POST-PANDEMIC MINISTRY CONFERENCE PROVIDES GREAT INSIGHTS AND RESOURCES
Addressing Technology, Mental Health, and Cultural Issues in Ministry
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FORT WAYNE, IN, November 11, 2021—The Changeless Word in a Changing World: Post-Pandemic Ministry was a one-day conference for pastors, DCEs, deaconesses, other ministry leaders, and lay people, exploring the ministry implications of fully serving the needs of our people, utilizing technology and offering mental health support in the midst of challenging, modern times. To say that ministry was challenging in 2020 would be an understatement, but thankfully the Church is strong, and we emerged with valuable insights. It is the hope and prayer of The Lutheran Foundation and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne (CTSFW), that these section summaries and links at the end will serve as helpful ministry resources.
President of Barna Group David Kinnaman gave a very interesting talk covering the “State of the Church, Pre- and Post-Pandemic.” He noted what he referred to as the “narcissism of the present”—that oftentimes we, as individuals, think that what we are experiencing things that no one else has experienced. We have some of the best of human inventions right in our pockets and within arms reach every day, so Google has become a “counselor, friend, [almost a replacement] ‘Holy Spirit (ever-present help in time of need).” He addressed the kind of churches, spiritual practices, and leaders we need. He encouraged utilizing digital resources for discipleship and spiritual formation, fostering intergenerational mentorship and discipleship, and working to create an emotionally-connected church with humble, agile, and peaceful/non-anxious leaders.
CTSFW President Dr. Larry R. Rast Jr. framed his presentation, “A Historical and Contemporary Response of Hope to a Changing World,” by quoting Daniel Aleshirein, “The past does not determine the future but the layers of influence never go away.” He talked about the decline of the LCMS population since 1971 and referenced an Atlantic Magazine Article, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” talking about how we are being “catechized by our culture” and that “many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics.” While the church catechizes a partial population once per week, culture catechizes daily and voluminously. Technological change is outpacing human adaptability. The things that will keep us connected and carry our churches through—apart, of course, truly the grace of God alone—is practicing relational integrity and flexibility, taking others seriously, cultivating the capacity to empathize, staying confessional while attending to how others see the world and interpret its meaning, and meeting people where they are, even when the challenges seem insurmountable.
“Redeeming Technology,” by the Rev. Trevor Sutton (senior pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan) explored the concept of technology—what it is and how it has been and is applied—in ancient to modern contexts. He compared and contrasted “online church” versus “church online”—how technology is largely the way we take in and view the world and how it can be applied for the good of Christ’s mission and His people. Technology and how we consume media, in a sense, is an extension of our senses—a “self-amputation” of our physical bodies—and alters the way we think and act. For example, if our eyes are viewing another part of the world through a screen, they are not available to view our surroundings. The key to handling devices/things is to apply discipline and skill in a unity of achievement and enjoyment—of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others—and in social union. While the “full Gospel” can be preached and presented online, it is only in the gathering together and sharing of the Sacraments that we experience the “fullness of the Gospel.” In the end, we must continually evaluate and think through the unseen, unanticipated ripples of technology. We must ask ourselves, “How is technology used to the increase of Christ and the decrease of us?” “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
The Rev. Dr. Richard Marrs (professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri) presented “The State of Mental Health in the Church: ‘Post’-Pandemic.” The church has had a complicated relationship with mental health issues for decades. Fortunately, just as the pandemic brought about new challenges, it also brought about new opportunities for the care of souls in our congregations, and in the community. COVID-19 really brought mental health to the forefront of church and cultural conversations, as people from all walks of life felt the effects of stress, uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, and relational and financial strain. While churches have always sought to care for their people in difficult times, it became increasingly clear that offering mental health support and resources needs to be a part of holistic ministry.
Also in a strained time, Martin Luther advocated for the attention to and care for souls in a time when people with mental health issues often faced ridicule. In his book, Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered, Marrs explores Luther as a soul care giver and notes that we can “model his soul care approach, even if we need to do so in a different time, place, and, especially, culture” (p.112). He references historian Winfried Schleiner who “asserts that Luther is the first major historical figure to suggest that people suffering from psychoses and hallucinations (probably from either schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder, then called melancholia) should be treated with compassion and that exploring their personal histories might help explain their odd behavior” (p. 112). It is his hope “that we can share with one another other soul care strategies that we develop that flow from this soul care theology of Luther and the Scriptures” (p. 207).
In “Bright Hope: Opportunities and Growth in Face of Cultural Changes,” the Rev. Mark Kiessling (director of youth ministry at the LCMS in St. Louis, Missouri) resonated with Dr. Rast’s description of societal anxiety, with the rapidly changing “Age of Disruption.” Generation Z has already seen a recession, the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, a state of “endless war,” violence in schools (and everywhere), the derailment of life during the height of COVID-19, and another recession following that. Millennials have learned and adapted quickly, contending with present realities—school debt, lack of affordable housing, distrust of institutions and authority—after a hope-filled childhood. There has been a change in attitudes around usual markers/opportunities of “maturity”: people are getting driver’s licenses later, marrying later, fewer Gen Z kids have jobs in high school, and a general decrease in “at risk” behaviors, such as drugs and alcohol. The term “screenagers” is alive and well (although not limited to teenagers), with a pre-pandemic study noting that kids had nine hours of screen time a day (not including school work). We need to be aware of the “paradox” of living in a fallen world, establishing boundaries when all the world’s information is at your fingertips, but doesn’t necessarily solve anything. The “easiest/best” time to be alive also contends with challenges no recent generation has faced. We have knowledge, but lack wisdom, often consuming media that creates bias and removes opportunities for critical thinking.
There is hope, however. Research (Kiessling’s and others’) shows resilience in young people who are a part of healthy congregations and families. Youth realize their friends are unchurched and want to share the Gospel with them. Many young people want to be a part of the “solution,” so we need to find ways to invite them into the conversation and leadership. We may need to let them lead (and fail with forgiveness). Youth are often ready for deep, fun conversations about the Word of God and vocation. Spiritual education, such as catechesis, may not follow the same process or steps it has in the past. It’s important to address distractions and the culture; we can’t ignore reality. Engaging and empowering is key, alongside leading with love, not fear.
In “Beyond Livestream: Leveraging Technology for Deep Discipleship,” the Rev. Matt Peeples (senior pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey) discusses how to “create authentic connection in a world of content.” Despite the fact that 90% of churches now offer livestreaming (versus the 10% pre-pandemic), livestreaming is not our only opportunity to leverage technology for the Gospel and the discipling of God’s people. It’s important to evaluate demographics and be intentional in platform use. Where are your people currently walking/interacting/living? How can you meet them there? Peeples recommends focusing on the one or two platforms that will make the biggest impact on your audience, even Googling different platforms to learn best practices and rules of engagement. Generation Z wants relationship, and creating a platform for this will be huge in reaching them now and in the future—ideally including recordings or live interactions with church workers of different ethnic backgrounds. In all of our teaching, Peeples said that transformational learning is 10% content, 20% mentorship, and 70% put into practice. When creating content, don’t work too hard to reinvent the wheel—there are already a lot of great resources for churches available online (he gave several examples, listed at the end of this article).
“The State of Mental Health for Clergy and Professional Church Workers: ‘Post’-Pandemic” was presented by the Rev. Dr. Richard Marrs, a licensed therapist who is also a pastor and has witnessed firsthand how many professional church workers, both ordained and commissioned, have felt additional stresses on various areas of health throughout the pandemic. Due to the selfless natures of these occupations, oftentimes church workers don’t allow themselves the same care, attention to needs (spiritual, emotional, mental, physical), and time for rest that they may advocate for others. There are many joys and challenges connected to full-time ministry, and it is important to keep in mind the importance of relational health in a church worker’s home, ministry setting, and community. As church workers attend to the spiritual needs of others, it is important to use grounded Christian strategies for the improvement of relationships with God, self, and others. Beyond pursuing relational health support for the sake of the individuals and their families alone, healthy ministries are tied to healthy servants in ministry. When church workers attend to their own needs, the resulting improved ministerial health allows “the Word of God continue to increase…” (Acts 6:1–7).
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Seltz (executive director of the LCMS Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C.) addressed the need for “Christ’s Spiritual First Responders for 21st Century Mission.” While modern culture does not value the church and its workers the same way it does other first responders, such attitudes have never stopped the Church’s mission to seek and to save that which was lost. Christians are called to be spiritual first responders, to “love as I have loved you” (John 13:34), to be “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20), ready and willing to go “into the fire” (Matthew 6:12-14). We need to cultivate this “into the fire” mindset—it’s the mindset of our Savior, His salvation, His disciples, and those who live life in His name for others. In this modern era, the church is not as valued, but it is needed like never before. The world is passionately, confidently confused about basic things in life, as well as arrogantly assured that it has all the answers it needs, and it doesn’t need God. Well-trained, well-prepared, spiritual first responders are needed for such a time as this—to help God’s people in the fires that are burning to destroy their hearts and minds. Most of all, it’s their courage to run into the fire, to run towards the shooter, to run into the rubble, to save and to protect others—even when everyone else is running for their lives. Thankfully, Christ has entered our fire, endured our fire, and brought us through the fire by His death and resurrection. By grace through faith in Him, we are standing on twice- burned ground in Him amidst the fires of sin and death that still rage. Because of his life and legacy, our Lord’s first responders are motivated by grace, with the wisdom of the Word and the mind of Christ for the sake of others.
No matter what the challenges to ministry—pre-, mid-, or post-pandemic—praise God for the tremendous stability we share as brothers and sisters in Christ, even in the midst of chaos. Praise the Lord for intelligent and talented people who are willing to share resources as we all work together to strengthen and grow our ministries serving our Lord and our congregations. Praise our Heavenly Father for the changeless Word in a changing world.
The following is a list of all of the speakers who presented at The Changeless Word in a Changing World: Post-Pandemic Ministry, along with links to resources that CTSFW and The Lutheran Foundation pray you will find helpful in your ministry:
“State of the Church, Pre- and Post-Pandemic”—David Kinnaman
Participants were also given his book, “Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon”
“A Historical and Contemporary Response of Hope to a Changing World”—Dr. Lawrence Rast Jr.
Princeton theological review.org/issues_pdf/4
“Redeeming Technology: The Impact of Technology for Ministry Today”—Rev. Trevor Sutton
Book: Redeeming Technology
“The State of Mental Health in the Church: ‘Post’-Pandemic”—Rev. Dr. Richard Marrs
Book: Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered
“Bright Hope: Opportunities and Growth in Face of Cultural Changes”—Rev. Mark Kiessling
“Beyond Livestream: Leveraging Technology for Deep Discipleship”—Matt Peeples
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“The State of Mental Health for Clergy and Professional Church Workers: ‘Post’-Pandemic”— Rev. Dr. Richard Marrs
Bible Study: Compassion Fatigue: Serving Our Lord Faithfully Without Burning Out
“Christ’s Spiritual First Responders for 21st Century Mission”—Dr. Gregory Seltz
The Center for Religious Liberty Podcast: Capitol Conversations
Soli Deo Gloria