It seems pretty clear from reading the New Testament book of Acts that the early church, despite its many faults, was driven by an apostolic impulse. The word apostle literally means “one who is sent out,” and we can easily see from the narrative in Acts that the church took a “sent and scattered” approach to ministry. Whenever the church became too centralized or inward focused, God allowed persecution to move the process forward. As I look at the American church, I often see a struggle with taking a sent and scattered approach to ministry- especially when it requires a radical change in mindset, ministry strategy, and use of resources. Although I’m knee deep in helping start churches in relatively unchurched communities, I find myself sometimes internally struggling to throw off the status quo of comfort zone Christianity to embrace this apostolic impulse which should still drive us today. This has led to me asking myself a tough question as both a church-planter and Jesus-follower…
What prevents us from taking a more sent and scattered approach to ministry?
Control issues. I’m pretty sure that beginning with the day of Pentecost that the twelve apostles and other 120 followers of Jesus realized that this Jesus movement was going to be something way bigger than anything they could control. It’s easy to assume as we look at scripture that because the apostles and elders of the early church gave some pretty clear (and sometimes strict) parameters to people wanting to become Jesus followers and even more-so to other leaders, that they were all about control. We must remember that this was way before the time of instant communication via phones, text messaging, and emails, with letters taking weeks and months to reach their destination. This communication gap forced the early church leaders to put a great deal of trust in those they had mentored and sent out. Does a lack of control open the door for people to go “off the farm” with their mission and even theology? It’s certainly a possibility, but even in the most controlling church environments this happens more than we’d like to admit- just look at the number of church splits that occur over these issues.
Trusting leaders. I think one reason we may struggle to trust emerging leaders is that we have not put the time into mentoring and developing them. One big reason that Jesus trusted the apostles was because of the power of the Holy Spirit working through them. We should also consider the obvious fact that He trusted them as leaders because He had invested a great deal of time and energy in developing them as leaders. We see this same confidence from Paul in his letters to Titus and Timothy. Paul had invested in these guys and trusted them to not only lead but to develop others who would lead. In our present era we cannot simply delegate the responsibility of developing a new generation of Christian leaders to Bible colleges or seminaries- I would argue that the best context for learning still remains local churches doing real ministry in the real world. I’m not arguing against the value of theological training, but I do believe that the people most likely to influence culture and engage those outside the church are not ordained vocational clergy.
Minimizing relationships. We can easily forget that the primary vehicle through which the good news of Jesus travels is relationships. Two thousand years ago the Greco-Roman household or oikos provided the perfect relational network of close friends and family members for the gospel to go viral. In the modern era, studies have continued to prove that the primary influence on people coming to faith in Jesus is relationships with family and friends. When we act like a program, a worship service, or even our preaching is the key to people becoming followers of Jesus, then we’re actually putting our focus (and usually investing our resources) in the exception rather than the norm. I’m definitely a big fan of gospel-centered preaching, but I’m also certain that the overwhelming majority of our culture is deaf to what is being said from our Sunday morning pulpits. As a friend recently shared with me: “relationships are the currency of the kingdom.”
“Old” paradigms. As much as we try, it’s hard to move beyond our default perspective of what church is- a large group of people gathered in one place on Sunday with a lectern as the focal point of where ministry happens. In a culture where even the most irreligious person defines a church as a building with a steeple, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine that the Jesus movement met as churches for the first 200+ years without buildings set aside as places of worship. Somehow this ancient idea that the church is the people of God on mission with God has been somewhat lost despite the fact that the New Testament never refers to the church as a literal building. Please understand that I’m not suggesting that established churches tear down buildings and sell off all their property (well… unless these things are preventing real ministry from happening). What I am saying is that if we are going to engage an increasingly nonChristian culture then we will have to have an open hand with our approach to ministry and go way back (like 2000 years back) to what made the church the church.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and even get some “push back.”