In this series on place, last time I wrote to encourage Jesus’ followers to be the church in our own communities. This is how the gospel advances, which is central to our Navigator Calling. Let’s look more closely at how this happened in early church times.
How does the gospel advance? When participants in the Navigator City Leader Community Gathering recently examined this question, we considered the planting and growth of the gospel in Ephesus and Philippi. I hope some of my insights from these studies will inspire you as you seek to be used of God to advance the gospel in the place where you live.
As I pursued these studies, I found it helpful to ask the following question: “What outcome was the apostle Paul and his team looking for in these cities?” I concluded that they wanted to leave behind a people of God, rooted incarnationally in their local context, who exhibited faith, hope, and love.
That’s it! There was no complex program, no growth strategy, no building plan! The revolutionary idea was that a people who lived in their place and loved their neighbors could be used of God to change the world. As the old ’80s song says, that’s the power of love!
Paul had gained a foothold for the gospel in Philippi and Ephesus, and his letters indicate that he was trusting that the gospel would continue to advance as ordinary people lived their normal lives without grumbling or disputing. If their lives were blameless and innocent and they lived as children of God in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, they would shine as lights, holding fast to the word of life. If that happened among their neighbors, Paul would not have wasted his efforts (see Philippians 2:14-16).
The Sacred Roots: Why the Church Still Matters, Jon Tyson, lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City, stated: “One of the definitive ways the early church shook the world was with their response and commitment to the places they lived.” He went on to quote Dionysius, who wrote around AD 260:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty . . . heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
What sickness in our neighborhoods might God be inviting us to engage with “unbounded love and loyalty”? Unless we pay careful attention to the places in which God has planted us, we will never find out and the gospel will never bear its full measure of fruit. We need to live this out in our own places, and in so doing help others see the opportunities they to love the people there and the places in which God has planted them.
Our discipleship needs to help people learn to think in what David Brooks dubbed “neighborhood terms.” In a recent New York Times
editorial “The Neighborhood Is the Unit of Change,”
Thinking in neighborhood terms requires a radical realignment in how you see power structures. Does the neighborhood control its own networks of care, or are there service providers coming down from above? Do the local norms of interaction need to be changed? For example, do people feel it’s normal to knock on a neighbor’s door and visit, or would that be considered a dangerous invasion of privacy? Are there forums where the neighborhood can tell its collective story?
When we live this way, we see emerging in the communities where we live networks of care, which are both the evidence of and the conduits for the gospel of the Kingdom.
Again, in examining how the gospel spread in early church times, it’s evident that Paul knew this. In Athens, he made the point that God was not far from even the most pagan person and that He could be found locally:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling pace, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.
Acts 17:26-27, ESV
You might say that Paul envisioned disciples of Jesus “next door to everywhere.” And so it is with us. As we begin to think and model in such “neighborhood terms,” we will see the gospel advance as in early church times. At the same time, we will better see the God-given potential for Jesus’ followers to be next door to everyone.
Al Engler is the director of Navigators Neighbors and Navigators Workplace. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here. To obtain a copy of the Bible study on how the gospel advanced in Ephesus and Philippi, email him here.