Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Empty and Full (06/04/09)
TITLE: Ebenezer's sad, slow decline
By Gregory Kane
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When Hope-and-Life Miracle Church moved on to the same road as Ebenezer, the two pastors exchanged pleasantries and chatted positively about the extent of the harvest field. Yet within one month, Ebenezer's three remaining teenagers had found a spiritual home in the youth ministry down the road with its innovative talk of podcasts, techno-worship and virtual discipleship.
June saw the grand opening of Hope-and-Life's sparkling new auditorium and a family fun day was organised to celebrate the occasion. Since the consecration took place on a Saturday, most people from Ebenezer decided to drop in for an hour or two. The following day, as Pastor Smyth looked round his faded sanctuary, his heart sank at the number of long-standing families who were no longer there.
The first signs of disquiet came with the return of Mrs Archibald. The pastor had secretly been relieved to see her go, her incorrigible tittle-tattling an unsightly blemish on the sanctity of his congregation. Yet even Pastor Smyth was intrigued to learn what had so disturbed the old scandalmonger.
It was the preaching, she whined, or rather the lack of it. The pastor at Hope-and-Life never spoke for more than ten minutes and much of his advice was lifted straight from daytime TV talk-shows. None of that old-time religion, she fussed, preaching that called people to mend their ways and walk in reverence. In her humble opinion it was a social club masquerading as a place of worship.
That night Pastor Smyth got down on his arthritic knees to ask God's forgiveness for the sins of gossip and pride. Yet Mrs Archibald's words had heartened him and he prayed that his ailing congregation might still be turned around.
The following March, Hope-and-Life (or H&L as it was by then being called) broke through the 500 barrier and announced a new building programme to accommodate the swelling numbers. One week later Hugh Thomas, the church treasurer, left his wife and moved in with one of the youth counsellors. The uproar in the Christian community was intense. Pastor Smyth added his name to a petition calling for the man to step down. But the pastor at H&L supported his man to the hilt, arguing that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness and no one had any right to judge or condemn another. A few people left in protest but their loss was more than offset by scores of new visitors who applauded such a modern, open-minded approach to adultery.
That September Ebenezer Gospel Assembly hosted an evangelist for one week of revival meetings. But the day before the crusade started, the leadership at H&L announced a week of free concerts featuring a medley of famous Christians singers and musicians. On the final day of the lacklustre revival, even the evangelist asked permission to finish early so that he could go and enjoy that evening's concert.
By January the situation had reached crisis point. Pastor Smyth had injured his knee in a fall, the church roof was leaking and termites were wreaking havoc with the pews. Even with the converts from the revival, Sunday attendance was down to its lowest level in decades. Weary and discouraged, the pastor sat down with his members to vote on closing the church. But just then it happened. The archangel put a golden trumpet to his lips and blew a note that echoed round the world. Half a million angels flew through the earth and snatched up the saints in glorious rapture. In a heartbeat the sanctuary of Ebenezer Gospel Assembly was emptied - with not a single soul left behind.
The pastor at H&L took the worldwide disappearances in his stride. A few of his more contrary members had vanished but the bulk of his congregation was still intact. The Sunday after the Event, his church was full to bursting with people desperate to know what they should do. God loves you the way you are, the pastor told them, business will go on as usual. And by the way would anyone like tickets for the hot-pot supper this coming Thursday?
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