Sacred agents have a great message. The good news of God’s kingdom stirs us, Christ’s love compels us, and sometimes … our wonderful uplifting message goes down like a lead balloon. What went wrong? And what happens next?
What went wrong? Quite possibly, nothing – at least on our part. If our measure of success is that we are always well received, aren’t we attempting to be better agents than Jesus? On hearing his message, some went out and plotted how to kill him. “A servant is not greater than their master,” he reminds us. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.” So we should expect nothing more than the mixed results that Jesus himself received.
It’s a massive mistake for us to take only those opportunities for witness that are guaranteed to be well received. There’s the obvious negative reason: It’s selling out our mission. If we filter out all the parts of the gospel that Western culture doesn’t agree with, what’s left is western culture. We will no longer be distinct in any way. We’ve lost our saltiness and should hand in our agent’s badge. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” But there’s also a big positive reason: What can happen next…
What happens next? How we respond under abuse, under rejection, under fire, is perhaps THE MOST powerful form of witness we will ever get to make. History has proven again and again that Christians’ cheek-turning, extra-mile-going, blessing-the-cursers love for enemies has enormous missional impact. It’s how the west is won.
But are we willing to have enemies at all? To suffer rejection at all? And when we do, instead of departing the scene with tail between legs, beating ourselves up for “putting people off” – can we sit peacefully with the tension and respond in a Christlike way?
When we’re not well received, we should reflect on it honestly, because there is also the possibility that we were clumsy. But when mission goes pear-shaped, it just may be an early sign of really good fruit.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.
Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.
Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)
If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.
What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.
Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.
How do you feel about a new church opening just a kilometre from your church? We all like the idea of church planting in general – just “not in my back yard.” How can we make sense of this? How do we ensure that a spirit of territoriality doesn’t block the extension of the gospel?
Let’s think about how we think about church territory. If we assume that there is certain number of “church likely” people in our city, a fixed number (say 144,000!), then the more churches that are planted in our city, the less share there’ll be for each church. It’s like rainfall. If you have a large catchment area, you can gather a lot of water into your dam. If someone else builds a dam upstream, they’re robbing you, because there’s only so much rain.
But I don’t think the gospel works like that. Churches aren’t meant to sit there expecting streams of people to flow into them. What if we thought more like farmers than water barons? What if we saw that our viability rests not so much on how much land we have, but on how well we work it?
When churches think about their “area of influence”, they usually draw a circle on a map representing a 20-minute drive to their building. If you step back and look at all the circles drawn by all the churches, it appears that Adelaide is well and truly covered! But driving time is not influence.
Each church should draw another circle – the area in which it is actively engaging its local community. Where is your church regularly prayer-walking? Where are you letter-boxing or door-knocking or active in the local school? If we did that, most churches would draw tiny circles, and we’d see how much room there really is for more pro-active gospel work.
So when a church plant is mooted and a nearby church cries foul, my question is this: When was the last time your church really engaged that particular neighbourhood? Are you thinking catchment instead of going catching?
We don’t need more catchment churches, but God’s always raising up catching ones. The issue isn’t how close that new church is, but what sort is it? And what sort is yours?
I remember the stares and smirks on people’s faces as we walked past. It was the middle of the day, I was about 12 years old, and we were on holidays at Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. My friend and I were bored and decided to go fishing. We grabbed our gear and began the walk around the bay to the jetty.
Most of Penneshaw is built looking over Hog Bay and it’s always easy to know when the fish are biting: You just look out your front window and see how many people there are on the jetty. Hence the smirks and shakes of the heads as we trudged past houses on our way – the jetty was completely empty.
Still, it was something to do. We walked out along the jetty and fumbled around with our lines. I’d never liked fishing and had little idea what to do. So it was pretty surprising when, not five minutes later, we’d caught a fish! And then another. And then more – almost as fast as we could reset our lines a new fish would jump on. Within a few hours we’d caught 81 fish (81 more than we knew what to do with), and you guessed it, most of the town were out there on the jetty getting their share too.
I won’t say that I learned to fish that day. But I did learn this: If no-one’s fishing it doesn’t mean no-one’s biting.
One of the myths that holds us back from effective mission is the idea that no one’s interested in God any more. It’s just not true. But if we believe it to the point where we stop fishing for people, we’ll prove ourselves right – in a way. I guess it’s true that fish won’t bite if you give them nothing to bite on.
So I wonder are you willing to walk that “walk of shame” to the jetty, and have a go even if you’re no expert? Like my friend and I that day, you might catch fishers as well as fish!
“What would you do if Jesus came to Hawthorn?” read the sign outside an eastern Melbourne church in the late 1960s. Graffiti soon appeared underneath: Move Peter Hudson out to centre half forward.
Let’s take a moment to think about church like a coach thinks about a football team. Imagine the names of all your congregation members on magnets on a whiteboard, able to be moved around and tried in different positions. (Just like a footy team, different members have different strengths: some tall, some short; some slow, some fast; some skilled, some Port players.)
Where do we put the evangelists? Yes, your church has evangelists! Or at very least people called to “do the work of the evangelist”. They might be ordinary looking, they may not be fully developed – but I’m talking about those in your church who by God’s Spirit are best shaped and most effective in announcing, explaining, and inviting people into God’s kingdom.
(They are communicators. Some will say “There’s much more to evangelism than talking!” but I think they mean “There’s much more to mission than evangelism” and I agree. Mission is the work of the whole team, evangelism is a vital part and the specialty of some team members.)
But my question is – where do we put those players? It seems the white-board in the imagination of most people has the church gathered in the centre and the evangelists deployed out on the frontier. We hope they will engage with the world, fish for people, and bring them back to us – preferably nicely cleaned. No wonder so many with that gift feel so incredibly lonely, sent to the front to fight a war alone and expected to bring back trophies!
What if we moved the magnets? What if nearly the whole church was sent to the perimeter to witness to the kingdom (words and much more) and we actually positioned evangelists behind the front lines, to work with interested people we bring to them? What if we all had our lines in the water and evangelists were there to help us when we have a wriggly one hooked?
The Hope Chapel movement has planted 700 churches over the last 40 years, so they know a thing or two about multiplying in a Western context! Here’s their beautifully simple method for multiplying home groups, and why I particularly like it:
Each group has a leader (A) and assistant leader (B), but they don’t stop there. Informally, they identify the two next-readiest leaders (C) and (D). Of course every home group is different, but their principles are:
- Don’t meet in A’s house. It centres the whole group too much around Leader A.
- When the time comes to multiply, A takes D and they commence a new group elsewhere. Perhaps 1 or 2 others will go also. They become the A and B of the new group, and the B and C of the old group become its A and B leaders.
So simple! It minimises the disruption to the existing group, which continues to meet in its current location with a slight leadership change. But here’s what I find truly genius about it:
Consider the pathway for leadership development: A person goes from
- Outside the group (perhaps a non-believer), to
- Joining the group and mainly observing, to
- Actively participating in the group (likely by this stage as a new believer), to
- Being identified as a D leader, given minor leadership responsibility, to
- Joining an A leader in commencing a new group and becoming its B leader with greater responsibility, to
- Inheriting an existing group in its current location, stepping up to become the A leader, to
- Pioneering a new group, to
- Identifying and mentoring other leaders
Each of these are manageable steps that are always taken with the help of others. What a great example of making and multiplying disciples!
PS My new book Fruitful Church is being released in early 2015. Grab your ten copies here! Introductory price for SA Baptists is $8 ea with free delivery. (Enter “SA Baptist” in the comments section of order form.)