Tag Archives: Unity

How Western Churches Can Learn from the Far East

A Korean wave seems to be sweeping the world. You know the song “Gangnam Style” even if you’ve never walked down the main street in Gangnam Gu. The secretary general of the United Nations is Korean; the head of the World Bank is a Korean American. Many Western companies set up headquarters in Seoul so they can capture Asian markets. This is a stunning shift from the 1960s when Korea was dirt poor as a result of annexation by Japan and the devastation of the Korean conflict. Slowly the balance of socioeconomic power is shifting from West to East.

SaRang Community Church

As economies in the Far East continue to grow, so also does the Korean church. Korea and China now follow the United States and India in sending the most missionaries. In fact, I am one of those missionaries sent by Korea to reach my native Wales. Consider the missionary reversal seen in the gospel partnership between Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST) and SaRang Community Church, Seoul. I was working in Korea when they recommended me to apply for the role of chief operating officer at WEST, a school they support financially and otherwise. SaRang’s approach to the partnership has always countered expectations. Rather than demand to send their own administration from Korea, they recommended me, a Welshman, for the leadership role.

The origin of their generosity can be traced back nearly 150 years. In 1866, Welshman Robert Jermain Thomas gave his life in order to bring the gospel to Korea. He risked everything to accomplish what the Lord had set before him. Then in 1907, the Korean peninsula enjoyed a great revival that originated in the Welsh revival of 1904. More than 100 years later, Wales shares a close family bond and benefits from spiritual repayment on behalf of the Korean church.

In light of this experience, here are five things churches in the West can learn from the Far East.

1. Gospel partnerships demonstrate unity.

We in the Western church often want to do our own thing. But SaRang has modeled unity for WEST and other churches. Unity among Christians is vital testimony for the gospel, because it illustrates the union between Christ and his church.

Gospel partnership demonstrates that we’re not in ministry to build our own empires. Our partnership with SaRang is mutually beneficial. Welsh churches supported and encouraged by SaRang and WEST are now planting in Wales, as seen with Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Neath. 

2. Gospel ministry is risky.  

When we’re united in Christ, we give all to follow where Jesus leads. Korean church leaders tend to expect great things from God as they ask with bold faith for big operations. They re-teach us the same lesson Robert Jermain Thomas first taught the Koreans when he blessed their nation by risking his life.

3. Learn patience.

In Korea, you see parental-type relations between old and young in work, church, and other walks of life. The younger show respect and submission, while the older return trust and benevolence. As a result, you see humility and patience in the young. If you want to get anywhere in Korea you need to respect your elders, do your time, and learn all you can. Sounds quite biblical.

4. Resist pride and learn.

We in the West need to be mindful of prejudice against our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, ensuring our proud hearts are not too stubborn to learn. Consider our situations. When Thomas died in Korea, he hadn’t won a soul, and in Wales there were churches on every corner. Compare this environment to today. According to the 2001 census, Wales claims as many as 100,000 churchgoers. More than 90,000 members belong to SaRang Community Church alone. They support 162 missionary family units. This gigantic reversal happened in only 150 years. Surely we in Wales can learn something from our friends in Korea.

5. React quickly.

Growth requires us to react quickly to unexpected developments. When China re-opened its doors to the outside world, Korean firms were the first to take advantage of 1 billion more customers. Relations between the two countries have steadily improved, and SaRang worked through official government channels to set up the Korean China Foundation and help Chinese churches in discipleship and theology.

God often gives us “gospel moments” when we can make unexpected progress. Now may be such a moment where the West can learn from the Far East. Let’s take advantage of gospel opportunities afforded by the changing geo-political landscape.

Why I Pray Publicly for Other Churches

Every Sunday morning, I lead the congregation of Third Avenue Baptist Church in a “pastoral prayer.” I pray for many things during that time—congregational events, members who are suffering, evangelistic opportunities, various officials in government, missions opportunities, even events in the nation’s headlines. The part of the prayer that elicits the most comment, however—both positive and out of sheer confusion—is when I pray for another evangelical church or two meeting in the city of Louisville.

Each week, I choose one or two churches and pray for their services that day. I pray for the church to be attentive to the Word of God. I pray for the pastor to speak boldly and accurately from the Bible. I pray for people to be convicted of their sin, for Christians to be encouraged in the faith, and for non-Christians to be converted. I also thank the Lord that we live in a city where we are not the only church in which the gospel is proclaimed.

Believe it or not, the practice of praying for other churches is so rare in many Christians’ experience that many don’t know exactly how to process it. More than once during my pastorate, a visitor to Third Avenue has walked up to me with a concerned look to express surprise that such-and-such church is having troubles. After all, why would the pastor of one church pray for another church if there weren’t serious problems afoot there?!

Spirit of Competition

There are many benefits to doing this sort of thing week after week. For one thing, it helps me in the work of crucifying my own spirit of competition. It’s so easy for pastors to subtly (if not less than subtly) begin to think of other churches as “the competition” instead of as fellow proclaimers of the gospel in their city. I want to go on record, in the most public forum I have, as praying for the success and faithfulness of those churches. We are not in this to make a name for ourselves; we are all in it to make a name for our King.

Not only so, but I think those prayers do the same work of crucifying a spirit of competition in the members of Third Avenue. Pastors are not alone in struggling with feeling competitive with other churches. Members do too, and it’s good for them to see their leaders working publicly to counteract that tendency so that it doesn’t take root in the life of the church.

Praying for other churches also communicates an important truth about the various churches in a city: We are all on the same team. We all have the same mission, and it’s to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and make disciples of him. The last thing we should want as pastors is to communicate a provincial, myopic spirit among our members that recognizes good only in our church, and cannot see what God is doing more broadly. We serve a massive God, and an important way to show that truth to our people and teach them to rejoice in it is to teach them to care about God’s work in the lives of other churches.

I have found that praying for other churches also helps me to cultivate friendships with their pastors. It reminds me, week after week, that there are others engaged in this same work that so consumes me each day, and it challenges me to strain against any tendency I might have to isolate myself in the work.

In our church covenant at Third Avenue, one of the promises we make to one another as members is that we will not “omit the great duty of prayer both for ourselves and for others.” At its heart, that is a promise that we’ll remember not only God’s great delight in answering prayer and his unstoppable power to do so, but also the great truth that he is glorifying his Son through the work of churches all over our cities and the world.

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the May-June 2013 issue of the 9Marks Journal.

Don’t Drink the Dirty Water

We both drank from the same glass, our mouths leaving marks on opposite sides, a tall drink of water for the parched soul. This is what it is to come to the only Water that will quench our thirst: a shared glass, shared germs, shared experience, but only one Way, one Truth, one Life. Drinking from the same glass.

I tell a friend this morning that I feel straddled between two camps, and I don’t know how long I can sustain this position. I fear being viewed as tepid water. John writes of lukewarm water being spewed from the mouth of God (Rev. 3:16), but sometimes we think we’re God, spitting out those who don’t agree, can’t agree, or just cannot see.

We’ll show them. 

And what?

What are we showing them?

For those who take and adopt the phrase “gospel-centered,” do we show those who don’t hold to our same brand of theology that they are lukewarm? And for those who take and own the phrase “story-teller,” do we spew out those whose stories may look different than ours, take longer than ours, or shorter?

Water sputtering everywhere and not a drop to drink.

We’re drinking from a mirage if we only quench our thirst on what we hope to see and not what is real and lasting and may not be seen for a long, long, long time. We’re drinking from a stagnant pond if we keep returning to the same story over and over and over again hoping to find resolution (Prov. 26:11). We’re drinking from a rusty tap if we don’t purify our words with fire (James 4:8), season them with salt (Col. 4:6), and sweeten them with honey (Ps. 119:103). We’re drinking from contaminated water if we believe that we’re the water others long for.

We’re drinking from water that will never satisfy if we’re not drinking from the Living Water (John 4:7-30).

Some of us come to the well at high noon, fearful to gather our drink where others in our camp might see us. Some of us come in the morning, with the masses, because to stand apart, to stand alone is too much for our approval starved hearts.

But Jesus? Jesus takes our chin in his hand, lifts up our eyes to where our help can only come, and shows us a better way, a more beautiful way. He calls our sin what it is so there is no opportunity to remain lukewarm or ignorant, but he also says the watering hole in which we find ourselves is no thirst-quencher at all.

He is Water and we drink from his glass alone.

The Falls Church  Historical Marker

The Costly Faithfulness of The Falls Church

Instead of a soaring room flooded with natural light, they took their places in a cramped, fluorescent-lit auditorium. Instead of the sounds of a pipe organ, they heard the drone of a temperamental air conditioner. Instead of pews fitted with fabric kneelers, congregants filed into rows of theater-style folding seats. But in their first Sunday worship away from their 280-year-old historic property, the members of The Falls Church Anglican congregation in Falls Church, Virginia were too busy laughing and greeting one another to notice the new inconveniences.

“The people of the church have been full of joy and thankfulness,” says Laura Smethurst, “buoyed by the conviction that to stand up for the Son of God is of ultimate importance.” It was the Anglican congregation’s firm stance on the authority of God’s word and the moral wrong of homosexuality that cost the 4,000-member church nearly everything they owned. Six years ago, after the mainline Episcopal Church ordained an openly practicing homosexual bishop, 90 percent of The Falls Church congregation voted to break with the denomination and align with the conservative branch of the worldwide Anglican church.

As a result of the decision, the Episcopal diocese brought the Anglican congregation to court to dispute ownership of the historic Falls Church building. The congregation argued that the property deed is in the name of the church and a Circuit Court judge initially agreed. But the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church appealed that ruling and the Virginia Supreme Court said the particular statute used in their defense did not apply. The case was remanded back to the Circuit Court to be decided under neutral principles of contract and property law. This time the same Circuit Court judge ruled against them, ordering the Anglican congregation to turn their $26 million historic church building and all the church’s other property over to the Episcopalian diocese.

From the Bank Account to the Bibles

The lawsuit has taken nearly everything from the church: staff offices, prayer books, sound equipment, the rectory that has housed the pastor and his wife for 33 years, and $2.8 million that was in the church accounts at the time of the split. Church staff even had to count and leave every single Bible the church had owned. A locksmith changed the locks behind them.

For the next several months the Anglican congregation is bouncing between school auditoriums and Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. Several churches of other denominations have stepped forward to offer space for ministry activities, though church leaders are working from their homes—or Starbucks—while the church’s finances are pending. After spending millions of dollars in legal expenses, the congregation does not have enough money to purchase a new building.

The Falls Church is one of hundreds of congregations across the country that have given up their buildings rather than stay affiliated with a branch of their church they believe denies the final authority of Scripture. But after the Episcopal Church regained control of some church buildings, they found the declining denomination couldn’t afford to keep them. The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York offered to purchase their building when they split from the Episcopal denomination, but the diocese refused. Instead, the building was turned into a mosque.

Of the 38 Anglican provinces across the world, 22 have declared “broken” or “impaired” fellowship with the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican church. The conservative provinces recognize the Anglican Church in North America as the true Anglican church in the United States. The Falls Church chose to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the conservative missionary branch of the Anglican church of Nigeria, which is now a part of the Anglican Church in North America.

Too Small a Thing to Remain

At Sunday’s service, hymns such as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” took on a renewed meaning as church members sang, “Thou hast brought me to this place, and I know Thy hand will lead me safely home by Thy good grace.”

“One blessing from this is the opportunity to become more like Jesus Christ during all of this,” noted Smethurst. “Right now, we don’t know the future more than a few months down the road, but we do know that God will take care of us and greatly desires us to grow in holiness and in Christ-like character through all of it.”

“It was too small of a thing for us to remain at the Falls Church,” said rector Rev. John Yates at Sunday’s service. Yates reminded the church that their mission was “go out into all the world and preach the Gospel.” He preached from Romans 8, which affirms, “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Having worshipped alongside the members of The Falls Church last Sunday, I have no doubt that the body will continue to flourish and grow strong despite the hardships. The people of The Falls Church recognize that a church is not simply a building; it is the bride of Christ, the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” that the congregation affirms week after week in the Nicene Creed. This truth allows me, raised a non-denominational Christian, to feel at home worshipping through the liturgy, united with people who are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Forgiveness and the Future

The tragedy of the situation at The Falls Church is not that the congregation will die, but that yet another a historic symbol of American Christianity has fallen into the hands of those who teach doctrines contrary to Scripture. The church where George Washington worshipped now belongs to a denomination that accepts and condones practices that would have scandalized the Founding Father—and, more importantly, Our Heavenly Father.

An even greater tragedy, though, is the deep wounds that the division in the Anglican church has left in the hearts of people on both sides of the dispute. Forgiveness and healing will be difficult, but the leaders of the Falls Church recognize that both can only come from God’s help. They’re seeking supernatural strength to look forward, rather than to their past.

“Do I have regrets?” Yates asked in an editorial recently published in the Washington Post. “Yes, a few. I regret that so much ink has been spilled over a few social issues (important as they are) instead of on the deeper theological issue of how we understand and obey the will of God. And I wish we could have communicated more successfully that none of us is without sin. We all need the Savior.”