Thursday, May 24, 2012

Can a Spirit-empowered Church Make a Difference in the World?

And so there is the call to renewal, a renewal by the Spirit that allows the church to come out of its shell and look to the needs of the world we live in.  Looking at this world through the eyes of God, we see in the world something God deeply loves.  This love is the basis of our ministry.  This world, its institutions, its systems, its people, they are worthy of redemption, of transformation.  Our ministry is not bounded by ethnicity or geography, though it is respectful of the differences inherent in the world’s diverse cultures.  Born in the Near East it became the dominant religion in Europe and in a major way became domesticated. 

            Today many people speak of Christianity as the religion of the western world.  But that is not true.  Though it has had a tendency to act in imperialistic and triumphalistic ways, the church has from its origins in Jerusalem had a universal vision.  It saw its message of God’s reign applying not just to a few, but to the many.  So, today the greatest point of expansion and growth is not Europe or North America, but Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.  Korea, a country that little more than century ago received its first Protestant missionaries, has a population that is more than thirty percent Christian.    This new reality is not only remaking the face of the church, the mission sending and receiving countries have become reversed.  Europe is now receiving missionaries from countries it once sent them.   Our mission, therefore, is not that of civilizing the natives, but of bringing a message of healing grace that speaks to political, social, and economic conditions of the people.

            The story or our engagement with the world begins in the first chapter of the book of Acts where we read Jesus’ commission to the church.  He calls on this movement that is hunkered down in Jerusalem to envision a ministry that will touch the “ends of the earth.”    
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The church, the temple of the Holy Spirit, is the bearer of the blessings of God’s presence.  The church as an institution is very human, but it carries a divine mandate and the promise of God’s presence by the Spirit.  With this promise, the church begins its mission of bearing witness to the Gospel beginning in Jerusalem and will not cease until it reaches the ends of the earth.  

            Though the church began in Jerusalem as essentially a small Jewish sect, but even in the gospels we get the sense that the mission of Jesus would not end with there.  His encounters with the centurion, the Samaritan woman, and the Syro-Phoenician woman, all suggest a larger mission, one that transcends religion, ethnicity, economic status, gender, and geography.  In Christ, Paul tells us, “there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.”   Instead we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).    Peter’s dream at Joppa reminds us that what God declares clean is clean (Acts 10).   All our walls of separation, they are falling down, which means that our mission has no boundaries.  This message that we carry to the world is an inclusive one, a message that builds bridges where chasms once existed. 

            This vision of church life seems to have been first experienced in the church of Antioch, where a community that was diverse in ethnicity and culture gathered in the name of Christ.  It was this church that being attentive to the Spirit of God heard a missionary call.  Composed of both Jews and Gentiles, it caught the vision of taking the gospel to Asia Minor and beyond (Acts 13:1-3).  It also took seriously the call to care for the neighbor, gathering supplies to send to famine-stricken Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-29).     
            If the mission begins in Jerusalem and extends outward through Antioch, this missionary endeavor will not be completed until all things are taken up into Christ (Phil. 2:9-11).   With the age of Christendom over in the West and people no longer going to church simply because it is there, the church has the opportunity to return to its missionary origins.  Although the degree of religiosity in America appears to be much great than Europe’s, it’s appropriate to question the depth of this spirituality.   Reports of attendance at religious services appear to be greatly exaggerated, and even if a majority of us believe in God, we don’t always live as if this is true. This may seem like bad news, it is really good news for a church that is open to the movement of the Spirit.   If the church is full of Spirit endowed and gifted people, then it is capable of making a significant difference in the world.  What it takes is a new vision of its place in the world.  Instead of being a temple that never moves it is a tabernacle that moves with the people bringing blessing or judgment (whichever is needed at the time) wherever it goes.  

(Excerpted from my book mss. Gifts of Love)

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