Expanding Outwards, Not Upwards

One of the major movements within the church of the west is that of 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. I’ll be honest and say up front that, for me, this movement has been more in line with the ideas of free-market capitalism rather than seeing the gospel of the kingdom extended and God’s glory filling the earth as the waters cover the sea.

What do I mean?

Well, in all, I sense that the church growth movement is more about building upwards rather than extending outwards. And, so, such a method seems quite 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 fundamentally about the Spirit being poured out on the church and, as a result, 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, granted, there really is nothing wrong with inviting our friends along to our Sunday gatherings 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 book of Acts because it reminds us that we are called to emulate their action of moving outwards. 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. Hence, why I believe this is summed up well 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 (see 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 seemed bored with Peter’s message and did not find it necessary to wait for the altar call!

So, when one reads Acts, we see that it’s all about being sent out, reaching out, going out to the people. Nowhere do we get the sense that God was asking the people to build upwards. Sure, there were times in which we read of thousands responding to the gospel – 3,000 following Peter’s post-Pentecost message in Acts 2:41 and 5,000 responded to the gospel in Acts 4:4. Nevertheless, such does not encourage us to build upwards. It challenges us to see such massive amounts of people actually trained and discipled so that we can continue to extend outwards. Not in our cleverly-crafted and competently-marketed programmes. But in authentic, relationally-based, maturity-oriented training.

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!

I am thankful for our Sunday gatherings, small groups, and deeper study training. I think such opportunities 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 four corners of this planet.

This 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…

So, let’s stay focused and extend outwards rather than build upwards.

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The Power of the Spirit (Acts 2)

Acts 2 presents a paradigm shift in the way the body of Christ will function forever. The paradigm shift for the people of God would mirror that of the Messiah, Jesus Himself. And that is very important in Luke’s account of early church history as found in Acts. What happened in Acts parallels what happened to Jesus in Luke’s presentation in his Gospel.

As one theologian notes:

In the structure of Luke-Acts, the Pentecost narrative stands in the same relationship to the Acts as the infancy-inauguration narratives do to the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke these narratives not only introduce the motifs which define the mission of Jesus, but they also show that Jesus will execute His mission in the power of the Holy Spirit. In a similar manner, the Pentecost narrative introduces both the future mission of the disciples and the complementary empowering of the Spirit. (Roger Stronstad, The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke, p49)

And so, in Acts 2, we find the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:5:

for John baptised with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.

It is this paradigm shift event of Pentecost which thrusts forward the walking out of the thesis statement of Acts 1:8:

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.

The Spirit poured out means just this – an empowered people! When they were baptised with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5) or filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) or clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49), it gave them the power to be witnesses. Simply put, they could not have been the witnesses Jesus intended had they not been empowered, baptised, filled and clothed with the Spirit of God. We might have a theology that allows otherwise. But that theology fails knowing the reality of what Luke teaches us in Acts 1 and 2.

Thus, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the first followers of Christ were not given a ministry of maintaining the status quo. Far from it! They were given power to be His witnesses!

As I said in a recent post, what if Acts 1:8 had said this:

But you will receive the ability to maintain the status quo 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.

Good grief, I am glad it does not say that. Though we so easily fall into the trap of carrying out such a ministry. Oh, so easily. I know. I’ve been there.

But rather the Spirit was sent and given as a gift to empower God’s people so that they might continue the works of Jesus as witnesses in all the earth. That was my major point in this recent article. This would allow for the whole Christ to be known in the whole earth.

Not only were all of God’s people an empowered community, but they were also a prophetic community.

What do I mean by this phrase – prophetic community? Well, let me break it down a little more.

First off, the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, that is, all God’s people irrespective of gender or age. That, in and of itself, was quite a paradigm shift to the general nature of the old covenant, though we had little intimations that this would one day be a reality in the new covenant. That is why we read these words in Acts 2:17-18:

17 And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

The Spirit given to all groups and all types of people. And what is the fruit of the outpouring of the Spirit of God? Go back and read these two verses. They shall prophesy! That is what these two verses emphasise as the by-product of the Spirit coming on all of God’s people.

And this makes quite a lot of sense when we realise that Jesus was the great prophet. Yes, more than a prophet. But still a prophet nonetheless, and a prophet par excellence. And He sent the Spirit to continue His exact same ministry in the earth today. The Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy, if anything else. And this is the same Spirit that indwells and empowers all of God’s people. Thus, we have a prophetic community.

Yes, I believe God gifts specific people as prophets and with prophetic gifts. But there is a sense in which the whole body of Christ carries a prophetic measure. And this measure should affect all areas of life, not just when we are used in the gift of prophecy. This affects right across every action, every word, every mindset, every thought, every attitude. Our whole lives are to be a prophetic pointer towards Christ.

Still, when we read 1 Corinthians 14, it seems in particular that prophecy, along with tongues, are the two most readily available gifts to the body of Christ. And tongues can function like prophecy when there is an interpretation of the public message in tongues (see 1 Corinthians 14:5). But we see Paul’s passion for the prophetic body of Christ with these words:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

This was a statement to the church at Corinth. Not just a special group of prophets. Roger Stronstad articulately expresses this amazing reality in another of his books, The Prophethood of All Believers:

Jesus completed his redemptive ministry by giving orders to his disciples by the Holy Spirit about their imminent Spirit-baptism and empowering (Acts 1.2, 5, 8). Having ascended to heaven he then poured out the Spirit upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.33). He thereby transferred the anointing and empowering Spirit from himself to them, just as the Lord had earlier transferred the Spirit from Moses to the 70 elders, from Saul to David, and from Elijah to Elisha. By this act of transferring the Spirit to his disciples, Jesus, the Spirit-anointed prophet, makes his disciples a community of Spirit-baptized prophets. This fulfils an ancient oracle of the prophet Joel about a future age of restoration and blessing when the entire nation or community of God’s people, irrespective of age, gender or social status, would have the Spirit poured out upon them. Thus, on the day of Pentecost Jesus inaugurated the prophethood of all believers. (p71)

And, so, with the pouring out of the Spirit on God’s people, we also have the prophetic community. We cannot get away from our nature as Spirit-indwelt and Spirit-empowered people. We are a community of prophets. These are the things I preached this past Sunday at Cornerstone. If you are interested, you can listen to the message by clicking on the audio icon below. Or you can download from our podcast site or iTunes.

The Power of the Spirit

Because of what God has been stirring in me recently, I am currently looking at the power of God on Sundays at Cornerstone. And this past Sunday, I preached about the power of the Holy Spirit, based out of Acts 1:1-8.

Of course, I recently posted an article on the reason the Holy Spirit was given: 1) to continue the works of Jesus and 2) to empower the whole body as witnesses. But I thought it might be good to hear my thoughts on this same topic through the medium of audio recording. I also look at some things that I did not particularly address in the previous article.

You can listen to it by clicking on the icon below, or you can download from our podcast or iTunes.

Why the Holy Spirit?

I would have to say that the second most important event of history, second only to the resurrection of Jesus, is that of the pouring out of the Spirit recorded in Acts 2. So important was it!

Now, what we must realise is that the feast of Pentecost had been annually celebrated for some time. It was connected to the feast of Shavuot, where the Jews also remembered the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

So Acts 2 was not the recording of the first Pentecost. Hence, Luke’s words here: When the day of Pentecost arrived…(Acts 2:1). They were already expecting Pentecost to come. I’m just not sure they were fully expecting the fruitful harvest that came on that particular Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. A greater gift was given here than at Mt. Sinai!

What had been intimated at and prophesied about for centuries past (see Numbers 11:24-30; Isaiah 32:14-15; 44:3; Joel 2:26-29), and promised by Jesus himself (John 7:37-39; Acts 1:4-5), had finally arrived. No longer was the Holy Spirit to be given to only a select few. He was to be given and poured out on all God’s people, no distinction made – male/female, young/old, Jew/Greek.

The Messianic age would also be marked as the age of the Holy Spirit! Fantastic news, no doubt.

But, one might ask: Why the Holy Spirit? Why was he given?

Good question. And while Scripture does not answer every single question we ask, it seems to clearly answer this question. It’s recorded by Luke, coming from the lips of Jesus.

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 1:8)

Pretty clear, heh?

This statement in the early words of Acts stands as the thesis statement for the whole book. The account of Acts would be an outworking of this one statement. The Spirit would be given, and through such an event of extreme import, the people of God would be empowered witnesses.

This was not something for a group of twelve, or a group of twelve and a few other special people. Again, this was a reality for all of God’s people. Remember, the Spirit would not differentiate via gender or age or social barriers. This is one reason why Peter quotes Joel:

17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18; quoting Joel 2:28-29)

So, reason number 1 for the Spirit being given – that we might receive power and that we might be his witnesses. If there is anything that should mark the life of the Christ-follower it should be the power of the Spirit and the power of the Spirit to be his witnesses. No, I do not only mean that we all must be used in miracles and healings, though I am definitely not opposed to such. Rather, we are to know the power of God across all areas our lives. The power of God is to be available in every aspect, leading to a life that seasons with salt and shines with light.

I cannot imagine anything less.

So, as I shared in my last post, the Spirit of God was not given to ‘maintain the status quo’. It was not given to make sure we hold together nice meetings, a prayer meeting here, a Bible study there, a fellowship meal here, a finance meeting there. None of those are bad in and of themselves. But they are not necessarily the fruit of Acts 1:8, especially if it is tied into solely maintaining the status quo.

Can you imagine Acts 1:8 saying this?

But you will receive the ability to maintain the status quo when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you might possibly be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

I’m sorry, but I can honestly say I would not want any part of that. The Spirit was not given to make sure we all live out a nice and comfortable life in Christ. The Spirit was given that we might be empowered witnesses. Acts 1:8 does not get any clearer.

I am stirred deep by the reality of the reason the Holy Spirit was given when reading Acts 1:8.

The second reason the Spirit is given, not that it is subservient to the first reason I pointed out, is found in the very first verse of Acts 1:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach. (Acts 1:1)

Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke, was an account of the things Jesus began to do and teach. Jesus was not finished. He had more to accomplish and say. Hence, he poured out the Spirit to continue his work, for the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus (see Acts 16:7; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19).

But, though the Lord of heaven and earth, as one man, accomplished quite a lot, he was not able to accomplish all as that one human being. Remember, he did not grasp at his equality as the divine (Philippians 2:6).

So, as I have emphasised, to continue his powerful work, Jesus pours out his Spirit to empower an entire body, though that body started at about 120 (Acts 1:15). Hence, why his words in John 14:12 make a lot of sense:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.

Not a select few, but whoever believes. I know there are plenty to argue that this does not mean everyone, since Jesus was only talking to the disciples-apostles. Or that this does not really mean all of Christ’s works, since some of those works are not needed much any more because the gospel has spread enough and we have the testimony of Scripture.

I am glad that gospel has spread, though I am not sure we understand the power of the gospel at times, and I am glad we have the God-breathed Scripture. But I am not sure whoever believes can be any clearer as to whom Jesus envisioned when he uttered those words. Suffice it to say, I am clear on what Jesus clearly meant – whoever believes. But if you want more to chew on, here is a great article to read.

Now, let me also note that I do not believe the ‘greater works’ is so much speaking qualitatively as it is speaking quantitatively. You get me? We can’t really walk out much greater a manifestation of the works and power of God than raising the dead, healing the blind, seeing withered hands restored, etc. Thus, I believe this is speaking more about the whole Spirit-empowered body of Christ being able to accomplish more than the Son of God as one human being.

Can you imagine millions and billions of Christ-followers empowered with the same Spirit? I’m thinking greater works, quantitatively. Remember, the same Spirit that Jesus relied on in the flesh, even post-resurrection (see Acts 1:2), is the one who indwells and empowers the body of Christ now.

Of course, I am not so silly as to believe that John 14:12 is only speaking of major manifestations of God’s power through healings and miracles. The works of Jesus include compassion for the hurting, mercy for the downtrodden, food to the homeless, respect and love for our spouses, tender care for our children, overcoming the temptation of the enemy and flesh, etc, etc. But I could never deny and step back from recognising that the works of Jesus also include healings and miracles and other demonstrations of the powerful work of the Spirit. We cannot argue our way out of this one.

Again, whoever believes in me will also….

So, why was the Spirit given? Simply put: 1) to continue the works of Jesus and 2) to empower God’s people as witnesses, so that those works might continue. This didn’t stop with Jesus. And this didn’t conclude with Acts 28. This has been continuing for some 2000 years and will continue on until all is accomplished and he returns to marry his prepared bride.

Oh, that we might know his power.

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.