This fall I was fortunate to participate in a church wide study of the Acts of the Apostles at our dynamic Canterbury Church.
The Acts of Apostles is addressed to a church in trouble. Reading between the lines of the text, here was a church that was constantly clashing with culture, a church that was holding on by its finger tips, a church with severe money problems. How does Luke, author of Acts, inspire and ignite a troubled church? By reminding them that church isn't about us in the first place. What is "core" of church, what is the basis of the church's life and mission? It's the Holy Spirit descending, convening, and sending.
So much so is the Holy Spirit the chief actor of Acts that some have said we ought to rename it to "The Acts of the Holy Spirit."
For instance, if one were to ask the church in Acts, "How did you decide to leap over all traditional boundaries and launch a mission to the Samaritans?" the church could have responded, "We didn't. We didn't decide, plan or program any of the Samaritan mission. The Holy Spirit dragged us out of our churches and into that mission."
After the first martyrdom, the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, a great persecution arose against the church. The church ran away to Samaria. Surely nobody would pursue them there. And while they were there, Philip did what Christians do - Philip told some people about Jesus. To the church's surprise, the Holy Spirit descended and the Samaritans, outsiders to be sure, were baptized.
My image of the church that appears in the Acts of the Apostles is a church that is being dragged kicking and screaming into ever expanding areas of ministry, breathlessly attempting to keep up with the movements of the risen Lord. That's evangelism, that's mission - attempting to keep up with the movements of the Holy Spirit, attempting to keep up and not lag too far behind God's relentless, restless movement to retake the world.
There is little biblical justification for a church that's located, situated, bound to one place either geographically or organizationally. "Location, location, location," was never a statement made by Jesus. How sad that the mission of many of our churches is the acquisition of and the upkeep of real estate.
The major reason given for the non participation in our Conference's program of fair share mission and connectional giving? Real Estate. It's a sad irony that our churches that built buildings for ministry have now allowed their ministry to be consumed by buildings.
We have found that when a church attempts to reach a new generation of Christians, Christians under 35, we know of no young Christians who respond to the appeal "Come! Help us to keep up our building!"
As Bill Gandy (DS in Mountain Lakes District) keeps reiterating, "The main difference between a growing church and a dying church is INWARD / OUTWARD." A Church that focuses mostly on inward concerns falls under the judgment of a God who says, "For God so loved the world that God gave . . . . "
In the Acts of the Apostles, the church is always on the move, always pushing out, always outward rather than inward, always being drawn, pulled and pushed by the Holy Spirit into "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1).
By God's grace we are that church. By God's grace, and the pulling and prodding of the Holy Spirit, we can be that church!
William H. Willimon
[Taken with permission from the blog of Bishop William H. Willimon, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Originally posted 12/6/2010.]