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Missouri Synod Election Signals Shift Toward Denominational Distinctives

Defeat of evangelical-focused incumbent implies desire to refocus on Lutheran identity. (Corrected)

Amid ongoing debate over the vitality or usefulness of denominations today, CT has observed that many denominational meetings of late have debated the merits of reinforcing denominational distinctives vs. loosening them in favor of focusing on evangelism.

CT columnist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway sent a brief report on the latest case study, this time at the ongoing Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod convention:

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) elected as its new president the leader of the church's World Relief and Human Care division. Matthew Harrison received 54 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent Gerald Kieschnick, who received 45 percent of the vote in his third re-election attempt.

The 2.3-million member LCMS is holding its triennial convention in Houston, where over 1,200 delegates are electing new officers and debating whether to restructure the synod.

While the conservative denomination does not face conflict over many hot-button cultural issues, the election of Harrison represents a shift from the Kieschnick administration's support of evangelical programs and style to a more traditional Lutheran identity. While 54 percent – 50 votes more than the 593 votes needed to win – was not a huge mandate numerically, Harrison was elected on the first ballot at a convention that saw most issues narrowly won after lengthy debate.

"I realize this is a tumultuous change in the life of our synod," Harrison said in his acceptance speech immediately after the vote. He asked delegates for forgiveness and prayers as he prepares to lead the synod through a new restructuring that streamlines operations at the national headquarters.

The Kieschnick administration, which served for the past nine years, encouraged congregations to adopt praise teams, coffee house worship and small group ministries. It had also overseen the cancellation of Issues, Etc., the synod's only nationally syndicated broadcast ministry. Harrison's first post-election interview was with the program, which re-launched outside the denominational structure.

Harrison, leader of the LCMS mercy arm and possessing multiple degrees from the denomination's Concordia Theological Seminary, was also the preferred candidate of those in the church body that favor a return to traditional Lutheran identity of liturgical preaching, hymns that teach doctrine, and the placement of ordained missionaries overseas.

"There was a great deal of division on the direction things were going. Harrison has an opportunity, in a pastoral way, to bring back unity in [the LCMS] so that we can have stronger service in missions and outreach of the gospel," said delegate Jeffrey Horn from Garrett, Indiana.

Harrison's 643 votes yielded the largest margin of victory in a synodical presidential election since 1998.

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