The Beginning of the End of the World: 7 Metrics for a Sending Church
If I were to guess, having read only the first couple of chapters of Acts, from where God would launch His international missionary venture, I would have to say, “Well, from Jerusalem—where else?” It seems like a logical choice. So much happened there, after all—the Triumphal Entry, the passion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, those heady first days of the Church—and it will be Christ’s capital during His millennial reign. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a no-brainer.
God has other plans, and as He unfurls His missional banner in the middle chapters of Acts, we begin to see why He chooses Antioch as the beginning of “the end of the earth.” (Acts 1.8)
The church at Antioch is established by men with a cross-cultural vision. Acts 11.19-20 indicates that persecution expands the ministry of the Jerusalem church geographically, but not culturally. The Jerusalem congregation, scattered throughout Judea and Samaria by the persecution ignited by Stephen’s martyrdom, goes “as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch,” but they target only unbelieving Jews with the good news of Christ.
Other men, however, understand the Gentiles’ need for the gospel and preach to the Hellenists in Antioch. These visionaries are Cypriots and Libyans, the latter group being named in Acts 2.10 as being represented at the Feast of Pentecost when the Church was born. God moves in a dramatic way, and “a great number who [believe turn] to the Lord.” (Acts 11.21) When word of the Gentiles’ response reaches the church in Jerusalem, they send Barnabus up to Antioch to check things out.
They send the right man.
The choice of Barnabus is clearly not arbitrary. Not only his character—“he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11.24)—but also his Cypriot nationality qualify him to represent the apostles back at HQ and find out just what’s going on in Antioch. As a Jew he can understand the consternation of the apostles, and as a Cypriot he can connect culturally with the preachers, some of whom may be known to him from earlier days.
During his stay, many more people come to Christ. Things are getting out of hand in the best possible way, so Barnabus goes to Tarsus to look for Saul and solicit his help.
Why Saul? Well, for Barnabus, this is a no-brainer. He is no doubt responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but he also knows Saul to be God’s “special instrument…to carry [His] name before the Gentiles…” (Acts 9.16) and has seen him in action preaching boldly and disputing against the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. (Acts 9.28-29) He is clearly the right man for this job—specially chosen, a Jew’s Jew as well as a Greek-speaking Roman citizen, bold, and articulate. Who better to navigate the potentially turbulent waters in a church composed of newly converted orthodox Jews and pagan Gentiles? Saul goes.
Barnabus and Saul teach in Antioch for a full year, and “a great many people” graduate from their school. This is church-based training at its best, with outcomes nobody could possibly have predicted! The personal warmth and people skills of Barnabus (a loyal, godly man who has already advocated on Saul’s behalf and will later do the same for his cousin, John Mark) combined with the theological savvy, biblical knowledge and debating skills of Saul make for a faculty few seminaries today could rival.
But this training is not a mere academic exercise. Though they “[meet] with the church” for an entire year, the number of “contact hours” with their students is not the instructors’ only concern. They desire implementation, and that’s just what they get.
Acts 11.26 tells us that, “…in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” By whom? Scripture, as well as history, seems to indicate that this term was first used as a nickname—perhaps even a pejorative one—by Gentiles outside the Antioch church. Anglican scholar Richard Rackham writes,
“This systematic organization had a further effect. It attracted the notice of the Antiochene public. The pleasure-loving city was noted for its epigrams and witty nicknames, and they soon coined a name for this new body. Its watchword was the Christ—CHRISTOS. That was a title not very intelligible to the outsider, but it was very like another word—chrestos, which meant a good worthy fellow. So with an intentional confusion they dubbed the followers of the Christ the CHRESTIANOI or the worthy folk. For it seems most likely from the evidence of early MSS and inscriptions, and the passage in Suetonius about one Chrestus who disturbed the Jews at Rome, that this was the original form of ‘Christian.’ In Agrippa’s mouth (xxvi 28) the word has a ring of contempt; and if, like ‘Nazarene,’ it was a term of reproach, we can understand why the disciples were slow to adopt a title in which they would otherwise naturally have gloried…”1
Clearly, the effect of the disciples’ training is noticed by the community at large, and pejorative or not, the appellation, “Christian,” links them to the Lord they have come to know and love. Many of them will die for His sake, and the fact that outsiders notice their devotion to Christ and their transformed lives speaks volumes about the instruction they have received.
During this year of intensive training, the believers in Antioch get the chance to express their devotion to Christ in practical terms. Agabus, a prophet who has come from Jerusalem, stands up and predicts a widespread famine during the reign of Claudius Caesar. This Syrian congregation determines, “everyone according to his ability,” to send relief to their brethren in Judea. They dig deep and come up with an offering that Barnabus and Saul then carry south to the elders in Jerusalem for distribution. (This magnanimity is even more impressive when one considers the centuries of bitter enmity between the Syrians and the Jews—enmity that still exists.)
After the parenthetical—and somewhat amusing—account of Peter’s rescue from prison in Acts 12, Luke picks up the Antioch narrative in chapter 13. In verse 1, we read that the leadership—not just the congregation at large—is ethnically diverse. Some of the preachers and teachers are identified: Barnabus, a Cypriot; Simeon Niger (probably a dark-skinned or dark-haired Jew, possibly from North Africa); Lucius (a Libyan); Manaen (a Palestinian Jew who was one of Herod the Tetrarch’s advisors); and Saul (a Turkish ex-Pharisee who is also a Roman citizen.)
A multi-ethnic church is only as diverse as its leadership. There are congregations that crow about being diverse and international, while their leadership teams are as white as the driven snow. Or some other solid colour. This is not true in Antioch—another reason why this congregation is so well qualified to lead the charge to the end of the earth.
One of the striking things about the leaders of this church is their sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. We are told in Acts 13.2 that while they are worshipping the Lord and fasting (the language suggests this was a regular occurrence), the Spirit sets apart Barnabus and Saul—two of the best players on their varsity squad—for a special mission.
There is no mention of hesitation or discussion. The all-too-frequent disconnect between what we call worship in our churches and obedience to the clear prompting of the Holy Spirit does not exist in the Antioch congregation.
We are not told why the leaders are fasting and praying. It may well be that they are seeking God’s direction about how to use all this great training! Perhaps they are saying to Him, “Lord, things are good here. Our church is vibrant and thriving, people are coming to Christ, we’re learning to understand and communicate the Scriptures. There is a good spirit in the congregation. We’re making an impact on our city. What do you want us to do now?” If so, the Spirit’s instruction is a direct answer to their question.
“Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them away.” (Acts. 13.3) There’s that verb, autois apolusan—“they sent them away.” This word signifies not simply resignation, but resolution. The leaders do not take this action grudgingly. There is no suggestion in the text that they resent the Spirit’s collaring of two of their best men to be sent who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. This verb, apoluo, is also translated, “divorce” in the New Testament and in other first century Greek texts. It evokes not only resolute action, but also separation—in this case, embryonic separation such as one sees in biological processes. The church at Antioch longs to reproduce itself, and it is willing to give its best leaders to make an eternal impact in “the end of the earth.”
How can a North American church become a turbo-charged sending church like the church in Antioch? By following Antioch’s example.
Perhaps your church needs to re-imagine its vision and start looking beyond its attractively packaged programs and comfortable facilities to another world that may exist in your own community—a world of people with different world views, different native languages, different cultural distinctives, different religious practices, different food preferences and different personal habits. If it’s impossible for your church to send someone to them (and it rarely is), don’t worry—they’re coming to you.
You can and should prepare missionaries yourselves. There are hundreds of good resources available (an excellent choice is the non-formal, church-based strategy of Bible Training Centre for Pastors) that can enable you to begin preparing people in your church for ministry between and beyond your four walls. Reading books such as Neal Pirolo’s excellent volume, Serving as Senders Today, and Paul Beals’ A People for His Name will help you to understand your role and develop a strategy for sending and serving your own missionaries.
Are the people in your church simply warming pews? Is your church in survival mode? What is your congregation’s reputation in your community—do they know you’re there? Do you exhibit the same qualities that caused outsiders to call the disciples in Antioch, “Christians?”
How ready is your church to meet the practical and financial needs of others, even if it means setting aside other goals and projects? Giving is not—and never has been—an economic matter. It is a matter of priorities. (This subject is treated in other posts on this blog.) Is your church willing to re-order its financial priorities in order to effectively fulfill the Great Commission? If you are not sending your own people to make disciples of all nations, are you ready to help other like-minded congregations send theirs? If not, why not?
If one were to sit in the front row of your auditorium and look back at your congregation, what colour would one see? And what colours would one see on a drive through your neighbourhood? One would expect that a local church dedicated to fulfilling the Great Commission would reflect the demographic of it geographical location. Perhaps your church should seek some creative ways to reach the inter-nationals around you. Renting part of your building to an ethnic congregation is not the solution—you will simply be encouraging them to be ethnocentric and narrow in their vision. Becoming a landlord is not obedience to Christ.
If God is clearly leading members of your congregation to serve Him on foreign soil, rejoice! Serve God with an open hand, letting Him take from it whatever or whomever He pleases to accomplish His purpose through you. You will be amazed by what He does and by how He provides.
How willing is your church to say, “Goodbye?” When you send your people to “the end of the earth,” do you view their departure as a reproductive act? Do you insist that the churches they establish look just like yours, or can you allow foreign cultures to shape and colour congregations that, while meeting biblical criteria, are very different from yours?
Antioch provides a powerful model for any church that would fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. Using these seven metrics, your congregation can evaluate itself and prepare itself to be a dynamic sending church.
1Rackham, Richard, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1978), 170