Life as a community of faith is a journey. We are not yet “the people who have arrived”; we are “the people of the Way” (Acts 9:2; 24:22, etc.) Walking that Way together gathers us into participation in the unfolding mission of God. Sometimes the road seems well marked, and all that is required is persistence in walking it. At other times the road takes us into uncharted territory or, even if we feel we’re standing still, the environment changes around us and we face the urgent and perplexing task of finding direction so that we may continue to travel in alignment with the purpose for which God has called us and sent us into the world.
We are surely in such a time now. How do we discern the way and journey together faithfully in the turbulent contexts of our life and mission? The Book of Acts is a narrative of the growing realization of the reign of the Ascended Christ in a succession of geographical, linguistic, ethnic, religious, social and political contexts. There are literal journeys across land and sea into different environments and also inner journeys of change for individuals and local communities as an increasingly diverse collection of people find themselves in relationship with each other through their shared allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. At key points, those changes have to be named and owned by the church as a whole if they are to continue as one people on a journey of faith and faithfulness together.
The fullest account of the process by which that was achieved is given in Acts chapter 15, at a crucial hinge point in the mission narrative. Reaching out, joining God in engaging with people and communities beyond the existing church, generates issues of receiving in. Who may be received into the Jesus-worshipping community, and what is asked of them in order for that to happen? And what changes in attitude, practice and even belief are required of the church so that it is able not only to include those who had previously been outside the group but also to embrace a new, more diverse identity? In the Acts 15 account a process of communal discernment produced an outcome whereby gentiles, including uncircumcised males, were welcomed into the Jesus movement and the church came to understand itself as am ethnically and culturally diverse community of people who acknowledged each other to be equally loved, called and accepted by God.
That process drew on several resources. There were stories from the edge of missional engagement, as the missionaries Paul and Barnabas shared the things they had been encountering beyond the existing church that they were convinced were God’s doing (vv. 3-4, 12). There were questions from the centre, as the holders of the traditions of the community that had come into being in Jerusalem highlighted issues that those new ways posed for what they had previously thought and practiced (v. 5). There was personal testimony, as the respected and trusted leader, Simon Peter, told of how God had dealt with him to challenge his assumptions about God and others, and reveal God’s heart for people whom he had considered outside the scope of God’s acceptance (vv. 7-9). There was wise leadership, giving space for all those voices, articulating what was being discerned as the direction in which God was leading, and offering a pathway forward (vv. 13-21). And, key to the community’s recognition of God’s purpose in the strange new circumstances, there was scripture. Re-read in the light of those experiences and issues, aspects of the text that they might not have noticed before were thrown into sharper profile (vv. 15-17; cf. Amos 9:11-12) and its significance for their time and its challenges was unleashed. Through all of that they came together to the place where they could have confidence that the Holy Spirit was leading them together in the direction of what God was doing (v. 28a).
A lot was at stake then, as it is now. But we have the same resources, and the challenges of our mission contexts require of us the same courage to hear and to speak, openness to the experiences and convictions of others, willingness to revisit our assumptions about what God will or will not do, and read and hear scripture in and for our context and its realities. Leadership for community and mission in turbulent times facilitates the processes of communal discernment, validating the experiences and voices of those who have walked with Jesus on the edge of mission, welcoming the questions that come out of deep rootedness in the community’s past faithfulness, and dwelling deeply in the scriptures attentive to God’s mission purpose. It’s a challenge. But the fruits of such discernment are a greater clarity about God, the gospel, unrestricted mission, and fuller, more authentic community.
Dr George Wieland
Director of Mission Research and Training
You can contact George at [email protected]