“They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” – Acts 14:21-27
I was not a particularly enthusiastic Boy Scout. Sure, I diligently worked my way up the ranks, earning merit badge after merit badge and achieving each level with dutiful pride. I always kept my uniforms tidy (secret confession, I ironed my scarves; yeah, I was sick, I know). And I even helped the proverbial elderly lady across the street once.
Problem is, I had an issue with the whole “Be Prepared” thing. “Be prepared for what?” I used to ask myself. When am I ever going to need to start a fire with two wet sticks and a clump of moss? That’s why God invented matches! My experience with scouting was more like falling off a bicycle rather than a purposeful race. I was “transactional” in my scouting.
The fathers of the emerging church in Jerusalem had a somewhat different perspective.
Following the charge given them by Jesus in Acts 1:8 to witness and proclaim the Gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to “the ends of the earth,” the Apostles, Paul, and early disciples of the Church faced a daunting task: how would they equip themselves to carry out what has become known as “the Great Commission?” With one or two exceptions these weren’t men with deep religious backgrounds. In fact, except for the brief time they spent with Jesus they were rather ordinary – kind of like you and me. What possibly steeled them for the journeys resulting in the planting of Christianity across breadth of the Roman Empire?
We read in Acts 8 how a great persecution befell the church at Jerusalem, and just as Jesus had foreseen, scattered its members throughout Judea and Samaria. Yet Jesus has prepared his disciples – even as they could not have planned for such a potential disaster. Rather than forsaking their faith, they were strengthened by it and spread the Gospel wherever they went. Ultimately, a foothold was established where Barnabas and Paul spent their early ministry teaching and growing disciples (still predominantly Jews although with an increasing interest from the Gentile population).
As I read through Acts 14, which opens this post, it strikes me that there were four specific areas of preparation the Apostles undertook to ensure they were equipped. These four areas are not so different from what you and I can do today in our own walks.
1) They prepared with a defined strategy (verse 21). The Apostles’ plan of action was simple, direct, and easily understood: Preach to Gospel to the lost, with intentionality to go where people could be found – the cities. Notice where time and again the Apostles took their message. Not into the barren wilderness, but rather, into the cities where the Good News could resonate and be magnified.
2) They prepared with steadfastness (verse 22). The early Church faced obstacles its modern descendents can hardly conceive, including persecution and even death. Still, the Apostles remained unwavering in their commitment to build community and reach the lost. They continued in faith no matter the obstacles.
God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them
3) They prepared for succession (verse 23). Jim Collins’ seminal book “Good to Great,” describes in detail the importance of a succession plan in business. How much more important is it that the Church – arguably the greatest enterprise of humanity – also have such a plan. Fortunately, the Apostles adopted Jesus’ (and God’s) own design – build and work through people. Pastor Bobby Welch, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, described it this way: God’s succession plan is the force of the Gospel multiplied by the believers passing it on, raised to the power of the Holy Spirit going before them.
4) They were prepared to succeed (vs. 24-27). The New Testament clearly lays out a plan to accomplish the Great Commission. First, the Apostles took action based on their convicted faith in the power Jesus’ death and resurrection as Christ. Next, they communicated the incredible and indescribable wonders of God’s work amongst them. This ensured the news was continually spreading. Third, they were energized to recruit, or “call” brothers to join them and continue the fight for Kingdom building.
This is one of the most essential messages of the Gospel: trust in God to provide, let His Word inspire us to action, and then go share that abundance with others by enlisting them into the joy of the Gospel.
Not long ago I was returning to Austin from a business trip to Boston and had to connect through Chicago. As I settled into my seat and prepared for the final leg, a lady boarded and sat next to me. I was reading Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God,” and had tucked it into the seat pocket in front of me. It turned out my seat mate had serious issues with the “Christ” part of “Christianity.” She much preferred, in her words, “the more enlightened view” of Unitarianism. She just didn’t believe in the “chains” of Christianity.
Anyone who knows me can guess my reaction. Laptop snaps shut, and I go into engage mode. In the end, we had a lovely conversation. She seemed amazed that I listened and conversed without judgment, and actually considered her point of view. I promised to send her a copy of Keller’s book, which I did (Tim can thank me later).
Small steps, but steps nonetheless. In this case, I was prepared for this unexpected conversation by regular reading and studying of the Word coupled with regular conversations with others. Ultimately, planning only prepares us for when we are in the path of action. The Kingdom is won not by great speeches and comprehensive policies, but one relationship at a time.
This is the kind being prepared I can get used to.