Yesterday I was with a group of inter-faith pastors and educators. When we introduced ourselves, we shared our names, where we served, and the greatest challenge we faced in ministry. The answers to the last question surprised no one:  “My church has been declining – and there is so much resistance to change,” and “Our church, and our whole denomination, is struggling to truly welcome and empower all – regardless of ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation,” and “Our congregation needs a fresh mission to help revitalize us and help us grow.” As the conversation continued, the group talked about the factors – large and small – that created these challenges, and what they would like to see happen in their churches. One leader in a college town wished they could engage the students again. Others, of course, wanted to reach young families and their children.  These are worthy goals, but I came away from that conversation wondering, “What if?”
What if God called them to take the gospel to their neighbors of mixed heritage who worshipped differently than they did? What if God asked a church, made up primarily of Latinos and Latinas, to welcome someone who worked for ICE or Homeland Security? What if God sent one of their members to the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to share the gospel? What if God called one of the deacons to pray with and even disciple your most outspoken critic who has been wreaking havoc in your town?

If we are honest, our first reactions are probably, “That’s not quite what we had in mind.”  I imagine that was the reaction of the early Christians in the book of Acts as well. In Acts 8-10 we find four conversion stories:  Philip is sent first to Samaria (those mixed race folks who worshipped differently) and then to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. Saul, the infamous persecutor of the early church, is blinded on the road to Damascus and Ananias is sent to welcome him into the church. Finally, we read the story of Cornelius the Centurion, a representative of the oppressive Rome government. If the early church had a “prospect list,” I doubt any of these people would have been on it. 

And who did God send out on these early missions?  Disciples who hid in fear in the upper room after the crucifixion, disciples like Peter who had out-right denied the Lord.  Who did God use to take the gospel across Asia? That passionate persecutor Saul turned Paul.  And who was sent to pray over Saul?  Ananias who eagerly volunteered until he learned what his assignment was. 

The amazing thing to me, and the hope for all of us, is that Jesus condemned none of these early believers for their failures and shortomings. What was the first thing he said to the cowering disciples?  “Peace be with you, do not be afraid.” What did he say to the Peter on the beach at breakfast? “If you love me, feed my sheep.”  What did he say to the fearful Ananias? Only words of encouragement, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”

This week I am serving at Chautauqua Institution where the theme is, “The Shifting Nature of Global Power.” The religion department is focusing on what it means for Christians to exercise soft power.  What might it mean for us to extend outrageous grace and mercy to those who have oppressed or persecuted us?  What might it mean for us to move beyond our fear of change and of those we consider “other,” and to truly welcome them in our midst? What might it mean not only to fling open the doors of churches to everyone that God loves, but to actively go in search of them? What might it mean to model the power of love and servanthood?

Having a clear sense of mission is important, and thinking strategically can help us achieve that mission, but let’s be sure that the mission we undertake is God’s – not our own.  As we seek to help our congregations understand the necessity and the urgency of change, may we remember to be gracious, compassionate and even patient. The early church survived her early challenges and thrived, and we will too if we are open and sensitive to the ways the Spirit is moving today.  Our church will likely look much different than we expect, or even hope it will, but such is the nature of the gospel and the God who loves us all. 

Tracy Hartman
Tracy was a member of the first class of M. Div. students at BTSR and won the Miller Award for Academic Achievement upon her graduation in 1995. Her graduate work at Union included ground-breaking research into the relationship between parish setting and preaching style for women pastors. Dr. Hartman teaches preaching and directs the seminary’s Supervised Ministry and Doctor of Ministry programs. She is the author of Letting the Other Speak: Proclaiming the Stories of Biblical Women and co-author of New Proclamation Commentary. Dr. Hartman is active in Baptist life and has served as staff member and interim pastor to several Virginia churches. She enjoys preaching throughout the region. She is a coach for CHC.