Saturday, 28 June 2014

THE CHURCH OF TOMORROW



“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.  But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.  The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose,  for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.  So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

                                                                                                     (Acts 11:19-26)

We live in a fast-moving world.

 Buy the latest device today and it will be obsolete in three months (some of us are old enough to remember when a tablet was something you took with a glass of water!).

Corporations survive by being able to sense the changes that are currently taking place and being amongst the first to adapt to them.If you can see what is coming before the opposition then you can gain a tactical advantage.

 Those companies who can not “discern the signs of the times” end up either being washed away overnight or just become stagnant pools slowly dying over time.

Those with feet of clay stand no chance in the modern world.

Although the Church is certainly not a business, some of this applies to spiritual matters as well.
  
We obviously need to know what God is doing today, but even more importantly we need to need have a sense of what He is going to do tomorrow.

 In history God has moved, not in random ways but in discernible patterns.

 The Spirit  guides & directs in patterns which can detected by those with the necessary discernment. We see in the early Church how He blocked certain avenues of missional activity and opened up others instead (Acts 16:6-10). The Spirit was clearly directing His missionaries to where He wanted them to be (Acts 18:9-11).

There was intelligence at work. There was pattern.

 I do not think we take enough notice (and these days it is not thought politically correct to do so) of how history testifies to the fact that God has moved from people-group to people-group over time.

 I’ll always recall the late evangelist Barry Smith describing his missional experiences in his native New Zealand. How he could deliver a Gospel message in a Maori church and see people coming to the front in droves.  But when he would go to a middle-class “white” church down the road and deliver the same message with what he believed to be the same unction, not a soul would stir..

The wind was not currently blowing there. 

Churches that are not sensitive enough to the Spirit & able to sense the change in wind direction will gradually make themselves obsolete. They will over time become dinosaur churches.

Failure to adapt means failure to survive.

The Gospel began in Jerusalem-it was meant to. (Acts 1:8).  The Church’s first appointed task was to preach the Good News to that city’s inhabitants & then move on to Judea & Samaria.

 It began with spectacular success in the Jewish capital with 3,000 converts on the first day and many thousands more being added later.

Jerusalem was the dynamo church of the earliest Christian period. But after a while it seems to have got a little stuck, perhaps a little comfortable.

 It would require persecution to push it further on in its mission. Enter an unexpected helper in the form of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8:1)!  His dramatic intervention precipitated the expansion of mission into Judea & Samaria also   

But thereafter, as we shall see, it faltered again.

 Many have noted the intriguing parallels between these events in the Book of Acts and the Genesis command to fill the whole earth (Gen 1:28). This instruction had to be reissued after the Flood and ultimately would require divine intervention at Babel to enforce (Gen 11:9)   

In Acts the new humanity struggles in the same way as the old humanity did to reach . “the uttermost ends of the earth

 A major leap forward takes place in chapter 10 with Peter’s summonsing from Joppa to meet with the Gentile, Cornelius.  

Joppa is a place we have been to in scripture before (Jonah 1:3), and we are surely meant to notice the spiritual connection between the two episodes.

 Peter, after all, is the “son of Jonah” (Mt 16:17) and in both the Old Testament prophet and the New Testament apostle we see the same marked reluctance towards taking the Gospel to the Gentile world.

 God has to go to elaborate lengths involving multiple visions, remarkable coincidences and a manifestation of speaking in tongues to finally convince the apostle that the Gospel is not for the Jew only!

Yet much later, Paul describes to us a man who is still too easy to persuade when it comes to shunning Gentiles (Gal 2:11-12). 

It seems that whilst God got Gentile evangelism into Peter’s head, He never quite got it into his heart.  This new kind of mission would need a different kind of man to Peter- in many ways a greater man than Peter.   

 It is noteworthy that when Barnabas sought assistance for this nascent Gentile mission, he thought not of Peter nor of any of the Twelve in Jerusalem, but instead sent to Tarsus to seek out the man who had already been earmarked by Christ as His apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9: 15).

As it was with Peter, so it seemed to be with the church he spearheaded. 
Amongst Jews, the Jerusalem church was dynamic and dramatically successful

But it seemed to have a built-in delimiter. It was spectacularly effective at reaching its own people, but hesitant and reluctant beyond that sphere.

Witness how when Saul of Tarsus’s persecution sent Judean believers north they had come preaching the Gospel to none but their countrymen only (Acts 11:19).

 Now this may well have been  prior to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and anyway, news of that event would only travel slowly. But even in those early days there were already Hellenistic Jews,  men of Cyprus and Cyrene” who could see the need to bring the Good News to the Greeks as well (Acts 11:20).

  Luke clearly intends us to note the contrast between these Hellenistic Jews and their less keen-sighted Jerusalem brethren.    

 Just as a different kind of man was required for Gentile mission so a different kind of church was required. One that could see past the present to what God was about to do.

Antioch was the Church of Tomorrow..

Many (though certainly not all) churches are fine at handling the present. But it takes a special kind of church to see beyond the present.

These Jewish believers could handle what God was doing today but not what He would do tomorrow.

The future was not Jewish evangelism. Within a couple of generations the Church would be almost exclusively Gentile.

 By failing to see what God was about to do, the believing community of Judea would eventually go from being the dynamo of the early Church to becoming a dinosaur!

Antioch could see further than Jerusalem. Here were to be found the men who had the sense that the spiritual world was changing & they were men who were able to adapt to that change.  


So what is God doing in our day? More importantly, what is God about to do?

What new circumstances has Providence allowed to develop in our society which we must recognize and be responding to?

These are questions that are only ever asked by the Church of Tomorrow.

But the answers are not hard to find.

 Firstly we must take note of the aggressive anti-Christian secularism which has gained the ascendancy in our midst.  

 This is a warning to us that the Church of Tomorrow will be a Church thoroughly grounded in Christian Apologetics.  

 The days of a few memory-verses and a wishy-washy Gospel presentation are over. The believer of tomorrow will have to know his faith well and know how to defend it competently.

But even this is perhaps not the most significant aspect of our future.

 The further important development is the rise of  Islam in the Western world, with an estimated almost 3 million Muslims now living here in the UK

 I wrote a paper for the Apostolic Church last year in which I outlined what I saw as both the dangers and the opportunities for the UK Church.

 The danger is of our being caught in a pincer movement between these two forces - Secularism and Islam - neither of which we are well-equipped to handle from an apologetic standpoint.

The opportunity is the presence in our nation of  three million people who would likely never hear the Gospel were they living in a Muslim country.

 Millions of people who are actually far closer to us theologically than the average modern Westerner and are far more open to talking about God and religion! 

 It is not inconceivable if current trajectories are maintained that witness to Muslims could become one of the most fruitful areas of soul-winning. 

Indeed, if the wind is about to blow in that direction then it certainly will be so.

Islam is the great challenge of 21st Century evangelism.  

 When the religion arose out of the sands of 7th Century Arabia the Church was just entering its long medieval doldrums and was in no condition to respond evangelistically. Surely we can do better today?

There is an urgent need to see the opportunity that is being presented to us

 Foreign mission once meant travelling thousands of miles into remote and dangerous areas of the globe. Today the nations have come to us!

How many of us can see what God is about to do?

Where are the modern Pauls who will move the Church past our traditional shunning of Muslims and begin to grasp the nettle of evangelizing them?

Where are the modern Antiochs who can see what the future looks like?

 For I have a strong sense that there very many churches which are currently considered to be vibrant and dynamic (like Jerusalem of old) but in fact are hopelessly stuck in the evangelistic paradigms of the 1990s.  

 But the church growth models of even two decades ago are now obsolete. They will not serve in the future. 

We must see the emerging challenges & equip ourselves to meet them.

 So is your church content to be a dinosaur or do you aspire to being a dynamo?

Will yours be a church of yesterday or the Church of Tomorrow?