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Mike Newman: The 1918 Flu Pandemic, Today’s COVID-19 and the Future of the Church

Mike Newman

A few weeks ago I sat down with Michael Newman. Mike currently serves as president of the LCMS Texas District. He’s the author of the excellent book Gospel DNA: Five Markers of a Flourishing Church. We each served wonderful Chicagoland congregations an hour apart some years ago.

Mike, church leaders are trying to gain some perspective leading through COVID-19. You’ve written on what happened in the church with the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Give us some history.

675,000 people died in the United States from the flu pandemic. It’s estimated 50-200 million people died world wide. When you look back at statistics in our church body, in 1918 funerals increased by 25% and weddings decreased by 30%.

Couple that with World War I, the first mechanized war. Our churches sent 4000 young men to war who never returned. 

Anti-German sentiment was prevalent in the U.S. German-speaking people were criticized. Speaking German was outlawed. And, we were the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

Immigration laws changed in the 1920s. German immigrants were outlawed. But reaching German immigrants had been a fundamental mission strategy for our churches at that time.

It was a tough time.

Every church leader you and I know today is trying to figure out how best to lead through the current pandemic; what did they do back then? 

It created the first pause since our early beginnings in this amazing missionary movement known as the LCMS. 

There was plenty of worry. Anxiety. Hopelessness. Despair. “Is the church at an end?” “We can’t do what we did before.”

Our forefathers chose to lean into the mission—even in the barren, bleak field that was given them. They chose mission and focused on the treasure in the field. They didn’t give in to the devil’s temptation.

Children’s confirmation classes switched from German to English. It was a big deal. We dropped German from the German Evangelical Lutheran Church. The amount of change—the cultural change—was staggering. But, like Jesus said, they focused on the treasure in the field.

They had the same temptations to shrink away and hide just like we do today. 

Mike, say more about “the pause.” There was great mission growth leading up to World War I and the Pandemic and after “the pause” there was tremendous growth again.

There’s power in the Gospel, right? We’re tempted to forget that the Gospel has power. We’re founded on a pause. When Jesus was on the cross there was darkness. The whole world paused. For three days, Jesus was sealed in the tomb. One big pause before Jesus rose from the dead.

We are new creations who walk by faith. The Gospel motivates. We walk in Christ’s steps. When Peter became proud and boastful, Jesus said: “Peter, get behind me. Let me take the lead.”

We don’t need to operate in fear.

What contributed to this amazing mission movement before the pause? 

I think people assume that Germans just streamed into churches when they arrived, but when you read the history it was difficult, and filled with sacrifices. They were not a unified German people. They came from different city states and were fleeing old structures. Former Roman Catholics. Atheists. Missionary pastor and 2nd president of our church body Fredrich Wyneken said the soil for the Gospel is hard. There’s an incident where Wyneken visited a rancher and the rancher chased Wyneken off of his property with a shotgun. Some were open. Many were not!

And after the pause?

Like I mentioned, people pushed away the devil’s temptation to hide. Not only were there great changes but also a willingness to risk and innovate. 

John Fritz chaired the Mission Board in 1918. He emphasized that by virtue of our Baptism every Christian is a missionary.

Walter A. Maier embraced radio technology to preach the Gospel. It was wildly successful as The Lutheran Hour

Most members today have no idea that our roots are a tremendous mission movement. It’s who we are.

What would you like to say to church leaders today struggling with COVID-19?

Ministry is hard in normal times. You know that. You can be a great student or a great athlete. As a result you can receive many accolades; but when you start leading congregational ministry, it’s hard. It’s people. It’s battling the forces of evil coming against it.

We have really strong, resilient leaders in our churches. I’m impressed with them. I see incredible innovation. I’m proud of what I’ve seen. I also see the burden of living with constant change and flux. I see tired leaders. They’re not able to hang with friends. Maybe they spend less time in prayer and God’s Word. They need to take a vacation if they haven’t. They need to lean into relationships. They need to take a Sabbath. 

Before, we had a culture that at best was apathetic toward the Gospel. Now, we have an opportunity to check in on neighbors. People are feeling anxiety. There’s fear. We can show hope and love. People are feeling real, deep needs not being met. 

The Economist predicts that 1 in 3 mainline churches will close in the next 18 months as a result of COVID-19.

It’s difficult. We may see dramatic change. Whatever was or wasn’t happening before COVID-19 is being accelerated in the crisis. Entire church bodies are hanging by a thread. We need to remember that institutions were put in place for good reason. They’re being deconstructed today. We have what’s important: Grace alone. Faith alone. We don’t have to worry about the deconstructing of institutions. I’m part of the structure. I ask: “How does the movement of the Gospel prevail even if the church structure falls apart?” Out of the ashes comes something new.

We need to pull together. Refocus. Fix our eyes on Jesus and where He is leading us.

The training that PLI is doing is huge. Look at the 1,000 Young Leader initiative! It’s organic training for people to start missional communities. New leaders are being equipped. The initiatives that PLI is involved in are perfect for this season. 

It’s time to rise up. There are so many humble, anonymous people. They might be stressed out. Anxiety-filled. Seeing the landscape falling apart. Remember: “Lift up your heads.” “Never will I leave you or forsake you.” God is using you. See your weakness and hopelessness as conditions that God uses to create a beautiful movement.

Thank you, Mike. You’re a blessing to the PLI family.

7 Responses

  1. David Wray says:

    Great article! I’m pretty floored by the comment about 1 in 3 main line churches possibly closing in the next 18 months. Are there going to be additional conversations about this? I would love to sit in on those.

  2. Dan Gilbert says:

    Great interview, great encouragement. Thanks, Mike and Jock.

  3. Steve Sohns says:

    Mike, as our District President, you always do a great job of tying in how our past had such deep missional roots. May we recapture the Missio Dei, mission of God, today as well.

  4. Wilbert Sohns says:

    EXCELLENT! ON TARGET

  5. Susan Hewitt says:

    President Newman, Greatly appreciate your insightful look into history and what we can learn from it to innovate for the future. Thank you!

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