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Notebook Religion

Torin Olsen

Tom Sharkey (Torin Olsen)

Religion

Working for the kingdom

God’s calling on Tom Sharkey’s life seemed irresistible, but 31 years of pastoring a sometimes-resistant flock was challenging

Third in a series on long ministry

Atheist Tom Sharkey became a Christian in college and was surprised when people urged him to become a pastor. “I kept hearing the word preach,” he says. “I just kept trying to push that out of my mind.” When a campus ministry asked him to preach for its service, he said no. But the group insisted, and afterward he received positive feedback. 

Sharkey decided to consult the Campus Crusade staff, which he’d overheard saying people could serve the Lord without going into full-time ministry jobs like pastoring or missions work. Instead, the staff members saw him and said, “Tom, we were just talking about you. We were just saying you should go into ministry.” 

Sharkey gave up. After graduation, he married his wife, Lucy, and attended seminary. But his new calling would come with plenty of ups and down.

In 1988, following pastoral experience at two churches, he began pastoring First Covenant Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Sharkey quickly noticed a problem: The church, with more than 500 members, had only 100 attendees on a normal Sunday. Sharkey learned that about 130 members had been “out of town” for a long time. He sent letters to follow up, received 110 replies, and began removing names from the membership accordingly. But the congregation bristled: The smaller roll “made them feel less important,” Sharkey says.

After nearly a decade at First Covenant, Sharkey contented himself with the numbers the church had, between 200 and 250 people. With his atheist background, Sharkey loved answering his congregation’s intellectual questions about Christianity. It was a joy to see church kids grow up and embrace Christianity. Many people attended faithfully, listened to his preaching, and grew in their faith. Still, Sharkey felt a portion of the church merely showed up and did not engage.

He says a consequence of long tenure at a church is “you go up, then you fall back. You fight up again, and then you take a nosedive.” In his case, the last five years have been the hardest. After a conflict with Sharkey, a worship team member convinced the whole team to quit, giving only a week’s notice. Another time, even though the church already had a youth group and youth pastor, a mother started a rival youth group out of her home. The church’s attendance dropped, and neither Sharkey nor his staff could tell what was wrong. At a local pastors meeting, he learned other churches were also shrinking.

Sharkey had opportunities to leave, but he did not feel God release him—until last year, his 31st at the church. After three prayerful months, Sharkey and the other leaders decided they should close the church via their denomination’s “Living Legacy” program, selling the building and letting the denomination plant other churches with the proceeds. But the congregation, aging and perhaps uninterested in attending elsewhere, voted down the measure. The church leaders and a sizable group of younger congregants decided to leave anyway. (The current church staff did not return my follow-up calls seeking comment.)

Sharkey struggles not to feel discouraged, but his son and friends remind him how God used him to help so many people grow. Looking back, he says: “The gospel is the thing that got me into the ministry and the thing that kept me going in the ministry. I often said that although I was hired by and paid by First Covenant Church, I work for the kingdom of God.”

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Onize Ohikere

Karl Teichert and his wife, Jenny, are missionaries in South Africa. (Onize Ohikere)

Religion

Evangelism over isolation

The coronavirus provides opportunities and hurdles for ministry to South Africa’s Chinese population

On a recent Sunday morning in Krugersdorp, South Africa, people slowly filled the green cushioned pews inside the multiracial Christian Heritage Church. Many smiled at each other, a few others hugged, and even more greeted each other with elbow-bumps to avoid handshakes. 

At the foot of the pulpit, Mei, her daughter, Joyce, and at least 18 other people joined a South African Chinese Outreach Network (SACON) mission program.

Karl Teichert, an American missionary who leads the network, explained to the congregation the importance of taking the gospel to unreached communities. That includes the Chinese population within the province: “We need to take our love for the Lord and extend it in practical ways into loving our neighbors.”

The blue logo of China’s state-run construction company looms over major construction sites from Nigeria to Ethiopia. China has plugged into the urbanization push across Africa, offering infrastructure for airports, hospitals, and rail stations. That opens the doors for profit-seeking businessmen and Chinese state employees. The Migration Policy Institute estimates about 1 million Chinese migrants are on the continent. At least 350,000 of them reside in South Africa, with the majority running private businesses.

That migrant population has created a unique evangelism opportunity for Christian missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. That work has been going on for years. But  the coronavirus outbreak brings new business and social challenges to that work and makes technology all the more important.

Days before the program at Christian Heritage Church, Chinese migrants Joyce and Mei (whose full names WORLD is not using to protect their mission work) arrived at the One Challenge (OC) Africa office.

They gathered around a conference table with Teichert and two other team members to plan the church program and future events. The session began with prayers, which mostly focused on the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic had begun to sweep westward from China. By late March, South Africa had confirmed more than 500 cases but no deaths.

Teichert thanked God for “shaking up the powers of the world.” He prayed for creativity in ministry and for God to reawaken the Church.” 

Teichert first came to South Africa in 1997 with his wife, Jenny, and their four children. He had worked as an engineer for the city of Los Angeles for 14 years before their involvement in inner-city ministry sparked a desire for a more global outreach. The couple now work as missionaries under OC Africa, as they help with church planting and leadership development. 

In 2011, Teichert attended a conference with about 600 African Christian leaders in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Teichert said several of the delegates talked about the growing Chinese population in their countries and how Christians lacked an understanding of Chinese culture and language, which hurt outreach efforts. 

When he returned, Teichert and several other delegates across southern Africa continued to develop outreach ideas. Their approach includes speaking at local churches to encourage ministry and connecting with Chinese converts who can help bridge language and culture barriers. 

The network now includes about 30 Chinese leaders across the region. After the visit to Christian Heritage Church, the residing pastor announced plans to begin a ministry to Chinese migrants. “That was huge,” Teichert said. “All we need is workers who can jump right in.”

The coronavirus outbreak is complicating years-long mission efforts, like Teichert’s. 

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has suspended international travel to some of the most affected countries, banned public gatherings, and shut down schools. 

The growing isolation has prompted the Teicherts to start considering ways to increase their outreach. The couple plan to collect encouraging words and scripture from some Chinese pastors to hand out at shops, where they say many of the Chinese workers still remain. 

The health crisis has also affected other members of the network. 

Joyce and Mei had to postpone a three-month training session for Chinese business owners. They intended to teach English to the group and coach children on English and Afrikaans, two of  South Africa’s official languages. The course would also include sessions on understanding labor laws, team building, and other “soft skills” needed to run a successful business. 

They see such efforts as opportunities to build trust within the Chinese community. Their understanding of the culture also shapes their ministry efforts. Joyce is working on e-guides to help Chinese understand the local community and another to help other local Christians understand Chinese culture and traditions. “People wanted to go to China to share the word, but China is now at our doorstep,” she said.

But the pandemic is affecting all business in the country. South Africa Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said the tourism industry has already suffered losses she anticipates will increase. 

Mei has seen fewer clients at her herbal medicine shop. She last ordered stock in January, and in mid-March it was still stuck in China, where the outbreak began. “My medicine for diabetes is out,” she explained. 

Joyce called it the worst time for her citys Chinatown in years: Even the Chinese wont go there.” 

She also gets cautious glances from native South Africans at malls and other public spaces. Joyce said she was somewhat relieved the first case of coronavirus in South Africa came from Italy, not China.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating even more of a need for relational ministry to Chinese migrants.

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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Religion

Questioning the survey

Barna Group’s latest research on faith and culture lacks precision

The research organization Barna Group reported in February that two-thirds of American adults who attend church “do so largely because of personal enjoyment.” That claim may not be sensational, but it is misleading.

Barna’s State of the Church 2020 study highlights five trends “essential in understanding the Church’s place in the U.S. today.” It offers little new or noteworthy: Barna concluded that many Christians “church hop,” that church membership is common but declining among younger churchgoers, and that many non-Christians believe church to be irrelevant.

But Barna also reported that 65 percent of American churchgoers attend because they personally enjoy doing so. On the surface, this number seemingly reinforces a common notion that American Christians possess a consumer mentality—that they attend church not to worship the Lord but to satisfy self.

Barna apparently did not intend to draw that conclusion. Digging deeper reveals more about Barna Group than about American Christians.

Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship.

Barna asked survey respondents: “Do you usually attend church because you enjoy doing it, because you feel you have to do it, or you do it out of habit?” The question gave respondents no option to reply, “I attend church to worship God.” The best possible answer respondents could choose (as 65 percent did) paints them in a potentially narcissistic light. A bad question produced a misleading answer: It is inaccurate to conclude, as Barna did, “Those who frequent worship services do so largely because of personal enjoyment.”

The very structure of another survey question reinforced a self-oriented approach to worship. Barna asked: “Thinking about the worship services you attend at your church, how often do you leave the worship services feeling …” Respondents chose from nine possible answers, and while “inspired,” “encouraged,” and “forgiven” scored higher than “disappointed” or “guilty,” Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship. 

Stranger still was Barna Group’s conclusion: “Today’s church leaders are tasked with meeting a diverse set of emotional expectations.” But data describing the emotional experiences of people during worship does not speak to the emotional expectations of those who enter worship. Nor does it imply church leaders must craft worship services primarily to satisfy emotional expectations.

Worship is for the Lord, and maybe American Christians know it. But Barna couldn’t tell you because Barna didn’t ask.

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