Contemporary Apostle by Todd Hunter
Thousands of Acts of Being Sent
Something gets lost when that which was meant to be familiar and recognizable among a people is made exceptional and mysterious. It is even worse when such a gift is thought to have hero status or celebrity attached to it. The situation can get down right unbearable when this supposed standing is given “personality-cult” power and authority in a local community of faith.
The opposite though, is beautiful: something is gained when a gift is seen as possible for the whole people of God, while simultaneously being prized and accepted in humility in consideration of the uniqueness of the Giver.
I am thinking here of the biblical gift of “apostle”. The previous decade or so has seen a resurgence in thinking, writing and practice regarding apostles. Not all of it is off-base. I am glad any time the gifts of the Spirit are taken serious. The goal of this article is not to criticize what has gone before. My aspiration is to cast a vision; a vision that will release thousands of acts of “being sent”; of starting a new “ministry” on new ground; of being the agent of God in the places of pain, injustice, despair and lost-ness in the world; a vision of being a sent ambassador of the Kingdom of God.
Ordinary People Sent To Do Ordinary Things
There are amazing stories of average people being sent to do remarkable things. One that comes to mind is old, but so instructive that it bears telling. It comes from Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., an ecumenical church founded by Gordon Cosby in 1947. It is the story of Killian Noe and David Erickson. They were sitting in a service of COS in 1985 as Gordon was sharing about the many homeless people in the DC area. Both Killian and David, who did not know each other, were given an imagination by the Spirit about what might be done about this horrible situation. Each of them responded to Gordon and he introduced them to each other. Out of their sense of call and passion, COS, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, “sent” them out to the homeless, thus birthing “Samaritan Inns”. This is a story of two ordinary people, called and sent by God to do his work in their neighborhood. Samaritan Inns continues to provide homeless and addicted men and women with tangible opportunities for hope and healing in Jesus’ name.
There are an unlimited number of doable acts of ministry that fit the concept of “apostle/sentness.” In a Vineyard church in Shoreline, WA, Sharon Richards was struck by the men that she saw on freeway exits with signs requesting help. Moved and sent by God to minister to these destitute men, she went to Costco, purchased food and small bags and put together bags of food to hand out to these men as she came across them coming off a freeway. Now there is a small kiosk in the church foyer with small bags of food for others to pick up and respond in the same fashion. It is solely sponsored by those who drop money at the kiosk to purchase the food and bags. How did this happen? Their pastors, Rich and Rose Swetman, provide an atmosphere in which their congregants are encouraged to hear God and be sent by him into their neighborhood.
In my present ministry as the National Director of AlphaUSA, my heroes are the Alpha “Table Hosts” who have been sent by God to host seekers for a nice supper and pleasant conversation about becoming a follower of Jesus. What could be more normal, simple or ordinary: dinner and dialog; but each of these acts of sent-ness is the real, God-inspired thing.
Mine or the Spirit’s
There are a couple of issues we need to deal with if we are to recover a simple, “with ease” view of apostleship. First, the gifts of the Spirit listed in the New Testament may not be intended as something that is constantly possessed by a believer. Though space does not allow for a long argument here, I think it is best to view the gifts as “owned” by God and dispersed as he sees fit (I Cor. 12: 1-3) in occasional situations of ministry. This view helps us resolve the apparent contrast in Paul’s statement in I Corinthians “not everyone has such-and such a gift” with his encouragement to “seek the greater gifts”. The “greater gifts” Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12.31 does not mean more important gifts but “greater” for intelligibility (understanding that builds each other up for service to each other and their work in the world) in the community according to Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. p. 625).
It is true, however, that God uses some people so routinely in one or a few of the gifts that it is understandable when our regular language says something like “I have the gift of teaching”. I have said such things myself; it seems experientially true. I cannot remember the last time I stood up to teach before an audience and the thought occurred to me, “gee, I wonder if I will get the gift of teaching tonight?” Similarly, I don’t typically walk into rooms where I am the acknowledged leader wondering if the gift of leadership will come. If though, on the other hand, I am called to a hospital to pray for the sick, then I am usually mindful to ask for a gift of healing knowing that that gift is not so prevalent for me.
Second, this view is important for two reasons: one, it keeps us from falling into the hero or celebrity status of the gift; and two, it makes the gift of apostleship available to anyone—situation by situation—as God sees fit. One could be Clark Kent one moment, Superman the next, and back to Clark all in the same short period of time. So you wanna be an apostle? Ask God to send you on a mission in your sphere of influence; in the “being sent” process you will be apostle-ing. After all Jesus did the most everyday thing when he was “sent” by the Father; he “moved into our neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson so eloquently puts it in The Message.
I wonder what it would look like if church leaders would provide a view of apostle that made it possible for the imagination of church members to think about being sent into their neighborhoods. Often the Spirit sends with a “package deal.” He sends folks with all the gifts necessary to accomplish the mission they are being sent on. A combination of the gifts is usually happening through a person sent on a mission. Elizabeth O’Connor at COS has said that “calling/sending evokes gifts”; that “many people have not received gifts because they have never accepted a call from God”.
Into Our Neighborhood
Who better to learn from about what it means to be sent than by considering the one who was the Ultimate Sent One; the One sent by God to enter into this world to be humankind’s model of what it means to be sent into the world as God’s renewed, Spirit-empowered people.
The story of Jesus presented in the Gospels is built around the idea of “sentness/apostleship.” Luke shares the words of Jesus in Luke 4.43 on this idea, “He told them, “Don’t you realize that there are yet other villages where I have to tell the Message of God’s kingdom, that this is the work God sent me to do” (The Message). What the Father did with Jesus is what Jesus does with his followers. Take a look at Luke 9 and 10 for the story of the sending of the disciples. IN addition, in John’s Gospel we have these succinct words of Jesus: “Jesus repeated his greeting: ‘Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.’” He was sent and he sends us. In his sending of us, we are apostles. This is the essential meaning of the Greek word apostolos and the Hebrew notion of Saliah; a deputy commissioned and sent by another. From the opening story in the Garden, God’s own self-portrait is that of a “sending God.” We live in an ongoing story of “sentness.”
Apostles in a Changing Cultural Landscape
Apostleship or sent-ness as we have been considering it here usually carries with it, in the popular imagination, a cross-cultural notion. Paul is certainly an example of being sent by God into a world that was not his own. He was a Hebrew by birth and a citizen of Rome, who was sent by God into a Greek culture to do God’s work among the Gentiles. In hindsight, he is now famous because we have his writings and works recorded in Scripture. But, in “real time” he was just “going” into the neighborhoods to which he was “sent” (like the Macedonian Call in Acts 16.9ff.) to do the ministry that God had called him to do. What Paul was faced with in Thessalonica, Philippi, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus was a different culture than the one he grew up in. Nevertheless, that was where he was sent to deliver the message of the Kingdom. This is not just a once-in-time kind of occurrence given to a “special person” in Bible times. This kind of calling and sending still happens today among God’s people in less visible and celebrated ways.
However, we do not need to go on an airplane trip to be sent: we could be sent into the most natural parts of our lives; that counts too. That being said though, there is a contemporary need in America for sent-people across a changing landscape. Today, like Paul, we are swimming in different waters than we grew up in. For instance, you are probably hearing talk about two of the biggest changes on the scene today: postmodernism or post-Christendom.
Sent into Postmodernism
In simple terms, postmodernism is simply a critique of the modern period. Without getting too philosophical, the modern period was marked by science, uniformity, fragments, and individualism The postmodern period is noticeable by its focus on spirituality, diversity, holistic thinking, questioning aspects of “truth” and community.
Some of us will be sent into this uncomfortable, cross-cultural situation. We must go; someone must love these people where they are, not where we wish they were. It will do no good to yell at or get “preachy” with them. Jesus said we were called to be fishers of men. One thing every fisherman knows is that you catch fish on their terms not yours! If they only feed in the early morning, then you MUST get up early, too; if they only eat certain bait, then that is what you must cast.
However this current cultural change ends up getting described by historians, it is real and these are real people honestly struggling with real issues. Those of us who struggled with the ‘60s sins of sex and drugs have no business getting uppity with sincere people who have genuine questions about things like truth.
I have spent a great deal of the last five years of my life mentoring young sent-ones who are entering into conversations with postmodern people. Mostly church planters, these men and women, like the Alpha table-hosts above, are my heroes.
Sent into Post-Christendom
Post-Christendom describes the time period after the church was a central part of society. A simple way to capture this thought is to picture in your mind a small New England town with a church in the center of it; everything else was built around it. From a psychological point of view, everyone knew they had to deal with the church; every one acknowledged that the church and its leaders had authority. Except in rare settings, this is no longer true in America.
This is important, because most of what we know about church and mission is based on Christendom assumptions. If we have a new world, we need new “sent-ones” into that world.
How did Killian Noe and David Erickson or Sharon Richards know that God was calling and sending them? Dallas Willard, in his must-read book Hearing God, says that the way forward to hear God send us is to focus not so much on individual actions and decisions as on building our personal relationship with our Creator. So in Killian and David’s call they were not looking for some individual action to pick up and carry, they were worshiping in an atmosphere in which folks are encouraged to listen for God to speak to them. In Sharon’s case she simply saw a need and began a process that led her to hearing God send her to fulfill a need. How does God speak? He speaks in innumerable ways. Aren’t we glad that he doesn’t only speak one way all the time; and that he speaks to the most common people? So listen up, he may come knocking on your door to “send” you into one of the “neighborhoods” of your life.