Why Church?

Hikmat Kashouh and his family

Hikmat Kashouh and his family

Why Church?

Many people today say that they are interested in spiritual life but not in any organized religion.  Others believe that they can know God apart from the church. Still others have been hurt by negative experiences at church and no longer want to be associated. Over the past three years, the number of Americans who identify as religious has dropped by 7.5 million people.

Yet, in the New Testament, the gathered church is the most recognizable evidence in the world of what God has done in Christ. The church comes into being through the eternal plan and purpose of God.  It is a holy assembly of disciples making disciples. The church multiplies throughout the world through global mission and individual mentoring. The church is in fact the primary place where God’s wisdom and glory are on display in the vibrant, diverse, and growing family of God.  The church is the living, moving, and fully functioning body of Christ in the world where every person has a vital role.  The church is where heaven and earth are joined together through prayer, suffering, witness, transformation, and glory. 

Nursery rhymes can in fact be quite profound:

“Here is the church. There is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.”

Heaven and earth are joined together, not in a building, not in an organization, but in a people, the people of God. They are brought together as a holy community, the body of Christ, the church.

The church continues to spread throughout the earth. In our city, there are 2,500 churches. In the United States, there are 400,000 churches and there are 37 million churches around the world. There are churches on all seven continents. There are even seven churches in Antarctica. New Christians are born every day around the world and where Christians are, there is the church.

I recently met one of my relatives in Christ for the first time. His name is Hikmat Kashouh. He serves as the pastor of Resurrection Church in Beirut, with support from his wife Krista and their three children, Daniella, Betine, and Marcus. His recent book Following Jesus in Turbulent Times is a moving, pastoral account of God’s surprising work in and through the local church in Lebanon. His book answers the question Why church? from direct experience with Christ.

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He writes:

“On Sunday November 22, 2015, a gentleman from Sudan approached me after church, and introduced himself as Brother Yassir. He mentioned the name of a common friend who had advised him to attend our church. I happened to be free for lunch, and so I invited him to join my family and a few friends at a nearby restaurant. Over the meal, he shared his story with us.

Brother Yassir

Brother Yassir

He came from a family of devout Sunni Muslims. One of his uncles played a major role in starting the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, and another was one of the top chiefs in the secret service in northern Sudan.

When Yassir was only eight years old, his father took him to a religious school far from his home and left him there. He did not know whether his father would ever return for him. For two years, Yassir attended that school, memorizing the Qur’an, and being radicalized by his Sunni teachers. Then his father showed up and took him home again.

Back home, Yassir attended the local school. There he met a Christian boy called Zachariah, who was the first in his class and used to sit next to him. Yassir regarded him as an infidel. So, one day he and a friend took Zachariah into the forest and set about beating him to death. After breaking his bones, they left him there to die.

Yassir’s family were also involved in persecuting Christians. In fact, one day, his uncle was sent to arrest a pastor. When he arrived at the church, he decided to wait until the service was over before making the arrest. Meanwhile the preacher, not knowing what was going to happen, was preaching from the book of Acts, telling the story of Saul’s conversion. At the end of the service, Yassir’s uncle went up to the pastor and asked him, ‘Why were you preaching about me and sharing my stories?’ The pastor explained that he was telling a story from the Bible, but Yassir’s uncle did not believe him until the pastor opened the book of Acts and read it to him. Yassir’s uncle was captured by the power of the word of God and stayed until early the next morning asking the pastor questions. The conversation ended with Yassir’s uncle giving his life to Jesus.  His conversion led to his being put into prison, yet there he was very active in evangelizing and many came to faith because of him.

One day, Yassir’s cousin became very sick which led to his being admitted to the hospital in a coma. His father could not go to him, for he was in prison, but he arranged for two Christian men to go to the hospital to pray for his son. The men arrived while Yassir was there, visiting his unconscious cousin. Yassir watched as the two messengers went inside to pray for the boy.  When they had finished praying, he saw the boy open his eyes, start to remove all the tubes attached to him, and on the same day the boy was healed and went out to play. Yassir was dumbstruck. How could the prayers of two infidels be heard by God? And how come God responded by granting them a miracle? He decided that he needed to learn more about Christianity. He went home and started to read once again all that was written about Jesus in the Qur’an and in Islamic traditions.

To cut a long story short, Yassir ended up giving his life to Jesus. As a result, his family disowned and abandoned him. More than that, they went to a graveyard and put his name on a grave as a sign that he was dead to them. Rejected and persecuted, Yassir decided to leave Sudan. Before leaving, he went and stood by his ‘grave’ and wept and wept. He loved his parents and was in agony that they had rejected him. It was the darkest moment in his entire life.

As he was standing there, he felt a hand touching his shoulder and a voice said, ‘Yassir, don’t cry; your grave is empty and so is mine.’ He felt God’s amazing presence, and a calling from God to go and serve him and witness to the resurrection. He left Sudan, continued his studies in Islamic Studies and Jurisprudence, and earned an MA from Columbia University. Today he is a lecturer and pastor of migrant churches in Germany. 

Twenty-five years later, Yassir visited Egypt to teach at a pastor’s conference. While speaking and sharing his testimony, he noticed that one pastor with a broken arm and a broken leg was in tears. After Yassir was finished, he went to this pastor and asked him why he had been weeping.  The pastor, blind in one eye and physically fragile, told him, ‘I am Zachariah, the little boy you beat twenty-five years ago.’ Then Zachariah opened his Bible, and there on the first page of his Bible was the name of Yassir, written by the hand of the Christian teenager he had tried to kill.  Zachariah said, ‘Since that day, I have not stopped praying for you. It is wonderful to know that you are a follower of Jesus.’ Yassir himself was in tears now. As he stood in front of Zachariah and saw what the beating had done to him, and saw also his loving heart, he could only ask, ‘What kind of religion can make one love an enemy so much!’” 

“Here is the church. There is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” 

Why church? cannot be answered from a distance. You must come close to see. When we approach the church, we discover a people who have received and extend the transforming love of Jesus Christ. One of those people is Yassir. If there is someone named Jesus Christ teaching people to live and love like this, then I would not want to miss being a part of his church.

Dr. David Palmer