Yesterday, Sunday, I had the unique privilege of returning to preach at the church I had pastored for almost twenty years in Prince George, BC — Lakewood Alliance Church. Since leaving there more than eleven years ago, even though we have continued to live in Prince George, we haven’t attended often — mostly in order to give the new pastor opportunity to lead in the development of the ministry without incumbrance from my time of service there. This follows ethical protocol for a pastor who remains in the same city or region of the church he has pastored.
But, from time to time, my wife and I have been invited back to attend and participate in anniversaries, or for me to speak in a Worship Service. Yesterday was such an opportunity. We were amazed by the sense of nostalgia and the warm welcome we received by the congregation yesterday. Though much has changed, including a large part of the congregation, there were also many reminders of the time we had spent there — not the least of which is still a large number of people who were there earlier on. More than ever, it felt like a kind of home-coming.
My assignment was to speak on the current biblical episode of the the TV mini-series, A.D. The Bible Continues. It happened to be on the events described in Acts 8:1-8 concerning the persecution that broke out under Saul of Tarsus following the martyrdom of Stephen. Because of what appears to be increasing persecution toward Christians happening in the world just now it seemed especially appropriate to think about how our Christian lives are affected by persecution. Obviously, it is not a major factor in this part of the world, since there is such an strong emphasis, in our culture, on human rights. Nevertheless, there will always be some experience of opposition in the lives of those who are serious about being followers of Jesus Christ.
The threat of physical persecution is the lot of more than half of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians because they live in countries where other religions and political ideas are more dominant. But in this part of the world, persecution is more a matter of disagreement, marginalization, and various degrees of subtle discrimination. In the west, persecution is about the kind of spiritual struggle described by St. Paul in Ephesians 6:11, 12, etc.
But the main point of Acts 8:1-8 is that the persecution of that time had a very positive effect. Even though it brought much hardship and no little discomfort to the Christians in Jerusalem, in the end their experience served to strengthen the church and broaden its influence.
As it turns out, I have used this passage in recent years in my work with churches that are going through transition. Churches in transition are usually feeling the strain of loss and upheaval. Congregations that lose their leader struggle with conflict, guilt, remorse, and often a general sense of despair. But Acts 8 provides a wonderful example of how God is able to bring much good out of disruption — especially the opportunity for more people to come to hear about the Good News of Jesus.
For me, Acts 8 is a great illustration of how God is able to use change for good in our lives when we turn from despair to faith and trust in God to bring about new levels of fruitfulness. I have written of this elsewhere on this Blog under the heading, Embracing Change.
I am struck by the many examples in church history of how disruptions of one kind or another, while most uncomfortable at the time, have actually served to strengthen and multiply the ministry of the church. Perhaps one of the greatest disruptive events in the history of the church was the Reformation. This movement, attributed to the work of the Catholic priest and professor, Martin Luther, was initially seen as a huge challenge to the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.
And though some would vehemently complain about the disuniting affect of the Reformation, it is difficult not to see how God has used this disruption in the church to greatly enhance its true evangelistic efforts. In fact the proliferation of Christian denominations that came out of the Reformation has served to greatly multiply the number of people who have come to faith in Christ.
So, while there are those who decry the development of denominationalism, I tend to be on the side of those who see it as a good thing — much in line with the spirit of what we read about in Acts 8. God used the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of that time as a way to take Christians away form the center of church life and service to spread the Good News to the world. It’s the same today; God is still using change and disruption of various kinds to send Christians to make the message known in other parts. While we’re inclined to struggle against these changes, the fact is that uncomfortable disruptions in our lives can serve to affect greater fruitfulness for the glory of God — if we persist in trusting and following the Lord, even in these times.