“The whole city was favorable to them, and each day God added to them all who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 TLB).
Every day, God was adding to the kingdom those who were being saved — true then and still true today. For whatever reason, God chooses to use us in that process. Sometimes, we get in the way. Sometimes, we make it really difficult on people, and other times, we make a positive contribution. I love how attractive the early church was to people outside the faith. People far from God were drawn toward this new and strange behavior. Regarding this new and fresh movement of God, Eugene Peterson says, “People in general liked what they saw” (Acts 2:47 MSG).
People on the outside looking in did not say, “Dude, these people are weird. I want nothing to do with them.” Just the opposite, they liked what they saw, and they wanted to be a part of what was happening. What do you think? What do people in your neighborhood think about you? What do the nonbelievers in your community think about your particular expression of the church?
As a young pastor, I was on staff at a church in the Denver area. We decided as a team to go door to door and ask people what they thought about Christians. It was one wild experience. Doors were slammed shut, swear words were shouted, conversations were had. Not many people thought very highly of Christians.
Over time, every person, family and organization will adopt cultural behaviors. Some of these behaviors are good, some maybe unhealthy, others might even be a little weird, and a few might be healthy and weird. The church is no different. If we’re willing to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves, each of us could identify some outré behavior in each of our organizations. In fact, most social behavior that violates convention or propriety in the secular world would probably be considered bizarre inside the church. And let’s be honest, there are some who haven’t helped the image of Christ in this regard.
Secret handshakes, strange language, $100 words, a vernacular from a previous generation, we haven’t made it easy for the world to understand the gospel. This isn’t a new struggle. Every generation has had to wrestle with the tension of staying true to the gospel while contextualizing it for the culture. While we have used words to proclaim the gospel, unfortunately, we haven’t always reflected that gospel with our lives. Too often, we’ve proclaimed grace, but rejected the broken. At times, we’ve guised gossip under a veil of a concerned prayer request. Because we despise pain and suffering, we’ve glossed over grief and loss with platitudes. Because we fear conflict, we’ve ignored the Matthew 18 principle and, instead, have chosen to work behind the scenes in order to build alliances against one another. We’ve pursued selfish ambitions over the unity of the community.
Living Life Differently
Perhaps the most difficult to understand, not to mention the most difficult to personally experience, is how easily we turn on each other. Factions, political maneuvering, and disunity seem to be at an all-time high in many church communities. And we wonder why we aren’t fully living out our God-given mission, personally or corporately. The challenge for us, and I put myself right in the middle of this statement, is to make a 180-degree shift from this destructive behavior. You know what the Bible calls that? Repentance. Repentance is the type of strange behavior that people are attracted to — living life differently. So will you join me? No more placing our personal preference for how things need to be done above the mission and unity of the church.
Do you remember the description of the church in Acts 2? They lived in wonderful harmony, holding all things in common (Acts 2:44). Is that just a fantasy? Can that really be an expression of the church in our lifetime? If we are going to be strangers, let’s be strange like the early church. The love they had for each other was so attractive that people literally flocked to become part of them. Jesus taught us that true love is always expressed through sacrifice. Love will cost you something. Ultimately, love cost Jesus His life. It might cost you your pride, your money, or your way.
After all, following Jesus requires that we take up our cross and live out His words. Let’s live out Jesus’ teaching to love our enemy and pray for those who hurt us. One of my spiritual mentors recently went home to be with the Lord. Months before he passed, he journeyed with me through a very dark road of betrayal and rejection. The most spiritually transformative thing he taught me to do in that season was to audibly forgive each person who hurt me. I wasn’t ready to do it. I felt like I was lying to God. What I discovered through that habit is that God is really more concerned with my desire to get to that point of forgiveness than He is with me being fully there at the moment. I would wake up in the middle of the night, slowly and painfully force those words out of my mouth, “Jesus I forgive ______.” Today, I can honestly, sometimes with a twinge, think about and pray for the success and well-being of those individuals.
It not easy. Nothing in life that is truly transformative is ever easy.
Strangers Who Attract
So let’s explore some of the ways we can be strangers in this world who are also attractive to those still outside the faith.
First, we can grow in our willingness to place the needs of others above our own. The early church was described as a group that held everything in common. Truly, this was radical Christianity. People who had something, sold it and shared with those in need. They gave not out of obligation, but only as the Holy Spirit led them. The most significant roadblock to this type of radical obedience is pettiness. Just look at the church at Philippi; they had some issues. They were tearing each other apart, and selfishness was at the heart of the conflict. Everyone was looking out for themselves.
What does pettiness have to do with selfishness? Well, pettiness is just an outward symptom of selfishness. Pettiness was the greatest sin of the church in Philippians, and it’s still tripping us up today. You and I, we are petty. I am annoyed with you and you with me. You know what we call that? Marriage. Certainly, we do experience pettiness in marriage relationships, which brings me to my next suggestion.
Let’s be different in how we love our spouses. Now, I know that not everyone is married or even called to get married, so you might simply think about how to make other relationships a priority. For those of us who are married, how about choosing to love our spouses as Christ loves us? What if we were weird in that our marriages thrived for 50, 60 or even 70 years? As I write this, my wife and I are just days away from celebrating our 21st anniversary. It gets better with time, but not without hard work and a willingness to set individual preferences and ambitions aside.
Or what if we followed Jesus’ example to lead with grace? To be honest, just ask any parent, shame is a powerful motivator. A little shame can whip a child in shape. “If only you were more like your brother…” Here’s the problem with shame, it doesn’t bring about true change. In fact, it actually destroys a relationship. Jesus knew this. Shame leads to hiding, denying, and deflecting, but it doesn’t lead to life change. On the other hand, grace says, “I see you where you’re at, embrace you, and want to help you move forward in your faith.”
What I love most about the early church is that they were real people, making hard decisions for the benefit of the entire community. For a period of time, they weren’t driven by selfish desire and personal ambition. True, it was short-lived. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) soon entered the picture and tainted things, but, in general, people liked what they saw. There was a sense of authenticity, and, as a result, God added to their numbers those who were being saved.
As I reflect on what is common about people who I like being around, these people almost always have what I’ve come to call an authentic faith. What is an authentic faith composed of? First, I believe that an authentic faith is an honest faith. It’s a faith that gets mad about injustices in the world and in the church. It’s a faith that says, “I’m personally flawed at some level just like everyone else.” It’s a faith that says, “I have some doubts.” It’s a faith that says, “Life is hard, and I’m really struggling to see the goodness of God in this season.”
Eugene Peterson stated, “We don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.” Growing spiritually is about learning to live and struggle with our faith, honestly through all of life’s ups and downs. What I’ve discovered is that mask-wearing people do not like it when others are vulnerable. While vulnerability creates tension in some, it also paints a path to freedom for others — freedom to be a person in process, freedom to experience grace. I believe that people in our society are tired of fake, plastic Christians. Let’s embrace at a deeper level what it means to truly live authentically.
Secondly, I believe that authentic faith is about being a fresh representation of Jesus to the world. You see, Jesus made God plain as day to us. Everything from how He lived to the language He chose to use and the stories He told, revealed the Father (John 1:16–18). Jesus made God and God’s love a tangible reality. Jesus, more so than the rest of us, was a stranger in this world. And I would argue that He was strange, but only in the best way possible. I think it’s really interesting that Jesus opted to tell stories rather than exegete the Old Testament for the people. Why did Jesus choose this approach? Possibly, because the people already knew the Old Testament and believed they understood it. Their problem, like ours, is that they knew the Scriptures, but they didn’t live them out. Jesus made God and God’s love plain as day. Like Jesus, you and I have a role in making God plain as day to those around us.
Finally, an authentic faith is a practical faith. Be serious about allowing your faith to infiltrate every aspect of your life. Faith can be both practical and fun, so while I encourage you to take your faith seriously, don’t take yourself so seriously. Learn to enjoy your life, laugh at yourself, have fun and roll with the punches.
Essentially, authentic faith is the imperfect application of the simple tenets of the faith. It protects the unity of the church by refusing to gossip. A serious faith says, “I’m going to have nothing to do with foolish and ignorant speculations, useless disputes over unedifying, stupid controversies because I know those conversations produce strife and give birth to quarrels” (see Titus 2:7–8 and 2 Timothy 2:23). These are good words for us as we engage in polarizing conversations about church, COVID-19 protocols, and a highly charged political season.
If you take anything away from this conversation, I hope you will take hold of the opportunity you have been given by God to be a fresh expression of His love to friends, neighbors and co-workers. Friends, I pray for you that God will give you divine opportunities to clearly proclaim with your life the mystery of Christ’s love to the world. I hope you’ll let go of all the nonessential expectations you have for people. Jesus’ teachings are hard enough without us heaping extra requirements like learning a new language — Christianese — to the mix. Be wise. Be full of grace. Be willing to emerge out of COVID-19 risking relationships with people who look and act nothing like you.
Jon Swanson, D.W.S., is the assistant superintendent of the Reach Conference and the communications pastor of Timberlake Church in the Seattle area. He has previously served churches in Washington and Colorado in a variety of roles that have included lead pastor and worship pastor. He holds a doctorate and a master’s degree from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida.