I’ve been away from the blog for awhile because I’ve been working diligently on what I hope will be a book on Acts and ministry. I’m finding I have lots of material, but am struggling with “voice.” I want the book to be for the kinds of people that I imagine as readers of my blog. So, I thought I’d put a sample here, an intrduction to my reflections on Acts 1, to see if I can get an indication that I’m hitting what I’m aiming for. Feedback is welcome.
Acts depicts the rise of the early church as a theological achievement. That is, the church arose from the experience and testimony that God has shown Jesus of Nazareth to be both Messiah and Lord by raising him from the dead. Put another way, the church in Acts is not the result of the organizational genius of the apostles or the predictable outcome of a strategic plan complete with five year goals and measurable outcomes. Rather, the church is the community swept into the wildly unpredictable experience of trusting that the risen and living Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This fundamental theological reality shows that the church belongs to a different kind of reign under a different kind of power than the one offered by Caesar, or any subsequent empire. Strategic plans, after all, benefit those who can manage outcomes, who hold social power and make policy. A kingdom, however, consisting of the poor, the common, and the lowly makes its way in the world only by the surprising and disruptive activity of the Holy Spirit. And this is the story of Acts. The movement of the first Christians from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth comes through unlikely characters and surprising circumstances. All of this happens in spite of the best efforts of “rulers,” both Jewish and Gentile, to suppress what is happening. It is a story that is only explainable by the movement of the Spirit of the risen Lord.
It is open to question whether or not congregations in North America are explainable by the same theological achievement. Those Christians living in the American stories of progress and exceptionalism, have been hardwired to think of the world as something that bends to their efforts, as something manageable and manipulable. I fear that in this very way, the spirit of this age has conditioned the way congregations and their leaders have thought about ministry. As a former full-time congregational minister for over seventeen years, I confess to having been given over to the strategic. My energies and imagination in ministry were dominated by thoughts of “what would work” to extend the institutional health of the congregation that paid me to do this very thing. In spite of my theological training and commitments, which I took very seriously, in practice I was consumed more with strategic plans and congregational organization than discerning and being drawn into the life of the Holy Spirit. I had friends in ministry who took their theological commitments less seriously, opting instead for “leadership,” defined as stating a vision, setting goals and managing outcomes. Whether I or they, this is what we believed and this is what we practiced.
There are many telling us that the church in North America is being moved more to the cultural margins. Our experience confirms their observations. We no longer build churches across from city hall, signaling our influence in the public life of our towns and cities. Instead, we cater to the private needs of inidivdual religious consumers in the suburbs. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists. They are just as likely to be Muslim, Budhist, or “nones.” Perhaps most telling is that our congregations’ battle for the hearts, minds, and attendance of our own members, often results in a loss when pitted against a youth sports culture that no longer considers Sunday mornings to be sacrosanct. The end result of this marginalization is that the world bends less to our efforts and we are less in a position to set policy and make rules that would allow us to shape the world according to our purposes. I often get knowing glances from congregational leaders when I suggest that thay are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before, but with diminishing impact. In light of this, perhaps Luke’s story of the church in Acts offers us a fresh alternative, a chance to once again live as the power-filled powerless in the free bounty of the Holy Spirit.