Text: Revelation 2:1-7
As we come together on this first weekend of 2009, I want to bring a message to you that has been growing on my heart particularly in the past three months, although it has been a work in progress over the past year and ½ that I have been with you. The ideas that I am going to share with you today are not my entirely my own to share. They have been developed through interaction with you, through understanding our history as a church, and through discussion with many of our key leaders. I hope that what I say today may help us to understand the challenges and opportunities we as a church face entering our 33rd year, and provide a starting point for dialogue at every level about how we can better fulfill our unique mission as a church.
As an introduction to my message, I want to share with you from a presentation that was given this past September at ANACEFC (Association of North American Chinese Ev. Free Churches) by John Auxier, Dean of Trinity Western University. To prepare for his keynote address, John carefully researched patterns associated with ethnic churches such as our own. John researched not only Chinese Churches, but considered the history of many immigrant churches from other cultural backgrounds. As he researched these immigrant churches, he noticed that they tended to all follow a similar pattern.
Phase 1: The Missional Phase: This is the initial phase of the church, usually occurring during a time of booming immigration. The church serves as a place for these displaced immigrants to connect with others who share their cultural background. In this stage, the focus of the church is external. Evangelism thrives. Outreach drives the church and is contagious. For as the church engages itself in mission, it sees people coming to the Lord, which encourage it onward in mission.
Phase 2: The Maintenance Phase: Sooner or later, however, immigration slows. Since there are less people to reach, evangelistic attempts become less fruitful, and missional activities diminish. It’s during this time that the focus turns inward, on maintaining what has been established. Programs turn inwards. It is also during this time that English Congregations are added, generally first as children’s or youth ministries to minister to the second generation.
Phase 3: The Declining Phase: During this phase, the first generation who started the church is now aging. Generation 1.5 (those first generation immigrants who were not part of the first wave) struggles to please everyone, wanting to please the elder generation, while concerned about their Canadian-born kids. And the kids? Most of the second generation leaves the church after the age of 25. The younger generation has no vision for reaching their generation for Christ through the church, so the ones who seek to reach out do so through other organizations. A survival mentality develops; people are so scared to further damage the church that innovation becomes very difficult. In this sensitive environment, church politics becomes more and more of a problem.
Phase 4: Church at Crossroads: Most churches, upon getting to this stage go down one of these paths.
1) Over several generations, the church will become transformed into an English-speaking congregation with a Chinese heritage.
2) Over several generations, the church will shrink to the point of closing its doors.
Neither scenario addresses the current needs of the 2nd generation or the ethnic community.
It is not a pretty picture, is it? But I think it is an honest picture. Here is where we need to ask ourselves some tough searching questions. Where do you see OCBC in Dr. Auxier’s presentation? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we can see a lot of our church in Dr. Auxier’s phases. As I have talked with people in the church and learned of our history it seems to me that we have progressed through the phases that Dr. Auxier describes.
Our church was planted in the seventies, in a period of booming immigration from Taiwan. This was a very missional phase. We were a phase #1 type of church. We take pride in being the first Mandarin speaking church planted in Ottawa, and I often hear stories of the outreach carried out during that era.
In the eighties, however, immigration from Taiwan slowed and I believe we entered into Auxier’s phase two, the maintenance phase. At some point during those years our focused turned more inward. We planted our English Congregation. We developed our Sunday School programs. But we lost some of the outward vision that carried us originally.
Then, at some point in the nineties, I believe we entered into Auxier’s phase #3. I don’t know when it happened, but we see the fruits of it today. The first generation is getting older. The middle generation walks a tightrope between pleasing their elders and raising their children. We have lost an entire generation of our youth. A lot of our church leadership over the past twenty years has spent most of its energy fighting each other rather than moving our church forward. If we are honest with ourselves, as we begin 2009 and our 33rd year, we must recognize that we have been in a phase 3 mindset for many years.
Some may point out that we have had a lot of new believers enter our church lately, especially from Mainland China. I have baptized nearly 20 of them in the past year – a healthy number for a church our size. Doesn’t this suggest that things are not as bleak as I am making them out?
Here I suggest that you look at the population chart once again. Notice how the immigration rates for people from Mainland China have exploded over the past decade. My point is this. In the demographic situation our church finds itself in, we would have to be doing every thing wrong to not reach them. A waterfall of Mainland Chinese is flooding Ottawa, so we should expect to receive a trickle even if we were doing nothing right! But we shouldn’t be satisfied with a trickle. And those that have trickled in, are they growing? Are we training them? Are we preparing them to go back into the field to plant more churches to receive more of the harvest?
I humbly suggest to you that OCBC has a phase #3 mindset, but we have been given a phase #1 opportunity. God has provided a mission field for us right outside of our doors, and I believe He is looking to see if we will be faithful. Otherwise our phase #3 church may very quickly move into phase 4 and we will weep as we close its doors.
This is why I chose as our scripture reading today Revelation 2:1-7. Verses 4-5 are the key verses for us to hear as a church today:
But I have this against you, that you abandoned the love that you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works that you did at first. If not, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
In speaking to the North American Chinese Church, John Auxier’s message was exactly the same: “Repent - turn around”, he said, “go back to what you did at first.” Get that missional heart again. Dr. Auxier’s presentation called us to get back to a phase 1 mindset. The only problem with his presentation is that he did not tell us clearly how to do that! But don’t fret, I believe that God has already provided us with a road map.
As we have been studying the book of Acts with some of our church leaders, we noticed that the missionary teams sent out in the New Testament did not go out aimlessly into the world, but went out with a clear mission. Acts chapter 13 and 14 give the clearest synopsis of this mission, from the sending out of the missionaries to their return at Antioch. At the end of this account Luke writes a very interesting phrase, in Acts 14:26. He writes, “they sailed to Antioch where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which thy had fulfilled.” It’s this last phrase that is most important to us. When these missionaries went out into the world, they were given a work to do, a task which they were complete that was clear enough so that when they came home, they could say, we did it. So what was their task? We can quickly summarize their strategy found in chapters 13-14:
1) Evangelize Strategic Cities: Interestingly, we do not see the apostolic teams planting churches in every city. Instead they focused on key cities, strategic places for God’s kingdom. When they got there they made contacts and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who would listen.
2) Established Believers into Local Churches: The pattern again and again throughout the New Testament is that believers were to be baptized and accepted into the local church. While baptism is an initiation into the body life, it is only the beginning of the establishment process. In verse 22 you see Paul strengthening the believers, encouraging them in their faith, and teaching them about life as a member of Christ’s body.
3) Entrust to Faithful Leaders: Paul did not stay long in the churches he planted – Ephesus was his longest stay of three years. But in the short time he spent in the churches he has very busy training men to be capable leaders to guard and guide the church after he moved on. Verse 23 says: [insert]
4) We must understand that this is not the end of the cycle! In fact, if the cycle were to end there, the church that was planted would be a phase #2 maintenance church. Yet this is not the case of the New Testament churches, and this is vital to us to understand. You see, the Antioch church that sent Paul was not the originator of the Pauline Cycle. They themselves had been planted by the Jerusalem church and as they were evangelized, and established and had leaders appointed, they continued the cycle geographically sending Paul and his team out. Here we see why Paul evangelized strategic cities, for if a church could be established in a main city like Ephesus, then it would be that churches responsibility to continue the cycle to the region around it – do you know that many believe that it is in that way that the other six churches in Revelation 2-3 were planted – the Ephesus church planted them! “Go back to your first love!” the Spirit commands the Ephesian church. The church must not only keep the cycle geographically, but also across generations. This is seen most clearly in 2:2: [insert] In this passage Paul refers to four generations. The church needs to be replanted in every generation. The cycle must continue for everyone who comes into the church, whether they walk in here off a plane from China, or are born in the church.
This final arrow makes all of the difference between a church being a phase 1 or a phase 2 or 3 church. It gives purpose to everything we do in the church. For in order for the cycle to continue, we must be continually evangelizing, continually engaging our culture with the gospel, continually establishing new converts in the faith, continually raising up and training leaders, and continually sending some people out to continue the cycle geographically while keeping others in to continue the cycle generationally.
Understanding this cycle helps us evaluate where we are as a church. I think we do best at OCBC in the initial arrow – the purple one. We all have many contacts and some of us are faithful in sharing the gospel with them and inviting them into church. We could always do better, but we have seen a good number come to Christ and be baptized. Yet it is at the next stage that I see us not doing so well. Of all the people we have baptized in the past couple of years, how many are growing? How many are strong? How many have left the church? How many are established in their faith? How many truly understand the mission of the church and why we meet together? How many trained laborers have we raised up over the years? How many men have we prepared for pulpit ministry? How many people have burned out because we haven’t been training their assistants and future replacements? How many mature church leaders have we had that have been able to articulate the church’s mission and understand how to work toward it? How are we to continue the cycle geographically and generationally, if we have not prepared leaders to do it? How many who have been raised in our English Congregation have transitioned into church leadership? How many of the newer immigrants from Mainland China are ready to assume leadership positions?
The Pauline Cycle gives us a clear vision as we seek to become a phase #1 church again. We have to get the cycle moving again. We have to get the church moving again.
It has been a joy for me to have taught the Leadership Courses over the past year and start discussing some of these questions with some of you. Of our new board, nearly all of them have gone through our initial course and it has been amazing to see their enthusiasm once again for what we are called to do as a church. But we need more of us to get that same vision. To pray for it. That we might be more established as a church. That as we look for a Chinese pastor, he might understand our situation and our needs. That as we look for a building, we look for one that will help us become missional once again. That God would protect me, as I minister here, seeking to establish people in the church and raise up leaders to continue the cycle along. Pray for our continued establishment as a church. Pray for each other, to see them progress in the cycle. Pray for our young adults and our youth, that they might start to understand the exciting mission God has given the church and that we at OCBC are serious about being part of that mission. It is a tough call, but today, I want to stand before you, and I know our new board as well wants to stand before you and pledge to do everything we can to further establish our church, to move into a phase #1 mindset, to reach out geographically and generationally, for God’s glory. We have to get the cycle moving. Get the church moving again. Pray for the church to be moving again.