Stephen McAlpine: Exile, Evangelism and Ebed-Melech

Steven McAlpine brings glimmers of hope for the church in an age of increasing hostility.

Exile, Evangelism and Ebed-Melech

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While much of the talk is of bunkering down in the face of a coming cultural exile for the traditional church, we might just be in for a surprising gospel harvest at the same time.

Not a harvest instead of exile.

Nor in spite of.

But because of.

Amidst the scandals of rotten in churches that say one thing and do another; amidst the scandalon of the gospel proving to be too much for denominations seeking culture relevance, there’s a growing and genuine interest in the gospel that is translating to people actually becoming Christian.

And they’re not doing so because it’s convenient, or because all their friends are rushing to sign up and they’re getting caught in the hype, or because the media has a love-in with the church.  In fact it’s quite the opposite. To remain a Christian today is quite a challenge in the West.  To become one, well that’s another thing altogether.

Yet that is what I am seeing.  That’s what our network at Providence is seeing, as Rory Shiner reports on The Gospel Coalition site.

In our small church alone we have seen several people become Christian this past few months; one a long time church attendee who was not converted. Another one who was saved out of the blue from an atheist background after starting out on a spiritual search through reading the book of Numbers of all things!

And about five or six young people asking us for baptism.  And all in the face of a peer group outside the church that is increasingly suspicious – hostile even – towards their faith.

Yes I do think we’re headed towards cultural exile at a rate of knots.  Yes I do think that the Benedict Option is a good long term strategy.  But in the midst of all of that God is still saving people, still carrying out his intentions to bless the whole world through the covenant made with Abraham and completed in Christ.

It reminds me of the story of Ebed-Melech in the dark, desperate days of exile and ruin for Jerusalem.  Babylon is in the process of dismantling the city, the temple and God’s people.  More than that, it seems like God is in the process of dismantling His promises to bless Israel and the whole world through her.

And Jeremiah, the weeping, mournful prophet who vainly calls God’s people to turn from their desperate attempts to find security in anyone but God in the midst of it all, is shunned and disdained.  Eventually he’s thrown into a well.  Left to die.

And then we read this in Jeremiah 38:

When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate—  Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king,  “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.”  Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.”  So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes.  Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.

Did you get the idea that Ebed-Melech was an Ethiopian?  It reminds us three times.  Oh, and a eunuch as well.  He’s not ticking too many of the boxes is he?

Yet right at the nadir of Israel’s life, God, through this Ethiopian eunuch, points to the fact that His salvation purposes of blessing the whole world through Abraham’s descendants are still at work.

Someone not of Israel living as a true Israelite, and indeed saving an Israelite from certain death from the hands of unregenerate Israel.

A prototype Good Samaritan perhaps, while Jeremiah’s countrymen not only walk by on the other side, but inflict his wounds.

And  a precursor to another Ethiopian eunuch on the other side of the cross, who hears the good news about Jesus from Philip the evangelist, even in the midst of persecution of God’s people by faithless Jerusalem leaders once again.

In Jeremiah 39, when things have gotten worse in the capital, we read this:

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah while he was shut up in the court of the guard:  “Go, and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city for harm and not for good, and they shall be accomplished before you on that day. But I will deliver you on that day, declares the Lord, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid.  For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the Lord.’”

Here is a true Israelite, as Paul would say in Romans 6.  One circumcised of heart, not just body.   Ebed- Melech finds salvation in God, even as the city is about the be handed over to the Babylonians one final time, and exile proper kicks in.

It’s a gospel moment.  Ebed-Melech is not commended by God for taking Jeremiah out of the well, but for trusting in the LORD.  It was his trust in the LORD, in fact, that led him to taking Jeremiah out of the well.  Here is a picture – albeit a small, fractured picture, of the nations putting their trust in Israel’s God, even in horrendous times, with a faltering witness from Israel, and a looming exile in Babylon.

So both my experience and my theology are demonstrating that something good is going on, not instead of something difficult (a cultural exile will indeed be hard for many Christians), not in spite of something difficult (as if this is pattern is an upset for the books), but because of it of it.

We’ve talked a lot about how God is doing a purifying work in these hard, secular times, burning off some of the dross.  We’ve talked about how this thing has not bottomed out, and that there’s still a falling away to come for many who love the praise of humans more than the praise of God.  We’ve talked about how some of our church growth is simply because people are swimming away from sinking life boats and scrambling on to ours.

And that’s all true.

But at the same time God appears to be taking away, He’s also adding.  Adding people to His kingdom His way.  And many of them are looking at the difficulties that the gospel will bring to their lives, and deciding that for the joy set before them it will be worth it.

I’m looking forward to meeting Ebed-Melech in the new creation. For he is a prototype of all Gentiles such as I, who although not “cut off” physically, were indeed cut off spiritually from the hope of God, but who through Christ are being brought in at a surprisingly healthy rate of knots, despite our present cultural exilic circumstances.

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Francis Chan: Stop Treating the Book of Acts Like Hyperbole

From Christianity Today

Francis Chan: Stop Treating the Book of Acts Like Hyperbole

The former megachurch pastor asks today’s churches to measure their practices against the New Testament standard.
Francis Chan: Stop Treating the Book of Acts Like Hyperbole

Image: Daley Hake

Eight years ago, Francis Chan resigned as senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California—the church he helped grow from 30 people gathered in a living room to a multimillion-dollar ministry. He wasn’t burned out. There was no disqualifying moral failure. He’d simply grown convicted over his challenges in steering a large ministry in accordance with biblical values.

 
 
Letters to the Church
Letters to the Church

David C. Cook
2018-09-01
224 pp., $10.19

Buy Letters to the Church from Amazon

Chan sold his house and spent a year traveling through Southeast Asia, visiting churches and interacting with church leaders. Returning to California, he began planting churches in his home and the homes of others in his San Francisco neighborhood. His latest book, Letters to the Church, is a pastoral call for American churches to consider whether their values and practices are consistent with Scripture. Writer and fellow Bay-area resident Rachael Starke spoke with Chan about the blessings that come from recommitting to church life as God designed it.

Your book exhorts churches to recommit to Acts 2 practices like extended prayer, radical love and service, and intimate fellowship within the home. But many of these run counter to the digitized lives we live today, especially in places like San Francisco. How have revolutions in technology influenced American church practices and habits?

Technology is really about speed: doing everything faster and with less effort. We’re tempted to want the church to be the same way—let me accomplish what I want in as little time as possible. But the blessing is going to come from the work itself, from the hard work you do to love and serve one another. What could be greater than that?

Many books about church ministry emphasize adults ministering to kids. But you propose some intriguing ideas about children serving the church. What does that look like?

My kids have all these “aunts and uncles” who are really just brothers and sisters in Christ. Right now my older kids are taking my younger kids and others and discipling them. We love each other’s kids: Someone’s always sleeping over at my place, or my kids are sleeping over somewhere else.

When we gather, my kids are involved in leading the music—playing instruments and singing. They share what they’re learning in their Bible reading. During one gathering, my 12-year-old son talked about leading his friend to the Lord; this friend “has two dads” and isn’t allowed to come to church. He talked about how he’s the only discipler his friend, this new young believer, can have right now. On another occasion, they invited their science teacher to our gathering. They convict the room with their obedience more than I ever could.

 

If Francis Chan leads someone to the Lord, it’s kind of expected. But when my seven-year-old has been praying for her friend for weeks or months, and then that friend ends up in our house gathering, that’s a beautiful thing.

You challenge churches to test their traditions and practices against the ones God actually prescribes in the Bible. What would you say to those who regard those traditions as contemporary means for accomplishing biblical ends?

There is a sense in which all things are permissible. What I’m saying is, let’s obey the commands first. It may be that you’ve spent so much time on what’s permissible, you’ve neglected what’s actually commanded.

Let’s also consider the byproduct of doing some things that seem harmless. Sometimes good things happen and we don’t consider the cost, whether it’s money spent or time invested. As a young pastor back in the ’90s, I remember going to this church growth event, a Christmas musical. What if the people of that church had spent those hours actually talking to their neighbors? Some churches in America don’t believe they can do discipleship or evangelism. But in countries like China and India, they fully expect they can do it, and it’s done.

American Christians are increasingly paying attention to so-called justice issues, like alleviating suffering or fighting religious persecution at home and overseas. But your book doesn’t mention these issues in much depth. Why not?

When I came back from Africa the first time, I was obsessed with the people there who were starving and suffering. I was so in love with the Sudanese refugees, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about issues affecting them, like human trafficking. Those were all good and necessary, and I’m grateful for how God was at work through those efforts. But I didn’t have Christ at the center.

There has to be a way to care about suffering and injustice that doesn’t elevate them above Christ himself. Do I hear people who call themselves Christians talk like Paul does in Philippians 3—that everything else is “garbage” compared with Christ (v. 8)? Loving Jesus has to be central. I wasn’t trying to avoid justice issues in the book as much as I was trying to emphasize what the Bible itself emphasizes above all.

In many quarters, bivocational ministry is viewed, at best, as a necessary compromise when there isn’t enough money to hire a full-time pastor. Why have you made this model a hallmark of your churches?

I don’t say it’s the only way; if I did, I’d be in sin. There’s certainly biblical precedent for paying Christian workers. I only advocate bivocational ministry because I’ve seen the benefits. Right now, we have around 40 pastors, representing all walks of life—a cop, a school teacher, a tech guy, a restaurant worker, and a guy who was homeless two years ago. These are my leaders. When people see them, they think, “I have no excuse for not making disciples.”

Adjusting to new paradigms for church life is hard; you mention a person in your congregation who compared it to switching from figure skating to competitive hockey. How should those in leadership positions—or those sitting in the pews—initiate conversations about making big changes?

I wrote an addendum titled “Surviving Arrogance” to address this exact issue. I could see people marching into their pastor’s office and saying, “We’re screwed up and Francis Chan says so.” There’s a humble way to raise these issues and a not so humble way.

When I was at Cornerstone, I wanted to change everything overnight. I was trying to do it through a sermon or a change in programs. But discipleship takes time. I thought if I preached this one sermon it would change everything right away. This work takes a long time and lots of effort.

I hope that people won’t be attracted by the numbers. I’m hoping that new leaders will arise who will start their own churches. I’m hoping that some existing leaders will step away because they see sin in their lives and take some time to get their walk right. But I’m also hoping that people will read the book and have a new sense of hope—that the things I’m writing about are for today just as much as they were for the early church. I want them to stop looking at passages in Acts like they’re hyperbole instead of the actual Word of God.

Some church leaders are leading out of arrogance, but others are scared to look foolish or make a mistake. That’s their own pride or fear of failure at work. For those who are arrogant, I hope this book encourages them to humble themselves by leaving. But for those who are pridefully afraid of failing, I hope this book encourages them to humble themselves by doing—stepping out in faith and obedience.

To the Outrageously Fabulous Parents with Your Kids in Church: I Salute You

You Are Fabulous

To all the parents out there: You are fabulous. Yes, you! I guarantee you that you’re better at raising kids than you often think you are. And all you’re investing in those little humans is already at work in them. This is true even on those days (yes, even those days)when there isn’t even a glimmer of confirmation of that fact.

I see you showing up to church with your arms full. In one hand, the snack bag, a tiny hand in the other and the diaper bag slung over one shoulder. And off you jog after your other little one who’s charging across the parking lot, while shouting back to your oldest, still dawdling, “Lock the car when you get out!”

I know you’re already tired from last night’s less-than-luxurious night of sleep. Yesterday, you were probably at a tournament for your oldest before rushing over to that afternoon swim party.

And, yet, you’re here.

And even when you’re not here…we still think you’re fabulous. We all know that church attendance is not what it was back in the day, and we’re not bemoaning that. Really. We get it. This life stuff…it’s hard. And busy. And filled with many wonderful opportunities for children and youth. And with the schedule of so many families today, sometimes what a family needs more than anything is the chance to just be together on a Sunday morning.

But when you are able to make it to worship, we know the question you might be asking as you pull into the church parking lot…

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“Is It Worth It?!”

You probably wonder if it’s worth it. Does it really matter that you show up at church on Sunday morning? Is it making a difference to anyone that you scramble to get everyone dressed and out the door to be here?

Parenting is hard. It’s so rich and beautiful, lovely and heart-expanding. It’s more than any of us ever imagined it would be. More joyous, more disappointing, more invigorating and more demanding.

And I’m here to tell you that in the midst of all the more-ness of parenting, I’m in awe of you. I don’t need to know you. If you’re the parent who’s reading a blog about having kids in church, I can definitively say I am in awe of you.

And when you invest in having your kids in church – it matters.

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Kids in Church Matters

Kids in church matters to the congregation.

Your family brings with it the gift of your children’s voices. From the sweet sound of their singing to their unassuming (sometimes loud) questions, children invite joy.

When kids are in church, we are all reminded that it’s simply about showing up as we are to worship together. Children’s unfiltered curiosity and authenticity consistently help us let go of our pretense. For this reason, children force us to let go of the notion that worship is an hour-long performance.

Life is messy and unpredictable, and a life of faith isn’t any different. Thank goodness your kids are in church, so we don’t forget that piece of wisdom.

Also, God’s family in it’s most vibrant expression is diverse. So, when we’re all together, we are at our best. We remain the most supple of heart and mind, learning Spirit’s teachings through one another.

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Being in church matters to your kids.

A faith community’s life together is the absolute best teaching tool a church has. Children learn most effectively through observing others. And what better way for them to understand a relationship with God than by watching their spiritual grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles walk the road?

Having your kids in church teaches them that their presence and their worship matters. When children are a part of worship, we show them that they are enough just the way they are.

Your investment in them, pushing to make it here on Sunday morning is nurturing their faith, showing them what it looks like to love God and how valuable they are, merely by being.

Thank You

And you’re doing it. Great job! And thank you. I share with you my sincere gratitude on behalf of all churches everywhere, because what you’re doing is hard and because it matters to us all.

The post To the Outrageously Fabulous Parents with Your Kids in Church: I Salute You appeared first on Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

Surprising Results About Youth Evangelism

A report from Faithwire suggests churches may have their youth strategies all wrong. I might need to go and buy an old building! I am not sure about the methods used to get to this result or how they transfer across cultures.

 

A newly released study from research consultancy ComRes has found that many young people are exploring the Christian faith as a direct result of visiting beautiful religious buildings. In a  2016 survey, nearly 13 percent of teen converts cited “visiting a church building” as playing a vital role.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Andrew Gustar

The report indicates that the experience of beautiful religious architecture is more effective in evangelizing the younger generation than attending a youth group (11 percent) or a church service (12 percent), according to a write-up of the report by U Catholic.

ComRes interviewed 2,000 people aged 11-18 in December 2016, but the results of the online survey were not released until last summer. This was as a result of analysts finding it hard to believe that the figures were true.

Read the full article here

Church is Framily

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Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

At the start of each year various groups propose the “Word of the Year”. The winner in Australia was a bit of an abstruse term, “milkshake duck”, which you will have to look up for yourself if you are interested.

A word that was mentioned a bit also was framily. Framily is a group of friends who become close and know each other like a family- or at least a more ideal version of family than is the reality for many people.

What a great word to describe the church! Most of us are not related biologically but we choose to do life together.

Churches have common goals and a central focus- that’s a framily.

We care for one another and help each other- that’s a framily

We like to hang out together- that’s a framily.

Maybe the idea of family carried too much baggage for some people to relate to. But we can all be framily together.

And that other church across town, maybe we can be framily with them too.

And those people who are a bit weird and live in that part of town might like to be framily with us and Jesus. Maybe we could invite them to join the party.

Framily- what a great word!

Always Looking Out.

I have had some thoughts today about what the church should be. It was sparked by some friends saying of other members of their church that they just want it to be a safe and comfortable place for their children and now their grandchildren.

The church is meant to be a place of equipping, training and maturing so that those who are christians are able to go out and share the Good News of Jesus with their neighbours. Church, in that sense, isn’t only a place to be comfortable. Sometimes we need to offer healing and emotional care, but that is a part of a much larger process of equipping people to know the love of God in order to share that love with others.

This afternoon I saw a police car, two ambulances, a fire truck and the Volunteer Rescue Association truck all flying out of town with sirens blaring. Clearly some kind of terrible incident has occurred that has summoned these people out of the comfort of their buildings at the peak of a hot and dry day.

They would be no use to anyone if these people stayed in their facilities, training and practising for an incident but never attended the real accidents taking place around them.

Imagine a hospital operating at peak efficiency but never admitting patients.

The church can be like this- is often like this. We choose a congregation on the basis of the nice preaching, the children’s ministry, the music. We listen to endless exhortations on sharing our faith, attend workshops on healing or supernatural ministry. But we never put those things into practice in our daily life.

It’s not the beauty of our worship services or the authenticity of our cell groups that matters.

It’s about taking the Christ we worship on Sunday and letting Him into our lives on Monday to allow Him to heal and redeem the broken people in our neighbourhood.

Here is a question for you (well, two questions really). What was last Sunday’s sermon about? What are you going to do this week to put it into practice?

If we just did that each week the world would be a much better place for having experienced God’s people doing God’s work in the power of God’s Spirit.

 

Rude Mother Fails To Put Baby On Silent Mode Before Church Service

From “Babylon Bee”

Rude Mother Fails To Put Baby On Silent Mode Before Church Service

 

WILMAR, MN—New mother Tatiana Olson is being called rude and obnoxious for failing to put her baby on silent mode before entering the church service at Generations Church during Sunday’s service.

The woman’s infant cried several times during the service, interrupting the proceedings and demonstrating the reason for the church’s strict rules on using a newborn’s silent mode before coming into the church.

“It’s just inconsiderate. We even post notices in the foyer asking mothers to be sure to put their babies on silent mode before being seated,” head deacon Lucas Carlisle said Wednesday. “We’re here to be the body of Christ to one another, and we can’t do that when your baby interrupts our carefully crafted show.”

The mother was finally asked to leave and find “one of those weird churches that welcomes children,” according to sources.