In the last century, programs and activities have multiplied in church life in America to the point where churches can choose from hundreds of parachurch ministries, curriculums, outreach programs, and discipleship ministries. As in much of American life, we find ourselves often paralyzed by choice. In this series, we are seeking to peel back our experience of church and ask “What does the Bible say is essential for the life of the church?” In this regard, Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 are arguably some of the most important words of the bible. If what Jesus outlines here isn’t the highest priority of the church, it can be argued that they are at least essential to the work of the church.
Have you ever considered standing on the top of a pole for 37 years as a ministry? Why would you? But this is exactly what the 4th century Syrian Simon Stylites did. While the practice would seem strange to us today, it worked in Simon’s context. Christianity had become first a legal religion in, then the religion of, the Roman Empire. In the absence of persecution and marginalization that the church had endured for the past three centuries, converts streamed in for other reasons besides the attraction of the gospel. For the first time in history people began to join the church because being a Christian might provide them some political or social advantage. It was as a testimony to the worth of the gospel above worldly gain that Simon and other so-called ‘green martyrs’ began to enact extreme acts of devotion publicly. Today, a man standing on a pole and talking about Jesus would attract a crowd, but not because people wanted to learn from him. Simon, however, spent his days praying, meditating on Scripture, and making himself available to those with spiritual questions via ladder at the end of the day.
What would you say if I proposed a ministry of pole-standing in the church? You’d rightly say that it wouldn’t make sense. It may have worked back then, but there’s no way it would work today. But when we look at what the church has done for the last few hundred years, we sometimes fail to see the ways those means engaged meaningfully in cultural contexts that have since changed. Take, for example, passing out tracts. Few of us would really propose this seriously as a means of advancing the gospel. In 19th century industrial England, the evangelical bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, made this a hallmark of his ministry. In fact, he invested so deeply in it that he purchased his own printing press so that he could print out his sermons in short booklets, then he would give them away as he visited people in their homes. This was effective in a society where information was passed mainly through either personal interactions or through printed materials, where public officeholders in the church held privileged positions in society, and where communities and individuals valued open hospitality in their homes. Is this, however, the best way to proclaim the gospel in our cultural setting, where the internet, podcasts, and memes have become central means of transmitting ideas, church officials are often viewed with skepticism, and people view their homes as almost impenetrable bastions of privacy open only to the closest of friends and acquaintances?
Few of us still look to tracts to proclaim the gospel, but what other means of gospel proclamation from generations past do we take for granted? What about door to door evangelism? Public preaching in a revivalistic setting? Sunday School? Friendship evangelism? Small groups? My point isn’t to belittle any of these methods, but to get us thinking about what we often take for granted as activities in the church. Each of these means were developed in particular cultural settings that allowed them to be successful and take root. Furthermore, while elements of these methods are biblically derived, scripture does not require any of them to be performed in the way that we perform them today. What other means of church ministry can you think of that we take for granted? Clearly, Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ sums up the heartbeat of the church’s mission.
Questions for reflection:
- What church activities can you think of that people often take for granted in the church?
- What activities do you see that have perhaps run their course, are no longer as useful as the energy that goes into them, or distract us from making disciples?