by JR Woodward
The Early Church didn’t have what we have today. They didn’t have much money; they didn’t have church buildings, seminaries, the things we think are necessities. They didn’t even have a completed New Testament, as it was in the process of canonization during this time.
How was it that the Church flourished even in the midst of discrimination and persecution? And why are less and less people in North America self-identifying as Christians?
While there are a number of important elements to consider, what becomes clear as one reads through the Book of Acts and Early Church literature is that our Triune God is building the Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail.
We don’t need to try and find the formula for ‘success’; if we did, we would have to include persecution and discrimination, because that was one of the key elements at work in the Early Church that most formulas for “movement” don’t include today.
While there are things we need to recover that we have forgotten, if we want to see movemental church planting (3-4 generations deep) in the West, perhaps the biggest changes we need to make involve our posture in the world. Living in the land of luxury, we have made church planting too complex, too programmatic, too complicated.
What we need in this time of liminality is to change our posture. If we want to be movemental leaders planting churches to the third and fourth generation, here are some postures that will help us.
Formulas to Faith
First, we need to move from seeking formulas to living by faith. While we are looking for the latest formula for success, the Early Church was just seeking to be faithful. One of the common themes we see in the Early Church is that they lived by faith. As they moved into uncharted territory, they learned that they could trust God to build His Church. They went about the work of making disciples, of being witnesses of living on mission. Even when they lost all their possessions, were thrown in jail, or were crucified as martyrs, they continued to trust God.
They had to trust God because as the message was going out to the Gentiles, God was upending key leaders like Peter. If we look at the conversion of Cornelius, what we see is a dual conversion, of both Cornelius and Peter. Peter was hesitant to share the good news with Cornelius because he was an “unclean Gentile.” It took three visions of God reminding Peter that not only did Jesus make all foods clean, but that the good news was for both the Jews and the world.
Peter attempted to justify his actions of not going to Cornelius from the text (which clearly told him not to eat certain foods), because they were unclean. But in this time of liminality, God was flipping their current understanding.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, I say to you”. He was flipping the current understanding leading them into uncharted territory. Maybe Peter started to recall how Jesus not only ministered in Jewish territory, but also Gentile territory. Peter had to learn to leave the old world behind and adapt to the new world. This required faith. He trusted the voice of God and the early church affirmed this at their first council in Acts 15.
We too are now in uncharted territory. We are no longer ministering to people who haven’t heard of Jesus, we are ministering to people who no longer like people who call themselves Christians. We live among a people who no longer like the church. We need to have a posture of faith, trusting God to lead us, instead of seeking to take charge. God has to undo us before he can rebuild us.
Hype to Hope
Many church planters today raise a lot of money as they seek to launch an impressive church service. Some even give away iPads to get people to come to a service. We have celebrity pastors, big screens, and stages that rival Las Vegas. This is all foreign to the New Testament. They weren’t into hype; they were into living by hope.
And they embodied hope. As they looked to God’s future, they sought to live in the present in light of God’s future. They knew it was all about Jesus. They had a stubborn hope that because of the life, death, and resurrection, the new creation had arrived; therefore, they were willing to give away their stuff to those who were just trying to survive. They embodied the hope that what Jesus started, He would finish. They had confidence that God would make all things new. This is what drew people to them.
Luxury to Love
Finally, we need to move from a posture of luxury to love. We think we need impressive buildings, elaborate programs, and a lot of money to plant churches today. We don’t. We need to learn how to love better.
We need to re-learn what it means to live as an interdependent community of faith.
We live in a land where independence is a higher value than interdependence and we no longer experientially know what it means to live as a community. Technology has created a generation that has learned to be ‘alone together.’ But they haven’t learned what it means to be an incarnate community—a flesh and blood community. Yet is it is something for which they long.
The world looks at people who call themselves Christians who are promoting war to protect their lives of luxury. But the Early Church understood that Caesar made peace by war that conquers enemies of the empire, while Christ makes peace by love that dies for the enemies of God. Average Christians were willing to die as martyrs in the Early Church. They understood that love of enemies was not an option, but was evidence of faith in the resurrection.
Too often, we plant churches because of some minor difference of doctrine or because we just don’t get along with others. What message does this send to those who don’t know Christ? Until we learn to love and build communities of love, we don’t have any good news to offer the world. Until we learn to live in unity, as the new humanity, we have no hope to offer others.
We don’t need more formulas for success or hype, and we don’t need a lot of possessions to accomplish the mission God has entrusted to us. We need to develop communities of faith with a stubborn hope that knows how to love one another. As N.T. Wright has said, “Faith, hope and love are the signs that we are already living in New Creation.”
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Tomorrows World, Lecture, Event from St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, California, February 28, 2009.
JR Woodward (@Dreamawakener) is a church planter, activist, missiologist, and author of Creating a Missional Culture and co-author of The Church as Movement. He co-founded Kairos Los Angeles, the Ecclesia Network, and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as national director for the V3 Church Planting Movement. He serves locally at the District Church in Washington DC and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (U.K.)