Covering all of the bases…ecumenically!

The visit of Pope Francis to Istanbul in November, 2014 and his meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, who represents nearly 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, reminds me of a true story told to me by a good friend, Greg, who lived in Turkey at that time.

My colleague was the pastor of a Union Church in Panama in the 1970s while I was the pastor of the nearby Margarita Union Church. Following his ministry in Panama, he went on to Istanbul where he was the pastor of a large international church for around ten years. Following that he was the founding pastor of a similar church in Warsaw, Poland.

In 1979, during his tenure in Istanbul, Pope John Paul II visited the city and held a meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch. (The main emphasis of that trip was to encourage ecumenical relations with the Orthodox churches. The main importance of the current Pope’s visit appeared to be the church’s relationship with the Muslim community).

As part of the 1979 trip, it was decided that the Pope and Patriarch would hold a joint communion service. It was also decided that a Protestant should also be invited to participate. Since as the pastor of the Union Church, the largest international church in the city, Greg was one of the highest ranking Protestants in Istanbul, he was invited to be that third participant, representing Protestants worldwide.

The service was well attended and one of the highlights of the Pope’s visit. It may have been the first time that a pope and patriarch had co-officiated at a common communion service.

One of the sticking points for the Pope and Patriarch was who would officiate at the actual sacrament of Holy Communion. It was finally decided that since it was the Patriarch’s home territory and home cathedral, he would be the one.

Greg described that moment in an interesting way. The Patriarch went through the Orthodox liturgy and reached the point where he was to elevate and bless the elements. My Protestant pastor friend glanced over at Pope John Paul and saw that he looked very uncomfortable. As the Patriarch pronounced the blessing Greg saw the Pope move his hand slightly toward the elements, yet still keeping it hidden from the large congregation, and make the sign of the cross. “I think that while the Pope agreed publically to the Patriarch consecrating the elements, privately he decided to also consecrate them silently just to be sure,” Greg explained.

I guess that Greg was the person I knew who came closest to being a Protestant Pope! This is an example of the unusual things that can happen when you serve an international church and why I enjoy serving them so much. 

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The real reason for evangelical growth

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

A recent article about the growth in the Evangelical church in Latin America is exciting—but not, perhaps, for the reason one might think.

There are those who may rejoice at the explosive growth of the Protestant churches in Latin America over the past few decades, especially because much of that increase has come at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church.

But, the real joy expressed here is not the hemorrhaging of disillusioned believers from the largest denomination in the region, but is, instead, that those making the change are looking for a deeper faith, for “the truth that will set you free, (John 8:33)” that addresses their questions and concerns and helps them to grow in their spiritual and theological life.

A few quotes from Dr. Gregg’s article illustrate the thrust and strength of the growing evangelical churches in Latin America.

“60 percent of converts to Evangelicalism say that one reason they left the Catholic Church was that they were looking for more assertive teaching on moral questions”

“(M)any of the Catholic movements that focus on solid formation and foster greater commitment—Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Catholic Charismatics, etc.—are flourishing in many Latin American nations. They are the ones who open new churches, have vocations, build universities, and actively evangelize people.”

“Latin America’s Evangelicals…are far more willing to speak about Christ than Catholics.”

“The Pew survey reports that people’s number-one stated reason (81 percent) for becoming Evangelical in Latin America is that they wanted a personal relationship with God. Put another way, people can find social activism anywhere. But what makes Christianity distinct is Christ.”

What rings loud and clear to me here is the hunger that Latin Americans (and the rest of us for that matter) have for truth, depth, wisdom, the message of God’s love and His salvation for us through Jesus Christ.

That is what is so encouraging. That is what must be our motivation and our modus operandi.

Unfortunately, many of our Protestant (Evangelical) churches in North America and around the world have been scared away from focusing on that deep, life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. Frightened by the alleged secularism of Millennials and the influence of new age spiritualism, too many of our churches and pastors have abandoned the exploration of how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:18). Instead, they mistakenly take away Christian symbols (including the cross) from worship centers, refuse to confront aimlessness and sin, steer away the dimension of service and sacrifice and avoid preaching those “difficult messages” that challenge and probe the depths of the universal human search for truth and meaning.

And, while so many well-intentioned churches and pastors have turned from profound worship and deep, biblical-centered preaching and teaching to entertainment and “having fun” in quasi-nightclub settings, many of those younger adults that they are trying to reach are reacting and, missing the answers they are seeking, leaving “seeker” the church to look elsewhere.

In an online blog, Bill Muehlenberg writes:

-Many believers are growing tired of the celebrity culture in our churches.
-Many believers are fed up with the incessant entertainment and worldly amusements found in the churches.
-Many believers are not being fed from the Word of God.

Another article I read not too long ago indicated that numerous evangelicals are leaving contemporary, loosely structured churches that entertain for more liturgical congregations such as Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian. There they find a structure to worship and a perceived depth of worship that is focused and directed at a goal of being challenged, deepening their faith and worshiping God.

I remember the woman who was active in the church I pastored temporarily in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She had come to the Lord in a “seeker-friendly” church, but within a year found herself hungry for something deeper and more challenging. So, after giving thanks for the outreach of the seeker congregation, she sought out a church which focused on Bible study, theological reflection and a challenge to serve—which was what had led her to Honduras.

Muehlenberg closes his blog with insights from some of Christianity’s deepest and most-relevant thinkers:

“Oh for radically Bible-saturated, God-centered, Christ-exalting, self-sacrificing, mission-mobilizing, soul-saving, culture-confronting pastors!” John Piper

“When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones

“The church has lost her testimony. She has no longer anything to say to the world. Her once robust shout of assurance has faded away to an apologetic whisper. She who one time went out to declare now goes out to inquire. Her dogmatic declaration has become a respectful suggestion, a word of religious advice, given with the understanding that it is after all only an opinion and not meant to sound bigoted.” A.W. Tozer

“The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men…Men of prayer.” E. M. Bounds

We don’t have to go back to all hymns or King James English or stained glass windows to deepen ourselves, our worship, our evangelistic outreach, our teaching. We can keep the power-points and the soft lights and the rock music. But, let us look to what’s happening in some Latin American churches and remind ourselves that people in our own communities are also searching for the answers that offer a meaningful life. Let us remain faithful to preaching the absolute truth of God’s forgiveness of our sins and His overwhelming love for us in Jesus Christ.

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