If Luke Wrote About Your Church

In our small group leadership training plan, we ask the question, if Luke were alive today to write about the impact and effects of the Gospel in your community, what would he say?

Some Context

When Luke wrote the second chapter of the book of Acts, he began it with the spectacular inauguration of his new family. The Holy Spirit of God, full of divine delight, was freed to accomplish what he had ached to do for millennia past — to fall upon us and sweep us up into wedded bliss and power and union with Jesus. The church was consummated and what a celebration it was; complete with heavenly wind, fire, and good news proclamation in all languages. In fact, it was such a powerful and joyous occasion, some hardened onlookers thought Jesus’ bride was drunk!

Then, Luke writes in Acts 2:42-47 about the happiness of the bride and her honeymoon as it were in those first weeks of her union with Christ. Look at how filled-up she is with the mission and heartbeat of Jesus and look at some of the things Luke celebrates:

  • They eagerly devoted themselves to hearing and learning more about their groom with the apostles’ teaching.
  • They shared all that they could with each other and invested their earthly resources in each other.
  • They spent time together and invited others to join them.
  • They were in the marketplace telling the Good News message through selling items of value and property for the benefit of others. (quite possibly at inopportune times to sell their goods for the “highest value” for themselves just to be able to benefit others.)
  • They praised and adored God both publicly and privately. Worship became integral and contagious.
  • They ate meals together in Jesus’ name.
  • They were socially winsome and found favor among all the people.
  • They were welcoming in whatever they did in their homes (house-to-house). So, their homes became centers for community and moved away from being personal castles.
  • They saw answers to their prayers abounding as the Holy Spirit delighted to shower them with love through his special signs and wonders.
  • There was no line or barrier between “my church life” and “my regular life”.

Did you notice how different these things were from the first part of chapter 2? Married couples don’t have a wedding ceremony every day. Luke is highlighting how ordinary life with Jesus was filled-up with purpose and power that stretched into the spiritual and the eternal. The church is not dating Jesus in a paramour relationship. No, He is her everything.

Back to the Question

Now, how much do we recognize the integral and united nature we have with Christ while living in our communities? You see, our goal is not to replicate what the early church experienced in Luke’s list. If we do that, we turn our marriage relationship with Jesus into something mechanical and heavy by thinking that if we can just copy what they did, “church will work!”

Instead, Jesus will orchestrate all kinds of new gospel gestures, sacrifices, activities, and rewards to impact your community right where you are. So, imagine if Luke was walking around your church this month.

• How would he celebrate the gospel happening among you?

What might he write in his list to show how Jesus is orchestrating the impact of the gospel in YOUR everyday lives?

This is a great exercise to do right now personally and/or in a group of friends. If you sense that Luke wouldn’t have much to say, then you might be experiencing more of a cultural Christianity than a vibrant, communal, gospel-fueled Christianity. At that point, it would be wise to evaluate if you really understand the gospel and especially the Ascension of Jesus. And, it would be wise to deeply ask what has been radically transformed in your life and the lives of your church community. What can we celebrate as evidence of the gospel in action?

Life as Extraordinary

A little catch-up:

It has been a while since I have sat down and written here at HM. Some have asked me when I would start again. All I can say to that effect is that I have eagerly desired each and every day to write something I’ve newly discovered in this glorious gospel to share with you. However, over the last couple of years, ministry life and responsibilities have dramatically increased for me which has netted the result of a high desire to share and a low output rate. I hope to match the two a bit more this coming year and that all of it will be a blessing and encouragement to you.

Now for some cibo (food) in the gospel and community

There is a line of thought which is often expressed in our churches from well-intentioned Christians (at least in Europe) that goes something like this:

I can’t do very much for God, and I don’t have much to offer God:

  • I’m not wealthy.
  • I’m not a leader.
  • I’m not talented.
  • I am timid.
  • I don’t have time like others do.
  • I’m not as smart as others.
  • I’m more of a private person.
  • My career prohibits me.
  • Nobody listens to me.

What our friends are expressing is an exaggeration of the ordinary; living with the gospel at an unreachable distance. The main problem with allowing our inner voice to talk like this is twofold.

First, it is poor theology which puts pressure on the mind and heart to try to generate something useful for God. Grace does not work that way. We do not generate-up good works in the hope that they will be something profitable that will satisfy God. In fact, this kind of thinking causes us to feel like we are never doing enough. God is rarely, if ever, happy with me. Instead, a true Christian is provided every day with the fountain of grace and providential goodness to live in the glory of Christ who gives his child good works to walk in (Eph. 2:10). For example, yes, it may be that God opens the door for you to visit with a neighbor about Jesus and grace, but it is also a God-glorifying work to respond with patience when your children won’t get ready for school in time during a hurried morning. Both situations require the Gospel and both are an opportunity — not to generate-up something useful — but to give-up something glorious back to the Lord who guided you into that very situation.

Second, this negative response creates a sense of desperation or fatalism because it is a response based too much on the circumstance of today and not governed by the reality of Jesus over us now and for eternity. Simply, this kind of thinking is poor theology because it denies who we are in Christ Jesus now, and who we are becoming in Christ Jesus tomorrow.

Applying the extra to the ordinary

holy_spirit1Here is how we need to help each other “get back to” the gospel and live it. In Acts 2, we see the marriage ceremony of Jesus to his bride. He brings his church into himself and collocates her to himself in Heaven before the Father. This is the privileged position of being united together in Christ.  The temple veil was torn and God the Holy Spirit is rushing out to indwell his people from all over the world! The physical sign of this was the beautiful manifestation of the flaming tongues of fire and the good news invitation of Jesus shared across the languages. These fire-tongues were both sign and signal that his people were now in him, and if Jesus is the new temple then they are also representative temples with the specific presence of God in them.

The follow-on results in Acts 2:42-47 do not strike us as spectacularly as the first wonders do in the early verses with the rushing winds and hovering flames of fire. No, on the contrary, we see people are doing quite ordinary things but with a completely new position and perspective. Yes, there are signs and wonders, but Luke does not elaborate on those and seems to emphasize the Christians’ desire to know more about Jesus, to praise Jesus both publicly and privately, to share food by eating together in Jesus’ name, to sell their possessions for those in need, and to invest in caring gestures toward each other. It is still Jesus directing his church, but he is not doing it through human greatness or achievement. Rather, he is guiding his church through service and care.
And here is the delightful response of Jesus to his bride as they live this ordinary-extraordinary life of the gospel:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47

So, the point for true Christians (I’m not speaking about cultural Christians) is that the reality of being married to Christ is the same for us today as it was for the early church. We are directly under and in the temple-reign of the Lord Jesus — right now.

Therefore, when we hear each other say that we can’t do much for God, we must be active to remind and challenge each other that — you say you cannot do much for God, but what you must see is that if you are in Christ, every thing you do is already done for God! Yes, each ordinary thing is given to you by Jesus. You think you have a powerless, ordinary life because of what you feel you can or cannot achieve. However, you have an extraordinary life not based on what you do, but based on who you are — on who Jesus has made you to be.

You simply have a choice to make in every action and circumstance. You will have to decide whether you will acknowledge that, “…this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” and give it back to the Lord Jesus in honor for his glory or whether you will claim it for yourself. But if we can see that God’s mission is not simply “out there“, but rather, being providentially directed from “in Him in here“, it is truly extraordinary to think of what Jesus will do with our ordinary-extraordinary lives when we care for him and for each other in this gospel-centered way. The challenge is to realize and appropriate who you are in him — right here & right now.

When Kids Break My Stuff

Through the years of training people to open their homes as ministry, we have encountered different reactions to “changing” our life patterns for the gospel. For some, change is refreshing and welcome; for most, downright dreadful. The simple truth is this, changing my life to open it up for gospel ministry is often difficult to cope with.

One of the simple markers of this ministry change at living-room level is what happens to our precious home when children from other families arrive; not just the growing, hungry ones but the little “ISIS” ones. Seriously, how were they ever recruited to such violence at so young an age? 😉

Some families do really well with this. They throw their arms, cupboards, and refrigerators open and say, “La casa mia è la casa tua!” Other families, wellllll, not as much. Practically, we share that God is sanctifying your home from the ground up. If you have ever prayed the prayer, “Lord, we open our home to you,” or, “Lord, we want to bless others with our family” or possibly, “I surrender all…” Then, the Father has heard you from Heaven and is answering your prayers!!

kids and stuff comicYes, everything from waste-level and down in your home is being sanctified and put up on the altar for God. Community in Christ is one of the ways that Jesus simplifies our homes and shapes our hearts. When you hear the crash, the zap, the scream, or the shatter and you know instantly something irreplaceable has happened, it’s one of the Lord’s cute ways of saying, “I told you, you didn’t need that anyway. It’s mine. Just look to me in this moment.” It’s cute because the Father has lovingly placed a little human, belonging to other bigger and “not-paying-attention” humans, right into the middle of the situation. The decision in that very moment is radical; it’s either wrath or trust. Is it not?

I share all of this with a little “tongue-in-cheek” playfulness. However, what is working more deeply is the gospel against pride. Yes, this is hard. It is pride of stuff and pride of identity and pride of parenting and pride of independence which says I don’t need community (at least this one) anyway. I like my life cozy and nice and safe! It’s pride that places temporary treasures over eternal people; my treasures over God’s treasures. All those kinds of pride together begin to surface and boil over into one, bad minestrone. I know! I am good at making bad minestrone.

But it does get better with time and experience. In fact, it becomes more joyful. God will simply change our hearts until his treasure becomes our treasure and his joy becomes our joy. And what is his joy? It is when one sheep, coin, or son who was lost repents and is found (Luke 15 where God throws parties). Remember, we broke his stuff – badly – and he still wants us as his children. Our homes are being brought into mission and that mission exchanges stuff for joy which is priceless.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  – Philippians 2:3-11

Father Maestro

Do you know how to make time slow down? It works like this. An orchestra conductor extends his arms, suspending his white shirt cuffs and links above the laser-focused eyes of skilled musicians poised at the ready like warriors entering combat–and that is the moment time stretches. That ever-so-slight lift of the baton, when everyone inhales indefinitely, and a three centimeter movement seems to command the cosmos… you have been there. Time waits for him.

The majestic Maestro, similarly, orchestrates all of his purposes and mission. For those gazing and concentrated where all drown like Peter if they dare look away, He is known as Father.

When Father commands, children make music. Knowing that he is in command and coordinating my piece together with all others removes every disappointment, pressure, and tension. He has this. Mission is in his hand and so is my heart.

Knowing that he is Father, endears me to his music. Captivated, I refuse to play anything else.

The concerto rises — “Your Kingdom come!” and falls — “Your will be done.” In each movement, Father conducts his mission and weaves his glory.

I play in the Italian section. If found in Christ, you play in yours. Therefore, do play and don’t stop. Father Maestro does not wave needlessly. There is missional music to be made and we each have a part. From soaring melodies to subtle harmonies and the occasional touch of a triangle, all share in symphonic glory.

Watch him closely for every subtle and swift movement of his baton to not miss a single beat. Father Maestro orchestrates and orchestrates. Praise him. It is so comforting, so control-free, to know our lives are not wasted and time slows down, because we have been given lives to be spent and an eternity to play in the orchestra of the Father’s family.

 

Orchestration Design of the Father and Body of Christ (from the book, The Church Beyond the Congregation)

Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

The Thanksgiving Conundrum

I’ve been thinking today about how “Thanksgiving” has been made a holiday instead of it simply just being a way of life. We all know that Thanksgiving was a British marketing endeavor to exploit the new world and make an international holiday of tasty food since their cuisine is was so bad. It just took a little longer to catch-on than the marketing groups thought because their trans-Atlantic internet speeds were so slow.  😉

Actually, one of the common sentiments that I’ve heard in these last years (mostly from my American friends and family) is that Thanksgiving has lost its meaning and significance. Sadly to many, Black Friday has become black everything. Stores now stay open incessantly. Families don’t eat together. Restaurant dining instead of family gathering is the new thing. Meals are inhaled because football (versione Americana) is starting. And worst of all, many people find it difficult to list more than one thing for which they are thankful. The culture has shifted, and for many, that’s difficult turkey to swallow.

The Conundrum

The conundrum is if we are a self-absorbed culture, we can only be thankful for what we achieve and what we take. Also, the only person we really desire to give thanks to is ourself, but we’re not satisfied with that person, ever. Yet, the reality of gratitude is that giving thanks demands acknowledgment of another, greater person who has acted favorably on your behalfSaid differently, if we struggle to give thanks, it’s simply because we’ve adopted our culture over the Christ story and we’re too auto-centric.

Christocentric people are Thanksgiving people.

The affectionately called Pilgrim Fathers were repeatedly ridiculed and threatened by their ship’s crew for their thankful worship. As an insult, they were called Psalm-singers because of their gratitude toward God while they sang with the waves both smooth and rough on their passage. What was so “awful” to the mariners was the Pilgrims’ pursuit of Christ together which manifested in a communal gracious spirit over difficult waters and sicknesses. How could they have been so thankful when we have abundance and complain so much about it?

Thanksgiving for a Christian is not just something we say, it’s a mark of who we are. It is a vocal realization of favor, toward us, from the Father. Favor comes in pleasurable forms like blessing and not-so-pleasurable forms like discipline. But it’s all from God, and it’s all good. So, now you have a huge list for which to be thankful.

But here’s the underlying motive:

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Three times in verses 15-17, thankfulness is mentioned and connected to Jesus. In verse 16, a fair understanding would be that when the message of Christ (the Scriptures) is given a royal priority and permeates God’s children then wise teaching, correction, all kinds of Spirit-borne songs, and thanksgiving is going to result. In fact, seeing that Jesus is enough and filling up with him will literally draw gratitude out of you toward God. Gordon Fee wrote it well, “The focus is not so much on our attitude toward God as we sing, but on our awareness of his toward us that prompts such singing in the first place.” [God’s Empowering Presence, p. 655]

The best way to be un-thankful is to get so distracted (turkey, football, 75% off sales, whatever…), and turn inward so that we have no fresh vision of the anointed Christ. We will be isolated, materially contented, spiritually lazy, wayward, song-less, and simply ungrateful toward God and others. I once had a self-assured guy come to my church for a while and one of his complaints was, “I don’t know why we have to sing songs anyway.” Sadly, he would skip our music times. Also, sadly, I think he only had a notion of what it meant to know the real Christ Jesus.

If you know Christ, then enjoy filling the air with thanksgiving today (and perpetually) as the Father draws it out of you. In Christ, it is who we are.

Communities of the unburning bush

The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

 

That key phrase caught my attention in a smaller but similar way to Moses noticing an unburning bush. I’m currently enjoying a read through the newly released work, Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint. In chapter 2 (Set Christ Apart as Lord), the author draws special attention to the essence of who Jesus Christ is and claimed to be. Jesus is the embodiment of the I AM that spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the I AM (Yahweh). Here is the quote in context and then a brief application.

Covenantal Apologetics by Scott OliphintThe revelation that Moses has of what is really the unburning bush is, in part, designed to reveal to Moses both of these truths [wholly satisfied God alone is who he is and also commits himself to his covenants]. The fire, which represents The Lord himself, is in no way dependent on the bush in order to burn. The fire is, in that sense, a se. It does not need the bush for fuel; it is able to burn in and of itself. But it is also with the bush. It could easily appear on its own, because it is in need of nothing to burn. Or it could appear beside the bush. Instead, it is linked inextricably with the bush, even as The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

One of the unique and glorious truths of being knit together by the Gospel in community is the presence of the wholly satisfied God. That presence is what sets redeemed friends apart from any other form of community in this world. Moses must have seen a billion bushes but only one like the I AM’s. Similarly, the people of our cities will see tens of thousands of friends, families, and homes but what makes all the difference is the connected lives of unburning believers. I desire my home to stand out like that, and the fire has already united with me because he loved me first.

We might ask, “Where’s the sign? You know, the unburning house or unburning church so people will be shocked out of their shoes?” The answer is to look into the ordinary and the mundane which contains the extraordinary (like the ordinary manger holding the Creator and Redeemer of the universe). This is using the eyes of faith to see the hidden, blazing reality.

One day, the I AM himself took off the sandals of his desert pastors and washed their feet (Jn 13). There, he showed us how to be an ordinary bush but ablaze with transformed hearts. After all, he is seeking people who worship him in spirit and in truth. Are we not a people bearing and reflecting the image of the sovra-natural God who in no single way needs us but loves and binds himself to us? Instead of consuming us for what we rightly deserve, he is now revealed through us; converting the ordinary into the remarkable.