Nailing theology to a church door: Incarnational missiology and our Acts 8:1 moment

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Nailing theology to a church door: Incarnational missiology and our Acts 8:1 moment

October 31, 2023 -

Martin Luther statue in Eisleben. By nhermann/

Martin Luther statue in Eisleben. By nhermann/

Martin Luther statue in Eisleben. By nhermann/

Today is the eve of All Saints Day (thus “Hallows Eve” or “Halloween). On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” on the Wittenberg church door, knowing the church would be packed full of worshipers the next day.

Here we find just one example of Christians following the example of Christ by taking God’s word to the world rather than waiting for the world to come to the word.

We live in a day when the headlines seem to grow in fearsome ferocity, as war in the Middle East threatens to spread beyond the Middle East while Russia’s immoral invasion of Ukraine and China’s threats toward Taiwan continue unabated. Mass shootings continue to escalate while depression rates soar.

It should come as no surprise that, according to the National Retail Federation, more Americans plan to celebrate Halloween than in the history of its annual survey.

But the bad news is not all bad: if you and I will use the crises of our day to turn people to Christ, we can redeem our challenges for the sake of God’s kingdom and eternal souls.

How can we do this most effectively?

The entire thrust of the New Testament

Jesus, the One who “came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10), set the model by going “throughout all Galilee” to reach those who had not come to him (Mark 1:39). He extended his example by calling his disciples to be his witnesses where they lived and “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

To be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), clearly we must go where the “fish” are rather than waiting for them to find us. The entire thrust of the New Testament is incarnational—God comes to those who cannot come to him and then calls us to do the same.

Of course, you and I know all of this. So do our congregations.

Why, then, do so few Christians share their faith?

Barna research identifies “not feeling qualified or equipped” as the “main barrier,” cited by 37 percent. Other factors include disinterest in disciple-making, a fear of not being good at it, not having enough knowledge, and being the wrong person for the job. As a result, less than three in ten unchurched Americans say a Christian has ever shared with them one-on-one how a person becomes a Christian.

However, I think another factor is at work here, one we ignore at the peril of our cultural future.

When “church” is over for the week

Martin Luther nailed his famous “theses” to the door of the Wittenberg church building because he knew the community would crowd into it the next day and would see what he had written. I grew up in a similar cultural context, a time when most Americans held a church membership and went to services or at least thought they should.

Now, with church membership falling below 50 percent for the first time in American history, we are being forced back into the New Testament model of going to those who will not come to us.

However, our measures of success have not caught up with this cultural moment.

Too many American Christians still identify the church with the building where the church meets. We gather to watch the professionals perform while we evaluate their performance. When Sunday morning is done, “church” is over for another week.

Viewed through the prism of the New Testament, by contrast, it has just begun.

Acts 8:1 and Acts 1:8

The miracle of Pentecost began with Christians gathered in a building to pray, but it quickly drove them out into the massive crowds gathered in Jerusalem where they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4) and “each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (v. 6).

Soon we find apostolic Christians sharing their faith outside the temple (Acts 3), before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4), and “from house to house” (Acts 5:42). However, while Jesus called them to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), to this point they have not left Jerusalem.

Then came the martyrdom of Stephen, after which “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Consequently, “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (v. 4).

Now we find early Christians making their way to Samaria (Acts 8) and Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10). It is not long before missionaries are being commissioned to take the gospel across the Roman world (Acts 13).

We might say that Acts 8:1 compelled the church to fulfill Acts 1:8.

Are we in another Acts 8:1 moment?

I believe we are in another Acts 8:1 moment: the crises we face are our opportunity to speak biblical truth to our issues so as to lead our broken culture to the transforming peace found only in Christ. But this is an Acts 8:1 moment for another reason as well: our secularized culture is more convinced than ever that our churches are irrelevant and dangerous to society. Lost people are less willing than ever to trust our institutions and clergy.

As a result, for our churches to share God’s grace with those who need it most, our people must leave the doors of our buildings to engage the people they know with the truth of God’s love.

Seizing this moment calls us to measure success more in terms of Monday than Sunday as we encourage and enable our people to see their jobs, schools, and homes as their kingdom assignments. This requires that we see our primary job as equipping them to do their jobs (Ephesians 4:11–13). And that we work with urgency, knowing that tomorrow is promised to none.

My reflections today are prompted by the death last week of a friend who was the senior pastor of one of the most visible churches in Dallas. Dr. Bryan Dunagan’s ministry at Highland Park Presbyterian Church was thriving and his future appeared bright. Then he died in his sleep of natural causes at the age of forty-four.

His homegoing reminds us that the only treasure we can take to heaven are the eternal souls we touch with God’s love.

Let’s “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20) today to the glory of God.

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