I love that part of the story of the early church in which God allows persecution to scatter the Christians from Jerusalem like ants. The Bible says that everywhere they went, they preached the gospel (see Acts chapter 8). Phillip, in particular, headed to a city in Samaria and became the earliest cross-cultural missionary. When he preached there, the citizens listened and embraced Jesus. The Bible sums it up by saying, “So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:8 NLT)
I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading Acts and other sources of early church history. I’ve found this theme to be recurring. The apostles enter a city and preach Jesus against the backdrop of creation and the story of God. People embrace Jesus and the city takes on new life.
The other reaction that happens is riots break out and people get upset, but it’s usually the established religious leadership, feeling threatened by the dethroning power of this new gospel, that stir up the crowds. As I’ve looked over the stories, from Samaria to Athens all the way to Rome, I see some recurring themes.
- The apostles establish trust and common ground, often hearing local leaders in the synagogue before engaging.
- They start with the story of creation (with Gentiles) and with Abraham (with Jews).
- As they present the gospel, their message is accompanied by signs and wonders, especially with the Jews.
- Some respond by embracing Jesus. Others reject the gospel. Everyone is free to decide without coercion.
- Churches are formed as disciple-making, disciple-maturing, and disciple-multiplying centers.
- Cities and cultures are transformed as people are influenced with the gospel.
- The gospel travels beyond that city into the surrounding territories and to new fields.
As I try to learn from the early church and make application to where my church and your church exist today, I think we often bring about reactions other than joy in our cities. Sometimes we ignore the city by taking up the best land, paying no taxes, and keeping to ourselves as though we’re better than everything around us. Sometimes we imitate the city and lose any distinction as a community of Christian believers with a new, biblical code. And often, we irritate the city by shouting at all the nonbelievers who, to our dismay, don’t act like believers.
I think there’s still a way to capture the essence of apostolic mission, which infiltrates cities with the gospel as new believers develop a sense of mission in every realm in which they live. From within political structures, schools and education boards, workplaces, social services, and other realms of city life, the gospel earns a hearing and makes a difference. And in the end, great joy comes to the city.
As we work through these issues in the context of a new church plant that gathers in a movie theater and scatters all week long, we’ve developed a bit of a philosophy about how we want to transform northwest Arkansas in a positive way. Specifically, we want to…
- Plant a church that makes the good news both visible and audible to our community.
- Scatter throughout the community as small groups that grow spiritually and serve practically.
- Live the gospel, love people, and share Jesus as individuals.
- Bring down the cultural barriers that keep ethnicities separated on Sunday mornings.
- Partner with the city’s governmental leaders to address real issues that affect local residents.
- Partner with local charitable organizations, Christian or not, that address problems like hunger and homelessness.
- Partner with local schools to improve education, minister to teachers, and help hurting families.
- Partner with other local churches in kingdom-focused projects.
- Multiply as individuals, as small groups, and as a church through new worship services, venues, locations, and autonomous daughter church plants.
- Minister to the hurting, the broken, the mentally ill and emotionally unhealthy through counseling and recovery ministries.
- Support families, not by replacing parents as disciplers, but by supplementing and aiding parents in the discipleship process.
Is there more? Sure. This is not some to-do list or official statement we’ve adopted. And it’s not comprehensive. It’s just a list of priorities that I, as Lead Pastor, am thinking through continually.
I love northwest Arkansas with my whole heart. I loved living in Kentucky, and I definitely loved the humidity-free beach culture of southern California. But the Bentonville-Rogers area is my city. It’s my home. and I want to bring great joy to every neighbor I possibly can.
Today, after the morning service was over, a single Mom came to let me know that after struggling to feel at home in any church setting, she and her daughter agreed they had found a home at Grace Hills. I love that! That’s the joy of just one person who finds life in the gospel and in a church family. May that joy spread and not stop spreading until Jesus comes again!