Back to the Future

The world around us has changed dramatically in the last few years. Who saw COVID coming along with all its far-reaching implications? Part of the changes that came were monumental to the Church in the Western world as well. Churches in some states were shut down for over a year and couldn’t meet together at all except online. Churches that were not digital rushed to get online.

Because of the changes we all faced it was a good time to revisit the church of the past and evaluate what happened in previous ages when the church was not formed like the Western church is today. How did Paul and the early disciples reach the entire Roam world with the good news about Jesus? What can we learn? 

The outreach of the early church was organic and natural. There were no organized evangelistic meeting or campaigns. The gospel spread through natural social networks as people shared the message of Jesus and made disciples. In Acts 8 after Stephen was stoned to death, the believers were forced to leave Jerusalem due to increased persecution. As they went the gospel went with them and continued to spread.

Paul and his coworkers intentionally went to new places to evangelize and then place the new disciples into churches that were small and usually met in homes. We see him referencing many of these house churches throughout his writings. His emphasis seemed to be bringing the gospel to pockets of unreached people and making disciples. Churches were almost the by-product. 

After placing people in churches, he would leave them to meet together and later ordain elders or leaders to oversee the new believers. The churches were marked by the absolute lack of programs and corporate plans.

The Western church model changed when Christendom came to the former Roman world. After Constantine’s possible conversion in 312 A.D., the Church was merged with the state and the state church became the norm throughout Europe. The parish model built around a single leader and a specific building came to America with the immigration of Christians from Europe.

While America steered clear of the state church model, all the methods were transferred and adapted to the new world. That model flourished, even with its limitations, millions of new disciples were created. God used the parish model to create Christian community and teach millions the Bible. I just finished my 37th year as pastor of a traditional model church. The effectiveness of that type of church is without question and God is still using it to help and bless people. Many people who are away from God are coming to faith through that model. I would be one of the last ones to criticize something that Jesus loves and has used to reach others.

That is all true, but change is in the water. Most church leaders are aware that the former model is not always the best way because of all the cultural and societal changes and probably be even less effective in the future. That is difficult for some church leaders to accept because “we have always done it this way”. It will take courage to face reality and adapt to what God is doing while at the same time celebrating what he has done in the past.

Statistics vary but conservatively over half of Americans have no plans to go to church regardless of how effective the preaching and singing is. The answer is not just to get better but we must do it differently. Most are not against knowing God, but they are not in favor of church as we know it. 

Jesus used an illustration of new wine and old wine. When Jesus returned to heaven it would require great changes in the way people thought and acted. Mark 2:22 saysAnd no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” For us, the old wineskin is the traditional church model while the new wineskin is designed to hold the new wine.

Jesus made it clear that he did not want to harm the old wineskin. Micro church or house church movements in the past were critical of the old models even though their new models were on blueprints that were not yet working. Their criticism called their demise. The best way to approach and implement change is not to attack the old but to create the trail to the new. As the new model becomes observable and fruitful, it will displace the old way more and more. God wants to do a new thing without harming and destroying the old thing.

What exactly the new wineskin is has not become clear yet. The best way to discover it is to live in the book of Acts and see what principles can be adapted and used to make more disciples. Each generation is different and unique. Creating a one-size-fits-all model is less effective than the former model. Acts 13:36 uses King David’s life to show us the picture of the unchanging message in a constantly changing culture. “…for after David had done the will of God in his own generation, he died and was buried with his ancestors…”. The will of God did not change but David had a unique generation, as we all do. The challenge for us is to discover for this generation the best way to follow God and cput his will into action.

My opinion is that the way forward is a type of hybrid model mixing the old and new for a season. Paul advocated that method in his 20/20 vision. Acts 20:20 says, “I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes.” We have been doing small groups for pastoral care in the church for decades. Micro campused are different because their target, like Paul’s was those outside the church and away from God.

The plan is to not just make better disciples but to make disciples from those who have not yet decided to follow Jesus Christ with their lives. Small groups are great to create community among Christians. Micro campuses are to create community for those who are not yet Christians.

In order to be a follower of Jesus in the Western world, a person usually has to be born again twice, one to the Lord and again to the new culture. Our Christian culture has often been louder than our Christian message. Sometimes it is not the message that is off putting, but the culture. 

As a child of the seventies, the Christian culture and music was unattractive to me. My need for salvation and a relationship with Jesus was obvious and I just kind of held my nose and joined in. Jesus said to the religious people of his day that they had made the Word of God of no effect because of their traditions. Is it possible our traditions are so loud that the people we are trying to reach can’t hear the message?

The answer is to take the message to the culture of those we are trying to reach. Some radical examples of this are things like, a church in a dog park, a church in a tattoo parlor, neighborhood weekly dinner churches, and many other ways. It is successful to the degree it is organic. 

We see Jesus going to where the people were. He could be found eating with and relating to the outcasts, the sinners. His target was the sick rather than the well. Maybe we aren’t following Jesus to the right target. How can we do this better?

Prayerfully look around to the cultures that exist for you and the church you are part of. Where could a relationship be established that might lead to meaningful conversations resulting in spiritual conversations? Jesus said he would make us fishers of men. How are you doing?

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