The highest compliment that has ever been given to a group of people is recorded in the book of Acts and reads as follows:
“And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’” (Acts 17:6-7)
Like their Lord, these people caused the entire land to re-think everything they knew about life, philosophy and religion. The entire culture had experienced a shift. They questioned norms, turned from traditions and lived new lives. It was like the 70′s, but in a good, holy way.
The men in this verse caused such an uproar that both Caesar (government) and the devout Jews (religion) grew nervous, jealous and confused about what to do with them. These men were so effective in their mission that the only way onlookers could describe them was as "the ones who turned the world upside down." Who would you describe that same way? Anyone?
I think most of us would agree that the culture (and the subcultures) that we live in could use some transformation. I mean, when "Turn Down for What" is one of the deepest songs on mainstream radio, it’s fairly clear that we have a problem. Those of us with a sense of calling for ministry long to turn upside down the effects of sin, evil and foolishness on the people we love in the communities we feel led to shepherd. The question is then, what did this group do that we can copy? What went down in Acts 1-16 and led to this astounding compliment? How exactly does one group of people change a culture? What are some key characteristics of the early church, the movement that ended all movements?
I’ve read through the first 16 chapters with these questions in mind and developed some thoughts:
1. Care more about the spiritual than the political (Acts 1:6-8).
Spiritual action will lead to political change, but political change will not lead to spiritual action. So we must put the gospel first.
In fact, the very first thing the apostles had to do was realize that the Kingdom Jesus is establishing is not built on a physical foundation but on a theological foundation — a message of grace that we can spread to all physical kingdoms through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Why would Jesus not permit us to focus equally on both? Though it's right to care about your country, vote and get behind healthy political action, it's wrong to assume that the legislation you seek will change hearts. And God is first and foremost concerned with changed hearts.
So we may not have time to go to a political rally because we’re spending time with someone who votes differently than us, talking about something much bigger than Washington D.C. — the cross.
2. Treat each other as family instead of competing with each other like CVS and Walgreens (Acts 2:42-47).
There are about five Walgreens surrounding the area where I live and work here in South Carolina. Want to know something interesting about every one of those little convenient stores? They aren't "on the corner of happy and healthy," they are on the corner across from CVS. I don't know which company was there first in every case, but wherever you see one, you see the other. I'm not sure what people buy at these stores (what do they sell besides Arizona Tea and Nyquil?), but whatever you're looking for, they want you to get it from them, not the other guy.
Do you ever feel like the church, in general, does the same thing? I see it from time to time.
This competitive spirit is not seen in Acts. We don’t see the newly saved getting jealous of the signs and miracles done by the apostles. We don’t see the landowners refusing to sell the land and give to those in need. In fact, the rich and poor were happy to have all things in common.
Why? Because power wasn't the goal, love was.
We know this because Stephen, who gave a long, detailed and powerful sermon in Acts 7 before his stoning, wasn't a major leader in the movement; he was a waiter for the widows.
Why don't we seek to put that on our speaker websites? "I serve widows" instead of "highly sought after national speaker with the gift to put crowds on the edge of their seat…”
Obviously, I don't think it's wrong to have a promotional website. However, I do want to ask church people and, especially, church leaders, if we are competing. It's a good question to keep on the forefront of our minds.
Are you quick to downplay a church that sees more growth than yours? Are you jealous when a brother gets a speaking gig with a large audience? Or are you, even though you're highly talented, content to have all things in common and serve tables? Is the kingdom your family or your platform?
To change a culture, the body of Christ needs to collectively applaud its wins and quit reaching for credit.
One of the most powerful things that I heard Matt Papa say once is to “Preach the gospel. Die. Be forgotten.” I’m not sure if it was from him or if he heard it somewhere, but regardless of who said it, it's the way that the church needs to start thinking.
Peter preached the gospel to a huge crowd in Acts 3. He gathered that crowd by meeting the need of a single lame beggar. Do we meet needs?
I’d say yes. The church is the most giving organization that has ever existed by far. We feed many. We're on the ground when natural disasters strike. We're in orphanages, homeless shelters, nursing homes and hospitals all across the globe every day. We give in big ways. This is evidence of the Holy Spirit being alive in us.
But let us never forget to also give in small ways, especially those of us who want to preach to big crowds. On the way to the sanctuary, the auditorium or the stadium we must stop at our crippled neighbors house to eat dinner with him, pray with him and serve him. This is why the crowd should trust us and this is what should motivate us to lead the crowd. After all, without individual sheep there is no flock.
4. Respond to God, not to threats (Acts 4:17-20).
When the early church was told to stop preaching they prayed, "And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness." (Acts 4:29)
Culture shouldn’t change our preaching; our preaching should change the culture.
However, as you can tell from the stories of these world changers, the gospel ticks a lot of people off. And ticked off people usually means name-calling. If we gave straight answers to the public about what we really believed, say, on Oprah, we'd be written off as old-fashioned, narrow-minded and extremists. When we get down to brass tacks on issues like heaven and hell, purity and the exclusivity of Jesus, we should get some boos from the crowd.
And in that moment, many of us, myself included, would feel at the least a slight temptation to change our message so that we will be liked. But a likable gospel doesn't lead to repentance and the culture stays the same. No, we must not respond to threats. Our message cannot waver. We need more boldness, not more hiding spots.
5. View everyone as uncommon and clean (Acts 11:1-18).
One day, Peter gets hungry. But instead of getting some food, Peter gets a vision from God in which he is told to eat animals that are common and unclean under the law. Peter rejects it, saying that he has never eaten anything that is common or unclean. But Jesus, in this wonderful age of grace, has declared all food good and told Peter to not call these foods common or unclean. When Peter came out of the vision, he was probably a little pumped to finally get to try bacon, but also realized what this meant. He should now view all people the same way. So Peter enters the household of a great guy named Cornelius and all who are there hear the gospel and get saved, even though they're gentiles.
In the same way, we can’t view anyone as a waste of time or "too far off." God targets everyone. I understand the fact that churches are made up of people and people have styles and certain styles attract some and not others. But whatever our style and whoever our people, the whole world should be able to walk through our front doors and feel welcomed to hear the gospel in our congregations. Reach out to someone different. Reach out to someone new. The people you're discipling should scare you from time to time. That is, if you want to change a culture.