August 3, 2016

Return to Wittenberg 2016

This past week I was privileged to be a part of the first Return to Wittenberg (R2W) conference, entitled “What Does This Mean?” The event was held at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, on July 26-29. Since this was the event’s debut, I’ll spend a little time explaining what R2W is before reviewing my experience.

Last fall I was invited by several WELS pastors and laymen to consider presenting at the conference and help with the planning. Much of the groundwork had already been laid, so I can’t claim to have contributed much more than a graphic identity. In the early planning stages, the conference was conceived of as an alternative to WELS youth rallies that would be recognizably Confessional and Lutheran. While that may be the easiest way to explain it, it would be an oversimplification to say that R2W is just a WELS knockoff of Higher Things. What it became was a conference focused on the catechism, aimed at teens through 30-somethings, with the intent that all ages would be welcome.

What a conference on the catechism might look like, I had no idea. And although I try to be more involved in Lutheran doctrine and practice than the average layman, I have to admit that it didn’t sound all that exciting. There weren’t really any hot-button issues on the docket, and the only session that intersected with my area of interest was the one I was presenting. I decided I would hope for the best, and take it in stride if it didn’t live up.


I’m happy to say that my reservations quickly evaporated. The plenary sessions were meaty, yet engaging and even enjoyable. The plenary speakers (Pr. Johann Caauwe, Pr. Nathaniel Seelow, and Pr. Jon Zabell—pictured left) were all well practiced in their material. The catechism was presented as a guide to Christian living in every area of life—as opposed to a systematized book that will get us through confirmation, but which has little else to do with us. It made me see the Lutheran faith through new eyes. Often-glossed-over areas of the catechism were expounded upon and given a renewed importance, such as private confession and absolution. It’s surprising how many things we tend to think of as being “Catholic,” but which are actually viewed as a necessary component of the faith in Luther’s catechism. In short, Lutherans who endeavor to make the study of the catechism a life-long process will find an inexhaustible wealth of wisdom and guidance, as opposed to studying the scriptures alone.

One of the unexpected advantages of having a small conference (around 40 attendees) is that there was plenty of productive discussion during the sessions. There were four sessions on each full day of the conference, and a panel discussion on the last day. It wasn’t strictly lecture-format, as is typically the case at larger events. Because we all went to the same sessions (there were no break-out sessions), there was a kind of camaraderie that developed between the attendees.


The worship services formed the backbone of R2W, and they were quite refreshing. The opening service featured a processional cross (Pr. Luke Boehringer pictured at left), which I rarely see outside of worship conferences. There was kneeling, making the sign of the cross, and the singing of wonderful Lutheran hymns—some of which rarely see the light of day (e.g. the Lutheran “Kyrie,” “Isaiah, Mighty Seer,” and Luther’s “Wir Glauben All in Einen Gott”). Daily offices included Matins, Vespers, and Compline. Liturgical responses that are often read in the WELS were chanted. All of this took place in the WLC chapel, which (I just learned) was originally built as a convent. Arched ceilings, marble paneling, ornate columns, and stained glass provided a beautiful space in which to gather around the Word and sacraments and proclaim God’s wonderful works through song.

I think what distinguished worship at R2W from the WELS Worship Conference is that R2W pulled out very little material that would be unfamiliar to someone who uses Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. In other words, while everything is done very well, it is still attainable at the congregational level. There isn’t anything that a good cantor, organist, and small choir can’t pull off. That’s the beauty of Lutheran worship: it doesn’t require a professional choir, virtuoso soloist, or a variety of instruments. At its heart, it really is the congregation that carries Lutheran worship. With only about 40 voices and a fine organist, we filled the chapel with God’s praises.

Because we had a 10-hour drive to Nebraska ahead of us, my ride decided to head out after lunch, so unfortunately we missed the closing service. From the service folder, it looks to have been as good as the opening service. The intent behind having the closing service after lunch is so that the last thing attendees would receive before heading home would be the Lord’s Supper. I think that’s a wonderful goal, and one I don’t wish to diminish. Hopefully there’s a way in the future to still end with the Sacrament and wrap up the conference by noon on Friday to accommodate travel time.

Food and Fellowship

The food service at WLC was excellent. I didn’t get to taste everything, due to dietary restrictions, but to that point, the kitchen staff was very accommodating. For every meal, they cooked me tasty alternatives that were free of gluten and dairy. (There isn’t really a dairy-free substitute for cheesecake, but fortunately I’m also a fan of fresh fruit and berries.)

The one-hour meal slots provided a good opportunity to get to know our fellow conference-goers and chew on the material presented during the sessions. There was also about two hours of free time each evening before Compline. We enjoyed games, discussion, and fellowship each evening. Again, the strength of having a small group was getting to pick the brains of the presenters. Compared to worship conferences with over 1,000 attendees, you would never get that chance. At the end of the 4th day, most of the attendees were on a first-name basis with the others. This was totally unique to my experience.


Mountaintop experiences are important. I still count the worship conferences I’ve attended as high points in my journey towards heaven. But if we just attend these occasional worship events in order to achieve an emotional high, then the rest of our lives will feel like drudgery. It’s not about escapism. I think I’ll look back on this first Return to Wittenberg conference fondly, and I hope many more will follow. But the beauty of R2W is that it focused on the daily life of the Christian in a way that nothing else I’ve seen has done. It didn’t feel like an escape from the daily grind as much as it was a recharging station. Christians talk a lot about “relevance” these days, but I doubt many are looking for it in the catechism, or in the sacraments. But arguably there is nothing more relevant or necessary.

I think it's safe to say that Return to Wittenberg is going to stick around. Look for it again next summer, and tell your congregation. Anyone is welcome to come.

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