by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
20 April 2008
Gordon Atkinson is the writer of the popular blog RealLivePreacher.com. In the early days of blogging Gordon, who was anonymous at the time, became popular because here was a cool preacher who was willing to talk honestly and authentically about faith, spirituality, and the church. RealLivePreacher struggled with faith, used humour, and occasionally dropped a cuss word or two. People tired of the often moribund and stodgy churches they grew up with, churches that didn't invite question, innovation, or struggle, were attracted to Gordon's blog and what he described of the kooky little Baptist church he pastors in San Antonio. In one essay, he took on the question of "How to find a church":
It seems that today many people are looking for a great church. Americans remain deeply religious, but aren't necessarily gung ho about the faith they grew up with. They seem to be looking for the cool church, which means, of course, a church that fits their individualized notion of what it means to be cool. And that does vary. When some of my friends passionately describe what it is about their church that excites them most, I'm sometimes really turned off, or even scared.
What makes for a vital church?
The Book of Acts might just have our answer. Acts is more than a history book. In fact, it really isn't a history book at all. It's a story book, but a story book with a purpose. Kind of like Dr. Seuss. When Theodore Geisel writes,
Oh, the THINKS
you can think up
if only you try!
If you try,
you can think up
a GUFF going by.
we get that Dr. Seuss is awakening our imaginations and teaching us a few things along the way.
Acts is like that too. It's not so much a book about the early church as it is a book that gives shape to what it means to be the church in every age. Its purpose is to awaken our imaginations and get us thinking about what it means to be the Church.
And this story about Stephen is filled with practical pointers on how to be the church. Here are just a few:
- Don't get worried when some issue arises in the church, because there were issues even for the people who knew Jesus, personally.
- You need lots of leaders, both clergy and laity, because this church has twelve pastors and still the congregants were complaining that not everything was getting done.
- Pastors have to set boundaries so they don't get overworked or distracted from their primary calling.
- The small things are important. Not only do you need people preaching, teaching, and praying, someone does have to oversee the kitchen.
- You've got to call the whole community together to address the life of the community. Sometimes the decisions have to be made by everyone.
- Prayer is essential to the life of the church. In fact, it seems to have priority over everything else.
- Committees existed from the beginning of the church.
- When a group feels out of the loop, you appoint leaders from that group to fix the problem. Another way to put that is, if someone complains about something, put them in charge.
- Leadership arises from the people in order to meet the changing needs of the church.
- Diversity is one of the most important virtues of the Jesus movement.
- Rituals that bless folk in a new ministry are important.
- Sometimes, like with Stephen, when you give someone a new position, they become empowered.
- The church's vision must be centered on the Risen Christ.
- A vital church will encounter passionate opposition.
- Our whole lives bear witness to the God we proclaim.
- The church cannot grow without leadership among the laity.
We could have a church vitality workshop and talk in-depth about each of those points and why they are important and how to put them into practice.
When we read this story for how we are to be the church, we are engaging in the very activity that Stephen himself engaged in. I encourage you to go home and read the rest of Stephen's story in chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Acts. After Stephen begins performing signs and wonders, the religious authorities react by arresting him and dragging him before the council. When they question him, he tells them the biblical story from beginning to end, reinterpreting it in light of the new revelation in Christ. This is what angers them so much that, in violation of Roman law, they drag Stephen out of the city and stone him to death and then begin a violent crackdown on all the Christians.
What Stephen does is re-read the biblical story in light of what God has just revealed. In other words, Stephen believed that God is still speaking. The still speaking God allows Stephen to read his own story as part of the larger biblical story and the larger biblical story as his story.
This is what we do. Our identity is discovered in reading the biblical and the Christian story as our own.
The most important point that this story makes for our own lives is that our faith is something for which we are willing to die.
Many people are in search of meaning and adventure. This is particularly true of young people. That seems to have been part of the case for John Walker Lindh, the young California man caught by U. S. soldiers fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Steve Earle captured this idea in his song, "John Walker's Blues,"
I'm just an American boy – raised on MTV
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of 'em look like me
So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him.
Note that not everyone attracted to the Muslim faith becomes a terrorist, just as most Christian converts do not become Fred Phelps.
Mainstream Christian churches in America have done a relatively poor job of presenting Christianity as a meaningful adventure. The vitality of the early church resulted from a passion so deep and strong that they were willing to die.
That doesn't mean that we are called to martyrdom. It still happens occasionally, but it's not a requirement of Christian discipleship. When it does happen, martyrdom is not death that inflicts death and suffering on someone else, but is the result of speaking truth to power – the example of Christian martyrdom isn't going off on some Crusade, it's getting beaten to death in a civil rights march on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
So, the story in Acts presents the martyrdom of Stephen. If Acts isn't telling history but is trying to awaken our imaginations and tell us something about what it means to be the church, then what can we learn about the church in this story of death? What, then, makes a vital church?
It is the passion, commitment, and courage of the martyr. According to Acts, people were drawn to the early church because they observed all these things. Too often our spirituality is comfortable. It is the challenge and discipline that brings adventure and meaning. To be filled with adventure and meaning, doesn't require that each of us has to be Stephen. That would be pretty intense anyway. Sometimes being filled with adventure and meaning requires being George. Here's one more story from Gordon Atkinson:
George died not long after.
May the stories of Stephen, George, and so many others awaken our imaginations to the meaning and adventure to be found in this quirky thing called the church.