This is Chicago, Illinois. Skyscrapers and multi-complexes reach for the sun and stars here in the USA’s third most populated city. It is the definition of a metropolitan, a city that has withstood enormous unexpected growth and continues to thrive. This is also the city of hope, when after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, thousands of Romanians first stepped foot on American soil free at last from communism, overflowing with dreams of a better life.
Take a walk around the blocks, see for yourself just what a true traffic jam looks like, but this is also Chicago, Illinois, September 2nd. There is a call for awakening rising from behind the glass walls of the infamous McCormick Stadium. It is the 48th gathering of the annual Romanian Pentecostal Convention, and it beckons Romanian-Americans from far and wide to watch, to listen, and to worship.
Dressed in best and answering to the call, five-thousand Romanians from the top of Illinois to the tip of Arizona and many from Canada and the motherland herself trod across the navy blue carpet to their seats. This year it is time for the Romanian church community to remember what their mission as endowed by Christ is.
Luigi Mițoi, coordinator of the conference this year and pastor of Bethany Church in Chicago, invites Viorel Lozneanu to pray the first prayer of the three-day convention. “You gave us a mission, Lord Jesus, when You rose to Heaven. You gave what was Your mission before the cross to twelve disciples, and since then millions upon millions of people have followed You. And today, we want to learn about Your Church’s mission again, to remember how to maintain it in truth.”
Lights, cameras, worship. With Pastor Mițoi being the coordinator of the event, Bethany’s worship team are the leaders of worship. From Romanian hymns that bring tears and memories to those who are older to contemporary English hits that make hands raise in abandon, every attendee can feel welcomed and free to praise just as they like it. Astounding performances from the mixed choirs and band abound as well, each being a touching treat of their own accord.
Taking the podium first is Nelu Filip, pastor of Maranatha Church in Phoenix, Arizona, with the foremost subject of the formation of the Church and why it matters based on John 1:1-14.
“What does not define the church?” he asks, so he says he can better define what does, “First, it is not a human institution. It is ruled by the holy standards of Christ Jesus. The moment we cease to define it in its proper sense, we ruin the purpose of the Church. It is also not a structure or a building, not a place we come for diversion or to meet friends, and not a business.
“What is the church then? I want to turn to what Christ defined it as: ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,’ (Matthew 18:20). That is the essence. In the theological perspective, some experts have come to define the Church as being a community of humans alive in Christ, with a mission to edify, multiply, and send missionaries to the edges of the world with the Gospel.”
His subject is such a crucial part to understanding why we Christians exist as the Church that halfway through his message, flared up by the Holy Spirit, each word pierces into the 5,000 hearts present and 9,000 hearts streaming the conference at home.
“The moment I compared today’s Church with the first Church,” his voice softens, “my heart broke and I said ‘Lord, how far we’ve strayed from Your truths, how far we’ve run from what it used to be.’” The first Church, he says, was passionate while we are comfortable, risked their image and lives for the Gospel while we do not dare offend anyone, was so fixated on following Christ’s footsteps of holiness while we are impartial, had no air conditioning and cars and cathedrals yet still carried the Gospel across borders while we focus on our programs and schedules.
“We have become very comfortable Christians; program consumers, we like to hear great songs, great sermons, but may the Lord help us practice what we consume. Because the emblem of the Church is the proof of Christ living in us, changing us and giving us new life. We have a sacred duty: we are a chosen people, a holy community, the heirs of Christ who won us with His blood, who called us out of the darkness and into His astounding light.”
Corneliu Bîrsan, pastor of Romanian Pentecostal Church of God from Kitchener, Canada, takes the podium next with a message based on Acts 1:6-8 and 2:1-18 (about the strength of the church which is the Holy Spirit).
“There’s an idea that’s taken hold in many people,” he begins, “that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a necessity for all Christians, only so for those who are called to serve in the church community, who do the Lord’s work in their church or go on mission trips; for them it is a requirement to have the strength of the Spirit with them, but for the others who are not implicated as such, it is optional.”
“The baptism of the Holy Spirit is for all of those who are a part of the Church, not just for those who are called to service. The Bible tells us in Acts 1:13 that ‘When they had entered, they went up to the upper room where they were staying, and all the apostles were there.’Verses 14-15 say‘They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus.During this time, when about 120 believers were together in one place, Peter stood up.’
“The Church of God was formed by Jesus Christ as it was said already; He is the cornerstone. This first church started with 120 people, and after Jesus went to heaven, they went into the upper room waiting for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
The point that pastor Corneliu drives home with such refreshing clarityis that 1) no one but Christ gives true redemption and awakening on a personal level and a communal level and 2) we cannot be a true part of Christ’s Church without being born again via the Holy Spirit.
And so the first service of the 48th convention ends, but the topics and the worship stir in the soul. It has just begun.
Saturday morning is a cup of coffee and endless anticipation. Evening time comes with even more joy as the second service streams, this time fused with more English worship alongside Romanian. The overwhelmed shouts of worship during “The Lord Our God” and the angelic choir singing “Worthy is the Lamb” in background are more than enough to stir the numb hearts remaining from yesterday’s service into a spirit of worship.
Crinișor Ștefan, pastor of Agape Church in Anaheim, California, takes the podium with Acts 2:42-47:
“Tonight I have been asked to talk about worship, a very difficult subject to boil down but an important one nonetheless because worship is the supreme mission of the Church.”
It is an invention of God, not a man-made ritual, he says. God does not cease to exist if we do not worship Him. Rather, we begin to worship true man-made idols when we do not, causing ourselves more complications and heartache in the process.
After all, he says, who we are transforms when we worship our Creator in truth and honor because it requires an open heart. He quotes William Temple: “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
“If my worship is only for show at church, and I don’t continue to worship at home,” Pastor Ștefan concludes, “then it is pointless for me to go to church. It’s futile.” Why? “Because when we gather together in church, we prove that what we do every day in our personal lives matters.” We prove that all the prayer, all the singing, all the testimonies are real responses to Christ’s grace. So why fake that?
It is nothing short of phenomenal organization that after such a sermon, apologist and pastor Dr. Ravi Zacharias follows.
“Young people, listen to me,” he begins in a grave tone after a humorous introduction and greeting, “You cannot live for long under the illusion of neutrality. You will never be neutral. If you turn your back upon the living God, you will have to find some false gods and false altars and false places to worship. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘The tragedy of disbelieving in God is not that we end up believing in nothing; it is much worse than that – we may end up believing in anything.’
“You have to learn to think. And we live with a generation that listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings. We have to learn to read. We have to teach our children to read. They have to understand sequential thought, not just 15-second sound bites. The greatest gift God gave us apart from the Holy Spirit dwelling in us is the written Word of God, and the Word of God abides forever.”
Ravi uncovers the life and devotion of Josiah, the grandson of Manasseh, who was the King of Jerusalem who brought some of the darkest times Israel has ever faced in history. “At age 16, Josiah started to seek after God. At age 20, he started to cleanse Jerusalem. At age 26, he started to cleanse the Temple and found that the Word of God that had been lost had been lost in the temple. Age 8, King. Age 16, child of God. Age 20, cleansing his city. Age 26, cleansing the Temple. He did two things for his people: 1) He gave them back the Word of God – You and I will never grow until [the Bible]becomes the centerpiece of our life. What role is the word playing in your life? – and 2) He brought them back to the safety of God, which gave them the power to change, and to not worry.
“The Word of God brings you to safety, changes your heart, and lastly, it rescues you from the tyranny of the immediate. We all live with fear for the moment. We would all like to see changes immediately. But God in His sovereign will moves and moves. I have no idea what direction we’ll be taking by the end of this year, but I have one certainty: No matter what happens, you can dwell safely under the arms of God and under the umbrella of God.”
The Sun rose on Saturday, but it was faithful to set. With the new rise comes Sunday, the last day of the convention.
Petrica Lascau, pastor of Agape Church in Phoenix, Arizona, is the first speaker of the morning service, and whose sermon is based on 1 Peter 1:13-19.
“I received a very unpopular subject to speak on this morning, that being holiness. Holiness is what is seen within us when we are filled with the Holy Spirit of God. The mission of the Church is to produce sanctified people and to send them out into the world to preach the gospel.”
To be holy, overall, is to set yourself apart, he says. It means to shun evil, to dedicate yourself to good, live the life of victory (free from sin) that Christ gave us all at the cross, and to actively be a vessel Christ works by.
May the Church return into the footsteps of Christ, seek justice, love holiness, and walk on with His will and desires in sight first and foremost. Let it not be that the bride (Church) is found by Him (Christ) in a shaggy dress and ruined hair and scarred skin, but let it be that the bride is found with light shinning in her cheeks while waiting for Him, faithful and holy as He is holy.
That is a touching metaphor to be left with. It makes one wonder what steps the Church could take to avoid that ugly scenario.
Lazar Gog, pastor of EmanuelRomanian Church of Godin Anaheim, California,takes the stage to tell us. He’s slated to talk about organization and instruction in the church, with 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 being his key verses.
“Unity is diversity. To each a gift was given in ministry. And since each one of us was given a special calling, we must fulfill it and must work and develop this calling that God honored us with. The gift that was given to us must be practiced and developed even after we feel we’ve mastered it. But the main thing is this: each one of us should practice our own talent or gift. If we all stay where God places us and we respect what we have been given, the church will have peace and multiply.”
Love is the best gift, the gift given to all members of the Church, he says. We must always function in love. If we do not perform our gifts and talents in love, then our actions are not valid in the eyes of the Lord and furthermore does not serve the Church’s purpose of unity and mission.
Likewise, we must all have character, which means that we remain intentional with who we are. “There are people who are great speakers. They gather crowds around them in arenas or churches. But if they do not have character, then people just attend to listen to them, and afterwards they mind their own business and go on with their lives. Your entire behavior, from the way you dress, the way you speak, the way you look, everything should testify that you are filled with God’s love and God’s purpose alone (instead of your own gain).”
He continues to speak about how we must also be active in our churches, not just consumers. We must partake in prayer nights, donate to sustain our churches and families in need, attend Bible studies. “If Jesus Christ died for me and died for you, after all,” this conviction needs to drive us together as a community towards action.
And so we find ourselves logging on to our laptops and getting dressed again for the final evening service. So much edification, and so much of the Word stirs in our spirits, but we have more to relearn.
Cornel Avram, pastor of Happy Valley Church in Phoenix, Arizona, begins his message inspired by Matthew 28:18-20.
“We live in an interesting and unusual world in which it’s easy to lose focus. We talk about politics; which one is the least bad to chose? We talk about Syria, Iraq, and the Muslims who are slowly conquering Europe. We get lost talking about subjects like those that we can’t resolve, that don’t necessarily pertain to us.
“The responsibility the Lord has given us is to represent His kingdom. So, the moment we understand that behind all we (as Christians) dois Christ, there is nothing to fear, for He is the only authority.” His strength is our strength, His hope is our hope, and so the outside troubles do not belong on our shoulders.
The concise mission given to the Church was to gather disciples, baptize, and teach others about the Word of God. Our mission is not just to convert people, but to intentionally walk alongside them so that they become a part of Christ’s body.
The misfortune, he says, is that we have a lot of converts/members who are willing to listen, but few disciples who are born again and ready to act. The Romanian Church of today must recognize that no change will come unless we invite God back to our side, for if we feel He left, then that means we somehow strayed from His goal.
Once we all remember who it is we serve and who is in control, we realize that we all have testimonies to share with others. We don’t have to have any special talent, such as speaking or singing, to become an active church member, we just need to go out and talk to anyone we can about all the good the Lord has done for us.
Ioan Brie, pastor of Emanuel Church in Sibiu, Romania is the final speaker.
Christ’s second coming, he says, is not a metaphor in any sense. As the Scriptures say, all eyes will see and all ears will hear. So then, he encourages us to ask ourselves, why does the Church not act like every moment is a treasure that we should be using to spread the Gospel? His answer: secularization and liberalism.
The moment liberalism confronted the authority of the Scriptures and took God’s presence out of people’s conscience, pastors began to live in sin, and they would reach such a point that they’d conclude God does not really exist; He is a nice idea that is a crutch for some people, these pastors would think. And that is all it took for morality to be destroyed, and the numbness it caused across the globe leaked into our churches so that people even of the faith began to think it was find to live according to your personal standards.
“Apostasy.” He says it slow with an air of disgust. “It is the turning away from the faith, similar to a slap in the face of the holy God. But here, in these last days as people stomp on Christianity, the Church of Jesus Christ is called to defend their faith with the price of their freedom at times and, if needed, with the price of their lives.” It is not time for the Church to bend to the changing whims of humanism, it is time to stand in defense of the sound doctrines of Jesus Christ. We are to serve actively, not passively, lovingly, not as a show. We need to be in our respective mission fields working as we are called to while we wait for the Groom to return.
Kim Davis also takes a few moments to impart her testimony of how God used her during the marriage license fiasco of Kentucky. She and Pastor Brie’s raw messages seared our hearts, stamping at least for now that we should always be prepared to stand up for Christ as He stood up for us.
Although these conventions never feel long enough, the good news is that they are a yearly meeting. The 49th Romanian Pentecostal Convention will be coordinated by Pastor Nelu Filip and hosted by Pastor Cornel Avram’s Happy Valley Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
I for one cannot wait to see the Lord move in His great Romanian community yet again.
My thanks and prayers go out to the countless others who made the convention as smooth and open to the Holy Spirit as it was but I don’t have room to name: from those pastors who prayed when called up and the folks who opened their hearts for the Holy Spirit to speak to those who stayed late to make sure the tech was fine and floors were clean, thank you for being an active member of the Church.
May God richly bless Arizona’s Romanian community as they prepare for next year.
NOTE: This article features paraphrased paragraphs out of minutes of sermons, but endeavors to remain faithful to the main ideas preached by pastors at the 48th Romanian Pentecostal Convention.