How does the church react to an ever changing world? It is quite clear that culture in which the church exists is a changing river, charting its own path without regard to the preferences of previous cultural systems. We have moved from an era of comfortable change – continuous and incremental – to discomforting change that is chaotic, mostly unpredictable and with little reference to the preceding culture. In the words of Taleb (2007:xxviii) it seems that in spite of our progress and the growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly less predictable. And the church… sometimes one gets the impression that the church is fighting this change with maintenance, focussing mostly on survival (Minatrea 2004:6) and the strengthening of its familiar institutions and practices. (Niemandt 2007:38-41) Guder describes this as a museum curator mentality. Reading the story of the first church in Acts, one gets a different impression and senses that the church has a different DNA: it is, by its very nature, a change agent adept at change and up to the challenge of changing contexts. The church is able to, and must, continuously retool itself for effectiveness in communicating the message of hope in the rapids of changing cultures.
This study uses the important work by Bevans & Schroeder (Constants in Context – a theology of Mission for today, 2004) as a companion in a journey through Acts, exploring this important contemporary text in the development of a missional ecclesiology and the challenges associated with being a missional church in an ever changing world. It is influenced by my personal experience as pastor in a congregation of the Dutch Reformed church in the process of transformation and the defining role played by the Book of Acts when the congregation collectively reflected on this text for a year. This study reflects on the ability of the early church to adapt to changing contexts, even sacrificing some of its core Jewish identity, in the quest of bringing the gospel to a widening audience. It is done in the expectation that the book of Acts can significantly inform today’s missional church.
2. Background and context – Acts as companion in a changing context
The point of departure is one of the important insights developed by Bevans & Schroeder, namely that the church, in the process of participating in God’s mission, is very sensitive to the challenges presented by the particular context in which the church finds itself. “There seems to be an inevitable connection, therefore, between the need for the Christian mission, on the one hand, and the need for that mission always to be radically contextual.” “By being faithful to each context the church continues to be called forth by its Lord to share and continue his mission.” (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:31) Dingemans (2005:265) challenges the church to constantly express its understanding of its identity and mission in the changing times and contexts. This is done by a process of analysing and interpreting the situation (context), being aware of the churches’ possibilities, and listening to its tradition.
This study builds on the importance of context and the ways in which the early church in Acts reinvented itself continually in facing up to the new challenges, opportunities, peoples, cultures and questions. The Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that the church only emerges as the church when it becomes aware of its boundary-breaking mission. (Bevans & Schroeder 2004:2) In Acts we get acquainted with a faith community of transformation . (Robinson & Wall 2006:12) Van Gelder (2007:25) refers to the importance of missional communities in the process of growing towards a Spirit-filled community. Spirit-filled communities acknowledge the importance of discerning the times and its context. “The church must seek to discern what the Spirit of God is doing in relation to the dynamic changes that are taking place within a particular context.” (2007:59) The church in Acts encountered significant change that was neither planned nor anticipated, yet, through a process of discernment led by the Spirit, the church succeeded in facing up to the challenges presented by changing contexts. (2007:60)
This sensitivity to contextuality is equally important in faith traditions valuing the concept of Semper reformanda. In celebrating John Calvin’s birthday 500 years ago, this particular reformed understanding reiterates this important theme in Acts, and seems to be particularly relevant. In the reformed tradition the constant reflection on missional ecclesiology can be seen as part and parcel of a reformed ethos. The church is always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda). Reformed churches understand their identity in the light of and determined by its historical faith. The church is always reforming and taking on new forms (ecclesia semper formanda). This results in a missional church constantly discerning the context and the proper ministry in that particular context, able to exegete the text (of the Word) as well as the context (world). Dingemans (2005:241) calls this the bridging function of a faith community – building a bridge between mankind, seeking to make sense of life – and the age old Christian tradition that transmitted the gospel. He calls churches hermeneutical bridges. (:253)
McKnight (2008:129) focuses on the importance of reading the Bible with a pattern of discernment. “The pattern of discernment is simply this: as we read the Bible and locate each item in its place in the Story, as we listen to God speak to us in our world through God’s ancient Word, we discern – through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community of faith – a pattern of how to live in our world.”
The church in Acts demonstrates that the church is always forming, even as it seeks to be reforming. (Van Gelder 2007:39-40) In Acts we get clues to a new vitality, a new dynamism, a new way of being church for our time, one characterized by a sense of adventure. The very shifts in our culture have created unique opportunities to read Acts freshly and faithfully, embracing it as a resource and companion for being church in new and adventurous times. (Robinson & Wall 2006:9,13)
It is important for the church to recognize that contexts are always changing, precisely to be able to discern a pattern of how to live in our world. Bosch (2004:428) stressed the importance of reading the signs of the times, but warned of the tremendous risks involved due to the fact that it is an interpreting exercise (:430). Jonker (1976:45-46) remarked on the reciprocal relationship between the text (Scripture) and context, but emphasized that the most important determinant is Scripture in the controlling position. However, the church can not escape the challenge to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel, and to allow the Bible to read us afresh in new contexts. (Walls&Ross 2008:xi) The church must try to understand what is happening in the world and who in this world needs the life-changing Gospel. (Burger 1999:124)
What can we read from the times? Gibbs (2005) emphasizes the fact that many of the changes facing the church are global in nature. Thomas Friedman wrote two important works on globalization – The World is Flat (2005) and Hot, Flat and Crowded (2008). For the sake of the scope of this contribution, only his first work is utilized to focus briefly on the all-encompassing changes in context heralded in by this process of globalization. Friedman describes the globalized world in the twenty-first century as a world flattened by new technologies. “It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world
– using computers, e-mail, fibre-optic networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software.”(2006:8) This new global era is described by Miller (2004:76) as a shift to a new digitally defined culture that is much more than just a change in technology, attitude, and understanding. It is a sensory change where change itself becomes the only constant and the organizing principle, or as Roxburg & Romanuk (2006:5) state: “We are moving through a period of volatile, discontinuous change.” “Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable.”(Taleb 2007: xxvii) These changes pose particular challenges to the understanding of church and especially missional church. Changes are rapid; they burst upon us, allowing little or no time to reflect. Globalization constitutes the interruptive and tumultuous change referred to as discontinuous change (Van Gelder: 49), or, in the words of Giddens (2002: xxxi), to be living in a Runaway World. “We are in a time of Big Change”. (Keifert 2006:37)
It is impossible to summarize Friedman in a brief paper , but I am convinced that the following insights in the nature of a globalized, runaway world are particularly relevant for the missional church:
• a new era of creativity;
• a new era of connectivity;
• the impact of uploading;
• a new era of in-forming.
A new era of creativity
The new age of creativity started with the unleashing of global creativity when communism and the Berlin wall fell, tipping the balance toward those advocating democratic, consensual, free-market-oriented governance. Coupled with the rise of the Windows enabled PC, it eliminated the barrier on the amount of information that any single individual could amass, author, manipulate and diffuse. It allowed individuals to become the authors of their own content. (Friedman 2005:52-59). The unleashing of creativity challenges the church and theologians to a new kind of creative reflection on the church. (Niemandt 2007:112) The chaos of cultural change is a God-given space for creative innovation (Taylor 2005:61); acknowledging that the church is summoned by God to discern a pattern for living the gospel that is appropriate for our creative age. Taylor (2005:72) correctly sees this opportunity to listen to previously unheard questions and unspoken answers as a missiological challenge to allow the human imagination to seek new creative opportunities. Bosch (2004:431) called this the dimension of poiesis – the representation of evocative images because people not only need truth and justice, they also need beauty.
A new era of connectivity
The new era of connectivity where digital content could be send anywhere at little or no cost – the advent of the World Wide Web – has flattened the world. It enables more people to communicate and interact with more people anywhere on the planet than ever before. (Friedman 2005:77) It is more than mere communication – instantaneous electronic communication isn’t just a way in which news or information is conveyed more quickly, its existence alters the very texture of our lives. (Giddens 2002:11) “There are theoretically no boundaries or restrictions within this environment” (Miller 2004:77). The growth of social networks and connected communities such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and many other bears witness to this growing phenomenon. Its ability to form community, serves as proof of Len Sweet’s (2000:113) prediction in 2000 that the Internet will become less a disseminator of information and more a social medium. The unrestricted connecting of the world challenges the church and theologians to a new kind of creative reflection on the importance of networks and personal relations . This move to community, to a people that carry and express our shared memories and hope are a central theme of the Christian faith, but sadly this aspect of the church may be the most neglected theme of contemporary Christian thought. (Robinson&Wall 2006:4) A new era of connectivity calls for the rediscovery of what it means to be ecclesia.
The impact of uploading
Uploading is about the harnessing of the power of communities. By this Friedman (2005:95) means the ability, even of individuals or small communities, to produce products of substance and complexity without the need for a hierarchical organization or institution. Uploading is the logical consequence of a participatory culture , and Len Sweet’s (2000:60) observation that people will make sacrifices for the good of the whole, that human systems are self-organizing and that people can be trusted to invest wisely of their resources and time, explains the driving force behind uploading. Typical forms of uploading are the community-developed software movement, Wikipedia and blogging/podcasting. This is creating new possibilities for participation and is propagating a participatory culture and the possibility that everyone can be a co-editor – a phrase coined by Sweet (2008:33), indicating that participation now entails the possibility of editing other peoples content in real time. “People want to participate in the production of content, whatever it is.”(Sweet 2000:61) This has vast implications for the ability of communities to participate in glocal processes and influencing communities on an unprecedented scale. The power and opportunities facilitated by uploading and the endless possibilities to harness the love of faith communities brings a new dimension to what it means to be a missional church in this era. Participating in God’s mission, setting things right in a broken, sinful world, restoring it to what God has always intended, all of a sudden gains new momentum.
A new era of in-forming
In-forming refers to the fact that never before in the history of the planet have so many people – on their own – had the ability to find so much information about so many things and people. I would like to add, from such unlikely places as rural Mozambique, a place where, a mere 10 years ago, I had for all practical purposes disappeared from the face of earth. There I was able to access the Internet through my cell-phone – and therefore a significant part of the knowledge in the world. Google hopes that in time, with a cell phone, everyone everywhere will be able to carry around access to the entire world’s knowledge in their pockets! (Friedman 2005:178) “In time, individuals will have the power to find anything in the world at any time on all kinds of devices – and that will be enormously empowering.” (Friedman 2005:181) Miller (2004:79) says that our very basis of knowing and understanding is shifting to an inter-active, global, anytime, anywhere, multimedia experience with countless sources to explore and test. “Our minds and bodies will undergo yet another rewiring to support this different sensory experience.” This new era , characterized by Google, Yahoo and MSN Web Search, will “… reach for the wisdom of the ages and seek to recontextualize it within their community and setting.” (Miller 2004:87) The church is summoned to discern thispattern for living the truth which is collectively reassembled.
These changes in context challenges the church on every conceivable understanding of being church: the understanding of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, multiculturality and hospitality to the stranger, the ability of faith communities to serve God’s kingdom in communities, the empowerment of lay members and the church’s responsibility towards God’s creation. Storrar (2008:1) has appropriately shown that globalization enables the convergence of Christian traditions around a new way of thinking about God’s relationship to the world in Jesus Christ. I am convinced that the Acts of the Apostles may serve us with clues to a new vitality, a new dynamism, a new way of being church for our time, in this flat, runaway world.
4. Acts as a companion giving insight in the theology of the early church
In this paper the missiological focus of the Bible is acknowledged.
Acts is Luke’s “streamlined, somewhat unilinear carefully constructed, idealized and schematized, highly theological history” (Bevans & Schroeder 2004:12) of the first Christian community. “Acts is best read as a species of ancient historiography.” (Robinson & Wall 2006:21) Luke was writing a historical narrative about the beginnings of Christianity (Marshall 1980:23 ), but history charged with theological meaning. Wright (2006:514) see Luke’s underlying theology as the messianical and missiological understanding of Scriptures pointing to the Messiah and the good news going to the nations. The overall structure of Luke’s two-volume work and the scriptural understanding reflected in it, bring the whole Old Testament story of Israel to its climax and destination as the purpose for which God created Israel in the first place – the blessing of all nations becoming a reality through the mission of the church . “Luke shows that the new centrifugal phenomenon of mission to the nations, to the ends of the earth, was not some unheard of innovation but simply (in the words of Jesus) “what is written” and (in the words of Paul) “nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen.” (Wright 2006:521) Bosch (2004:119) also draws attention to Luke’s bipolar orientation, “inward” and “outward”: inward in the sense that the church devotes itself to the apostles’’ teaching, especially the resurrection event, outward in the sense that it is actively engaged in a mission to those outside the gospel.
Bevans & Schroeder (2004:10) states that the church can only be church when it embraces its mission everywhere and in all situations. Acts paints the picture of the origin of Christian mission and helps the church in discerning this mission. The disciples understood itself as church only after discovering their mission to the ends of earth. Acts witnesses the development and growth of the mission of the first church. “As the mission takes shape, so does the church.” (Bevans & Schroeder 2004:13) The Acts of the Apostles paints a picture of the church emerging in its response to the mission with which it was entrusted and affords us with a particular insight in the way a changing context is navigated while the church is still true to its identity. McKnight (2008:130) says that the church in Acts was challenged to discern how best to live the gospel in its day and in its way. He illustrates the point by referring to the pattern of discernment found in Acts 15 regarding the i
ssue of circumcision. It is clear that the early church discerned that the ageless command to Abraham to circumcise was not necessary for Gentile converts – even to the point that Paul discerned that circumcision didn’t really matter at all. Embracing and discovering its mission, the church, through a process of discernment, found a pattern to live missionally in new contexts.
These insights from Acts enable the elaboration of a theology of mission, illuminating the following:
(1) The church as participating in God’s mission. Mission does not belong to the congregation. It is God’s mission – the missio Dei – the work of the triune God for the sake of the world, in which the church is privileged to participate. (Kirk 2000:25) Mission is both what God does and who God is, an attribute of God. (Bosch 2004:390)
(2) The missional nature of the church means that mission belongs to the very purpose, life and structure of the church. (Bevans & Schroeder 2004:290) Since God is a missionary God, God’s people are a missionary people. (Bosch 2004:372, Kirk 2000:30) Mission is not one of several tasks in which the church should be engaged, it is the basis and origin of the church and is the source of unity, vision and energy in the church . The mission of the church overrides its boundaries, spilling out into the world in fulfilment of the apostolic commission to ‘go into the world’. “The church finds its being in its mission, under the guidance and power of the Spirit. Its intention and direction is orientated to the world God loves and to which it is sent.” (Anderson 2007:181)
(3) The importance of contextualization – the attempt to communicate the Gospel in word and deed and to establish churches in ways that make sense to people within their local cultural context. (Frost&Hirsch 2003:83) The gospel is dynamic and evolves into newer and newer forms in keeping with each local situation and according to the need of the moment. (Gnanakan 2008: 10) A church sent into an ever-changing environment must be fluid in its capacity to adapt while maintaining a clear commitment to its unchanging purpose. (Minatrea 2004:9) Since the very beginning, the missionary message of the church incarnated itself in the life and world of those who had embraced it, affirming that God has turned toward the world .(Bosch 2004:421,426) The church is always in double dialogue – with itself, with the context, with society at large, with culture; and in dialogue with the Christian tradition which it inherited. (Dingemans 2005:247)
5. The seven stages of mission in Acts
Bevans & Schroeder describes 7 stages of mission in the development of the mission of the church in Acts in changing contexts. Each stage represents a particular moment in the community’s understanding of its mission and its corresponding understanding of itself … as the church. (2004:13) Guided by these stages, one can find a rich source of reflection for the missional church. It gives the reader an opportunity to discern patterns to live missionaly in new contexts and informs the understanding of ecclesiology and missional strategy.
Stage 1 – Before Pentecost – Acts 1
The focus in this stage is on the formation of a community understanding their identity and structure as (1) determined by the reign of God (2) with apostolic leadership and (3) waiting on the Holy Spirit. The first question is not, suggest Acts, what should we do? Instead, it is: what is God doing? Where is the Spirit moving? When the apostles are told to return to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit, it is a way of saying to the church “You’re not in charge here.” It is the Spirit who will make the first and decisive moves. (Robinson&Wall 2006:6) This is important, because the Spirit not only initiates mission, it also guides the missionaries about where they should go and how they should proceed. The Spirit of God calls the church into existence and leads the church by sending it into the world on God’s mission. The intimate linking of pneumatology and mission is Luke’s distinctive contribution to the early church’s missionary paradigm. (Bosch 2004:114) So important is the role of the Spirit in Acts that Van Gelder (2007:39) says The Acts of the Apostles could just as readily be entitled The Acts of the Spirit
Reflecting on this stage and the emphasis on waiting on the Spirit, the following pattern comes to mind:
The importance to wait on God; to acknowledge that discernment is a process that is fundamentally influenced by the Holy Spirit. “The guidance of the Spirit is promised us as we pray, as we study Scripture, and as we join the conversation with church tradition. It would be much easier for God to have given us rules and regulations for everything. But God, in his wisdom, has chosen not to do that. Discernment is an element of what it means to walk by faith”. (McKnight 2008:132) God’s people discern how to live in this world by acknowledging the vital role of the Spirit in our interpretation of the world and Word. Van Gelder (2007:63-66) and Keifert (2006:130) emphasises this important pattern of missional congregations – Spirit-filled missional churches expect to discover new insights in new situations. Such communities understand that the Spirit leads them into active ministry, participating in God’s mission. (Burger 1999:170, Du Plessis 2002:78) They understand that the power of the Spirit maintains the church in truth and love and that dependence on the Holy Spirit permeates every moment of a missional church. There is something contagious about a community in which the Spirit of Jesus becomes a dynamic that not only binds the members into a fellowship of common love, but also touches all who come in contact with members of the community. (Anderson 2007:161) Even more – judging from the stories in the book of Acts, the Spirit will take us where we did not, on our own, planned to go, and will involve us in ministry that cost us something, and perhaps, everything. (Robinson&Wall 2006:130)
Stage 2 – Pentecost – Acts 2-5
In this stage the focus is on the unexpected Pentecost experience, where the inauguration of the expected messianic times was by the descent of the Spirit and the endowment of the community with the gift of prophecy. The speech by Peter plays an important role in this regard. Although Bevans & Schroeder (2004:17) is hesitant to see more in Peter’s speech and the events during Pentecost than the fulfilment of Judaism itself, Wright (:514) states that the preaching of Peter indicates an awareness of the wider significance of the events of Easter and Pentecost. “… the universality and particularity of the Abrahamic covenant are now both embodied in Jesus of Nazareth”. “Peter’s sermon reframes the meaning of Scripture in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, Israel’s future is now .” (Robinson&Wall 2006:55) As Anderson puts it: “The experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not only an event that Christ promised but an event in which the same Christ continues to be present as the goal or telos of history.”
Reflecting on this stage and the emphasis on reframing the expectations of Judaism in the light of the new community’s experience of the resurrection of Jesus, one is reminded of Miyamoto’s (2008:161) emphasis on the transforming power of worship. “Worship occupies and must occupy the central place in Christian mission as well as mission theology.” The following pattern then comes to mind:
Preaching as reframing the text and occasion (Robinson&Wall 2006:65) or, as Van Gelder (2007:63) explains, the fact that Spirit-led missional congregations anticipate new insights into the Gospel. “When it comes to stories, there is always more to tell. You have never fully arrived in a relationship with a biblical text. There is always more there.” (Sweet 2004:85) McKnight (2008:127) calls this adopting and adapting the Bible.
The church is a community where hermeneutical interpretation helps members to orientate themselves in the world and the Christian tradition. It is about engaging the context with a missional imagination. The church is nothing less than a hermeneutical bridge connecting the tradition and wisdom of Christian faith with the challenges and questions of the modern world. Everyone in the community participates in this reformulation of tradition and naming of the future . (Dingemans 2005:234,253,285) The disconcerting transformational power of the Gospel and preaching of the Gospel is controversial – in the sense that it leaves nothing untouched, not even the untouchable tradition of interpreting the Bible.
We can see this in the way Peter takes a passage that had been used to preach God’s judgment of other peoples and deliverance of God’s people, Israel, and how he reframes it into a call to repentance directed at Israel itself. “… Peter seizes on the work of the Spirit swirling around them to say, “No, these are the promised last days, these are the times of the outpouring of the Spirit,” and these are times for you to repent and call on the name of the Lord.” (Robinson&Wall 2006:65) Preaching is transformation because it renames and reframes our experience and in doing so, changes lives. Preaching is transformation because it opens up fresh understandings regarding the meaning of the gospel. This means that we adopt and adapt the Bible, applying parts of the story and some of the stories in the Bible and adapting others – but always by using patterns of discernment . (McKnight 2008:128) Dingemans (2005:235) underlines this important aspect in his description of the church as community of hermeneutical interpretation with the primary task of discernment (geloofsbezinning.)
Stage 3 – Stephen – Acts 6-7
The focus broadens and the scene presents a picture of growing linguistic, cultural and social diversity, to such an extent that it causes conflict (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:18) Themes such as diversity and the expansion of the Gospel message are introduced. Stephen’s speech provide the key for the interpretation of what is happening and even Luke’s entire two-volume narrative. “His speech is the first intimation that the Way is a discrete religious system, intimately connected to and yet – because of the centrality of Jesus – distinctly separate from its Jewish roots.” (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:19) Stephen’s skilfully constructed speech makes the point that God’s presence can not be limited to any particular place. The living God is a God on the move and on the march, who is always calling his people to fresh adventures and accompanying and directing them as they go. The speech and Stephen’s subsequent death reveals the basic incompatibility between Judaism and the new faith in Jesus and illustrates the conflict and friction caused by this expansion of the focus and scope of the newfound community.
Stage 3 presents a rich source of reflection on issues such as the relationship between Christian and Jewish faith, the missional dimension of martyrdom and the end of the Jerusalem-phase of the early church. However, I would like to focus on this stage as providing us with patterns and principles for resolving conflict (Robinson&Wall 2006:101):
Congregations will experience conflict. Missional transformation puts the participants in a high-conflict zone, but one must keep in mind that conflict is normal in change. (Roxburg&Romanuk 2006:134) The challenge is to facilitate the conflict in such a way that it will not impair the mission and life of the congregation, but rather be productive and even growth-producing. An authentic, living Christian community is capable of having and resolving disagreements. The pattern deducted from the events in the first church entails at least the following:
• Participation by the community and those most affected by the conflict. The apostles gave the work back to the community and empowered them to participate in the solving of it. (Robinson&Wall 2006:104)
• Recognizing the conflict and framing the challenge and naming the key issues in the conflict. This creates the opportunity to handle differences and dissension constructively.
• Establishment of guiding principles for dealing with the conflict. This includes acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of one another, which indicate that the church is a missional community that practices reconciliation, as well as using conflict to enrich discussion. (Barrett et al 2004:167,168)
• Trustworthiness, because trust is the glue that enables a community to move forward. (Roxburg&Romanuk 2006:139)
• Public ritual to ratify the resolution. Although healing and reconciliation takes place within the body, it serves to shape and reform the community as a whole. (Barrett et al 2004:168)
Stage 4 – Samaria and the Ethiopian Eunuch – Acts 8
This stage indicates the steady progression of the gospel, from Jerusalem Jews to Samaritans to a marginalized Gentile (or at least a proselyte Gentile). It is a story of the expanding visions of the early community and God moving the community beyond its borders. (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:22) Bell&Golden (2008:101) describe this stage as an exposition on the tension throughout the early church: “What do you do when your religion isn’t big enough for God? What do you do when your rules and codes and laws simply aren’t enough anymore? What do you do when your system falls apart because a new thing that God is doing is better, beyond, superior, more compelling?” This stage in Acts illustrates the importance of crossing boundaries and welcoming the “Other”, the “Stranger”, the “Marginalized” in community.
The following pattern comes to mind:
Hospitality to strangers – because God’s mission extends the boundaries of covenant membership to wherever the gospel is proclaimed. It is nothing less than another way to explain the Incarnation. (Heitink 2007:199) The shape of hospitality entails listening, helpfulness, confronting difference and engaging in the other-ness of those who are other than ourselves. (Barrett et al 2004:92) People are invited into new relationships with God and with one another as the community’s intent is to welcome as God welcomes. This is eloquently explained when Acts relates the last years of Paul’s ministry. Luke ends his account with Paul, far away from Jerusalem at the centre of the pagan world in Rome, sharing the gospel with whoever is interested. (Acts 28:30) He welcomed all who came to see him. All.
In welcoming strangers and outsiders, the church must reflect creatively on developing inclusive practises that include those who are different in the community. Hospitality is an ancient church practise whose purpose has been largely forgotten but it needs to be placed at the core of being a missional church. (Roxburg&Romanuk 2006:155) This includes welcoming anyone God brings to the community and turning the welcoming space into a safe place. (Gibbs&Bolger 2005:121) It implies a new kind of apologetics where there is no need to argue about faith because lives and hospitality speaks louder than words. It also implies recovering old and discovering new practises of hospitality to create a new culture.
Stage 5 – Cornelius and His Household – Acts 10:1-11:18
This event focuses on the apostolic authority in the establishing of churches among non-Jews (Bosch 2004:120). In this epic stage, Luke shows how the church made its most fundamental and dangerous step, which would involve the greatest struggle and demand the most fundamental self-reinterpretation for the nascent messianic movement. ((Bevans&Schroeder 2004:23) It has often been described as the conversion of Peter as much as Cornelius. (Robinson&Wall 2006:151) It was only through a paradigm-shifting vision and an encounter with Cornelius and his testimony that Peter was con
verted to the recognition that “God does not show favouritism but accepts people from every nation” (Acts 10:34-35). The principal lesson Peter has learned is more about God than about the scope of his mission. (Robinson&Wall 2006:155) God’s inclusive love changes the church – the church is inclusive and the church must proclaim the gospel to all and be inclusive in nature. (Du Plessis 2002:78)
The epic drama that illustrates this approach is introduced by relating Peter’s vision where the unthinkable is been asked from a devout Jew – to dare to entertain Gentiles and share a meal with them. This is followed by Peter travelling to Caesarea and proclaiming Jesus as Lord to a Gentile Roman officer. In the middle of the story, the Spirit descends on all the listeners. Peter asks what would prevent these Gentiles to be baptized and gives orders that Cornelius and his household be baptized. Here we find a whole Gentile household receiving admittance in the community – and the community recognizing that not only must it go to Jews, but to Gentiles as well. With the baptism of Cornelius and his household, a redefinition of the religion of the first church is in process. (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:25) It narrates not only the redirection of Peter’s life and ministry, but the redirection of the life and ministry of the church as well. It narrates the church’s discovering what it means to be the church in a multicultural world and society.
The narrative of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius provides us with a pattern that emphasises the importance of a dynamic relationship between context and constant. Stage 5 reminds us of the thrust of the whole book of Acts: the church is ripe for a renewal and conversion. Mission is not a program or budget of the church, but everything the church is and does. It is the work of God’s Spirit when we recognize that the church must constantly experience re-shaping and re-forming – as the phrase ecclesia reformata semper reformanda suggests. Guder (2000:150) pushes it even further: Re-forming is not enough – churches continually need conversion.
The runaway, flat, globalized world is asking the church to discern new and creative patterns of what it implies in practical terms to be church in a new era of creativity, connectivity, in-forming and empowered uploading society:
The inclusivity of Luke-Acts opens the perspective on Gentiles and serves as a call of conversion to the present-day missional church to be multi-cultural. This is probably the biggest challenge facing the church that has for so long been associated with the seminary at Stellenbosch – the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). Although other and probably all churches must discern patterns to cope with a more and more multicultural world, the DRC faces an adaptive challenge on which its very future depends. An adaptive challenge is a challenge where (1) the solution is outside the current repertoire of skills; (2) the church is faced with change or decline; (3) the solution is critical for the future; (4) the very sense of competence of the church and its leadership is questioned. Taking up an adaptive challenge, the church will become something different, something new. (Robinson&Wall 2006:164) Becoming a community of “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” meant great change in the hearts and minds and behaviours of everyone involved in the first-century church. Similarly, it will require a change of minds, of hearts, and of behaviours for the whole of the DRC. Perhaps the journey accompanied by Acts gives direction in this adaptional challenge and continuing conversion: Discerning how to live in this world by acknowledging the vital role of the Spirit in our interpretation of the multicultural world and God’s Word, transformational preaching that reframes the identity of the DRC, resolving the conflicts that arise out of this process and hospitality to those very people who shared the country and faith for centuries.
Stage 6 – Antioch – Acts 11:19-26
Stage 5 prepared the way for the first real encounter of the Christian faith with the pagan world. In stage 6 we find the climax of Luke’s drama and one of the most critical events in the Christian history. (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:25) In Antioch we find Jewish and Gentile converts side-by-side. More and more Gentiles come to be added to the number that are being saved and more and more Jews reject the message. The focus in this stage is on the formation of a community understanding their identity and structure as (1) determined by the reign of God, (2) with apostolic leadership and (3) an expanding consciousness of being church, realizing that it was different from the synagogue.
Following the lead of the Spirit, the Jesus movement altered itself and became much more than before Pentecost or in the idyllic days in Pentecost’s aftermath. (Bevans&Schroeder 2004:27) The radical nature of the Antioch-events can be seen in the following:
• The fact that the gospel was presented in terms of the Lord Jesus and not the more exclusive Jewish title of Messiah. For the first time the gospel is presented in terms moving beyond Judaism.
• The fact that a representative of the Jerusalem community was sent to investigate the situation in Antioch and his report that God’s grace was truly at work.
• The community in Antioch’s consciousness of itself as “church” – witnessing to the fact that the new community saw itself as something different than the synagogue.
The Jesus movement crossed unimaginable thresholds and enters a world with a much larger missional scope.
Stage 6 reminds us of the overarching challenge issued by the book of Acts: the challenge to cross unimaginable thresholds for the sake of the gospel. The dramatic breakthrough described by the events in stage 6 gives clues to a new vitality and dynamism – a sense of adventure about being church in an emerging pagan world (Bandy 2004:75). The following pattern then comes to mind:
The permanent priority of mission , encouraging the church to proclaim the person and message of Jesus and introducing others into a relationship with God through and in Jesus. The only way in which the activity of the church becomes active participation in God’s mission, is when this practise is played out in numerous patterns in the very life of each and every faith community. There must be a willingness to cross whatever threshold and face whatever barrier for the sake of the gospel. Communities should constantly ask themselves: “What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel?” and “What are the thresholds that limit our proclamation of the gospel to whomever?” – So that they can name, face and cross those very barriers. As the Antioch community discerned the importance of leaving behind a particular Jewish identity and embraced the journey of forming a new identity, becoming “church” amongst and for the Gentiles, the church of today is equally challenged. In the words of Jones (2008:8), the church is challenged to leave behind the discrete differences between the various flavours of Christianity and to practice a generous orthodoxy that incorporates contributions of all Christian movements in becoming new Christians. This relates to the importance of mission as prophetic dialogue, the proposal of Bevans&Schroeder as an understanding of mission in the 21st century (see conclusion). The Antioch-events encourages the church to a new self-understanding in dialogue, especially with other religions.
Stage 7 – The mission to the Gentiles – Acts 12-28
The remaining 17 chapters of Acts paint a picture of a steadily expanding mission to the Gentiles. Bevans&Schroeder (2004:27) points out that Luke is careful to show the continuity of the early church with its Jewish roots. Du Plessis (2002:72), however, see Acts as an inward and outward movement, emphasizing on the one hand the rele
vance of the movements Jewish roots and, on the other hand, acknowledging the importance to be inclusive and open for Gentiles. The narratives in stage 7 illustrate that the existence of Christianity is always linked to its expansion beyond itself, across generational and cultural boundaries. To be church is to be in mission, to be in mission is to be responsive to the demands of the gospel in particular contexts, to be continually reinventing in new situations, new cultures and new questions. How does the church go about this? What pattern or practises helped in this process?
One of the important narratives in this stage is Acts 15, where we find a pattern of discernment being played out. Circumcision was regarded as a symbol of an everlasting covenant and the issue was one of the most important questions in the early church because Jewish followers expected Gentile converts to adhere to this “fundamental issue”. Circumcision was in deed central to Israel’s identity as God’s covenant people. Robinson&Wall (2006:168) recognize that the issue at hand is an issue of clarifying the relevance and authority of the Jewish laws – a question of halakha. The early Christians discerned that this ageless command to Abraham was not necessary for Gentile converts. Peter concluded that the hearts of Gentiles are “cleansed by faith” rather than by the ritual purification of circumcision. James summarizes in halakhic manner and his verdict is that Gentile converts needed only to offer minimal respect for those commandments that distinguished Jews from surrounding nations. “Here we find a pattern of discernment, a pattern of listening to the old, understanding the present, and discerning how to live that old way in a new day.” (McKnight 2008:134) It is, in a certain sense, Dingemans’ (2005:241) hermeneutical bridging in action – building a bridge between the quest of Gentiles to make sense of the new life in Christ and the tradition that served as transmitter of the gospel.
I would like to propose the following pattern of discernment, following McKnight’s (2008:206) hermeneutics that gospel adaptation for every culture, for every church, and for every Christian is precisely why God gave us the Bible. “The Bible shows us how.”
In this hermeneutics, McKnight makes a case for missional listening (2008:107-112):
• Missional listening begins with the wisdom of ages – reading the Bible with the tradition,
• Missional listening is empowered by Inspiration – the presence of the Spirit who facilitates the living presence of God speaking to his church (“God spoke in those days in those ways, and I believe he is speaking in our days in our ways.” (2008:204),
• Missional listening is a process, takes time and transforms the listener,
• Missional listening blooms into a life of good works.
Missional listening is serious about the Plot of the Bible. Missional listening is serious about the story of the Bible. Missional listening is serious about the behaviours of the characters in the Plot. Missional listening is serious about the demands of the gospel in each context and is serious to assist the church to be continually reinventing in new situations. Missional reading regards Scripture as the current Word of the living God – it continues to inform us how to respond as God’s sent people in our own social world. Missional listening is an appropriate pattern of discernment because it teaches us to look forward by looking to our past. It teaches us to go back to narratives such as the wonderful action-packed stories of Acts, so that we may know how to go forward in our world .
6. Mission as Prophetic Dialogue
Bevans & Schroeder (2004:348) proposes that mission, understood as prophetic dialogue, will serve the church well in the first years of the twenty-first century. This means that mission is foremost an exercise of dialogue. Mission is about persuasion and freedom-respecting love that recognizes the freedom and dignity of all people. Mission can, therefore, only proceed in dialogue and can only be carried out in humility. This dialogue is threefold: with the poor, with culture and with other religions. An elaboration on the various elements of prophetic dialogue is outside the scope of this paper, but each element is briefly mentioned, with an open question formulating dynamic possibilities, challenges and sense of adventure about being church in a new “flat”, “uploading”, “in-forming” world.
How can the church transform the current attractional mode of witnessing into an incarnational way of living where all members of the church live their lives authentically in the light of their faith?
How do we use contemporary technologies, motivational media, networking and music to reach each new micro-culture with the Gospel?
Liturgy, prayer and contemplation
If the medium is the message, and if the media is rapidly changing, how do interactive, intimate, multisensory, immersive, mystical and highly engaged worship practices look like?
How can the power of “uploading” be utilized by faith communities to advance the cause of justice, to speak to and for the poor and marginalized, to empower them to speak with their own voice and to be with them in solidarity?
What if the church really is the place where peace has been made?
What if people who had previously found themselves on opposite sides of a wall find out that the wall has been destroyed?
What if people who had fought over an endless array of issues realize that peace has been made and there is nothing left to fight about?
Integrity of creation
How does it look when the church exists for the benefit and blessing of the world at large? What kind of practices helps in seeking its good, its healing and its blessing?
How can the necessity of proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ be upheld while simultaneously honoring and valuing other religions?
What is the Gospel in a global world? What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel? and – What are the thresholds that limit our proclamation of the gospel to whomever?
How can we utilize connectivity, social networks and virtual communities to form intimate connections and lasting values in the reality of competing micro-worlds and competing values?
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