Publication: Pastoral Letter, July 2005
Dear Friend in Christ:
I pray this letter finds you well and having a blessed summer. I recently returned from a significant time of ministry in Siberia, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where I ministered to many leaders. It was an intense two-week trip with Goos Vedder, my friend and fellow minister. Goos formerly ministered with Open Doors and “Brother Andrew,” the well-known Bible smuggler. In fact, we were able to meet with “Brother Andrew” while we were in the Netherlands.
As I traveled, I was surprised by the enthusiasm and hunger in Siberia. The church in Novosibirsk has between 1500-2000 members, with many young leaders who are hungry for teaching. In Brussels, Belgium, which is the “capital of the Europe,” I spoke to 25 key pastors and leaders who relate to Ramond Vanderput, the Chairman of “A-Net.”A majority of these leaders are from Africa who are now living in Europe and pastoring predominantly African churches. I also met with our good friends Paul and Rebecca Petrie. Paul continues to work with European Union leaders. Brussels is a secular city, but has a rapidly growing Islamic population.
In the Netherlands, I spoke to a group of 125 leaders gathered from that nation, and also from Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We spent a day discussing how to strengthen the leadership in those areas.
Goos has tremendous credibility in Eastern Europe due to his years of traveling and Bible smuggling, back when it was very dangerous to spread the Gospel in Communist-controlled countries. We thank you for your prayers as we seek to assist leaders abroad.
CAN WE AFFECT THE WORLD?
I am stirred in my heart ,and I want to share something with you that I believe you will find encouraging in your present walk with the Lord. Before I get into my subject, I want to acknowledge the inspiration provided to me for this letter by David Murrow through his excellent book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. It is an excellent book and a clear diagnosis of a serious issue. But let me hasten to add, it is a book for everyone who loves the Church. Murrow’s book is an ally to my long held desire to reach men and women, and especially the young. The broader issue is the very nature of the Church: What kind of community it will be and what its affect will be on the world. Murrow’s point is that the church has become feminine, introspective, and focused on comfort as opposed to courage. This perspective is reinforced by a decline in reaching those of certain ages and also the interests expressed by the Church’s infrastructure and emphasis.
THE COMFORTING CHRIST
There is no question that Jesus brought comfort to the afflicted. He healed, delivered, and encouraged those in difficulty. He advocated peace and comfort to those who mourned and promised fullness to those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness (see Matthew 5:1-9).
Jesus went even further and commissioned His disciples to minister His grace to others who were in need (see Luke 10).And in Matthew 25,He went so far as to state that our judgment would be measured by our ministry to the hungry, the imprisoned, strangers, and those who need clothing. Jesus comforted multitudes with food, with truth, with His compassion for those without shepherds, and with the love of God. And He trained His disciples to do the same. It should be noted that the comfort was for the outsiders_those neglected by religion_and not for the religious.
THE COURAGEOUS CHRIST
It has been said that Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. It took courage to do both. It took courage to go to the street, to Samaria, to the adulteress, to the lepers, and it certainly took courage to go to the Cross. It also took courage to challenge the religious establishment, the self-righteous, and the leaders of His day. It took courage to drive out the money changers with a whip. It took courage to identify with John the Baptist who called the clergy a “generation of snakes.” It was afflicting the comfortable that factored into His Crucifixion.
The courage of Christ is revealed in another way_we can see that He appealed to strong men. The disciples were fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors. Perhaps the best evidence of His character is who was attracted to Him and His ministry.
THE COMFORTING CHURCH
The Church does offer comfort_but mostly to the Church. We have a “feel good” worship service, a “feel good” sermon, and leadership designed to make people “feel good” about themselves. It is true that our message often brings hope and comfort to the afflicted, but most often they don’t show up to hear it.
The Church has become a counseling center, offering psychological help, and mostly to its own. It has become a service station of self-help and personal improvement, and a place to learn how to be politically correct. What prophecy exists seems to exist primarily to comfort and affirm, rather than to correct and challenge.
The academic quality and ceremonial consistency offer predictable stability to an otherwise unpredictable world. But while the Church is consistent, it is also boring to the courageous who long for a message that presents a challenging personal mission. My basis for this perspective lies in who we are not reaching: The young, the adventurer, the athlete, the mountain climber, the dirt bike rider, and the skate boarder. Yes, we have the Truth but we desperately need the courage to deliver it outsiders.
THE COURAGEOUS CHURCH
True, there are courageous churches, both here and abroad. I know of churches in the United States that have courageously stepped out into the community to reach addicts and prostitutes_and I know of courageous ministers who reach the homeless, the inner city, and troubled youth. But unfortunately, they are not the norm.
Courage is more evident in other areas of the world where it is costly to be a Christian. Terry Law of Tulsa, Oklahoma, ministers in Baghdad. I have another friend who works on the Baghdad airport highway. Then there is the Chinese Church which has suffered immeasurably, and North African Christians who die daily. One could look at the Sudan where Christians have been murdered by the thousands and even hundreds of thousands, and have suffered rape and slavery. I have Iranian friends who face death to evangelize and their pastors have been imprisoned and executed.
These are all courageous Christians. There are many places where persecution is more subtle and less overt, but nevertheless requires courage. But perhaps an overlooked area is in the Western nations, where secularism reigns and defiantly dares Christians to declare that Jesus is the only Savior and Lord. We are blessed in America to enjoy the freedom to express our faith. But if we refrain from doing so, we need to be reminded that there are those here who would curtail that freedom, who view us as enemies, and who would train our own children to reject their faith in favor or relativism. A church whose focus is only on comfort without courage is a church that will appeal to those who seek comfort and fail to reach those who await a call to mission. It will not be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church as “mother” needs reform.
Many years ago, I was invited to preach in a country far away. The trip would require that I miss Christmas at home. I declined. Soon after, I received a letter from my friend, Costa Deir, a missionary who is now with the Lord. He noted a Scripture verse at the close of his letter: Numbers 32:6,“Shall you sit here while your brothers go to war?” I changed my plans and went. It takes courage to change. If we keep doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we are getting. In 1964,I decided that I could not keep doing what I was doing. I was a conservative Southern Baptist pastor. We had good church attendance statistics, but I was, like many pastors, unfulfilled.I studied the book of Acts and the power of the Holy Spirit. In April of that year, I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then things began to change. We lost one-half of the church. The head of the finance committee actually called me a “bastard.”
The deacons resigned. The adult department superintendent likened our church to the ship mentioned in Acts 27.Like that ship, the church was breaking up in the face of contrary winds. He delivered his message to the Adult Sunday School Class, and then resigned. Later, I was “voted on” and somehow survived. The church finally began to grow and eventually regained its losses and then nearly doubled in size. But the measure was not numbers; it was the courage to obey. I have faced that issue many times since, and have not always obeyed, but I do know that change requires courage. These questions face us: Will we model after the churches that have failed to reach their cultures or will we model after those that are courageously succeeding? Will we have the courage to change or will we settle for the coffin of comfort?
Here’s what we can do: We can review the biblical characters that took action. We can make mission a personal matter. We can repeat the command of Jesus, “Tarry in Jerusalem until you receive power from on high” (see Luke 24:49).We can seek the Lord as to how we can reach those in their teens and twenties and men who love adventure and competition. We can focus on productivity rather than problems. And, we can take a page from the suffering church and be inspired to act as we also pray for them.
Yes, we will make mistakes, but the biggest mistake is to just keep doing more of the same. I believe God will forgive the mistakes of those who venture out. But for those who just opt for comfort? I don’t know. Comfort or courage? Let us be reminded that Jesus chose courage. True disciples will do the same. I pray that Jesus will show each of us how to change our personal focus, and find the courage to fulfill our mission in the world.
Scripture Reference: Matthew, Luke, Numbers, Acts