”Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Revelation 2:4-5)
I’ve been thinking lately alot about what it means to be a local church community that is embodying the Gospel. I also have been thinking alot about how we have often become accustomed to the divorce between our local church community and engaging in GOD’s mission within the world. When I say ‘GOD’s mission’ I am thinking of something far broader than just telling people about the need for forgiveness of sins and being reconciled to GOD. As Australian missiologist Michael Frost in his book ‘The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church‘ has said:
“David Bosch, the South African missiologist whose work first sent me and many others on this missional journey, once wrote, “Mission is more and different from recruitment to our brand of religion; it is the alerting people to the universal reign of GOD through Christ…Our mission, then, is to alert people to this irrefutable reality, by both announcement and demonstration. It can never be boiled down to simply giving people information on how to go to heaven when they die.” (p.24-25)
In his beginning chapter Frost expands the view of GOD’s mission (aka: Missio Dei) beyond mere evangelistic efforts. He continues by quoting N.T. Wright’s ‘Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense‘ (p.217):
“The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that GOD intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. Earth and heaven were made to overlap with one another, not fitfully, mysteriously, and partially as they do at the moment, but completely, gloriously, and utterly. “The earth shall be filled with the glory of GOD as the waters cover the sea.” That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible story, from Isaiah (and behind him, by implication, from Genesis itself) all the way through to Paul’s greatest visionary moments and the final chapters of the book of Revelation. The great drama will end, not with ‘saved souls’ being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that “the dwelling of GOD is with humans (Revelation 21:3).”
With this future as the backdrop of our life and faith Frost goes on to speak of a kind of ‘Slow Evangelism’. If we want to begin to reintegrate the missional impulse into our lives and our local church communities how can we authentically embody the Gospel to the wider community? Frost gives a wake up call that being a witness to the Gospel means more than giving a quick sales pitch:
“Part of the problem with evangelism is many Christians feel they need to get the whole gospel out in one conversation. The reason for this is many Christians are only ever in a position to ‘evangelize’ strangers, because all their friends are Christians…Evangelizing friends and neighbors, gradually, relationally, over an extended time, means that the breadth and beauty of the gospel can be expressed slowly without the urgency of the one-off pitch.
When we understand what it is to be truly missional – incarnated deeply within a local host community – we will find that evangelism is best done slowly, deliberately, in the context of a loving community. It takes time and multiple engagements. It requires the unbeliever to observe our lifestyle, see our demonstrations of the reign of GOD, test our values, enjoy our hospitality. And it must occur as a communal activity, not only as a solo venture. Unbelievers must see the nature and quality of the embodied gospel in community. And all the while, conversations, questions, discussions, and even debates occur wherein we can verbally express our devotion to the reign of GOD through Christ. No more billboards. No more television commercials. No more unsolicited mail. If evangelism is like a meal, think of it as being prepared in a slow cooker and served over a long night around a large table. It can’t be microwaved. It can’t be takeout.” (p.44-45)
Obviously this is not what most evangelism looks like in the American church. It’s almost as if we are doing the opposite most of the time – calling people into our church buildings, programs and crusades while we find it difficult or merely insignificant to be friends with our neighbors and seek the shalom of our communities. Beyond this, if the world is to have witness of our devotion to Jesus then our ability to love one another is the flame of that witness. Yet, if we cannot share our lives except at church events – what kind of witness do we have? I fear we have lost our lampstands in the lack of interlocking lives we lead. Ours must be a communal faith – because it is rooted in GOD’s love – and we cannot love the world if we will not love one another. Love can only flourish in enduring relationships and we are called to be a people who are modeling the reality of GOD’s redemptive love. If we become enamored with building our lampstands but we have no flame of embodied love – then the world stays in darkness. Jesus said:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
I’ll end with a story from one of my favorite books ‘Grace Works: Letting GOD Rescue You From Empty Religion‘ by teacher and author Dudley Hall. In his book he refutes our desire to live godly lives without loving those around us:
“The Holy Spirit is not so interested in our living up to external standards as he is in our living in right relationship with GOD and with each other. True righteousness will focus us on GOD’s values – and his most valuable treasure is people.
A year ago a pastor friend of mine spent some time in Guatemala. While he was there, he was discussing with one of the political leaders of that country why the mission work from America was not having much effect on his country.
“Do you know your neighbors?” the Guatemalan politician asked.
My pastor friend responded sadly, “No, not very well.”
“How long have you lived in your present location?” he was asked.
“A couple of years.”
Then the leader said this. “I’ve been in America, and I’ve watched what is going on there for the last twenty years. When you knew your neighbors well enough to ask to borrow a cup of sugar from them, drugs were not a major problem; neither was crime your greatest fear. The Christianity you had then was worth exporting. But today you have lost the value of relationships. That loss has not only destroyed your society; it has diluted your gospel.” (p.92-93)
I pray for a great revival in the Body of Christ. A revival where what once was a cadaver, a dead shell, will come alive – and the blood and the love will flow again. As we relearn what it means to become rooted in one another’s lives and in the love of GOD which calls us out into our communities – the world will again have a witness.
(video above: Michael Frost: “What is Missional?”)