“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (James, the brother of Jesus) Acts 15:19
Several weeks ago Mark Thomas, our district’s Associate Superintendent for Church Revitalization, challenged me to ask God what he wants to do in Clarkfield. I readily agreed to do so, but this is a different kind of prayer for me. I’m not accustomed to praying open ended questions. My first several attempts at this prayer were hesitant and awkward. As a result, I’ve experienced a few uncertain moments in prayer. As time has passed, this prayer has become a bit more familiar. Almost from the beginning, I lengthened the prescribed prayer about what God wants to do in Clarkfield by adding, “What is my role in it?”
I have no idea how God might answer such a prayer. He’s not obligated to answer at all, much less with definitive statements. By nature and by training, I don’t traffic much in the murky, mystical world of direct revelation. I’m not about to assert, “I’ve heard from God!” I don’t trust my motive or my maturity nearly enough for that. If I were to announce, “God has told me we are to do such and such in Clarkfield,” it would place the congregation in a difficult position. They would have no way to prove God spoke to me. And they would have no way to prove God didn’t speak to me unless I came out with something plainly out of order. A divine whisper is impervious to both falsification or verification by those who didn’t hear it. The Apostle John warned his readers not to believe everything they hear, but instead to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
A couple weeks ago, I asked the C&MA prayer area pastors how God might answer such a prayer. Micah Siebert, the pastor at Redwood Alliance Church in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, responded, “I would expect that you would hear things that are universally true.” He quickly added that the answer must be hinged to Scripture.
That interests me because an answer to my question has begun to form in my mind, based on a single Bible verse which is cemented in my mind. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.“ (Acts 15:19)
I believe God wants to make it as easy as possible for lost people in Clarkfield to turn to Jesus. Again, I certainly don’t claim God has been speaking to me with those words. But there is universal truth in this powerful verse (and its context) which keeps returning to my thoughts. To be fair, this verse has been on my mind much longer than I’ve been praying the prayer Mark Thomas asked me to pray. It’s a judgment from the lips of the Apostle James. It articulated the conclusion of the first council of the church, which was called to address false teaching which had circulated in the early church. This definitive statement reduced the complexities confronting the early church in Acts 15 to their lowest common denominator. This verse has been forefront in my mind ever since I read Andy Stanley’s account of how Acts 15:19 has impacted his life and ministry. Here’s what he wrote:
I love that [Acts 15:19].
Imagine where the church would be today if we had kept that simple idea front and center. Years ago, I printed that verse and hung it in my office. Before long it started showing up on walls and plaques in all our churches. I look at it every day. Perhaps James’ statement should be the benchmark by which all decisions are made in the local church. The brother of Jesus said we shouldn’t do anything that makes it unnecessarily difficult for people who are turning to God….” (Andy Stanley, Irresistible, p. 124)
In recent years I’ve become more aware of how the American evangelical church often makes it unnecessarily difficult for those far from God to come to Christ. Some of these observations have become recurring themes in my leadership: politicizing the gospel, verbal abuse of outsiders, legalism, judgmentalism…. We can add to that list a failure in the church to discern truth from lies in the age of social media and disunity within the body of Christ. Ugly church fights make it difficult for outsiders who are turning to God, especially when true believers embrace false conspiracy theories (cf. Acts 15:1-6). When the gospel is garbled inside the church, it’s very difficult for those outside the church to turn to God.
So I have to ask myself:
What am I doing that is making it unnecessarily difficult for lost people who could be turning to God?”
“What can I do that will make it easier for them?
We need programs, but programs alone won’t remove the unnecessary obstacles outsiders face. The challenge facing our local church (and many other churches) is deeper than a need for more programming. For example, beyond the culture gap, there is a pronounced generation gap between our church and the community of Clarkfield.
I often think of Clarkfield as an old community of senior citizens. But the data says there are many others, too. A high number of children live in Clarkfield, well above the national average. I often think of Clarkfield as a poor area of high unemployment or low wages. But the data says otherwise.
We could add another twist to this exercise. Even if I’m running properly with Acts 15:19, that may be just a slice of the complete picture. What if God wants to do something in Clarkfield that has escaped my radar? What if I have a blind spot? For example, how might our brothers and sisters in the Hispanic church across town answer the same question about what God wants to do in Clarkfield? What they hear from God might be very different from what I hear from God, even if it’s universally true and based on Scripture. I believe more voices, including diverse voices, are helpful, even necessary, for the church to discern what God wants to do in Clarkfield.
I invite you to participate in the prayer challenge from Mark Thomas.
What does God want to do in your community?
How can you be a part of it?