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“Surthrival” Guide for Small Churches

Rev. Kurt Hering
Trinity Lutheran Church  
Layton, Utah

view DOC file

Fri, Jun 1, 2007 

Preaching to the saints of the Lutheran Church at Christ-Elkhart and Faith-Hugoton in Kansas since February 8, 2015. All sermons prior to that date were preached either at Trinity Lutheran Church-Layton or First Lutheran Church-Tooele, Utah.

"Surthrival" Guide for Small Churches

by Rev. Craig Stanford

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Peoria, IL

Click here for WPD file

Introduction:

The LCMS has been one of the biggest proponents of the Church Growth Movement and its methodology since at least the 1980s. Like so many other denominations, the LCMS put its eggs in the Church Growth Movement and has all but ignored the plight of their smaller congregations. Bigger churches, it was thought, are better churches. Why? Because, it is said, they can meet the needs of the people in ways that the small church cannot. For example, "Single?" "No problem! We have a single's group." "Old?" "Again, no problem, we have an old people's group." "Divorced?" "We've got that covered too." "Divorced twice?" "It just so happens that we have Divorce II Support Groups and 12 step programs to meet your needs." "So you say, your family is still intact?" "Great. We specialize in family ministry." "Now if you think that our ministry is diversified, you haven't seen anything yet. When it comes to styles' of worship, the big church has something for everyone: Traditional, blended,' contemporary, praise, and entertainment. You want it, we have it." [You have a need, we can make a creed!]

Twenty years ago this approach was sold as the wave of the future and the way to grow the church. Small churches still fill a need, they said, but the way to bring unchurched people into the church is to market and run it like a "one-stop" shopping center. Bigger churches got bigger, at least as far as the membership roster was concerned, but their members did not come from the ranks of the unbelievers and unchurched. That was the plan. But the reality was very different. The growth of the big church often came at the expense of the smaller more traditional/confessional congregation. 

The small church is in trouble in many places. There are many reasons why small churches are struggling for their survival. Many of these factors are beyond the control of the small church. Everything in our consumer culture militates against the small and authentically Lutheran congregation. What is important is that the small church knows what these factors are and how best to serve people in a way that is faithful to the Word and Sacrament Ministry and truly helpful to the neighbor. 

The small church must also examine itself in light of the Word of God and the full work of the church. While it is true that the culture, the old sinful nature, and the big church entice members away from our smaller churches, it is also true that the small church has often failed to meet the real needs of their members and community. They have often been social separatists and pietistic. They talk about "being in the Word," but hide themselves away as if in a monastery and never get around to serving their neighbor and community. They are focused inward. The work they do is often done to make them feel like they are doing something. 

Smaller churches have often been marked by fighting and internal power struggles. And smaller churches tend to distrust their pastor more than the larger church, in part because a pastor's tenure is not as long at the smaller church. It is not that the members of small churches are more sinful than those who join a big church. It's just that waves have a more violent effect on a small ship than they do on a larger ship. It is much easier for select families to dominate the agenda of the small church and to communicate that to their community. 

All of these factors are further exasperated by the fact that most Lutherans, pastors and laity don't really know what it means to be theologically Lutheran, despite the name on the building. One is hard pressed to see much difference between the average Lutheran congregation and the generic conservative protestant congregation. 

This article is the first part of a little booklet, titled "The 'Surthrival' Guide for the Small Church," which is being written to help the members of smaller struggling churches think biblically, that is, theologically and confessionally about the full work of the church. It is being written to help the members of the small church examine how they think and what they do (or fail to do) in light of the doctrines of God's Word. 

The word "Surthrival" is of course not a real word. It is a hybrid (a neologism). It is two words spliced together. To "survive" means "to persist, to live through, or make it through" hard times. To "thrive" means "to blossom or to prosper." Here the word "surthrival" means "to prosper while at the same time making it through these hard and difficult days." This guide is a work in the making and is rooted in the theology of the cross. 

This is not a "How To" book. It is not a "Church Growth Book for Dummies." It is not a "What Would Jesus Have Your Congregation Do?" book. We are bombarded with enough slogans nowadays. This booklet is interested in helping Christians and Christian congregations grow in fidelity, service, and knowledge of their Lord and to make the best of a difficult situation without triumphalism. In this process of growing as a congregation, the congregation might also at the same time experience numerical growth. But then again it might not. What is ultimately important for a pastor and a congregation is that they are trustworthy stewards of God's Word. "Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy." (1 Cor. 4:7-8)

Chapter One -

Does Church Size Make A Difference?

The answer is, "Yes." For better or for worse, the size of a congregation does matter. It matters to the members and it matters to visitors. It matters to prospective members and it matters to sister congregations. It also matters to districts and synods. That is a reality.When people look for a church home, they want a church that is stable, well-attended, and peaceful. People do not show up on Sunday morning expecting to sing in a quartet, trio, or duet. They want to hear the voices of people around them. They want to hear choirs. They want to know that they are not alone in this pilgrimage. They want to be in a church that will help them keep their children interested and active in the church. They don't want to belong to a church where their offerings might make the difference between surviving and dying. This is the natural way of things and the old nature will live in and with us until the day of our deliverance. 

The problem is that the church growth (movement) congregation fills those wants and needs with a shallow and bad theology. They feed the people on a synthetic substitute for Christian truth and piety. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." (Hebrews 5:13-14) What is needed is the real meat of the Christian faith, a call to repentance, and a life lived by faith. What the Christian and the congregation need is a faith active in love in service to the neighbor. What is needed is the pure Word of God and the Sacraments of His holy house. What is needed is a full and deep worship life, which can only come from a liturgical tradition steeped in Scripture and the finest musical traditions. What is needed are people who love, serve, and forgive one another. What is needed are solid Lutheran schools that feed the next generation of Lutherans on the "excellent things of God," instead of cultural junk food and fads. The good news here is that every church, regardless of size can provide such these things. 

Yes, size matters even to those of us who worship in small churches. It matters because we are, after all, social and sinful creatures. This was not the case with our Lord. Our Lord's concern is that His name be hallowed among us. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst." (Matt.18:20) Here we have our Lord's promise to be with His church regardless of size. Theologically speaking, a small congregation that remains faithful to the Word and Sacrament Ministry has everything it needs for life and salvation. God's Word and Sacraments alone are sufficient for the Christian life. 

But all Christians are weak in both faith and understanding. Our Lord knows this to be true, which is why He has called us out to be children in His Church. Christians are not meant to stand alone. We are a community. The sheep are called together to be a flock under the direction of Christ's faithful under-shepherd. We are weak, yet our Lord is the kind of God who comes to us, as to St. Thomas, and meets us in our weaknesses (John 20). 

As a small church "grows" smaller, there will be many temptations. Some will play the blame game. Others will look for the silver bullet, for that one thing, for that one plan, for that one leader that will turn all other things around. Some will be tempted to despair. They will retreat and perhaps leave. Some will fall prey to an attitude of self-righteousness. "If people don't join us, it's their loss." There will also be a temptation to try to compete with the larger churches on their terms (i.e., "youth ministry"). 

It seems that whenever a district or synodical official is asked to help the small church, the prescription is always the same: "Start a family ministry." This canned advice is regarded as some great utterance from on high. The congregation spends the money and goes through the motions, only to find out that they are "another day older and deeper in debt." 

It is true that bigger is not necessarily better if that size is the result of a false piety, bad theology, and compromises to the Word and Sacrament Ministry. But smaller is not necessarily more God-pleasing if that size is the result of a false piety, bad theology, and neglecting the full work of the church. Faithful little congregations can do wonderful things. For it is God's Word that does these things through us who speak it to others.

Chapter Two -

The Two Works of the Church

Dr. Martin Luther once wrote, "Pray as if everything depends upon God, but work as if everything depends upon you." In this saying we once again see the divine mystery that takes place when God works through means to accomplish His will and way. Our God is a God Who works through means. He took on our flesh and died a physical death as atonement for our sins. He works through His Word and Sacrament ministry to forgive sins and give eternal life. He works through governments to hold evil at bay (Romans 13). He works through our neighbors to meet our daily needs. And God works through us in our respective vocations to provide for our families, communities, and congregations. 

God's Word teaches that sinners are passive recipients in the process of conversion. Sinners contribute nothing to their own salvation. They do not "decide for Jesus" and they do not merit the work of Christ by their works or intentions (see Small Catechism, Third Article). Christians are made by God alone through His Word and faith is a gift from God. "Yes, by His grace you are saved through faith. It was not your own doing; it is God's gift." (Eph. 2:8)

Good works are not the cause of our salvation, but as our Lutheran Confessions teach, they are necessary. "What St.  Augustine says is indeed true: He who has created you without yourself will not save you without yourself." (Dr. Luther) "You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you." (John 15:16) We are chosen and put into service by God, but true faith is not passive. 

The work of an orthodox congregation is of two kinds. The first and constitutive work of the church is the work of the Word and Sacrament Ministry. The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation can be found nowhere else except in the Church. And the Church is found only where the Word and Sacraments are administered according to Christ's command. Many institutions feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, teach the young, and care for the elderly. But it is only in the church that Christians are created, sustained, and finally transmitted to their heavenly home. Everything else that is done in and by a congregation is to serve this higher purpose. The public responsibility for the Word and Sacrament ministry and the spiritual care of the flock belongs primarily to the pastor (John 20:23, Matthew 28:19-20, John 21:15-17). 

While the Word and Sacrament ministry is the first and constitutive work of the Church, it is not the only work of the Church. There is also the diaconal service of love to those of the household of faith and of the neighbor (Acts 6:1-6). 

Just as true Christian faith produces good works in the life of the Christian, so also good works are done by Christians when they are gathered together by the Word and Sacraments of Jesus Christ in groups called congregations. These works do not constitute the church, but they are the natural byproduct of the faith and are necessary. Faith manifests itself in love it is focused outside the self. Here is piety, not Pietism. These are works of charity and service. Unfortunately, this is where the smaller confessional/orthodox congregations tend to fall down. Rightly believing that all things depend on God and that people ought to seek out those congregations that remain faithful to the Word and Sacrament ministry (and all that means for the Divine Service), many traditional congregations fail to serve their members, neighbors, and communities through those diaconal works. An important witness opportunity is lost in this neglect. 

These congregations take little interest in supporting and building good Lutheran schools, hospitals, missions, and service agencies. They avoid those circumstances wherein they might be called upon to contend for the faith (Jude 3) and fight for that which is true and right (1 Tim. 1:18-19). Often they do not provide aid to working families (i.e., after-school and summer programs), the elderly, sick, poor, illiterate, orphaned, widowed, and others in want or need. In short they have removed their congregations from a public and active life in the community, sometimes even to the point where they are critical of a pastor who becomes "too involved" in a community outside the congregation. But, just as good works are necessary for the individual Christian, they are vital to the life of a congregation. (Rom. 12:10-13, Gal. 6:2,10, Col. 4:5, Heb. 13:2, 1 Tim. 6:18, & James 2) While contributing to the district and synod can be helpful local activity is usually the best witness and outreach for the local parish. One should not exclude the other, except for reason of limited resources of a state of confession. 

These then are the two works of the church. Through the pastoral office our Lord Jesus Christ feeds His sheep on His Word, He gives them His life-giving water (Holy Baptism), and He feeds them on His body and blood (The Sacrament of the Altar). This Divine Service is the constitutive work of Christ in the Church. It is through the Word that Christian growth is accomplished. But Christian faith and love must find its object, namely Jesus Christ, Whom we serve by serving our neighbors both as individual Christians in our respective vocations and as congregations that serve our communities. A congregation that takes the Word of God seriously and that loves its neighbors is a congregation that is engaged in both of kinds works.

Chapter Three -

Why Are They Leaving Our Little Church? 

When membership and attendance decline (and along with them the budget) panic tends to set in. "Why are all these people leaving our church?" "The Pastor, the leaders, or the congregation must have done something wrong." When a congregation finds itself in a membership crisis, two temptations begin to assert themselves. First, the blame game is begun in earnest. Because the Pastor is the Pastor, many within the congregation will blame him. More specifically, they will blame his personality and people skills for the loss of members. "If only he were a different person, then the decline of the congregation and discontent of the people would not have occurred." "If only he was more like our previous Pastor, then things would be all right." Second, the congregation and Pastor are tempted to "play around" with the liturgy and theology of the Divine Service (more will be said about this in the next chapter). 

The Pastor should always be prepared to examine himself and his conduct in the office of pastor in light of the full counsel of the Word of God and submit himself to its judgments of law. The Pastor has the burden by divine right to lead the congregation in the way that the congregation should go. Is he leading and teaching the congregation in both the Word and Sacrament ministry and in a healthy life of service to the neighbor (the second work of the Church)? Pastors who tend only to the preaching and teaching aspects of their office and do not lead, encourage, and participate in the charitable diaconal works of the congregation, may one day find themselves without a congregation. For this reason and other the lay order of deacons was established in the early church. It is always advisable that a Lutheran pastor secure another fellow confessional Lutheran pastor to serve as his own father confessor for private confession and pastoral care and advice. 

Having said that, the congregation ought not to be so quick to render harsh judgments against their Pastor for his weaknesses and his personality traits. No two pastors are the same. And we dare not trust in personalities. The Scripture is clear. Jesus uses us in our weakness to accomplish His will. "If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness." (2 Cor. 11:30) "For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one shall bear his own load. And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches." (Gal. 6:3-6 NASB)

Congregations have personalities too. Sometimes congregations can be pretty unfriendly, stubborn, and disconnected creatures, yet the Pastor has a divine duty to preach, teach, absolve, and commune the members, even if he does not like some of the individual personalities in the congregation. For a pastor's fatherly judgments are to be based on the Word of God alone, befriending the unfriendly, forgiving the unforgivable, and loving the unlovable. Rendering judgments on a fellow Christian's personality and driving him from a congregation on the basis of the same is a great sin, which should never be tolerated within a Christian congregation. This is to be the Pastor's disposition in regard to the congregation and this is to be the congregation's disposition in regard to the Pastor, whom God has called to serve the congregation. The temptation today is to run to psychology, personality, and temperament testing to determine where a man's personality is suitable for the ministry. 

People leave one congregation for another for a multitude of reasons. Some of those reasons are legitimate, but most are the result of an unchristian spirit. In a day when people have been conditioned to think in a postmodern anti-Christian fashion, many congregations have fallen prey to a moderating generic Protestantism. Authentic Lutheranism is in direct opposition to how people think things ought to be. So when an authentic Lutheran Pastor shows up in one of these confused and wayward congregations and begins to correct and strengthen the theological practice of the congregation (e.g., reestablishing the practice of closed communion, liturgy, sacramental piety), those who have bought into the philosophies of our day (Col. 2:8) are offended and wage war against God's servant. 

If you belong to a congregation that is smaller today than it was just a few years ago because of a fight regain or maintain a truly Lutheran/biblical identity, then it is better to be smaller and more faithful, than larger and less faithful. Continue to hold up the hands of the faithful pastor God has given you. But even if that is the case, there is still much that needs to be done. The Gospel still is to be preached throughout the world, starting within your own community. Works of love and service of the neighbor are still to be carried on, regardless of the size or weariness of the battle stricken congregation. 

In addition to leaving over genuine differences over doctrine and practice, people leave because they want more for their families. Sometimes people leave because they want to participate in a greater variety of music and liturgical practice and they believe that the only place such variety is offered is in the "contemporary" or "blended" service. People leave because they want their children to be surrounded by other children in Sunday School and youth groups. Sometimes people leave the small church because it does not provide the kind of services they believe are essential to keeping a family active in the church. 

In matters of salvation only one thing is needful, the Word and Sacrament ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet, at the same time the New Testament and early churches were very concerned about providing for the members' physical and social needs. Our Lord is concerned for us in body and soul. They fed the poor. They gathered together daily in one another's homes. They took over the religious and educational training of the young. The New Testament and early churches were known by friend and foe alike for the kindness and help they showed the widow, the poor, the orphan, and the sick (Acts 2). 

Congregations often develop patterns and have a life cycle. They begin as missions. They struggle for their very existence in the early years. Yet, those early years are often marked by a busy and hard working community of believers. In due time the congregation hits its apex (in terms of membership) and from that point on it begins to decline (in terms of membership). Year after year passes and the inactive membership list grows. Eventually, transfers-out exceed baptisms, professions of faith, and transfers-in. 

All too many congregations have retreated into a kind of monastic existence. They have withdrawn from the community and live apart from it. They seem to delight more in the amount of money they saved than they do in the number of souls God has saved through them. I have often told the congregation in which I serve that they have been called together as a congregation to save souls not money. If a small confessional congregation is going to change the pattern of declining attendance to increasing attendance, one of the things that it needs to do (humanly speaking) is to become active and involved in its community. This is a matter of repentance and faith. 

And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:44-47

Chapter Four -

Keeping and Maintaining a Proper Lutheran

Divine Service

Perhaps the second greatest temptation that the small church faces is the temptation to replace the liturgy in order to bring in the people. Second to getting a more "likable and appealing pastor," the next suggestion is to transform the Divine Service into a more entertaining, "positive," and "relevant" "worship experience." 

But such language in regard to the worshiper and the One to be worshiped points to the fundamental problem with this way of thinking. It turns the Divine Service into something other than a Divine Service. The service is not to be foremost about how I feel. It is to be about the worship of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, but especially about God the Son - - Jesus Christ (Revelation 4,5). The doctrine and practice of the authentic Lutheran Church are based solely on the Word of God. This is what Jesus meant when He said, "An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in Spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth." (John 4:23-24 NASB)

People believe the way they worship (or pray). People worship the way they believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). This is an old and true axiom. A rush to renovate the liturgical and worship practice of the congregation in a direction that is overly concerned with anthropocentric emotions or perceived needs and away from centuries of tradition rooted in the God-ordained Scriptural content and time-tested forms of the Divine Service is a change in the fundamental doctrine and identity of the congregation. That is to say, many congregations have become non-Lutheran because they forsook genuine Lutheran worship and sound, throrough catechesis, which they very likely never understood in the first place. Traditions (1 Cor. 11:2 & 2 Thess. 2:15) are not all man-made or bad and we ought to be very careful to pass on to those who follow that which is good and edifying to the church. Fads, especially liturgical fads, by definition always turn out badly when measured over the long haul. 

On the practical level a radical shift in the worship, music, and liturgical practice of a congregation from a traditional service to a "contemporary" one often leads, ironically, to an even faster decline in attendance and membership. And given the number of churches offering entertainment, contemporary, praise, and blended services these days, it is unlikely that the smaller congregation will be able to compete with larger congregations which often have paid staff who are responsible for the production of a good Sunday morning show. 

The Divine Service is a great and wonderful mystery. In the Divine Service God comes to us in the word and sacrament ministry and forgives our sins (Luke 22:27). He comes to us to serve us. We in turn come into His presence and confess our sins and offer our praise and thanks for all that He has done and continues to do for us in Jesus Christ. The Lutheran liturgy, more than any other liturgical and musical tradition, keeps this relationship in its proper place. God does for and to us and we reply in faith and thankfulness, both of which are created and sustained by Christ. In order words, the divine service is not about our feelings, likes, or dislikes. It is to be about Jesus Christ and His Gospel gifts and His real presence. 

Yet, there is always room improvement in the worship, musical, and liturgical life of the congregation. Lutheran worship is far more varied, beautiful, and rich than most Lutherans know. Through the long influence of an unhealthy pietism, much of our rich musical and liturgical tradition has been forgotten. Today we are at the beginning of a liturgical renewal, that is a rediscovery of this rich tradition. This is a tradition that began in the Old and New Testaments themselves (Neh. 12:27, Eph. 5:19, & Col. 3:16). 

Many conservative congregations have created some of their own problems in this area. Due to the unhealthy influence of pietism, many congregations reduced their liturgical diet to two services and a minimal selection of hymns and rather austere ceremony and architecture. They have no interest in developing a worship life that reflects the full body of the Church's doctrine, the church calendar, or the full range of human experience. The Lutheran Reformers adorned their church buildings with beautiful architecture, windows, and pictures. They used liturgical colors, sacred images, sights, sounds, and smells that involve all five senses in the liturgy. They sought to change only that which needed changing in the liturgy and rejoiced in the rest. They realized a "holy" other environment that set the church and its worship apart from all other earthly activities (Isaiah 6:1-7). 

As a result of the narrow and shallow diet, many became bored with the "same old music, words, and settings." God's Word is food for the Christian. Christian hymns, liturgy, (invocations, graduals, introits, the Psalmody, responses, Creeds, and blessings) and prayers are Scriptures. To reduce the number of church services to just a few and to refuse to use the full body of our liturgical and musical tradition is to withhold from the sheep of Christ's flock, the full counsel and wisdom of God's Word. The liturgy teaches and instills in the hearts and minds of God's children (young and old alike), Bible verses, prayers, doctrines, and words of beauty and comfort. 

The same narrow diet week after week shackles the Christian and stifles Christian faith and spiritual growth. People might be leaving the confessional small church because they are hungry for more substance. The Church Growth Congregation promises them a fuller plate and a greater worship life. But it delivers of plate full of junk food at best. And yet in this time which calls for variety we have great variety within the rubrics and ceremonies of the Churchs liturgical calendar, which is so under utilized and ignored. 

The small confessional church is often limited by talent and resources. This means that the smaller confessional congregation needs to work harder at developing a fuller and richer worship life. In addition to "Page 5" and "Page 15" of TLH or Divine Service II, the congregation needs to learn good versions of Vespers, Matins, Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline, and perhaps The Order of Confessional Service. If TLH congregations simply used the prayers, Psalms, canticles, and liturgical settings printed within its own cover, it would be well on the way to a healthy and fuller liturgical life. A more frequent (weekly) celebration of the Lord's Supper (Augsburg Confession & Apology XXIV) is also well commended within the Lutheran tradition (thus eliminating a need for page 5). Hence a Lutheran congregation will be evangelical and catholic in the best senses of those words. 

There is a place for chanting and there is a place for spoken liturgy.  Choirs can be very helpful in teaching and leading the liturgical responses and new hymns. A kantor would add a whole other dimension to the worship life. A congregation might acquire vestments for assisting deacons and acolytes and a set of chasubles and stoles for the pastor. The guilds can create banners and works of art that help set the catechetical themes appropriate for each liturgical season (a great source of "variety"). Being a small confessional congregation does not mean that the Divine Service must be deprived of a fuller, more beautiful, and more dignified worship life. It does mean that the worshipers, especially the remaining members of the congregation need to make a conscious effort to sing more clearly and to participate more confidently in the divine service. It means the pastor needs to be more deliberate in the hymns and liturgies he uses. 

Rebuilding a congregation's membership is hard work. In an age when the Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament ministry is not honored by the average "church goer", rebuilding a congregation's membership and attendance is a long catechetical process when it is done according to the doctrines of Holy Scripture. Today the average congregation has become addicted to emotionalism, egoism, mediocrity, and informalism. Churches that move in the other direction, toward reverence, purity of the Word and Sacrament ministry, visual beauty, sound liturgical and musical traditions, and into the mysteries of the Divine Service, will offer the worshiper the Living Water that wells up to Eternal Life and the food of God's Word that satisfies the hunger for righteousness. 

[This article was published on the now defunct "Reformation Today" website.]



Insofar as this sermon is a true proclamation of the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, it belongs to Him and His Church. Therefore its use is free to all who deem it worthy and beneficial.



Send Rev. Kurt Hering an email.




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