Last week, 20-24 June, IMES held it’s thirteenth annual Middle East Consultation – The Refugee and the Body of Christ: Exploring the Impact of the Present Crisis on our Understanding of Church. ABTS Faculty Member and Head Librarian Walid Zailaa was inspired to weigh in on the conversation in the post below.
by Walid Zailaa
The ongoing brutality of war in the neighboring countries has indirectly driven the evangelical church in Lebanon to reconsider its internal structure. As a result, the church has dramatically expanded its programs, activities, human and financial resources to partially meet the growing needs of the people. In such times and not surprisingly, the church is increasingly conforming with the institutional model due to the radical demographic changes that have been altering the rules of the game in the region. The church’s intervention is not anymore a onetime relief, food aid, or a onetime spiritual or educational program; it is responding to a constant need for people who have become part of the community due to the protraction of the crisis.
Therefore, in light of the recent changes and the comparatively new discovery of the church’s institutional characteristics, the minefield that the church might find itself wading through is “sustainability.” Trying to sustain its attendees, programs and resources without an institutional platform accompanied with a prophetic act of restoration could be distressing. The church today needs to act prophetically in its teaching and ministry reflecting the hope of restoration in addition to its internal lenient restructuring according to the need of the served community. Subsequently, the Church is not called to merely sustain its attendees and to maintain the status quo of service delivery. Rather the church is called to move beyond its already stretched boundaries and dare to act prophetically on behalf of displaced people. For God’s redemptive plan in the Middle East will be carried out through the remnant who, as time unfolds, will return to their homeland with the message of life.
In times of war, destruction, expulsion, defeat, and captivity due to the Babylonian invasion, the biblical story informs us that the prophet Jeremiah was instructed to execute two commands. Firstly, God had asked him to invite the Israelites not to fight back, lest they fail and die, but to seek the peace of the city to which they had been carried (Jer. 29:1-7). In other words, they are to settle down in Babylon, the land of the enemy, to build houses and to prosper; they are explicitly requested to restructure their religious and social life due to the pressing change they had faced. Secondly, God asked the prophet to undertake an escrow to buy a piece of land in the war zone of enemy territory while he was imprisoned (Jer. 32:1-25). At one point, the Israelites had thought that Jerusalem was the invincible city, especially since the temple implied the presence of God, the mighty warrior, who would act on behalf of His people. But, “as the wind scatters the cherry blossoms,” their convictions were scattered with the third wave of Babylonian deportation. This is when the temple and their homes were flattened to the ground and they were driven out of the land. Regardless of the reasons behind their captivity, they were asked both to prosper and to hold on to the promise of restoration.
If one ponders the dissonance of these two commands, it transpires that the seed of hope that God had planted through the prophet Jeremiah was the vital element that kept the people longing to return. The people of God in the Old Testament were different from any other nation in terms of craving for restoration. Unlike the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, or Persians who rose as great nations at one point and fell at another, the people of God lived out the hope of the second exodus as taught by their prophets. In due course they were granted the freedom to go back; it is true that many decided to stay behind in their newly settled life, but God’s redemptive plan was carried forward by the remnant who went back to their land, where they renewed their vows to God, and rebuilt the temple and the wall of the city. Above all, they continued to live out their hope, looking forward to the promised Messiah who would restore the glory of the kingdom.
What is the church called to be in times of crisis? The church is called to be an “agent of hope” in such times. It is not the ecclesiological “Being” which is the answer to life’s biggest question in times of suffering and pain, but rather that is to be taken for granted. Yet, “HOW” to be an agent of hope is what really matters. How is the church going to be the agent of hope to people who lost everything in the blink of an eye? Our ecclesiological “Being” must be stemmed for a time by our ecclesiological “Doing.” If we are to be agents of hope, we must ask: hope for what?
Thinking strategically to maintain our expanded programs and attendees might be a good approach to serving those people and help them grow in their physical and spiritual lives. However, if we are to do God’s work with a prophetic mindset, the church, metaphorically speaking, needs to buy a piece of land in the war zone. In other words, the church needs to act prophetically in its teaching and ministry planting the seeds of hope, the hope of restoration. The most graphic description of hope comes from Jeremiah in his act of purchasing the land, a land that he never set a foot on. Acting prophetically might sound illogical from a concrete and specific organizational point of view, especially as we are not in control of any timeframe. Yet it is precisely during those times when the church is not in control that it must practice its prophetic role of planting, nurturing, and growing the seed of hope in the minds and souls of people. God’s redemptive plan in the Middle East will be carried out through the remnant who, as time unfolds, will return to their homeland with the message of life.
Walid Zailaa is an ABTS Faculty member and Head Librarian. He has contributed on Jeremiah and what the Arab Church can learn from his prophetic act today. An ABTS graduate, Walid is now working on his Doctorate of Ministry at Acadia University in Canada.