I am nearing the end of Michael Green’s book Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today. While the first edition was published over 20 years ago (1993) and the second edition was republished 12 years ago, I find its relevance increasing for our time. As we push deeper into a post-Christendom America (not necessarily a bad thing), there are lessons we need to apply from those first Christians.
At one point in the book, Professor Green (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University) details the shift of the center of Christian leadership from the mother church in Jerusalem (i.e. the church of Pentecost) to Antioch. The Church at Jerusalem was originally known for its missionary (both evangelistic and missional outreach in love, justice and mercy) zeal. Dr. Green comments: “The Jerusalem church members were remarkable for their apostolic doctrine, their willingness to sacrifice, their outstanding unity, their social concern, their prayers both informally and in the liturgy of the temple. Spiritual gifts were clearly in evidence. Evangelism flourished. Large numbers became followers of Jesus” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).
Through the second half of the Book of Acts, the Jerusalem church fades and Antioch takes center stage. Scholars note a number of reasons for the decline of the Jerusalem church. Foremost among them was a fading of the evangelistic and missional (love/justice/mercy) zeal they first had. Slowly Antioch replaced Jerusalem. If you read the Book of Acts carefully, you will realize that it is from Antioch that the great missionary journeys were launched.
Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:
“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Jerusalem church began well but failed to fulfill God’s number one priority, world mission. [By world mission he means a very Wesleyan understanding of evangelism/conversion growth and missional outreach in love/justice/mercy.] The torch was passed to Antioch, which had a blazing zeal for mission, and Jerusalem thereafter shrank into insignificance. No doubt there were contributory reasons for their decline, but the most crucial one was their satisfaction with their own church life and failure in missionary commitment. They are a serious warning to us. Even the most flourishing church can be eclipsed and become an irrelevance if it fails to maintain the outward orientation that Christ laid upon his followers” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).
I read the words and sat back in my seat. The correlation to our day and time is plain to see. It is so tempting to fold back in on ourselves taking care of those we know and love. There is nothing wrong and much right and good about excellence in the pastoral care of church members. And yet, churches that make pastoral care their greatest priority inevitably lose their great calling to outreach and in the end deliver impoverished and inadequate pastoral care because of the failure. This is all counter intuitive and yet empirically, experientially, and biblically true.
My reading drove me back to an earlier book that I had read back in 2005 when I was the Senior Pastor of University United Methodist Church in San Antonio – Reggie McNeil’s The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. McNeil shared the following story and commentary:
“In the summer of 2002, the country spent several anxious days concerned about the fate of nine mine workers trapped in a mine in Pennsylvania. Rescue efforts involved several innovative strategies, including pumping heated air down the shaft. As the workers emerged from their ordeal, so did the story of their survival. One key element was their decision to huddle together to stay warm and touch one another in the cold darkness of the collapsed mine.
“The church in North America far too often resembles these miners. Feeling trapped in the collapse of the church culture, club members are huddling together in the dark and praying for God to rescue them from the mess they are in. This is the refuge mentality that pervades the mentality of many congregations and church leaders. Instead, the church needs to adopt the role of the rescue workers on the surface. They refused to quite, worked 24/7, and were willing to go to plan B or whatever it took to effect a rescue.
“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in His redemptive efforts to save the world. People all around us are in darkness. They are going to die unless someone finds a way to save them. Trouble is, the church is sleeping on the job. Too many of us have forgotten why we showed up for work.
“Even worse, many of us never have known” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, pp. 18-19).
The lessons move from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas. Let those with ears hear and those with eyes see; may we see and hear. Even more, may we obey the call of Christ!