It’s fair to say that Pergamum Evangelical Church, or PEC as its members refer to it, has had a bit of a rollercoaster ride since it was founded back in the 60’s. It began during the first great church planting movement which saw churches established in all the surrounding provinces. There had been a lot of talk at the time concerning how strategically important PEC would be – being in the regional capital and on the doorstep of government offices and the political ‘movers & shakers’.
Since then it has kept going – solid and stable. Not a household name like Ephesus with its reputation for strong Biblical training, it doesn't have the dynamism of Sardis with its endless ministry initiatives, and certainly doesn’t have the resources of Laodicea which was now planning its fifth extension in 20 years.
PEC’s building is just on the edge of the city centre but in comparison with the Diana Shrines and the glitzy Zeusian Temple it was always going to struggle to be noticed. The city feast days were always awkward – the congregation feeling as if they were only people in the whole city not joining the celebrations at the ‘Temple of Rome & Augustus’. Indeed it was over that very issue that PEC faced its toughest challenge.
Although not a large fellowship enough money had been pledged to employ one of the founding members as a Community Worker. Antipas gave up his job as an Administrator in the Pro-counsel’s office and started building up relationships with local groups. Over a few years he became well known and his work helping in local schools was gladly accepted. Not everyone was a fan though and maliciously, although it was never proved, Antipas was publically asked to take part in one of ceremonies pledging allegiance to Caesar as Lord.
Well of course Antipas made his apologies and declined. But that wasn’t enough, next thing there were calls for an enquiry: What is this man doing in schools, what is he telling folks in the town, who do these Christians think they are in snubbing Caesar and not complying with our ‘Roman values’?
Things started to get really nasty. Letters in the papers, questions raised in the city council. Antipas was pulled in for questioning. After several weeks an ultimatum was delivered – come to the Pledge Ceremony, tone down your ‘Jesus propaganda’ (as they now called it), and we’ll all move on. Of course, Antipas couldn’t agree to that, it would have totally undermined his Gospel convictions and ministry.
Things then went from bad to worse, the church building vandalised and its members harassed in the streets. More accusations were made against Antipas: he was an intolerant fanatic, he was radicalising young people in the city against Rome, and furthermore Christians were clearly a threat to the very stability and security of society. Antipas was advised to leave - but he had always hated bullies so refused.
Nobody is quite sure what happened, or least nobody will admit to knowing, but Antipas’ body was found hanged in a local park. Friends said they thought he’d been beaten – but the Coroner’s report made no mention of that. The authorities immediately called it suicide and closed the case. Those who knew Antipas - knew taking his own life would have been totally against everything he believed.
An uneasy peace descended – the fuss about PEC fizzled out. PEC continued to meet as it had always done, although the numbers dropped considerably for a period.
Of late though things feel different in PEC and not everyone is comfortable with some of the changes. Copies of a new book by T.R. Nicolas have been circulating and a few folks have been reading it together in their Small Group. Well produced, with bite sized chapters and heart-warming anecdotes the book: ‘Change or Die - Getting Ready for Church in the Second Century’, is having quite an impact. Indeed there are increasing calls for a more relaxed and open line to be taken with local Temples and there are moves to start having an inter-faith prayer forum for the city.
The elders don’t seem quite sure how to respond, especially as they face an increasing number of pastoral issues – there seems to be a big increase in the number of members visiting the Temple prostitutes.
I wonder what Jesus would make of it all?