I have a small backyard. It takes about three minutes to mow the grass. It takes longer for me to get the mower out than it does to mow. That makes it easy to keep it neat and clean. But, beyond the edge of my backyard, lies the alley … and that’s where it gets tricky. Neither I, nor my neighbors, feel responsible for the alley. It’s a no-man’s land that can easily get overgrown, littered and dirty. But is it my problem? Why should I have to take care of it?
As we think about our communities in this issue, one question is: “Where does my backyard end?” That is: Who is my community? Why should I even care as long as it’s not my backyard? I suppose the safe, “churchy” answer is that the whole world is our community. That’s reminiscent of John Wesley’s proclamation that “the whole world is my parish.” But you’ll recall that Wesley said that in defense of his open-air preaching, not as a mandate for worldwide missions.
Probably it’s most helpful to think of your community as a series of concentric circles; like what’s promised in the second part of Acts 1:8, “And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NLT). The smallest circle is Jerusalem, our immediate community, with successively larger circles ending with “the ends of the earth.” All of those circles are our community, in varying degrees of proximity.
Ironically, one of the best ways to reach your near community lies in your ends-of-the-earth community. The people of God have always been at their best when they participate with God in His plan to save the world. The church does not exist only for itself; it also exists for those outside of the church. Weird organization, isn’t it?
This truth may remind you of the famous William Temple quote, “The church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it.” If that is even partly true, then we’re wise to simultaneously be engaging in all of the concentric circles of our community. We are not told to reach all of Jerusalem before we begin to engage in the next circle outward. These are not circles to be reached sequentially. In fact, we find that authentic expressions of community-care must reach beyond the self-serving nature of the innermost circle of community. When I only mow my little backyard and neglect the alley and beyond, I impact no one beyond my own little backyard.
Note also the first half of that verse from Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” It’s only when we are empowered by the Holy Spirit that we are able to be witnesses to our ever-expanding big backyard. Otherwise, like me leaning on my rake staring listlessly at my alley, we stare at the overwhelming needs and opportunities in our region, nation and globe and then retreat back into our small backyards, limiting our reach to our most immediate and smallest community. In worst-case scenarios, we are only ministering to those inside our church, obviously a far cry from Jesus’ vision in Acts 1:8!
May I be so bold as to suggest a relationship between how much of this power we have and how much we wilt before the immensity of the world? Could it be that we’ve routinized, domesticated and shrink-wrapped the power of God? When’s the last time you saw an outbreak of the power of the Holy Spirit? It only stands to reason that we won’t be effective witnesses regionally, nationally and globally if all we’ve got to offer is a decent church service with decent preaching and decent music.
Is there this power or isn’t there? Is the power of the Holy Spirit active in my life, or isn’t it? Many in our tradition, in a reaction to excesses in the Pentecostal tradition, chose to define that power as transformation power. They said that the true evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit was a transformed life, not some spectacular supernatural display. I find myself agreeing that this is true, yet not the whole truth; it doesn’t fully correspond to what is recorded in the following chapters of Acts. Yes, the transformed life is an evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit, but we should also expect the kind of powerful undeniable outbreaks of the Spirit of God among us that we will be able to have effective witness in our community, both near and far.
We know, through experience, that what God calls us to do will be beyond ourselves. We must rely on His power. That is not an unfortunate mistake; it is a necessary corollary. God’s leading demands that we rely on Him, that’s why it will be beyond ourselves. If we were entirely capable of what He is calling us to, we wouldn’t need Him and would defeat most of His purpose in calling us.
You see, God doesn’t call us because He’s unable to save the world by Himself; He calls us to participate with Him because this is a part of our own salvation. That is, this is how we experience the joy of trust, faith and dependency. If we only attempt things that are within our own scope, control and power, we are not leaning into the potency of the Divine. We are inadvertently proclaiming a blasphemy: that we are the savior, if we only attempt things we can do in our own strength. We believe if we can do it, we are the savior — and that’s blasphemy.
There’s a store near my house that hires people to stand on a street corner and wave a sign. They have to constantly be in motion to avoid being fined for having a stationary sign. With huge caloric exertion, the sign-bearing person is in continual motion; spinning, jumping, walking, turning, twisting the sign. All this, in the hopes of catching a driver’s eye. We have no way of knowing if the sign-bearer is a true believer in the store. What initially causes us to look is the motion.
That’s us. We’re the jumping-around sign-bearers: God invites our churches into His ongoing plan of salvation of everything. Jesus has opened the way and Jesus is the way; we are His living arrow-waving signposts! The power of the Spirit is how we become effective sign-bearers. That’s what helps people see us. That’s how we lead them toward His gracious transformation.
Bishop David Roller served for 17 years as a Free Methodist missionary in Mexico and then for 10 years as Latin America area director for Free Methodist World Missions. He was first elected a bishop in 2007.1