eNewsletter Feature Story – Week of May 2 – May 8, 2021

This week’s eNewsletter feature
was written by Jim Teague,
FPCE director of communications.

In his book The Insanity of God, author Nik Ripken writes about his experiences of visiting believers in the former Soviet Union, China, and the Middle East to learn how it was that the church of God not only survived but, in some cases, thrived in the midst of deprivation, isolation, and persecution.

In one chapter, he describes the opportunity he had to visit a gathering of house church pastors in rural China. After a long evening of teaching, he agreed to take some questions (through a translator named David) from those who had gathered – at great risk to themselves and their families – on a remote farm.

One of the local pastors raised his hands to ask a question. What he wanted to know was this: ‘Do the people in other countries also know about Jesus – or is He still known only in China?’ I had never been asked that question before – or even considered that point of view. For several long seconds I gathered my thoughts, trying to figure out where exactly to begin my answer. Then, with David interpreting for me, I told the group that believers in other parts of the world knew about and followed Jesus. I then told the group that believers in other parts of the world also knew about them – the Chinese believers in house churches. I told them that believers in many parts of the world prayed for them and their churches. ‘Wait, wait!’ people cried out. They could hardly believe what I was saying. One man responded this way: ‘Do you mean that people in your country know that we believe in Jesus? Do you mean that they haven’t forgotten us and that they pray for us?’ I assured them: ‘Why, yes, we have always loved you. And we have never forgotten you. For a long time, we have prayed for you.’ It was a holy moment as these believers realized that they were recognized, remembered and prayed for by fellow believers around the world.

Ripken explained to his Chinese hosts about how the Church in the West had many freedoms they did not: the freedom to assemble, the freedom to own and read the Scriptures, and even the freedom to worship Jesus in public settings without the fear of being harassed, blacklisted by government officials, and possibly even sent to prison.

I attempted to describe for them the practice of Christianity in the culture of my homeland. They marveled at what I was telling them. For a while. . .

Then the celebratory mood slowly, subtly started to shift. I noticed first one person who was very quiet and then began to cry. These were not joyful tears. He seemed sad and even anguished. Then others reacted in the same way. I feared that I had said something that was culturally offensive. I asked what was wrong. A visibly distressed Chinese pastor explained, “We are just wondering: why is it that God loves you believers in America so much that He blesses you more than He does us? Why would God do so many amazing things for you?” I was stunned, distraught, and horrified at the question.

Ripken was astonished. In his time in China, and particularly during his days at the house church pastors’ gathering, he had heard story after story of how God has ministered to them through miraculous healings, powerful prophetic ministry, and amazing stories of unexpected provision and protection.

There was also the supernatural way that God had led them through dreams and visions. I cited the historically unprecedented explosion of faith through the house-church movement that had brought at least one hundred million Chinese to Christ despite fifty years of oppression under communism. I reminded them too of the incredible stories of healing that I had heard from them. I told them how much I wished that I was able to see someone raised from the dead. I insisted to my new Chinese friends that all these things were undeniable and miraculous proof of God’s presence and power. I said that these things were incontrovertible evidence of His amazing grace and His abundant love for China and its people.

My friends heard my words and my explanation. And, then, they became my teachers. This is what they said: “You see how we are meeting with you here in secret, Dr. Ripken. We have told you how our house churches move from farm to farm, house to house, often at night. Yet you tell us that pastors can preach the gospel publicly in your country and that believers in America are free to worship wherever and whenever they want.”

I have thought about these comments each of the last few Sundays as we have worshiped live, first remotely from Walker Chapel, and then the last two weeks from the First Pres parking lot. A variety of renovations taking place in the Sanctuary have forced this little exodus upon us. We were blessed to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter Sunday in our beloved church, but our experience since then has been a bit “nomadic,” as we have had to move our sound and video equipment back and forth, in and out, depending upon the weather.

Last Sunday in the parking lot was particularly cold. Moving around during the setup in the mid-40-degree weather was comfortable enough, but once the breezes picked up and we were seated in preparation for the service to begin, it was downright cold.

It is very possible — even likely — that we will be worshipping outside or remotely for at least the next eight weeks. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s also no great hardship compared to what believers facing real persecution are up against.

We made the decision to have our worship leaders and their sound equipment face toward Chicago Avenue to the west to avoid having our amplified audio blaring into our nearest neighbors’ windows. We’ve already had one neighbor come down and thank us for the volume being so much lower than when we had the band out there a few weeks earlier (facing somewhat more into their alley).

The backdrop, to be sure, is less than ideal. More than a few of our neighbors and their cars and garbage dumpsters have made it into the Sunday morning broadcast. We’ve looked into what it might cost to hang an artificial backdrop or rent or purchase some kind of attractive sound barrier, but the costs are prohibitive, particularly given how little they would be used once we are back in the building. We’re still investigating other possibilities.

If you haven’t had a chance to come out and join us in person on a Sunday morning, I strongly encourage you to do so. This Sunday is a Communion and Worship Service, and Rev. Henry Coates will be preaching from Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian court official and their Spirit-led meeting on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.

Bring your own chair and your own communion elements (bread/crackers and wine/juice), and maybe bring a friend along, too.

Someday we will have great stories to tell those who weren’t there about our season of services in the parking lot. Come be part of the story!

Blessings and peace to each of you. If you are interested in volunteering with the audio and video operations, stop by the tent where the equipment is on Sunday or shoot me an email at communications@firstpresevanston.org.

See you Sunday!

Jim Teague
FPCE director of communications

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