Confessional Campus Ministry, by Steven C. Briel

(Editor’s Note: The latest Steadfast Quarterly has been mailed out to all our members and as in previous issues is getting high marks. This issue is a special double issue that highlights the evangelistic work of confessional churches, pastors and laity. To get this insightful, timely, edifying and full color publication mailed to your home click the “Join Now” button on the top of this page and for $25 a year you can become a member of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. To see the past issues of the Quarterly click here or look for it and other features on “The Organization” page of the site. Following is one of the articles from the Quarterly that we wanted to make available to our online readers to read or comment on. Is there another article in the Quarterly that you feel should be posted here for wider readership or the opportunity to comment on it? Email us if so.)

Some thirty-four years ago I served as Assistant Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Chapel and Student Center in Madison, Wisconsin, a campus ministry of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. In those days we averaged a couple hundred students per service in worship every week. The numbers were impressive. Unfortunately a lot of this growth and attendance was due to less than solid Lutheran practice. The Chapel at that time was practicing open communion, using a variety of contemporary worship services, and had women serving on the Board of Directors (the chairman [or “chairperson”] of the congregation at that time was a woman); all this designed, of course, to attract non-Lutheran students and disgruntled LCMS Lutherans who did not agree or even know what was the historic practice of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod or were just eager to “spread their wings” and rebel against that which they had been taught as children.

Having just graduated from the seminary I had naively walked into the proverbial “hornet’s nest” theologically. My entire tenure at Calvary was marked by theological controversy as I tried to maintain some semblance of confessional Lutheran practice in an ecclesial context that was less than friendly to orthodox Lutheran doctrine and practice. I ended up leaving Calvary in a stalemate with the congregation’s Board of Directors—having rejected a closed communion policy I suspended the board from the Lord’s Supper until this resolution would be overturned; in turn they suspended me from preaching (I paid no attention to this suspension but held services anyway). In hindsight I would admit that I did not always handle this situation as evangelically and patiently as I probably would have done today being of course more seasoned in the ministry. On the other hand, I experienced first-hand what happens when a congregation sacrifices pure Lutheran doctrine and practice on the altar of numbers and church growth. Besides breeding disagreement and controversy among God’s people loose doctrine and practice leaves people unable and unwilling to say with Luther in his Small Catechism, “This is most certainly true!” lest such conviction offend someone.

The Augsburg Confession soberly reminds us, “The Holy Spirit works faith when and where it pleases him in those who hear the gospel.” Those years spent in campus ministry taught me that the business of the Church and her ministers is not to attract big numbers into the Divine Service but to be certain that the gospel of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus in all its articles is always proclaimed clearly and firmly. Even though I spent many days at Calvary somewhat depressed about the holy Ministry I now realize that in a small way the Lord of the Church was teaching me what Luther meant when he once commented that besides oratio (prayer) and meditatio (meditation and study of God’s Word) one does not become a theologian without tentatio or tribulation. Tribulation is the “graduate school” for one who would be a faithful pastor. For this lesson that I learned early in my professional career, I humbly and gratefully thank God.

For all that, much good came out of my short tenure at Calvary, especially in the area of outreach. Besides the personal growth I experienced during my years at Calvary, the Holy Spirit raised up out of that cauldron of theological controversy some real gifts to His holy Church. There was Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr. (or “Fritz” we fondly knew him then), who was at that time not a Lutheran and involved in “rock-and-roll” worship but is now a highly respected Lutheran theologian in our own LCMS and a respected authority on Lutheran liturgy and hymnody. And there is his dear wife Carol, also not a Lutheran at the time when I met her, but a young lady whom I took under my wing to instruct her in Lutheran doctrine; she is now a staunch Lutheran and mother of several beautiful Lutheran children! There was a young man named Ric Gudgeon who was studying Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin and went on to Concordia Theological Seminary to work with students studying Hebrew as he himself studied for the ministry. There was a young lady named Brenda Borchardt who went on to marry Jonathan Shaw, also a graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, who now serves with distinction as a Lutheran chaplain in the United States Army. And there was Christopher Mitchell, a young, formerly long-haired drummer in a rock band, who was studying physics. He met a red-haired Lutheran nursing student named Carol (his future wife) who brought him to Calvary (in more ways than one). He came to Christ through our campus ministry and was was confirmed by me, then followed my suggestion to study for the Lutheran pastoral ministry. Chris switched over to study Hebrew at Wisconsin, eventually taking a Ph.D. He then went to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, took an M.Div., and entered the Holy Ministry. Chris serves our church now at Concordia Publishing House where he edits the Concordia Commentary Series which will benefit pastors in the Lutheran Church for years to come (by the way, he authored one of the volumes himself, a commentary on the Song of Songs). I might add that I knew none of this until years after I had left Calvary.

What lessons did I learn from my experience at Calvary? Most importantly, I learned from bitter experience that it’s a slippery slope when the church becomes enamored with numbers because this usually (if not always) happens at the expense of sound Lutheran doctrine and practice. But I also learned that even in the bleakest of situations there will always be a faithful remnant in God’s Church even though this may not always be evident for a time for “the Holy Spirit [always] works faith when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession V). Or, as God assured Elijah who was depressed and cynical about his work in God’s Kingdom, “I have seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:21). And regarding outreach, I found that if you are faithful to God’s Word, good things will happen. As it is written, “My word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). I’m sure that Fritz and Ric and Chris and Carol and Brenda and Carol would agree.

Pr. Steven C. Briel
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church & School
Corcoran/Maple Grove, Minnesota

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Confessional Campus Ministry, by Steven C. Briel — 5 Comments

  1. Nice post, Pr Briel. It only reaffirms the vast mission field that is on our college campuses. There is the need not only to nurture LCMS Lutherans so they do not fall away from the faith, but also reach out to those being taught the ways of the Ivory Towers and who may not have heard the Gospel of Christ, especially international students.

  2. “I learned from bitter experience that it’s a slippery slope when the church becomes enamored with numbers because this usually (if not always) happens at the expense of sound Lutheran doctrine and practice.”

    A slippery slope is a danger when Missouri Synod members becomes enamored with anything at the expense of sound Lutheran doctrine and practice, whether such enamorings involve counting ablazing numbers, contemporary worship fads, corporate or episcopist accoutrements, or kowtowing to Lutheran-in-name-only pro-abortion politicians.

  3. As one who was blessed by studying under Dr. Mitchell as the Seminary’s graduate school, thank you very much for catechizing him well. Dr. Mitchell told his story of his non-Christian past and how he was blessed to be taught straight-forward Law-Gospel teaching from you. Lutheran pastors should always teach Lutheran doctrine clearly and boldly.

  4. What memories were evoked by this BJS article. I was privileged to be a regular attendee at Calvary during Pr. Steve’s short but very productive tenure. Raised in a strongly confessional Lutheran home, I always had a sense of unease over the chapel’s women lectors, and the constantly changing liturgical variety (Blues Mass, Chicago Folk Mass, et al.)But it was the open communion that really provoked a mini crisis of faith for me. Fortuantely, it drew me back to my Small Catechism and I graduated with a greater appreciation for the loving concern that motivates closed communion.
    While Pr. Steve characterizes himself as having spent many days somewhat depressed while at Calvary, he never abandoned the tasks he was called to. He led some rigorous Bible studies (I recall Psalms and Revelation), took some of us out on calls to other UW students who had signed interest cards at the chapel, continued his preaching reponsibilities with the strong biblical and intellectual preparation we would hope all our campus pastors exercise, and willingly undertook the catechizing he describes. When my children used to ask me how come I could sing the TLH Matins liturgy by heart, I told them how every Tuesday morning around 7 a.m. a little group of us gathered in the small meditation room furnished with the dark remnants of the “old” Calvary, and would sing our way through the service, a cappella. The other highlight of the week was our Thursday evening Vespers. (BTW, I’m told that the beautiful organ at Calvary is now in a state of expensive disrepair, and is up for sale.)
    I, too, am grateful for the spiritual struggles I went through at Calvary, for they helped immensely in my Christian maturation. I am especially grateful for Pr. Steve’s faithful witness and encouragment, for they propelled me to spend a year at one of our Concordia Colleges, concentrating on theological studies. That has proven to be the best educational investment of my life.
    May God give aid, comfort, and wisdom to all our campus pastors in their daily challenges, as they seek to faithfully bring Word and Sacrament witness to their universities.

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