The Lutheran Heritage Foundation and New Technology

Matthew Heise (Macomb, Michigan USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Matthew Heise was born in Dearborn Heights, Michigan in 1959. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn (1981) and a Master’s Degree from Wayne State University (1983). In 2003 he received an M.Div. from Concordia Seminary (St. Louis). He then served in Russia as a theological educator at LCMS World Mission until 2014. He received his Ph.D. in May 2018 from Concordia Seminary. Since April 2014, he has been serving as the Executive Director for the Lutheran Heritage Foundation in Macomb, Michigan.

A few years ago, the Protestant world celebrated the 500th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther's theological breakthrough, that we are not saved by our works but by God's grace to us through faith alone in Jesus Christ. But Luther's theological insight would not have had such an impact on his world had he not wedded his writings to the technology of his day. In the 2015 Andrew Pettegree tome, Brand Luther, we read of how Martin Luther used the technology of the printing press to bring God's Word to his fellow Germans in their own language. It was a revolutionary moment because new readers would now have access to his books, especially as they were published in record numbers. But in addition to the expansion of resources, Luther also made his books more aesthetically pleasing by including the artistic images of Lucas Cranach, Sr., portraying biblical concepts and figures in evoking images that still impress modern artists. This was no small feat given that Luther had to battle iconoclasts within the Protestant movement. Technology and images could be used to educate parishioners and glorify God!

Few are aware that Russia has had a long Lutheran heritage of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed. Twenty years after Martin Luther's death, Lutheran congregations were already forming throughout the Russian empire responding to the invitations given to European merchants and skilled tradesmen by the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible. Unfortunately Russia and its Christian churches experienced a cataclysmic historical event in the violent Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. By 1939, the second largest church in the land, the Lutheran church, saw all of its congregations forcibly closed and its pastors martyred. Those tragic years of persecution thankfully came to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. One year later, the Lutheran Heritage Foundation (LHF) was established in that country. Our founder, Rev. Robert Rahn, desired to revive the Lutheran church by restoring the teaching aspect of the Faith, something that had disappeared among a population now more familiar with Marx and Engels than Christian terminology. Translation work included a recognition that simple biblical terms had not only become outmoded but confused with communist phraseology. For example, the word "doctrine" had become so infused with communist implications that at first we had to use the word "teaching" in place of it so as not to confuse readers with atheistic dogma.

By God's grace, in the intervening years the mission of LHF has expanded beyond its founder's wildest dreams, expanding into 86 countries and over 100 languages. Our philosophy has always been, "books preach when the preacher is no longer there." But how does one continue to share Christian resources in a new way with the growing number of seekers around the world? Of course, in most nations, books are still the primary means of conveying information. But while there is and will always be a need for books, there are many places where it is dangerous to have a book but much safer to have reading materials concealed on portable electronic devices. LHF is attempting to employ the digital technology of our day on its own website, providing free resources in an attractive format that can be easily downloaded and is pleasing to the eye. While the limited amount of books and materials that we produce in-house are provided electronically, we are working with publishing houses to secure permission to produce their books electronically as well.

Those items that LHF itself produces are always made available on our website in electronic and digital form. These include Gospel tracts like Jesus Never Fails, written by Rev. Rahn, as well as books providing cautionary information on the do's and don'ts of evangelizing Muslims. Current digital products available for free downloads are offered in a handful of languages, such as Swahili, Ekegusii (Kenya), Russian, Latvian, French, Kusaal (Ghana) and Dari (Afghanistan). Those products run the gamut from Gospel tracts to Christian dogmatics, also including biblical responses to issues like abortion, living together without marriage, death and dying and baptism. The positive responses we receive from grateful readers worldwide are a clear indication that our resources are falling upon fertile soil. Ultimately the goal would be to provide as many books in electronic form as possible, all with the disclaimer that those enamored with the tactile feel of reading a book will certainly not see this form of reading disappear. It is an acknowledgment of a more/and proposition, rather than simply an either/or.

So what does it look like as we try to take the message of the Gospel beyond our circles of Christian believers out to the unbelieving world? Just to give one example, LHF connects with a former Muslim who is now a Lutheran pastor. This pastor's path to faith in Christ began when he started reading and comparing the Bible to the Qur'an. The person of Jesus Christ took on new meaning when he noted that even the Qur'an spoke of our Lord's sinless life and described Him as The Word of God. This pastor now provides Christian resources in his native language via several websites for a predominantly Muslim people who lack no small number of seekers but who suffer from a dearth of Christian resources.

It is actually not uncommon for us to find interest and reach people who live in lands or regions dominated by Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Animism. But trying to find good Christian literature in these nations is often akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. On one of my teaching stints in Mongolia a few years ago, I perused books in the religion section of a Mongolian department store in downtown Ulanbaatar, noting that while there were plenty of manuals teaching one how to become a shaman, little on the topic of Christianity was on offer. While we can work today through churches and distribute physical books in countries like Mongolia, who now have basic religious freedoms, digital resources would take advantage of the younger generation's familiarity and fascination with electronic devices in order to spread the Gospel.

Martin Luther could not have predicted the scope of his influence throughout the world in succeeding centuries, all through his prolific writings explaining the Christian faith - for example, The Small Catechism. Using God's gifts of media and technology today to carry the message of the Gospel to larger audiences speaks to the neutrality of technology, a blessing that can be used for good or ill. Our desire at LHF is to continue to use God's gifts for opportunities to share the hope that Jesus Christ alone can bring to a hurting world.

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Paul Grubbs (MLC) 2019-10-24 5:46:47pm
Dr. Heise,

I appreciated your mention of Brand Luther - I teach a Film and Mass Media course at Martin Luther College and read Pettegree’s book this past summer while preparing for the new session. It was too late for me add the title to this semester’s reading requirements, but, I’m considering using it the next time the class is offered. I thought it was a fascinatingly focused study of how Luther engaged with then-modern media to advance his understandings of God’s Word.

Reading over your information made me wonder which nations are not “digitally penetrable” when it comes to spiritual materials. Are there areas of the world that you’re already aware prohibit the average internet user from gaining access to your on-line materials? How does your organization respond in situations where on-line faith materials are filtered or even forbidden entirely?

Thanks again for your contribution to the conference.
Matthew Heise (Lutheran Heritage Foundation) 2019-10-29 3:05:04pm
Thank you for your comments, Paul! I'm sorry for my delay as I am just returning from a celebration with the Thailand Concordia Lutheran Church (15 year anniversary), 85% of whose members grew up Buddhist! I found Brand Luther equally enticing, having had little knowledge, or better yet, appreciation for Luther's prescient use of technology in the service of the restored Gospel message. (I would also highly recommend Robert Kolb's "Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God").
As for nations that are not digitally penetrable, I am not entirely certain how many nations might ban Christian digital resources. Having taught English one summer in mainland China (2000), my subsequent correspondence with students was curtailed when my e-mails were "rejected for content." That content clearly included the use of words such as "God" and "Jesus Christ." So I know China is difficult to penetrate digitally.
Among other nations, I am aware that Islamic nations like Sudan and Iran block access to certain websites, especially Christian. Most troubling to me, though, is the news that Russia is now exploring a centralized means of controlling access to the worldwide web in order to limit information flow across Russian cyberspace. In that respect, if nations begin to control access to the web, books can still provide the Good News. How that is done in some of these nations I can't share publicly, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your questions! Blessings on your teaching!
Nancy Roebke 2019-11-02 12:37:25pm
Interesting on how Lutheran Heritage Foundation continues the “Luther Heritage” of using current technology: a tool for God or Satan...
Matthew Heise (LHF) 2019-11-07 6:56:59pm
Yes, Nancy, we try to keep up to date with the latest technology, all in the service of the Gospel! Thank you for your comment!