Facing the Challenges Ahead and Winning
This teaching was delivered during the Global Gathering of WIN leaders in Tagaytay, Philippines in 2012
The world at its worst needs the church at its best - Anonymous
They say that we are in the middle of a revolution! No generation since World War II has witnessed so much change as our generation. Technology is coming up with more innovations than one can keep up with. Advancements in every scientific field are changing not only our lifestyle but also our society’s beliefs and morals. The institutions that have provided stability to our society are deteriorating. The family is facing enormous pressure. Two out of three marriages end in divorce or separation. In the Philippines, we have a softer term called annulment but it’s virtually the same in terms of result. There is an ongoing battle on the definition of marriage. Governments, on the other hand, are being crippled by corruption and scandals.
In the midst of all these, sadly, the church has suffered the same fate. The church is losing the influence it once had in society. Now, more than ever, people are clueless about the message of the Gospel or the authority of Scripture. Someone said that we are not just living in a post-Christian society but we have already entered into an anti-Christian era. It is a time wherein Christianity is not only deemed irrelevant but also something to be neutralized or eliminated. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to Timothy, describes what it is like to minister in our generation: “But understand this, that in the last days will come perilous times of great stress and trouble [hard to deal with and hard to bear]. 2 Timothy 3:1
Perilous times of great stress and trouble, Hard to deal with and hard to bear -- That very much sums up the situation the modern church has found itself in! Faced with such an overwhelming challenge, we may think that implementing a new program or trying out a new method is the solution. I believe that while its helpful to look at our current situation and assess the times we are in, as did the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), it is more important to go back to God’s word and learn from the
Early Church how they were able face and overcome their challenges. As we go back to the early church we would discover that how they faced their challenges had a lot to do with the priorities that they devoted themselves to. In other words, they knew their priorities, their priorities shaped their church life and their priorities dictated how they would tackle the challenges before them.
A Committed Church
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to
fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper*), and to prayer.
The Early Church was a devoted church. They committed themselves to learning and teaching their new-found faith. They persevered in prayer. They gave themselves to forming a community built around their love for Jesus and demonstrated their love for one another. This love resulted in sharing not just meals but their very lives and possessions. Their prayer life resulted in reverent worship. At WIN, we have captured these priorities of the early church in our WORD -- Worship, Outreach, Relationship and Discipleship. But for them it was not just a clever acronym or a nice tool for memorization, it was their heartbeat. It was not limited to an activity it was their life. It was not part of the program but the top priority itself.
Prayer, for example, can be seen in every aspect of their church life:
Before Pentecost (Acts 1:14)
When they were being persecuted (Acts 4:24)
When they were very busy meeting needs (Acts 6:4)
When their leaders were taken (Acts 12:5)
When they sent someone on a mission (Acts 13:3)
When they appointed leaders (Acts 14:23)
A Threatened Church
We can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing the church. But facing “perilous times of great stress and trouble” and being in situations that are “hard to deal with and hard to bear” are nothing new to the church. The church has been conceived in sacrifice and was born in the midst of adversity. Acts chapter 1 opens with the ascension of Jesus, a very glorious event indeed, but it also marked the loss of its leader. The first “business meeting” they had was to replace another leader because he betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide. Not the ideal way to start a church, wasn’t it? And that was only the beginning! From Acts Chapter Two, after their powerful Pentecost experience, they had to deal with an unfriendly crowd that often turned violent, a religious system that wanted them neutralized, a government that would have them arrested at every opportunity, a society that considered them a mockery, having a convicted criminal as a leader and proclaiming as alive someone they knew, and even witnessed, had been put to death. Being a Christian during that time was not only an inconvenience; it was considered a death sentence. Describing the persecution of the early Christians…“Their torments were as various as the ingenuity of man, excited by the devil, could devise, and their numbers were truly incredible. “Some were slain with the sword, some burnt with fire, some scourged with whips, some stabbed with forks of iron, some fastened to the cross or gibbet, some drowned in the sea, some had their skins plucked off, some their tongues cut out, some were stoned to death, some frozen with cold, some starved with hunger, some with their hands cut off, or otherwise dismembered, were left naked to the open shame of the world.” Internally, they had to deal with leadership transitions, greed, dishonesty and discontent among their members, personal differences among the leaders, establishing what would be their orthodox teaching while at the same time defending it against heresies and false teachings. The new churches emerging from their ministry were far from ideal as well…. The Corinthian church was carnal and divided, the Galatians were turning to legalism, the Philippians were discouraged and dealing with poverty and the Colossians were dealing with several forms of heresy.
A Victorious Church
In the midst of the adversity they not only survived, they thrived! The church emerged victorious despite the challenges we would deem unimaginable today. Greg Laurie writes, “And yet the church these Christians founded together in that small room upstairs not only survived but flourished. While being attacked spiritually and physically, this small group of men and women spread the message of salvation abroad and performed countless miracles in Christ’s name. From every possible perspective—spiritual, historical, political—they left the world a different place from the way they had found it”. Robert Coleman comments on the astounding growth of Christianity, “Probably, the Christian community within three decades had multiplied four hundredfold, which represents an annual increase of 22 percent for more than a generation, and the rate of growth continued remarkably high for three hundred years.
By the beginning of the fourth century, when Constantine was converted to Christianity, the number of disciples may have reached twelve million, or roughly a tenth of the population of the Roman Empire.
To borrow Paul’s description of their situation, the church was “pressed on every side by troubles, but was not crushed. Perplexed, but was not driven to despair. They were hunted down but never abandoned by God. They got knocked down, but they were not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9. Pressed, persecuted and sometimes perplexed but never crushed, defeated or destroyed! That was how the early church faced its difficulties.
Foxe, J. (2000). Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Laurie, G., & Kopp, D. (1999). The Upside Down Church (14). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
The Lord of His Church
Jesus promised that even “all the powers of hell will not conquer” the church that He will build (Matthew 16:18). In fact, He not only declared that the church would survive, but he also assured, by giving His church the Holy Spirit that the church will have the resources necessary for accomplishing its purpose. Jesus’ goal for His church therefore is not just survival, that the church will make it through to the end, but accomplishment, that the church will stand before him having fulfilled the mission it was given. He did His part by promising the church His presence (Matthew 28:20) and His power (Acts 1:8)
This does not mean however that the church can do nothing and still expect victory. These promises mean that God has made all the resources that we need available to us. Our success then depends on our faithfulness to the priorities we have been given and our dependence on the tools we have been given. The early church experienced God’s power because they adhered to God’s priorities. These priorities, as mentioned earlier, dictated how they would approach their problems.
Facing Our Challenges, Lessons from the Early Church
On the Importance of Priorities
They knew their priorities and lived it. The early church lived the WORD life! The word “devoted” in Acts 2:42 means “to continue to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of despite difficulty”. The early Christians did it repeatedly as a habit. They prayed and evangelized even if they did not feel like doing it. They stuck to their priorities even when it was not easy. They made a conscious decision to be a worshipping, praying, evangelistic, caring, loving and disciple-making church. In the same way, we need to bring back the same devotion and commitment to our churches. WORD should not just be a nice-looking banner in the sanctuary but badges we wear as a lifestyle.
The challenges they faced did not distract them from their priorities. Instead, they used their challenges to strengthen or affirm their priorities. While facing discontent from the new members, the Apostles declared that this should not be a distraction to what they really need to do which was to “spend their time in prayer and teaching the word” (Acts 6:2,4). This was not just an isolated reaction. Time and again, we can see in the Book of Acts that their reaction to adversity is always related to their priorities seen in Acts 2:42-47. Often, we think that the right reaction to a problem or difficulty in ministry is to do something new…the Apostles went the other direction and simply continued with what they should be doing in the first place. Their solution was to pray more and to teach more! We can search for new and creative ways of dealing with our realities in ministry but these should not be substitutes or a distraction to our WORD life. Francis Schaeffer explains that because the church has abandoned the spiritual weaponry given us by God (truth, righteousness, salvation, Word of God and prayer), we have engaged the world using worldly wisdom and have lost the right to be heard in our culture. (The Great Evangelical Disaster). Before we search for good and better methods we should strengthen first our BEST method…living out our priorities as a church. As pastors and leaders, therefore, the best way to prepare for the storms ahead is to make sure that our churches are strongly rooted in worship, outreach, relationship and discipleship.
Neglecting these priorities creates for us self-inflicted challenges. Many of the adversities we face in ministry are brought about by our own neglect of our priorities. In a way, these problems are “self-inflicted”. Why is the church suffering financially in spite of economic prosperity? Because the members and even leaders do not understand yet the concept of stewardship and faithful giving – an aspect of discipleship. Why is the church lacking in spiritual zeal and dynamism? Because it is too busy with other things it has neglected prayer. Why is church membership dwindling instead of growing? Because the church is preoccupied with so many programs but has forgotten how to evangelize. Why are the members busy criticizing one another? Because they are not engaged in ministry to help each other. Can you think of the challenges you are going through in the church and reflect on how focusing more on your priorities would help remedy the situation?
On the Nature of Challenges and Problems
Problems come in different forms. As the Early Church knew well, problems and challenges come in all shapes and forms.
Internal or External – They had to deal with greed from the inside and persecution on the outside
Physical or Spiritual – They had to cope with physical dangers while engaging in spiritual warfare.
Practical or Doctrinal – They had to think about the practical issue of serving food while dealing with the doctrinal issues of legalism and Gnosticism.
Cultural or Biblical – They had to separate what is unique to their culture while preserving the integrity of the Gospel (e.g. circumcision and their dietary laws).
Past or Future – They had to discern what to take from their past as Israelites and bring to their future as the “new people “ of God.
Individual or Collective – Their leaders dealt with individual conviction while coming up with a unified position on certain matters.
Leadership or Membership – They dealt with clashing leadership personalities while also busy mending broken relationships among their members.
Do many of these issues sound familiar? I’m sure you can relate to some or even a majority of these issues. Challenges and difficulties come in many forms and from many different sources. It is part of our ministry.
Obstacles are opportunities in disguise. The early church was an expert in turning things around. Their persecution resulted in greater evangelistic opportunities. Their needs became opportunities to demonstrate their commitment to one another by sacrificially sharing their possessions.
How the church turned things around:
Acts 4:1-12 (They turned a confrontation with the religious authorities into an evangelistic opportunity)
Acts 4:21-33 (Facing further threats from the religious council, they prayed, quoted Scripture, was filled with the Holy Spirit and demonstrated their unity and commitment to one another)
Acts 5:17-42 (After the apostles’ miraculous escape from prison they went immediately to the Temple to teach. Verse 42 states that they did this everyday in the Temple and from house to house.)
Acts 6:1-6 (Facing discontent because of the their rapid growth, the apostles make a choice to prioritize prayer and study. They appointed deacons who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”.)
Acts 8:1-4 (After the murder of Stephen, a new wave of persecution sweeps over the church. This would only propel the new church to greater growth as it involuntarily scatters the church making way for widespread evangelism.)
Acts 8:17-19 (Being offered a bribe in exchange for spiritual power, Peter rebukes the Simon and instead declares that he should repent and pray.
Acts 11:1-16 (Facing criticism from Jewish believers about new Gentile converts and his actions towards them, Peter explained that it was borne out of prayer. He subsequently quotes the words of Jesus (verse 16).
Acts 12:1-17 (Again facing persecution and the arrest of its leaders, the church continued to meet together and pray (verse 4)
Acts 15:1-18 (This time facing disagreement from within their own ranks, the apostles gathered together and had a long discussion (verses 6-7). Peter then affirmed his leadership and went to the Scriptures for confirmation (verses 15-18). They also later confirmed that this decision was arrived at while seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 15:37-41(Even after their intense disagreement, Paul and Barnabas continued preaching the good news and strengthening the churches they planted (verse 41). Paul would later admit Mark’s usefulness in the ministry.
Acts 16:1-34 (While being falsely accused and thrown into prison, Paul and Silas spent the night in prayer and worship. This would later on open the door for their guard and his whole family to be saved)
The church, someone said, is like a lighthouse, we do our greatest work in times of storms. The supposedly negative trends we are experiencing around us can actually strengthen the church if it drives us to more commitment, force us to define our message, and encourage us to forget our differences and put on a united front.
On the Nature of Challenges and Problems
The Importance of Leadership. When Paul appeals to the personal character of the men who rooted the gospel in the world, he solves the mystery of their success. The glory and efficiency of the gospel is staked on the men who proclaim it , states E.M. Bounds in his classic book Power Through Prayer. No wonder Jesus invested so much time preparing and training His disciples, the continuing success of the mission depended on the leaders. The early church knew the importance of leadership and the key role that it played. When they were about to choose people who run the food program they had to select people “who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. Acts 6:3 (NLT)”. Stephen, one of the chosen “food ministers”, was later described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5)”. If this was the requirement for people serving food, I wonder what the requirements were for elders, overseers, and pastors! The early church had such a high criterion for leadership because they knew the leaders would be the first ones to be tested. As it happened, Stephen would later be the first Christian martyr. Crises put leaders in the spotlight. It will be on the leaders to steer the churches as the church navigates through these difficult times. The coming storm will reveal our motives and test our character. Remember this: a crisis does not develop character; a crisis reveals character. Before that moment comes we, like Daniel, should “determine in our hearts” (Daniel 1:8) that we would not let anything come between our God and us. The leaders of the early church made the same decision, “We must obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29 NLT).” As an organization, are we developing the kind of leaders that will stand the test?
Bounds, E. M. (1999). Power through Prayer. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
The Indispensable Requirement
The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures. They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus. Acts 4:13 (NLT)
It is amazing that Jesus would entrust the Great Commission to such “ordinary men” considering that, as John Maxwell boldly claims, “Everything rises and falls on leadership. These would not be the typical people you would like to entrust with a future worldwide enterprise. The only credential they had was that they “had been with Jesus”. And that may be the most important qualification a leader must have before Jesus can use that person. “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14 ESV). The apostles would be ministering from the overflow of their personal experience of Jesus. This indispensable requirement would be their preparation to meet the challenges brought on by carrying on the great commission to a hostile world.
Lucado, Max. (2012 Mar. 22) What Makes a Good Dad? (Internet Article) www.maxlucado.com
Maxwell, J. C. (1993). Developing the Leader Within You. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
While in Dublin Ireland for the WIN Europe Youth Camp, we came across an old church building, at least it used to be an old church building. It has since been converted into a café and bar. While the building has remained, the church is gone. The building and what has happened to it is a grim reminder of what can be our future if we stray from our priorities. Yes the future is wrought with challenges and obstacles. Things will most probably go from bad to worse. But the church remaining faithful to its priorities and purposes, despite the challenges, will not only live on but will be able to accomplish its great commission. They did it before…we can do it again.