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Yearning for Revival

About Thirty-five years ago I had the privilege of auditing a class by on the History of Religions Awakenings under the great historian of Revival, Dr J. Edwin Orr. It was like having an extra weekly dose of morning devotions. I was stirred in my spirit. One day I had the privilege of talking to Dr Orr. When he found out that I was from Sri Lanka, he said, that Sri Lanka was one of the few countries in the world where there has not been a nationwide awakening. Later I found out that there had been some regional revivals. But we have not had something that has gone throughout the land.

 

That day the Lord put into my heart a deep desire for revival in Sri Lanka. Though this desire has often grown cold in the intervening years, God keeps reminding me of it. This seems to be one of those times when the desire is burning bright. And I have met several others recently with such a desire, and I have joined with them in a National Prayer Initiative. Please pray that God will revive the church in Sri Lanka.

 

Here’s a brief description of what I mean by revival:

 

It is a time when God breaks through in a larger level than is usually seen;

–When there are showers of blessing rather than mercy drops;
–When large numbers of Christians settle issues with God often covering a whole geographical area;
–When barriers to devotion are cleared (again by a large number of people) through repentance and total commitment to God and a holy life;

–When leaders take the lead in humbly repenting before God;
–When unity is restored and conflicts end through people walking in the light, confessing, forgiving and asking for forgiveness; and
–When believers apply Christian principles in clear-cut and radical ways in the society in which they live;

 

An inevitable effect of this is an almost spontaneous evangelistic effectiveness resulting in large numbers of people, who were outside the church, entering the kingdom.

 

Revival is always preceded by

  1. a group or groups of people engaging in united, earnest prayer; and by
  2. systematic teaching of the Word.

This we can do faithfully, though we humans cannot predict when God will send down revival.

 

 

Book Note

Hansen, Collin and Woodridge, John. A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Strengthen and Stir. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Forthcoming: October 2010

 

The Church is ripe for a revival which will bring back true Christian values and empower it to become a powerful force for the transformation of society and for the reaping of a ripe evangelistic harvest. I have been praying for this for my nation Sri Lanka for over 35 years. During this long wait, I have had periods when I lose the urgency of desire for revival. At such times, few things help reignite the yearning for revival as much as reading books describing God’s work of reviving the church in history. This is what happened to me when reading this book. While reading, I had to stop often to reflect and pray for God to deal with areas in my life which needed his sanctifying, forgiving and healing grace. God reminded me that those who pray for revival must first pray for revival in their own lives.

 

An added value of this book is that it shows how during some revivals the church neglected emphasising some key biblical themes and the unfortunate consequences of such neglect. For example, some revivals were used to challenge prevailing prejudice and injustice in society, whereas others neglected these with dire consequences. May this book challenge Christians to yearn for and pray for the church to experience all that God wishes for it.

 

Wesley Groups and Holiness

September 2008

 WESLEY’S SMALL GROUPS AS KEYS TO NURTURING GODLINESS AMONG CONVERTS FROM ECONOMICALLY POORER BACKGROUNDS

A Case Study from Sri Lanka

Ajith Fernando

The rapid growth of the church in the non-western world has happened primarily through people seeing God meet their needs through the display of his power. The church is facing many challenges as it seeks to nurture the new believers into mature, Christlike Christians. Some of those who profess a dramatic conversion to Christ continue with their old habits such as telling lies, acting dishonestly, taking revenge and abusing their wives. Though holiness has been preached the fact that its outworking is often not evidenced suggests that some key elements of the Christian message have not entered into the worldview of the new believers.

It is well known that John Wesley viewed the primary calling of the Methodist movement as being to spread scriptural holiness in the land. This certainly happened in Britain and North America so much so that Methodism was given the name “the holiness movement.” Can this become a reality in cultures which do not have any background knowledge of a holy God informed by the teachings of the Bible? Wesley liked to call the Methodists “Bible Christians.” This is what evangelical Christians are called today in Sri Lanka. But the behavior of many of our Christians often contradicts the teaching of the Bible.

 

SHAME AND HONOUR IN OUR CULTURES

I believe a major reason for the slowness of our new believers to demonstrate in their lives major aspects of the biblical teaching on daily living is the cultural background where right and wrong are evaluated based on whether a given action produces shame or honor rather than whether it makes one guilty before a holy God. The guilt orientation gives a more personal awareness of sin which acts as an incentive to holiness. Shame and honor are more community-oriented values.

Sometimes when a father does something wrong, everyone in the family knows it. They may talk about the problem but they do not attribute wrong to the father as he must not be shamed and his honor must be preserved. A girl who is sexually abused by an uncle or step father tells her mother about it. The mother tells her not to talk about that again as it would bring dishonor to the family. She may even scold her saying that for this to happen she would have first provoked him through her behavior. We had a President in Sri Lanka who is reputed to have kept files detailing all the corrupt practices of his ministers. He did not bring these up until they fell out of line and appeared to be disloyal to him. Sin was brought up not because it was morally wrong but because if was politically expedient to bring it up at this time. In this culture when someone’s sin is brought up by another it is viewed as an act of disloyalty or of political maneuvering rather than something coming out of a commitment to the sinning person, to God or to morality.

The above examples show that the strong community orientation in our cultures can serve as a disincentive to the accountability which fosters holiness. Yet, in the Bible, holiness is very much of a community value. Over the years I have come to the conviction that we must labor to transfer the community solidarity that is strong in shame cultures so that it applies to personal holiness also. Earlier it was considered a shame to own up to having sinned. What if by pressing biblical principles we develop an attitude of shame over not owning up to our sin? What if people once used to ignoring personal sins now view these sins as bringing shame?

In my thirty-two years as leader of Youth for Christ (YFC) in Sri Lanka and twenty-eight years on the leadership team of a Methodist church in the outskirts of Colombo, I have worked primarily with the urban poor from other faiths. We have attempted to follow John Wesley’s system of nurture through small groups. There have been groups focusing on applying the Scripture to day-to-day life (which Wesley called Class meetings) and on those focusing on accountability (which Wesley called Bands). The ministry of YFC currently has about 275 small groups. This was harder to do with consistency in the church. However, I can confidently say that all those who made it to some level of maturity were part of this small group system. I am convinced that the nurture structures advocated by Wesley are effective in helping new converts, from cultures where shame and honor are important values, to adopt the Christian value system, which results in holiness of heart and life.

 

NEW CRITERIA FOR SHAME AND HONOR

Practicing community in this way helps develop new criteria for identifying shame and honor. Wesley placed a strong emphasis on “rules” for the various group within Methodism. These practices were considered normative for Methodists especially when they met for their regular meetings like leaders’ meetings and local preachers’ meetings. Therefore, he included questions about the personal lives of the members of the society especially its leaders. The format for the meetings included questions about the beliefs and practices of the people. While these questions are still asked, at least in some Methodist churches in Sri Lanka, not many regard them with much seriousness.

In my study of the journals of John Wesley one of the most striking differences I saw between the church then and now was how little we discipline our members today. Wesley would “examine” the societies during his visits. That is, he would ask the leaders about the conduct of each member and decide what should be done about that member. The membership of many members was revoked as a result. Today disciplining is often associated with shame and honor. When a person is disciplined motives are attributed to the action taken: “The minister is against him because he criticized his wife.”

Disciplining is part of the culture of a biblical community and the result is that there is a fear of sinning in that community. This is what happened after Ananias and Sapphira died (Acts 5:5, 11). Paul told Timothy, “As for [elders] who persist in sin [after carefully establishing that the sin was actually committed], rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). I must confess that this is one directive that we have found very difficult to follow. Because of following it there was a holy fear of sinning in the early church that is missing in today’s church. Through his practice of questioning and examining, Wesley initiated new criteria for shame and honor. He brought personal life into the public eye and affirmed that people could not profess to be Methodists, if their personal lives do not give evidence of pursuing scriptural holiness.

This is an essentially biblical methodology where shame and honor is used in the promoting of holiness. Paul, for example, said that sexual sin “must not even be named among you as is proper among the saints” (Eph. 5:3); that filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking was “out of place” (Eph. 5:4); and that “it is shameful to even speak about things they do in secret” (Eph 5:12). When rebuking the Corinthians for unholy behavior, he said, “I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34; see also 2 Thess. 3:14). Even in biblical times honor and shame was used to foster holiness, just like Wesley did by bringing members’ personal lives into public scrutiny through his probing questions to be asked at meetings.

 

COMMUNITY SOLIDARITY

The community solidarity in Christ fostered by Wesley’s small groups served as an incentive to adopting Christian values. Wesley’s Bands have been described as belonging to the affective mode. His “Rules of the Bands” begins with the words: “The design of our meeting is to obey the command of God, ‘Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed’ (James 5:16).” Wesley recommends questions to ask about the personal life. This was what we today call a personal accountability group. So the Band was a homogenous group consisting of the same kind of people—young men, or young women, or adult men, or adult women.

For three decades, I have been preaching about the need for Christian leaders to have this kind of accountability relationships and I have even written a book on this. The constant response I get from leaders is that they cannot trust people enough to talk to them about their weaknesses and sins. Many describe how they have tried to do this and got hurt through the betrayal of trust. I am convinced that we need to create a new culture where people will trust each other so as to be willing to be vulnerable before them.

For such a culture we need a fresh understanding of grace. Grace tells us that we are all sinners but that God has done all that is necessary for our sins to be forgiven and forgotten. If we have such a strong sense of grace we would not be afraid to bring up our sins before trusted people. Those who hear of such sins would not go gossiping about them because they know that their own identity is only because of grace that was showered upon them despite their sinfulness. For a forgiven sinner to gossip about the sins of others would be the height of hypocrisy. This grace perspective pervades the New Testament which is unafraid to highlight the sins and weaknesses of the key leaders of the early church.

In early Methodism, attendance at Class meetings was compulsory. No “tickets” for the Sunday society meetings were given for those who missed more than three meetings in a quarter. These Methodists were serious about their community life. And the small groups helped them to get serious about it. Wesley’s Specialised Bands placed further incentives to pursue together towards a common task such as overcoming alcoholism. This has been described as operating on the Rehabilitative Mode. Today we call this group therapy. A group of peers is formed so that they can help each other to overcome a problem they commonly share.

 

APPLICATION ORIENTED BIBLE STUDIES

A major achievement of Wesley’s famous Class Meeting was that it helped people to apply the Word. Michael Henderson describes this as operating on the behavioral mode. Many new believers among the poor are semi-literate in that they are unable to grasp and internalize what the Bible teaches by reading it. It is very humbling at the end of a Bible study to notice how little of what the Bible teaches has gone into the mind. Many of these people revered the teaching in the books of their previous religion but no one expected them to adhere to all that was taught. Though many Sri Lankans daily recite that they will not lie, lying is very much a part of their daily lives. It would be something new to have teaching, which is intended to influence their personal behavior.

Application-oriented Bible discussions help such to internalize the teachings of the Bible. Here the teaching in the Bible is brought right down to their personal behavior at home and at work. They discuss about how they are going to respond to specific situations they are facing. Then the truth of the word can go into the lives of people who may not be used to learning from intellectual discussions about biblical concepts.

Many of today’s small groups do not really grapple with the text of scripture and with how to apply it to daily life. Usually today’s meetings have times of praise (called “worship”), testimony, praying for the needs of people and a short “devotional.” We are missing a good opportunity to foster holy living among Christians.

 

SOLIDARITY HELPS DEVELOP SELF-ESTEEM

Poverty, combined with a class system that looks at the poor as inferior, can severely damage a person’s self-esteem. What they sense is a far cry from the significance and identity that comes with being a child of God. Like many other Christian values, this is not something that people automatically grasp after conversion. Not having much to be proud about they often do not have self-esteem to keep them from doing shameful things. Self-esteem, as we shall see, is a great incentive to holiness. Lacking it, they may betray those who have sacrificially helped them by stealing from or lying to them. Often those who have been betrayed by the poor get disillusioned about helping them.

The key to overcoming this problem is practicing what the Bible says about a new community where earthly distinctions have been broken (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22). There is great power when a poor person, who is despised in society, enjoys fellowship in a small group together with rich and socially esteemed persons. They realize that they are treated as equals with the rich and that they are even helping the rich spiritually by what they share and do. When they sense that they are treated as equals in Christ self-esteem begins to grow. That, in turn, gives them new standards for behavior. It becomes below their dignity as princes and princesses in God’s kingdom to steal and lie and betray their brothers and sisters in Christ. We must not expect to be successful in raising up a generation of saints from among the poor if we do not attack the terrible class distinctions which are still prevalent in the church.

It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the great wealth that comes to economically rich people by such close fellowship with the poor. Let me only say that, by confining their growth experience to highly specialized homogenous groups, Christians will miss a lot of the enrichment that is available to them. Wesley’s Class Meetings were heterogeneous groups based on geographical location. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women met to apply the scriptures together and enriched each other out of their own unique experiences.

 

ATTACKING SOCIAL EVILS

Another bi-product of having rich and poor Christians meet together in the early Methodist class meetings was that influential people heard first-hand of the sufferings of poor laborers. This caused them to develop a social conscience, which led to actions to rid society of social evils. It promoted societal holiness. While a student in a Buddhist University in Sri Lanka, I looked into an Encyclopedia of Economics in the university library to see whether it had anything to say about John Wesley. I will never forget my joy as I read that the Wesleyan revival may have helped prevent a repetition of the bloody French Revolution in the United Kingdom. This was because necessary social changes resulted as a bi-product of this revival.

 

MAINTAINING THE ETHOS

Fellowship of the kind advocated by Wesley is not easy to maintain over a long period of time. As movements get bigger, the members naturally tend to lose some of the discipline required for such accountability. This challenge is intensified by the fact that, given the radical individualism that pervades contemporary life, this kind of community accountability is somewhat out of step with life in contemporary church and society. The Methodist system of changing ministers every few years can result in an occasional minister not being as enthusiastic about Wesleyan-style accountability. This adds to the challenge. But if the lay leaders doggedly persevere in meeting for such fellowship it can survive the challenge until a minister who is more open to it arrives.

In YFC we have not yet had the problem of leaders who are out of step with this aspect of our ethos. I have been the leader of the movement for thirty-two years of its forty-three year existence. So the ethos was generally accepted, at least in theory. The challenge has been to maintain the principles of accountability and fellowship as the movement has grown in size. We have tried to meet this challenge in several ways.

  • Like Wesley I have tried to write frequently about our ethos to the body of Youth for Christ through letters, memos and articles.
  • I travel regularly to our centers primarily to teach the staff. Unlike Wesley, I let those who supervise these center to “examine” (see above) the centers. During my visits to the centers I have tried, like Wesley, to focus on teaching the staff and volunteers and on visiting the homes of the leaders. I have also tried to spend long hours chatting to them about the things of God. Therefore, whenever possible, I have tried to spend most of my time in their homes. One of my big challenges has been to prevent the leaders from keeping me busy with public programs, which reduces the possibility of my spending time in fellowship with the leaders.
  • We have attempted to have deep fellowship among the twelve or so national leaders through two-to-four day long leadership team meetings held three times a year and majoring on spiritual fellowship and strategy rather than on business. My hope has been that the priority given to fellowship by the leaders would result in that emphasis trickling down to the rest of the movement. Maintaining this “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) among the leaders has been the hardest and most absorbing challenge I have faced in all my years of ministry.
  • I have consistently shared publicly about the blessing I have received from my “band” of five friends who have known each other well for thirty to forty years (reduced from six after the death of one). I have hoped that my sharing may challenge some to seek such spiritual accountability with others.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Connections. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Fernando, Ajith. Jesus Driven Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002.

_______. Reclaiming Friendship: Relating to Each other in a Frenzied World. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993.

Henderson, D. Michael. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Nappance, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1997.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Pilch and Bruce J. Malina. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Plevnik Joseph. “Honor/Shame,” Biblical Social Values and their Meanings. Edited by John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993

Tennant, Timothy F. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Wiher, Hannes. Shame and Guilt: A Key to Cross-Cultural Ministry. Bonn: Verlag für Kultür und Wissenschaft, 2003.

 

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Ajith Fernando is a Methodist local preacher from Sri Lanka who has been National Director of Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka, since 1976. He also lectures regularly at theological colleges and speaks in conferences in Sri Lanka and abroad. He has written fourteen books and his books are found in fourteen languages.

 

Distinctives of Early Methodist Community Life

From a letter written to a friend in Africa who is helping the Methodist Church in his country.

March 2006

By Ajith Fernando

One of the saddest features of society today is the fracturing of community life. The family is under fire; commitment to people and groups is considered an unnecessary nuisance. The result is that people are lonely and missing what God intended them to have when he made them human. Humanity cannot be divorced from community.

 

I strongly believe that many of the principles of early Methodist community life recaptured what God intended humans to enjoy in community. We should see whether we can bring back some of those features into the life of the church. We have tried to follow as much of it as we can in YFC. It has not been easy, and we have to keep adjusting and trying new ways of applying the principles as the ministry gets bigger and bigger. My early (1989) reflections on this have been recorded in my book Reclaiming Friendship (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994).

 

 

FOUR STRUCTURES OF COMMUNITY LIFE

 

The genius of the early Methodist movement was its fourfold community life. First there was the society which today we would call the congregation. That met on Sunday, and it is there that the truths of Christianity were proclaimed. Once the small group system came into operation the people got tickets based on their attendance at the small group. Only those who had tickets were given permission to go for the normal Sunday service–unless it was an open service which was open to all and had an evangelistic outlook. Of course the church was evangelising all the time in the places where the people were—rather than primarily within the confines of the church building.

 

The second group was the class meeting. This is the small group where Christian truth was applied to the specific situations in which the Christians lived. This started when meeting halls were being constructed and a leader would collect the donations for the building project by visiting the homes of members in his neighbourhood. The people began to share their problems with the visiting leader. Gradually Wesley saw the value of having a meeting for Methodist people in a given neighbourhood. This developed into the class meeting, and attendance at class meetings became compulsory for all members.

 

The class meeting was a heterogeneous group with rich and poor, young and old, married and single attending. This way they were able to apply the Scriptures in a much more enriching way than the homogeneous groups with which we are comfortable. Comfort was not an important value in early Methodism. Here young grew with old; new Christians with mature ones. This was a natural environment for growth, just like the family is. D. L. Moody has called this the most effective way of follow up of converts the church ever devised.

 

Soon, when the poor talked about their problems in the group, the rich began to find out about how the poor were being exploited in their workplaces. They were shocked and they decided to do something about it. This, in part, accounts for the strong social influence of the Methodist revival. The primary impetus, I believe, came from the social implications of the gospel as described in the Bible.

 

Third, there was the band. This consisted of a homogeneous group of people who banded together to be accountable to each other and, in Wesley’s words, to confess their sins one to another. There was a strict segregation of sexes because people talk about very personal things in the band. So young men met with young men; and young women met with young women etc. This is similar to the accountability groups of which we speak today. Wesley felt this was the most important group to be involved in. But it did not catch on as well as he wanted within Methodism. The class meeting was much more successful.

 

Fourth, there were the specialised bands. These consisted of groups of people who banded together because of a particular need in their life. There were those seeking salvation—what we would today call an evangelistic Bible study. There were those seeking the fullness of the Spirit or Christian perfection, as Wesley sometimes called it. There were backsliders who wanted to return to Christ or to the path of victory etc.

 

I believe that this fourfold community life was one of the secrets of the success of the early Methodist movement.

 

 

DISCIPLINE

 

Early Methodist community life involved strict discipline and regular chopping of names from the lists of members if their lives did not accord with Christian practice. Wesley himself often went to societies and “examined” them. The result was that many names were taken off the members lists. For the past few years I have been reading through all of Wesley’s writings and extracting quotes for what (in about 10 years from now) will hopefully become a book of quotations. When I was studying Wesley’s journals one of the most startling differences I found was how little disciplining of members we do today in comparison to Wesley’s time.

 

 

HYMNS AS MEANS OF TEACHING THEOLOGY

 

I think there are some other features of Methodist Community life which merit revisiting. For example, one of the most effective methods of teaching doctrine to the early Methodists, many of whom were not very educated, was the hymn book. Methodism has no statement of faith—which became a problem as the movement grew and liberalism began to influence it. The doctrine was derived from select sermons of John Wesley (forty odd [44?] in British Methodism and fifty odd [53?] in American Methodism) and the hymn book.

 

There were hymns on all the different aspects of Christianity. The table of contents of a typical Methodist hymn book reads like the table of contents of a systematic theology book. This emphasis is sorely lacking in much of today’s singing. For example, among popular Sinhala Christian songs sung today, there are very few songs about holiness and songs expressing a desire or prayer to be holy. This is very common in Methodist hymnody.

 

I believe the church must take the pedagogic value of what is today called the “worship time” of a service. “Worship-time” is a term often used today for the time before the sermon. I think this is an error. Some use the term “worship-time” only for the time when they pray loud simultaneously. From start to finish it is all worship! And teaching biblical truth also takes place from start to finish in different ways.

 

 

THE JOY OF SALVATION

 

The freshness of the joy of salvation was another feature of Methodist community life. The great Methodist preacher, the Cornish coalminer Billy Bray, was an example of the joy of the early Methodists. When visiting a Methodist home, if he found that a man in that home had recently become a Christian, he would hoist him on to his shoulders and run round the house carrying him and praising God over his salvation.

 

The Methodist distinctive of the assurance of salvation was closely related to this celebration of the joy of salvation. This doctrine is wonderfully expressed in the hymn, “My God I am Thine.” It talks of being thrice happy in the heavenly lamb. Wesley said, “Singing is as much the language of holy joy as praying is of holy desire.” No wonder it was said in those days that you could tell a Methodist home by the sound of singing that came out of the home.

 

There were other structures to give expression to the joy of salvation. Methodism in USA developed the “hymn sing” which was a time when Christians gathered together just to sing hymns. The “love feast” which included testimony was another occasion to express joy. I believe that, because Methodism is so much of an experiential form of Christianity, we must not remove the important place that testimony has in community life. In our home church we do not have what used to be called love feasts but the monthly all-night prayer vigil has a lot of the features of a love feast. Here there are lots of opportunities for Christians to testify to God’s goodness in their lives.

 

I hope God will use you to help the Methodist church rediscover some of these glorious distinctives.

Holiness and Community

Published in Global Passion: Marking George Verwer’s Contribution to World Mission, edited by David Greenlee (Carlisle, Cumbria: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003), pp. 11-19.

Dr. Ajith Fernando

Holiness, commonly understood in evangelical circles as ‘Christ-likeness’, is a very important theme in the New Testament. In a statistical study done on the Epistles of Paul, I found that 1400 of the 2005 verses in the Epistles, that is, about 70 per cent of the verses, are in some way connected with the call to be holy. This suggests that it should be an important theme in the teaching of the church today. In this article I hope to focus on the important place that the Bible gives to the part the Christian community plays in Christians becoming holy. I will call this process ‘mutual up-building’.

 

Mutual Up-Building

 

Much of the teaching relating to holiness in the New Testament is given in the plural, implying that growth in holiness takes place within the context of the body. A good example is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’ The ‘you’ here is plural.

 

In my study of Paul’s epistles I found several sub-themes that could be classified under the theme of mutual up-building. This is presented in the list below. I have generally left out statements that speak of up-building through the ministry of leaders, and primarily used the texts that indicate that ordinary Christians can help each other grow in holiness:

Our behaviour should aim at mutual up-building; Christian growth takes place in the context of the body: 26 verses

We are to admonish and teach each other: 8 verses

Gifts have been given to be used for mutual up-building: 2 verses

Prophecy is preferred to tongues because it builds others up: 17 verses

Corporate worship is a means God uses to help Christians grow: 4 verses

Christians are to help restore other Christians caught up in sin: 4 verses

Christians grow through observing the examples of other Christians: 30 verses. I included Paul’s example, though I have left out long passages like 1 Corinthians 9 where he describes the sacrifices he made for the gospel as an example to follow. This impressive list implies that reading biographies could be a great means of growth for the Christian.

When deciding on a course of action, we are sensitive to the possibility that other Christians may stumble because of things that we consider acceptable: 30 verses.

 

When I was a theological student I spoke on 2 Timothy 2:22 for my practical test in preaching. It says, ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ I spoke about the need to flee youthful passions and pursue the virtuous qualities Paul mentioned. After the sermon my preaching professor remarked that I had not dealt with what is possibly the most important point in this verse: that we do the fleeing and the pursuing ‘along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’

 

By this omission I was reflecting the typical evangelical distortion of Christian holiness by turning it into an individualistic rather than a corporate matter. God intends for us to battle for holiness along with fellow Christians. The Protestant Reformation rightly reacted against the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation through the church by returning to the biblical emphasis on individual salvation. Evangelical movements helped keep this in the forefront when it was later neglected within Protestant churches. But we must not forget that the Bible also teaches that Christians live and grow in community. We need ‘a move away from the . . . emphasis on the individual making up the church, and a move towards an understanding of the church as a formative phenomenon which acts on the life of the believer.’

 

The way Christians help each other grow in holiness is well expressed in Hebrews 10:25: ‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.’ Let me give one example how this verse works. Here is a Christian worker who, after straying a few times into some unclean sites on the Internet, finds that he is strongly compelled to go to pornographic sites. Thousands of Christian workers are struggling with this problem today. But this worker has a group he is accountable to. He shares his problem with the group and they set several guidelines for him including that he regularly reports to the group about his activity in this area. Now, whenever he is tempted to stray, he remembers that he has to report everything to his group. He knows that he may have to face disciplinary action over his failings. There is a check in his spirit that pulls him away from the path of temptation. The pathway is open for him to free himself from the stranglehold of pornography. The process of mutual up-building is described in much detail in Proverbs which has some rich statements on how friends help each other to live godly lives (e.g. Prov. 12:1, 15; 17:10; 19:27; 27:6).

 

No Theology of Groaning

 

I often speak in Sri Lanka on the need for Christian workers to have friends who can help them to grow spiritually and with whom they could share their struggles. Many have responded saying that they will not share their problems with other Christians because they have tried before and were deeply hurt. The growing church in Sri Lanka may have a theological problem that hinders Christian workers from sharing problems with friends. We may be concentrating so much on growth, praise and power in church life that we are presenting a Christianity that has no place for the biblical concept of groaning. When people groan about their weaknesses, others often respond wrongly, perhaps rejecting the groaner or telling others what was shared with them in confidence.

 

I have taken the term groaning from Romans 8:23, which says, ‘we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ Earlier Paul said, ‘the creation was subjected to futility’ as a result of the Fall (8:20). We do not get everything we want nor do we experience the fullness of perfection that God intends to give us in heaven. But we have a foretaste of it, for we ‘have the first fruits of the Spirit’ (8:23). We groan because of the disparity between what we will have in heaven and what we have now. Among the things we groan about is our struggle to live a holy life.

 

A good example of groaning is the lament of the Old Testament. The book of Psalms has about fity in which  the psalmists complain to God about struggles. If the Holy Spirit inspired so many laments to be recorded in the Bible, then groaning must surely be part of the Christian life. Those who have a theology of lament will have a place for emphasizing honest expressions of struggle which can exist alongside an emphasis on growth, power and praise.

 

Sometimes we are so eager for growth that we become like advertisers who give only the positive side of a product and avoid talking about the unpleasant sides. Nowadays advertisers are required to mention negative aspects about their product. They usually do so as inconspicuously as possible. Many churches have not caught on to this practice yet! They know that people will be attracted to the church if the message presented shows all the wonderful things that God can do. Problems that Christians face are neglected for marketing reasons. This has happened for so long that many people do not have a place for groaning in their understanding of the Christian life.

 

When a Christian talks about his or her problems in this environment, other Christians don’t know what to do. Those who share could face rejection and public blame for not being good Christians. Therefore they learn to live without talking about their problems, unless it is the type of problem that could become a ‘prayer concern’. They will ask for prayer for healing and guidance and provision of a job or funds, but not for overcoming a hot temper or a bad habit or discouragement.

 

In a sense this is a defective understanding of grace. The biblical understanding of grace is so great that Christians do not need to fear facing up to their sin. Sin is never justified in the Bible and must always be condemned. Grace is greater than sin but grace cannot be applied unless we admit that we have sinned. Therefore, if we desire the fullness of God’s grace in our lives, we will be eager to confess our sin so as to open the door to a rich experience of grace. This is not done in a flippant or light way; we are grieved by sin. But we are so eager for cleansing that we will eagerly face up to the sin and seek forgiveness.

 

1 John 1:5 – 2:3 presents this paradox powerfully. John says, ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin’ (1 John 2:1a) – sin is never condoned – ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1b-2). God’s grace in Christ is so great that we do not need to fear to face up to sin. In fact we fear not facing up to it for we know that ‘if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). We dread the prospect of forfeiting the fellowship and the cleansing by not walking in the light. So we will be eager to ‘confess our sins’ (1 John 1:9).

 

Defective theologies of groaning and grace can combine to produce a church where people are afraid to express their deep hurts and struggles to other Christians. When a leader has a problem like a deteriorating marriage or bondage to a harmful habit, he may have no one to talk to about it. He valiantly tries to overcome the problem through confession to God, prayer and making firm personal resolutions. But he is caught in a downward spiral, and there seems to be no way out. Finally the problem becomes public, and there is a terrible scandal. This could have been avoided if others had come in and helped this leader out of his mess.

 

New Testament Community: Life in the Raw

 

We learn a lot about community life from the description in the gospels of the life of Jesus and his disciples. There we find what I am calling ‘life in the raw’. There is no hiding of the problems of the disciples. Not only did the disciples face up to the problems, the Holy Spirit also saw it fit to have these problems recorded in Scripture so that we could learn something from them. The New Testament writers were not afraid to acknowledge the weaknesses of the first disciples who, at the time of writing, were the key leaders of the church.

 

Jesus is the only one in the Bible who is without sin. But the Gospels show even Jesus struggling at times. We see him weeping at the funeral of Lazarus (John 11:35). The Gospels do not hide the fact that Jesus really struggled with the will of God in the garden of Gethsemane. Luke describes his struggle thus: ‘And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ (Luke 22:44; see also Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33). He was in agony because he was finding the will of God for him (bearing the sin of the world on a cross) so difficult to accept. He prays, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’ (Luke 22:42; see also John 12:27). Strengthened by the results of this struggle, Jesus marches so triumphantly to the cross that those who came to arrest him ‘drew back and fell to the ground’ when he introduced himself to them (John 18:6)!

 

We often wish to avoid something that we know we should do, and Jesus’ frank confession of his feelings to God gives us the courage to express our apprehensions. When we do so, others in the community should not judge us but sympathies and help give us the courage to be obedient. Our expression of need provides the trigger for God’s work of strengthening us for tough challenges. The important thing is to be obedient. Those who never express their fears sometimes end up disobeying God. They have not really grappled with the problem and are not prepared when it comes, nor do they have anyone to encourage them at their time of need.

 

A healthy Christian community encourages its members to be open about faults and fears. Their desire for all of God, and their belief in the sufficiency of grace will urge them to confront sin and problems fearlessly and to look for God to use that to purify, teach and deepen the community. A community that deals with problems openly and biblically will become a community with a deep spirituality because God is able to minister and teach his deep truths through the grappling that takes place to solve the problem. This is what happened out of the blunders of the disciples recorded in the gospels. Each one produced some deep teaching by Christ which made facing up to it so worthwhile.

 

John Wesley’s Bands

 

Something like the group known as the ‘band’ which John Wesley advocated among the Methodists can be a great help in the growth in holiness of a Christian. A band was the equivalent of what we today call an accountability group. It is different to Wesley’s more popular ‘class meeting’ which was equivalent to a cell or house group. The class meeting was a heterogeneous group of people living in the same area who met to apply the Scriptures to daily life. Bands were homogeneous groups divided according to sex, age and marital status. Such restrictions encouraged the members to share private things about their personal lives. Wesley’s Rules of the Bands states: ‘The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed” (James 5:16)’. Here Wesley listed six things that they intended to do at this meeting. Two are of special interest to us:

  1. To speak to each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word and deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.
  2. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

 

Today many Christian leaders have as their accountability group people that they do not work closely with. While ‘something is better than nothing’ perhaps this is not ideal to help us along the path to holiness. These people do not see us at work and must depend on our reporting to know our situation. Given the inclination of the human heart to deception, it is possible for us to give an inaccurate picture of what is really going on in our lives. For this reason it may be better for us to have an accountability group of people with whom we live and or work closely, such as members of the same church, organization or ministry team.

 

Given the huge problem with unholiness in today’s church, we should be giving more stress on the place that the Christian community has in helping Christians to become holy. I am delighted by the privilege of writing on this topic for a book published in honour of George Verwer. Through the honesty that characterizes his proclamation and writing he has given the church a very helpful example of ‘life in the raw’ and brought holiness down to a level that is practically applicable to fellow pilgrims like me!

 

Difficult Days Facing Western Christians

I have just read an article about the growth of the church in China. Amazingly a key factor in this growth was the terrible Communist repression of Christians and the inability of Christians to get help from outside. The sovereign God used this to superintend one of the most amazing spurts of the growth in the history of the church. And now, according to this article, Chinese Christians are having huge dreams about missionary involvement (Brian Stiller, “Unintended Consequences,” https://dispatchesfrombrian.com/2016/10/10/unintended-consequences/).

 

This makes me think of the church in the west. I visited western nations for ministry three times this year. We are seeing a rapid rejection of the Christian values which contributed so much towards making the west great. Laws are being enacted that are inimical to the Christian way of life. Christians fear that there is more of this to come.

Yet the Lord is still in control of history. My prayer is that out of all this loss of “influence” the church will grow deep and learn to live by theological convictions in a hostile world. Facing hostility is normal for Christianity. This theological grounding will help the church to thrive without looking for support to government power which in history has resulted in the church becoming arrogant, corrupt and selfish.

Christian spirituality is cruciform (cross shaped) and its power is unleashed most when we are weak. In this age when people worship power this is one of the most countercultural things about Christianity. Great Christians emerge out of a life of hardship and opposition. Perhaps the depth coming out of the pain would open the door for a genuine revival which is so needed both in the west and the east.

I pray for genuine revival in the west. I pray that, without panicking, Christians would pray for revival, teach the Word faithfully, and engage in deep and penitent pursuit of holiness. These usually serve to create an environment upon which the Spirit moves in revival.

Crises In The church

1st May 2002

To the YFC Leadership.

I have been grieving a lot about the state of the Evangelical movement in Sri Lanka and I shared something at staff devotions this week, which I now want to share with you. Ajith

DIVISIONS IN THE CHURCH.

It seems that in the past seven or eight years there have been an amazing amount of church splits. The phrase “Church planting” has got a bad name because to many it has come to mean that a disgruntled worker leaves the church he is working at, with a section of the congregation, to start a new church with the backing of a foreign sponsor. While this has not been a major problem in YFC we must always be on guard.

The key would be to follow Paul’s admonition: “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). In other words, we must not allow anger against a colleague to remain without initiating the painful process of a “love fight” that will not conclude until there is a resolution. There are two keys to persevering with this fight:

  1. Belief in the doctrine of the body of Christ, which says that what unites us is so much greater than what divides;
  2. Belief in the doctrine of God, which says that he is greater than the things that temporarily divide us.
  3. Belief in the biblical teaching about personal holiness in which a key aspect is being “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

 

THINGS TO BE CAREFUL ABOUT.

There are some other things that are happening which we are very susceptible to. Many Christian leaders are in serious trouble in Sri Lanka, and I believe a primary cause is because we leaders have not sufficiently heeded Paul’s call: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Let me mention six areas where we have been careless.

  1. We have been sacrificingFAMILY LIFE AT THE ALTAR OF MINISTRY. We have been so busy with ministry that we have not given quality time to our families. The result is that our spouses and children are unhappy. If our spouses are unhappy about God’s ministry then our children will rebel against the God who “caused” the unhappiness in the family. Also, if we are not talking enough to our spouses we might end up saying things that we should be saying to our spouses to another person from the opposite sex with whom we are working closely. The result is an affair!
  1. WE HAVE BEEN SACRIFICING THE WORD AT THE ALTAR OF EXPERIENCE. Today people are depending less and less on the Scriptures and more and more on exotic experiences and what they recognise as “words from the Lord.” Ministers are also focussing more on fostering dependence on these exotic experiences for nourishment rather than dependence on the Word. This is because people are finding immense emotional satisfaction from these experiences and because ministers will need to devote a lot of time and energy if they are to have an effective ministry of the Word. Studying the Scriptures and applying it to audiences is hard work! If this goes on we could have a very immature, ungodly and nominal church in a few years because Christians are not grounded in the Word. Also I believe this lopsided emphasis is fostering some unscriptural practices in many churches which are going unchecked because people think the experiences are coming from God.
  1. WE HAVE BEEN SACRIFICING OUR TIME ALONE WITH GOD AT THE ALTAR OF ACTIVITY. Once we get into this pattern we can get into such a rut that the quiet time really gets less and less important to us. As a result of the insecurity that comes to us from not being in close touch with God we can end up so restless that we find it difficult to stop to spend time alone with God. We are afraid of silent self-examination, so we find refuge in activity rather than in God. The result is that we lose the glow of God’s nearness in our lives and the freshness leaves our ministry. How sad it is to see so many ministers who seemed to have so much potential in their early years of ministry, either burnt out or a shadow of what we thought they would become.
  1. WE HAVE BEEN SACRIFICING HOLINESS AT THE ALTAR OF GIFTEDNESS. How is it that people who are committing adultery or beating their wives (verbally or physically) or telling lies or being dishonest in their use of money are still having such prominent and apparently powerful ministries? Some say that gifts remain even after a person moves away from the Lord. Perhaps so. But I also think that people have certain needs, and if those needs are met by a church through a relevant, attractive and well managed programme that church will attract people even though the leaders’ lives may not meet with God’s approval. It’s the result of good marketing and management techniques. There is a great danger that because of the success of gifted ministers we could ignore their sins because too much is at stake if they are to bow out of the ministry. We must not forget that the Bible teaches that unrepentant adulterers cannot even enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
  1. WE HAVE BEEN SACRIFICING HIGH MINISTRY STANDARDS AT THE ALTAR OF GROWTH. Today there is a lot of motivation to mission and ministry and Christians are challenged to join in the force that will fulfil the growth goals of their churches. The result is that relatively new Christians with a lot of enthusiasm for mission are being sent to new areas as workers. But they are not adequately mature for such a work. The teaching they have received has been primarily motivation to mission and training in ministry techniques. When they face a crisis they may act unwisely or in an ungodly manner. We are hearing of Christian workers who are inconsiderate towards their neighbours, who tell lies to get visas to travel abroad, who take revenge, and pay bribes. Many end up as serious casualties after a few years.
    Paul is clear that one appointed as an overseer “must not be a recent convert” (1 Tim. 3:6). Indeed new believers must get involved in the mission of the church. But they must not be sent to lead ministries in new fields till they are mature. There are no short cuts to preparing godly ministers of the gospel. Jesus lived with his disciples for three years and spent hours teaching them before they were ready to launch into their mission. Similarly, those who have been converted from godless backgrounds will need long and close exposure to the lives and teaching of godly leaders before the nature of Christ is stamped onto their nature.
  1. WE HAVE NOT BEEN SCRUPULOUSLY ACCOUNTABLE AND OPEN ABOUT OUR USE OF FUNDS. There is a growing suspicion among Christians that their leaders are not really open about their financial dealings. The result is that there is murmuring among Christians about the expenditure and wealth of leaders and a resultant lowering of standards of unity. Money is the one area that Acts 2 and 4 mentions as an example of Christians being of one heart and mind. But today heart unity is usually not extended to the use of money as it was in Acts. The anger of poor Christian workers about the riches of other Christian workers is growing, and this could soon be a very serious problem. When it comes to money and possessions it is always “better to be safe than sorry.” It is better to feel constrained by rules than to have the freedom for indiscriminate behaviour in such a dangerous area.

Let us regard with fresh seriousness Paul’s words: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Conflicts Among Christians

Ajith Fernando

Extracts from an interview with the Singapore Magazine, IMPACT.

ImpactIs it possible for Christians to actually live in unity without conflict?

Fernando:  Conflict is inevitable because we all have individual differences, and many of us have high expectations of standards and behaviour within the Christian community. I have heard people say that it is easier to work with non-Christians than Christians.  Our expectations of Christians are much higher, and therefore our disappointments.  So there will be unpleasantness and conflicts when Christians work together. But the things that bind us together will help us overcome the conflicts.

Impact: Though Jesus prayed for unity among Christians, so many Christians spend so much time and effort fighting with each other.

Fernando:  One of the causes for this, especially within the evangelical movement, is that there hasn’t been enough reflection on what it means to be the body of Christ or on how much the Bible teaches on unity.  I’m presently doing a statistical study of the teaching of the Epistles. I am amazed by how much teaching there is on unity.  When we say we are the body of Christ, it means that Christ is equally concerned for the church “down the road” as He is for “our church”.  Likewise, He is equally concerned for the brother with whom I am having a conflict as He is for me.  If so, that should really temper the way I behave.  I would be very careful to do anything that would hurt that person.  I would also consider it a major problem if my relationship with that person were not right.  But instead of working hard for solutions, people are fighting, dividing up the church and going to court.

Impact: If a leader of a church or Christian organisation disagrees with the direction the leaders are taking what should he do?  Is that a basis for him to break away?

Fernando:  In some rare instances breaking away may be necessary, but it is happening far too much today.  On the whole, we are lazy about talking through our problems because it is unpleasant and difficult to talk about differences.  We may just share once or twice and give up.  If there is a lot of prayer, confrontation and talk, many church splits could have been avoided.  In the twenty-two years that I have served in YFC, without a doubt, the most painful thing has been the struggle to maintain the unity of our team.  This is emotionally draining work, but it is also very rewarding.

Impact:  Why is it such hard work?

Fernando:  It can be very unpleasant when people are fighting.  Nobody likes unpleasantness. Sometimes people are not willing to bring it out.  The leader of the team has to try to get them to do so.  One person may be extremely smart and persuasive, and the others may actually be afraid to confront that person.  So they allow disunity to grow rather than go through the humiliation of debating this smart guy whom they think will defeat them in an argument.  It is hard work, and over the years we have had some painful experiences.  But I think we have been able to forge a team of faithful, hard working people whom I can trust.

Impact:  Is the concept of servant-leadership a key to the resolving conflict?

Fernando:  Yes!  The heart of servanthood is a crucified self.  And most often, delay in resolution is because of uncrucified Christians who are not willing to give in or change their perspectives.  They feel humiliated if someone confronts them, especially if it is in public. So it becomes a battle to win rather than to see the glory of God.  We say we are fighting for justice, but really we are fighting for the retrieval of our own name.  Leaders have to take the lead in demonstrating servanthood in crises.  If leaders know people are upset with them, without waiting for them to come, they should go to these people, ask them what is wrong, and nip conflict in the bud (Matt.5:23-24).

…Also in a conflict situation, it is always good to check with those we trust about the way we are reacting.  In conflicts, I try not to act without first consulting my wife, my Board Chairman or my senior colleagues, because I am distrustful of my reactions, especially when I am angry. One way to differentiate between righteous and selfish anger is for others to tell us….