Christ, Community, Crisis
Reflections on the nature of the Church’s calling
The COVID-19 crisis that has engulfed the world in recent months temporarily closed church doors and upended the way we meet, worship, give and serve. In the midst of that, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in widespread protests across the nation against racism and injustice.
As pastors lead their congregations through these difficult times, many have asked anew an important question: What, precisely, is the mission of the Church?
In the end, this may prove to be one of the positive outcomes of the struggles that have come to define 2020 — a Church thinking more deeply and more critically about the nature of its calling.
We have become accustomed to defining “church” by programs, facilities and leaders. People may choose a home church because it has a good children’s ministry or because the pastor preaches in an engaging way. Or perhaps they feel connected to a particular small group experience that makes them feel valued and encouraged. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things — except they have the potential to make us think about a church in terms of our own needs and desires.
This can cause us to ground our understanding of the Church not in Scripture, but in cultural norms and personal preferences, or in individuals with dynamic personalities. In short, the things we value in a church can easily become more about us than about God’s plans and purposes.
In their book, Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons put it this way:
There is a tremendous amount of individualism in today’s society, and that’s reflected in the church too. Millions of Christians have grafted New Age dogma onto their spiritual person. When we peel back the layers, we find that many Christians are using the way of Jesus to pursue the way of self. ... While we wring our hands about secularism spreading through culture, a majority of churchgoing Christians have embraced corrupt, me-centered theology.
In virtually every area of life, our culture encourages us to consider what’s in it for us. However, we should think of the Church primarily in terms of what we have to offer the world. The Church exists for the world, but this truth often gets left behind in our hyper-individualized church approaches.
Remember, it was for the sake of the world that Jesus came (John 3:16), and it is for the sake of the world He calls us together and sends us out. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, not coddle the already found. Perhaps this current crisis will push us toward realizing a less selfish version of ourselves.
If danger lurks in understanding the Church primarily in terms of our own likes and dislikes, how do we avoid this pitfall? Some seek to define the Church by what it does — especially preaching, service and community. Scholars refer to these as the kerygmatic, diaconic and koinoniac functions of the Church, respectively.
However, a church that defines itself by its activities can easily become engulfed in busyness while still not having a clear understanding of why it does all those things. Activity does not equal effectiveness.
Furthermore, churches can place too much emphasis on doing and not enough on being. We can be deeply engaged in compassionate projects all around the world but unable to get along with the person who sits next to us every Sunday, or with co-workers whose politics and values differ from our own. We can become masters of long-distance forms of compassion while remaining compassionless toward those we see and interact with every day.
I have witnessed this firsthand in missions. We had an American congregation visit us in Zambia who wanted to serve by helping paint a church. When they arrived, the team members were constantly fighting and arguing over who was in charge and how the project should be done. The whole thing was such a disaster I couldn’t wait for them to get back on the plane to go home. They were a burden to the people they came to serve and an embarrassment to the missionaries.
This often happens when a church focuses on external activities and neglects transforming and discipling its members. Often, this results from a focus on doing rather than being. In other words, when it comes to defining the Church, character matters.
A biblical paradigm for church ministry involves surrender, solidarity and being sent. This perspective moves the emphasis from what we do (like painting churches that may or may not need painting) to our own moral and spiritual growth as prerequisites for effective mission both at home and abroad.
Nineteenth-century pastor and author Andrew Murray wrote that “faith is simply surrender.”
The notion of surrender as it relates to the mission of the Church reminds us that our calling is one of submission. Because God is sovereign and holy, we bow to Him in submission in all we are and do. We surrender our rights as individuals and give ourselves over to God and His purposes.
A surrendered Church is one that acts not on its own initiative but that locates its identity in the revealed will of God. Jesus supremely modeled this, seeking “not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30).
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the unsurrendered Christian life was marked by cheap grace. He described it this way in Discipleship:
Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs.
How do we overcome our aversion to surrender and addiction to cheap grace? In practice, surrender is always a corollary to our concept of power. To the extent we value worldly power, we will never be fully surrendered to God.
Consider how some Christians in Bonhoeffer’s day viewed what was happening. One German pastor declared, “It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us.” This pastor was not alone. Many others made similar and equally disturbing statements.
We read this and ask, How could a people become so seduced by power as to equate Hitler with the work of Christ? How could the Church betray its true calling for such a temporal thing as national power? But the truth is, this happens far more often than we would care to admit. Today’s churches lose sight of their biblical mandate when they exchange spiritual power for political or social power and align their purpose too closely with a candidate or party.
The film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings vividly depicts the corrupting influence of power. As the story goes, Hobbits Sméagol and Déagol go fishing to celebrate Sméagol’s birthday. When a large fish pulls Déagol out of the boat and into the lake, he discovers a ring of power.
Sméagol’s immediate desire leads him to demand that Déagol give him the ring as a birthday present. When Déagol refuses, Sméagol kills him, and thus begins Sméagol’s awful devolving into Gollum, a grotesque, schizophrenic creature who skulks about the Misty Mountains for the next 400 years.
Gollum is ultimately cast out by his community and forced to live among the rocks and crags, feasting on raw fish. Gollum comes to torment and taunt Sméagol in an intensifying internal struggle between innocence and the lust for power. It is a potent picture of the way in which the love of power corrupts and destroys one’s true identity and better nature.
Gollum depicts the decay that sets in when power becomes ultimate. Christians and churches who pursue power at all costs will inevitably find themselves on a journey from beauty to desolation, from community to isolation, from peace to chaos, and from life to death.
Jesus understood and taught that worldly power is an illusion. When Satan tried to tempt Him with the “authority and splendor” of “the kingdoms of the world,” Jesus replied, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Luke 4:5-8).
Immediately after His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). It was the Spirit’s power that governed Jesus’ ministry, and it was in the Spirit’s power that the Church is sent forth (Acts 1:8).
True surrender is about precisely this exchange — the willingness to forgo power that would come by any means other than God’s Spirit.
In A.D. 202, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus outlawed conversion to Christianity. Among the first arrested in North Africa was a young woman in Carthage named Perpetua. Shortly after she was imprisoned, her father, who was not a Christian, came to Perpetua and tried to persuade her to recant her Christian beliefs and bow to the emperor. Pointing to a vase, Perpetua asked her father, “Do you see that vase? Can it be called by another name other than what it is?”
When her father answered that it could not, Perpetua said, “In the same way, I am unable to call myself anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
Later, as her father again pleaded with Perpetua to abandon her faith, she declared, “Know that we are no longer in our own power, but in God’s.”
Not long after, Perpetua was martyred in a Roman colosseum. Her journal was passed on to other prisoners, and her writings became a source of inspiration for centuries to come.
The story of Perpetua encapsulates the notion of surrender. Surrender happens as we place our identity in Christ alone and increasingly trust in the Spirit’s power to help us in everything.
When Paul prayed for an end to his thorn in the flesh, the Lord replied, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” This led to Paul’s declaration of surrender: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Perhaps this current crisis will push us toward realizing a less selfish version of ourselves.
Surrender is the byproduct of finding our truest identity in Christ and trusting in the sufficiency of His power for all He calls us to do and be. If we want to see the power of God at work in our churches, the way we get there is through surrender.
Not only are we “one in Christ Jesus,” as Paul says in Galatians 3:28, but we are also radically united with each other in a community of difference and diversity.
In many contemporary churches, the concept of fellowship has come to mean little more than a potluck supper. Yet the biblical notion of koinōnia runs much deeper. Biblical fellowship refers to deep, sacrificial service to one another and includes suffering with one another — especially with those who suffer for the sake of the gospel — as an extension of every believer’s participation in the sufferings of Christ, and in His joy (Philippians 2:1-8).
Koinōnia means our lives are inseparably woven together through Christ. It means we care about others in the faith community so deeply their suffering becomes our suffering in a real way.
By being reconciled to those of other races, tribes, nationalities, political parties and social classes, believers testify to the reconciling power of the gospel. Because we have been forgiven much, we should be willing to forgive much.
At a practical level, this means something as simple as holding a grudge can have a detrimental effect on the Church’s ability to reach the lost. It further means we must be willing to go to great lengths to forgive others and show them grace, just as Christ went to great lengths to forgive and show us grace.
There is no room in Christianity for those who cling to tribalism or promote racism. To be “in Christ” is to belong to a diverse family of people from every race, tribe and nationality.
Catenary curves have been used in architecture for centuries. They provide a solution to the problem of creating the perfect arch (an inverted catenary) that requires no additional support. They allow the weight of the structure to be spread along the curve at equal tension points so no one point bears all the weight.
Examples can be seen at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Catenary curves allowed architects to do away with the external buttresses used in buildings like the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
The oneness we have in Christ works in a similar fashion. When the Church works intentionally to build up each member, the weight of one person’s burden becomes shared by all (Galatians 6:2).
This is important because we tend to think community works best in the absence of tension or pressure, when everything is going well. But it is the ability to function as one, sharing one another’s burdens, that creates the real strength of a community.
Rather than fleeing churches because of problems, we should work together to alleviate the pressure those problems create. When we are united through hardships, we can all rise to be our best selves.
Solidarity, though, is costly. I recently spoke with Estrelda Alexander, a leading expert and scholar on race and African American Pentecostalism. She shared with me that most Black people live in constant fear because of the onslaught of injustices their communities suffer. When I asked what it would take to bring about change, she pointed out that justice always comes at a price.
If we are going to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Black community, as we should, it will almost certainly cost us something. Some will probably think we are being too political. We might lose church members — and perhaps even our jobs.
But we must remember that suffering with others, and for others, lies at the center of the gospel. Following the example of Christ requires a willingness to lay down our lives for our friends, upholding the truth that all people bear the image of God, no matter their race, social status, nationality or gender.
What does costly solidarity look like? It looks like Jesus approaching a Samaritan woman who had an unsavory reputation because He cared more about her future than her past. It looks like Martin Luther King Jr. leading clergy members from across the denominational spectrum over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, despite knowing the violent attacks that awaited them on the other side. And it looks like, as Alexander suggested, white pastors inviting Black clergy into their pulpits to talk about race and faith.
Mostly, true solidarity demands paying the price of holiness so we can hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
One of the most ancient descriptions of the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” In other words, the Church is united, Christlike, universal, and committed to the gospel.
Though “apostolic” relates to the Church being grounded in the apostolic teachings of the New Testament, it also suggests being sent into the world. As theologian Thomas Oden wrote, “The very purpose of the coming together of the community is in order that they may be sent.”
We can begin to overcome an overly individualized approach to the Church’s mission and purpose by revisiting our Assemblies of God history and doctrine.
The Assemblies of God was born out of the Azusa Street revival that began in Los Angeles in 1906. As these early Pentecostal believers hungered for more of God’s manifest presence and experienced the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, they interpreted the signs and wonders that followed to mean one thing: Jesus was coming back, and He was coming very soon.
One task took precedence over all others: Taking the gospel to the lost among the nations. This quote from a 1906 issue of The Apostolic Faith, an early Pentecostal publication led by William Seymour, was typical of the day:
Many are the prophecies spoken in unknown tongues and many the visions that God is giving concerning His soon coming. The heathen must first receive the gospel. One prophecy in an unknown tongue was interpreted, “the time is short, and I am going to send out a large number in the Spirit of God to preach the full gospel in the power of the Spirit.”
Missions giving in the early years of the Assemblies of God more than doubled every year from 1917 to 1919, even with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and World War I, which ended that same year. In 1917, AG churches gave $10,234 to missions. In 1918, they nearly tripled that number, giving $29,631. And in 1919, giving rose to $63,549.
This surely reflected a strategy missions secretary Stanley H. Frodsham instituted in 1918, when, at the meeting of the General Council in Springfield, Missouri, he “recommended that missions prayer meetings be started in connection with all our assemblies to bear before the Lord the immediate needs of our missionaries.” In addition, he called for a “publicity campaign” for the purpose of “laying before the Pentecostal brethren everywhere their obligations to their representatives in the regions beyond.”
People will care most about the crisis in front of them. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot log on to any media site, whether it’s the home page of Best Buy or the website for the county or city in which we live, without being immediately confronted with information and updates about that organization’s response to COVID-19.
News outlets constantly update us on the latest statistics, including death tolls and infection rates. And they should. This information is both helpful and necessary. But so are statistics and information about the lost among the nations.
Early Pentecostal publications like Seymour’s The Apostolic Faith were started for precisely this purpose. We cannot expect people to remain concerned about evangelizing the world if we do not consistently set before them the harsh realities of those who have no access to the gospel.
The urgency of reaching the lost and the expectation of Christ’s imminent return drove the apostle Paul to work tirelessly to take the gospel to the nations, and it has driven thousands of missionaries in our Fellowship’s history to cross oceans and continents to preach Jesus to those who have never heard.
Now more than ever, pastors and churches must prioritize the work of setting before the Church the needs of our missionaries abroad and the ongoing crisis of those entering eternity apart from the saving knowledge of Jesus.
What does it mean to be surrendered to God, in solidarity with Jesus and others, and sent into the world in a time of pandemic? It means being a people whose character is shaped by the nature of the Triune God we serve. It means our lives are not our own.
Jesus said anyone who wants to follow Him must take up their cross first (Matthew 16:24). We often interpret this to mean we all have our own struggles, like difficulty losing weight or a sibling who is hard to get along with. But to those in the first century who heard this, it meant following Jesus would cost everything. It would be incredibly rewarding, but those rewards would come at a high price.
The Church today desperately needs to rediscover the perspective of following Christ above all else, at any cost. Does our praying, giving and longing reflect a Kingdom vision or a worldly one? Are we in solidarity, or are we needlessly creating divisions? When in public, do we demand our rights and make a spectacle of ourselves, or do we reflect the love of God in sacrificial ways as those who have surrendered their rights for the cause of Christ?
Do we see all people as the subjects of God’s love or only those who share our views and values? Do we spend more effort and energy promoting conspiracy theories than we do promoting the gospel? Does the world look at us and say we demonstrate radical love for the suffering and oppressed, or do they see us as ambivalent and aloof?
These are the questions we need to be asking of ourselves, even as the Church undergoes radical changes in how and when we can gather. These are the questions that should guide a Church characterized by surrender, solidarity and being sent to reach the lost. These are the things that should define a Church that longs for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of Influence magazine.