Acts 11:19-30 One of our callings as Christians is to be change agents. As Presbyterians, we see ourselves with the responsibility of “pointing beyond our church through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.” (Book of Order, F-1.03) Part of our self identity is being a partner in God’s work to change the world.
This week, a group of pastors and educators in our Presbytery had a one night retreat with singer/songwriter/author David LaMotte. I remember hearing David sing at various venues in North Carolina at least 10 years ago. He stepped aside from his 18 year professional music career to earn a master’s degree in International Studies, Peace, and Conflict Resolution in Australia. According to David, he is 100% Presbyterian (his grandfather, his dad and his sister are ordained Presbyterian ministers) and 100% Quaker. He actually heads up the Nobel Peace Prize Nominating Task Group for the Quakers. He is back to singing and writing and performing, but now with a deep passion to challenge others to recognize that we all have a role in changing the world, whether we like it or not. As he spoke to us, and as included in his recent book: Worldchanging 101, David paints our world as full of people hungering for a hero to fix what is broken. We are fascinated with superheros, we idolize sports figures, musicians, even religious leaders like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., setting them up on pedestals which place them in a whole different category of human being than the rest of us. The problem with the hero narrative is that it expects the hero to swoop in and take care of the problem, save the situation, relieve the pain. If that is our mindset, we just sit on our hands. Wait. Watch.
David challenges us to stop waiting for heroes (and maybe even to stop trying to be heroes) and see ourselves as a part of a movement. A movement has few leaders and many, many participants who do what they can, who do what they are passionate about. Usually they are small steps, small decisions, which add up to creating great change.
Think about it. The church would never exist if Jesus’ time on earth was a “one and done” way to connect people to God. It would have ended with the first group of disciples. Look at the text we read this morning, describing the growth of the church which we can call the Jesus movement. Jesus, the hero, is gone (for the second time)–it has been at least 7 years. The participants in his movement are Jews who have recognized the truth of his message and begun to follow his teachings. They have been scattered far and wide for fear of persecution by the Roman government, finding places where they can be safe. One such enclave of believers is found by the year 40 in the Syrian city of Antioch, some 300 miles from Jerusalem. The group was physically separated from the movement’s “headquarters”, which had been established in Jerusalem by this time and was headed up by the apostle James. I am imagining that the Jerusalem leaders are like our “presbytery office”.
Antioch is Gentile country. It is cosmopolitan, a place like Baltimore with people of multiple cultures and languages. Antioch was the 3rd largest city in the Roman empire, a bustling commercial and cultural center, and a place where there already was an established Jewish community who were free to observe their faith without persecution. Antioch was a natural place for the Jesus movement to grow without fear of being arrested for going to worship. It ends up being a place the early mission co-workers come home to again and again. This is a grassroots movement, without the initial oversight of the Presbytery leaders. As we read this account in the book of Acts, we get a picture of how to plant a church. And not just any church, but a church purposely located in a new kind of neighborhood. A transformational, worldchanging church.
In studying the Antioch experience, I have noticed 10 different steps to consider when planting a church, perhaps not to be taken in order, but to be paid attention to all at the same time:
- Tell people like you about your faith. The newly arrived participants in the Jesus movement are going to interact first with the existing Jewish community in Antioch. Maybe they stayed in their homes while they got their feet on the ground. Fellow Jews are going to be the first ones to hear about Jesus and his teaching and what it means to be a follower.
2.Tell people who are not like you about your faith. We can’t forget that this is a very bold step for Jewish Christians. There are all kinds of Jewish religious expectations around food, circumcision for males, purity laws for women, and more. Back in Judea, Jews very definitely kept to themselves in order to live by these religious expectations. Jesus had broken the barrier between Jew and non-Jew in his ministry, and now participants in the Jesus movement were doing the same, sharing their faith with non-Jews. We could compare it to a group of Christians today who intentionally move to a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, work to get to know their neighbors, eat in one another’s homes and share their faith with their non-Christian friends. It is groundbreaking. World changing.
- How did this fledging congregation share their faith? They proclaimed the Lord Jesus. They preached the message from God. Basically, they became evangelists. Mark Hare, our mission co-worker who visited us on Friday evening and Saturday morning, shared a story about how young people in the Dominican Republic were trained to explore how the stories of Scripture intersect with their own stories around specific issues facing their community. They practiced telling the Scripture stories and then went into the community to share them house by house. The young people are proclaiming the good news to a community overwhelmed by underemployment, environmental threats to their farming livelihood, lack of local health resources and the constant stress of being of Haitian descent and being discriminated against by the Dominican government and their Dominican neighbors. Proclaiming the good news of Jesus is taking action for change.
- Be ready to recognize God working through you. People are being added to the movement because God is at work in and through participants in the movement. The congregation at Antioch was aware of the hand of the Lord upon them, strengthening them, empowering them to partner with the Holy Spirit in changing their world.
- Exhort members to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion. Building a church can take a toll on its participants. After all, we are working with human beings. We all need reminders to keep going, to stay faithful to God, to keep our faith solid. Members need nurture and support from one another.
- Make a commitment for the long haul. Church planting requires commitment over time, not just a flash in the pan like a big revival. Church planting involves making time for follow up, for building relationships. Paul and Barnabas were sent by headquarters–the Presbytery- to support this fledgling Christian community. They stayed for a whole year at first, and then came back multiple times to check on the congregation.
- Teach the Christian story and introduce others to Jesus. Take time to explain, to discuss, to wonder together about the words of Scripture. A church will not last very long without teaching. If new participants in the movement, whether child or adult, are to truly engage, they have to learn who the stories are about, they have to learn the why behind the stories, they have to learn what is expected of them after hearing the stories.
- It should be obvious that you are Christians. It was in Antioch that the participants in the Jesus movement were first called Christians. They were identified as different from their Jewish neighbors, they bore the imprint of Christ in a way that affected their speech and their action. The way they live in the community and the way they care for one another become ways others can see they are Christians.
- Support those who are in need. Be willing to share resources. We laugh when we say that a church is always passing the plate. But think about why. We understand ourselves as a community of Christians committed to supporting those in need. We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent financially so that they can change the world. We give to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering each year, 1/3 of which goes to the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which aids groups like the farmers in Haiti who are working very hard to provide more diverse crops for their families and their neighbors. The fledgling church in Antioch took up a collection for the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, who were going to face a time of food scarcity. But it is so much more than money. Christians offer resources of time, knowledge, encouragement, expertise, experience, and a reservoir of hope. Christians are givers.
- Work as a team. Healthy churches are led by a team and not a lone ranger at the top. In Antioch at first it was a group of proclaimers of the faith, and teams of leaders developed. Later Barnabas and Saul worked together as a team, maybe kind of like members of the Committee on Ministry in a Presbytery. We all know that ideas flourish, work can be shared, and a leadership team models being in relationship with one another which is a key component of being a part of any community of faith. Think about the Trinity as the ultimate leadership team!
We are not going to replicate the Antioch church’s experience. We live in a different time and different culture. Yet these 10 can be challenges for all churches in any setting. How are we pointing beyond our church through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord? How are we changing the world around us, one decision at a time?