“What Can We Learn from Them?”

“What Can We Learn from Them?”


Editor’s Note: The following essay, co-written by the presidents of the two seminaries of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Concordia Journal. Presidents Meyer (right) and Rast (left) are pictured above with Dr. Bruk Ayele, president of Mekane Yesus Seminary, in his office in Addis Ababa.

Four travelers went to Ethiopia in March: Presidents Dale Meyer of Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, and Lawrence Rast of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Skopak and Mr. Andemichael Tesfazion of Grace Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Pastor Skopak and Mr. Tesfazion went especially to see the support of their congregation for orphans and to explore ways to support local congregations in and around Bishoftu. Presidents Meyer and Rast went especially to meet with Dr. Bruk Ayele, president of the Mekane Yesus Seminary (MYS) in Addis Ababa to discuss how our three seminaries can partner in our Lutheran mission for the Lord Jesus.[1] It was an absolutely inspiring trip. The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) is experiencing growth like that of the early church in Acts and soon will be the church home of ten million people. Upon returning to the United States and sharing our experiences, people asked, “What can we learn from them?”

There are several fundamental learnings for congregations, seminaries, and our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. But first . . . Ethiopia is a storied land, mentioned already in the ancient poem of Homer.

But now Poseidon had gone to visit the Ethiopians worlds away,
Ethiopians off at the farthest limits of mankind,
A people split in two, one part where the Sungod sets
And part where the Sungod rises. There Poseidon went
To receive an offering, bulls and rams by the hundred—
Far away at the feast the Sea-lord sat and took his pleasure.
But the other gods, at home in Olympian Zeus’s halls,
Met for full assembly there . . . [2]

The fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale, perhaps essentially true but delightfully embellished with myth, of how the king of Ethiopia dealt with spies sent by Cambyses, the king of Persia. In a second passage Herodotus describes the dress and weaponry of Ethiopians who fought for Xerxes.[3] The Greek geographer Strabo, 64 BC to perhaps AD 21, has many descriptions of the land and its people throughout his seventeen books. Ethiopia, sometimes identified as Cush, is often mentioned in the Bible.[4] Most familiar to us is the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26–40.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah (53:7–8). . . . And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.

In ancient history “Ethiopia” defined various regions in Africa, sometimes even the Saudi Arabian peninsula, but “by late biblical times, however, the geographical meaning of the term had come to be well limited to the lands south of Egypt.”[5]

Ethiopia’s more recent history has not always been favorable. Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974 and replaced by the Derg, a military government that identified with communism and the Soviet Union. It was a time of persecution for Christians. Our fellow traveler Mr. Tesfazion had been an officer in the Ethiopian Air Force and spent years in jail under the Derg. Many of his fellow prisoners were executed. One Ethiopian pastor told us how he and others would leave their homes and spend nights in the desert to escape Derg soldiers who might break into their homes to conscript them. In these times of persecution, the church grew. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”[6] The Derg’s reign of terror ended in 1987 and today Ethiopia has a federal parliamentary government. Christians are free to worship and evangelize, although there are some restrictions. For example, private schools cannot teach Christianity. Christianity is about 63 percent of the country’s 102 million inhabitants. Muslims, about one-third of the population, are aggressively seeking converts. But it was the growth of the EECMY that amazed us, showing us that God is fulfilling prophecies from long ago. “Nobles shall come from Egypt; Cush (Ethiopia) shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God” (Ps 68:31). “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush . . .” (Is 11:10–11).

Now to the pressing question: What can we learn from them? People ask that question because the LCMS is not growing. President Rast made a presentation to about seventy pastors and evangelists of the EECMY and laid out how our LCMS has grown through its history up to 1970. First he presented LCMS growth by decade:

1847–1850      58%                             1900–1910      20%
1850–1860      343%                           1910–1920      14%
1860–1870      154%                           1920–1930      15%
1870–1880      90%                             1930–1940      24%
1880–1890      32%                             1940–1950      29%
1890–1900      39%                             1950–1960      65%

More recent decades have painted a more challenging picture:

Year:               Congregations:            Baptized Members:
1847                30                                4099
1967                5993                            2,847,425
1977                6051                            2,776,958
1987                6269                            2,707,134
1997                6213                            2,603,036
2007                6158                            2,383,084
2017                6052                            1,968,641

The first basic learning is that the American cultural context has changed. We live in different circumstances today. They are not better or worse; they are different. Yet our Synod and many of its institutions developed their structures in a time and for a world that has since radically changed. We are all familiar with the decline of mainline Christianity and the rise of the “nones,” people who do not identify with a Christian denomination. We find ourselves in the midst of a culture that is changing before our eyes and doing so with a rapidity that the LCMS has not experienced since we transitioned from German to English between the two world wars. Traveling throughout the church, in a different congregation almost every weekend, we meet pastors and laypeople who know we are in changed times. Some are discouraged and resigned to decline, grieving what they’ve seen lost in their lifetimes. A few are rejoicing to see their congregation growing. In general, however, and this is an opinion, a large percentage of people in the Synod, in national, district, and congregational structures and agencies, have not come to terms with our changed times and hence have not moved toward changes necessary for our new American context. We hasten to add—we’re not talking about changing or watering down our precious doctrine!

With that overarching change in our LCMS cultural context, what else can we learn from the growing EECMY? A vision that God’s work is global and multiethnic in the United States is a key to energizing local ministry and mission. Hence a second fundamental learning is that we do well to weave mission stories and mission trips into our shared life as Missouri Synod Lutherans. A St. Louis area pastor recently asked President Meyer how he could energize his congregation. His church is at peace, relationships are fine, finances passing, but this pastor wants more “get up and go.” President Meyer’s suggestion was mission trips. When people have an experience with Christians in a different context than the friendly confines of their congregation, they see worship and congregational life at home in a different way. You don’t need to leave the country; short experiences are effective too. St. Louis and Fort Wayne both have numerous opportunities for outreach to immigrant groups. All major metropolitan areas have significant ethnic groups, first and second generation immigrants, who need the Gospel and Lutheran outreaches are many. LINC has vibrant ministries in several major metropolitan areas. Mapleton, Iowa, is home to Mission Central, always an inspiring visit.

A third learning is “two wings.” The Rev. Dr. Wakseyoum Idossa, immediate past president of the EECMY, described their church’s approach as such. The first “wing” is evangelization. The second is human care. Ethiopia is one of the poorest nations in Africa. So, as just one example, the Central Ethiopian Synod has a program for congregations that involves fifteen church members of a local congregation and fifteen non-church members. The program teaches the thirty how to become entrepreneurs and thus work their way out of poverty. Obviously the non-church members learn about Jesus and the fellowship of the local congregation. “Two wings” is not how most of our congregations saw their mission in twentieth-century “Christian America.” Local congregations preached and shared the gospel, but human care was often done by government institutions. The Christian cultural milieu understood that we are all to love our neighbor through works of mercy. In today’s post-churched America the witness of the local congregation will be more effective with the “two wings”—evangelization and human care. “Don’t tell me what a friend I have in Jesus until I see what a friend I have in you.” Interestingly, Walther’s The Proper Form of a Christian Congregation shows that this “two wings” approach was an important aspect of the congregations of the Synod’s life together in our early history.

A fourth fundamental learning is to communicate to people throughout the LCMS how our seminaries are partnering to share confessional Lutheran theology at home and abroad. This consumes a far greater portion of our professors’ time and seminary resources than most people realize. Yes, we form the next generation of pastors and deaconesses for the LCMS but our involvements with seminaries overseas is forming generations to come in confessional Lutheranism. Both American seminaries have sent professors to teach at MYS and to present to EECMY pastors and evangelists. The EECMY sends students to both of our seminaries, as do many other overseas church bodies. Thirty-four students from fifteen countries are studying at Concordia Theological Seminary and thirty-eight from seventeen countries are at Concordia Seminary. Not only do these international students get world-class formation in confessional Lutheran theology, they also enlarge the panorama of mission for American seminarians and form friendships which will enrich future ministries overseas and in America. As your seminarians learn from international students and hear our professors talk about mission overseas, they cannot help but take the vision to the congregations where they will be called. “This Gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to the nations” (Mt 24:14). Indeed, a growing global vision of our Lord’s church will invigorate ministry and mission in local congregations.

Related to that global vision is your seminaries’ passion to share Lutheran theology with people in America who are not Lutheran. Professors tell us that non-LCMS Christians, especially evangelicals, are discovering the theological depth they desire in the writings of Luther and Lutheran theologians. Non-Lutheran publishers, like Baker and Eerdmans, have been finding a market of Christian readers for distinctively Lutheran theology.[7] The graduate programs at both seminaries have long been open to non-LCMS students and nota bene! This openness does not mean a watering down of what we teach. Your two seminaries will not become generic divinity schools because we will continue to focus our residential programs on the formation of workers for the LCMS and because the bonds between the Synod and her seminaries remains strong. Our vision for the future features our graduate programs acting as “Lutheran leaven” by offering substantial gospel theology to Christians both at home and overseas.

Fifth, congregations and seminaries can cast a vision for a truly multiethnic Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This is more than mission information, which is inspiring to read and hear. This is working to change the faces of the LCMS so that more and more we reflect American demographics and anticipate in time what Revelation (chapter seven) teaches we will see in heaven. Among other effects, the decline of the LCMS has shrunk the pool of pastors for the future if . . . and this is a big if . . . we continue to think of future clergy as white Lutherans of European descent. We certainly do need these candidates for the future; they can invigorate and grow by the Spirit’s grace congregations in communities where the LCMS traditionally does well. But how will ethnic communities in the United States “hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14). Increasing our number of ethnic pastors will help us reach these communities that otherwise may not be blessed with our wonderfully Lutheran christocentric understanding of law and gospel, that “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom 10:13). The student populations at your seminaries are already more diverse than the overall LCMS. The Center for Hispanic Studies and the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology at St. Louis and the Latino SMP program at Fort Wayne offer online learning, but the residential population remains predominantly white and of European descent. We need to begin recruiting the children and grandchildren of immigrants now for residential MDiv and deaconess study. This is your seminaries’ vision, and we pray you and your congregation will find it invigorating and partner with us.

What can we learn from our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus? These points and much more. We in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod live in different circumstances today than in past days of growth. Today’s circumstances are not better or worse; they are different. And they are abundant with new opportunities to share the everlasting gospel. As our years in office as your seminaries’ presidents lengthen, we find ourselves spending much time discussing the vitality of our seminaries twenty and thirty years into the future. We’re habituated to think that future vitality will depend upon money, but in years to come the real challenge facing seminaries may not be money, but people. We’re not going to get our future pastors and deaconesses solely from the demographics of the past. While some are doing so, we need a more general passion throughout the Synod, pews, and pulpits, to reach into the diasporas, those immigrants and their children throughout the United States. The Ethiopian diaspora is some two million people in the United States. When we reach them for Jesus, the second and third generations will have become enculturated in their own ways and will be well qualified for the residential programs at our seminaries. Future pastors and deaconesses with European surnames are needed, yes indeed, but they won’t be enough to make The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grow to reach all of America with the gospel and start to see what we will see in eternity, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rv 7:9). The prophecy of our Savior in Isaiah 49 should be true of us, Christ’s body today.

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is 49:5–6)

We are your seminaries—for the gospel!

Dale A. Meyer
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis
Lawrence R. Rast, Jr.
Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne


[1] Strengthening ties with church leadership at both the national and local synod level was also a central purpose, and meeting with Teshome Amenu, General Secretary, was a highlight. EECMY President Yonas Dibisa was continuing his PhD studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, during our visit, and so we were unable to visit with him on this trip.

[2] Odyssey 1.21–25

[3] Herodotus, The Histories, III.17–23; VII.69–70.

[4] Genesis 2:13; 10:6 (Cush, son of Ham), Numbers 12:1, 2 Samuel 18:21–23, 1 Chronicles 1:8, Psalm 68:31, Isaiah 11:11, Ezekiel 38:5.

[5] Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, II, 177.

[6] Tertullian, Apologeticus, chapter 50.

[7] E.g., Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions, ed. Timothy Wengert (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017); God’s Two Words: Law and Gospel in Lutheran and Reformed Traditions, ed. Jonathan Linebaugh (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

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