Outwards, Not Upwards

In my last post, I shared about ‘Movement Obsession’. In the west, we not only have our cleverly crafted ideas, but, many times, we tend to turn those ideas into movements, revolutions, or even worse, ‘isms’. And it can all sound really intriguing most of the time.

Yet, even if we have not come up with a specific idea or movement ourselves, we can simply find one that is working in another church context and, then, bring it over and adapt it to our specific church situation. But wisdom makes it clear this is not always the best approach.

The major movement I focused on in the article was the church growth movement. Though such a movement was birthed a half-century ago, this has been a major part of church life in the west for the past 20 years or so. For me, this movement has been more in line with the ideas of free-market capitalism rather than kingdom expansion.

What do I mean?

Well, in all, I sense that the church growth movement is more about building upwards rather than extending outwards. But such a method seems very counter-productive to how the kingdom actually expands.

How can I make such an assertion?

I simply read the book of Acts.

The book of Acts is all about Jesus continuing His work through the empowering presence of the Spirit in the life of the church (1:1). And this is all summed up in Acts 1:8, a kind of thesis statement for the book:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Acts is all about the Spirit being poured out and, then, seeing God’s people thrust out and mobilised into mission. In all the pages of Acts, nowhere do we sense God calling His people to build upwards. Rather, it is about extending outwards.

As an interesting note, we don’t really see God’s people inviting others to come along to their Sunday (or Saturday) gatherings in hopes that the people will respond to the pastor’s altar call. Acts is all about God’s people going to the people. Now, there really is nothing wrong with inviting our friends along to our Sunday gathering or a home group. Such could draw people to Christ as they see the people of God functioning as a community of faith. As Larry Crabb termed it, we are really to be the safest place on earth. Unfortunately, that has not always been true.

But I point out the major function of mission in the church in Acts because it reminds us that we are called to go out. We are an apostolic people, or a mission-minded people. This simply means that we are a ‘sent’ people, just as Christ was sent by the Father and the Spirit was sent by both the Father and Son. And this is all summed up in those empowering words of Acts 1:8.

When the Spirit comes upon God’s people they are witnesses. Witnessing isn’t something we so much do. It is who we are. ‘You will be my witnesses.’

Ironically, it seems that, when the church was somewhat reluctant to go out into greater Judea and Samaria, God providentially sent persecution to mobilise His people (Acts 8:1). And we know the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:9-16, the one where God had to show him the same vision three times. After heading to Cornelius’ house, even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Spirit fell on the group at hand (Acts 10:44). Even God might have been bored with what Peter was saying and didn’t want to wait for the altar call!

Therefore, when one reads Acts, we see that it’s all about being sent out, reaching out, going to the people. Nowhere do we get the sense that God was asking the people to build upwards. Sure, there were some times in which we read of thousands responding to the gospel – 3,000 following Peter’s post-Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:41 and 5,000 responded to the gospel in Acts 4:4. Yet, still, such does not encourage us to build upwards. It challenges us to see such massive amounts of people trained and discipled so that we can continue to extend outwards. Hence, we can continue in being apostolic, reaching out in mission.

Matter of fact, there is one major Biblical story that always comes to mind when I think of people building upwards – the Tower of Babel. And we know what happened in that situation:

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:4-9)

Ouch! That smarts!

Praise God for our Sunday gatherings, small groups, and Bible study sessions. Such will continue to be needed as we disciple and mentor and train. But we must keep in mind that our mission is not so much about getting hundreds, or thousands, into our buildings. Our mission is to extend the gospel of the kingdom into the nations, into the lives of people that live outside the walls of our church buildings. And that starts where we are now and continues into the furthest of nations.

I think this is what Habakkuk sensed when he said:

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)

And that is what Luke was getting at when he summarised those important words of Jesus in Acts 1:8. We will receive power, we will be His witnesses and we will go out

I’m challenged. I really am. And I am thankful He is in charge and will be with us to the end of this age (Matthew 28:18-20). Therefore, I join in our call to extend outwards rather than build upwards.

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