A survival kit for the church that seems bound for disappointment.
Remember back in school when the teacher assigned group projects? You sat down with a handful of other people, and within a minute you could figure out who was going to work and who wasn’t. The group grade would depend on you and one other person.
There was a time when Jesus convened a group as well. He assigned the members to be His witnesses to the four corners of the world. If you looked around at them you probably wouldn’t have been very inspired.
First of all, the unofficial leader had just forty days before denied Jesus multiple times, with cussing. One of the members wasn’t there because he had been a fake all along, stealing from other members of the group, and even trying to pawn Jesus for cash. He eventually committed suicide. The rest of the group had earlier disappeared when they got the slightest impression their lives might be at risk. These were the people Jesus regathered to reach the globe. It didn’t sound like a group that would succeed.
What would we have done? Given the way contemporary Christianity currently behaves, we probably would have gone into full corporate America mode. First we’d sit down and figure out our funding sources—Where’s the money going to come from? Then our marketing machine—Hey, how about a horse riding through town pulling a banner that says, “Jesus has died and been raised!” That would really build some buzz! We also would have considered staffing solutions—Ahem, this fisherman thing might have worked while Jesus was walking the beaches of Galilee, but we’re about to penetrate the Greek world, where the grownups live. We need to hire some professional orators. And then we would throw ourselves into the social and political arena—Otherwise, how will we gain traction righting all those Roman injustices? We’ve got to get busy changing the world.
More than a few church leaders have counseled going down these ill-advised roads.
Jesus had other ideas.
Take a look at Acts chapter 1 verse 3:
“He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs.” The first thing Jesus did was present himself as a resurrected man. He showed his disciples the marks in His hands, and invited them to place their hands in his side, where a Roman spear had punctured his heart. He had meals with them so they could see His resurrection was not a group hallucination or a magic trick.
He knew the forward progress of the gospel and the church and millions of souls rested on the certainty of those men in that room. And so the greatest movement this planet has ever seen came out of a small group of shaky, uncertain men, surrounding a Savior no longer subject to death.
The verse goes on to say that Jesus appeared to them during forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. He provided the little group with kingdom words, as Matthew 13:35 said, “I will open my mouth in Parables. I will utter what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” This kingdom had been hidden in God’s heart from the beginning of the world, and Jesus made it known, speaking about it in plain language in front of everybody.
God’s kingdom is not a human movement. It is a divine reality that predated the existence of this world. It is based on another life that spreads through men’s hearts, until the old order of this world is abolished. And it was all launched from the inside of a tiny fellowship with some rather uninspiring people.
In verse four it says, “while staying with them, he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” The Spirit has been used for all kinds of gimmickry on television and other venues, but you can see His proper ministry in Acts chapter 2.
The Spirit did manifest Himself in the speaking of tongues, but as soon as the crowd began to notice it, He shifted attention to the preacher, Peter, and before Peter personally became the focus, threw all eventual attention on the content of Peter’s message—Christ and His finished work.
In that little house, Jesus had told the disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the Earth” (Acts 1:8). Power is not for religious drama, but for providing witness of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Over time, this work drew in billions of souls. And it was launched from within a room of no more than about a hundred and twenty attendants. The prophet Zechariah once asked, “Who has despised the day of small things?” That rhetorical question was meant to say only a fool thinks God can’t make something great out of something humble.
But I’ve been guilty of those thoughts myself. During the closing phase of my ministry internship it was decided that the final exam should involve a group project. The larger number of us (about a hundred) split into smaller groups and were assigned to go out and give conferences on the book of Philippians to area churches.
I was fairly underwhelmed with my group, the number one reason being that I was on it. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to listen to me, since I was so new to preaching, and unknown. If there was any willingness to attend a conference I was part of, it would have to be sheer mercy that was motivating the attendants.
But I couldn’t see anything attractive in the rest of our group, either. There was a brother for instance, who was famous for giving long message introductions, so long they could equal the entire time allotted for the rest of the message. And yes, he was in the starter slot. Then there was the guy who couldn’t make any of the prep sessions. You know, he had more important things going on. He still wanted to preach, though…about himself and his adventures in overseas ministry. Another fellow in our lineup had been entrusted to preach the pivotal verses of our conference. A week away from the event, he decided he was bored with them. Nice.
How was anybody going to get anything out of this group? The all-star talent had been farmed out to Chicago and to Toronto, while we had been assigned to Columbus. I had never been to Columbus to do ministry, and the only thing I knew about it was how unremarkable and vanilla it was. I figured our visit here was going to be a wash. I decided to stop worrying about disappointing outcomes, and chose rather to soak my soul in the verses we’d be covering.
I ended up being filled with the Holy Spirit, which meant I had Kingdom word and power. It was a good thing, too, because the external omens weren’t getting any better. We hadn’t even hit the Columbus city limits before my junky little Ford Escort L started to overheat. The entire caravan had to pull over, because smoke was pouring out from under my hood.
If I had been annoyed by the car trouble, I was intimidated by the people who showed up for the conference. I had expected some scattered college students in jeans, but a diverse crowd arrived, some of whom were wearing shirts and ties. These were people who worked for a living, and expected to get something out of our preaching. While shaking hands with them, I said, “Hi,” but wanted to add, I’m so sorry for what we’re about to do to you. When the moment came, I offered the only things I had—word and Spirit. Surprisingly, some of the others on our team did the same.
In a brief, amazing aftermath, the room seemed positively energized. I remember looking around in a clueless way, wondering why they were so excited. This was my initial experience of how ministry was going to be. It was the Lord showing me I did not have to be the most talented man in town. I only needed the Acts equipment He had provided.
This is what you have to bring as well—the resurrected Christ, kingdom words, and the Holy Spirit. Even where we go for ministry conforms to the Acts pattern. None of us starts off at the farthest end of the earth. We begin our ministry where we are, with friends and family. That’s not easy, because your “Jerusalem,” your ground zero, is full of people who know the kind of person you are. For that simple reason, many of them will also find it difficult to receive from you. If you can faithfully minister where you are, then you can do it on the other side of the world.
Jesus knows all about these difficulties. He gave the inaugural message of His ministry in His own hometown synagogue. That day he got up and started to speak from the book of Isaiah, a passage about Himself and His mission. The beginning went well, but by the end, the people were so offended they hauled him out of the synagogue, to throw Him off a cliff. From the human standpoint, that’s not an encouraging start.
With this post, I’m finishing the fellowship on Little House. You may wonder what I was trying to promote during these last nine weeks. Was it house church? Small church? Simple church? Hybrid Church? Which model was I trying to sell? The answer is none of them. We’ve been describing a reality, not a container; new wine, not wineskins.
A church is only as good as the spiritual reality it preserves. There’s nothing magic about church models. Small churches can end up being clicks, large churches broadway productions. Home churches can be insular. Simple churches can turn into garage operations. All congregational structures break down at some point, but one thing is never flawed—the kingdom reality that the resurrected Jesus gave us in His words, and Holy Spirit.
No disappointment there.