Word and Witness to the Uttermost
"We were on a whiteboard..."
And the rest is history. Everything at North seems to begin on a whiteboard. Those even remotely familiar with Pastor Donovan's stream of conscious thought processing are probably familiar with his whiteboard, too. The church's green-room walls are covered in dry erase paint and the theological equivalent of mad-scientist equations half erased and rewritten on top of one another two-hundred times over.
"We gathered together as elders and discussed what we needed to cover. What were some of the prophetic-edged topics – meaning, ‘What were some of the ways in which Scripture intersected with the people of North?’ We wanted to talk about the Holy Spirit. We need to talk about holiness. We need to talk about mission. We need to talk about prayer. We need to talk about generous giving. We were trying to figure out the areas that we need to grow in as a church, and at some point, one of us said,
'That sounds like the book of Acts.’”
When Pastor Dave and I sat down to talk through the elders' vision for our upcoming sermon series in Acts – Word & Witness to the Uttermost – he explained that although the ideas came topically, "it creates a better dynamic for the way we do church and work toward spiritual formation if we preach expositionally through the book we're covering."
Reverting back to English, that's a fancy way of saying: we love to study verse by verse through the Word of God.
In the book of Acts, we'll be able to do that, garnering as much context and clarity as expositional preaching emphasizes, while simultaneously covering the issue-based topics that our leaders feel called to communicate inherent to the book itself.
Call it a win-win.
Luke and Acts is a two-volume set. Luke is the story of Jesus and Acts is - more than "Acts of the Apostles" - the acts of the Holy Spirit. It's a two-part story articulating the mission of Jesus on earth and the subsequent mission of Jesus completed through his followers in the power of the Holy Spirit.
"If you were a New-Testament-age Christian living in Rome," Dave said, "and you knew a little bit of the history of the church through oral tradition, the big question in your mind would be, 'What happened here? How did this very regional, Judean, ethnically Semitic movement become so global? So multiethnic?'"
Acts explains why that happened.
"Acts talks about how the gospel traveled from Jerusalem to Rome..."
[I sometimes get lost in the doubt that comes from feeling like I'm floating around unattached to anything historically concrete. Perhaps it's more of the "west" coming out in my evangelicalism, influenced by the bombardment of cultural values proclaiming my right to anonymity, but the heritage of Christian faith that I find myself invited into becomes a grounding rest in those storms.]
Pastor Dave continued, "The cool part of it, although it's not inspired, is that we can, through history and our own experience, really trace the gospel from Jesus to his disciples to us, today."
We are participants in a legacy of saints, traceable and known!
We get a picture, in Acts, of the way the disciples' subcultural Christianity spreads and flourishes even through – and arguably thrives beneath? – oppression and persecution from the popular culture of the day.
That's noteworthy to me. This idea of Christianity as a subversive movement, as opposed to the Christendom that we've been accustomed to in America. Pastor Dave believes that the difference between the two is the main difficulty we have in understanding the book of Acts. It has not fit our cultural context in post-Reformation western civilization, although it does seem as though we're moving further in the direction of becoming a counter-cultural movement, again.
"We live in a radically different context," Dave explains, "and I think we're moving towards that, [but] I think it's hopeful as well – that there doesn't have to be a Christendom for Christianity to flourish. As a matter of fact, it seems like it thrives in the margins." Fear-inducing headlines detailing the secularization of America are great for clickthroughs and Google Adwords, but we know that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the gospel of Jesus, and the book of Acts is a testament to that truth.
At North, we'd like to continue to walk forth in the confidence empowered by the same Spirit that indwelt Christ our Savior. As we go through the book of Acts, we'll get to see more and more of what that can look like in all of the ethnic, racial, social, political and economic diversity that the gospel unifies as family at the feet of Jesus.
What does it look like to do church? What has it looked like for us? We were an urban sanctuary in the Nob Hill district. We were a modern Pacific-Northwest brand. We are a people continually submitting to an identity rooted in the finished work of Jesus, while longing to be all that we can be for the harvest in this specific dot of redemptive history in which God has placed us. Do we slap Acts 2 on everything and call it a day, or do we use the substance of that model and and contextualize according to our time and space?
“What a church would look like in Jerusalem in the context of religious Judaism might be very different than what it would look like on the Zuni Pueblo. The culture is different. The truth is the truth, but we so often go back and try to capture Acts 2, and one of the beauties that we see moving out from Acts is that every time the gospel moves into new places - like Athens for instance - it looks a little bit different. We have to be careful when we go to this book to see the narrative aspect of it. It's not always prescriptive, but descriptive. Acts tells a story and gives us a picture, but doesn't always go so far as the moralist in giving us a how-to for each and every situation,” Dave explained.
I'm excited about what this means for us going forward, as we continue to be led into deeper love for the inhabitants of Albuquerque, the pueblo people in surrounding regions, and our brothers and sisters in surrounding nations – specifically North's sights set for a church plant in Spain. Pastor Dave articulated well a re-learning about "the simplicity of what it means to be the people of God." More than institutional expansion, this is about the concept of "the Word multiplying through the lives of people and the power of the Holy Spirit."
North wants to be a part of that.
Ed Stetzer – a missiologist, ecumenicist, and professor that I've learned from personally – says it well: "When you look at the Bible, it's not that the church has a mission. The mission has a church." In that vein, Pastor Dave says, "I would rather the study of Acts lead our church. It's very easy to preach Acts and use it to build up our programs, but what if we looked at it from a blank-slate perspective and said,
'What does it look like for the Bible to lead our church?'"
That's our desire, that's what we want to happen, and by the grace of God, that what we're going to learn.
Albuquerque is a deeply religious place. There is a longstanding, deeply ingrained history of institutional Christianity in the culture of our city. That's the backdrop of the book of Acts, too. In the midst of the Gentiles' pagan spirituality and Judaic monotheism, something new emerges:
This news about Jesus, The Way, is the essence of Christianity. God entered human history, He lived a perfect life, He died a substitutionary death, He rose from the dead.
Everything we are, and everything we're about is about that story.
And God is with us.
"We live in the perpetual presence of God. It seems like everywhere you see this realization in the book of Acts, it is coupled with awe and amazement. The historical and experiential aspects of Christianity are rooted in God."
Dear North, may we be a people who are led by the Word, and witnesses of its incarnate power in the person and work of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. To the uttermost. May we never lose sight of wonder and awe:
God with us.