Great Joy in the City

Acts 8:4-8

January 9, 2005 | Ray Pritchard

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:4-8).

This Thursday Marlene and I leave for an 11-day trip to China. We’re flying to Beijing to visit our oldest son, Josh, who is there for a year teaching English. Last August the elders completely surprised me by giving us this trip as a gift in honor of my 15th anniversary as your pastor. When Mark and Nick heard about the trip, they said, “We’re going too.” Not, “Can we go?” but simply, “We’re going too.” And my brother Alan is flying up from Tupelo, Mississippi on Wednesday to join us on the trip. So it’s going to be a true family affair. I wanted to say “thank-you” to the congregation for your gift to Marlene and me and to ask for your prayers for our health and safety and for God’s blessings as we travel to China and, God willing, back home again.

Last Sunday I mentioned that our theme this year is “The Church in Many Places.” We believe God is calling us to move out from 931 Lake Street in Oak Park and scatter into the world so we can have a bigger impact for the cause of Christ. We believe that in the future Calvary should be a decentralized church that meets in many places at many times. We envision the current buildings becoming a “ministry hub” for a vibrant congregation scattered in many locations. The ministries would be like the spokes of a wheel. This is not a new idea. Several years ago when we visited Harvest Bible Chapel, their leaders urged us to follow this model. Various missions conference speakers have said the same thing to us over the years. In one sentence, here is our vision: We must take the church to the people instead of forcing the people to come to the church. I can see a day coming when Calvary will be a “federation” of ministries and groups with one leadership team—one set of pastors and elders overseeing a broadly-diverse group of ministries in many places. Preaching, teaching, youth ministry, adult ministry, children’s ministry, music ministry, seniors ministry, all of it would happen over a wide geographic area. And we would continue to do some or all or most of this at 931 Lake Street also. The “federation” might include small groups, community groups, foreign-language congregations, inner-city partnerships, prison services, multi-sites, video cafes, various preachers, multiple worship services, worship services on various nights in various places, church plants, church partnerships, and so on. It might even include church planting teams sent to cities around the nation, or into other countries. This is the kind of model churches across the country are developing. Even the mega-churches now realize that it’s not possible or wise to build ever-larger auditoriums. Another name for “the church in many places” is “the church without walls.”

The Calvary 500

Very soon the pastors and elders will be sharing some specific ideas with the congregation. But we can talk about one goal right now. We’re asking God to help us train 500 people in evangelism this year. Under the leadership of Pastor Darin Weil, we want to include children, teenagers, young adults, singles, married couples, and folks from all ages and from every group in our church. Let me ask you a simple question. Suppose that this week you got into a serious conversation about Jesus with a friend, an acquaintance, a loved one, or someone you just happened to meet. And let’s suppose that person expressed a sincere desire to know more. What would you say next? What questions would you ask? What Scriptures would you use? How would you explain the gospel? Would you know how to lead that person to saving faith in Jesus Christ? Would you know how to help that person have assurance of eternal life? These questions go to the heart of evangelism. If you can’t answer them, then you’re a candidate to become one of the “Calvary 500” this year.

Last week I mentioned a prayer that I’m using as my personal prayer for 2005: “Lord, do things I’m not used to.” That’s a challenging and even frightening prayer because it goes far beyond “Lord, please bless my personal agenda.” It opens us up to move out of our comfort zone in a big way. This prayer is important because it’s the first step for all of us as we become “the church in many places.”

Lazy, Fearful, Contented Slugs

I’d like to share some of the feedback I received after my sermon last Sunday. This comment came from a young mother in our congregation:

I left church on Sunday thinking that Calvary attenders need to get ready to become missionaries—and not the mission field. It’s great to receive spiritual nourishment and enjoy fellowship—that is what will be the biggest sacrifice—but we have the Good News in our hearts, what are we doing to share it with others? I’m probably one of the reluctant ones to give up what I’m used to; but I just want you to know that my spirit is willing to see what God will do.

And this came from a man in his 60s:

One of the most disquieting sermons ever since I’ve known you. It went straight to that part of my heart that knows the truth when I hear it. Being “disquieted” is a good thing for lazy, fearful, contented slugs like me, because it allows me to realize that Christ is the only answer to that rustling in my spirit, that answering His call is the only way to real contentment and that real contentment has nothing to do with a “ life of ease.” Today, in the middle of the night when I am writing this, is the first time I had the guts to say your prayer about doing what I’m not used to. When I first saw it several days ago, I said to myself “Oh, no, not that!” as I read over it quickly and made a mental note to come back to it another time. In fact I came back to it a few more times before I could handle it.

I have never laid claim to being “courageous” because the older I get the more I realize that courage for me is only the willingness to do everything that Christ in His Spirit asks me to do. So for me, generally, being courageous generally means being willing, obedient, surrendered, and focused outside of myself.

Finally, this came from one of our high school students:

I’m excited to be a part of Calvary this year. A year ago, I probably would have nodded in approval at the sermon and then forgot about it, but your vision and dream comes at the end of a year of incredible growth for me. I’d love to be a part of that 500-member outreach team thing that Darin is putting together, if he and/or you would like me to be. In any case, I am with you in my inability to contain myself while waiting to see what God’s gonna do this year. Last year was more wild and miraculous than I expected. 2005 should be exciting.”

From Risk Takers to Undertakers

It has been said that every human institution goes through three stages of development:

First, it is started by risk takers.

Then it is eventually handed over to caretakers.

At some point decline sets in and the institution is led by undertakers.

Risk takers Caretakers Undertakers. What the risk takers start, the caretakers lead, and the undertakers bury. It’s only a matter of time. The pattern holds true for companies, schools, clubs, associations, and also for churches. The church in the United States has been called the “sleeping giant,” with emphasis on the “sleeping.” Do you know the greatest danger the church faces today? It’s not heresy, false doctrine or immorality. Our greatest danger is that we will become so comfortable that the church will become totally irrelevant to the world around us. “Comfort comes like a guest, lingers to become a host, and stays to enslave us” (Harold White). Every church faces the danger of having enough people to run the programs, teach the classes, enjoy the beautiful buildings, raise the budget, and in general “do church” week in and week out while the world goes to hell all around us. That’s not just a temptation of our church. It’s the challenge every congregation faces.

Every Christian is called to be a risk taker for Jesus. We ought to be like Paul and Barnabas who are described in Acts 15:26 as “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The phrase “risked their lives” means to lay it all on the line. It’s what happens when you push all your chips to the center of the table and utter two words: “All in.” Paul and Barnabas went “all in” for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The problem in too many churches is that we have this huge stack of chips in front of us, and we throw in one or two chips at a time. And God says, “When will you risk it all for my sake?” Paul and Barnabas went “all in” because they were convicted of the lostness of men and women without Christ, because they believed in the power of the gospel, and because they understood the necessity of evangelism.

A Man Named Philip

Here is the pattern: Preaching Persecuted Scattered Preaching.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

That brings me to our text in Acts 8. After Stephen preached his brave sermon to the Jewish ruling council (Acts 7), he was brutally stoned to death. On that very day, persecution broke out against the church. Saul led the charge, savagely attacking the church, dragging men and women out of their homes and putting them in prison. While the apostles stayed in Jerusalem, the rest of the believers scattered for their own safety. Verse 4 says that wherever they went, they preached the Word. Here is the pattern: Preaching Persecuted Scattered Preaching. Beginning with verse 5, the focus narrows to just one man—Philip. He was one of those scattered believers. We can summarize his story by means of a few key questions.

1) Who was Philip? First, he was a layman. That means he didn’t have special training in the Bible or as a public speaker. He was a “man of the pew.” Second, he served in the church as a table waiter. He was one of the seven “deacons” chosen in Acts 6 to serve the Greek-speaking widows in the Jerusalem. Those “deacons” were chosen because they were godly men, full of wisdom and filled with the Holy Spirit. “The man whom God chose for this task was a waiter on the run, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and the gift of evangelism, who looked Jewish, spoke Hebrew with an accent, and who was raised in a Greek culture!” Not your typical missionary candidate. Philip was a “clay pot” in the hands of the Lord. When the Lord needed someone to go to Samaria and preach, Philip said, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” Third, he was a friend of Stephen. In the list of the seven “deacons” of Acts 6, Stephen is listed first, Philip second. Certainly they must have known each other and been friends. I can imagine that Philip watched from a distance as his friend was stoned to death for preaching the gospel. If the authorities thought they could intimidate the early church by such a brutal murder, they were wrong. Stephen’s death turned Philip from a table waiter into a flaming evangelist.

2) Where did he go? Philip went to Samaria, the region just north of Jerusalem. For hundreds of years the Samaritans and the Jews had hated each other because the Jews looked down on the Samaritans as religious and racial half-breed heretics. It’s hard for us to understand the animosity that existed between these two groups. Everyone knew that the Jews did not associate with the Samaritans. The Samaritan religion mixed the Old Testament with paganism, and the Jews wanted nothing to do with it or with them. If you think of the Bosnians and the Serbs or if you think of the Palestinians and the Israelis, you’ve got the right idea. By crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries, he was ignoring centuries of hostility to preach to the Samaritans.

3) Why did Philip go? There were no guarantees that the Samaritans would welcome him, much less listen to his message. We have no reason to think he had ever been to Samaria before or that he had any kinship with them at all. Why go then? First, because God always intended for the message of his love to reach the whole world. He never intended that the church stay in Jerusalem forever. He always meant for others to hear the good news. Second, because Jesus commanded it. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

4) What did he leave behind? Philip left behind at least five things:

The comforts of home.

The culture he knew.

His friends who had been scattered.

His prejudice against the Samaritans.

His own personal agenda.

If you had said to Philip a few weeks earlier, “When are you going to preach in Samaria?” I think he would have replied, “I’m no preacher and I’ve never been to Samaria.” But the death of Stephen changed all that. Now that the church was scattered, Philip found himself on the road to Samaria, ready to preach the gospel.

5) When did he go? He went to Samaria after the persecution started, in the providence of God, as the Holy Spirit led him. It happened according to God’s plan. What started as a tragedy resulted in a massive spread of the gospel into previously unreached areas.

6) What did he do? According to verse 6, he preached Jesus. What else could he do? He hadn’t been to Bible college or seminary. He hadn’t read any Christian books—there weren’t any. He hadn’t attended any Bible conferences—there weren’t any. He went to Samaria and told them the only message he knew—that Jesus was the Savior of the world. The particular word used in Acts 8:6 means to “herald” the good news. It’s what the king’s representatives did when they went from village to village announcing the king’s decrees. Philip did not go to Samaria timidly or with his head down. He boldly preached the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.

Every believer is called to offer Good News to the worst sinners you happen to meet.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Any believer can do what Philip did. The weakest Christian can stand before the most debauched sinner and say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I tell you that God loves you and Jesus died for you. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. If you trust him as your Savior, you can be saved in this very moment, and you can know that you will go to heaven when you die.” You can say that to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Every believer is called to offer Good News to the worst sinners you happen to meet.

7) What happened when he preached? Verses 6-8 are very clear on this point. The people listened intently, his preaching was accompanied by mighty miracles of God, and the whole city was filled with great joy. Would you like to see your town or city filled with that kind of great joy? Here is a simple, biblical formula:

Truth + Power = Great Joy!

Whenever the truth of Jesus is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, there will be great joy. The gospel is the power of God that sets men free (Romans 1:16). No wonder the Samaritans rejoiced. No wonder the whole city responded. When Jesus comes to town, there will always be great joy. The demons flee! The darkness hides! Sinners are converted. The guilty find forgiveness. The lost are found. Those who walk in darkness now see the Light of the World. There is no joy like the joy Jesus brings.

From Cicero to Oak Park

The year was 1915, and a small band of risk takers met in a home in Oak Park not many blocks from here. The group was small but their faith was large. They had a vision of starting a new church in Oak Park that would do three things:

A) Preach the Bible as the true Word of God.

B) Preach the gospel and win the lost.

C) Send missionaries to the ends of the earth.

When they got organized, they called their new church the Madison Street Church. Years later it was changed to Madison Street Bible Church. Later it became Calvary Memorial Church. That was 1915, which means that 2005 is our 90th birthday. This week I got an email from Paul Peaslee. He and Vangie have been Calvary missionaries for a long, long time. They are now retired and living in Florida. Paul’s father Herbert was one of the founding members of our church. This week Paul sent me an email after reading last Sunday’s sermon:

Cicero Bible Church early in the 1900s under Dr. Will McCarrell’s ministry determined to not increase their facilities, though the attendance was greater than the facility, but start several churches or be involved with such efforts. It is my understanding that Madison Street Church was one of those.

Cicero Bible Church helped start many churches in the western suburbs, including Westchester Bible Church, LaGrange Bible Church, and Calvary Memorial Church. They understood the concept of “the church in many places.” In our 90th year we are in a sense going “back to the future,” back to the concept upon which our church was founded.

Why must we go beyond 931 Lake Street? Why can’t we have everyone come here? There are two answers: 1) If they all came, we couldn’t take care of them. 2) Most of them aren’t coming. Even though our church is large and bustling and filled with life, we’ve only reached a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the people in our ministry area. We have done well, but we could do much more for the Kingdom if we scatter in the name of Jesus, preaching the Word wherever we go.

Gigantic Carrots

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). But if the salt stays in the saltshaker, what good does it do? Picture the whole congregation as individual grains of salt inside a saltshaker, the kind you find at a roadside diner. Picture the saltshaker, and now picture a boiling pot of soup next to it. The little grains of salt are talking to each other. “I don’t want to go out there. That soup is hot! I’ll dissolve if I go into the soup. I like it here. It’s safe in here. We’re protected in here. I feel comfortable here. We’ve got beautiful glass all around us and a lovely silver dome with little skylights to let the sun in. We’re all the same size. We look alike. We fit together nicely. And anyway, do you know what’s in that soup? Potatoes! And great big tomatoes! There are big carrots in there. Have you ever been hit on the forehead by a gigantic carrot? It hurts! Plus there are huge chunks of meat in there. I don’t like it in the soup. I think I’ll stay right where I am.”

There are always reasons for the salt to stay in the shaker. But that’s not where salt belongs. Salt was made for the soup. As long as the salt stays in the shaker, it can’t do any good. But when the salt goes into the soup, two things happen: the salt dissolves and the character of the soup is changed forever. The same thing will happen if you ever decide to get out of the saltshaker and into the soup. You may disappear from our view but you will change the character of the world around you forever.

The church does not depend on religious professionals for its existence, but on godly laypeople who scatter into the world in Jesus’ name.</h6 class=”pullquote”>

Here is my whole sermon in one sentence: The church does not depend on religious professionals for its existence, but on godly laypeople who scatter into the world in Jesus’ name. That’s what happened in Acts 8. That’s how the church has always spread. That’s what needs to happen today.

Miracle in China

The year was 1949. When the Communists came to power in China, they expelled all foreign missionaries. Over 5,000 missionaries were forced to leave the country. At the time the church in China numbered less than one million people in all the Protestant churches. The years that followed saw wave after wave of persecution and repression. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Communists closed every house of worship in China. Officially atheist, the government attempted to wipe out Christianity. Once the missionaries left, contact with the West was largely cut off. Experts wondered if the church would survive. We now know that believers were forced to go underground. They met in fields, in ravines, in forests and in caves. They met secretly in homes to avoid arrest. Many church leaders were imprisoned, and some died for their faith. They reasoned that if the government was going to persecute them, their only recourse was to evangelize as boldly as possible. When China began to open to the West in the 1980s, we discovered that the church not only survived, it thrived in spite of (or because of) the intense persecution. Forced to scatter, the church multiplied. From less than one million in 1949, it is estimated that today the church in China numbers around 85 million. From one million to 85 million, and that during a period of repression that continues to this day. And the growth happened after the missionaries were forced out. It is the greatest movement of God in the 20th century, and it is nothing less than a miracle, a modern-day reenactment of Acts 8.

And that brings me back to the statement by the young mother who wrote me this week: It’s time for Calvary attenders to start thinking of themselves as missionaries and not as the mission field. Compared to the rest of the world, we are so blessed, so rich and well-fed. We have more resources than we can use. It’s time for us to do something with what God has given us.

We gotta scatter! That’s my message this morning.

I don’t know how or who or when or where. We can work out all those details later. But we’ve got to do it. We need some modern-day Philips who will say, “I’m just a clay pot, but Lord, I’m ready, willing and able. Here am I, send me.” And if you can’t quite say that yet, then start with our prayer for 2005: “Lord, do things I’m not used to.” When we pray that way, eventually we will scatter and when we do, we will spread the Good News. And when that happens, there will be great joy in the city. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?