Where we’ve been
I’m not church history expert, but I’ve read on it a little bit. It seems that in the beginning, right after Jesus ascended, the church was on the run. Meeting in homes and in catacombs, trying desperately not to get caught and tortured to death. The work of ministry was not put in the hands of professionals because there were none.
Then came Constantine. A Roman emperor, Constantine found himself in the middle of a rebellion under dire circumstances, when he was told in a dream to make the mark of Christ upon the shields of his soldiers. He was victorious in battle. Christianity stopped being outlawed and scores of people flooded to the early church.
When Christians stopped being on the run, they started organizing. To put it as Mickey said to Rocky in Rocky III: They got civilized.
This wasn’t a bad thing on the surface. Mass martyrdoms stopped, Christians could worship without fear of being slaughtered for their efforts. Worship changed too. Ministers began to wear fine vestments instead of the clothing everyone else wore. Large edifices were erected instead of the small rooms that had once been church buildings. Choirs were created. Congregations became participants as professionals began to formalize worship.
Look 300 years earlier. This is how Acts described the church right at its formation:
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. – Acts 4:32-35, NLT
I think I wrote too much. We really just needed the first three words: “All the believers.” To me, that’s the shift. The church is days old, and they were united. “All the believers” were making a choice to be there. They were building something brand new, and nobody knew what they were doing.
It must have been an incredible experience. You know… minus the crucifixions and being fed to the lions.
Zip back to Constantine: nobody’s on the run. Nobody has to hide. More time to organize, more time to set up a hierarchy.
Remember what Jesus did with hierarchy?
Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. – Luke 22:24-27
Among you it will be different
I look at what Jesus said, then I look at Acts 4. That was different! Giving your stuff to other people? Serving? It truly takes a revolution of the heart to make people stop chasing their own interests and look out for one another to the point where, as it says in Acts, “there were no needy people among them.”
We stop serving ourselves. We start serving others. We practice it until it becomes second nature, until it doesn’t seem weird anymore.
There is no place for power there. There is no place for power in our steady focus on meeting the needs of the other.
Churches today have institutionalized ministry so well, we don’t have to think about where to begin. There are trips, online donation forms, professionals who can tell us how to minister well. Those groups do incredible work, but what about our brother next door? Have we become so focused on following directions that we’ve lost the will to follow Jesus?
We’ve gotten civilized.
What would a radical outbreak of the Holy Spirit look like among our churches? What would mobilized compassion and mercy look like among our towns, our department stores, our families?
I think it would be a lot of fun.
But we’re waiting. We’re waiting for someone more eloquent, more experienced, more confident to come along and move. We would certainly follow them, but we never imagine that it’s actually us, actually me, that God is moving. It doesn’t have to go up the chain. God is using the same people he used right from the beginning: “all the believers.”
Waiting won’t forfeit our salvation. It doesn’t make us bad people. One thing it will do, though… it will keep us from being right in the middle of the madcap, unpredictable, constant movement of Christ in our world.
Maybe we do need to stop and organize; God has put people in our churches. Maybe we need a plan. One thing we don’t need to do, though, is suppress the nagging voice of the Holy Spirit until it lets us have our way and goes away.