Those who follow my writing know I believe we are living in a pivotal period of history in which everything that will be is being separated from everything that was. In such a traumatic period, all the rules of the game of life are called into question.
Christianity and the Scriptures are the result of such a period. The effect Jesus had on the people around him signaled the end of many traditions and the birth of a yet-to-be-understood way of life. Although Jesus never intended to establish a new faith, his actions set into motion a movement that would become a profoundly new way of life.
However, Judaism was so entrenched in the rules and regulations of institutional life that she was unable to follow this movement of God’s Spirit into a new and deeper understanding of life, and Christianity was born. Could it be that the same thing is happening today to Christianity? Could it be that what Christianity is going through today is more akin to what Judaism experienced in the first and second centuries? We’re not living in the second Reformation; we’re living in the first century all over again.
Once again, God is calling Christianity out of its masada-like, institutional prison, out from behind the cloistered walls of the sanctuary, out from the safety of denominational dominance, out from the marriage of Church and State, away from the merger of culture and piety, away from the professionals, into the dangerous, uncontrollable, deadly highways and byways and back roads of real life where once again it is forced to deal with life on its own terms, forced to associate with pagans and Gentiles.
For the past sixteen hundred years, since the rule of Constantine, much of Christianity has lived aloof and apart from the Gentile world, relying on its institutional and political dominance to protect it and to propagate the faith. Today, with its institutional and political dominance receding into the shadows of yesterday, authentic Christianity is again breaking out of its institutional, religious closet to once again become a movement rather than a religion based on doctrines and rules.
Movement More than Religion
In both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke portrays Christianity more as a movement than a religion. In the closing story to St. Luke’s Gospel and throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we encounter a series of “road stories.” Everyone is going somewhere: Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Philip on the road to Gaza, Peter on the road to Cornelius, Saul on the road to Damascus.
In these road stories, St. Luke leaves a question behind that begs to be answered – where were all of the disciples going and why? Perhaps more importantly, where was Jesus going and did his actions set all of this travel into motion? The answer is, they were all on the road to the Gentiles, away from the spiritual center of religious professionals to the world. Luke reinforces this traveling theme with the Pentecost experience, the mission of Paul to the Gentiles at Antioch, the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church, and finally Paul’s mission to the West. In every instance Christianity was depicted as a movement away from the center of religious institutional and professional life into the fringes of the mission field.
This is the question God is asking Christianity: “Will you follow me once again into the mission field?” If we wish to be faithful and to claim the future for Jesus, we will have to abandon the comfort of our institutions and follow Jesus into the mission field. What does this mean? It means that to be effective on the mission field, Christianity will once again have to become a movement.
Movements Follow A Leader
Movements are centered around a revered leader. Remove the leader and the movement soon becomes an institution or religion. Christianity was never meant to be thought of as a religion or institution because of the Resurrection. It’s time we recognized that fact and begin to live like disciples committed to a radical movement rather than entitled members committed to our institutions.
For the first three centuries, the person and work of Jesus Christ dominated the conversation. Who was he? What did he do? and Why does he matter? Jesus was all that mattered. Every aspect of theology hinged on an understanding of Christology. Christianity was founded on what God did in Jesus Christ. Institutional rules, dogma, and rituals are never a substitute for a living relationship with the leader of the Christian movement.
Imagine yourself on a mission field. You are the only Christian you know. You have spent the last several months becoming immersed in a new culture and language. All of a sudden, a person appears in town who claims to be a Christian. You make a beeline for that person. What is the first thing you ask him or her? What do you believe or what group are you aligned with? Absolutely not. You’re so delighted to see another Christian that all you can do is talk about is how wonderful it is to be on the mission field with Jesus. I wish this last sentence felt more like fact than fantasy to more of us.
Movements Embody the Spirit of the Founder
One of the earliest names for Christianity was “The Way” (Acts 9:2). Long before Christianity became known as a faith to be believed, Christianity was conceived of as a way of life that resulted from redemption in Christ. To be a Christian meant to live as Jesus lived and that meant joining him on the mission field.
In movements that thrive long-term, subsequent leaders embody the spirit of the movement’s founder. Christianity thrived because people like Paul, Apollos, Lydia, Barnabas, Peter, Mark, Stephen, and others caught and lived out the spirit of Jesus by following him into the mission field. Christianity thrives today where leaders embody the spirit of Jesus. Their leadership is not based on professionalism, personality, office, or even institutional ordination. Their leadership is based on how well they can function among the world of the Gentiles.
Christians give their loyalty not to a set of rules or policies or a religious group, but to the person who embodied the “Way” they are supposed to live and die. This “Way” was not considered to be one way among many, but instead was considered to be “The Way” of all ways. As such, it demands total obedience from all disciples who claim the name “Christian.”
One of the problems Christianity faces today is that too much of the focus has been on the needs of the institution rather than on embodying the spirit of Jesus. An early example of this is the shift from being called “People of the Way” in the first century to “People of the Book” since the Reformation. Knowing the Bible is often perceived as a substitute for holy living. Performing rituals often replaces ethical living. The result is that ethics do not automatically follow faith.
Movements Are Guided by Mission Rather than Rules
As a movement, Christianity is guided by an overriding mission that eclipses all rules. No longer is there one right way to do anything. Now we have to ask, what is the right thing to do in this particular part of the mission field? How does a congregation know when to break from the established rules? Keep in mind that movements have a cause, while institutional religion is the cause. The cause for which Christianity lives and breathes is the redemption of creation. Christians will do whatever will work toward achieving that mission.
The clash between Paul and the Jerusalem church gives us some help here. When the Jerusalem church heard that Paul had been baptizing converts without first circumcising them, they rebuked him. But after hearing of the marvelous work that was occurring in the lives of people, the council changed its mind. The guiding principle: if it transforms lives, you do it even if it is illegal because the redemption of people is more important than keeping institutional traditions. The early Christians didn’t let a little thing like legality get in the way of their radical devotion to Jesus. That is why many considered them to be a cult.
Movements Are Mobile Rather than Static
Movements are mobile, able to change at the whim of their leader. To be on the Way with Jesus means to be ready, willing, and able to go wherever Jesus leads us. Thus, in this time of traumatic transition, we are seeing institutional Christianity being left behind because it is tethered to its physical moorings and can’t join Jesus on the way. In its place we see the rise of house churches, storefront churches, cell churches, cyberchurches, café churches, bar churches, city-reaching movements, multiple-site churches, and biker churches. What do these ministries have in common? They are able to pick up and move with Jesus the moment he moves. They are not tethered to location, property, or tradition. The emergence of the traumatic third millennium is forcing the segments of Christianity concerned about transformational living to become a movement once again. Unfortunately, the mission field does not afford us the luxuries of stability, location, status quo, and familiarity.
Movements Depend on Contextual People
Large-scale movements such as Christianity depend on leaders who are contextual and cross-cultural. Contextual leaders are tuned into the culture of their community. They know it like the back of their hand. They are out in the culture as much as they are in their office or spiritual community. Cross-cultural leaders are able to see beyond the sacredness of any cultural form and grasp the larger mystery of what God did for all cultures. They can communicate this larger mystery in a new cultural environment. Paul’s message on Mars Hill about the unknown god is an example of contextual, cross-cultural leadership. Because of his passion to share the news of Jesus, Paul was able to see beyond the cultural barrier and help people see the larger mystery. He used their culture to transcend all culture with the message of Jesus.
I hate to tell you this, but the mission field won’t be like your backyard. It will always feel different and challenging. We will have to learn new languages and cultures. Learn to be comfortable with all sorts of people and customs. Learn how to adapt our customs and methodologies in order for our message to be received.
Christianity grew rapidly because it crossed all cultural and social barriers. No one was considered untouchable. Much of modern-day Christianity is too tied to one particular culture. It is time we opened wide the doors once again.
It’s hard for people steeped in a static religion of the past to embrace radical change. Judaism opposed Jesus; Jerusalem questioned Antioch; Rome challenged the Monastics; Anglicans chastised Wesley; and today some established denominational leaders are shaking their heads at the lack of religion found in the emerging postmodern congregations with strange names like “Scum of the Earth.” But my friends, be forewarned – the more we rely on our institutions instead of following our leader into the mission field, the more likely we will be to be left behind on the road to nowhere.
Question: How has your church modeled Christianity as a movement? Let us know in the Comments section below.