Thursday, February 08, 2007

Church Growth, Nehemiah-Style

At the conclusion of the Pastor’s Retreat last week, Bishop Goodpaster turned to me and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever read so much Nehemiah in one week!”

Neither have I. I had chosen Nehemiah 4 as the Scripture theme for the whole week, and it turned out to be the basis of most of the sermons, prayer meditations, and general conversation.

In general, I have found that African pastors and people know and cherish the Hebrew Scriptures more than Western Christians. Perhaps this is simply because the African reality is closer to the Old Testament context. For example, stories of patriarchs with multiple wives are not foreign to Cameroonians – polygamy is still legally sanctioned.

So I didn’t think I was going out on a limb by choosing the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem as an ongoing metaphor for the week. In my opening sermon, I compared the task of the Mission to the work of Nehemiah. Last year, we laid some foundations for a church; this year, we are beginning to erect walls and structures.

This excites the pastors. I could hear them referring over and over again to the work of building and construction.

But I also heard Sanballat’s name a lot.

Sanballat is not one of those household Biblical names. But in Nehemiah, he is the major villain, the arch-foe of Nehemiah and the wall-builders. Beginning in 2:10, he is greatly disturbed that “someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.” Throughout the rest of the book, he is plotting to stop the work.

I was reminded by the pastors over and over again that any work of God will have Sanballats around. They weren’t talking about literal humans, but about the resistance of the forces of darkness, Satan, and evil personified.

Again, Western Christians usually shy away from this kind of talk. We chalk it up to superstition; we would prefer to accentuate the positive, or concentrate on our own part in the process.

However, I think it is wise to acknowledge the presence of Sanballat in our lives. You don’t have to look very far to recognize that there is a resistance, a very real spiritual force, that pushes against God’s transforming grace, love and peace. You don’t have to try to identify and name every demon that lurks around the corner; rather, simply be aware that the world does not welcome God’s work. Jesus said, in fact, that we should expect resistance: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”

The pastors of Cameroon probably know Sanballat up close and personal. They see it in the face of AIDS, malaria, corruption, racism, and all the other forces of evil that are loose in their country. There are genuine obstacles to building the church of Jesus Christ.

But they are also inspired by Nehemiah, who stood with a sword in one hand and construction tools in the other, building a mighty house in the desert.