4.24.2012

Church Expansion

For many Christians, the end of the second chapter of the book of Acts is the pinnacle of the faith community: believers share their possessions, they meet regularly for meals and Bible study, and God adds to their number daily.  It is a remarkable and God-glorifying moment in the history of the church.  One must be careful, though, because the kind of communal life we seek may differ greatly from that which our God wills for us.

It is a temptation to turn church into a place of relational comfort.  As the line from the sitcom, "Cheers," goes, we all desire a place "where everybody knows you name, and they're always glad you came."  That "third place" in our lives - besides home and work - where we are among others like us and can truly be ourselves: for some it is a bar, for others a softball league, and for Christians it is often church.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being part of a congregation where you feel comfortable with your fellow congregants.  One of the greatest blessings on this side of glory is the meaningful friendships you can experience with other believers.  But church is meant to be so much more than a social club in which everyone is nice to one another and adheres to the same worldview.  And, ominously, when it devolves into just that, not only do we miss out, but we atrophy the core purpose of the church's very existence.

Consider the context of that great description of church community in the book of Acts.  Jesus has risen, only to depart again, but not before charging to his followers that they will be his witnesses throughout the city (Jerusalem), into the outlying suburbs (Judea), and to the ends of the earth (all the parts that touch the Mediterranean Sea, and even beyond).

But it does not appear that any of those who directly heard this exhortation ever left Jerusalem.  They didn't have to, to indirectly fulfill Jesus' commands, as the whole world came to them for Pentecost.  It was there that the Holy Spirit fell on those gathered from all over, from different languages and nations, and the church was born. The rest of the book of Acts records the outward spreading of God's word, God ever expanding His people's notion of who was "inside the tent":

Chapter 6: Greek-speaking Jews are brought into meaningful servant leadership, and those who begin their careers doing what many of us would consider menial labor (serving food to widows) end up being among the church's most prominent leaders (Stephen, Philip).

Chapter 7: Stephen rebukes the established religious leaders in a fiery sermon, proclaiming that their rejection of God has opened the door for outsiders to believe, and is stoned for his words.

Chapter 8: A mighty persecution impels believers outward (8:1 is the fulfillment of 1:8!), and the good news reaches Samaria (Samaritans were scorned by Jews) and an Ethiopian eunuch (doubly unconventional).

Chapter 9: Saul, persecutor of Christians, is brought into the fold through a miraculous conversion.

Chapter 10-11: Peter has a dream that convinces him that Gentiles too can be part of the family of believers.

Chapter 12-13: Antioch is ground zero for this burgeoning movement, and the five-person leadership represents three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe).

Chapter14-15: The early believers wrestle through how the practices of the faith can be simultaneously true to their Jewish origin and accessible to Gentiles.

Chapter 16-28: Various missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean Sea region.

Do you detect a pattern?  Everywhere you turn, God is expanding our definition of who's in.  As much as we try to close ranks for the sake of comfort and familiarity, God pushes us outward.  We are ever wishing to curate our communities into places in which everyone knows everyone, we can settle nicely into familiar routines, and we can agree on common terminology.  God is ever jostling us to be more inclusive of new people we would not otherwise think to associate with, and to stretch ourselves to accommodate the newness rather than asking everyone to conform to our limited understanding of God.

Of course I am not speaking of compromising our core beliefs.  But think about your own church's congregational life.  How many defining characteristics are truly about essential theological tenets?  Isn't what makes up your church "home" more about things like worship style, coffee hour, and interior decoration - things that are much more able to be adapted over time as the composition of your congregation evolves?

It is human nature to surround ourselves with people like ourselves, to expend great effort to build places of comfort for ourselves.  This is even more true in the busy, diverse urban settings many of us live in: after a long week of hustle and bustle, stretching to understand and work with people very different from us, and being assaulted by so many contrary worldviews, how refreshing it is to have a place where we can settle in with others like us, right?  With so much change, tumult, and stress in our lives, isn't it natural to try to avoid the upheaval of learning new songs and singing styles, having to get to know so many new people week after week, or letting go of cherished ways of celebrating certain sacraments for new practices?

But God has bigger plans for His church.  In the book of Acts, He uses a massive persecution to scatter His people and spread His Word, He gives Peter a dream to persuade Him that Gentiles can be part of the flock, and He populates His leadership teams with sufficient geographic diversity that all perspectives are represented.  What does He need to do in your church to make sure you're not settling into a comfort zone that may feel good to you but is less than what He wants for you, for your church, and for the advancement of His Word throughout a world that is need of it?



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