Eglise Fraternelle Lutherienne Au Tchad
(CLB of Chad) Centennial Address
“The CLB in America, Chad, and the World—A Journey of Grace and Mission”
March 15, 2020, Léré, Chad
Rev. Paul M Larson, CLBA President
Dear President Souina Potiphar, my brother called with me to lead and serve the Church in her Gospel Mission; distinguished leaders and guests of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren Chad; governing national and regional officials; honored leaders of sister Church denominations; fellow pastors, shepherds, leaders of the Church…
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ and co-laborers in the harvest of God’s mission, I greet you and bring you greetings from the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America. I am greatly honored and full of joy to be with you, to see your faces, to celebrate this marvelous Centennial of your mission—100 years of God’s faithfulness to you, and by His grace, your faithfulness to Him. God has blessed a great Gospel work through the Church of the Lutheran Brethren in Chad [EFLT]. Hundreds of thousands of disciples of Jesus have heard and believed and followed the Gospel of Jesus Christ unto their salvation. Hundreds of places of worship have been planted, and we, your brothers and sisters of the American Church, rejoice with you!
It was in the year 1920 (100 years ago), that our first missionary couple, Berge and Herborg Revne—soon to be followed by Jetmund and Sofie Kaardal—reached the interior of Africa, and first settled here in Léré, on these grounds.
The early Lutheran Brethren mission was a great test of faith and courage and patience. These early missionaries struggled through multiple barriers, including the authorities’ repeated refusal to allow mission work to begin, repeated illness, the return home of some missionaries due to health issues, and the death of others. The early response of the people here was one of disinterest. There were significant language and cultural barriers to understanding the Gospel, and there was outright rejection of the missionaries’ message.
But this mission and its timing belonged to God. It was not until 1927 on March 20th, after seven long, struggling years of mission work, that the first converts to Christianity were baptized: a young man of the Mundang tribe named Captain took the Christian name Yohana, and was baptized along with his three-year-old daughter.
One of our scholars, J.H. Levang, in his history of the CLB revels that the baptism of the first converts took place in this way: “At that… same Sunday service ‘and in the same water,’ Revne baptized Elmer Kaardal, the two-month-old son of Missionary and Mrs. Kaardal, into the Church of Jesus Christ.”
“In the same waters of baptism”—together! Chadian and American Lutheran Brethren believers united in Christ! What a beautiful picture from the start of the Gospel’s fruitfulness in Chad. Then, as now, the CLBA and the EFLT—we are united by the same Gospel, the same Savior, same cross, same Word, same baptism, same faith, and same Mission! This same water of baptism is greater to unite us, than the ocean of any differences that could separate us! The Gospel stillcrosses all boundaries to bring God together with man, and strangers together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I have prayed for you, our Chadian Church, and for missionaries who served among you since I was boy, having been taught to do so by my mother and my church. When as a young man I began my seminary studies, it was with the dream that one day I might be a teacher in Africa. But my call from God and the Church came to serve as a church planter, pastor, and now Church president in America. Perhaps, for this day, I am blessed that the dream of my youth and my adult calling have come together. When I officiated the first funeral in my last congregation before becoming CLBA President, I shared the responsibility with my friend and colleague, retired missionary Rodney Venberg. (Pastor Venberg is the translator of the Peve New Testament, and the father of missionary, Daniel Venberg.) The funeral we officiated was for Harold Revne, the only child of Missionaries Berge and Herborg Revne.
The bonds of the Gospel Mission between us are sure and strong—not only in the history behind us, but for the Mission ahead of us. We are partners in mission who can encourage one another, pray for one another, learn from one another, and hold one another true to our course and calling. May we pause and consider, on this blessed and grateful occasion, how rich a gift, and how necessary in Christ’s coming kingdom and to our own spiritual life, is the passage of the Gospel cross-culturally in mission.
Every farmer has some means to separate the shell from the nut, the peel from the banana, the bean from the pod, the hull from the kernel seed. So, too, does God the great Farmer, Sower, and Reaper of the Gospel. There seems a great unseen reason God calls His Church as a “Missionary Church,” a “sent” people of pilgrimage, who are ever called to “Go” with the Gospel to other people who may be of great cultural and physical distance from themselves. The reason is that this missionary journey of the Gospel itself is a means by which God preserves the Gospel message pure and clear in our hearts!
The missionary journey of the Gospel is full of difficulty, challenge, and sacrifice. It requires the missionaries to stretch and extend themselves—to sacrifice the familiar and comfortable, to learn a new language, and new cultural customs. Most of all, it requires that missionaries learn to love strangers unlike themselves in order that these people might hear and trust the Gospel of Jesus.
It is in this missionary journey that God may refine and remove whatever we attach to the Gospel that is not the Gospel itself. Certainly the Gospel will always clothe itself in culture. But, in this passing of the Gospel from one culture to another, the “chaff” of our idolatries; the rules and legalisms that are often added by culture to the Gospel over time; the light weightless hulls of our traditions, comforts, prides, prejudices and preferences; even our racial fears or animosities may be exposed. As with a winnowing fork, these may be sifted away in the “wind of the missionary journey” and be separated from the pure and precious kernel, which is the life-giving seed of the Gospel. This seed is the good news of atonement by our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ!
While the journey and ministry of missionaries can be one of much struggle, impatience, and error, it is in part thatwinnowing missionary journey through which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been preserved and passed down to us for 2000 years. And, it is the reason that the EFLT and the CLBA must still and always give ourselves to a missionary calling to neighbors who are near us, neighbors who are quite different from us, and even neighbors who have hated us—and at times we have hated. The missionary journey is not only for their salvation; it is for our ongoing salvation as well!
May I add that I foresee the day, perhaps not far away, when missionaries from people groups who once received missionaries will tell the Gospel back to those from whom they received it. These new missionaries will help the original missionary senders remember the pure Gospel of Christ and call them with clarity to repentance and to renewed faith and mission.
Brothers and sisters of the EFLT, will you pray for the CLBA that we will be true and clear in our faith and mission? I say to both Churches, it was not just a missionary journey in the past that brought us salvation. It is our missionary journey now and in the future that will preserve our ongoing salvation.
Dear EFLT brothers and sisters: a missionary journey was the way you were born, the way you were saved, and the way you will be kept in salvation. Will you also continue to reach beyond yourselves, be a missionary people to your neighbor near and distant, and, yes, also a missionary voice to us, your CLBA brothers and sisters?
The topic given for my address is: The Cartography of the Lutheran Church in the World. I address this with a focus on the footprint and impact of the Lutheran Brethren in the world.
What is the presence of the Lutheran Brethren among Lutheranism in the world today? Why are we in these places? What vision governed us 100 years ago? What vision today governs why and how and where we are sent in the mission of the Gospel?
Lutheranism worldwide, by recent statistics, has nearly 80 million adherents. The largest concentrations are roughly 33 million people who identify themselves as Lutheran in Europe, 24 million in Africa, 11 million in Asia, 4 million in North America, and 1 million in Latin America. However, as we know, numbers are only numbers. They do not tell the full story.
For example, in Europe, while certainly there are exceptions of renewal, a large part of Lutheran membership has become nominal and inactive in faith and mission. Stories abound of great cathedrals which sit largely empty. State-affiliated religion brought some obvious external benefits and resources of membership. But, along with the widespread secularization of culture, it has also opened doors to compromise of truth, and a confusion of priorities and loyalties to God’s agenda. At times it may be difficult for man, though not for God, to perceive who is of His True Church and Faith, and who is not.
The state of Lutheranism in North America is not far removed from Europe, perhaps less than a generation behind in decline. The largest mainline Lutheran denomination in America has seen nearly one-fourth of their membership disappear over the last 25 years. Many wonder, “Why is this?” There is no simple answer, but certainly one core factor applies: where the Church departs from Scripture and its truth, authority, and power, there the Church departs from the course of her calling. Whenever the Church departs the Word of God, her mission and her message are diminished.
One obvious, convenient example would be that a recent survey of pastors in America found that 47% (nearly half) of mainline pastors, including mainline Lutheran pastors, found nothing wrong with two people of the same gender being married. There are many similar concerning reports regarding how many pastors and congregations no longer believe in heaven and hell, no longer believe in the precious value of unborn infant human life, no longer speak of sin, no longer believe in the miracles of the Bible, or that Jesus is a real person in history, or that he truly rose from the dead and will soon return.
Brothers and sisters, I want to assure you of three things:
- The CLBA has not departed from God’s Word. We are a people who sit under the Word’s truth, authority, and power—not above it! The Word examines us and shows us where we are true or false, good or evil. We do not stand above Scripture to assess what parts of it we accept as true or false, current or outdated, useful or useless. No, the Word of God lives over us, and we find our life in it. By the Scriptures we hear from God’s Law that we are dead in our sin; and we hear from His Gospel that we are resurrected to new and eternal life.
- We must pray for each other, and with humble caution know our vulnerability. Scripture warns, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, NKJV). We should see and care what happens to the greater Church around us with humility and courage, but never with pride.
- We must know the difference between what is superficial and what is the source, between what is a symptom and what is the true sickness. Medicine teaches us that there is a difference between a cough or sneeze or fever, and the actual virus. The cough, sneeze, or fever are external signs of a greater illness within. I listed before some concerning issues in the American Church and the worldwide Church around us. We should see these things as they are, and face them, and speak in truth and love regarding them. But we must not confuse the symptom for the sickness, the external sign with the true underlying condition. These are like coughs and sneezes and fever in the Church. They are external signs that always point back to the core malady of sin, which always begins as unbelief in the Word of God.
EFLT and CLBA: when we know the malady, we also know the cure. Our life and mission depend on our holding, keeping and believing the Word of God.
Still, the challenge of the Church in Western society is not reserved to the liberal mainline Church. The smaller, more conservative Lutheran denominations in North America are grounded in the truth, authority, and power of God’s Word; but even they struggle in this current shift to a post-Christian secularized society. And the Lutheran Brethren is neither immune to this.
The challenges of ministering in an increasingly secularized post-Christian America are many, so I will highlight just a few to give you a picture and a reminder to pray for us:
- In our culture, in our media and entertainment, and in our educational system; there is a growing secular view of the world which dismisses Christianity as false, or ignores it as irrelevant, or at times is even hostile toward it.
- This is not surprising, for the Gospel of Christ has always been offensive and a stumbling block to those who do not believe. Yet, it is a great challenge that the Gospel is rejected by many, and a growing number of people in America would say they have no religion at all.
- Along with this, our Church is facing a greater challenge to keep our youth and young adults in the faith, and to summon their gifts and leadership to possess our theology and mission. The first demise of Christianity is the demise of the family, and the failure for essential disciple-making begins in the home.
- Here is a further challenge: as I mentioned before, the CLB are a people of God’s Word. We believe the Word, teach the Word, and believe it creates and sustains our faith through its proclamation, along with the means of grace, the sacraments.
We understand and believe in the importance of preaching, and of preachers, and of training to preach—for when we gather in our worship services. In former times, our model of evangelistic ministry has been centered on re-gathering “wandered sheep” of the faith—those who were raised in a church, baptized, confirmed, married in a church, but who have fallen away. Our great question of mission seems to have been, “How do we get these people back to church?” While there are still plenty “wandered sheep” among us, increasingly the neighbors among whom we live and work were not raised in Christianity and have no history or memory of life in a church.
So while we still must and will gather in worship to hear the preached Word and receive the sacraments, one of the great discoveries of Martin Luther in the Reformation must again be re-discovered: “the priesthood of all believers.” This means that, while we must train our preachers, and our preachers must preach, and we must gather in worship; also, the Gospel must be in the mouths of our lay people throughout the week, and witnessed winsomely where they live and work.
While our question of evangelism seemed in the past to have been, “How do we get people to come to church?”, now an equally important question arises, “How do we get the Church to go out to people?”
- I would mention one other related challenge that we face in the American Church: we must remember our missionary calling. When our eyes are moved from our mission, we focus on other things. We either veer off into the isolation of theological arrogance (spending our time and attention on seeing and correcting the errors of others, while thinking better of ourselves), or we drift into a version of the gospel defined and content with deeds of mercy. While a necessary reflection of God’s love in the Gospel, these may become too far or altogether removed from the witness of the Gospel. In time the central need of man (forgiveness of sin) is left unaddressed and unmet by the Savior.
Put in a simple image, when we get distracted, tired or removed from our purpose in mission, we will either keep Jesus and his living water to ourselves, or we will give cups of cold water to our neighbor, but no differently than some secular agency. We give cups of cold water, but not a cup of cold water “in Jesus’ Name”. Perhaps you, the EFLT, will face or already face some similar challenges of mission, and mission renewal in your second century of life.
Now specifically here is a picture of the Lutheran Brethren:
Worldwide the largest presence of the Lutheran Brethren by far is here in Chad and in Cameroon. In your EFLT, there are approximately 1200 congregations and 150,000 people. In Cameroon there is also a similarly large and thriving Church, with approximately 1450 congregations and 165,000 people attending.
In Taiwan, 17 CLB congregations and about 2600 people worship on average. In Japan, there are 26 CLB congregations with an average of 650 people worshiping. In China, since the expulsion of our missionaries 70 years ago, there is no count because there is no official identified Lutheran Brethren Church remaining. However, the area of the CLB’s mission in China has been referred to as the “Jesus Nest” because of how widespread the Christian presence is there.
In the US and Canada, there is a great diversity of denominational expressions of the Church (hundreds of denominations, over 35 Lutheran). The Lutheran Brethren in North America are 116 congregations with 11,000 worshipers on average, although 25,000 identify as part of CLB congregations.
In the world in total today, there are more than 330,000 Lutheran Brethren worshipers on a given Sunday, with many more affiliated, and an untold number of Lutheran Brethren spiritual descendants in China.
The CLBA has three external arms of mission:
Lutheran Brethren Seminary, which President Potiphar attended, has both campus students and a growing number of students who study from a distance via the internet. LBS is also creating a discipleship ministry for training lay persons. It includes elder training, how to understand the Bible, Worship, Old and New Testament survey courses, and numerous others are planned.
North American Mission has a renewed focus on planting new churches, and bringing new vitality to existing ones, all dedicated to the central mission of being a multiplying disciple-making movement.
Lutheran Brethren International Mission is also committed to the calling of being a disciple-making movement, seeing churches who give birth to churches, and disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus. Our relatively smaller denomination invests a greater portion by far of our resources in International Mission than do most other denominations. We have given ourselves to seeing the Word of God translated into the heart language of people without the Scriptures. Through the CLB ministry of translation, there are three translated New Testaments, and eight complete Bibles.
The CLBA vision for mission is the same as in the past: planting churches where disciples of Jesus are made and multiplied. We have a renewed focus on this calling to be a disciple-making people. We sense ourselves called like the apostle Paul to carry the Gospel to peoples and places who do not have it. This is the reason for our current focus and effort in Japan, to unreached peoples in Taiwan, and to Muslim peoples in Chad.
We are so grateful for the partnership of the EFLT! We pray and call our Church bodies to give ourselves together in mission partnership to this endeavor of bringing the Gospel to the darkest spiritual places, to the people who do not have among them the witness of the Church. I am so pleased, grateful, and enthused to see the growing mission partnership between the EFLT and CLBA in raising up and sending out missionaries to reach people groups in Chad who have no Church.
As we have all heard, our world these past recent weeks has become very concerned over a new kind of sickness called Coronavirus. There is much caution and fear around the world that this contagious illness will become widespread. Appropriately, world health officials are telling everyone to be cautious to not spread the illness. We need to wash hands, cover our coughs, be careful that we do not touch someone who is ill, breathe their air, share their drink, or eat their food. All this, because the contagion is greater than any antidote, vaccine, or medicine we have at this time. Of course, we should be good stewards of our health!
Too often in the Church, we fear the mission of the Gospel like the world fears a terrible virus: we fear the touch, the problems of people who are not us. We do not want to be exposed to where they have been—to their sin, how their burdens might impact us. We would rather quarantine our faith, isolate ourselves from making the missionary journey to bring the Gospel to our neighbor near us, or to the neighbor an ocean or culture or language apart from us. We put on our spiritual and cultural masks and wash our hands of our calling.
The Coronavirus can remind us of what sin is like, and what Jesus is like. The sin of Adam, like the most powerful of sicknesses, has spread to all humanity, infecting us all with the terrible problem of being sinful and separate from God. We are helpless before this great contagion. Without a cure, we and the world will certainly face eternal death.
But on this great blessed occasion of the Centennial of the EFLT, with this great reminder and promise that both our past and our future are formed by the missionary journey of the Gospel, I am so pleased and joyful to tell you and all who are gathered here:
When Jesus came as the promised Savior, incarnate God to earth, He came different from all other solutions, all other remedies, fixes, and antidotes—and different from all other religions! In our world, when something sick or dirty comes in contact with something healthy or clean, the sickness makes the healthy ill. The dirty makes the clean unclean. The pure becomes contaminated. But when Jesus came to us and to our world, He did not hesitate to make contact with all humanity, all illness, all corruption, all disease, all sin.
Jesus is different from all other solutions, antidotes, and religions, for Jesus is the antidote greater than the contagion! He made the great sacrifice of dying on the cross for the punishment of the sins of the whole world. And when we are brought into contact with Jesus by faith believing his Gospel of forgiveness, he takes our sin unto himself; yet we are made righteous! When Jesus the Pure One comes into contact with the unclean, the unclean are made pure! The spiritually ill are made well; the corrupt are made whole; the dead are made alive! He receives to Himself all in us that is spiritually sick and corrupt and dying; while we are made well, whole, and are given eternal life. By his death and resurrection he has conquered sin, death and the devil, and stands righteous forever!
Church of the Lutheran Brethren of Chad: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shared between us 100 years ago, and shared with us now, is gloriously contagious! This Gospel is for you. This forgiveness and eternal life is for you. This Jesus, this Holy One is for you. Believe! For any here not yet a believer in Jesus Christ, not yet trusting in His salvation: I say to you …God says to you, enables you now: Believe!
Hallelujah! The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News the EFLT and the CLBA have to share! In the Gospel of Jesus—His life, death and resurrection for us—we who are fearful, separate from God, and from each other are brought near, brought together by Him whose Gospel touch makes us well.
Scripture says the Church is one body—“We were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Corinthians 12:13). Jesus speaks of Himself as “the bread of life.” He says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:48,51). It is the one meal we all share—His body offered on the cross. And in Ephesians 4:4-6, God’s Word says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Just as 100 years ago right here in Léré our forefathers reveled, so we rejoice that we are still one in Christ, and one with each other! We are one body, sharing one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one God and Father—one salvation and one mission. For we, you and I, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of Chad and of North America—Yes! Yes indeed!—“we still are baptized in the same water”!