The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a long tradition of congregational mercy work and human care from its very inception.

There is little question that C.F.W. Walther, the first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, was a staunch defender of the office of the holy ministry, and held that the primary work of the pastor is to preach the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments.

However, the boundaries of pastoral work are not confined to preaching and consecrating.

Walther wrote, “Although a preacher above all has concern for the spiritual needs of the members of his congregation, concern for the physical well-being, particularly the needs of the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, the infirm, the destitute, the aged, etc., are within the scope of the duties of his office.”[1]

Hence, pastors who encourage their congregations to show mercy to their members and their communities in times of tragedy are well within their role as pastor.

John Frederick Buenger, a young pastoral candidate, traveled with Walther from Saxony, Germany, and settled in Missouri.

Pastor Buenger, who initially served as a parish pastor, experienced enormous personal tragedies including the death of his wife and five children.[2]

Working closely with Walther, Buenger oversaw the formation of Lutheran hospitals in St. Louis, and a large orphanage in the nearby city of Des Peres.

Lueking explains, “John Frederick Buenger’s thirty-five years of pastoral ministry … left a profound influence upon the benevolence ministry of the young Synod. His work in founding the Lutheran Hospital and the Lutheran Orphanage set a pattern in theory and practice of social ministry that continued long after his death.”[3]                                         

During the first 100 years of the LCMS’s history, mercy ministry exploded. “By 1928 the number of hospitals, orphanages, child welfare societies, homes for the aged and institution missions totaled 72.”[4]

In 1950, the Board of Social Welfare was established to help organize the 2,500 people who were serving 100,000 people annually in Lutheran Social Ministries.[5]

By the 1960’s, each district of the LCMS had a board or commission for social welfare and 70 percent of the LCMS congregations had mercy committees.[6]

One of the reasons that congregational mercy work started to decline in the 20th century was because of the Social Gospel Movement.

The Social Gospel Movement, which rose to prominence following World War I, de-emphasized salvation by faith alone in Christ and instead emphasized ethics. The Social Gospel’s focus was not on preaching and receiving the Sacraments, but rather social activism that improved the quality of life of the community.

Unfortunately, in their effort to disassociate themselves from this bad theology, many Lutheran pastors “threw the baby out with the bathwater” and inadvertently removed themselves from works of mercy and compassion in times of tragedy.

Another significant factor was the increased influence of the United States government’s social welfare system. When the government began to do social work, the Church at large slowly handed over its works of mercy and compassion to the government.

The government began to provide aid to the needy, relief during catastrophic disasters and tragedy, and to take responsibility for abandoned or displaced children.

Regrettably, this led to the decline of congregational mercy work; some clergy thought that mercy work involved only helping out its church’s members or perhaps only entailed the pastor leading the congregation in Word and Sacrament.

Hence, by the 21st century, LCMS churches had declined in their role of mercy work throughout the world.

Mercy work in times of tragedy within the LCMS meant sending checks to organizations like LWR or the ELCA relief organization known as Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR).

This form of mercy work, although not inherently wrong, distanced churches from actual care.

An awareness grew that a vital aspect of congregational life had been lost, and some began to wonder how congregations in the LCMS had gone from reaching out to the sick and dying, helping the orphaned and widowed, to writing checks and sending them to other organizations.

When did LCMS congregations lose sight of the intrinsic nature of their role of mercy and compassion?

How did the LCMS overlook words in Scripture such as, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18)?[7]

Needless to say, the LCMS’ understanding of mercy, compassion, and good works needed an overhaul.

Over the last 15 years there has been a renaissance of congregational mercy work across the congregations in the LCMS. Much of this resurgence was due to the leadership of Matthew C. Harrison’s former executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WRHC).

In 2002, Harrison began to speak and write passionately to pastors and lay leaders of the LCMS on the theology of mercy and how to incorporate a mercy that flows from Lutheran congregations to the needy in their community.

He raised awareness of congregational mercy work by writing on topics such as mercy work in the Early Church; by reprinting essays that our Lutheran forefathers and the Early Church Fathers wrote that help lay a historical and theological foundation; and by showing pastors that Lutherans have always cared for both spiritual and human need.

His work was largely inspired by his experiences following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, revealing the need for greater mercy work at the congregational level.

Through his travels, Harrison understood the need to reach out to the sick, downtrodden, and afflicted with the Gospel and material needs.

Harrison, along with others, revolutionized the way mercy work within the LCMS is understood today.

At its core, congregational mercy work is based on deeply held convictions that just as Christ has been merciful to sinful humanity, Christians are merciful to others in both physical and spiritual need.

This leads to care of the whole person. Congregations are calling and installing deaconesses, parish nurses, pastoral staff, teachers, lay leaders, Stephen ministers, and others to care for their community’s needs.

Lutheran congregations active in mercy work look for ways to serve their community’s needs in the name of Christ. As Christ freely gives, congregations mercifully give to all in need.

Over the last decade there has been an increase in the number of churches across The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that offer parish nursing to senior citizens, community health education, food pantries, soup kitchens, advocacy for the unborn and for unwed mothers, care and outreach to immigrants, and every year millions of dollars are given to those affected by natural disasters.

Each year thousands of Lutheran laity are trained as part of Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT), ready to help their communities after natural disasters. Congregation members fund congregational mercy programs, sometimes combined with large grants from their districts and Synod to expand the congregation’s capacity to serve.

Because LCMS congregations normally do not receive any government funding, this enables them to serve without having to silence their Christian voice according to government restrictions.[8]

When given the opportunity, Christian church workers and laity on behalf of the local congregation share the Gospel message. They give comfort with Christ’s words, and invite those they serve into the Christian community for continued spiritual care.

The Lutheran congregation’s merciful work of service done in the name of Christ is more than “charity” in the modern sense—it is a good Christian work because it is done in faith and directly connected to the Gospel.

In 2010, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod underwent restructuring. Although WRHC no longer exists as it did before 2010, the work of the ministries that comprised it (Life and Health Ministries, Specialized Pastoral Ministry, Deaconess Ministry, RSO’s, Veterans and Soldiers of the Cross, Gospel Seeds, and Disaster Response) continues to this day as part of LCMS Mercy Operations.

For example, LCMS Disaster Response continues to be a blessing to the LCMS and her partner churches, though its work is now part of Mercy Operations done under the Office of National Mission (ONM) and the Office of International Mission (OIM).

[1] C.F.W. Walther, “On Mercy,” Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015), 229.

[2] F. Dean Lueking, A Century of Caring: The Welfare Ministry Among Missouri Synod Lutherans 1868–1968 (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1968), 2.

[3] Lueking, A Century of Caring, 5.

[4] Lueking, A Century of Caring, 45.

[5] Lueking, A Century of Caring, 70.

[6] Lueking, A Century of Caring, 74.

[7] All Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®).

[8] However, not using government funding greatly reduces that capacity and scale of their mercy work.