July 3, 2017

Healthy Churches = Missional Churches

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A Note from Luminex: This morning’s blog post is the sixth in a 10-week series on “Healthy Churches.” Each week, one of our stable of leaders/bloggers will share thoughts on a significant aspect of healthy churches. Enjoy!

Most people know that the book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke.  It is called the Acts of the Apostles, but it might better be called the Acts of Jesus Christ. Luke says in Acts 1:1 that his Gospel was about “all that Jesus began to do and to teach.”  If the Gospel record of Jesus’ life and ministry only began what God was planning to do through His Son, then the rest of what happens in human history, because of Jesus living inside His followers, is God’s unfolding drama. “It’s HIStory.” In other words, what Jesus began, Jesus continues. William Barclay, in his commentary on Acts, states that, “The whole lesson of this book is that the life of Jesus Christ goes on in His Church.”

Do you ever think of your church in that way … as carrying on the very life of Christ? If Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” that’s true, isn’t it? Surely it is true, if these words of Jesus in John 14 are true: “I will not leave you as orphans.  I will come to you.  Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that you are in Me, and I am in you” (18-20).

What Jesus was doing in the first eight verses of Acts chapter 1 was preparing His disciples for the power that was about to come upon them, and raising their expectations for what was going to happen through them.  The same preparation for power and the same raising of expectations needs to happen in and among us in the Church today.  We can’t be “missional” without it!

To be missional is captured in what many believe is the key verse in the book of Acts, and perhaps the entire New Testament – Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Jesus made that statement to confirm His earlier promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, who was about to come upon the disciples on Pentecost (c.f. John 14:26, 15:26).  What Acts 1:8 tells us is that the primary purpose of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is receiving power to witness for Christ, so that the lost will be won, and taught to obey all that God commands, per the Great Commission.

The end result of that, we must understand, is for Jesus Christ to be known and loved and praised, and to be the Lord of people everywhere.  If you are a Christian today, that is God’s purpose for your life!  And if that is the purpose of every Christian’s life, is it not fair to say that that is the purpose of God for every Christian church?  Allow me to be brazenly blunt: If that is what God our Creator wants for us, both individually and corporately, and that is what Jesus our Redeemer wants for us, then the real question is, are we going to submit our lives to what they want, or are we going to live our lives pursuing what we want?

I remember a conversation I had years ago with a woman in one of the churches I’ve served.  She said to me, “Pastor, I wish we would just stick to the simple Gospel, rather than all this talk about witnessing and our calling to do ministry and missions.”  I could hardly believe what I heard.  I wanted to ask her, with a bit of sarcasm, “So which pages of the Bible do you want to tear out?” (by grace I refrained).  The problem was, her idea of the church was seemingly as a place of comfort and reassurance for her.  Beneath that, I suspect, was a concept of the Church and Christianity that was anything but “missional.”

This is part of the great spiritual malaise that has afflicted much of the evangelical church in America today.  How is it that good Christian people can sit in church – Sunday after Sunday – and hear Scriptural teaching about Christ living in them, and surrendering their will to Him, and becoming obedient disciples, and sharing their faith, and then do nothing more than be a cheering section for others to actually DO those things?  If we’re doing that, we’re missing it!  More than just missing the purpose of God for our lives, and for our churches, my fear is that we will actually be pushing against the very purposes of God.

Most of us who live in “snow country” have seen people with their cars stuck in snow banks and ditches along the roads.  I saw something in Michigan once that was quite humorous.  Some people were trying to get a car out of the snow, and were attempting to rock the car back and forth to free it, by having the driver quickly shift from forward to reverse, again and again.  To aid the “rocking effect” they had one guy pushing from behind, to help the forward motion, and another guy pushing from in front, for when the driver put it into reverse.  You talk about a foolish picture!  I wondered who was going to get run over first.  But that’s a picture of the church when some are trying hard to be missional, and move ahead following God’s agenda, and others are pushing the other way, for their own agenda … or maybe for NO agenda.

Every Christian believer, and every church leadership team needs to ask themselves, “whose agenda, or what agenda are we pushing?”  God has given a set of priorities to His Church that are missional at their very core.  These priorities are conditioned by a Kingdom perspective, not by a cultural perspective.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  He also said, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand” (Matt. 12:25).  When we align our personal lives, and align the mission of our churches with the kingdom values and priorities of Christ, we will begin to push in the same direction, and we will get “unstuck” from this malaise in which we often find ourselves.  More than that, this will please God and fulfill His purpose for us, to be missional.

Let me tell you, it’s a great feeling when you’re no longer stuck!  You’re free at last.  You’re moving forward.  God’s great promise in Acts 1:8 is that He will give us the POWER we need to do that.  The Greek word translated “power” here is the word dunamis – from which we get our word “dynamite.”  It means power in action; power in operation.  It’s going somewhere, and it’s doing something!  A stick of dynamite shows its real power when it’s used to DO something … like bring down an old abandoned building, or blast away part of a mountain.  If you have some sticks of dynamite sitting on the shelf in your basement or in your garage, they’re nothing more than an enormous danger to people. But the minute you take that dynamite off the shelf and go somewhere and do something productive with it, big things can be accomplished.

It’s the same way with the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us!  Both in his Gospel and in the book of Acts, Luke shows that the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the early disciples included the power to preach the Gospel, to drive out evil spirits, to heal the sick, and much more.  This power is a supernatural power, like the power that was demonstrated through Jesus’ own life.  And this power of God’s Spirit is given specifically for us to be witnesses, just like Jesus was a witness to the work of His Father (see Matt. 11:27, John 8:28, 14:9,10). 

In John 14:12 Jesus made another awesome promise that relates to our witnessing: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in Me will do what I have been doing.  He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  What are the “greater things” (NIV) or “greater works” (NASB) that Jesus is referring to?  Most scholars are agreed that Jesus is talking about the ability His disciples would have to present the message of His death and resurrection to people all across the face of the earth, and through every age of time.  You see, God’s eternal plan was for the Gospel to spread to the whole world, but Jesus was not the one God intended to do that.  God’s plan from the beginning of time was for the Gospel to be spread by Jesus’ followers – by US!

That is why – and I’ve always thought this was a bit humorous – we read of the two angels appearing to the disciples in Acts 1:11 saying, “You Galileans!  Why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky?” (The Message).  In other words, “Men, get GOING!  You’ve got work to do!  Your divine calling isn’t to stand here looking up into the sky, either worshiping the Lord or waiting for Him to come back.  Your divine calling, as Jesus told you, is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19).  God had far more in mind than a Church where people only come together on Sundays, sing a few songs, sit listening to a trained professional talk, and then stand around drinking coffee, and go home feeling blessed.  To the extent that we allow our Christianity or our churches to succumb to this cultural paradigm we fail to be missional, fail in the great commission, and – dare I say – fail our Lord and Savior.  I want to see that paradigm put to death … both in my own mind and heart, and in our churches.

Speaking of being put to death, I’ve always been fascinated by the word “witnesses” in the middle of Acts 1:8.   The word comes from the Greek word martus, from which we get our English word “martyr.”  It was absolutely true that, back in the first century, the disciples of Jesus needed to be ready to die for their faith in Christ … and they did!  Martyrdom for Christ has been happening for 2,000 years though; it wasn’t limited to just the first 300 years of the Church’s existence.  In fact, experts are telling us that there have been more believers martyred for their faith in the past 100 years than were martyred in the 1,900 years before that combined!

We all need to be ready and willing to put our very lives on the line for Christ, but there’s another application of this for us today.  We must die to ourselves (see I Cor. 15:31, Col. 2:20, 3:3).  Jesus said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).  Perhaps this means, first and foremost, that we must die to our pride, and to the control of our privacy and our schedules, so that we freely share what Christ has done, and what He means to us, with others.  If we cannot talk to another person about Christ without being afraid – be it afraid of failing, or afraid of what that person will think of us – then have we sufficiently died to our self?  I think not.  This problem of thinking about ourselves, this nail-biting concern about what we look like or sound like to others, is crippling and hand-cuffing the church of Jesus Christ.  If we allow ourselves to be rendered powerless by such things, we are cutting off the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Think of it this way:  All Spirit-filled believers are conduits of the Holy Spirit’s power.  We are not reservoirs or holding tanks, we are channels – and the Spirit’s witness to Jesus Christ is to flow through us.  Consider, by way of example, the Dead Sea in Israel.  Fish cannot survive in the Dead Sea – except right near the mouth of the Jordan River – because there is no outflow.  Water doesn’t pass through the Dead Sea…it dies in the Dead Sea.  That’s why they call it that!  A swamp or a stagnant pond is a body of death because it doesn’t let any water out; but a flowing river is a body of life, and is purified as water constantly moves through it.  Jesus said, “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (John 7:38).

Here’s the idea:  The power of the Holy Spirit will be given to us in a constant flow as long as we’re communicating it to others.  It is not meant to be kept to ourselves.  If we do that we run the risk of becoming stagnant Christians, or at the very worst, dying spiritually.  If all we do is take in, and take in, and take in inspiration and knowledge from the Bible and our other reading, and from sermons, and classes, we will dry up like raisins in the sun!  The Spirit’s power is given in order for us to be witnesses!

There is another understanding or meaning of the word witness that we can’t overlook, and it might be the more obvious one.  Think about a court of law, and a trial that’s underway.  If you are called to the stand as a witness, what are you there to do?  Are you sworn in under oath so you can give your opinions, or stand in front of the judge and jury and share your ideas about what you think happened?  No.  A witness is a person who says, “I know this to be true.  I know this for a fact, based on personal experience or observation.”  A witness does not say, “I think so.”  A true witness says, “I know so.”  I’m convinced in my own heart and mind that the disciples who touched the resurrected Lord, and watched Jesus Christ literally ascend into heaven were forever after “I know so Christians.”  All doubts about His claims to deity were gone … and all reservations about the need to make Him known to the ends of the earth gone too.

There was a time when John Bunyan, the famed author of the classic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, was not quite sure about the truth of Christ.  What worried Bunyan is that the Jews thought their religion was the best, and the Muslims he knew claimed their religion was the best, and other religions he had learned about all boasted that their religion had the sum and substance of pure truth.  How was he to know whether or not Christianity was just another “I think-so-religion?”

Then one day a dear friend witnessed to him, and used a verse of Scripture to do so: “John,” he said, “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Then Bunyan’s friend said this: “But John, you will not know the absolute truth of that verse until you surrender your heart and life completely to Christ, and come to know Him, and His love.”  John Bunyan did exactly that, and everything changed for him.  I believe it will for us too … the moment we get on “the witness stand” and start declaring what we know.

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