The beginnings of Christianity in Latvia go back to the end of the 12th century, but during the German military occupation of World War II and communist control from 1944 to 1991, oppression of the church was severe. Many Latvians fled, forming churches in exile. Many also abandoned the faith. Religious freedom returned in 1988, but many rural areas are still without Gospel proclamation, and great needs remain for training leaders, both clergy and lay, and for publishing Christian literature.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod started working with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) in 1995. Altar and pulpit fellowship with the ELCL was formally declared by resolution at the 2001 LCMS Synod Convention. Since that time, the LCMS and the ELCL have developed a very positive working relationship through Orphan Grain Train; the Lutheran Heritage Foundation; Lutheran Hour Ministries; Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Mo.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.
The LCMS helped the ELCL start its own school of theological education, Luther Academy in Riga, Latvia’s capital, which now trains more than 180 pastoral, lay and religious education students. Prior to 1994, pastoral students were dependent on the theological faculty of Riga University, a state university. Much of the ELCL’s property that was taken from the church during the Soviet occupation has been returned, even though it is in need of major renovation. Many of the church buildings have been remodeled. A challenge is to plant new congregations and build new church buildings where most of the people are living, namely the suburbs of Riga. The ELCL has been blessed with two educational institutions, Luther Academy and St. Gregor’s Christian Mission Center. Luther Academy is in Old Town Riga. Its mission is to provide formal theological education for seminary students and lay people. St. Gregor’s, located in Saldus, Latvia, a community about 1.5 hours west of Riga, provides theological and practical education and training for lay students and consultation for congregations desiring a more missional style of ministry. LCMS professors have been asked to teach at both institutions.
In 2001, the LCMS began supporting mercy ministries in Latvia, including care for street children, crisis care for women and children, financial and material support for church workers, and a soup kitchen. Most recently, the LCMS provided training in mercy ministry for church workers.
Two LCMS districts have a working partnership with the ELCL. The Central Illinois District has provided funding for a variety of projects, and a growing number of CID congregations have direct relationships with Latvian congregations. The Indiana District has provided funding for the Latvian Church plant in Ireland. More than 50,000 Latvian immigrants currently live in Ireland. This situation has created a great outreach opportunity. More than 100 people were baptized and confirmed in 2010 in Ireland.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia reports that there are 113 pastors and 86 evangelists serving its 293 congregations with a total membership of 333,700. It has 160 Sunday schools with 5,500 children.
The Latvian post-Soviet culture is changing rapidly. There is a huge generation gap between the older generation brought up under the Soviet system and the young people of today who are influenced by western thought with its secular and materialistic influence. The challenge for the church is to discover ways to connect the Gospel to these different cultures. Jesus Lutheran Church and Old Gertrude Lutheran congregations in Riga are leading the way connecting with youth and young adults through youth and small group ministries.