I'm often asked the question, "Where is the church going?"
That's a bit of a strange question to me because when I think of something going somewhere, I think of a geographical location. "We are going up north to camp." "We are going to the doctor."
But then I think of a company. Suppose 20 years ago you asked Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, where they were going. You wouldn't be asking about a geographical location, but you would be asking about technology markets. Are you going to try to break into the world of business computing? Are you going to strengthen your market share in education? Jobs wouldn't have answered with a destination that small. Recruiting John Scully from a soft drink company years before, he famously asked the question, "You want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?"
Change the world.
That sounds like a good goal. How about that? That's where the church is going.
But how will we do it? That's a pretty lofty goal, and in the West the church isn't necessarily looking like it's on that tragectory. Well, neither was Apple in 1983 when Scully came on board. And it wasn't all unicorns and roses, but eventually Apple became the most valuable company in the entire world.
Could the church change the world? In many ways it already has. Christianity has birthed modern hospitals and universities, benchmarked countless scientific discoveries and advancements (just google what the Jesuits have done!), all the while seeking to aid the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, and give them the good news that God wants them to be a part of an eternal family through Jesus who gives all who trust him a sense of peace that surpasses all understanding. There is a divine love that permeats all of creation, and you're invited to rest in it.
But it wasn't always that way. The church started out as a small group of maybe a couple hundred followers of Jesus Christ in a world of tens of millions called the Roman Empire. It stretched from England to India, the Alps to Africa, and had a mixture of religions including the worship of the Roman emperor.
This little rag tag group of Jesus followers hunkered down in city called Jerusalem, teaching people about Jesus and forming an inpenetrable community. But when persecution broke out against them from the rulers and from other religions, they scattered. In the Bible, there is a book called Acts, and it tells the story of the "acts" that the followers of Jesus did. In the eighth chapter we see this story,
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria...Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
So that's the end of it. Church destroyed. Where is it going? Nowhere. It's done.
But wait. The next line says this,
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.
A couple of things to note:
Those scattered continued to share the story of Jesus and how there is power to heal in his name. They had experienced this healing of their hearts and spirits, and had to share it with others.
The crowds paid attention to what Philip said when they saw what he did.
The result was great joy city wide.
The world was changing, albeit slowly. A sociologist, Rodney Stark, in his book, The Rise of Christianity, suggests this was the simple way that Christianity started as a tiny religious movement in the corner of the empire and later became so dominant that by around 300CE, the Roman emperor made it the official religion of the empire.
They didn't need to rely on revival festivals, miraculous conversions of thousands at a time, or even hipster professional pastors to do it. Stark contends that the early Christians simply lived by different standards and their neighbors took notice and wanted to join. Some of these different standards were valuing women in a culture that historically did not, courageously caring for the sick then others were fleeing plague-ridden towns, and being people of conviction who faced persecution and death with a sense of peace that seemed extraordinary (remember in the scripture above, the apostles did not leave Jerusalem amidst persecution becaue they knew it was God who had placed them there to sustain the message and movement). Stark writes, "I find it necessary to confront what appears to me to be the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity. Let me state my thesis: Central doctrines of Christinity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations."
These central doctrines I believe could be summed up in Jesus' commands to love God and love neighbor. The cornerstone understanding of God was that God was love and this love permeated all of creation and trumped everything including death. The God who loves the whole world does not let death or anything else separate the lover from the beloved.
And that belief changed the world.
One individual, one household, one street, one neighborhood, one community at a time.
So how do we participate in this? Well, as Saul sought to destroy the church by going house to house, might I suggest that we follow the same pattern with opposite motives. Instead of going house to house intent on destruction, let us go house to house sharing the good news of love, liberation, and blessing. But don't hear what I'm not saying. Let me try and break this down more simply.
By house, I mean household. Your household might just include you, or it might be you and your family. It might be you and your roommate. Another household might be a family, or simply an individual you come into regular contact with. It might be your barista at a local coffee shop you visit daily. It might be the clerk at the gas station you get a snack at every day. It might be whoever just bought a house in your neighborhood or someone moving into the apartment across the hall. It might be a co-worker. It might be someone at an assisted care living facility who has no local family. It might be a student you see sitting by themselves at school, an after school program, or a youth group. It might be a prisoner you've connected with through writing letters.
What if you and your household spent the next year finding opportunities to bless that other person or household with good news, signs of hope, and little acts of kindness that showed they are loved and valued by both you and God? What if you regularly let the know they were doing a good job, sent a note of encouragement, shared a story of positivity, baked them cookies, or asked if you could pray for them in some way? Depending on the relationship, what if you carved time out in your schedule to invite them to a meal or out for a drink and spent time intentionally listening and caring about their life?
That story from the book of Acts comes in chapter 8, but in many ways it is a fulfillment of something Jesus told them earlier in the story. He told them,
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
At the risk of making this too long of a post, allow me one final word of preparation. Jesus tells them they will receive power from the Spirit of God that will enable their witness as they go. I break down power like this:
Pray: Don't run haphazardly into this. Spend time in prayer alone or with your family asking God who you are being sent to bless and influence.
Own: Own this. Make it a priority and a purpose in your life.
Word: Let scripture guide you with stories, encouragement, and wisdom like John 3:16, Luke 10:2-3, Luke 15, 2 Timothy 1:7.
Engage: Try something. Maybe not a full on 4 spiritual laws booklet on the first meeting, but just introduce yourself and ask their name. Give them a good word. Ask them about their day. Start small, but start somewhere.
Reflect: Ask yourself how it felt to engage. Consider if you were in that person's shoes, how would you have reacted to what you did? Ask someone else what they're doing. Share ideas and solicit feedback.
Friends, changing the world is a lofty goal. But let's be honest, the world doesn't seem to be heading in the most positive of directions. As someone wise once said, "Just because you can't do everything, don't fail to do something." Let's make the world a better place. God is out there working. We can be too - house to house.