Title: Church on a Mission
Scripture: Acts 2:42-47
As you know, Pastor Mark has been leading us through a sermon series entitled, “Imagine a Church.” During this series, we are looking at who St. Luke is, what’s important to us, and how God is calling us to stretch in 2015. Some of those goals are quite challenging! Today, we’re going to look at one that not only seems challenging, but one that not everyone may even understand. As we’ll see, though, missional communities really aren’t new at all—it’s just a new name for a very old concept.
Let us pray…
In our scripture today, we heard about the very first church, those who gathered, and continued gathering, after they heard Peter’s convicting message and responded. Those who had been faithful to Jesus were together and waiting, just as Jesus instructed them. At the beginning of the second chapter of Acts, we can read of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost, the reaction of the crowd outside, and Peter’s response. Verse 41 tells us, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Three thousand!
Right after that is today’s passage. “They devoted themselves…”
This is a beautiful picture, isn’t it? This description of a group of believers with a single purpose, who were joyful and humble, who shared everything together. It’s a picture in which Jesus’ own lack of selfishness and his concern for others was actually realized. It’s a picture of close fellowship where there seemed to be one heart and mind among them all. Such a thing may seem impossible and unrealistic to us, but we see here that it is not. Luke, the author of Acts, holds this picture before us as a challenge. And in the broken and hurting world of that day, people were drawn to it. They were drawn to the love, the devotion, the caring, the sharing, the community. They saw the grace of God. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” More and more were experiencing God’s saving grace. The lives of those first Christians spoke to the truth of Christ’s message, and people were drawn to that.
Not long after that, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, devastating plagues rocked the entire region. One epidemic lasted 15 years, killing one-third of the population of the Roman Empire. During a second epidemic a century later, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome alone. If something like that were to happen today, our first responses might be to worry, to run and hide, to do almost anything to distract ourselves from the horror.
What was the response of the pagans of that time? The people knew that even if their gods cared, they were unable to help. The doctors, nobles, and priests fled in droves. And the pagans had no belief in an afterlife, so to them, the plagues were just meaningless and cruel.
But what was the response of those early Christians to these horrific events? They knew this life was not the end, and so they took Jesus’ call seriously. They showed how their faith made this life, and even death, meaningful. They devoted themselves to works of mercy that astounded the pagans. They cared for the sick, even the non-Christians, who out of fear were often sent out into the streets by their own families, and they comforted the dying. And because of those and other acts, their numbers grew, and Christianity spread.
As Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology and comparative religion, describes it, “Christianity spread because of the selfless love and care of Christians during plagues.”
And their commitment to care for those in need continued. In the fourth century, the Emperor Julian noted, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the irreverent Galileans (this was how he described Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…They support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” Julian eventually tried to copy their system, but it failed because it was motivated by duty, not love.
Again, Rodney Stark tells us, “Love, outgoing concern, and organized, selfless nursing of the sick and dying eventually brought millions of people to Christ.” Another author notes that the first Christians took care of their own, but they also reached out far beyond themselves. He says, “Their faith led to a pandemic—a pandemic of love.”
Can you imagine that? A pandemic of love. Jesus did tell us to love. But a pandemic of love?
Last week Pastor Mark talked about the church’s capacity to elevate the surrounding culture. In ancient times, it did just that. The idea that God loves or that believers love others because they love God was completely alien to the first and second and third century world. Such radical love would be alien in our time as well. Well, all of this is well and good, but what does it have to do with our topic today?
One of the goals we have set for 2015 is to develop additional missional communities, to start 10 new missional communities this year. But what are missional communities? Maybe even more importantly, what do they do? What do they look like? Why do they matter?
One expert describes missional communities as groups of people who are united through Christian community around a common service and witness to a particular neighborhood or network of relationships. Another says it like this: A missional community is a community of Christians, on mission with God, in obedience to the Holy Spirit, who demonstrate the gospel tangibly and declare the gospel creatively to a group of people.
So what does that mean? Here’s one way to think of it: Missional communities are like small groups with a purpose beyond study. They’re on a mission. They’re intentionally focused on those who aren’t believers, those who are outside the church. (Shouldn’t we all be?) They place a strong value on life together, with the expressed intention of seeing those they impact become followers of Jesus. They meet people where they are, and they are committed to connecting with those who don’t yet know Christ.
Does that really sound so foreign?
Would we ever be called on to respond as the Early Christians did? Maybe not. These days, in the United States, plagues are not usually at the top of the list of things we worry about. But are we called to respond to the needs we do see around us? Of course we are!
Christian community on this side of heaven should be about God’s glory being displayed in the world. In John 17, Jesus prays for the believers and says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just are you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The Message says it like this, and again, this is Jesus speaking: “I’m praying not only for them but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me…Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me….They’ll…give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them…”
Here Jesus is clearly explaining that the purpose of Christian unity and community is so that the world would know that God sent Jesus to this earth to save all. Shouldn’t this apply to all of us who are Christians?
Another question: How often do we hear, “If only we could return to the ways the early church?” Maybe you’ve asked that question yourself. We know the longing of striving to be who Christ calls us to be, and we know how often we fall short. We don’t have to read much further in Acts to understand that the early church was not perfect, but it is often thought of as the ideal for Christian living. And we know that. We feel that. Their faith made a difference, their lives reflected their faith, and their lives transformed the world. And we long for the church to be that today.
Now, there are many ways of “doing church,” and these close, mission-focused communities, which may have been forgotten for a while, are returning. They’re being rediscovered.
Often we hear, or even ask, “Why don’t ‘they’ come to church?” Well, why shouldn’t the church go to them? The church, our church, St. Luke, is not bound by these walls. Many good things happen here, but these different ways of doing church, of being the church, are not mutually exclusive. They are all examples of the beauty of God’s creativity and limitless potential. Where is God already working, that we can join in what He is doing there? Is it here? Is it there? Yes!
So, what do our missional communities at St. Luke look like? One of our groups is a community of families to be a family for people who don’t have a family. They formed around that commitment, that calling. And in that community, they provide food for the backpack program at a local elementary school, where 90% of the children are at risk of not having enough to eat on the weekends. One couple in the community has become foster parents, providing loving Christian care and nurture and safety for some of the most vulnerable. Another couple is adopting two young brothers from Columbia. A single mother found one of our recent young adult worship services, and the community is helping her get back on her feet, with one family providing temporary housing, others helping her in her job search, and the whole community surrounding her and her son with love. And I’m sure you know of examples of this kind of radical love as well. Maybe you have provided this kind of radical love.
Elevating the surrounding cluture. Selfless love and care for those in need. A new name for a biblical concept.
Do churches today elevate the surrounding culture? Does St. Luke?
You may have heard of The Barna Group, an organization that does research on the church and surrounding culture. Recently they released a startling statistic: The number of unchurched people in America would make the eighth most populous country in the world. Let me repeat that: The number of unchurched people in America would make the eighth most populous country in the world. Now we can wring our hands and say our “if only’s” all we want, but the truth is our world today is no worse than the world of the first Christians, and they accomplished what they set about to do—they changed the world.
Barna’s research also tells us that there is great skepticism among the unchurched about Christians’ contributions to society. They’re not opposed to the church; they just don’t see what difference it makes. You’ve heard this before, but when the church looks just like the surrounding culture, what’s the point? When the impact is no different, why bother? Those are fair questions. Would it surprise you to learn that for the most part, the people in this Barna Group survey are not people who are against the church, and most are not people who have no experience with the church. The vast majority of America’s churchless have attended a church. They have seen it, they have cared enough to connect on some level, but they have not seen why they should continue. They have not seen that the church makes a difference. You can chastise them if you want, but I suggest we listen. These are people who care, but they have not seen Christians doing what Jesus commanded.
So, how does this relate to our topic? Missional communities form based on a common mission, they go where the people are, and they immerse their lives in living out their mission. They say, “Jesus said do this, and we’re going to do it.” A new name for a biblical concept. And when the New Testament was new, these were the norms for Christian communities.
Here at St. Luke, we are seeing that missional communities are connecting with young adults, but they are not just for young adults. This new term for a very old concept, a biblical concept, this ideal that Jesus Christ himself set before us, is a level of commitment to which all Christians are called, and it is being carried out to varying levels in many places in our not-so-young-adult groups, too. There are classes and groups at St. Luke who say that a part of who they are, a part of the identity of their group is to serve others and connect them to Christ. What if every group in our church said, “We are together to learn so that…” “We are doing this project so that…” “We are having this meeting so that…” “…so that more people know Christ and Christ’s love for them.”
What are the needs we see around us? Hunger, hopelessness, poverty, crime. The list could be quite long. How does St. Luke elevate the surrounding culture?
We are called to stand apart, to stand out in our way of being. How does the world know we are Christians if nothing about our routine or lives is different? How can we make reaching the churchless a way of being, something more than an occasional activity?
Many of you are familiar with some verses in Matthew 28, known as the Great Commission. I’d like to share that with you, starting a couple of verses earlier and reading out of The Message:
“Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally. Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”
What does it mean to make disciples? This is what it means. Jesus commissioned his followers to be an alternate community with commitments and practices that were different from the surrounding culture, to employ love, mercy, loving community, and life-giving words in order that people know Christ. And the command is the same for us. We love because Christ loves, so that others will know that Christ loves them.
And missional communities are one way to do this. They form with the purpose of meeting a need, and their gatherings, whether fellowship, study, worship, or serving, are focused on sharing Christ with others. Their mission is to be the church to those who don’t know the church. It’s what the Acts 2 church did.
This call to discipleship is not so foreign, and it is not an unattainable ideal.
One of our goals in 2015 is to start 10 new missional communities. Can you imagine? Seeds planted throughout Lexington, buds growing and spreading, this vision, this ideal, this command of Jesus, happening here, happening now.
St. Luke is a church that values all people as having infinite worth. We are a church who values demonstrating Christ’s love by building relationships and serving others. We are a church who values the responsibility of each believer to introduce others to Christ and of growing into Christ-likeness. Our mission is to know, love, worship, and follow God and make Him known to others. Our vision is Jesus Christ in Every Life. And with God’s direction, we will see that happen as we live out our mission and work toward the goals God has set before us. As we integrate more people into the life of St. Luke. As we have more and more guests in our worship services. As more and more people serve. As we start more missional communities that connect even more people to Christ.
As Pastor Mark shared last week, we may need to not rely so much on people coming to us, but to do more to encounter them where they live, to communicate the truth in new ways, to embrace those we serve, with the life of the church being a witness to the life of Christ in everything we do.
How will those outside know we are Christians? What could it look like if we were all on a mission, the great co-mission? Spreading a pandemic of love. This is what God imagines for our church. Can you imagine?