At one level, the church’s goal is pretty clear, to fulfill the Great Commission by growing the number of followers of Christ and discipling them. We want growth like Peter experienced on Pentecost: one extemporaneous sermon inspired about 3,000 people to give their lives to Christ. Show me a preacher who wouldn’t like that! And, with no strategic plan or programs in place to disciple them all, how ever did they follow through?
The most important question though, is: What did Peter recruit these people for? Did he have another, unstated, goal for why he needed to recruit them? Did he have hopes of winning enough people to take over the government some day? Did he want to use the people to change Israel’s culture? No!
Peter preached, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”1
Peter’s only concern was for the people themselves. His one goal was to help them live the way God designed them to live, to be in relationship with God and to live with compassion, generosity, commitment to one another, friendship, and community spirit. Peter doesn’t say all this in the recorded part of his sermon, but we know this is what he preached because the immediate response of the people was that they did all these things.2 It lines up with how the Ten Commandments tell us to live and it lines up with the entire Old Testament and all its lessons about living God’s way.
And the result of Peter bringing people to Christ is that non-believers looked at the new Christians and found the Christian way of life very appealing, so much so that “the Lord added daily to their numbers those who were being saved.”3
Moving forward a few years, we see the church developing its prophetic voice so that it could speak to people about God’s ultimate vision for humanity. They preached about how society could be, but they ‘spoke’ first through their deeds. They committed themselves to social action and cared for Christians and non-Christians alike. My favourite quote from this time period is Emperor Julian’s complaint:
“For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”
The church developed a powerful prophetic voice that could not be ignored because individual believers demonstrated, at their own cost, what a better society looks like, giving credibility to the church’s suggestions.
Our one motive
The key thought for the church to remember today is that Jesus gave the Great Commission to the church, but God gave all of humanity the Creation Mandate, so the church is to help humanity do its job, not do its job for it. Our fundamental role is that of a helper, a servant, an advisor, not a ruler or a judge. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as over anyone else. A holier-than-thou attitude is not appropriate for Christians because we must always remember that “There but for the grace of God go I” We have received God’s unmerited love, and having found a good thing for ourselves, our attitude should not be one of superiority but of letting others share the great gift just as we have. We are co-labourers with the rest of humanity in stewarding this world. We need to help them steward it well.
We can be guided in how to help humanity by looking to Jesus and seeing how he helped us. Jesus came into our world and took on a lowly, humble form to serve humanity from within.
What we can’t do
For the church to move forward with God’s blessing, we need to get rid of any lingering spirit of triumphalism, hunger for power, desire to have status, or anything else that takes us away from a spirit of service. Any hurts we have suffered that cause us to want retribution, any harshness in our tone, has to go.
I don’t think these problems are widespread in the church at the organizational level, but I do think the problem is something we have to deal with more frequently at the personal level. I know how much I struggle when I’m with secular people who disparage Christianity. If you regularly step outside our Christian sub-sector, especially if you have contact with the social elites, you know firsthand the negative comments people make about Christians, and particularly evangelicals. My natural tendency would be to respond in an unhelpful way that would make me feel good but do nothing for my Christian witness, and it is only by consciously thinking about the points I’m making in this post that I choose to restrain myself.
We can’t let our own human failings get in the way of presenting others with the Gospel and the Christian way of life. We must present an authentic witness to the Gospel’s power and application in our own lives. We can’t give those who disparage us any excuse to see behaviour that confirms their opinion. Instead, when they encounter us, everything about us should jar them enough to challenge their stereotypes and prejudices.
We can be of service individually acting on our own, or as a group acting through specialized ministries or church programs. But whatever we do, we need to be attractive through our words and our deeds to those who do not yet know Jesus or God’s love.
There are times when confrontation is necessary, and Jesus had those times too, but our signature impression on the public should be one of love and service, showing a better way of life in which everyone can flourish and be all that God intended them to be.
This beautiful window at Trinity United Church in Kitchener Ontario depicts Jesus during his ministry, and is a powerful reminder of the place of the church in society. Jesus is by the well, an important central part of community life, welcoming into his presence men, women, and children. He is not aloof, waiting for people to find him and come to him, but he has come to where they are, and is among them, touching a boy and looking directly at a woman and her child, inviting them to come closer. The people are the focus of his attention, and he is the focus of theirs. All eyes are on him, and everyone is drawn to him.
This is the exactly how Christ’s church should be seen today: people in our communities should find us out and about in the community, in the midst of their lives. They should see from what we do, how much we love them and care for them. And when they need help, they should know they can get it from us.
Key idea: The church is a servant to humanity, joyfully and lovingly serving all people