This will be hard to describe. Hang in there with me.
Often we think reaching people with the Gospel means that we are busy. We teach Bible studies. We serve the poor. We coordinate volunteers to go out and share the Gospel. The list can go on.
But the more I try and share the love of Jesus with people in my neighborhood, the more I find myself doing less on purpose. Why?
Lately, maybe over the last year or a little more, I found myself having more opportunities to share the Gospel with people as I was sitting around my house. Every time I was going off to “do something missional” I found myself having to turn away kids that were hanging out in our home. It became increasingly difficult to turn away the mission field that was showing up at my house to go find some kind of hypothetical mission field somewhere else. So I’ve had to reconcile within myself that being a normal guy hanging, trimming the yard, playing basketball with the neighborhood kids, and sharing the Gospel in everyday situations is one of the most fruitful things I can do. But often it means I have to keep my schedule light in order to make room for these opportunities.
One of the events that taught us this in a real way a few years ago was an outreach to our local park. We went on a walk one morning to explore where God might have our church inhabit a place for the Gospel. We took our kids with us and found a park in the middle of our neighborhood. Every Sunday that summer we’d show up at the park, play soccer or football, push our kids on the swings, and have lunch. Quickly other adults started showing up to play games. Many people returned week after week as we started sharing our food with them. (Missional Pro Tip: People flock to food.)
Because we live in an economically depressed neighborhood we would see other churches and ministries do outreaches in the park and in the neighborhood. The people who we knew from the park would tell us how much they loved us, because unlike the outreaches would come in once a summer, hand out food or supplies, and then disappear, we never left. They weren’t projects to us. They were friends. We shared the Gospel too, but it was in the midst of everyday interactions we had as we played with our kids.
This isn’t to say we don’t do anything. We actually share the Gospel and meet as a church and serve people when the need arises. We do all those things as a response to needs that we have the time to encounter because our lives aren’t busy with Christian programs and outreaches. Sometimes, it means confronting the itch to be needed and prove “we are really doing something.” Often it means saying “No” to over-packing our schedules. Sometimes it looks boring. But many times it frees us to be able to share the Gospel with someone we would have never had the time to encounter before.
It’s the missional power of doing nothing.
Here’s a quick test to know if your expression of church is too complicated to multiply disciples. It’s called the “Bible on a Deserted Island Test.”
Imagine you crash on a deserted island and all you have is the clothes on your back and a Bible. You are stranded on the island and separated from civilized society. But the island is large enough to support several indigenous tribes of people. You are over time adopted by one of the local tribes and learn their language. Because they’ve adopted you, you now care about these people and want to share the Gospel with them.
Now, the million dollar question: Can you plant a church like you’re currently part of among them? Follow up question: Will they read the Bible and see the church you start in the pages of the Bible you have? Or do they have to have explanation of church history or your denomination?
If the answer to both of these questions is yes, congratulations! You have a simple, reproducible church. If the answer to either of these questions are no, I would invite you to consider what part of your church model might be baggage that slows the spread of the Gospel.
If your goal is to disciple the nations, your model of church should work anywhere.
Over the last ten years the Lord has taken me on a journey of learning from the church in other parts of the world. Part of this process has involved me realizing that while there are many good churches here in the United States, there are places in the Earth where the gospel is exploding unlike anything we see here. China, India, and the Middle East are the easiest examples of this. I don’t want to just cheer on the church in other countries, though, I want to learn from their example and take the lessons that are universal and apply them here.
So, in no particular order, here are a few things I’ve learned from the church scattered across the Earth:
- They take the Gospel seriously. Maybe it’s because many of my friends live in a world where the people around them don’t know Jesus, or maybe it’s just that my friends believe the Great Commission more seriously than we do. Whatever the case, I’ve been inspired by friends in Africa who travel many miles into remote villages to share the Gospel with unbelievers.
- Their lives are not their own. Needless to say there is plenty of risk in sharing the Gospel in hostile environments. Some of our friends have taken the Gospel to the least reached places at the risk of losing their lives. These are people with wives and families and yet they trusted God to be with them, and if things go badly, to be with their wives and children.
- Prayer is the foundation of all they do. I’ve never met a fruitful servant of the Lord in Africa who hadn’t given themselves significantly to prayer. The apostolic men that I’ve met in Africa spend time praying for the churches they serve as they travel to those churches. Others have regular times of prayer from midnight to five in the morning. And it’s encouraging to hear the insights they have gained and the fruit they have seen as they continue to persevere in prayer.
- Faithfulness under persecution and in the harvest has formed them. Those who I’ve had the privilege to work with came to Christ in the context of either terrible persecution or incredible awakening. Many had to learn how to follow Jesus when others resisted them. Others learned how to follow the Holy Spirit during seasons where He was moving mightily across their country. But these believers’ consistency in following Jesus during tumultuous times has lead them to be fruitful servants of Jesus.
- They do not see America as the Kingdom of God. This may sound elementary, but I think sometimes Christian Americans still believe that America is a gift to the Earth second only to Jesus Himself. While my African friends and I are thankful for the good America has accomplished, they (and I, because of their example) understand that America has a fair share of weakness. One friend I have regularly reminds us that many of his co-workers who served alongside of him in persecution and revival are now living dull lives chasing the American dream here in the US. Others have clearly warned us about the dangers of the American church condoning sexual immorality. Because they aren’t in the boiling kettle of America or American Christianity, they have helped me to see where our culture doesn’t reflect God’s Kingdom.
The list could continue, but the reality is I’ve been greatly impacted by the church around the Earth. My hope is that by sharing a few of the larger areas where the church in other countries has challenged me, it will encourage you to learn from the church somewhere else. Read a book, listen to a testimony, or better yet, go on a trip to another nation and learn how much bigger God’s Kingdom is than the church in your country.
I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
Jesus never promised us security. While there is a reward for following Christ, we are called to walk a dangerous path that has real implications for our lives. But where does the church fit in? How do the people of God together encourage each other to follow Jesus and not love their lives, even unto death?
Often I hear the church described as a place where believers should be safe. I understand what people mean when they say that, but I don’t know that Jesus meant what we mean when we say safe. I think what we mean is that the church should be a place where people are loved despite their sin. This is true. We don’t want to become a house of Pharisees. But the New Testament church was also a place where those who lied to the apostles died and those who exercised their spiritual gifts where required to submit themselves to the judgment of others. In many of the ways we think about safety, it wasn’t safe.
I think a big part of the challenge is that our culture is obsessed with safety. We have safe spaces and talk about people “being safe.” In some ways, because our culture is not connected with the Gospel, they’ve begun to idolize safety and security over other virtues: love, courage, freedom, etc. In some places, the church has followed suit. This is sad because the church’s job is to disciple believers to love something beyond their own life. Each church we are part of has to become a place where we impart a love for Jesus that compels us to love Christ and others more than we love ourselves.
How do we do this? A particular passage of the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has been helpful for me in this process. In this passage, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are telling Lucy, Susan, and Peter about Aslan, who serves as a type of Christ in the story:
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan, “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.
As the people of God, we help disciples embrace the danger associated with the Gospel by showing both the willingness to embrace risk for the Gospel and also embracing the goodness of God in the midst of danger. Jesus–who is always and forever good–has not only His Kingdom’s best intentions at heart when He sends asks us to do dangerous things, He has ours as well.
What we all need are followers of Jesus who model the trust in Jesus’ goodness, even when that trust could cost us our very lives. This kind of radical trust reproduces itself in the lives of disciples who witness it. It teaches us that there is a better Kingdom, even then the kind we enjoy in this life, that we are willing to trade this life for. May we all learn how to say, with Shadrack, Meshak, and Abednego: “Our God is able to save us from the fire. But if He doesn’t, we will stand firm.”
It’s easy to talk about living dangerously. I find there’s a lot of talk about laying our lives down for the sake of Christ, but most of us hear those verses and think they’re only for missionaries to scary countries. Or worse, we spiritualize them mean just laying down our ambitions or something important to us, nothing more. It’s hard, in our middle class, Western mind to fathom God really asking us to risk anything significant.
But Jesus calls us to lay down our very lives for the Gospel. That may mean our physical lives. Every time I travel to Africa to serve the church there, I have to count that cost. I have to lay down at the feet of Jesus my fears for my wife, my young family, and whatever else I’m responsible for every single time I go. You don’t want to see me right after that time I have with the Lord. I’m a mess. It’s not just in regards to Africa, though. I have to do the same thing on a regular basis here in the sphere of influence the Lord has given me.
For the last several years I’ve been focusing most of my time and attention in the inner city neighborhood I live in. I’ve also been pretty direct about working with people that don’t darken the doors of a church building. To be clear, there are plenty of hard-working, decent people where I live. However, there is also a fair number of people with lives that are a mess. The homeless, the drug-addict, the sex-addict, the attention-addict. The list goes on. These are the people Jesus would hang out with. But they are also not the safest people in the world to minister to.
And for the last several years, I’ve also been fairly forward about calling people to live their lives down here with us. Coming into the neighborhood, dropping the Gospel, and then leaving wasn’t going to work. Come, be a part of the neighborhood. Learn how to interact with people who have no interest in your church. Come share the Gospel here. Come make disciples here. Come live here. Give your lives.
This came home clearly a few years ago. My wife and a friend were regularly meeting at our local McDonald‘s as part of their weekly discipleship time. I received a call late one night from my wife. She was a little bit frantic. As her and her friend were leaving, someone they had never met before walked up to them in the parking lot and punched her friend and ran off. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Now this would have been horrible in any circumstance, but our friend was nine months pregnant at the time.
I’m happy to report that other than some bruising, everyone came out okay. Our friend gave birth to a healthy, active baby boy. The police never caught the assailant. But we experienced a wake up call that day. There is a cost to living on mission that you rarely hear about. There is a danger that we all have to embrace. This could have turned out much worse.
Jesus did not call us to be safe. Countless believers have lost their lives over the course of church history as they’ve tried to bring the Gospel to people who didn’t have it. In other places in the world, becoming a follower of Jesus is a death sentence. It’s only in the West we are fairly inexperienced at loosing anything for our faith.
It’s important to be very clear: Jesus does not call us to safety. He calls us to love Him and trust Him. He also calls us to trust Him with the risk that doesn’t make sense in light of His Sovereignty. And He calls us, regardless of whether we go to Africa or live in the inner city or practice mission to the most broken or live in the gated communities of the upper class to lay down our lives for His sake and the Gospel’s sake.
For too long, Christians have talked about laying their lives down and been willing to do it in abstract ways. It’s time for us to embrace the fact that Jesus calls us to truly put our lives on the line. We need to ask the hard questions: Is God still good if my worst fear happens? Is the Gospel worth really loosing my life? If we are willing to count the reward, the answer is “Yes.”
If we embrace the danger of living for the gospel, we will find, on the other side, true life.
If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.
-Jesus, Mark 8:35
Jesus frequently warned that following Him would cost us everything we have. In fact, he told His disciples that if they wanted to follow Him, they would have to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow Him. What that meant to first century Jews and most of the Roman world was that following Christ was a death sentence. You were welcome to do it if you wanted, but you knew it would cost you your life.
The apostles would regularly say similar things. Paul told the early disciples in the churches he planted (after being stoned–possibly to death–in the previous city) that they “must suffer many hardships in order to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22). Paul would go on to tell his apostolic son that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution,” (2 Timothy 3:12). Peter would tell the churches he served not to be “surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you,” (1 Peter 4:12). Clearly the apostles understood that experiencing danger was part of following Jesus.
Yet so often the church cautions us to be safe. Under the disguise of “being wise” they caution us not to do daring things. And while some of the young and naive may have been kept from doing something foolish through this “wisdom,” the ultimate message is “don’t loose your life for the gospel.” In doing so, the church can end up on the wrong side of the Gospel.
Jesus calls us to lose our life for Him. That doesn’t always mean we die. But of the original twelve disciples/apostles that followed Jesus, eleven lost their lives sharing their faith. The Romans attempted to boil the twelfth disciple/apostle in burning oil, but he miraculously survived at least long enough to pen the book of Revelation. Paul was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. Jesus–our example– was brutally murdered. My point is, while Jesus has the power to heal our bodies and even provide for us, He doesn’t create a safe space for his disciples.
Why would we follow Jesus if this is the kind of life He promised us? Who would sign up for something like this? Only people who have come to believe that Jesus’ love is the answer to life. Only people whose hearts have been transformed by His forgiveness. Only people who are convinced that there is more to life than just today or tomorrow. Only people who believe He is their great reward.
There is a danger in signing up for the Gospel. We shouldn’t hide it. In fact, we should call people to lay down their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. Anything else is a gospel that is too small and worldly to be called the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.
As I wrote yesterday, I have a pretty long history in the charismatic expression of Christianity. I truly treasure my past because I wouldn’t have come to Christ apart from seeing and experiencing the power of God in the present. I truly believe that the power of the Holy Spirit is critical to seeing apostolic Christianity restored to the Earth.
So it was curious for me several years ago when I was reading Alan Hirsch’s book “The Forgotten Ways” that he mentioned a missing ingredient of the missional church was the Pentecostal experience:
What is still largely missing from this emergent phenomenon is any sustained and explicit Pentecostal presence, with all its passion and fire. While it’s true that Pentecostalism taught us the true value of apostolic ministry, the Pentecostals have not been a noteworthy expression of [emergent missional church], as far as I am aware. This is probably because Pentecostalism is still basking in the relative success that church growth praxis brought them.
Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Page 270)
I would say that Hirsch’s experience of a lack of Pentecostals or charismatic experience in the emergent missional church mirrors my experience with house churches largely outside of our network. And while I may be off on this, my perception is that very few house churches are started with those from charismatic backgrounds.
This is sad to me because charismatics should feel the most at home in house churches. House churches exist to allow every member of the body of Christ to participate in the gathering. The meetings are small to intentionally facilitate interaction, especially the sharing of gifts. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:26 “When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.” The kind of organic church Paul describes here allows for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among different members of the body.
Pentecostals and Charismatics should believe in the democratization of the Holy Spirit. That’s a big five dollar word that describes that idea that the Holy Spirit gives Himself to each and every believer. Because every believer gets a measure of Christ’s gifting through the power of the Spirit, every believer should be participating in a meeting of believers with the Holy Spirit leading like the director of an orchestra. The democratization of the Holy Spirit means every believer can participate in the work of God.
Peter best articulates this for us in his famous message to the Jews in Jerusalem after Pentecost:
No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants—men and women alike—
and they will prophesy.
What Peter is saying in this message is that a day that the prophet Joel had predicted has come to pass: God is pouring out His Spirit on everyone. Prior to this, God had poured out His Spirit on special anointed individuals, mainly kings and prophets. The Holy Spirit’s activity was unique and happened only among select people. But now, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, everyone could have access to this elusive Holy Spirit. Men and women, young and old, even the servants–all would be able to move in the gifting of God.
These are the verses that launched the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century. A desire to be filled with the Spirit and experience God personally marked places like the Azusa Street revival. But over the last 100 years, the movement has grown increasingly comfortable with letting ‘anointed’ men and women do the hard work. It’s not uncommon for attenders in charismatic congregations to have never experienced the Holy Spirit in any way outside of the pastor or preacher’s ministry.
All of this, then, is a giant appeal from me to those who believe in the gifts of the Spirit to put into practice the democracy of the Spirit. Do you believe God gives gifts to His church? Good! Then gather believers together in their homes and have meetings like they were described in 1 Corinthians 14. Let members of the church practice sharing their gifts from the Holy Spirit with each other. Don’t be content with someone else exercising their one gift for the entire body. Keep pressing into the Spirit until every member of the body of Christ is participating in a meeting of believers with the gifts God has given them.
The result will be the strengthening of the church.