The Article Archives
Topic: Urban Nations
Of Pounds and Chips and Lines
December 1, 1996
Steve M. Schlissel
Our middle child of five (four svelte girls and a gezunteh boy), Leah Love, recently told us at dinner that she had gotten on the scale.
How much do you weigh, we all asked, practically in unison.
I don't know, Leah answered. I covered my eyes. I was afraid to look.
A perfect 13-year-old.
Ministries ought to be more mature and less fearful to take a look at where they are at. Messiah's Ministries in New York City generally assesses itself, however, not in terms of weight, but rather in terms of fidelity. Dr. Oren Holtrop, a local, nonagenarian Christian Reformed minister and a former classmate of Cornelius Van Til at Princeton, has occasionally graced our pulpit. He has told us emphatically to just be faithful, and let the chips fall where they may!
Looking at the scale at the end of 17 years of ministry here in the Big Apple, we are led to conclude with the Psalmist that the lines (or chips) have fallen to (us) in pleasant places (16:6). In this modern era of church-growth mania, where success is often measured in terms of raw numbers, such a conclusion might seem to some to be unwarranted. After all, we have only about 90 members (including many children). We still rent space for worship in an Episcopal church, and considering NYC real estate prices, may never, apart from Divine intervention, own our own facility.
Not much weight there. In the modern scheme of things, we might be easily overlooked. And when we consider our severe unworthiness, we're inclined to think we ought to be. But God, it appears, has been pleased once again to choose the foolish things of the world, the weak things, the base things which are despised, the things which are not, to bring honor to Himself, so that what is written may be proved true: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (1 Corinthians 2:26-31).
What follows is a report on what the Lord has been pleased to accomplish through us, and it is offered with a twofold hope: 1) that you would continue your support of our ministries to enable us to continue to serve God via His truth, and 2) that you would be encouraged not to regard your own local church as lightweight, if only you share in the precious heritage and faith of our fathers.
Meantime is an outreach devoted exclusively to a particular population: women who were sexually abused as children. The ministry began not as a result of brainstorming and planning, but out of a compulsion produced by God's Word and Providence: He commands us to be His healing ministry and we just kept encountering women who had been seriously abused.
In one instance, we learned that a 17-year-old member of our church, a Jewish girl who was the lone Christian in her family, was being raped repeatedly and terrorized into silence by her stepfather, who would videotape the sessions and show them to his friends. We were able to deliver her, by God's grace, out of that situation. She is now a pastor's wife and the happy mother of four.
In another instance, a woman came to us for help with her marital difficulties. In the course of helping her learn God's will for her life, it came out that she had been sexually abused by her father from age 5 to 15. The first time was after he had beaten her and swung her around like a rag doll, flinging her against a wall. When he went to her later to apologize, he ended up taking her sexually. Beatings and rapes and humiliation were her nightmarish lot for the following decade. This particular woman became the last straw for us: we knew we had to do something.
We decided to seek financing to hire a staff member and rent an office for women thus scarred. We arranged to speak to a group of people to explain the proposed ministry and ask for their help. A fleece was put out on the way to the meeting: if we got $10,000, we believed we could responsibly proceed to implement our plans. At the meeting, everyone was moved but no one moved to their pockets.
Accepting God's will, we left. The host walked us to our car. On the way, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, Steve, I like what you're planning to do. I'll give you $10,000 to get started. Try telling us God is not real!
Since that day about five years ago, Meantime has quietly ministered to hundreds of women. Our philosophy is distinct: Psychobabble is not spoken here. The Word of God alone provides the help and healing, through faith in Christ, that can bring about the changes necessary for true healing. We follow a simple pattern in counseling: Knowing, Feeling, Doing. First, the clients are brought to understand that God's Law alone provides a justification for calling what they've eexperienced abuse. Only after the objective Word is established as the norm do we proceed to discuss the subjective feelings resulting from the abuse. We then lead our clients to a plan of action to implement God's Word in their respective circumstances. Many have been the testimonies to the power of God's Word compassionately, ministered by Meantime's female counselors, two of whom are themselves survivors who have triumphed in Christ over their own histories of abuse.
Again, a ministry born out of God's Word and Providence. The Lord left us a standing order to bring the Gospel to all nations. As we began to see God gathering the entire world, representatively, in New York City, we believed that to do nothing to seize this moment would be sin.
Messiah's consistory (session) approved a plan to begin a ministry called Urban Nations. Because of the scope of the task (there are more than 2,000,000 immigrants in New York City, from nearly 200 nations, speaking more than 125 different languages), a board made up of men from various Reformed and Presbyterian bodies was formed to guide and advise Messiah's on how to proceed with and oversee this outreach.
In just a few years, Urban Nations has brought the Good News about Jesus to thousands of immigrants representing more than 60 different nations. Through radio broadcasts, literature distribution, and Bible-based English as a Second Language classes, the Word has gone and continues to go out to the whole world, now within the confines of a single city. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, Cultists and others been clearly instructed in the truth of God's holy Word.
Urban Nations now has five ESL instructors, a growing ministry to the 700,000 Caribbeans in Brooklyn, a groundbreaking work among the Polish in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a branch ministry to Hindus in Queens, NY, a Spanish-language correspondence course in the Reformed faith, a weekly Simple English Worship Service for immigrants, and a weekly Russian language Bible study led by Reformed Christian men.
The English classes generally revolve around talk about God and Christ and the Christian worldview. Every class opens with prayer. Recently, a 31-year-old Jewish Ukrainian woman sat stone-faced through the prayer. I asked her if she knew how to pray. No, she said. I think God looks at my family and laughs. He doesn't want to hear my prayers. Her eyes began to moisten. Is something wrong in your family? Are you having difficulties? Yes, she admitted. What is it?, I asked. My father died three weeks ago. From a heart attack?, I queried. No. From cancer? No. Then what?
He killed himself. He threw himself in front of a subway train. She began sobbing. Silence fell over the room. I am so sorry, Marina. And I tried to comfort her. I tried to help her see that she should seek to draw closer to God in the wake of such tragedy, not run further away. I gave her three pieces of Gospel literature in Russian, including John Blanchard's Ultimate Questions.
Poignant moments like these are not uncommon in this ministry. Immigrants seem to open up in the loving atmosphere of Urban Nations. One woman said, Why do you do? Why you give us, always give us? Everyone American hates us, but you love us. The love of Christ compels us.
Preparing Men for Ministry
In our adult Sunday School we have studied the Westminster Standards in their entirety, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt and the Heidelberg Catechism. Our emphasis on the Reformed faith has kindled a passion in several men to go into ministry.
Messiah's was the first church-home of Paul Murphy, who eventually became an Elder. He then attended Westminster Theological Seminary and Calvin Seminary, and now pastors a 700-member Independent Reformed church in Grand Rapids. He's one of the finest pastors in America.
Another Elder, Brian Penney, used to travel 150 miles round-trip each Lord's Day to attend services here in Brooklyn. He has since gone on to become an ordained minister in the Federation of Reformed Churches, serving the Lord in Virginia.
Randy Jackson, a gifted young Black man, got hooked on the Reformed faith at Messiah's and went on to train for ministry at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is now working at Steve Wilkins' church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, bringing the Reformed faith to the Black community there.
Patrick Edouard, a Haitian man with the bearing of a prince, was a member of our church, then a staff member with Urban Nations. He married another staff member (Greetje Huisman), and went off to Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Patrick completed his first year of marriage and study around the same time, and shortly afterward, God gave the Edouards their first child, Jeremy Jakob. Patrick will be, D.V., a Reformed pastor in just a couple of years hence.
Two current members (who live in New Jersey our catchment area is about 100 miles end-to- end) are enrolled in Whitefield Theological Seminary, preparing for the ministry of the Word.
In addition, Messiah's sponsors the Van Til Study Center for Men. At the last meeting, eighteen men (including five Blacks, two Puerto Ricans, and several Jews) gathered to study Bavinck's Doctrine of God and Rushdoony's Systematic Theology.
Diverse and Sundry
Our monthly Messiah's Newsletter reaches thousands of people around the world with reports on our ministries embedded in a Reformed perspective on contemporary matters. The response to our newsletter has been gratifying beyond words: it has been reprinted often, in periodicals on several continents, and is photocopied and distributed by many.
Messiah's Tape Rack has supplied hundreds with Reformed expositions and applications of the Word that have been so warmly received, we cannot keep up with the demand. A few churches have been started (in America, Canada and Asia) using Messiah's tapes as their sermons; several tapes have been transcribed and used as Reading Sermons in churches in America and New Zealand. Messiah's Tapes are now available through Covenant Media Foundation (call 1-800-553-3938 for a catalog).
A few sermons can also be found at Messiah's Home Page on the Internet: http://www.MessiahNYC.org. In addition, you will find confessional statements on Hermeneutics and Creation, the fruit of the Confessional Conferences for Reformed Unity, which were sponsored by Messiah's. You will also be able to hear sermon samples, and download position papers on Christian Education and Women in Military Service.
The Courtship Ring is an on-line ministry of Messiah's Congregation where subscribers including pastors, parents and teens discuss issues relating to Biblical courtship as opposed to dating. This ministry has taken off and has yielded good fruit and encouragement in the lives of many. You can sign on (free, of course), by a simple request sent to SFSchliss@aol.com. The Ring is administered by our firstborn daughter, Sarah Faith, 18, a college senior.
Another aspect of ministry at Messiah's is our ongoing effort to be of service to ministers, elders and churches from diverse backgrounds. We are frequently called upon to counsel and advise church leaders from near and far, by phone, e-mail, letter and in person. One happy example: When we became Reformed in 1983, many diehard dispensationalists left our church. Several joined a local fundamentalistic, Baptist church. That entire church has now, by grace, and partly through the influence of Messiah's and the Chalcedon Report, become thoroughly Reformed, adopting and teaching the Westminster Standards. Nowhere to run!
Look inside our church on a Lord's Day and you'll see some interesting faces, faces of people who trace their roots to Puerto Rico, Russia, Antigua, Africa, Japan, Ireland, Lebanon, Holland, Peru, Italy: many natural sons of Abraham, and many ingrafted.
What you won't see is a mega-church, pomp or untoward ceremony. For all our variety, we're a pretty plain, even earthy, group of folks. Victims and perpetrators of sexual violence and perversion, healed by grace; drug users, pornographers, revolutionaries, dolts, and many ordinary vanilla sinners, all straightened out by the Gospel of God. We are, in the eyes of the world (and much of the church!), lightweight. But by the grace of our Sovereign, loving God, and through your generous support, we can glory in the Lord, giving thanks for having used us. We, indeed, may be light, but His Word is heavy.
The pounds, the chips, the lines, have fallen to us in pleasant places. May God keep us from sin, and continue to use us and you to bring glory and honor to His Name. Amen.
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2662 East 24th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11235-2610
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