Rich but PoorComing from Africa, this pastor is shocked to see the Laodicean poverty of the Church in North America. The solution? Putting the Bible back in the hands of church members.
The beauty, wealth and affluence of the Western World caught my attention as I traveled to Toronto via Zurich. Apart from an unpleasant encounter with some immigration officers at the Zurich airport, I noticed the courtesy that accompanied service at restaurants, shops and other offices. The modem technology amazed me—the experience was thrilling and reflected what I had seen on TV and in various other news media.
… the Church is not only poor, but naked as well.
However, two weeks into my stay in Toronto as a university student in 1999 revealed other things beneath the surface. What a cultural shock!
The amount of food waste from cafeterias and other waste from offices I saw was a shock to me. Also shocking was the sight of homeless people who slept in the street and begged for "spare change"—homeless people and beggars in the midst of affluence, pomp and pride in Toronto! The story was no different when I travelled to the United States the following spring.
Within my first year in North America, I was shocked again to learn of Christian chapels being sold, not to developing ethnic ministries congregations, but to secular businesses. Sadly, some of the chapels have been converted to warehouses and theatres. In Africa, and Ghana in particular, I have seen cinema halls and other theatres sold and converted into chapels!
There were more surprises! During a discussion with some course mates after class one day, one of them commented that when she was growing up in the 1970s, society considered teenage pregnancy, pre-marital sex and other sexual sins as improper. But that is not the case today. Even some theology students did not see anything wrong with co-habitation or other sexual sins, apart from bigamy or adultery.
As the days rolled by, I noticed that most students at the seminary were not very conversant with some of the Bible stories taught at Sunday School. Biblical illiteracy? I am not sure!
My brief experience in North America belies the mass media notion that the West is "God's own country." There is real poverty in the midst of plenty—the gap between the rich and poor widens every day. And there is racial discrimination as opposed to the doctrine of democracy, equality, equity and freedom the West preaches to Africa and other non-Western countries.
As I reflect on these observations, I see parallels with the First Century Church at Laodicea which received a personal letter from Jesus Christ. Unlike the other churches in Asia Minor, the Laodicean congregation was described as being neither cold nor hot. The imagery might have been taken from the healing hot water springs of Hierapolis and the cold, refreshing water from the springs of nearby Colossae.
The Risen Lord wished the Church was either one or the other, because lukewarm water is useless for either of those purposes. Like the Church today, Laodicea had a very good opinion of herself: "You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing,' but you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, blind and naked" (Revelation 3:17).
Laodicea was a commercial city with booming financial and other economic activities, famous for its achievement in the manufacture of an eye ointment and the manufacture of quality textile products. However, Jesus contrasted the spiritual state of the Church in Laodicea with the physical state of that city. While the city was economically wealthy, the Church was wallowing in spiritual poverty in terms of its worship and love for the Lord.
Also, in the midst of clothing production in the city, the Church was morally and spiritually naked. The city produced medicine for the eye, but the Church was blind to see her condition of spiritual poverty and nakedness.
The contemporary Church has forgotten the rock from which it was hewn (see Isaiah 51:1). Europe and the West in general were once described as a barbaric people who practiced human sacrifice and other forms of idolatry. Relics of this can be found in the remnants of the Stonehenge in Great Britain. The power of the Gospel transformed the barbaric religio-cultural and social life of the West. But in the course of time, the West threw away the baby with the bath water!
Today, the state of the Church reflects negatively the condition of society. Instead of possessing wealth, the Church is spiritually poor. Homelessness and beggarliness is a reflection of the Church's spiritual poverty. Most congregations are dying, but instead of going back to Christ, the fountain of life, for spiritual vitality, most people have turned to non-Christian cultures in the name of religious tolerance and pluralism.
"There are different routes leading to the mountain top" is the greatest lie of our time.
Unfortunately, some clergy believe in this lie and preach "other names" for fear of being stigmatized exclusivist or non-inclusive! In fact, not all traditions and religio-cultural practices of non-Christian cultures are continuous with the Christian faith; they must be critically examined before being "baptized" into Christianity. I dare suggest that some of the inclusiveness being preached today appears to be less inclusive than the biblical doctrine of inclusivity. We must watch out!
We have been blinded by our own self-righteousness and self-importance.
Society produces different kinds of clothing—seasonal and occasional—but the Church is not only poor, but naked as well. There is moral confusion in Church and society and the Risen Christ recommends "white clothes; … the righteous acts of the saints" (Rev. 19:8; Colossians 3:12-14) to cover our nakedness.
We are in moral crisis, and the heart of the human problem is the human heart (see Jeremiah 17:9); the basic problem of the human heart is sin (see Mark 7:20-23). Thus our "good works" appear like filthy rags before the holy God (see Isaiah 64:6) and these cannot cover our nakedness.
The Church at Ephesus was commended for her "hard-working" spirit, yet she was condemned for forsaking her first love (see Revelation 2:4). The Risen Lord requires a personal committed and covenant relationship with Him, and failure to recognize this and our spiritual poverty and nakedness constitutes blindness (see Revelation 3:17).
We have been blinded by our own self-righteousness and self-importance. We tend to sacrifice what is morally righteous and theologically sound on the altar of political correctness. In their book, The New Tolerance: How aCultural Movement Threatens to Destroy You, Your Faith, and Your Children, Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler argue that, for this, and other reasons, decisions on matters of faith and morality are now made in favour of the few who are able to yell the loudest, lobby the longest and inspire and instill the greatest fear and intimidation.
We have identified the spiritual poverty in our worship and service; our nakedness in terms of immorality in Church and society; and finally, our blindness or failure to recognize our beggarliness and the tattered clothes we are wearing. The story does not end there!
The flip side of the coin is the good news that invites us to buy refined gold to make us rich, white clothing to cover our nakedness and salve for our eyes. The Word of God is "more precious than gold, than much pure gold" (see Psalm 19:10; 119:127).
In Ghana (formerly called the Gold Coast) one could pick gold dust on the ground after heavy rains, but to get much more, one had to dig deep into the earth. The analogy reveals the need to "dig deep" into the Bible through personal devotion and group Bible study. Surface "mining" does not produce much.
From the Scripture Union fellowship I discovered the slogan, "No Bible, No Breakfast," as a way to remind us of the need for daily devotional study. We were taught to apply the Word of God, since mere Bible knowledge makes one puffed up (see 1 Corinthians 8:1).
Though there are socio-economic and political problems in Africa, the Church in Africa is experiencing revival and growth. One can see the joy of the Lord showing in the face of worshippers.
The Church takes seriously the whole counsel of the Bible (see James 1:22) (I am not suggesting what some schools of thought refer to as biblicism or biblical literalism). The churches in these places engage in thoughtful Bible studies, concerted and at times all-night prayer meetings, renewal programs or camp meeting services, evangelism and church planting.
Practical theology together with contextualized liturgy which involves singing and dancing at every worship service, has become the hallmark of the Church in Africa. John Parratt has observed in his book ReinventingChristianity: African Theology Today that "it is becoming increasingly clear—however unpalatable it may appear to Western theologians—that the focus of the Christian faith is moving steadily away from Europe and America to new centres in the Third World."
Parratt, therefore, suggests it is "imperative then, that European Christian theologians should take the Third World's contribution to Christian thought seriously."
… faith in Christ is personal but not private. It is the personal transformed life resulting from an encounter with the Risen Christ …
The second recommendation to the Laodicean Church concerns the need to put on "white clothes" to cover its nakedness. When John Wesley admonished the early Methodists to "reform the church and to spread Scriptural holiness," he was calling for the transformation of the Church.
Further, by "Scriptural holiness" he meant the kind of holiness that impacts the life of the individual. For Wesley, faith in Christ is personal but not private. It is the personal transformed life resulting from an encounter with the Risen Christ that can be "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord calls us to take a serious view of sin, to repent, and to bear fruit befitting repentance.
Our personal life computers have caught the virus called sin. The only efficacious anti-virus is the blood of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (see Revelation 7:14; John 1:29). We need some bathing so that we can put on the "fine linen" (see Revelation 7:14) and keep our-selves pure (see 1 Timothy 5:22).
The great Physician has diagnosed the spiritual condition of the Church and found the Church to have contracted some eye defects (Revelation 3:17; cf. Matthew 7:3-5; 2 Corinthians 4:4). The Risen Christ, who gave eyesight to the blind, invites us to come to Him in order to receive our healing. We are admonished to "examine [ourselves] to see whether [we] are in the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5), in order to see the poverty in our worship and our moral nakedness and decadence. Humility and courage are required in order to have a serious view of sin—both personal and corporate—and to repent of it.
The wind of spiritual awakening is blowing and the 38th General Council (2003) of the United Church of Canada took note of the emerging vision and mission of the Church. The council touched briefly on the need to consider, among other things, the issue of faith formation and education of disciples of Jesus Christ in local congregations and mission units.
In fact, as I sat at the 38th General Council, I could sense emphasis on and call for spiritual revival, personal renewal and discipleship. My prayer then, and now, is that our eyes would be opened to see the state of the Church and move in the direction of the Spirit of Christ. Bishop Festus Kivengere of Uganda once said, "When the Spirit of God moves, you move, too."
The greatest burden on my heart today concerns the moral and spiritual life of the Church.
This personal concern for the spiritual poverty of the Church today stems from my background as a Christian from Africa vis-a-vis my experience as a student at the Toronto School of Theology and a pastor of an ethnic congregation in the United Church of Canada.
It seems to me that the Church needs a new mission strategy—a strategy that will seek to put the Bible back in the hands and hearts of the average church member. This is not to turn back the hands of the clock and brood over the past with nostalgia. What is meant here is teaching ministry in the Church that is passionate about discipleship.
I believe we can borrow a leaf from the class meeting system in the Methodist tradition. Today some call it small groups, home fellowships or cell meetings. It is a system whereby every church member is intentionally placed in small groups for nurture through the "pure spiritual milk" of the Word of God, fellowship and primary pastoral care. Here our children will also be nurtured so that we can hand over the spiritual baton to them.
Failing in this, and as society takes the Bible out of our children's school back-packs, the likely substitute will be guns and other "weapons of mass destruction." Discipleship also entails teaching believers to pray and fast and to observe all that the Lord has commanded us (see Matthew 28:19-20).
When discipleship goes on, the Church would be ready to share its faith with others. Thus we must become passionate about evangelism. However, the Church must, as a matter of importance, first evangelize itself—you and I know that one cannot give what one does not have.
It is true that the term evangelism has been given a bad name. I am of the view that in spite of the sometimes wrong and oppressive approaches adopted by missionaries in non-Western lands, the Church needs to adopt new methods that are non-coercive, but humane, to share the unchanging Gospel message in our fast-changing world. New methodologies will help with our passion for other forms of mission—social justice, charity and good works.
The Church needs to nurture and support existing congregations rather than closing them down …
I have great concern for the disbanding of congregations and the selling of their properties. The Church needs to nurture and support existing congregations rather than closing them down and to welcome and encourage emerging ethnic and immigrant congregations in urban centres where Caucasian congregations are disbanding.
Instead of closing congregations and selling buildings, there is the need to develop new strategies to meet the challenges of demographical changes and maintain the presence of the Church in locations where we have the presence of new immigrants. Maybe there is going to be a spiritual awakening soon; and when it happens, we would not be lacking in places of worship!
In order to embark on discipleship, evangelism and missions, we might need servant-leaders to help the Church back to the Lord. Passionate spirituality demands richness in worship, putting on new clothing of righteousness and applying the Great Physician's own prescription to our defective eyes.
We need to approach these in humility and prayer. A praying congregation is a powerful congregation. Prayer was vital in the life of the early Church, but it has become the Cinderella of the Church today; only few individuals love her and woo her!
The Acts of the Apostles describes the first meeting of the Church after Christ had ascended as being a prayer meeting in that upper room (see 1:14). Those present were at prayer on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them (see 2:1). They prayed from the heart. They encouraged extemporaneous prayers (see 4:24-31). Our prayer becomes more fervent when catalyzed by fasting (see 13:2).
We neglect personal and congregational concerted prayer with fasting at our peril—at the peril of the healthy congregation.
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches (see Revelation 3:22).
Rev. Emmanuel K. Ofori is minister of Ghana Calvary Methodist United Church and a theology student at Emmanuel College, Toronto.
Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, March 2004.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2004 Christianity.ca.