Missions and Alternate Realities

Imagine an alternate reality. Sometimes I find myself musing about how different my life would be had I followed a path other than the one I chose. Of course, I trust that the Lord has guided me along the way, and, in retrospect, there are few regrets. Still, there are those occasional moments when I wonder, “What if …?”

For example, what if I had become a missionary? There were a couple instances when I seriously considered doing so. Specifically, twice I engaged in very serious conversations about becoming the Head of School at the Hong Kong International School. I was also extended a Divine Call from LCMS World Mission to serve as the Regional Director for Asia. While more than a little intrigued, I remained in my position as President of Concordia University. As a result, this alternate reality never materialized.

Although I never acquired expertise on the subject, one thing quite evident to me is that the LCMS cares a lot about world missions. There are, however, alternate visions on mission in the LCMS based on alternative missiologies. Have we made the right choices? What is lost, and what is gained? What is the best way forward? What if …?

To that end, I asked two career missionaries — pastors with extraordinary experience on the front lines of the mission field, and in critical administrative roles — to explore a few questions with me. It is my decision not to identify either by name. Between the two of them there are over 80 years of international missionary-focused service, and each remains actively engaged in international work today. I am grateful for their willingness to engage in dialogue and present perspectives sometimes disregarded in our circles. It is always helpful to bring credible individuals to the table to represent various points of view.

1. How would you describe the historical approach of the LCMS to world missions?

Missionary 1: The LCMS’ passion for mission from the mid-20th century was energized following World War II as service members returned home after their exposure to people and cultures from around the world. The LCMS mobilized congregations from across the nation … men, women, and young people from all walks of life. The missionary force was composed of nearly every vocation imaginable: laborers, doctors, nurses, pilots, teachers, farmers, builders, pastors, translators, and youth workers. The whole people of God were equipped and sent to immerse themselves in communities where Christ was not known. It was through individual witness and new relationships that scores of people in other lands and of other cultures met Christians for the first time in their lives. And it was through these relationships that people came to know Jesus and ultimately became members of the Body of Christ. Not all at once. Not quickly. In some cases, it took a decade before the first new believer was baptized.

It was my privilege for 15 years in the mission field to witness firsthand the power of the Holy Spirit at work in rural areas, villages, and towns bringing people to faith through the witness of those whom He had brought into their lives — believers who came from multiple vocations within the Body of Christ. It was there that I learned from the missionaries who had gone before me, as they “passed the baton” of relationships, programs, and plans for expanding the community of believers in that place, and most importantly, passing on the missionary vision to those whom we served. Missionaries who became a part of the communities they served knew that the Holy Spirit was at work long before they arrived, preparing hearts and minds to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

As people witnessed members of the Body of Christ at work among them, in whatever vocation, the community of believers began to grow. This growth occurred as it always has since the days of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts and throughout the New Testament. Indeed, the LCMS missionary outreach in the second half of the 20th century resulted in countless numbers of new believers, and no fewer than 16 new indigenous church bodies. These same church bodies beautifully revealed the rich cultural tapestry of God’s people who come from every tribe and nation, under one head, Jesus Christ.

Missionary 2: The mission goal of the LCMS in the 20th century was always to establish functioning Lutheran synods that would not only serve their members but also expand and extend local mission efforts. However, and worth noting, this was never a clergy-only endeavor. The entirety of the LCMS and its membership was actively engaged. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League funded mission projects and supported missionaries, the Walther League gathered construction work groups, campus ministries sent students on mission trips, and the Lutheran Hour began broadcasting the Gospel in countries around the world.

The result of these initiatives was far reaching. Hospitals were built and staffed in India, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, and Nigeria. Schools, seminaries, and vocational training centers were established in nearly every country where LCMS missionaries served. Translators learned languages and produced Bibles and educational materials in the vernacular. Relief and development ministries built economic infrastructure, dug wells, developed agricultural capacity, and built airstrips. The quest to let the light of Christ shine was not limited to serving only Lutherans, though many came to Lutheranism through the education and humanitarian efforts of LCMS mission efforts. All were served.

Local solutions to issues and concerns were invariably the most effective ones. Yet, LCMS missionaries — both lay and clergy — found excellent ways to partner with these churches. According to the mission report in the 2010 Convention Workbook (p. 30), there were 109 GEO (Globally Engaged in Outreach) missionaries serving around the world. These missionaries were mostly lay persons, and they were often an excellent resource for local congregation’s outreach into their communities. Pastors helped with theological training to equip evangelists and plant churches. Educators supported the schools that were run by national churches. Medical personnel helped local doctors and dentists serve the physical needs.

2.  What changes have you observed over the course of your tenure as missionaries and leaders in our Church’s world mission efforts?

Missionary 1: For the past decade, the LCMS mission department has chosen to leave countries where LCMS missionaries had spent years developing relationships through which the Gospel message would be conveyed — countries where Christian witness is challenging such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey. Regrettably, we have also deeply offended some partner church bodies. Well-known examples of this include The Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod and The Lutheran Church of Argentina. Both of these partners originally emerged from LCMS missionary efforts, but we have done much damage to our relationships with important liaisons for global mission outreach. 

Moreover, as if to underscore the departure from traditional LCMS mission efforts which were broader and involved many sorts of missionaries, our publications now routinely feature almost exclusively ordained clergy — pastors clothed in full vestments, distributing communion or preaching. While by no means diminishing critical pastoral roles, one wonders if the not-so-subtle subliminal message is “laity, this is not for you.”

Missionary 2: Quite clearly, the LCMS strategy today is much more clergy-centric with a particular emphasis on LCMS pastors establishing Lutheran congregations. The laity is used far less for direct evangelism work. Career missionaries and personnel are used in administrative or support roles. In contrast to what formerly was a robust program, today there are 5 GEOs compared to approximately 109 in 2010. (LCMS Missionary Database)

Further, there is an emphasis on creating and directing regional seminaries instead of entrusting national church bodies with training their own pastors. This more pronounced LCMS influence has also carried over to worship practices. Presumptions about “the right way to worship” have discouraged national churches from determining their own forms and liturgical practice and instead steered them to follow LCMS translations of the Lutheran Service Book.

3.  What are your biggest concerns about these changes? 

Missionary 1: The effort to establish regional seminaries among our partner churches, presumably to assure doctrinal purity and adaptation of uniform practices, is one concern. Seminaries and the Divine Service have become a central focus for LCMS missions today. However, these are NOT the areas where the primary missionary task of introducing people to Christ is carried out. Yes, Christian believers are certainly empowered through corporate worship and Holy Communion, as they have been for centuries. But the missionary task requires the community of believers — the whole church — to be disbursed among their communities and meeting people in their homes, in their fields, and in their family circles, as the whole people of God witness to His presence among people in their everyday lives.

Missionary 2: Very concerning is the fact that the international missionary force has declined so much in recent years. This reduction is primarily due to the removal of lay missionaries serving in evangelism positions. (Note: Missionary 2 provided a list of 80 career missionaries who have left the field between 2010 to 2018. I have chosen not to publish this list without their permission.)

Of additional concern, our partner churches are becoming more dependent on the LCMS and less able to direct their own affairs. In some situations, our partners have become quite frustrated with us. For example, the Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod (starting in 2018) and Lutheran Church in Argentina (in 2016) raised grievances that had to be addressed by the Council of Presidents.

I have theological concerns as well. First, the clergy-centered approach gives the impression that mission begins with a pastor who leads Divine Service and, from this starting point, a congregation is formed. However, our Lutheran doctrine clearly teaches that there can be no call to a pastor until a congregation has formed. Pieper writes, “Only a congregation can establish the public ministry. Only after the mission work on Crete had resulted in congregations did Paul command Titus (Titus 1:5) to ordain elders ‘in every city.’” (Pieper 3:439) 

Luther himself writes: 

“Where there are no Christian congregations, as in a pagan country, there can be no public ministry, no service in the name of a congregation. But as soon as the missionary activity has borne fruit and a congregation has come into existence, the public ministry can be established.” (Pieper 3:440) 

A second theological question concerns the role of laity in the proclamation of the Gospel. Luther writes: 

“It is the office of everyone to instruct his neighbor, etc. And this power is given not to the clergy alone (though [here it is] spoken to the apostles) but to all believers. When you have performed this highest work, seek to become Christ’s apostle.” (LW 69:336)  

Walther states that “every believing Christian should really be a missionary, that is that everyone has the duty to do everything within his calling and station in life to bring also to others the treasure of the saving knowledge which he has already found.” (C. F. W. Walther, “Arise, Let the Light Shine,” The Word of His Grace, Occasional and Festival Sermons, translated and edited by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod Translation Committee (Lake Mills, IA: Graphic Publishing Company, Inc., 1978), 217).

I am also concerned that the extensive departure of mission leaders and missionaries since 2010 leaves a scarcity of experience and historical understanding of context for our LCMS world mission. Some turnover is reasonable to expect, but the upheaval that has occurred has left enormous gaps. Consequently, the shift to a much more clergy-centered mission strategy unavoidably implies a diminished role for non-clergy as proclaimers of the Gospel. Furthermore, the establishment of regional seminaries run by the LCMS indicates a lack of trust in national churches to train their own church workers and define their own practices. The consequences? Partner churches are not empowered to tackle what they can do the best within the context of their cultures, and fewer members of the LCMS priesthood of believers are involved in proclamation of the Gospel at home and in foreign mission fields.

4.  Given our current reality, what do you see as the best way forward? Or put another way, what if …?

Missionary 1: Our current reality is one in which missionary service is mainly limited to “theologically endorsed” clergy sent to countries where partner church bodies already exist. Thus far, the result of this strategy has been the nearly complete elimination of our most experienced missionary personnel. The gap left with the departure of so many who faithfully served in traditional LCMS missionary efforts will be difficult, if not impossible, to bridge. Our great mission heritage, once lost, will be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve.

But what if …? Our church body, once again, commits to sending missionaries of all vocations to learn from other cultures, develop relationships and partnerships, and become valued members of the communities in which they live and serve? We still have a living memory of the powerful ways in which the Holy Spirit opened doors that we never could have imagined. Our world today is crying out for hope, and we have hope in Christ that can truly bring light and life to a world in darkness.


As The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod prepares for elections we have some choices to make. Different visions about evangelism and world mission, Lutheran education at every level, and other issues are at times subtle, and at other times, more substantial. In the LCMS there is much more that unites than divides us. However, the decisions we make have consequences. Between now and this summer we have a lot to discuss and consider. I am hopeful our dialogue gives us many opportunities and occasions to ask hard questions even if there are not easy answers. These conversations will push us forward in our mission work.


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Patrick Ferry in his officePatrick Ferry in his office