a strong “public platform” that often requires creativity. In Minot, ND, Bouman described how Lutheran Disaster Response, responding to ruinous storm damage, has helped to foster congregational renewal, “a bridge to healing” in the community.
Seminary Dean J. Paul Rajashekar explained to the alumni he is concerned that, to many people, “the mission of the church is unclear. They are allergic to the church and don’t want to be a part of it.”
Rajashekar described the seminary’s mission: “Centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia seeks to educate and form public leaders who are committed to developing and nurturing individual believers and communities of faith for engagement in the world.”
“Mission,” Rajashekar said, “is the practice of faith in the world. The mission is to make churches in our communities public places for use by all people with pastors as public leaders.” He said the seminary is working through its teaching to build that attitude within future leaders. “The Eucharist is not just a thing that we share. It is an All You Can Eat Eucharist. That is our mission and we need to learn how to get there.”
Rajashekar said, “The Church must belong in the community, otherwise there is no sense of mission. We need to build and nurture the communities we are a part of. We are one community in the midst of other communities these days, frequently with many diverse and different publics.
“We need to be bridge-builders,” he said. “Not everyone we meet will intend to be a Christian. We need to come to terms with that. To practice our faith in the world we need to engage other communities within our communities.”
The Rev. Lee Miller II, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Northeast Philadelphia’s Mayfair section, described his congregation as part of a working class, blue collar community dealing with considerable poverty.
“We’re rapidly growing in diversity with residents who are Chinese, Albanian, Liberian and Vietnamese." He said 65 per cent of the church membership lives within a mile of the church, and 25 per cent come from the region, sometimes at quite a distance.
“Our challenge is to live out Acts 2,” Miller said. (And all who believed were together and had all things in common – Acts 2:44). “We gather for worship, study Scripture with 40 adults doing Bible study, and we care for those in need.”
He said the congregation sets its leaders free “to do what they are gifted to do.” Miller, who focused on urban studies while at the seminary before graduating in 1998, said the congregation works to engage the people in its community context and embrace the cultural diversity surrounding it. “I try to make my preaching accessible to everyone,” he said. “We are trying to build connections through social service, vibrant worship, prayer, music and proclaiming the Word in our context so that people will feel invited into our ministry.”
A key component has been to expand upon St. John’s Food Cupboard, now known as the “Feast of Justice.” St. John’s associate pastor the Rev. Patricia Neale (MDiv 2007) directs the program, which is now a non-profit social service agency serving about 1,700 families annually with food, literacy and resource counseling initiatives. The program has many community partners, Miller said.
“We’ve been able to remove the divide between church and service within our building,” Neale said during her panel presentation. “We’ve transformed our mission through organizing the development of our church in a new way. It’s not Sundays only. We are practicing discipleship 24-7. We dispense about 340,000 pounds of food each year through four feeding programs….”
But Neale explained that the goal is not simply to feed people who need to be fed, but transforming lives by teaching about “the bread of life.” She said that neighbors partaking of social service through St. John’s benefit from “a dignified experience. We help connect people to resources and we provide counseling. We’re transforming lives, but all our lives are being transformed. We are called to be planted in our community, and that is what is happening.”
Mark Staples, seminary writer, served as panel moderator.
Earlier in the day, alumni heard from faculty member Dr. Karl Krueger, director of the Krauth Memorial Library, about “Mission Then,” a look at Muhlenberg’s colonial era ministry in North America.
|LTSP President Philip Krey (left) with Distinguished Alumni|
Mc Near, Philips and Simmons, and Alumni/ae Association
President the Rev. Kathleen Ash-Flashner
At the Convocation dinner, three LTSP graduates were honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Awardees were the Rev. Gordon Simmons, who was honored for his diligence in making the neighborhoods he served in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy and West Oak Lane, and Wallingford, PA “his mission field by reaching out to residents and responding to their needs.” He is known for his bicycle ministry through neighborhoods. While in Mt. Airy, over a 15-year period he visited 10,000 homes three times each, and when honored by the Community College of Philadelphia for his leadership in 2004 was recognized in part this way: “His spirited leadership and mobile style of ministry tell the story of his love for the city and his commitment to its people.”
The Rev. Ernest McNear, MDiv ’99, a graduate of the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute, was recognized for his leadership in sponsoring a “Fugitive Safe Surrender” program at his True Gospel Church in center city Philadelphia. The program, conducted several years ago, resulted in 1,500 non-violent offenders streaming to the congregation over four days to turn themselves in in exchange for favorable considerations. The offenders were charged with such crimes as being scofflaws, drug possession, or other summary violations. True Gospel Church sponsors a learning center for 130 children in kindergarten through fourth grade “because the lack of education is a direct cause of incarceration,” he says. He’s also involved in prison ministry and directs the Philadelphia Freedom from AIDS campaign.
The Rev. Leon Phillips’s mission field has primarily been in response to disasters throughout the U.S. and its territories. The 1961 LTSP graduate began his career serving congregations. In 1969, the Lutheran Church in America’s Board of American Missions called him to serve as coordinator of the Greater Wilkes-Barre area and consultant to the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod for congregational and area studies. He became a deployed staff member of the LCA’s Division for Mission in North America in 1972. After major flooding in the Wilkes-Barre, Kingston area of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Lutheran Disaster Response began bringing the energy and efforts by Lutherans around the country to together respond to natural and human-caused disasters in the U.S. and its territories. Dr. Phillips’s mission became to serve as Domestic Disaster Relief director. He was at the forefront of the church’s response to disasters such as Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, earthquakes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the Oklahoma City bombing.
Preacher for the convocation’s Opening Eucharist was the Rev. Dr. Nelson Rivera, associate professor of Systematic Theology and director of the Hispanic Concentration, who is observing the 25th anniversary of his graduation from LTSP (MDiv '87). Keynote presenter the morning of May 2 was the Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History at LTSP.
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