Culture

The Church’s Transformative Power is Molecular

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The 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico covered the front pages for months. We worried: how will we shut it off? How will we clean it up? What went largely unnoticed was the small article, hidden in the back pages of the newspaper months later—the story of a naturally occurring bacteria which sucked up 200,000 tons of that BP oil.

In the world, oil spills make headlines. It could be said that there are oil spills taking place across our country and planet—distrust among people, oppression of the powerless, the wealthy capitalizing on the poor, abuse of the environment, division, war, terrorism, unrest. These crises are very real and they’re easy to talk about because we can name and measure them. They’re done by actual politicians, companies, nations. Their results can be studied.

But God has built “bacteria” into the world to suck up “oil spills.” The power of art is always at work: a crisis does not stop a song rising up in the heart of a musician, in fact, it may prompt it. The power of the family is ever-present: global unrest does not stop a mother from embracing her child, in fact, it may make her want to do it all the more. And I believe that there is another, undervalued, almost immeasurable force that works like bacteria in an oil spill: the Church.

The Church as Bacteria

Every Thursday morning I meet with a group of 6 women in the basement of our church. We gather in the nursery so that moms can let their preschoolers play, affording them the luxury of a few uninterrupted sentences. At some point in the morning, someone is changing a diaper, someone is nursing or someone is cleaning up a spilled cup of Cheerios (or all three at once).

And at the same time, someone is asking, “How can I make friends with my new neighbors?” or “How can I respond to my kids/boss/in-laws in a way that reflects Jesus?” or “How can we respond to what we’re reading in the news?” We laugh and cry and pray and leave there with a better sense of what it means to live like Jesus in our neighborhoods and homes. No one writes headlines about the things that happen in a church basement. But we’re gobbling up the oil spill, one little bacteria at a time.

But God has built 'bacteria' into the world to suck up 'oil spills': The Church. Click To Tweet

The Roman empire would have made front page news. Its political, economic, military power was unsurpassed. The people of power could be named, the walled cities could be measured, the riches could be weighed, the centurions could be numbered. But where is that empire now? Meanwhile, the early church was virtually invisible. It’s hard to measure a rag tag bunch of misfits, meeting in homes, eating and praying and serving their neighbors together.

And yet this seemingly insignificant thing has outlived that immense empire. We long to have institutions, power, measurable effects—to be able to name the leader, see the building, count the resources, show the outcomes—but perhaps our organic nature is part of the church’s truly transformative, unstoppable power?

How the Church Flourishes

“Organic” has become a catchword in recent years, to describe new (old?) ways of doing church. In some settings it’s code for “unprofessional” or “disorganized.” But organic things certainly have structure and bear fruit—it just seems mysterious to us because we can’t always predict or control it. In addition to the word “organic,” I’ve been using the word “relational.” This whole Jesus movement began without head-quarters, a corporate structure, even a business plan.

Jesus' movement began without head-quarters, corporate structure or business plan. Click To Tweet

And yet it not only survived, it has flourished (and continues to) through war, persecution even conflict among believers. Any way it has survived and flourished is connected to any way it’s not housed in a big, bulky institution. The Christian movement has survived because of where it exists—in human hearts—in the relationship between God and human, between one human and another.

It requires no institution for God to do his work in a willing heart. And it requires no institution for us to connect with those around us. Instead, this Spirit of the living God looks for every chance to move, flourishes where there is opportunity, redirects where there is not. And everywhere that Spirit fills becomes our beautiful Ecclesia, dancing on unhindered, welcoming, nourishing, healing.

Jesus said the Kingdom was like yeast. He promised his way was small, almost undetectable but working powerfully in every place, in a million tiny ways that come together to make a huge difference. He promised his Kingdom would not overthrow empires but bring a deeper, less measurable but more transcendent hope—a force which would overcome oppression one heart at a time, heal brokenness one relationship at a time.

You are one small piece of something beautiful and active and powerful. Don’t be overcome by the size of the task at hand. It’s not yours alone. Do your part and trust that our beautiful Church is at work. As it always has been. And always will be.

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17 responses to “Proclaiming the Gospel as Reality-Creating Event: or 3 reasons why this is not your parent’s evangelism.

  1. man, i really like this. and it really speaks to what i’ve been thinking about and wrestling with lately.
    the one section i have a question about is where you take evangelism and proclamation and tie it back to the sermon on Sunday. somehow, i have this impression that ‘sermon’ and ‘preaching’ should be different things. and i’m not convinced sermons are all that necessary. preaching? yes. individual and group study? yes. but the sermon…? i don’t know.

    what might the Church look like if evangelism (as well as A, P, S, T) were just as you as you outlined? (ie. Contextual, reality-creating, and God’s world changer.) what would our entire week look like? and then, how would Sunday look? no doubt with singing, teaching, prayer, God stories; a celebration of his glory and faithfulness. but a sermon? why?

  2. Dr. Fitch,
    I’d just like to expand slightly on your points above: Contextual & reality-creating. I would almost combine the two and add a fourth point to your list.

    Proclamation of the Gospel (in Western Christianity) is a reality-connecting event. I think most folks have a “religion shelf” where they keep all the nice Sunday school lessons and the “true reasons” behind Holidays but those things are rarely an integral part of their understanding of the world. Sure, at weddings and funerals we speak of covenants, God, and better places, but these are all “fuzzy” ideas and stories we tell children. Rarely are they the things we pin our very existence upon.

    But when the true (full) Gospel piques one’s imagination (I stay away from “proclaimed” here because I think that articulating the Gospel in so many words is beyond our ability) there is a crisis that connects the loose ends of one’s life to a new reality–a new possibility–that offers the path to wholeness.

    It is here were the Gospel connects with reality in such a way that the trajectory of one’s life is irrevocably changed. Like flipping the lights on in a dark room. Even if the lights are turned back off, there always the memory and realization of what the room looks like.

    This, too, is miraculous.

  3. […] not always something to be counted upon.”Some weird, even if interesting, information here.David Fitch on evangelism: “I contend that we need this simple humble practice in our day to day lives as Christians […]

  4. Dave,
    As always a helpful and thought provoking post. However, I’d like to push back a bit.

    You said, “It is always contextual, pronounced over (notice I did not say “to”) a situation or a person’s life out of one’s relationships.” I think this is good when possible, but it doesn’t seem like the apostles felt this way.

    Throughout the book of Acts, for example, we see the apostles standing up and preaching/proclaiming/pronouncing the gospel (“gospeling” to use McKnight) to large crowds of people and even in town to town and in the synagogues. We see this over and over again. Not very relational.

    Also, Jesus went from town to town proclaiming the gospel too. He often spoke to large crowds. There doesn’t seem to be much relationship in this.

    Of course they often did spend long periods of time in one place and with one people too. So I guess I’m saying that pronouncing the gospel does not always require relationship. I see it as a both/and and not an either/or kind of thing.

    1. Scott,
      If I could interject. You seem to be equating “context” with “relationship”. The original quote mentioned a situation or a person’s life. I think the examples we have of the Apostle’s teaching are all in tune with the situation/context in which they are delivered. But the Gospel is always the bigger story. Always disturbing to the status quo. That isn’t to say that the existing context or person’s background has to replaced. Rather it needs to be redeemed, expanded, and completed. But without being sensitive to the context, the message can be lost.

      I agree with you: the Gospel presented “over” a situation but using metaphors or elements of the context does not require a one-on-one, personal relationship with the hearer.

    2. Scott,
      Yes Jesus/Apostles preached to large crowds etc, but they also engaged with people on a personal level – look at the gospels. Also, I would like to suggest that you are overlooking the original context. Jesus was born a jew, the apostles were jewish and the vast majority of the first christians were jewish. The first followers already had a shared identity as Yahwehs people. The jewish nation expected/was waiting for the Messiah. There is/was a largely shared cultural/religious identity.

      The same cannot be said today. We are told we live in a post chrisitan/post modern world characterized by individualisation and is typified by suspicion of authority and meta narratives. For many of us the only thing we have in common with our neighbour is that we inhabit the same geographical area/region or share a hobby etc. Consequently, the starting point is different. If a non christian hears the gospel message in a church building (we are the church, not the building we gather together in to worship God), what is the liklihood that they were brought there by someone they know and ?trust. Consequently, there does not necessarily need to be a ‘formal’ relationship between the one proclaiming and the one hearing in that instance. But, to focus purely on that, is to miss the dynamics that brought the non chrisitian into the gathering in the first place.

      We spend maybe a couple of hours on a sunday gathered together and possibly a midweek fellowship meeting etc. That leaves an awful lot of the rest of the week in which we are called to proclaim Gods kingdom – in word and deed, working out and living out the implications of being part of Gods kingdom. Generally, that does not take place with complete strangers but with people we know and who know us – to a greater or lesser extent.

    3. Scott,There were many more saints proclaiming the gospel in Acts than just the Apostles. Don’t read institutionalized, expert driven, position oriented church leadership back into Acts and call what we do today anything remotely similar to what happened then. The ceremonialized, professionalized, one-pulpit talker fits all institutionalized events that occure in 99% of churches are as far removed from a reality event as men could possibly make it. On what basis can the saints sitting there who are seen as having zero capability to articulate one second of faith expression all of a sudden be seen as capable of articulating their faith with the lost in their neighborhood. Saints must be practicing and building their capability of faith expression with family on a weekly basis before doing it with the lost.

      1. Tim, you’re making an awful lot of assumptions about what I am or am not “reading into” the book of Acts. You’re not alone on this in the comment thread.
        You guys honed in on one particular aspect and did not read carefully what I said. My concluding remarks should make it clear: “So I guess I’m saying that pronouncing the gospel DOES NOT ALWAYS require relationship. I see it as a BOTH/AND and not an either/or kind of thing.”

  5. Can you tell a story that would illustrate this? I don’t really use the word “proclaim” to describe anything that I or my friends do. And maybe an example could give me (and others) a better idea of what “reality-creating” means.
    I believe witnessing to the new Kingdom, through words as well as deeds, is integral to walking in the Way, but I am thirsty for a a practice of that that makes sense. I did a 4-spiritual-laws street-evangelism program in my evangelical youth, and hated it even then. But all the alternative visions I’ve seen or heard since have been vague and esoteric, not fleshed out. Which, if the gospel is incarnational, makes them not very much like the gospel.

    Can you give an example of when you contextually proclaimed the gospel and it was a reality-creating event? Or maybe when you witnessed it?

    1. Nate,
      a definition of the word proclaim is ‘to show or indicate plainly’ whether by deed or by word. If we claim to be christians we are making a statement about what we believe and by implication the transformational nature/effect He is/should be having on/in our lives. The life we live, however imperfect (in Christ), either ‘proclaims’ the the truth of this reality or it does not.

      The context of this ‘proclomation’ is in everyday life – we meet people where ‘they are’.

    2. Nate,
      a definition of the word proclaim is ‘to show or indicate plainly’ whether by deed or by word. If we claim to be christians we are making a statement about what we believe and by implication the transformational nature/effect He is/should be having on/in our lives. The life we live, however imperfect (in Christ), either ‘proclaims’ the the truth of this reality or it does not.

      The context of this ‘proclomation’ is in everyday life – we meet people where ‘they are’.

      1. I guess I wasn’t clear–I’m well aware of the dictionary definition of “proclaim,” so what I was hoping to get was something a bit less theoretical.
        David, you’ve often said that theology needs to be worked out in communities of faith, because the practice needs to inform the questions and reflections of theology. But what I see here is a lot of theory without much reference to practice. How does one practice this new paradigm of evangelism?

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