John Howard Yoder once wrote that the mission of God is to create a people who are both “pulpit and paradigm” of a new humanity. What does that mean?
It means God’s mission is to create a people who both preach and practice love. That’s the identity of the church.
When it comes to preaching love, we should be the people who speak precisely and profusely about love.
There are plenty of imprecise ways of understanding love in our culture today. But the people of God should speak with great clarity when it comes to the idea of love. We’ve been given an understanding of love that is rooted in the cross, in the sacrificial giving of self that Jesus demonstrated for us and toward us. We should be the ones to challenge society’s flimsy and fleeting understandings of love.
The followers of Jesus should be talking about love more than anyone. Admittedly, we have some pretty good source material. After all, we’ve been given 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, John 3:16, 1 John 4. The story of a God who loves like no other…that’s our story! So we should be talking about love more than anyone else! Love should be our favorite topic of conversation!
So preaching love is essential. But our mission isn’t simply to “talk a good game.” God’s mission is to create a people who both preach and practice love. When we do these in tandem – when love is preached and practiced concurrently – we are living “missionally.” We are living “on mission” for God. And there is tremendous power in this kind of lifestyle.
John Wesley once said:
“Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as you ever can.”
This is what it means to live missionally. Every opportunity and resource is understood redemptively. This is what it means to practice love.
Our culture has shifted dramatically in a very short amount of time. Scholars speak of our culture as being postmodern and post-Christian. This is simply a way of saying that there was a time when one could assume that the majority of people held a Judeo-Christian worldview, but that time has passed. The most recent research indicates that over 50 million Americans self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or no particular religious conviction. And that number is growing.
If we are to reach this generation with the Gospel, some would say we must be careful not to offend. Some would say we must be careful not to make the Gospel too demanding, lest we turn people away. In the words of one scholar, tolerance is “the executive virtue of our time.” So in order to preach the Gospel in today’s culture, we need to operate with a similar spirit of tolerance as faith is increasingly privatized. Or so goes the argument.
I believe this line of thinking is quite commonplace today. And, to be fair, the New Testament does teach us to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive (Titus 2:10). But we need to emphasize here that tolerance is not our mission. Love is our mission. And we should be careful that we don’t confuse the two.
For God so tolerated the world? No, that’s not Gospel.
Tolerance is the cardinal virtue of our day. But we are called to be a subversive people. We don’t live by the world’s standards or values. We live by the standards and values of the Kingdom of God. And the most subversive thing we can do to undermine the value system of the world is to love and to do all that love requires. The world can find “tolerance” at every turn today, in the form of muted acquiescence and the pervasive fear of being labeled “intolerant.” But I ask you: where else, other than the church, will the world find the kind of sacrificial, serving, missional love that Jesus calls us to embody?
I love my children; I don’t “tolerate” them. Because I love them, I won’t tolerate their actions and behaviors. I’ll engage with them; I’ll seek to correct them.
We do not conform to public doctrine. Christian love is eccentric — literally, living “off center” or “outside the center” of the prevailing culture. Living from the margins. Increasingly we find ourselves operating from the margins of our culture. But this is simply a new opportunity for us to show the world what real love looks like.
I am strengthened by this quote from Alan Hirsch: “The church, when true to its real calling…is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen.” Hirsch speaks of the latent missional potencies of the church, noting that the church was God’s vessel for changing the world in the first few centuries AD.
AD 100 – estimated that there are as few as 25,000 Christians
AD 300 – estimated that there were as many as 20,000,000 Christians
How did this happen? How did the early church grow from a small movement to become the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?
As you form an answer, keep these things in mind:
- Christianity was an illegal religion throughout this period. At best, Christians were tolerated; at worst, they were severely persecuted.
- They didn’t have church buildings as we know them. Archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, but it seems these were exceptions to the rule, and they tended to be small converted houses.
- They didn’t have the complete set of NT Scriptures yet. There’s plenty of evidence that the earliest Christians had access to some universally accepted texts (Gospels, some of Paul’s writings), but the canon as we know it wasn’t formally ratified until later.
- They weren’t formally institutionalized. They had no paid ministers, no seminaries, no seeker-sensitive services, no youth group lock-ins, no Vacation Bible School, no Christian colleges, no lectureships, etc.
- Joining wasn’t easy. By the late second century, aspiring converts had to go through a significant period of instruction and discipling before they were deemed ready.
So, again: how did it happen?
It happened because the earliest Christians were people of love. Their love – for God and for others – was radical and it was real.
Radical means “to the root.” Our spiritual ancestors were possessed by love for God and love for others that got down deep in the tissue, in the marrow. It impacted everything about the way they lived and moved and acted in their communities.
Persecution drove the early church to discover their true faith. When you’re willing to die for what you believe, it’s safe to say you’re a real believer. And such love for God is a powerful witness to an unbelieving world.
Which prompts an important question for today’s church:
Do you believe that today’s church possesses the same potency, the same transformative potential as the early church?
I do. If God used the church’s love once to transform the world, He can do it again. In fact, the world the earliest Christians operated in was far less “Christian” than our world today.
The church doesn’t need an evangelistic strategy. The church is the evangelistic strategy. The most evangelistic thing we can do is to be the church: follow Jesus, love God, and love others. When we do this, we are His pulpit and paradigm. Evangelism takes place naturally.
Because love is our mission.