From the Superintendent
One Size Church Does Not Fit All
By George O. Wood
I cannot remember who made the following statement, but it resonates within me: “The Holy Spirit at work is like a great river, cutting a fresh channel, going wherever He wishes. Sometimes that disturbs us, as Christian flood-control experts. We do not like the way the Holy Spirit moves. We like to dig a channel, line it with concrete, and say, ‘Come, O river of God. We have dug the channel. Flow through it according to our desires.’ ”
An examination of Assemblies of God churches shows that there are varieties in style, governance, meeting times, facilities, and communications. We are not lining the channel with concrete and demanding that the Holy Spirit flow within any particular form.
For example, the New Testament shows that churches differ from one another. I will use the Jerusalem and Antioch churches as a lens through which we can look at ourselves.
The Jerusalem Church Model
The Jerusalem church represents an effective model for reaching its culture. Today, we would call it a traditional, but vibrant Pentecostal church.
It was experiential. The charter members had been with Jesus. They were in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. They received Spirit baptism. They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. Miracles of healing, protection, and deliverance occurred in their midst; along with persecutions.
It was expanding. How many churches of 120 could absorb 3,000 new converts in a single day? The Jerusalem church did, and its members did not complain that they no longer knew anyone. The 120 took responsibility to disciple the 3,000. They probably had 120 home groups, with 25 to a group. But they did not stop growing at 3,120. Day by day believers were added to the church (Acts 2:47); then 5,000 men (Acts 4:4); and from there, the church went from addition to multiplication (Acts 6:7).
It was also exclusive. I do not use the word exclusive in a pejorative context. If they were going to effectively reach their culture, they had to respect cultural boundaries. These boundaries included keeping kosher and other traditions of the Law. In fact, when the apostle Paul came to Jerusalem on his last visit, he sponsored four men who had taken a Nazarite vow. These vows concluded with animal sacrifice (Acts 21:17–26). That event shows that 25 years after the Cross and the Resurrection, the Jerusalem church still went to the temple and participated in all the rituals.
The Jerusalem church saw itself as a fulfillment and continuation of Judaism. Repentance, faith in Christ, and water baptism were only new requirements added to the former requirements for relationship with God. Peter’s experience at Cornelius’ home placed the first wedge in the culturally exclusive theology of the Jerusalem church.
The Antioch Church Model
The Antioch church shared the same essentials of faith as the Jerusalem church. They were not less Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. They, too, were experiential and expanding, but their approach to culture differed.
Antioch was a much different urban environment from Jerusalem. It was the world’s third largest city behind Rome and Alexandria, with an estimated population of 500,000. In this cosmopolitan city, Jew met Gentile, Greek and barbarian rubbed shoulders, and the west of Mediterranean culture met the east of Syrian Desert culture. It was a city of sports; chariot race teams and partisans competed for the super bowl of their day.
It was also a city of immorality mingled with pagan religion. Legend had it that at the Groves of Daphne Apollo fell in love with Daphne, pursued her, and she turned into a laurel tree. The great temple to Apollo built on the site had 1,000 priestess/prostitutes who reenacted the pursuit of Apollo in the gardens and villas of Daphne with worshipers.
Antioch was not much different from popular American culture — pagan, multicultural, sports crazy, and obsessed with sex.
Antioch was also part of the world that God so loved. In this different setting, the Antioch church took on characteristics different from the Jerusalem church.
Acts 11:19,20 gives the two sources of leadership and explains how the gospel came to Antioch. First, Jerusalem Jews scattered because of persecution and came to the Jews of Antioch. Second, some of those who were scattered from Jerusalem were not Jerusalemites, but were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These individuals began to speak to the Greeks, telling them the gospel. When many people believed and turned to the Lord, the Jerusalem church finally sent Barnabas to them.
Choosing the right person to send was a critical and important decision. (Whom you put on committees is vital.) “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (Acts 11:23, italics mine).
Barnabas realized that he needed help, so he “went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:25–28, italics mine).
Luke gives the reason Barnabas sought out Saul in the two verbs used for ministry: encouraged and taught. Barnabas probably had an exhortative, encouraging kind of preaching ministry. But he knew that a more substantive approach to the faith was needed to lay a foundation under the newfound faith of the Antioch believers. Thus, Luke uses the word taught only after Saul’s arrival. Barnabas’ example shows us that we need to look for others who can join us in ministry and complement our deficiencies.
Luke lists other leaders in Acts 13:1: “Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch).”
Barnabas was the bridge leader between Jerusalem and Antioch, but he was not in primary leadership in Jerusalem, while the four other Antioch leaders had no role in the Jerusalem church. One leader, Paul, was a headache to a large segment of the Jerusalem church. In short, the Antioch leaders would not have been well-received as leaders in the Jerusalem church because of their cultural views on the inclusion of Gentiles.
Jerusalem spoke Hebrew; Antioch spoke Greek. Jerusalem kept kosher; Antioch ate cheeseburgers with bacon.
What is a language in our culture? Consider the following languages:
- Service times.
- Church architecture.
- Form of worship.
- Forms of church governance.
The modality of bringing Jesus to the culture shifts with the culture while the eternal message of the gospel does not change.
Acts 2:42 applied to the Antioch church just as it did to the Jerusalem church, and it needs to apply to us. The key is retaining apostolic doctrine and experience, and being flexible on the rest.
When Mao Zedong was leader of China, he imprisoned Deng Xiaoping as a capitalist roader. After Zedong died, Xiaoping became China’s leader and instituted capitalist reforms that have fueled China’s resurgence today. Hotly criticized by the old Maoists, Xiaoping’s famous response was, “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”
The apostle Paul took the same approach concerning how we communicate the gospel to various cultures: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
In the Assemblies of God, we must be more concerned about results than means. Are people being saved, being baptized in the Spirit, living in the Spirit, and becoming fruitful disciples of Jesus? If so, then we do not need to concern ourselves with pastors and churches that may do things differently from a past generation.
The Antioch church never assumed the suspicious attitude that the Jerusalem church had toward the conversion of the Gentiles. We would understand if the Antioch church had said, “What have we to do with Jerusalem? They never sent us missionaries. The first disciples to Antioch came because of persecution, not intention. Furthermore, they only spoke to fellow Jews, not to us. Diaspora Jews from Cyrus and Cyrene told us the good news of Jesus. So, we do not owe Jerusalem anything.”
But, that was not their spirit. They did not begrudge the Jerusalem church for not having directly sent missionaries or assistance. Instead, they determined they would send missionaries to the unreached world, and financial assistance back to the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:30). They also welcomed prophets (anointed preachers) from the Jerusalem church, including Agabus. They did not insist that the Jerusalem church do things their way.
What a model for the Assemblies of God. The problems we experience regarding changes of style in local churches occur when Jerusalem tries to become Antioch, or Antioch tries to become Jerusalem. Here is how to wreck a church. Make major changes that: (1) are abrupt; (2) are without congregational education or involvement; (3) are without love; and (4) are without respect for the spiritual characteristics of the church.
The Antioch church did not adopt a condescending or superior attitude toward the Jerusalem church, nor did it break fellowship with Jerusalem. Instead, love ruled the day. When the saints in Jerusalem needed help, the church in Antioch shared with a generous heart.
Our culture today tends to be fragmented and broken into isolated units. The church needs to allow the spiritual glue to bind people together, so what we have in Christ is greater than any differences that may divide us.
We must be careful not to adopt prideful attitudes in the way we do church. If there is any boasting, let it be in the Lord. We need to avoid an attitude that says, “My way of doing church is better than yours.” We need to make room for diversity of calling in our Assemblies of God family.
It takes flexibility to accommodate change. It is the nature of Spirit-filled people to seize the moment and move into uncharted waters, confident that where the Spirit guides, He provides.
Change is difficult. A passenger in a taxi tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask him a question. The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove over the curb, and stopped just inches from a large plate glass window.
For a few moments everything was silent in the cab, then the driver said, “Please, don’t ever do that again. You scared the daylights out of me.”
The passenger, who was also frightened, apologized. He said, “I did not realize that a tap on the shoulder would frighten you so much.”
The driver replied, “I’m sorry; it’s not your fault. Today is my first day driving a cab. For the last 25 years I drove a hearse.”
Some people are threatened by change. We need to feel threatened if the change leads us away from our anchor in Scripture. But we need not fear change when we follow the example of the apostle Paul who used all means that he might win some.
The challenge before us is to respect our diversity in unity. We will have unity when we follow steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayers, and have genuine care and hospitality toward one another (Acts 2:42).
The Lord would not be pleased with the balkanization of the Assemblies of God. The term balkanization comes from an area of the world — Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo — where ethnicity and culture collide. Balkanization means to break up into smaller and often hostile units.
This term must not apply to the church. My prayer is, “Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.”
The Latin phrase on our American currency is E Pluribus Unum, meaning out of many one. As the Assemblies of God, we will not do well if we are pluribus — each going his own way. Nor will we do well if we are unum. God loves variety. That is why He made us all different. But when we gather to do the Lord’s work, we can accomplish much more if we join our hearts and hands.
At times, people criticized Billy Graham for being inclusive of other believers. He replied with this poem:
“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Rebel, heretic, a thing to flout;
But, love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in.”
May we be charitable enough with the grace God has given us to draw circles that take people in rather than walls that shut people out.