One of the claims made by the “missional” wing of the Church is that it recaptures the fervor of the Apostolic Church for a radical evangelism. In making that claim, they join a long line of movements in Church history who have implied similar parallels to the early Church. But was the Church of Peter and Paul as single-mindedly targeted on “mission” as is now claimed; or was there more of a balance between the missioners in the field and the in-gathered believers “back home”? After re-reading the Acts of the Apostles, I am persuaded that a very effective balance existed which enabled the overall mission to succeed.
In Acts 1, Jesus’ final words to the disciples prior to the Ascension instruct them to be his witnesses “…to the ends of the earth.” As angels shoo the disciples away from their sky-gazing on Olivet, one might expect them to get on with their commission and to hit the roads in every direction from there. But the disciples do something quite the contrary—they return to the Upper Room and gather with the close followers and family of Jesus in extended prayer. Then, as the first “official” action of the post-Ascension church, they do some internal organizing—holding an election to fill the vacancy of Judas’ empty place. It has the feel of “taking care of business” at an annual congregational meeting rather than holding a soul-saving revival under a rented tent. But the narrative makes clear that tending to the communal life of the gathered believers did not represent any abandonment of Jesus’ great commission to evangelize. It was viewed as necessary and preparatory work for evangelizing—for presenting the claims of Christ to the world, near and far.
Throughout the book of Acts, there continues a dynamic exchange between the apostles at the frontiers and those back at the home church. It takes many forms: conversations, confrontations, councils, shifts in personnel, collections for support. Through it all, the Gospel advance unfolds step-by-step in its progress from Jerusalem to the Rome, from the periphery to the center of the Empire. By the time the Acts narrative ends, there is a definite impression that the journey was accomplished, not by the dominance of one party over the other, but by a cooperation that was respectful of the contributions of both.
Paul, the great missional figure, was not just the saver of individual souls; he was the founder of churches and kept in relationship to those communities of belief he founded. He himself served a long apprenticeship in several churches prior to his journeys and he felt linked to the church at Jerusalem. In giving advice to churches like Ephesus and Corinth, he was drawing from extended personal experience as a church member. The Apostle cared about and commented on the quality of their congregational life, even though he himself had been moved on from them by the Spirit. Life in fixed local community and life on the road were seen in symbiotic relationship. Neither element could be impoverished without also harming the mission of advancing God’s Kingdom overall.
It is precisely this relationship of mutual respect and interdependence that is lacking in the RCA today. We need the gifts of those who are missionally-minded and to heed their challenge against congregational introversion. We also need the gifts of folk who are rooted in their places and in the practices of congregational life. Unless we can achieve some basis of mutual respect and love, we cannot expect to make great strides towards being effective agents of the Great Commission.