On Sunday morning after church, ask a young child one of these questions. You can begin with one of the questions designed to simply get to know him or her and move toward one of the questions that engages his or her faith. Whatever you ask, it will probably be the start of a great conversation, and it might even awaken love for the church in the next generation.
Creating a Conversation
When I was a kid, the longest part of Sunday morning wasn’t the drive to church, the Sunday school hour, or even the worship service. The longest part of Sunday morning was the time after the service when all the grown-ups stood around and talked. My stomach was rumbling, my shiny Mary Janes had begun to pinch my toes, and many of my friends had already left. And yet Mom and Dad kept talking. And talking. And talking.
Several feet shorter than the conversing groups of adults, I often felt invisible, amusing myself by twirling around my mom’s legs, down near the floor where nobody bothered to look. Heard from my knee-high position, this grown-up conversation, like the “mwahhmwahhmwahh” of the adults in a Peanuts movie, was unintelligible at worst and uninteresting at best.
But every so often, one of those adults would stop talking to my mom or dad and would bend down on my level. The church member would look me in the eye, smile, and ask a question to me. All of a sudden, I’d forget my hunger and my shoes. I’d forget my boredom. This person thought I was important! This person wanted to know me!
Forming the Next Generation Starts Now
As churches everywhere shake their heads in frustration over declining commitment among younger generations, we need to remember that a person’s commitment to the church is often formed early.
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By John Beeson — 6 months ago
Our debt to God is jaw-dropping. Take a moment to consider just how deep God’s forgiveness is for you. What debts has God released you from? What sins have you committed against your Creator? Consider the cost of that forgiveness. Spend time reading the accounts of Christ on the cross and see the love of your loving God who loved you so much he gave his Son to pay the price of your sins (Matt 27:27–55; John 19:1–37; Heb. 12:1–17).
“How can I forgive them?” It’s a question spoken out of a yearning to release the one who has inflicted injury. It’s a question that is said out of hurt and sometimes anger.
How do we forgive the person who keeps sinning against us? How do we forgive the one who sins against us in a grievous way? How do we forgive the individual who sins against us and isn’t repentant?
And when I ask, How, I do not so much have the mere mechanics of forgiveness in mind—although I mean this too—but the resources of the heart that might enable one to forgive. Where do these resources come from? We need to know because forgiveness, we read in Scripture, is mandatory for a Christian. In his depiction of how we ought to pray, Jesus seems to bind our forgiveness from God with the forgiveness we offer others, saying, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
Knowing that we might choke on that commandment, Jesus offers an explanation for the stakes of our forgiveness at the end of his prayer. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14–15). Yikes. There it is, in black and white. We must forgive the one who has offended us.
Now, to be clear, this is no spiritual tit-for-tat. Jesus is not saying that God will withhold forgiveness from us until we grant it to others. Rather, what Jesus is saying is that the forgiveness we receive from him is demonstrated in our forgiveness of others. Those who have received forgiveness will forgive.
Jesus is also not saying that forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. We might forgive someone, but their lack of repentance or change in behavior might mean that we are unable to trust them again. Jesus does not command that we reconcile with everyone (although, in Christ, that of course is our hope). But Jesus unhesitatingly does demand that we forgive.
But how can we muster forgiveness for everyone? Jesus tells one of the most unforgettable short stories ever told that points us to how we can possibly forgive those who have hurt us badly. The story goes like this:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. (Matt 18:23–35)
By Scott D. MacDonald — 6 months ago
Written by Scott D. MacDonald |
Friday, August 19, 2022
People in the church who dabble with witchdoctors and occultism are ultimately deceived; they find no true, lasting solution. “To believe ‘Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa’ is to believe a lie. We must choose to trust and wait on God in every circumstance, and His Word must be our final authority as we encounter conflict with our African traditional proverbs and beliefs.”40 Jesus alone is our savior, and as Paul demonstrates in Philippi, the Christ did not come to work with the ng’anga. He came to set us free.
Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world. And the church in Africa continues to struggle with the popularity of local religious practices. In many locales, the ng’anga (an African religious diviner) prominently features in the lives of many church-going people. In response, Paul’s mission to Philippi, recounted in Acts 16:16–18, provides needed clarity concerning Christianity’s relationship to other religious powers and to syncretism. This article outlines the religious backdrop of Philippi, Paul’s missionary method in the Greek religious context, and the consequences that arise from Paul’s exorcism of the πύθων. In sum, Paul’s reaction to the divining spirit of Philippi leaves no room for syncretistic behavior among Christians today. Accommodation and any reliance upon other religious powers compromises the quality of the gospel and the reputation of the savior.
As servants of Christ deliver the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection both near and far, ancient spiritual actors and religious competitors abound. In sub-Saharan Africa, every other urban street corner bears a sign promoting the abilities of some traditional power man from a rural or distant location, a place with charms difficult to undo by an average local witchdoctor.1 Even in supposedly secular cities in other parts of the world, vestiges of ancient paganism remain as astrologers and diviners offer their services in the public sphere without shame. Spiritual power is seemingly never beyond a human’s reach.
Depending on our cultural upbringing, such spiritual resources are our first or last resource in a time of need—an accepted and trusted form of support or a desperation-induced “last ditch” option. Occult practitioners claim to provide the knowledge we need, repair the relationships we crave, hinder the people we hate, and empower the economic endeavors on which we rely. They are the so-called “way-makers” and “problem-solvers” of the spiritually attuned.
How should the Christian relate to the ng’anga (i.e., the sangoma, the witchdoctor)?2 Sadly, the testimony from too many Christians in many places is mixed. In a moment of need, one might recite the Bemba proverb “Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa,” meaning “Charms are mixed with God for them to work.”3 Believers may easily justify a quick visit to the witchdoctor or use charms if they believe that God works in and through them!
Martin Mwamba, a pastor and talk show host with Faith Radio in Kitwe, Zambia, recounts an experience:
One day a woman texted me during the program. She said she had been working, and after retiring she had gotten her pension money, and now when going back home she was robbed. She continued, “I will take off my church uniform as a Christian and go kuli shi in’anga (‘to the witchdoctor’) and bewitch them.” Then her question was, “Is it right for a Christian to visit the witchdoctor?” The phone response from other listeners was interesting and shocking. Some suggested that she should go because God takes too much time to respond, and others said it was fine because witchdoctors give fast solutions, adding that they (witchdoctors) are also used by the same God.4
Hearing this kind of urgency-based decision making, Mwamba’s assertion is reasonable: “Even people in churches today in Africa would prefer to consult diviners and witchdoctors … to receive a quick solution to their daily problems.”5 After all, no one wants to wait for God!6
Occultists easily capture Christian customers. Surprisingly enough, many “witchdoctor shrines” are veritable havens of Christian objects like Bibles and practices like singing praise songs.7 And witchdoctors readily play along with the cultural idea that God empowers their work, offering to pray to God for effectiveness with charms and reciting a Scripture verse or two.8 Confusion abounds, and Christians readily step into the confusion by seeking their desired results despite the syncretism.
Syncretism is the “blending of one idea, practice, or attitude with another. Traditionally among Christians it has been used of the replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.”9 The ng’anga has played a central role in the African’s religious life throughout Africans’ collective memories. Despite Christianity’s inroads throughout Africa over the past century, the role and importance of the ng’anga has not evaporated. Many Christians sadly still find a need for them, and witchdoctors adjust and modify their practices to suit the Christian environment. Syncretism, the blending of African and Christian religious concepts, persists.
The irony is that many pulpits resound with sermons against syncretism. Preachers unflinchingly expound Jesus’s statement from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Jesus alone” is declared, yet the cultural norm remains firm: witchdoctors have a place in the life of Christians.
Many an African Christian still feels the draw of the ng’anga. The appeal of animism is not unique to Africa. While the African Christian visits the ng’anga, a European Christian convert dabbles in astrology, and an American teenager consults a Ouija board. The pull of spiritual knowledge and power is strong in Africa, but do not think that the rest of the world is immune! Thus, syncretism arises in every culture where Christianity enters, and “church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious, and economic sources.”10 And the best response to our syncretistic attachments is a fidelity to Scripture, which both rebukes and affirms aspects of our church traditions and cultural norms.
One underutilized text in countering syncretism is Acts 16:16–18. Luke records the following account from the second missionary journey:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.11
While we could look to other missional encounters with spiritual power persons throughout Acts (e.g., Simon the Sorcerer, Elymus, the Sons of Sceva), the Philippian confrontation serves as an example to Christians throughout the world today. We must reject all forms of syncretism. Our missional testimony to non-Christians only heightens this necessity.
1. The Background of Acts 16:16–18
As we consider Acts 16:16–18, let us first locate where this episode occurs in Paul’s missional endeavors. Between leaving Antioch in Acts 15:36 and returning in 18:22, Paul’s work broke considerable new ground as the Lord turned the missionary team toward Greece.12 “Following his vision at Troas (Acts 16:8–10), the apostle Paul started the first church in ancient Greece at Philippi (c. AD 49–50, Acts 16:11–40).”13 Like Paul’s earlier ministry, which led to a confrontation with the sorcerer Elymus on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6–12), this journey involves another spiritual challenge in the city of Philippi.
Lest we mistakenly brand Paul as a troublemaker, Paul’s missionary method does not call for the immediate confrontation of any religious figures in a particular region. On Cyprus, Barnabas and Paul are not looking for Elymus. Instead, they proclaim the word of God to those who wish to hear it, such as Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). In Philippi, again, Paul’s priority is preaching, even after his initial meeting with the slave girl (Acts 16:16–18)! Creating religious conflict (which would ultimately result in his imprisonment) and exorcising a πύθων are not Paul’s primary objectives. Only when the situation proves intolerable, hindering his proclamation ministry in a new mission field, does Paul confront the slave girl and the spirit within her.
The Greek religious context is evident upon Paul and Silas’s entry into Philippi. As the slave girl attaches herself to their ministry, it is as if the current religious powers greet Paul at the gate and refuse to let go. While a casual reader of an English translation (e.g., “a spirit of divination” in the ESV, “a spirit by which she predicted the future” in the CSB) might mentally divorce this spirit-inhabited girl from the broader religious climate, the Greek text πνεῦμα πύθωνα at least indirectly ties the girl and her owners to the Greek oracular system.14 Keener explains that this spirit is “the same sort of spirit that stood behind the most famous of all Greek oracles, the Delphic oracle of Apollo whose priestess was called a pythoness.”15 And Herodotus confirms that oracles, inspired by a πύθων, were not limited to Delphi.16
By Marshall Segal — 6 months ago
Over time, division in healthy churches produces unity, not division. Don’t let the good fruit of conflict silence the apostle’s clear charge: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you.” Christians don’t aim for conflict; we aim for agreement and harmony in Christ. We can’t let the usefulness of divisions make any of us divisive.
In most cases, cruelty — not wisdom — would have told them to cut the baby in two. How many kings in history would have had the sword brought, not to draw out the true mother, but to violently end the matter? Who would have imagined that thousands of years later, we’d still hold up such a brutal scene as a beautiful model to imitate — as a masterclass in conflict resolution?
Two women came to King Solomon, like so many others, to settle a dispute. They were both prostitutes, so deciding whom to trust wouldn’t be easy. Both had recently given birth to sons, within just a few days of each other. One boy was now dead because of a horrible accident. His mother woke to find she had smothered him while the two were sleeping. Can you imagine the horror when she realized what she had done?
Desperate, she added horror to horror. She took the living son from her roommate’s breast, and laid the cold body of her carelessness there instead. She stirred the heavy storm of guilt into a hurricane. When the other woman woke up, she found the child at her side was dead. After examining the baby more closely, though, she discovered what evil had happened (like any mother would). But how could she prove it? She couldn’t; they “were alone” (1 Kings 3:18). So the two went to court, both declaring, “The living child is mine, and the dead child is yours” (1 Kings 3:22).
We know what the king does next — the jarring way he uncovers the truth. Who would have guessed he’d threaten to have the child cut in two? When Israel heard of the judgment Solomon rendered, they stood in awe of him, perceiving that the Spirit of God was in him (1 Kings 3:28). Can you explain, however, why he was wise to reach for a sword?
We might say Solomon was wise because it worked. The true mother proved herself by pleading that the boy be spared, even if that meant he would be raised by another woman (1 Kings 3:26). Likewise, the selfish response of the other woman exposed her treachery. That it worked, however, doesn’t explain why the king was wise (only that he was). Surely the same strategy would have failed in lots of other crises.
What made Solomon wise, in this case, was that he knew to lean into the conflict between them to prove who was who. He pressed on the sensitive issue at hand until each woman revealed what kind of woman she really was. The apostle Paul offers a similar piece of wisdom to the church when he writes,
When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Corinthians 11:18–19)
There must be factions among you. In other words, some conflict is necessary for churches to remain healthy. Why? Like Solomon with the prostitutes: to prove who is who. Who’s really here to worship, obey, and enjoy King Jesus — and who’s here for some other reason?
Isn’t Division Bad?
Aren’t all divisions in the church to be avoided, though? After all, the apostle himself says (earlier in the same letter, even),
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)