Monday, August 26, 2013

Can you imagine a church like this?

By Larry Beane

Can you imagine a Lutheran church that has avoided the pitfalls of lay-ministry and lady deacons, a church that retains Article XIV and does not have a hire//fire mentality regarding her pastors, a church in which a man generally serves five years as a deacon before being ordained to the pastoral ministry (with no fast-track path), a church grounded in doctrine and practice in the historic catholic faith as confessed and articulated in the Book of Concord? Can you imagine a church where not a single congregation uses individual shot glasses or grape juice, where not one parish has "contemporary" worship - no rock music, no praise bands, no dancing girls, and no chancel dramas?  Can you imagine a church in which every Sunday communion is universally practiced as long as there is an ordained pastor to preside?  Can you imagine a church with no CRM controversy, no power struggles pitting districts against pastors and congregations, with arguments settled by politics and bylaws?  Can you imagine a church with no district and synod conventions, and no running for political office?

It may sound like a pipe-dream to us in the LCMS - even though we fancy ourselves as the orthodox among the orthodox.

Of course, there is no perfect church because there are no perfect church members.  But there is confessional faithfulness according to scripture, the confessions, and the catholic tradition - and that is found in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC).  They are a church that practices what we at Gottesdienst preach.  They are also a church in full altar and pulpit fellowship with the LCMS, whose ties to the SELC go back almost to the very fall of the Soviet Union.

And no, not every SELC pastor wears a chasuble (most can't afford them).  Very few congregations use incense (St. Andrew, the cathedral church in Novosibirsk may be the only one that does), and the SELC services are spoken rather than chanted.  But the Divine Services conducted in the SELC are Russian versions of the traditional Western Mass.  Pastors are not free to cut and paste the liturgy.  The most noticeable thing that strikes the visitor to a Siberian Lutheran church is the reverence.  There is no nonsense, no games, no gimmicks - and yet there is pure unbridled joy, as the younger parishioners have only recently discovered the treasure of the gospel and the older members recall vividly when they were persecuted, their families exiled, their pastors shot, and their churches razed.  They understand that what happens in a church is truly important.  

Fortunately, we do not share this experience of persecution and trial in America.  But unfortunately, our Christian culture is lukewarm, and many take their liberty to worship and the treasure we have in the Holy Things completely for granted.

The SELC has its share of challenges.  There are relatively few congregations strewn across some eight time zones.  Travel is expensive and time consuming.  Unlike his LCMS counterparts, Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin personally knows and provides pastoral care to every priest and deacon in the SELC.  He stays with them, eats with them, encourages them, baptizes their children, and preaches in their pulpits.  He confirms the youth of the congregation, and does not allow potshots to be taken at the pastors by antagonists.  He visits every congregation, and he is himself a pastor with an altar and a pulpit.

To provide for this kind of genuine churchly fellowship and biblical oversight over such a swath of territory is expensive.  Neither the church nor the bishop is wealthy.  He does not stay in swanky digs when he travels.  Unlike the Russian Orthodox bishops, he does not have luxury cars and drivers.  Likewise the SELC parish priests travel great distances by rail and by road (often hundreds of miles of mud and dirt) in order to visit remote preaching stations and bring the Holy Sacrament to small groups of the scattered holy remnant from the days of Stalin.  Every pastor and deacon in the SELC is bi-vocational.  The SELC clergyman is paid roughly the equivalent of about $400 a month.  His parishioners are often impoverished, and sometimes the only thing they can present as a thank offering takes the form of garden vegetables.

The churches are small, nearly all housed in purchased flats in apartment buildings - and yet they are all traditional and dignified in their simplicity.  They have altars, pulpits, and fonts.  The people kneel to receive the body and blood.  The vessels are not ornate, but appropriate and decorous.  There may be wood carvings or icons adorning the sacred space.  The liturgical action is reverent no matter the circumstances - even if it happens in a beauty salon as the Mass I attended in Chelyabinsk was.

And the fellowship exists outside of the worship itself: tea and snacks, convivial conversation and mutual support, friendship and a sense of genuine fraternal communion forged by generations of enforced Atheism and Communistic hatred against the Church.  When our brothers and sisters in the SELC recite the Nicene Creed, it is said against the backdrop of the history of Gulag camps and secret police.  There is no talk of "clergy domination" - real or imagined - by anyone.

Not only is the SELC a living example of how Lutheranism in practice can indeed look like the Lutheranism of the Book of Concord, the SELC navigates a difficult political and social sea dominated by complex government regulations and a society that often sees any expression of Christianity outside of Russian Orthodoxy to be heretical.  And still, people come to the SELC - from Orthodoxy, from Pentecostalism, from the Jehovah's Witnesses, from the Atheism that still lingers.  There are still pockets of Lutherans being discovered who have lacked pastors since the days of Stalin.  They all come for the gospel preached in its purity and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution - for the forgiveness of sins, for eternal life in Christ.

The SELC stands like a lighthouse amid the storms of abortion and alcoholism; of crime and cronies and cynicism; of long cold winters, perennial poverty, and periods of literal and figurative darkness.  Yet the Church is always bright, for she is illuminated by Christ.  She does not have the luxury to play games or try to draw people into the services with fads and entertainment.  It is far too late in the day for such things.  Christ is returning for His remnant!

Part of the SELC's mission is also to us in the LCMS.  She extends hope to us that we can also look forward to a time when the things we confess are indeed the things we practice.  They have shown us that with God all things are possible.  They have overcome far more than we have, and the Lord has blessed them with faithfulness and steadfastness in the carrying out of our mutual Evangelical Catholic confession.  There is a great affection between many in the LCMS and the SELC, as the first wave of SELC pastors and professors - especially at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Novosibirsk - were educated at Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne under the auspices of the Russian Project.  They learned their confessional faithfulness from confessionally-faithful professors - and they have put it in practice in confessionally-faithful congregations.  We now have them as examples of confessionally-faithful pastors and lay people.

I urge you to get to know Bishop Vsevolod and the clergy and the laity of the SELC!  Many of them are on facebook.  Some of them speak English quite well.  And even those who don't speak English still communicate with us through Google Translate.  It means a great deal to them knowing that they have brothers and sisters on the other side of the planet who know they exist, who pray for them, who love them, and who confess that we are all one body.  For when one of them hurts, we all hurt.  When one wins the victory in Christ, we are all more than conquerors.  Individuals and congregations can sponsor a congregation and can earmark donations for the people that they can actually get to know thanks to technology such as facebook and Skype.

The Siberian Lutheran Mission Society (SLMS) is made up of mostly American Lutherans who are supporting our Siberian brethren in prayers and in offerings.  Over the years, the SLMS has made it possible for many church flats to be purchased, for evangelism to be funded, to support the travel of pastors to remote regions, and to provide for ongoing catechesis of lay people - including camps for children.  The SLMS has a unique policy concerning donations: 100% of gifts are wired to Russia.  All "overhead" is paid for by separate private donors.  You really can help in very real and tangible ways!

I would urge every Gottesdienst and Gottesdienst Online reader to check the website!  The newsletters - available online back to 2003 - are written by Russian pastors and laypeople, and they give an accurate and moving account of Christian life in the former Soviet Union, of the triumph of the Church of Jesus Christ over the spite and abuse of the commissars and party apparatchiks and relentless social pressure.  This is intense, captivating, and joyful reading.  They were also so kind as to link to my travelblog from 2011.  Several of the editors at Gottesdienst have been to Russia (some several times) to lecture in a variety of settings, teaching pastors, seminarians, and lay people the Christian faith and pastoral wisdom.  I would also point you to the Rev. Prof. Alan Ludwig's website and blog; Fr. Alan has been teaching at Novosibirsk since 1998.  His writing is fascinating and utterly inspiring.  

In spite of their poverty, social and political challenges, vast distances and harsh climate, small numbers, and a hostile culture, our brothers and sisters keep the faith day in and day out.  

LCMS pastor Fr. Daniel Johnson, who served a congregation in Iowa for nearly 20 years, who has traveled almost annually to Siberia for some 14 years, and who is the immediate past president of the SLMS, is now the LCMS mission catechist to Eurasia.  He is in Siberia right now.  Unfortunately, his new position makes it harder for him to raise funds and support the SLMS and the SELC on the homefront.  He reports that SLMS funds are extremely low right now.

If you would like to support a Gottesdienst-friendly mission outreach, genuine Lutheranism and an outpouring of the Holy Gospel to people in need of its joy and freedom, without the nonsense that too often accompanies missionary endeavors, please contact the SLMS and find out how you can sponsor a congregation - even if it is with a small amount.  They really need ongoing support.  One day, Russian missionaries may need to come to America and teach Miley Cyrus's grandchildren who Jesus is and how to recite the catechism.  One day, beneficiaries of our mission gifts to Russia may come back to us as our own people may emerge from persecution in need of instruction and faithful Lutheran doctrine and practice.

In Novosibirsk, the cathedral seat of the SELC and the location of Lutheran Theological Seminary, there is a small Russian Orthodox chapel, St. Nicholas, located on a main boulevard named for Lenin, on what is purported to be the exact geographical center of the old Russian empire.  The original chapel was destroyed by Stalin, but it was rebuilt after the fall of Communism - and is once again a Christian house of worship.  On the outside of this monument that represents Russia's center is an icon of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

This would have been unthinkable a little more than 20 years ago when the Soviet Union existed.  And in spite of Lutheranism being the second largest Christian confession in Russia before the Revolution, and having been there since the Reformation itself, it was virtually destroyed by the time of Stalin.  But thanks to faithful lay people who kept the faith alive in the Gulag and in exile, teaching their children to pray, squirreling away Bibles and catechisms, and reciting scripture from memory - the Lutheran Church outlived the Communist State.  Today there are pastors and churches - and there are a lot of children and young adults who are pioneers - not like the old red-scarfed Pioneer Movement for children being indoctrinated into Communism, but rather a new generation of free people, pioneers catechized into Christianity and Christian liberty in the gospel under the red of the blood of Christ.

We have the opportunity to take part in this ongoing miracle.  Please check out the SLMS and prayerfully consider helping our brothers and sisters bring the gospel to Russia!  If you have not seen the above video before, it is well worth a view.  It is an accurate and moving portrait of the Holy Spirit's work in Russia, especially through the ministry of the pastors in the lives of the faithful in the parishes, everywhere where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered in faithfulness.  


  1. Why do they use the Western Rite, not the Eastern? Just wondering, since I know the Ukrainian Lutheran Church uses the Eastern Rite. Are they mostly of Germanic background?

  2. Dear Brian,

    I'm speculating, but I suppose it is because the mother church of the SELC is the Estonian Church - and the Baltic churches - being closely allied to, or descended from, the Scandinavian churches - are western in their orientation. The congregation in Yurga is, I believe, the only ethnically German church in the SELC (services are held there in German). The Ukrainian Lutherans, as I understand the situation, are on the liberal end of things.

  3. What do you mean by liberal? They are in communion with WELS after all (maybe that's what you mean!) . . .

  4. Dear Brian: There are a couple Ukrainians who are serving in the SELC. If memory serves (and please let me confirm this), they left the Ukrainian Lutheran church over matters of biblical interpretation and joined the SELC. They were assigned to serve together at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Chelyabinsk, where one is the pastor and the other is the deacon. My impression was that the Ukrainian Church has a liberal biblical hermeneutic - which certainly doesn't sound like something WELS would be in fellowship with. Let me see if I can find out more.


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