We live in a day when the church’s influence in our culture and community is waning. In a moment like this, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we as Christ-followers live out our missional calling in a context that is becoming rapidly unchurched and progressively opposed to Christian values and beliefs?”
Scripture gives us an abundance of answers and examples, but perhaps none so compelling as we find in John’s description of Jesus in John 1:14-17:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
So, what do we take away from this portrait of Christ to apply in our own lives and missional efforts as we lead and disciple others?
Invest Deeply and Relationally into Our Communities
First, we have to invest ourselves deeply and relationally into our communities.
We cannot expect to stand on the outside isolated from the existence and experience of our neighbors and hope that others will listen and hear our message. The offer of reconciliation with God we long to share with others will only be effective when we commit to dwell among those we seek to engage. To live in their neighborhoods. To put our kids in their schools. To be invested in their youth programs. To be engaged in their local struggles. To volunteer on local commissions and be involved in community initiatives. Jesus left the comforts of Heaven to come into our midst; he stepped into our world, became like us, and lived among us to invest deeply and relationally in others. We’ll have to embrace the same approach and teach others to do the same.
Grace Upon Grace
Second, the world needs to receive “grace upon grace” from our lives (John 1:16).
As evangelicals, we are so committed to Scripture, so consumed with the Word of God and its message of the Gospel (and all rightly so!), that we often skip over the call to be people of radical and practical compassion in our world. As I reflect on this passage from John, I am moved deeply by the repetition of “grace,” and I am challenged to ask how much grace – how much undeserved kindness are we as a family or church pouring out on our community? If the only value we offer to our cities is a spiritual message without compassion demonstrated through action, then the chances they will care about our message is minimal!
Live at the Intersection of Grace and Truth
Third, we have to learn what it means to live at the intersection of grace and truth. Grace is beautiful. It’s powerful. It inclines the world to listen to our story. But compassion alone is not enough. We must also have the courage to speak hard truths without harshness (Ephesians 4:15).
So what does that look like?
GRACE → TRUTH
It is no accident that John mentions grace before truth both times in this passage.
In order for our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors to have any desire to hear the gospel from our mouths, they often need to see and experience grace through our lives.
This plays out in Jesus’ own ministry with the woman at the well in John 4, his interaction with Zaccheus in Luke 19, the woman caught in adultery in John 8, and more. He cared. He reached out to meet a physical need, to create some relational connection before He spoke words of life into their souls. Our pattern has to be the same. In order for our community to be intrigued by our message of faith, developing real relationships, earning trust, understanding needs, and responding in great compassion is vital.
GRACE + TRUTH
The challenge is to be full of both grace and truth.
We don’t get to pick either/or. It is a distinctly both/and proposition. If we speak truth disconnected from grace, we have everything to say but likely no one to say it to. The converse is also true: if we exhaust ourselves showing grace but never speak the message of truth, we may cultivate an audience but in the end, have nothing of eternal value to say.
GRACE ←→ TRUTH
Once we lived out radical grace and shared the message of truth in Christ, it is imperative to demonstrate compassion regardless of the response. The first conversation we have about the gospel may not bear much fruit. But God often uses the repeated exposure to grace and truth to draw hearts to Christ.
Lastly, the process takes time.
Trust isn’t built in a day and rarely does a singular act of kindness gain us an authentic hearing from the lost and broken. Our own ministry in metro New York (approximately 5% evangelical) is replete with relationships we’ve built and friendships we’ve cultivated; only after years of serving and loving our neighbors did we see our conversations turn deeper and more open to spiritual truth. What we’ve witnessed is this: the more unreached the community and the farther off from Christ the person is at the beginning of our interactions, then the longer the journey often takes for them to come to Christ.
And even time is no guarantee. Jesus lived a consistent life of ultimate grace, yet experienced rejection and ridicule from the vast majority of those whom He served and with whom He shared. Our experience may very well be the same.
Yet our success is not found in our outcomes – only in our obedience. We are not responsible for their faith, only for their opportunity to see (grace) and hear (truth). God still has to open hearts to respond (Acts 16.14). He still has to draw hearts to Christ (John 6.44). He still has to grant faith to those that hear (Acts 18.27).
Yet, He gives us the opportunity to speak those words to far more receptive ears when our message is continually saturated in acts of great love. That’s what it means for us as individuals, families, and churches to live at the intersection of grace and truth.
Landon Reesor is the lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Darien, CT, in metro New York. He and his wife Cristy have six beautiful children. He has worked in the local church as a planter, pastor, and mobilizer for the last twenty years. Landon is a leader in missional living and engaging the world with the Gospel of Jesus.