Does this resonate with you? It did for me. How does the Gospel of Jesus intersect with people who feel stuck in this rut? What will we do to welcome people into the flock so the world doesn’t swallow them up?
What if we really applied the simplicity of the gospel to our lives? Go, make disciples (followers), baptize them, and teach them to do what Jesus commands. We overlook the simplicity of the first century church. Paul and his companions planted churches. A lot of them. Oftentimes they were in a town for 2-4 weeks before being driven out by angry mobs. Imagine. You have 2 weeks to establish a church and give them the tools that they need to launch and succeed. What do you teach them in 2 weeks? Unless the message and training are painfully simple, the church is doomed from its very inception. If we look at the message in its purity, here’s what we find: Stop worshiping idols, worship God and Jesus, repent from your sins, be kind to and love one another, bless others, repeat. Togetherness. Driven by one purpose.
The new Christians didn’t worry about where they would meet. Any place would make due. Literally. They met in homes, in chariots, on the edge of the lake, in synagogues, and in fields. In fact, remember how people were called Christians first at Antioch (Acts 11:26)? The church met in Antioch because of the persecution led, ironically, by Paul. It’s incredible that the very church that sent Paul and Barnabas off on their missionary journeys was the same church that fled Paul’s crusade to persecute Christians. And where did they meet? Below are pictures of their meeting place. The Antioch church that began because of persecution met in . . . . a cave! This is the very spot where those souls sang songs, prayed over, and sent off Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Mark, and the like! The facade was built later, but it’s believed that the chair and pulpit are original to the church. Imagine, Paul and Barnabas gave their reports from their missionary journeys at that very pulpit!
See, the Christians made due. They didn’t need a whole lot. Just devoted people, a place to gather, and belief. The rest is, as they say, history! In Acts 15, Christians were sent from this very cave down to Jerusalem to resolve a conflict. Jewish believers were telling non-Jewish Christians that, unless they were circumcised, they were going to hell. Paul, Barnabas, and “some others” were sent by the church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders. “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). Look again at that cave. Simple. Powerful. Effective. After meeting in Jerusalem, they brought a letter back up to this church in Antioch. It reads in its entirety,
“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to your with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:22-29 ESV).
Brand new churches. Made up of pagans who had no Christian background. They were not given any further burden than to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from anything that was strangled (that still had blood in it), and from sexual immorality. And the church grew exponentially!
Many people are shifting back to simple church. The good news is that it’s working. Churches that practice simplicity and who are focused on mission are growing leaps and bounds faster than all of the best staffed churches who are program-heavy. There’s a miracle that accompanies togetherness and simplicity!
I remember the day our 4 year old Catahoula dog, Jake, jumped into a pond to chase some ducks. Catahoulas have webbed feet and are known for their agility in the water. He flew across the pond and when he turned around to swim back, he literally couldn’t move forward an inch. It’s like he completely forgot how to swim. He began to panic as he wore himself out treading water. I quickly jumped in and saved his life that day. The terror on his face will never leave my memory. Most days I feel like Jake–paddling to the point of exhaustion but going nowhere. I know so many church leaders who are the Jakes of their churches. They come home every day worn out only to witness their churches continue to decline. So what gives?
In so many ways, we’ve complicated our mission, the mission. When another cause, no matter how good it seems, replaces mission, the end result is always the same–we have failed to carry out the mission. People have been messing things up since creation. In fact, one day Jesus was preaching on the Sabbath and he noticed a woman who, for eighteen years, had a crippling back disease. She couldn’t straighten up and likely suffered chronic pain. He immediately called her over and freed her from her disability. The Synagogue ruler was indignant and reminded Jesus that there were six other days he could heal. Jesus answered, “You hypocrites! Do not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16 ESV). Did you catch that? The ruler was holding on to the status quo of regularly scheduled worship. Is structured worship good? Sure. Is keeping the Sabbath right? Absolutely. But tradition became so important that the ruler was literally blinded to the mission to take care of the poor and wounded.
So what can we do to get back on track? I recently ordered Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger’s book, Simple Church. This book has hit all ten toes with a sledge hammer. Really. It has allowed me to do inventory and realize where I’ve deviated as a leader and that we need to get back to carrying out the mission. So, what are 3 keys to moving any church forward?
The whole point of the book is that their research demonstrates an undeniable correlation between simplicity and growth. We live in a fast paced world. The iPhone X was released November 3rd while its predecessor, the iPhone 8, was released September 22nd. People who bought the 8 had an outdated phone a month later. Our culture is moving at break neck speed. The church is trying to keep up. It can’t. It shouldn’t. People are more anxious today than ever in our nation’s history. Our drug epidemic has taken root and our addiction to prescription meds is at an all time high. People want their worship to be genuine, peaceful, simple. All the “experts” claim that we have to keep up with technology if we are going to engage our kids. My children are all advanced for their ages. What’s one of their favorite activities? Reading their Bibles in a hammock. They literally do it for hours at a time. Total silence. Simplicity.
Imagine asking someone to jump in your car and go for a ride with you. Cool. Three years later you are still driving with that same passenger, just choosing random roads to travel. At some point the passenger is going to get frustrated and beg to get out of the car. People need direction and purpose for moving in that direction. Oftentimes we ask people to join a church and we have no clue where we’re going. People notice. They are more than happy to be on a journey, they just want to know where we all are going and that it’s a meaningful journey. This is where mission comes in. Does a church have a clear, simple mission or is it a complex web of ideas and programs that aren’t really going anywhere? Jesus stayed on mission. His mission was simple, simple, simple: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 ESV, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2). Imagine what all Jesus accomplished in three years! What was his secret? He was driven by a simple mission and he never diverted. Everything Jesus did, every person he spoke with was to fulfill the mission. Rainer and Geiger in Simple Church say there are four common elements in growing, simple churches: Clarity (being clear about the process to reach people), Movement (the process flows logically), Alignment (the process is implemented in every area of the church), and Focus (the church abandons everything that is not in the process).
A minister or any church leader can have all the vision in the world but if the congregation is not behind the vision, there will always be other things that take priority. Some refer to willingness as “buy-in.” Another way of putting it is living out what we believe. A good friend of mine, when I told a story with extra passion and persuasion, would always respond, “I smell what you’re stepping in!” When the unchurched meet us, do they walk away convinced of our love for God and others? Do they leave saying, “I smell what you’re stepping in?” If not, we have some readjusting to do. How will we convince others that Jesus is the most important thing in our lives if we aren’t even convinced ourselves? Are we willing to stay on mission and shed everything else that is not?