Excerpt (Part 3): The Beautifully Sent Church from AND by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay
Jesus the Sent One
Like the first sprout of a beautiful tulip emerging from the dark, cold days of winter, God’s story of blessing pokes out of the ground again. After waiting years to be selected for service in the temple burning incense, Zechariah is chosen and while serving in the temple he receives an angelic visit:
An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11 – 17)
Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant. She expresses her hope with a word of praise, giving glory to God: “The Lord has done this for me . . . In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25).
While Zechariah and Elizabeth feel the winds of hope, a young woman named Mary is also awakened from her mundane life by an angel, who startles her with these words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Visits from angels are amazing enough, but add to that the fact that God has been virtually silent for three hundred years and you can begin to understand why this blessing would have been a paralyzingly beautiful thing to hear.
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:29 – 33)
Mary is given the incredible news that God has not abandoned his people. In fact, though Mary doesn’t fully understand it yet, God is about to do something no one could have anticipated. But that’s not what I want to point out. What I want you to notice about both of these angelic encounters is how Mary and Zechariah respond to the news they receive from God.
Mary hears of God’s favor on Elizabeth and heads to Judea to celebrate. Note how she receives this promise of God’s work in the context of his promise to Abraham.
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name . . .
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1:42 – 55)
Mary naturally and easily references the original blessing God promised to the whole world through Abraham.
The same blessing is also referenced by Zechariah in his great prayer of thanks to God:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68 – 75)
Are you beginning to see how these stories fit together? God’s plan to bless, reach, include, adopt, reclaim, and redeem has not been abandoned or forgotten. It is about to touch down in every neighborhood, village, and town.
God’s plan of redemption picks up steam now. John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, announces that Jesus (Mary’s promised son) is the Lamb of God, the one who will eventually die so that the hearts of men and women can be cleansed and renewed and God’s heavenly blessing of abundant life will once again cut through the black veil of evil, injustice, poverty, pain, and prejudice.
Jesus appears in the midst of Israel announcing God’s sovereign reign over the world. He calls God’s reign “the kingdom” and says that it is now at hand. But there is a twist to his message. God’s heavenly rule and his deliverance are not going to come in the form of a military conquest over Rome, another exodus from slavery to a foreign nation (as many expected). The kingdom will penetrate the slavery of sin and set human hearts free to live out the life that Jesus taught and demonstrated. For the next three years, as Jesus taught and healed, demonstrating the reality of God’s kingdom, God’s people begin to come alive, sensing that the story is once again unfolding before their eyes. God’s people are once again experiencing his blessing.
Jesus continues the “sent” ways of God. He goes to a well in Samaria to give hope to a half-breed, a spiritually illegitimate woman like Rahab, who would have never thought access to God a possibility again. He visits wedding parties, hangs out with tax collectors, ministers to a centurion’s family, plays with children in the streets, and spends time on mountainsides, in caves, and in city centers where the people will listen to his teaching.
After Jesus lives and works for thirty-three years, he says to his followers in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Hear it another way. “As the Creator of all humanity gave you a perfect world and kept giving his best, he again has sent Jesus, his very best to you. You must follow suit and continue to give your lives away.”
The Sent Church
Whereas his global intentions of redemptive blessing through Abraham have probably been lost on the ears of his people, we read in Matthew 16:18, as Jesus is speaking to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” The sent community, the missional band, has now been named “the church,” and it is the church that will carry forth his original design and plan. The church is now his family of priests; the church is now his called-apart and set-apart people — living holy lives in the midst of the world and showing the world the glory of God. Read Peter’s own words:
As you come to him, the living Stone— rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–6)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)
Do you see the cohesive story? Whether you start in Genesis and go forward or start in the final letters from Jesus’ most trusted allies and work backward, the theme is sure. God has always wanted a people that would be exclusive to him holy, set apart, distinct, and beautiful to the world he is trying to redeem. Sometimes he had to call them away from pagan influences because he was trying to protect them. He had seen what happens when you let the kids play with knives. Since he promised them through Noah that he would never kick them out of the universe again, he was essentially trying to get them through adolescence. But, let the truth be clear— they were not to be separate in the sense that many evangelicals have come to believe. He didn’t like them or love them more than the cultures they were often fighting. They were not privileged like a spoiled rich kid might be. They were special, and they were called beautiful because they were to represent the nature of the triune God and make God known through their mission—a mission quickened by Christ and carried forth by his New Testament church.
Since the days of Abraham, God’s people have been a missionary community, a people for God to “give away” to the world. And God continues that purpose in the church today. Daniel Allen, one of our Missio team leaders, once described God’s people in a way that has always stuck with me. He referred to the church as God’s “intimate allies,” his partners in redemptive mission. The church is loved by God and given intimate access to his great passion of self-sacrificing love. Because she is precious to him, she is most beautiful when she reflects his deepest love and gives herself away for the sake of the world.
In our book The Tangible Kingdom, I tell the story of a painful church situation. It was an experience that not only led me to uproot my family from the city we loved, but it ripped the very sentness that empowers all real ministry out of my heart. I was left without passion, without a purpose, and without a desire to ever do church again— especially the type of church that would require self-sacrificial love for the sake of others. I settled for a regular church job that provided my family a sense of safety, but didn’t really extend my life outward to the world.
At the time, it felt good to chill out and come off the field, as they say, but God would not let me just stay put. Eventually, he wooed me back into service by introducing me to a woman named Fiona. Suufice it to say, meeting this waitress in Queens, New York, and seeing her attraction to the idea of God’s kingdom propelled us to a new city and a new mission.
The funny thing in all of this was that we really wanted to be sent, but we had no thought of church … either going to one or starting one. What we did have after a year was a small community of people, primarily what we’d call a Starbucks crowd. Most of them were outside the normal church realm, but they had taken an interest in our story, and the visibility of our faith had attracted them to us. Some of them had come to faith in Jesus, but others were simply a part of our community, still processing through their questions about God. We met Saturday nights at our home to talk over “life and God,” as we called it. On one of those evenings, during a normal conversation, a girl who had come to faith with us raised her hand and asked the big question we weren’t ready to answer.
“So … is this my church?”
I glanced over at Cheryl, who was giving me the evil eye, a clear sign that I could not at any cost say yes. I looked across the living room at Matt. His facial expression said, “I can’t wait to hear your response.” So on the fly, I made up this great answer: “No, we’re not your church; we’re your … uh … faith community.” Even as I said it, I was thinking, “Brilliant Halter, a warm fuzzy sounding answer without any commitment! You’re the man!” I thought that I had wormed my way out of the dilemma. We could go back to our comfortable, nebulous missionary-ness. But the young woman kept pushing.
“Yah, that sounds good, but I came to faith and so have some others here, so aren’t we supposed to go to a church?”
Now I knew I was in trouble. The room got really quiet; my wife and Matt (my other wife) had both stopped breathing, waiting for my next response. The words that I was about to say would not only serve to inaugurate a new church in Denver, but they would forever change the way I thought about missionary life and leadership. “Actually, church is something everyone should be a part of, but it’s different than being a faith community. Church happens when a group of people decide to go on mission with God together.”
The understudies looked confused, so I continued, “For instance, Matt, Maren, Cheryl, and I have been on mission for you. We’ve given up our food for you; we give up our family time and personal interests to accommodate all of your spontaneous dropping by to talk. Half the time or more, we would really rather you stay away so we can enjoy our private time; but then we see you pull up in front of the house and we give another night up for you. We throw parties and gatherings for you and your friends all the time, and although it looks like it’s all fun for us, it’s a heck of a lot of work! In many ways, we’ve died for you; and if you want to be a part of a church, you’ll have to die too. You have to give your life away.”
“There, how do you like that?” I thought to myself. Surely, they won’t want to do church now. But then, looking at their faces, I had this strange feeling that God was up to something. They seemed as if they were seriously thinking about whether or not they wanted to die with us. Matt quickly grabbed some Post-It note pads and asked everyone to write down names of their friends whom they knew would never go to a church, but who they thought would like the type of environment we had created for them. Our little group of twenty-five people wrote down about 110 names. We decided to simply pray for a week, and then the following week we invited them back to take the final vote. It was a vote that would essentially change their lives, a vote that God would use to help me clarify my understanding of a missional church. The rest is history, as they say. Everyone came back and unanimously told us, “We’ll come and die with you; we’ll let God send us.”
How could I say no? Though our church, Adullam, was not officially born that night, it was on that evening that God called us out and gave us the mantra that has remained constant to this day — “Come, die, and give your life away.” When Christians transfer from other churches, we still interview them to discern if they really want to come and die with us. God had waited two years for me to come back, but they weren’t wasted years. In my heart and mind, the question of “church” and why it existed was now answered. Church is God’s people intentionally committing to die together so that others can find his kingdom. Just as God had given away his Son, he was now asking me to give my life away. In my life and the life of our new church, the bride was once again being given away— sent out into the world. It was beautiful.
Whenever I share this story with church leaders of every form, I tend to see the same look. Something about the “dying” part seems to grab everyone by the throat (like the Christian the Lion story). I’ve come to see that many leaders still need to learn the true meaning of church. I’ve heard hundreds of leaders, many of whom have large churches, say, “Been there, done that, built a church, have lots of people … But there’s got to be more.” To those who now ponder the vision of starting a new church, I hear the same thing. “I just don’t want to start the same ol’ thing that draws a bunch of Christians from other churches. There’s got to be more.”
There is more!
But the things we all want to see happen will never happen until we first settle this issue of why the church exists. God’s church is a missional church, a community that is sent and given away for God’s purposes. While I believe the unsent church is still God’s church, she is a bride that has lost much of her intrigue and beauty. For God’s church to reemerge in your local church, you must be willing to let the bride become beautifully sent. You must allow God to send you, to send your people, and you must begin to see yourself as part of a larger story of God’s mission, which began with Abram and continues today through leaders who desire to see God’s marvelous ways change the course of history.
My daughter, Alli, has just turned fifteen. She got her driver’s permit the day after her birthday. I had let her drive carefully up and down our street a few times prior to her birthday (don’t do that, it’s illegal), but eventually the day came for her to get on the real road. As we carefully pulled out of the driveway, she asked me, “Dad, can we stay on the side roads and then maybe next month try the freeway?” I’m not sure what came over me at that moment, but I turned to her and said, “Nope. We’re going to go big or go home. We’re taking the fast road.” I glanced over at her and saw some fear in her eyes. She gripped the wheel hard with both hands. I remember seeing her forearm muscles flex and strain. She adjusted her rearview mirror, took a deep breath, and after a few seconds, she smiled.
I believe that God’s people want to go BIG! They’re tired of being the unsent church— weary of church services, sermons, in-house programs, and Bible studies that never push them out and challenge them to really be the missional people God has called them to be. I won’t deny that it’s more comfortable driving on the side roads, but after awhile they can get pretty boring. I think it’s time for the church of God, in all its diverse forms, to be the church, to get out on the open road, and to let God smile on us as we follow him out on the highways of this world.
Let’s start living out the AND and be the gathered community of God’s people, sent out into the world.
Taken from AND by Hugh Halter. Copyright © 2010 by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com