Walking in Wyneken’s Footsteps
The Wyneken Project is promoting and preserving the Lutheran identity in the heart of Baltimore.
When the Rev. Elliott Robertson, pastor of Martini Lutheran Church, Baltimore, wanted to help a sister congregation solve a current problem, he looked back — way back — to a time before the founding of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in 1847.
Although the problem facing neighboring Lutheran Church of the Redeemer was new — significant membership decline during a long pastoral vacancy — at its core, it was the same problem that pastor and missionary (and future Synod president) F.C.D. Wyneken noted when he first arrived in Baltimore in 1838.
Robertson and a group of area pastors got to work on a solution, and soon other struggling congregations were asking, “Can you help us too?”
The work at Redeemer laid the foundation for what is now known as the Wyneken Project, Inc., an LCMS Recognized Service Organization that helps Baltimore-area congregations begin the process of stabilizing and revitalizing after an extended pastoral vacancy.
At the time, Redeemer “was down to five people. It hadn’t had a called pastor in a number of years. They were looking around to other churches to worship there. A couple of us pastors got together and said let’s offer stability in worship,” Robertson recalls.
The pastors worked together to provide regular Word and Sacrament ministry at Redeemer, while encouraging members of the congregation to renew their 17-year search for a full-time, called pastor.
In 2014, prayers were answered when the Rev. Roy Axel Coats accepted the call to Redeemer, where he now serves as a worker priest. And by the grace of God, Redeemer’s membership has increased tenfold, thanks to a connection with the large Liberian population that now resides in the surrounding neighborhood.
Now the Wyneken Project answers with a resounding “Yes!” when congregations ask for assistance, since the congregations to which the pastors are called support them in this work and consider it an extension of their ministry.
After Redeemer, the Wyneken Project went on to assist Our Saviour Lutheran Church, which was later able to call the Rev. Charles McClean in 2013, and Nazareth Lutheran Church, to which the Rev. Arthur Boone came in 2016.
“We didn’t always know what we were doing, but we knew what God prescribed in how a church works in a beautiful pastoral relationship,” Robertson says. The organization, which is directed by a five-person board representing four area congregations, operates according to one principle: Pastors need churches to be pastors, and churches need pastors to do what God calls them to do.
In return for this assistance, the Wyneken Project requires that a church commit to five things: regular worship, visiting the sick and shut-in, attending Bible study, engaging in intentional outreach that tells of Jesus Christ crucified, and giving outside the congregation.
‘Button-holing’ for the Gospel
“While Wyneken was here in Baltimore, he was shocked at the deplorable nature of the German Lutherans who had come and knew everything but Jesus Christ,” Robertson says. “He was known to button-hole Germans — truly, put his finger in the button hole of their coat and talk to them until he had told them about Jesus Christ. He wanted people to know their Savior.”
That same missionary zeal exists today among the churches in Baltimore. The Wyneken Project is dedicated to preserving the Lutheran identity in the city — promoting Lutheran worship and Lutheran theology — but that doesn’t mean preserving a primarily Anglo church.
Today, they are not only “button-holing” Germans, but they are telling everyone they meet about their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
At Redeemer, growth has come from Liberian refugees and immigrants who moved into the surrounding community. The connection started when one Liberian man, who had become Lutheran through the Synod’s overseas mission work, knocked on Redeemer’s door. He was looking for a Lutheran church in his new home. Over time, other Liberians — most of whom had no Lutheran background — also joined the church.
“I’ve been blessed by the faithful five who remained and the Liberians who have come in,” Coats says. “We are united by the common liturgy we have — we do Setting 3 from the Lutheran Service Book. … We also have very strong catechesis, which unites us in the common confession of the Church.”
Around Nazareth, Boone walks the streets and, much like Wyneken did, strikes up conversations with people (in Boone’s case, in Spanish) about their Savior. The church continues to strengthen these ties through English-as-a-Second-Language classes, monthly activities for families, free winter coats for children through a partnership with Maryland Orphan Grain Train, and a full-day summer program for children.
God has blessed these efforts, and the church now welcomes some 30 Spanish-speaking people to worship each week, where just two years ago there were none. Hispanic members now outnumber Anglo members in the congregation.
“We think of Midwest Lutheranism as vibrant and rich, and there is every reason for a resurgence of vibrant, rich Lutheranism here as well, especially as we see God at work in these Word and Sacrament ministries,” Robertson says. “Part of our Lutheran identity is upholding Wyneken himself, who was a very important Lutheran pastor here in Baltimore. It’s through his work that we exist today. He was very active in reaching out to immigrants, and we continue to do that today.”
Reversing the Trend
Robertson and Coats are grateful for the support they’ve received from their congregations and other Baltimore Lutherans — there are 18 LCMS congregations in the greater Baltimore area — as well as from LCMS leaders at the LCMS International Center in St. Louis and the Synod’s two seminaries.
“While the footprint of the church continues to shrink in our cities, the Wyneken Project is an excellent example of how we can organize and work together to reverse the trend,” says the Rev. Dr. Steve Schave, director of both LCMS Urban & Inner-City Mission and LCMS Church Planting. “They are committed to both expanding the mission field of existing struggling congregations and also starting new missions to new people groups in Baltimore, which is at the heart of our Mission Field: USA initiative.”
Historically, Baltimore has always been a very Lutheran city, and it still retains portions of the infrastructure built by the faithful fathers and mothers of the church. Now, thanks be to God, the Gospel is making Baltimore a Lutheran city once again — one congregation at a time.
- About the Wyneken Project: wynekenproject.org
- LCMS Urban & Inner-City Mission boosts revitalization efforts in city ministries while sharing the Gospel across cultures: lcms.org/citymission
- LCMS Church Planting sends national missionaries to underserved areas and provides resources to assist in planting distinctly Lutheran churches through the Mission Field: USA initiative: lcms.org/churchplanting
Pray with Us
Father, You care for all people and You call Your children to gather together around the Word and Sacraments. Be with congregations who have lost members and struggle to call a pastor. Bless the work of the Wyneken Project as they strengthen and encourage congregations and work to bring a pastor to serve them. Let all of us rely upon Your gracious provision and trust that Your Kingdom comes as You promise through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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