The Church in Many Places
Acts 8:1-4“And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1-4).
This is an excellent New Year’s text because it tells how a catastrophe became an opportunity. We need to think about this in light of the tsunami disaster that has left over 150,000 dead in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia. The final death toll will no doubt go much higher. It is a tragedy of epic proportions. To put it in context, consider that the current death total is 50 times higher than the number killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. We are told that the earthquake actually shook the earth in its rotation and that the island of Sumatra (larger than California) moved 100 feet to the southwest as a result of the earthquake.
Here are a few reflections on the disaster in light of biblical revelation:
1) Satan is not sovereign, God is. Though we should not discount the devil’s power, he can do nothing without God’s permission. The devil exists only because God wills that he should exist. As one Puritan writer put it, the devil is “God’s lapdog.” God alone is sovereign.
2) God uses natural disasters to demonstrate his power, his justice and his mercy. We saw his power in the mighty earthquake and the waves that rolled across hundreds of miles of ocean floor, rising to wipe out entire towns. We see his justice in that he causes such things according to his own plan and for his own purposes. And we see his mercy in those who were miraculously spared, and in the massive outpouring of aid from around the world.
3) All creation groans because we live in a fallen world. In a world without sin, there would be no earthquakes and no tsunamis. Little children would not be washed out to sea or turned into orphans in a matter of seconds. We cannot separate the reality of sin from the suffering of the universe. As Paul said in Romans 8:22-23, all creation groans as it waits for the day of redemption.
4) We should respond with compassion to all those who suffer, no matter what their faith. This is what Jesus would do. It is what we should do.
5) We rarely see in the beginning of a tragedy what God intends to do in the end. I received an email from someone who serves the Lord in Indonesia. This person pointed out that the earthquake struck a region noted for its spiritual hardness and known as a safe haven and breeding ground for terrorists. I am not suggesting that the quake struck there as some sort of judgment, but I do think we should pray that God will use this catastrophe to open many hearts to the gospel of Jesus. It is too early to say what this disaster will mean for the cause of Christ, but we know from history that God sometimes causes hearts to be open as a result of tragedy. We can’t see that yet because we are too close to the beginning. That’s the way it always is when trouble comes. We rarely see in the beginning what God intends to do in the end.
Trouble in Jerusalem
Our text is a case in point. Acts 7 records Stephen’s brave speech to the Jewish ruling council. By showing them their guilt in the death of Christ, he enraged them to the point that they stoned him to death. On the very day he died, terrible persecution broke out against the church. Even as they mourned Stephen’s death, Christians were dragged out of their homes and put in prison. Ultimately the believers had to flee Jerusalem to avoid prison or death. The life of the early church had been radically changed and would never go back to what it was before. Before they were all in Jerusalem, worshiping together under the leadership of the apostles. Now the apostles were in Jerusalem and the believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. In a short period of time, they ¼
Lost a key leader,
Lost their safety and security,
Lost their togetherness, and
Lost close contact with the apostles.
All in all, a grim situation. You can imagine what they might have said as a result of all their calamities:
· “God has forgotten us.” But that would not have been true.
· “We have angered God somehow and he is punishing us.” Not true in this case.
· “The devil is behind this.” No doubt they did say that, and it was true that the devil was behind their persecution, but the devil can only do what God allows him to do. Behind the devil stands the Sovereign Lord.
· “The church isn’t strong enough to survive this.” That certainly seemed to be true.
· “We’ve got to stay together to be effective.” That’s what a lot of us would say. And it’s true that we can do more together than we can do separately. But it’s also true that sometimes we have to scatter for the sake of the kingdom.
“Lord, do what I’m not used to.”
Change is often scary. This is the first Sunday of the year. Have you made your resolutions yet? Last night I wrote out a long list of things I’d like to accomplish in 2005. It’s a daunting list, and I realize that it will never be accomplished without the Lord’s help. This week I received an email from Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary. Ramesh is from India and Sri Lanka and his heart has been torn by the suffering of his own people. He was already scheduled to fly to India in a few days to lead evangelistic meetings, but now he will focus on organizing relief efforts. He said that he had been praying what he called a “frightening” prayer: “Lord, do things I’m not used to.” That strikes me as an excellent prayer for all of us. It’s easy to pray for our own agenda to come to pass: “Lord, make all my dreams come true.” But you move into a different realm when you say, “Lord, I want to move beyond the normal, the ordinary and the expected. My agenda represents my own understanding of the future, but you may have other things in mind. So please do things I am not used to.” I’m making that my prayer for 2005.
Then Brian Bill sent me an email with 31 questions for the New Year from Don Whitney, a professor at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City. Here are a few questions that made me stop and think:
1. What’s the most important decision you need to make this year?
2. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
3. What’s one thing you could do this year to enrich the spiritual legacy you will leave to your children and grandchildren?
4. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
5. In what area of your life do you most need change, and what will you do about it this year?
6. What area of your life most needs simplifying, and what’s one way you could simplify in that area?
7. What habit would you most like to establish this year?
8. Who do you most want to encourage this year?
9. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
10. What single blessing from God do you want to seek most earnestly this year?
Then I heard from my lifelong friend, Bruce Thorn. Bruce and I grew up together in Russellville, Alabama. He still lives in northwest Alabama and we keep in touch three or four times a year. Bruce is not only a friend, he’s also a prophet in my life. He always seems to have a word from the Lord that I need to hear. This is part of what he wrote me this week:
A big hello from the sunny south. I trust all is well. I keep up with y’all from your blog. I am praying for you and believe ’05 will be a year of new opportunities in discovering just how much the Lord is pursuing us.
A year of new opportunities. I have been thinking about that a lot in the last few days. That’s exactly what I believe 2005 is going to be—a year of new opportunities to serve the Lord. New doors. Fresh challenges. Unexpected invitations. Unseen problems that lead to new blessings. And none of it will happen by accident, though at the time it will seem to fall out of the sky. God will orchestrate the details of the coming year so that we come to know him better, and to use Bruce’s phrase, and we will discover how much the Lord is pursuing us.
So I tried to put it all together. Ramesh Richard’s prayer. The questions from Don Whitney. Bruce’s note to me. I ended up writing my own personal prayer for the New Year:
Lord, do something I’m not used to in 2005. Move me out of my comfort zone so that I won’t rely so much on my own plans and my own power. Open the eyes of my heart so that I will comprehend the vastness of your love. And slow down my frantic life so that I can discover those things that matter most. Put me in a place where I am not equal to the opportunity so that I am forced to lean on you in a new way. This is my prayer for the New Year. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Crucial “Therefore”
Let’s go back to Acts 8. There is one crucial word missing in the NIV translation of verse 4. It’s the word “therefore” (it’s in the KJV, the NKJV and the NASB). The Greek text contains a word that means “therefore,” telling us that verse 4 is drawing an important conclusion.
Stephen was stoned to death, therefore …
The church was brutally attacked, therefore …
Christians were dragged out of their homes, therefore …
They were put in prison, therefore …
They were scattered in many places, therefore …
Now read verse 4 in light of the “therefore.” “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” As a result of all these negative events, they were scattered in many places, and in those many places, they preached wherever they went. That’s what God intended all along. Note that the text says they “had been scattered,” not that they “scattered themselves.” The word “scattered” translates a Greek word made up of two smaller words, one meaning “with” or “through,” and the other meaning “to sow seeds.” Recall the parable of the Seed and the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). The sower sows the seeds and they fall in many places and on different kinds of soil. Acts 8 is that parable in action. Learn from this what God wants to do in your life:
1) He “sows” us where he wants us to be.
2) He “sows” us in many places.
3) He “sows” us to preach the Good News wherever we are.
Evangelism is God’s heart. He will do whatever it takes for us to be in the world preaching the Word. Here is the key point of this passage: God used persecution from the world to scatter the church into the world so that the church could bless the world with the Good News of Jesus. We see from this how God turned a negative into a positive.
A Negative Into a Positive
1. The church could not bless the world as long as it stayed together in one place. As long as the church stayed in Jerusalem, it was relatively safe, the believers had good fellowship with each other, and they saw many people come to Christ. But they could not reach the world if they stayed in Jerusalem. What about Antioch? What about Athens? What about Alexandria? What about Rome? What about the great cities of the East? What about the unknown cities of Africa? And ultimately, what about Paris and London and New Delhi and Singapore and Los Angeles and Miami? What about Chicago and Oak Park? The gospel would never come to us if everyone stayed in Jerusalem.
2. God used persecution to scatter the church. Perhaps the church would have left Jerusalem anyway. After all, they knew the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). The Lord had commanded them to take the Good News to every nation. So perhaps they would have left on their own. But the Lord took the decision out of their hands by forcing them out as a result of severe persecution.
3. The church was much more effective scattered than gathered. By going where the people were, they reached far more people than they could have reached by staying in Jerusalem. There were only so many people who would ever travel to Jerusalem. But by scattering, they could now reach the whole world.
4. The church continued to do the very thing that got it into trouble in the first place. The Jewish leaders stoned Stephen because he courageously proclaimed Jesus (Acts 7). He was stoned, the church was persecuted, believers were jailed, and then they were scattered in many places. And what did they do in those “many places"? The same thing that got them into trouble in the first place. God bless those early Christians. No wonder they turned the world upside down.
Great Joy in the City
Just for a moment let’s skip down to verse 8, which tells us about a great awakening that broke out when Philip traveled to a city in Samaria and began to preach Jesus. People were saved, many were healed, and others were delivered from demons. And as a result, verse 8 says there was “great joy in the city.” What starts with persecution and death ends in great joy. The same gospel that brings persecution also brings joy—and the joy lasts far longer than the persecution.
No one could see this in the beginning. Stephen’s death seemed like a senseless tragedy. Yet God allowed it just as he also allowed the outbreak of persecution and the scattering of the church. God ordained that these things should happen so that the church would be scattered so that the believers would preach Jesus wherever they went so that many would believe so that there would be great joy in the city. Nothing happened by chance, not even the worst events. God worked through all of it to accomplish his will and to bring great blessing to many people.
The Church in Many Places
Each year our church chooses a theme to guide us. Here is the progression of themes over the last three years:
2002: God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation
2003: Lord, Teach Us to Pray
2004: Back to Basics
This year our theme has an outward focus: The Church in Many Places. Our theme verse is Acts 8:4. We want to focus on ministry that happens outside our buildings at 931 Lake Street in Oak Park. Another term for this is “the church without walls.” Our vision is to become a church that is a ministry hub with spokes reaching out in every direction. Those spokes represent all sorts of ministries—teaching sites, multiple campuses, church plants, Sunday Schools, ministry teams, small groups, worship services in different languages, revived churches, and various evangelistic outreaches. Perhaps one day from the “ministry hub” in Oak Park there will be spokes reaching out across Chicago, touching thousands of people every week. All of those spokes would be part of the “Calvary Federation” (that’s my term, not an official name), headquartered in Oak Park but stretching across Chicago. I envision a day when thousands of people are associated with the “Calvary Federation,” with only a small fraction actually attending services at our current location.
To be sure, we are a long way from that now. And we are seeking God’s direction and his dreams for the future. But it is a noble dream because it envisions our congregation becoming like the church in Acts 8—scattered in many places, preaching Jesus wherever we go. If this is the will of the Lord, then we should see the following things happen in the days to come:
· Less dependence on what happens in these buildings, more on what happens in the community.
· Increasing emphasis on the church going where the people are instead of the people coming to where we are.
· Greater priority given to establishing ministry centers away from these buildings.
From the Ground Up
Several weeks ago I received a copy of a brand-new book called From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st Century Church, by J. Scott Horrell, Professor of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. This little book (only 109 pages) reflects Scott’s worldwide exposure as a pastor, a missionary, a teacher, and a student of the New Testament. As I read it, I was reminded of Francis Schaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. Scott challenges us to rethink our vision of the local church and to ask how much of what we do comes from the Bible and how much reflects tradition and personal preference. Chapter 3 is entitled, “Centered in Christ, Decentralized in the World.” Here is part of what he had to say:
In the church, worship and service to God are no longer oriented to a temple. There is no longer a “house of God"—no sanctuary, no altar, no Holy of Holies. Nor, today, are believers’ worship and service to God centralized in a local church’s building or in real estate. We often overlook that early Christian communities had no special buildings, temples, or sanctuaries for meetings. Believers met wherever they could—in homes, Jewish synagogues, catacombs, forests, or desert ravines. Geography no longer mattered. Historically, the earliest edifices clearly identified as public Christian places of worship date from the late third century, almost 250 years after the death of Christ. Rather than focus their resources and activities in buildings, the early church understood that in the body of Christ, geography is no longer important. Where there is one Christian, or where two or three come together, there exists the real temple of God. The body of Christ, the invisible church, is the true temple of the Living God (I Corinthians 3:9, 16-17; 6:19; I Peter 2:5-7). Local churches are meant to be the expression of that powerful reality (pp. 46-47).
His point is clear. In the Old Testament, worship was centralized in one particular location—at the temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament, the church is scattered throughout the world. “The church is called to penetrate the world with the message and love of Christ … The church serves as Christ’s feet and hands, ears and mouth wherever most needed” (p. 50).
Then he begins to apply this reality to the current situation in most local churches:
But does this decentralized New Testament form of the kingdom characterize the believing church today? Are local church activities equipping saints to live out Christ in the world? To live daily with ears attuned to the will of the Lord Jesus and the direction of the Holy Spirit in the marketplace? Or could it be that many of us are in great part preoccupied with our programs, administration, and building maintenance? When our image of the church is popular rather than biblical, it is easy to concern ourselves with appearance, hierarchy, and income. In the words of Gibson Winter, ecclesial analyst of nearly a half-century ago, “The introverted church is one which puts its own survival before its mission, its own identity above its task, its internal concerns before its apostolate, its rituals before its ministry.” Church activities can drain the spiritual energy of a congregation rather than impelling members into significant engagement with a lost world. We regress into equating performances, committees, buildings and budgets with the ministry of the body of Christ (pp. 50-51).
Then he offers a personal testimony that all pastors can understand:
As a young pastor, I found there was always more to do around a church. I straightened chairs and picked up bulletins. I cleaned the flowerbeds and dusted cobwebs. I began to realize that I could live in the church, preparing messages and bulletins, arranging worship, organizing meetings, and administering committees. My inexperience led me to assume that emotional music, careful exposition, and aggressively orchestrated programs made for a successful and spiritually vibrant church. I could not, however, escape troubling doubts that this was not the way it was supposed to be. Preconceptions of what successful churches should be like and how pastors should work are subtle and yet overwhelming. The assumptions are shared by pastors and members alike. As Christian leaders strive to replicate what members have come to expect (and what we expect of ourselves), we can often lose our centeredness on the Lord (p. 51).
I included those extended quotes because I think Scott Horrell is absolutely right in terms of what the Bible teaches about the church, and he is asking the right questions. Just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean it can’t be changed or challenged. When John Piper preached on Acts 8:1-8, he made a similar point:
Comfort and ease and affluence and prosperity and safety and freedom often cause a tremendous inertia in the church. Inertia is the tendency of something that is standing still to stay standing still and of something moving to keep moving. The very things that we think would produce personnel and energy and creative investment of time and money in the cause of Christ and his kingdom, instead produce, again and again, the exact opposite—weakness, apathy, lethargy, self-centeredness, preoccupation with security ("Spreading Spiritual Power Through Persecution,” May 5, 1991).
1/10th of 1/10th of 1/10th
It may seem strange to bring up these points about the church not being tied to geography when we have just finished a $3 million renovation campaign that greatly enhances our ministry potential. I thank God for the enormous gift of owning these magnificent buildings at 931 Lake Street in Oak Park. They are historic church buildings and we regard it as a sacred trust to maintain and improve them. We know that many people are first attracted to Calvary because of our location and because of the inspiring architecture. (I pause here to say that if you are in another part of the United States or in another country, I hope you’ll come visit us someday because these truly are beautiful buildings. We can say that because we didn’t build them. The Presbyterians built the sanctuary in 1902 and added the West Wing in 1934. We are the beneficiaries of their good stewardship.) Few evangelical churches in America have a location as unique as ours. So we thank God for what he has given us. But in some ways, the buildings that are our greatest asset are also our greatest liability. Anyone who has visited us knows that we are hemmed in on every side by condos and apartments. There is no room to expand anywhere. We have very little parking. We are a city church in the geographic center of a major urban metropolis. And for the last few years we’ve been running near our capacity, especially in the educational area. A few months ago we actually had to turn children away from one of our nurseries because we simply ran out of room. Since then we’ve rearranged things so that it hasn’t happened again, but that shows you our problem. And if we have 1,200 or 1,300 on Sunday morning, that represents about 2% of the population of Oak Park, less than 1% of Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park combined, and 1/10th of 1/10th of 1/10th of 1 percent of the population of metropolitan Chicago. And that’s after 90 years. We’ve still got lots of work to do.
This point came home to me with great force back in September during the “God Speaks Today” sermon series. About a week before I preached on “The Truth About Same-Sex Marriage,” the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association issued a press release in response to the sermon series. Noting that we had mailed postcards to every home in this area, they said they would be attending our services on September 26 in order to bear “silent witness” to their point of view. (They did come, by the way, and we all had a fine time together. They were welcome then and they are welcome to come back any time.) Then they added this sentence: “In fact, we would like all of Oak Park to come and join us in bearing witness to this event.” And that started me thinking about things. What if all of Oak Park came to Calvary one Sunday? That would be 53,000 people. Where would we put them all? We can barely take care of 1,300 people. I seriously doubt that we could take care of 2,500 people if they all showed up next Sunday. We just don’t have the space. So I kept on thinking about the irony of it all. Our friends at the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association have a bigger vision than we do. They invited the whole village to come to Calvary! It didn’t happen, of course, but they did publicly issue the invitation. And what if it had happened? It would be mass chaos. Well, what if 3,000 people showed up this Sunday? Same thing. Mass chaos. We couldn’t handle the crowds.
Taking the Church to the People
I think I know what some people might be saying at this point: “That’s why you have other churches.” True, and we thank God for all the Bible-believing churches (and there are many of them) all across Chicagoland. But if everyone in Chicago decided to attend an evangelical church this Sunday, we’d all be in desperate trouble. I doubt we could handle 10% of the population. So what should we say? That we’re happy that most people don’t go to church on Sunday? That’s not right. All around us people are living and dying without Jesus Christ. You don’t have to go to Sri Lanka to talk to a lost person. What about your next-door neighbor?
The problem of every church is exactly what John Piper said. Inertia sets in and we become extremely comfortable with the status quo. Or we’re pleased with good programs, nice music, effective preaching, and a nice, manageable number of visitors each week. Growth is nice as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.
And that brings me back to our theme for 2005: The Church in Many Places. I believe the future of Calvary Memorial Church exists beyond the borders of 931 Lake Street. That’s why finishing the Legacy Campaign by this Thanksgiving is so important. We need to pay it off so we can get on with God’s work in the world. I’m not totally sure what all of this means, but I’m convinced that we need to decentralize the church and take it out where the people are.
500 Trained Evangelists
As we wrap up this sermon, let me mention one specific application. This year we’re asking God to help us train 500 people from our congregation in evangelism. We want to train 500 children, teens and adults in a simple method for sharing Christ with others. Most of us struggle in evangelism because we lack confidence. Knowing what to say and how to lead a person to Christ gives you the confidence to talk to others about Christ. We’ve asked our newest full-time pastor, Darin Weil, to head up this new initiative. Darin has just joined the full-time staff as Pastor of Junior High Ministries. During the months to come, we’ll be offering mentoring in evangelism, special classes in evangelism, and we plan to work through our established ministries and groups to reach as many people as possible. Can you imagine what would happen at Calvary if by the end of 2005, we have 500 children, teens and adults trained, equipped and eager to share Christ with others? We’ll talk about this more in the days to come, but if you’d like to be an early-bird sign-up, send an email to Pastor Darin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pray for the pastors and the elders as we consider the challenge of becoming a “church in many places.” We’re going for an overnight retreat at the end of January to specifically consider where God is leading us and the steps we should take to get there.
And I hope all of us will begin to pray, “Lord, Do Things I’m Not Used To.” It’s time for all of us to move beyond the ordinary, the safe, the comfortable, and the convenient. Ask God to do what you are not used to in your own life, in your family, in your church, and in your world.
God Was Behind All of It
Finally, let’s go back to the text for a moment. Whatever happened to the church in Acts 8? One of their leaders was stoned to death, they were persecuted, dragged out of their homes, put in jail, savagely attacked, and ultimately scattered in many places. The safety and security they had known was gone forever. For them, this was the answer to the prayer, “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” But that’s only one part of the story. The other part is the “therefore” of verse 4. Because of all those things they weren’t used to, God scattered them and they preached the Word wherever they went. God was behind all of it, working for their good and for his glory. As a result, multitudes heard the gospel and were saved. This was the only way it could happen.
I’ve been reading a book on leadership called Building the Bridge as you Walk on It. That’s a perfect picture of what it means to live by faith. That’s where our church needs to go as we move forward for God. We are called to build the bridge as we walk on it. That requires faith, ingenuity, courage, creativity, unity, trust, and a good dose of joyful exuberance. For all of us, this is my final word:
Have no fear.
Don’t hold on to the past too tightly.
Get ready to be scattered.
Bloom where you are planted right now.
As long as we are centered on Christ, we don’t have to be all together. It may serve God’s purposes better if we are scattered in many parts of Chicago in the days to come. I’m not sure exactly how that will happen or when, but I think that’s the direction we need to go. I encourage all of us to put our faith in Jesus Christ and stay close to him. If we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll end up exactly where he wants us to be. So get ready, folks. It’s going to be an exciting year. Amen.
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