THROUGH THE SPRING FESTIVALS
|by Jeff Smith and Doug Ward|
Recently, some in our fellowship have suggested that the traditional worship calender of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), which is based on the seventh-day Sabbath and annual festivals of Israel, is an impediment to our evangelistic efforts. In fact, we were asked to give our opinions of this suggestion several months ago as part of a WCG worship preference survey. In this article, we will explain why we side with the majority of respondents to the survey in rejecting such an idea. In addition, we will discuss ways in which our traditional calendar can be used in preaching the gospel, using the spring festivals as examples.
|Some Current Trends|
Several recent trends indicate that our Hebraic traditions are not an obstacle to our evangelism and growth. First, consider the example of the Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs), who along with the WCG are members of the National Association of Evangelicals. This denomination now numbers about ten million members and is purported to be growing currently at a rate of about 500,000 new members per year. These figures suggest that their observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is not a hindrance to their growth. Interestingly, there is now a growing interest among SDAs in the annual festivals, as evidenced by the publication of a two-volume work on the history and Christian meanings of the festivals by a prominent SDA scholar. 1 This work does not consider the festivals to be a barrier to evangelism; instead, it promotes them as a tool for worship renewal.
The explosive growth in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is occurring primarily in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This brings us to a second trend: the rapid growth of virtually all Christian denominations in these parts of the world. In 1960, more than half of the world's Christians lived in North America or Europe. However, by 1990, some 62% of Christians lived in other parts of the world, and that figure is expected to be about 69% by the year 2000. 2 The phenomenal rise of Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and Asia does not seem to depend upon which days are chosen for worship. We have seen evidence of this trend in the WCG with the sudden appearance of thousands of members in the African nation of Angola during the early 1990s. The evangelistic efforts of our Angolan congregations have not been predicated on a change in their worship calendar-in fact, before affiliating with the WCG, they had called themselves the ``Evangelical Church of the Apostles of the Seventh Day.'' 3
A third relevant trend is the increasing current interest among Christians in the Hebraic roots of Christianity, including the Christian meanings of the annual festivals (see the editorial at the beginningof this issue). Evidence of this trend abounds-for example, in a spate of new books on the subject. The Christian Book Club chose one of these books (Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein's How Firm a Foundation: A Gift of Jewish Wisdom for Christians and Jews ) recently as a Main Selection. In the book club's flier for that month,club director Thomas Freiling wrote, ``If you enjoy this month's Main Selections, you might ask your pastor to host a Jewish festival at your church-there are many messianic Jewish rabbis who would help organize it. If you need help finding someone, drop me a note....''
A further example of growing interest in a Hebraic worship calendar is provided by the Hebraic Heritage Newsgroup, an email discussion group on the Jewish roots of Christianity.This group has been growing quickly and now numbers over 3000. Frequently, letters appear from participants who are looking for a fellowship in their area that has a special emphasis on the Sabbath and annual festivals. Perhaps some WCG congregations could help minister to people who have such an interest.
In the jargon of the advertising profession, these trends show that there is a definite ``market niche'' for a worship calendar based on the seventh-day Sabbath and annual Hebrew festivals.
|What Can We Do?|
Having argued that our traditional calendar is not a hindrance to evangelism, we now turn to the other side of the coin: How can we, as congregations and individuals, use our worship calendar as an aid in fulfilling the Great Commission to preach the gospel and make disciples? We will offer several suggestions, focusing especially on the Passover season.
We have traditionally preached during the Passover season the great messages of salvation and redemption, justification and sanctification which are associated with it in the Bible. In doing so, we have followed in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul. Remember, for example, Jesus' Passover teaching recorded in John 6, or the way He instructed the disciples after His resurrection on how His crucifixion and resurrection were foretold in the Scriptures (Luke24:25-27, 44-46). Recall also the way that Paul used the symbolism of unleavened bread to convey a message about holy living to the first-century church at Corinth (I Cor. 5:6-8).
Some might contend at this point that Jesus and Paul only used the festivals as teaching tools because they were working with people from a Jewish background. Are the festivals still relevant to people from various cultures some two thousand years later? Indeed they are! Especially instructive in this regard is the example of Paul in I Corinthians. In addition to teaching about leavening and sin in I Cor. 5, he stressed in I Cor. 10:1-11 the importance for all Christians of the lessons of the Exodus. It is significant that although the Corinthian congregation was composed of Gentile as well as Jewish believers (see Acts 18:1-18), Paul referred to the Israelites as ``our fathers'' (rather than, say, ``my fathers'') in I Cor. 10:1. As spiritual children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29) grafted into the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11:11-24), Christians ``now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root'' (Rom 11:17, NIV) of the patriarchs and prophets. The rich lessons of the biblical festivals are part of this``nourishing sap'' that is a heritage for all believers.
We have seen elsewhere in this issue of Grace and Knowledge that there is beautiful Christian symbolism in the customs of the Passover Seder . Because of this fact, and as a result of an apparent growing hunger for the ``nourishing sap'' mentioned above, churches from many denominations now stage Christian Seders during the Passover season. It would be very fitting for a WCG congregation to hold a special Seder on our traditional``Night to be Much Remembered'' and invite the general public to attend.
The spring festivals provide some special opportunities for personal evangelism. For instance, as part of our traditional pre-Passover self-examination (I Cor. 11:28), we might ask for input from those around us. Interestingly, business experts have discovered this to be a good management principle. The``360 degree'' survey is an assessment of all people with whom you work to determine their impression of you at work. We can do the same thing, explaining that we are taking an annual survey of our Christianity. This can be an ice-breaker to the gospel in a non-threatening way. Rather than judging others as Christians are often accused of doing, we would be judging ourselves and seeking constructive criticism from others. God can use this example to call people to Him.
The custom of eating unleavened bread can also be used as an evangelistic tool. When people remark about our unleavened bread, we can say, ``I'm doing this to remember Jesus died and was broken for me, and I need Jesus in me every day.'' That's the gospel in a nutshell, or perhaps a matzo crumb.
Finally, it is noteworthy that the Passover season is associated in the Gospels with many examples of service and humility, from Jesus' healings and feeding of the five thousand recorded in John 6:1-13, to the anointing of Jesus' feet (Mark 14:3-9), to the efforts of Joseph of Arimathea to attend to Jesus' burial (Mark15:42-46). Remembering that our actions are perhaps the best form of evangelism, we can strive to emulate these biblical acts of service.
For instance, one way to follow the example of the feeding of five thousand is to give free meals to the poor. A congregation of a hundred can prepare food for twice that many. At the meal, the gospel of Jesus can be explained as the reason for the giving and the meal. The story of the feeding of five thousand can be told, testimonies of various people's conversions can be given, and the Lord will ``add those who should be saved.''
In Cleveland, Ohio, a poor Greek immigrant opened a restaurant and became a wealthy man. He was so thankful for his opportunity in this country that each Thanksgiving he gave away free turkey dinners to everyone who came. He gave away over two thousand meals every year. How much more should we be thankful for salvation, eternal life, and deliverance from death and sin! Why shouldn't we express our gratitude by giving to others, during the spring festival season and throughout the year?
In summary, our traditional Hebraic worship calendar presents no inherent obstacles to the proclamation of the gospel. Our distinctive spring festival customs can, in fact, be a powerful evangelistic tool for us as individuals and congregations.
About the Authors: Jeff Smith lives in Peoria, Illinios, and has been a member of the WCG since 1974. He graduated with a B.S. from Case Western Reserve University in 1978 and earned an MBA from Bradley University in 1994. Jeff works as a Senior Systems Analyst for Caterpillar, Inc., and has been married to his wife Julie for 14 years. They have three children: Victoria(12), Olivia(10), and Raymond(7).
1 Samuele Bacchiocchi's God's Festivals in Scripture and History, Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, MI. Vol. 1, 1995; Vol. 2, 1996.
2 See, for example, the May 19, 1997, issue of Christianity Today.
3 See the article ``Church in Angola Explodes with Growth'' in the Sept. 17, 1996 issue of The Worldwide News.