Never give in

The British public seldom accords hero status to its political leaders. Occasionally exceptions are made. Sir Winston Churchill is one of those rare exceptions. Fifty years after his death his memory seems to be acquiring legendary status. Despite more objective and critical historical assessments of his career, the iconic war leader’s reputation still remains firmly, perhaps stubbornly, intact.

That reputation is founded more than anything on Churchill’s refusal to quit. His famous “Never give in” speech at Harrow school in 1941, encapsulates the spirit of the man and his famed bulldog tenacity.

Churchill’s life paralleled the rise of Marxism and the eventual triumph of communism in Russia.

What happened in Russia seems now like a foregone conclusion. Less than a decade earlier, however, a successful Russian revolution seemed as unlikely as Britain emerging victorious from war with Hitler did when Churchill made his famous Harrow speech. In fact a Marxist revolution anywhere in the world seemed so unlikely that Marx’s daughter Paula and his son-in-law Paul Lafargue both took their own lives in 1909. Yet within eight years everything would change.

Looking at the days we live in, it can sometimes be hard to work out whether we’re living in the best of times or the worst of times. It sometimes depends on who you are talking too!

Having said that, there is probably quite broad agreement that the church finds itself presented with opportunities not seen for many years. At the same time she is facing pressures unequalled in the last couple of centuries.

The sense of further pressures yet to come and the developing climate of hostility can cause us to lose long term vision and replace it with both short term and long term despair.

But the reality is that we simply do not know what is around the corner, whether it is just around the corner or whether the corner is a very long corner! We do not know what God will do to change things.Five years from now the chaotic consequences of our social policy could mean that Britain is even more broken than it is now. Or we could be in the greatest revival in history. Or both. We just do not know.

We do know that whatever the circumstances, God will be with us. And when things are not going our way, we need to hold on to hope, hope in God. When we struggle to have vision for the future, the alternative is not despair, but determination, fuelled by hope in the God of history.

Paul knew about this kind of hope and determination better than any of us.Living at a time when the church was experiencing pressure way beyond anything that the contemporary Western church knows, Paul boldly stated his faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. And because of that faith he went on to declare:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4.16-18)

Whatever the short term or long term future brings, we can be certain that future glory awaits us. Even if things get worse. Even if the church finds itself under greater pressure. Even if discrimination against Christians turns into persecution. It’s always too soon to give in.

 

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ELIM 100: “I wouldn’t downplay what is in the engine”

Elim turned one hundred recently. It is a milestone in the history of any movement or denomination. Its poignancy is perhaps reinforced by the knowledge that many if not most of the early leaders in Elim never expected Elim to be around one hundred years from its inception, as they believed that the Lord would have returned long before that.

Nor, it should be said, did many evangelical Christians believe that the world had another hundred years left. But here we are! Ready for new challenges and still reaching out to a lost world in the spirit of those who formed the movement back in 1915.

After one hundred years you might expect pentecostal growth to plateau. However the statistics indicate the opposite. Recent research suggests that Elim in Northern Ireland is the only church group in Northern Ireland that has seen sustained growth over the last sixty years.

Across the pond the author / lecturer / church consultant / church planter Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist, studied the growth patterns in the twenty-five largest faith groups in the United States. He discovered that the only orthodox Christian denominations that were growing were Assemblies of God and Church of God Cleveland, both classical pentecostal denominations. In an article entitled Why are Pentecostals growing? he concluded that the “gamechanger” was baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.

He argued that it is hard to stay in a church that emphasises baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues if you do not seek the power of the Spirit for yourself. In other words, being a passenger is not an option, you have to become a participant or, to use the travel analogy, you end up getting off the bus.

Secondly, he maintained that, once you have been baptised in the Spirit and spoken in tongues, it is hard to walk away from God. I suppose if you believe you have spoken in a supernatural language it is hard to deny the existence of God!

It should come as no surprise that a researcher would come to these conclusions. After all, the first church history book, Acts of the Apostles, records how the first Christians relied on the Spirit in accomplishing the mission of Jesus in this world. And when Luke records initial encounters with the Spirit, speaking in tongues figures prominently (Acts 2, 10 and 19). In the one instance where speaking in tongues is not explicitly mentioned (Acts 8), it is clear that something out of the ordinary happened when the Spirit came, since Simon the sorcerer offered the apostles money in exchange for the ability to impart the Spirit.

Even those of us who have been around the pentecostal world for most of our lives can allow the emphasis on such core teaching to weaken. The criticism that pentecostals are over concerned with speaking in tongues, or debates about how Acts should be read, can shift our focus away from the crucial requirement of the Spirit’s empowering with accompanying signs: every Christian needs to be filled with the Spirit and every Christian should be encouraged to ask God for the ability to speak in tongues. A de-emphasis on baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues effectively short changes Christians.

I would imagine that there are two sets of people reading this post. Firstly, those who have never experienced the Spirit’s power. You might have given your life to Jesus, but you have never been baptised in the Spirit. Ask the Father to fill you. Expect to speak in tongues. Luke 11.13 says the Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.

Secondly, there are those who have been filled with the Spirit but have allowed the gift to become dormant. They used to speak in tongues, but they don’t any longer. Fan into flame the gift! Even an experienced church pastor like Timothy had to be encouraged to fan into flame his gift (2 Timothy 1.6 ).

Of course, there are many reading this who are enjoying the Spirit filled life!

Stetzer concluded his article with the observation that some younger pentecostals wanted to “tone down” some of the distinctives of pentecostals. His advice was “I wouldn’t downplay what is in the engine”.

It’s the Spirit’s power that has kept the pentecostal movement going and growing for a century. It’s the Spirit’s power that is the engine. Let’s not downplay what’s in the engine. After all, Stetzer’s a baptist, so he must be right.

What does God want to disturb?

Recently I have been reading the scriptures and asking myself just one question. Just one. It’s this: “What question does this passage of scripture raise?”

Questions are a great route to the heart of any matter. Think of some of the questions God asked: “Where are you?” Or “What do you see?” Or questions that Jesus asked: “Who do you say I am?” Or “What do you want me to do for you?”

Whilst reading through Acts I came to chapter thirteen. The first few verses relate to the church at Antioch. Antioch was an incredible church. A pioneering church. It was led by one of the great leaders of the Bible, Barnabas. It had what you might call a dream team gathered around Barnabas. When you study the names and backgrounds of those various team members, you find ethnic and social diversity, and probably a mix of diverse personalities and intellectual abilities as well.

This church looks like it has managed to bring together just the right mix of people in the dynamic environment of the dynamic city of Antioch (Antioch was the third great city of the Roman empire) when God disrupts everything. During a time of fasting and worship the Holy Spirit speaks, indicating that Barnabas and Saul are to leave Antioch and set out on mission to the countries around the Mediterranean.

God disturbed the tlife of the Antioch church and as a result the gospel came to Europe.

So here was my question: “What does God want to disturb?” What does He want to disturb in my life? In the church I serve?

Those are good questions. But they are also big questions.

Clearly if we are compromising with some sort of obvious sin, God wants to disturb us and bring us to repentance. That goes without saying. God’s grace sometimes comes in the form of a wake up call.

He wants to disturb the sinful patterns of attitude and behaviour that are less obvious. Moodiness. Passive aggression. Stubbornness. Petulance. The list goes on.

Now for the perhaps more surprising discovery. God sometimes disturbs good things. He calls people to leave good careers. He breaks up very good teams. He takes us out of places where we seem to be very fruitful. He removes good people from our lives. It may be that He doesn’t want us to rely too heavily on “good” things.

How do we know when God is disturbing us?

In the case of the church at Antioch, it was through the Spirit that He disturbed the church.

Or something begins to stir in our spirits that makes us aware that it is time for change.

Sometimes it is through our situations and circumstances that He disturbs us.

And of course, the scriptures themselves can challenge us in quite unexpected ways.

Why does God disturb us? On the one hand it challenges our tendency to grow comfortable. Secondly, God is after the best, and as the old cliché goes, the good is often the enemy of the best.

Is God disturbing something in your life? What might He want to disturb? It’s worth asking yourself the question. Then pray and reflect on it. You never know what God might put His finger upon.

May you prosper wonderfully

New year’s resolutions, despite the fact that many are ditched within the first few weeks of January, still have an attraction that many find irresistible. Part of that attraction no doubt lies in the possibility that we can make a few decisions, which if we stick by, will change our lives at least for the course of the year before us. If you are not sure how to make a new year’s resolution, new year’s resolution generators can be found aplenty on the internet! They sound like a grand invention. What they actually boil down to is a statement that you have to complete – something like: “This year I want to _____________ (fill in the blank).

There is always the temptation for a pastor’s first sermon of a new year to sound just a little like a kind of new year’s resolution, or even a string of them: This year this church will_______ (fill in the blank). And sometimes there isn’t just one blank to fill in! And usually it is something to do with the church growing and attaining more influence. No bad thing.

I don’t know how the church in Galilee, Judea and Samaria developed the lifestyle that they had. It is just a little hard to believe that it was the result of a new year sermon. Never the less, the churches referred to in Acts 9.31 were flourishing. Not just one in a particular place. All of them throughout the region mentioned were in a season of growing in strength and growing numerically.

Two characteristics in particular demand our attention.

Firstly, they were encouraged by the Holy Spirit. A good biblical expositor could write reams on this. A couple of points are worth mentioning.

Being encouraged by the Holy Spirit indicates that all of these churches had got it into their collective minds that God was for them. They were confident of the Spirit’s support in their walk and witness. The outcome was a climate of encouragement.

Conviction about the Spirit’s support and a climate of encouragement are key factors in the growth of any church. And they usually come about as we allow the Spirit to encourage others through us.

A second feature of these churches that demands our attention, is that they lived in the fear of the Lord.

The fear of the Lord does not receive a lot of air time these days. Yet throughout the Old Testament, and here, it is considered a very basic component of our relationship with God.

In fairness, the concept has probably been overlooked because of an imbalanced and sometimes legalistic way in which it has been taught in the past.

It should go without saying that such fear is not the same as being too frightened to draw near to God. That would be to turn New Testament teaching on its head. Better to understand it as a deep reverence and respect for God that results from knowing Him.

Even understood in this way, it is still easy to think of the fear of the Lord as something like an over active conscience that acts as a brake on sin. However, when you turn to the pages of the Old Testament, especially Psalms and Proverbs you find a different picture. Even a quick trawl through a word search in an online concordance will reveal that those who fear the Lord set themselves up for incredible blessing. For a start, it is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1.7) and the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9.10; Psalm 111.10).

With a climate of encouragement and a deep reverence for God, it’s little wonder the early church grew. Listen to the way The Message brings out the flavour of this verse:

All over the country—Judea, Samaria, Galilee—the church grew. They were permeated with a deep sense of reverence for God. The Holy Spirit was with them, strengthening them. They prospered wonderfully. (Acts 9.31 MSG)

So if you really are making resolutions for the year ahead. Or you are a bit stuck, why not write “encouragement” and “reverence” into what you aspire to in the year before us? And if you don’t do resolutions, why not make a growing climate of encouragement and a deepening reverence for God your prayers for the this year? That really could change your life.

My prayer for you and for the church in the year ahead is that we will prosper wonderfully just like the church of nearly two thousand years ago.