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.

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?

Missional Messiness

In a couple of our recent training sessions, we have been discussing the subject of missional hospitality. And, commonly, we hit the deep and scandalous topic of how clean should your house be when hosting other people?  On the surface, this does not seem like a problem until we start reflecting more on our motivations both for and against a cleaner casa.

Some Good Questions

welcome to our formerly clean houseHere are some of the questions we asked, and I might add that they are good conversation developers:

  1. How much cleaning is enough in our cultural context for people to feel at home and not be distracted? (for example, northern Italians are fastidiously clean by nature. Sometimes, this is greatly appreciated, and at other times, one can feel quite awkward.)
  2. How much cleaning is necessary to be tidy and yet not cross the line of presenting an artificial, sterilized, and even hypocritical version of ourselves?
  3. How much cleaning reflects a performance-to-impress attitude where we simply become Martha in our own home and miss all of the good worship of Jesus? Is genuine hospitality a dinner party or something much more familiar?
  4. How should we respond when the little humans (children-unleashed) make a mess or break something in our homes?
  5. Do other people know where you keep your utensils, serving items, and tools? And do they have access to them?

A Key Principle

Don’t allow grace and mission to be hindered over a standard of sanitation. Martha couldn’t choose ‘the better meal’ because she was hindered in her hospitality. And a Pharisee was revealed as a fool because he failed to clean his “house” properly; his mission was himself, not grace. Luke 11:37-41

In the ministry here (Serenissima), our Gospel communities are called LifeTeams. And because we are seeking to share more and more life together, a LifeTeam is all about making a missional mess. Often, Christian community is simply a mess-on-mission. Somehow when the mess comes, however, the graciousness of God is mysteriously revealed and people can rest their souls and feel more at home than in their own houses. And that’s the beginning of missional hospitality; the use of our homes as temples to God and not to ourselves.

So, how clean should our house be when hosting other people? As clean as necessary for Jesus to be seen. And that could mean letting the little humans be loved as little humans, as well as re-humbling ourselves in the whole idea of putting on a production when someone comes through our front door. For some (and we have experienced this too), it might mean a bit more effort to recognize the missional context of people with which they are working. With a nip of hyperbolic language here, leaving an un-emptied, cat-litter box in the middle of the room where you are sharing Christ — honestly — might be a distraction to some. It’s just an observation, but I don’t think I’m out of my sand-box on this one.

The Integration Principle

Another church planting principle that we’ve noticed through the years has been that believers who are maturing in the Faith also broaden their acceptance of other people from different cultures. Whereas, in the Ingress Principle, people feel more welcome with others who are like them, this principle says that believers mature toward people who are unlike themselves. So, a church should seek to provide opportunities to integrate the cultures (that are welcoming others) into a Christ-centered, alternative culture. People usually need to be warmly-welcomed and meet Jesus before they begin to appreciate and care for others that are different than they are. At the same time, we don’t want to leave the church body to be isolated into separate cultures because the fullest expression of the Gospel will be lost and enculturated back into a certain people group.
For example, in the Ingress Principle, I mentioned a group of Chinese people who are being welcomed by a group of Germans who are believers. In time (could be long or short-term), when more Chinese people are also saved, they will come to see more of Jesus in the Germans and appreciate them as brothers and sisters. This will happen not just because they’re Germans, but because they are of Jesus. They will have a deep appreciation for the Germans because the Germans originally showed them the love of Jesus. So then, we want the Chinese to be together with the Germans so that, altogether, they can simply be Christians in God’s family. These principles of welcoming (ingress) and maturing (integration) will repeat themselves through the joy of outreach and evangelism.

The Ingress Principle

Something to keep in mind when opening small groups and planting churches (among different cultures) is that people feel most at home and accepted when they are around people who are like them and things that are familiar to them. In other words, people (generally) will be more at ease when they don’t have to cross- out” of their culture to be a welcome part of a group. This might also be called the principle of homogenity. However, the reason that I call it the Ingress principle is because of the type of welcome that is involved. A Gospel welcome involves believers who are culturally like the guests with accompanying tastes, sounds, colors, smells, music, and even slang (or ways to say things that are particular to their culture).

If you have a group of Germans, it will be difficult to welcome Chinese people  — until there are one or two Chinese who are spending time with the German group AND the Germans make efforts to really affirm, adapt, and understand the Chinese. This really takes some time, energy, and understanding. It sounds missional, doesn’t it?

Remember, in this illustration we are not trying to conform the Chinese to the Germans even though, at first, the Germans are the predominant group. We are saying, because of the Gospel, the Germans are willing to be uncomfortable and uncultural in their way of life for the sake of the Chinese welcoming other Chinese.