Person-to-person spontaneity is the Spirit’s style.
Does the power present at Pentecost stack up against today’s professionals?
Is it conceivable that God’s plan for world mission is at the mercy of the economy? Is it possible that the God who spoke the universe into existence, who owns the land, the silver and the gold, the cattle on a thousand hills, the earth and all its fullness, could be the victim of the economy?
This serious question arose as I prepared to address a meeting of missionary executives and administrators. The subject assigned, which was to be in dialogue with a professional economist, was “The Future of Missions in the Light of the World Economy.”
At first, the question of God being a victim of the economy seemed rhetorical. It was inconceivable. It was impossible. The God from whom all things are could not be frustrated in his plan for the whole world.
The concern of missions executives, however, seems to indicate the contrary.
The program of missions is so geared to the economy that mission boards and agencies, as well as local churches, are experiencing difficult times. Cost-of-living wage increases are imperative. More dollars must be sent overseas just to maintain the buying power of the missionaries. Evangelicals are beginning to feel the tension of various religious organizations competing for their dollars.
What is the explanation for this tragic contradiction? How is it that God’s plan for the world can be threatened by the economy?
In this context I reexamined the Acts of the Apostles. Once again I experienced a sense of the free flow of God’s power in the gospel emanating from Jerusalem following Pentecost, as thousands and thousands embraced faith in Christ. Persecution in Jerusalem did not hinder this incredible, spontaneous movement. On the contrary, it hastened it. Dr. Luke records that all except the apostles were scattered, and wherever they went they preached the gospel.
The sheer effortlessness of this spontaneous expansion of the primitive church stands in sharp contrast to the immense effort, organization, planning, programming, and implementing of the twentieth-century church in its world mission.
That early spontaneity did not change when the church at Antioch was led by the Spirit to send out Barnabas and Paul. Despite hostile opposition, the gospel of Jesus Christ penetrated pagan cultures, and the influence of Christian witness spread like a benevolent infection in the ancient world. And all of this happened even though one does not see in the Acts—or in the epistles, for that matter—strong exhortations to mission, elaborate plans, or preoccupation with evangelistic methods (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 16:5).
The New Testament is strangely silent in contrast to the busyness of institutionalized mission in the twentieth century. Nowhere in the record is the Great Commission repeated by the apostles. Yet certainly they knew it was their mandate. Certainly they understood that they were to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
How does the contemporary church differ? It differs in the emergence and growth of professionalism in mission. Early in the primitive church a professional class began to emerge and gradually assumed the mandate for mission as its responsibility. The apostolic pattern began to change from that era when every believer, filled with the Holy Spirit, was a witness to Christ. Little by little, through the centuries, church tradition replaced New Testament practice. The work of ministry was given to or preempted by a relatively few professionals like preachers, evangelists, missionaries, and Christian educators. The task of the average believer became that of supporting the professional in his mission.
The clear teaching of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4 was completely disregarded by the church. According to Paul’s understanding, the work of ministry belonged to the people of God. Christ gave to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. He intended that they equip the people of God for the ministry that was theirs in the divine economy. The professionals are to be the equippers, according to the New Testament; the ministers are the people of God. In the New Testament church every believer was in full-time service for Jesus Christ.
For the last half-century we have seen a resurgence of the ministry of the laity. Many books have been written expounding the New Testament pattern. Methods without number have been devised to help the laity “share faith.” Organizations have developed to train the laity for ministry.
But the unstated assumption of many programs is that the laity are to be trained to work in much the same way the professionals work. The result has been the emergence of a kind of semiprofessional class who think of ministry in terms of the professional model. Hundreds of thousands of lay people have been taught to do evangelism, which they conceive of as all there is to ministry. They do not think of themselves as Christ’s ministers (servants) in all they do, but only when they are busy at tasks like the professionals.
Furthermore, for the thousands who have been trained there are millions who have not been trained and therefore assume their lack of training justifies noninvolvement. Frustrated because for whatever reason they were unable to take the training, and indoctrinated that one must be taught “how to share his faith,” they assume they are not qualified to witness.
In company with this has risen the destructive polarization between secular and sacred—a distinction one does not find in the New Testament. It is this thinking that makes the assumption that teaching public school is secular; teaching in Bible school or Sunday School is sacred. Running the business of a corporation is secular; running the business of a church is sacred. Singing in a choir is sacred; singing on the stage is secular. Constructing an office building is secular; constructing a church is sacred.
As a result, lay people see most of their time as spent in “secular” activity. They believe that the only time they are serving Christ is when they are doing what is “spiritual,” like teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, serving on an official board of the church or when, as opportunity affords during the week, they share their faith, read the Bible, pray or attend a group. Because their “secular” jobs are very demanding, they have little time to do these “spiritual” things, and they experience a relentless low-grade frustration. They do not think of themselves as ministers of Christ.
One man who visited me some months ago commented: “I’m 45 years of age; I’ve been an engineer for 20 years. Now I want to go to seminary so I can serve the Lord.” It would be humorous were it not so tragic. Somehow he had missed the point that Christ had called him to be an engineer. If he had understood what the New Testament teaches, everything he did as an engineer could have been service for Jesus Christ.
One executive of a large corporation said: “My church has never given me any indication that it had any interest whatsoever in how I conducted myself as a business executive with my corporation.”
So in spite of all the rhetoric about the ministry of the laity, what has been communicated is that the laity ministers only when involved in a specialized way in what is thought of as “spiritual.” How a Christian behaves as parent or neighbor, in his social circle or on her job, has nothing to do with ministry. That is presumably “secular.” Ministry only happens in the rare moments when the lay person does what it is assumed the professional does when preaching or teaching or evangelizing.
If professionalism is the means whereby God’s plan for the whole earth is implemented, then we expose that plan to the mercy of economics. Depending on circumstances, it takes a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of the laity to support one professional in ministry. The whole mission is thus delicately sensitive to inflation, recession, depression, devaluation of the dollar, unemployment, and other factors. The more professionals sent to the field the greater the number of laity it takes to support them.
What a difference in the New Testament where the believer was Spirit-filled, and because he was Spirit-filled he was a witness! He spoke of Christ as “the Spirit gave him utterance.” He spread the gospel in a way natural to him. He did not have to be taught how to witness; he did it spontaneously under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Those first Christians had very little theology. They did not begin to know about Jesus Christ as we do today. They did not have all the advantages two thousand years of experience have given us. But they were filled with the love of God and demonstrated this love by caring for others, by sharing their possessions. In fact, Dr. Luke records they actually sold their possessions and turned over the proceeds to the apostles to be shared. Their witness was unselfconscious, spontaneous, efficient, powerful, fruitful.
The early church was effective in its witness because the apostles and other church leaders heeded Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4 to equip the people of God for the work of the ministry. Together they turned the world upside-down.
The maximum influence of the church of Jesus Christ on earth now is not the influence of the mass media, despite the millions being reached every day. The greatest impact is through the witness of the body of Christ, the aggregate of individual believers. They achieve this through the way they live between Sundays in their homes and neighborhoods, in their social contacts, and on their jobs day in, day out. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit they demonstrate Christ’s love and caring and, in ways most natural to them, tell their friends and others about God’s love in Christ. They affirm confidently how he changed their lives and how he can change the life of anyone who takes him seriously. In terms of influence on the world, nothing equals the witness of individual believers as they cope with their own sin and inadequacy, with reverses and tragedy, with weakness, with pain, with failure in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.
Professionals are essential. But the measure of their effectiveness is determined by the laity who accept what they do between Sundays as God’s vocation for them, to be done to the glory of God and their witness to Christ. When the New Testament model is operative, the usual situation is reversed. Instead of many laity supporting one professional, one professional equips tens or hundreds or thousands for mission, and they support themselves in their ministry.
In 1977, Robert S. McNamara, then president of the World Bank, addressed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the problem of population. In discussing solutions, he made a statement that remarkably confirms the efficacy of the lay ministry strategy in the New Testament: “… the mass media, while influential with people who are already in general agreement, or at least neutral, can rarely—through direct messages—persuade people to reverse deep-seated convictions, or long-standing behavior … no form of media information is as effective as person-to-person communication. Messages can be sent electronically thousands of miles, but it is ultimately people talking to one another in a classroom, on the street, at the village market, or in the village home where the essential questions are discussed, and the essential answers are explored.”
The person-to-person communication extolled by McNamara has a parallel in the New Testament model for the church. Let the individual believer, equipped by spiritual leaders and empowered by the Holy Spirit, fulfill his or her role as a witness—and wonderful results will follow. The work of the church will flourish, unhindered by the fluctuation of world economies. The impact of personal witness on individuals will immeasurably exceed the accomplishments of mass media. And the plan of God for world mission will surge toward that glorious fulfillment when the gospel shall be preached in all the world, and people are gathered to his kingdom from the ends of earth.
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