A Look at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia
From rural and urban ministries to church worker wellness to pastoral education to campus outreach — and so much more — The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) certainly keeps busy within our church body.
But we also regularly step outside of the LCMS to build bridges with other Lutheran church bodies worldwide. One of these is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL), a church body serving more than 333,700 members in 293 congregations.
Our Synod’s relationship with the ELCL has been “cordial, respectful, friendly and steadily improving over the past three decades,” said Rev. Dr. John Bombaro, missionary to Latvia. “That is, ever since Latvia regained independence from Communist rule under the Soviet Union in May 1990.”
Bombaro added that “the Latvian Lutherans may be the LCMS’ closest allies and most trusted partner in Eastern Europe.” Of course, that’s no surprise, considering the robust relationship that’s been cultivated between the churches.
One of the best things
It started just after the Reformation, a relationship-centered on our shared Evangelical-Catholic tradition of Lutheranism, explained Bombaro. Then, in 1997, the LCMS donated a building in Old Town Riga, Latvia’s capital.
Today, this building houses Riga Luther Academy, which is thriving in educating seminarians and church workers.
Full-time missionaries from the LCMS now work with the ELCL to strengthen the Riga Luther Academy. Partnerships with Concordia University Irvine and Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., provide a stable, confession-based curriculum for the new English language online degree program at the academy.
“Certainly, the best thing about our relationship with our sister church in Latvia is the bond of trust and commitment to serving the Holy Trinity in accordance with the Word of God,” Bombaro said.
“We share like goals in a common confession of faith. So, although Latvian and English could not be more dissimilar, we ‘speak’ the same Lutheran language.”
Rev. Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, executive director for the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, agrees. Our relationships with other partner churches, like the one in Latvia, are built on the clear Word of Christ. We desperately need that strong foundation.
Why we need each other
“Our partner churches around the globe share with us a commitment to the truth of the faith we confess, based on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and to its proclamation near and far,” said Lehenbauer. In a secularized, ever-changing world, Lehenbauer notes several reasons we need each other:
“To faithfully and boldly proclaim Christ globally. To encourage each other in the face of inevitable challenges and obstacles. To share in outreach and international mission efforts. To learn from each other through those efforts. And to remind one another that we labor in vain apart from the Christ-centered, Scripture-based faith that we commonly believe, teach and confess.”
Like all of the LCMS’ relationships with other Lutherans worldwide, our partnership with the Lutheran church in Latvia is not a one-way street.
What cultural diversity provides
“The [LCMS] can learn from Latvian resolve and steadfastness,” said Bombaro. “For decades, Lutheran families’ faith went, in large part, underground during the Communist era. They preserved the faith in song, and home catechesis passed on from grandparents to parents to children. When atheistic Communism retreated in 1990, more than 20 percent declared their Christian faith in the Lutheran tradition. That’s resolve in the face of hardship.”
We also learn how to care for our stateside churches because the world continues to arrive at our doorstep.
“The LCMS and our partners can and must grow in our understanding of how to be faithful in an increasingly diverse and often increasingly hostile context,” shared Rev. Daniel McMiller, executive director of the Office of International Mission.
As cultural diversity continues to grow, McMiller said, “A major benefit of this rich history of global missionary and church partner engagement under the [LCMS] Office of the President is greater understanding, and concrete assistance that the LCMS can provide back home …. So, what we learn in foreign lands through our partnerships is directly applicable to our church body, seminaries, universities, district leadership and congregations here and now.”
We are in this together
Rev. Kevin Robson, LCMS chief mission officer, said, “It is an indescribable blessing to discover and strengthen a common confession of the faith with fellow Christians around the world. When we intentionally join with other church bodies, we mutually rejoice and are encouraged and built up. Even in suffering together against formidable trials and challenges. We vividly live out what we have declared to be at the baptismal font: Christ’s one body.”
Bombaro concludes that someday — maybe soon — all that we’ve learned from the Latvian church may help us in ways we can’t yet fathom. “Keep your eyes on this region of the world,” he said.
“While Western Europe and North America slouch toward anti-Christian humanitarianism and ideological multiculturalism, Poland, Latvia, Hungary and Lithuania are rediscovering their identities grounded in a once lively and earnest Christian heritage. Latvia has a role to play in this drama, and the Riga Luther Academy will be in the thick of the action.”
That Christian heritage is something we are proud to be a part of and a future we hope to help the church thrive in — in our country and beyond.