The New Protagonists: Building a Church that is Pro-People
Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Jeremy Summers. Jeremy is Director of Spiritual Formation for The Wesleyan Church and architect of missional discipleship in local churches across the country. He is co-creator and host of the Groundswell podcast (missionaldiscipleship.com). He is married to Andrea and Dad to Macy, Ava, Ty and Micah.
Paul is famous for using military terminology to represent our faith. In Ephesians 6, he paints an image of the armor of God, encouraging believers to be strong in the mighty power of God and stand against evil. However, in this same passage he clarifies that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” When he starts to talk about our relationship with others, he clearly and decisively moves from military language to diplomatic language. In 2 Corinthians 5:20 he says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” We are a delegation of a diplomatic mission in the world, to present the compelling love of Jesus to those around us. As Christians, we are a mobile embassy of the Kingdom. We are a safehouse, a refuge, an envoy of heaven, a small plot of home for the exiles in a foreign land.
Too often the church is seen as combative, as the antagonist in the story of church vs. culture. We are seen as caring more about political issues than people. Our agenda is not the talking point of any party, but the culture of God’s Kingdom. Everyday Jesus in you continues to stand in the face of Pilate and declare the revolutionary ethic of the Kingdom, even in the middle of the empire. We are not the antagonists in the story, we are the protagonists. And we must be known not only for what we are against, but who we are for. Known not for what we hate, but for how we love. Not only critiquing culture from the outside, but transforming it from the inside. A compelling vision of what God is calling us to become.
In his revolutionary Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sits down on a hillside, opens his mouth and changes the world. He lays out a stunning vision of what it looks like to live out the Kingdom Come. He not only reveals who God is, but who we are as a result.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. What a disruptive thought. We know and understand that Jesus is the light of the world. But in this moment he turns that conviction on its head, draws us into the story and declares that we are the light of the world. Once you have encountered the light, you become a carrier of the light. As one poet said, “We are the lanterns and you are the light.” He fills us with his light and holds us out to a dark world, beacons of hope and grace.
Jesus continues, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Darkness has a way of breeding despair. We can understand and empathize with the person whose faith begins to fade under the weight of darkness. How someone can see tragedy and pain and suffering and evil and soon begin to doubt if God even exists at all. If there is a good and loving God, then why is there so much tragedy in the world? But pain and suffering do not disprove the existence of God. They simply prove the existence of humans. But if darkness breeds despair, then what will the light do? Even the slightest flicker sends darkness on the run. Jesus says that your good works of great love will point people to your Father in heaven. As lanterns filled with the light, we become the counter-argument, illuminating the source of our hope. Our lives are the most compelling evidence. Perhaps they will begin to ask, “If there is not a good and loving God then how in the world do you explain these people?”
Albert Day was a pastor in the 1960’s from that exotic land known as Ohio. He once said, “True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Holy love is a phenomenon to which even the skeptic pays tribute. The power of a life where Christ is exalted would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity.” We must be the light, illuminating a counter-cultural, compelling, alternate vision of what can be.
In Philippians 2:15 Paul draws on this same imagery of light and challenges us to “shine like stars.” There is so much freedom and grace in these words. As the Holy Spirit inspires his writing, Paul doesn’t reach for more dramatic, explosive imagery. He doesn’t tell us to burn like a wildfire, shake the ground like an earthquake, turn our city upside down like a whirlwind. He says to shine like stars. He is not asking for moments of greatness. He is pushing us to be the simple, humble, and consistent light when the darkness is the deepest.
George MacDonald was a Scottish pastor, poet and author whose influence outpaces his fame. Though his name is not as widely recognized, he was a friend and mentor to Lewis Carroll. After reading Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to his children, MacDonald encouraged him to publish the work for the world to enjoy. He was a key inspiration for later writers as well, including favorites such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. Legend has it his literary contemporary Mark Twain couldn’t stand him. Until he met him. MacDonald’s humble countenance and substantive intellect won the old icon over.
In one of his poems, MacDonald beautifully captures the spirit of Paul’s challenge. He writes:
The thunder and lightning, they go and they come,
But the stars and the stillness are always at home.
We are not asking you to be a bolt of lightning.
The world already has enough flash.
We are not asking you to boom like thunder.
There’s more than enough noise.
We are asking you to shine like stars—consistent, present light when the darkness is the deepest.
This kind of life will capture the imagination of the culture around us. As we rediscover and live into our embedded DNA of ekklesia, we will remember our origins as the called out ones. As one we will follow Jesus out into the broken places of our world and join him where he has long been at work. The time most ripe for renewal is always now. A spiritual and social renaissance awaits. May we “find ways to inhabit primitive communities again” for the future of the Church, for the glory of God, for the reach of the Gospel and the sake of world.